Last year one of the better Windows laptops I encountered, at least based on the core appearance and design, was the Dell XPS 15 (Ivy Bridge Edition). It was basically Dell's third attempt at making a MacBook Pro (more or less) – the first two attempts being the Arrandale XPS 15 (with the Sandy Bridge model using the same design), then there was the XPS 15z that used dual-core Sandy Bridge in a slimmer form factor, and then the retooled XPS 15. Today we have the fourth generation XPS 15, which has taken many of the design elements of the IVB XPS 15 but hopefully fixes the cooling/throttling, adds a Haswell CPU and an updated 700M NVIDIA GPU, ditches the optical drive, and on the higher-end SKUs you get an ultra-high resolution 3200x1800 display. The display is actually both good and bad, but I'll get to that later. Let's start with the core specifications for the high-end model, which is what I received for review.

Dell XPS 15 (9530) Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-4702MQ
(Quad-core 2.2-3.2GHz, 6MB L3, 22nm, 37W)
Chipset HM87
Memory 2x8GB DDR3-1600
Graphics GeForce GT 750M 2GB GDDR5
(384 cores, 967MHz + Boost 2.0, 5GHz GDDR5)

Intel HD Graphics 4600
(20 EUs at 400-1150MHz)
Display 15.6" Glossy PPS 16:9 QHD+ (3200x1800)
(Sharp LQ156Z1 Touchscreen)
Storage 512GB mSATA SSD (Samsung SM841)
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11ac WiFi (Intel Dual-Band AC-7260)
(2x2:2 867Mbps capable)
Bluetooth 4.0 (Intel)
Audio Realtek HD
Stereo Speakers
Headset jack
Battery/Power 9-cell, 11.1V, 8000mAh, 91Wh
130W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Battery Charge Indicator LEDs
Headset jack
2 x USB 3.0
1 x Mini-DisplayPort
1 x HDMI
AC Power Connection
Right Side Flash Reader (MMC/SD)
1 x USB 3.0
1 x USB 3.0 (Sleep Charging)
Kensington Lock
Back Side Exhaust vent (inside LCD hinge)
Operating System Windows 8.1 64-bit
Dimensions 14.6" x 10.0" x 0.3-0.7" (WxDxH)
(372mm x 254mm x 8-18mm)
Weight 4.44 lbs (2.01kg)
Extras 720p HD Webcam
87-Key Backlit Keyboard
Pricing $2300 as configured
$1500, $1750, and $1950 alternatives

As is often the case, the new XPS 15 with Haswell is both better and worse than Apple's latest MacBook Pro Retina – and that's just looking at the paper specifications. The display is higher resolution than the Retina, with a 3200x1800 panel compared to Apple's 2880x1800 resolution display. Apple has been one of the few companies to continue to buck the trend towards 16:9 aspect ratio displays, sticking with a 16:10 AR – a choice I wholeheartedly approve of. The 3200x1800 panel is the 16:9 alternative to the rMBP 15's panel, and while Dell technically has more pixels, I still would prefer the “taller” screen that Apple uses. (We'll also need to look at color accuracy, but that we’ll get to that later in the review.)

The display is actually one of the few areas where Dell comes out ahead, however. In most other areas, the laptops are either equal or Apple maintains their lead. For example, Apple is now using PCIe based SSDs while Dell is using a Samsung SM841 SSD mSATA drive – it’s not that the SM841 is slow, but the PCIe SSDs are certainly faster. For the CPU, Apple has elected to use Intel's latest Crystalwell chips with Iris Pro Graphics (i7-4750HQ and i7-4850HQ) while Dell is opting for the 37W quad-core i7-4702HQ. It's not a huge difference in performance – the maximum CPU clock is 3.5GHz on the 4850HQ compared to 3.2GHz on the 4702HQ and 4750HQ – but Apple still comes out ahead thanks to the “L4 cache” (eDRAM). On the GPU front, both systems use NVIDIA's GT 750M GDDR5 chip, so the difference in iGPU performance is largely superfluous. Interestingly, it appears the main reason for the difference in CPUs (other than Dell not being interested in Crystalwell) is TDP, and in fact the base clock of the 4702HQ is actually slightly higher than the base clock of the 4750HQ.

Worth mention is that there are three different models of the new XPS 15 available right now. The base model XPS 15 comes with a 1920x1080 touchscreen display (it’s not clear if this is a TN panel or not), 500GB HDD with 32GB SSD cache, dual-core i5-4200H CPU, 8GB RAM, integrated HD 4400 Graphics, and a 61Wh battery for $1500 (or a 3-year warranty for $1750). Stepping up to the $1950 XPS 15 will get you the quad-core i7-4702HQ CPU, 3200x1800 PPS (similar to IPS) touchscreen, 16GB RAM, GT 750M GDDR5 GPU, a 1TB HDD with 32GB SSD cache, and a 61Wh battery. And then there's the big kahuna that we're reviewing, which is mostly the same as the $1950 model but it dumps HDD storage completely in favor of a 512GB mSATA SSD and adds a larger 91Wh battery in place of the 2.5” drive. $400 extra for a 512GB Samsung SM841 is actually a pretty reasonable expense, considering retail pricing on that SSD is typically well over $500, making the added battery capacity a bonus. Of course Dell isn’t paying retail prices, and drives like the Crucial M500 480GB mSATA can be had for $320 online, but even then the $400 upgrade price is still reasonable.

The components aren't the only change with this model. The design language of the latest XPS 12 and XPS 13 carries over now as well, with carbon fiber being used on the bottom casing of the chassis. Perhaps more noteworthy is that Dell has ditched the optical drive this time around, and on the highest end model they also skip out on conventional storage. Both changes make room for additional battery capacity, where the model we're reviewing comes with a 91Wh battery. Dell also manages to stuff all of these updates into a thinner and lighter chassis – the new model we have weighs 4.44 lbs. (2.01kg) while the previous generation weighed 5.79 lbs. (2.6kg), and this generation is 0.7” (18mm) thick compared to 0.91” (23.2mm) previously.

Of course, besides the core hardware and other design elements, the big question people undoubtedly have is going to be thermals. Dell let me know that thanks to our investigation of the thermal throttling on the earlier IVB XPS 15, they went back and redesigned the cooling. Like the rMBP 15 and a few other laptops, Dell is now using a dual cooling solution for the CPU and GPU with two fans (the removal of the optical drive makes way for the second fan). I've run through our benchmark suite, and I’ll discuss later the question of throttling and whether or not that’s a concern. Using some pathological workloads and stressing both the CPU and GPU (e.g. Cinebench on seven of the eight CPU cores and a GPU load like 3DMark), it’s definitely possible to exceed the thermal design of the XPS 15 and end up with lower clocks, but there’s more to it than that. How much of a concern this is can largely be answered by the question, “Do you play modern PC games?”

Not surprisingly, the host of changes listed above makes for a much more interesting laptop, but one that can end up costing a fair amount of money. Given that only the top model sports pure SSD storage, that's the one we need to compare with Apple's rMBP 15, and it mostly ends up a wash. You can get the Dell for $2300, as mentioned already. The rMBP 15 with 512GB SSD on the other hand will set you back $2600. Apple gives you a faster SSD (PCIe based), a faster CPU (i7-4850HQ), and Thunderbolt 2, which makes the extra $300 acceptable. (Other options for right around the same price are available, for example this one gets the i7-4950HQ CPU but uses Iris Pro Graphics and only comes with 8GB RAM.) Dell's model has a larger battery (but likely less battery life if we compare Windows 8.1 with OS X Mavericks), a touchscreen, and a higher resolution display. Ultimately, it's likely going to be more a question of whether you're interested in running OS X or Windows 8.1.

I do have to say that I also miss the ability to custom configure Dell’s laptops, and perhaps that’s just the way things will be with systems like this that target style more than pure performance. I’d love to have the option to configure the storage, display, CPU, RAM, battery, and GPU options rather than choosing between one of three pre-configured models but that’s just not in the cards right now. Anyway, with the overview of the core components out of the way, let’s find out how the XPS 15 performs, what's it like using a high-DPI display in Windows 8.1, and how the laptop fares in everyday use.

Dell XPS 15 Subjective Thoughts: Life on the High-DPI Edge
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  • Andrew Lin - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    can i ask how people fixed letterboxing in games? in certain directx11 games (bioshock infinite and anno 2070) i'm still being letterboxed when running at non-native resolution
  • JarredWalton - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    I updated the Intel and NVIDIA drivers and I believe the Intel drivers then have an option to modify the scaling (it may have been present in the release drivers but it didn't work for me).
  • Homeles - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    We've had nothing but trouble with these and other XPS models at work. We must have gotten a bad batch -- a lot of dead HDDs out of the box.

    Conceptually, these are great computers. I love the screens on these. They're not bad to work on (read: repair), although changing one of the SO-DIMM sockets is rather annoying since you have to tear the whole thing down to get to it. I do dislike the slot load drive.

    If it weren't for the myriad of hardware problems I've seen with these, they'd be a great product. Hope the Haswell version doesn't suffer the issues I've seen.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    The new version is much easier to work with IMO -- no slot load drive, about eight hex screws to get to the internals, and if you get the SSD model, no HDD to speak of. But for a business, I suspect you'd want no GPU as it wouldn't be much use, and that's sadly not an option.
  • jameskatt - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    The Dell XPS 15 Haswell Edition is Dell's attempt to copy the MacBoo Pro 15-inch with Retina Display. Interestingly, it costs almost as much. But it fails in two major areas: 1) It doesn't have a PCIe SSD. Thus, its SSD storage is half as fast as Apple's. 2) It doesn't have Thunderbolt connectors. This means you cannot attach external PCI card cases nor get high speed storage as on the much more expandable MacBook Pros.

    Sad. But it is far better to run Windows on a MacBook Pro than to run Windows on a Dell attempt at a clone.

    Dell should stop trying to copy Apple - albeit Apple makes tons of profit on its MacBook Pros. Dell should instead create inexpensive battle-tank PC Laptops that cost under $1000. It simply makes no sense to purchase a PC Laptop that costs more than $1000 - unless you are one of the few gamers.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    There's nothing wrong with trying to copy one of the better designs out there, and Dell does enough different that it's not a major concern in my book. The PCIe SSD isn't a huge blemish, as random IO is pretty much bottlenecked by the NAND and sequential at 2X the speed only happens rarely other than for large file transfers. As for the Thunderbolt... well, it exists on Windows PCs, but it's rarely used right now. I'd say the vast majority of Windows users (including me) have never worried about the lack of a Thunderbolt port.

    Your remaining arguments are full of flaws. Look at a post above where one of the readers comments on running Windows full-time on a MacBook. GPU always on, limited driver updates/support, keyboard not designed around Windows, and a few other issues make that a non-solution for people that don't primarily run OS X. And if you think no one should buy anything more than a $1000 laptop, well, there's a huge market for sub-$1000 laptops it's true, but to get there the quality suffers immensely. I personally wouldn't even consider buying a laptop that didn't have a 512GB class SSD, which is $400 minimum right there. Give me a good display, enough RAM, a quad-core CPU, and then toss in a good battery with good keyboard and touchpad. That puts you at around $1300 bare minimum, and more likely $1800+. I'd expect to use such a system for a few years, where others might buy two $900 laptops and think, "I got a faster solution for less money", but the quality of all the parts ends up being far more important to me these days.

    If money is tight, by all means get an inexpensive option, but don't knock the people and companies aspiring for something more. Part of the reason so many laptops suck these days is because of the race to the bottom we had for the past decade, so please let's not encourage OEMs to start that up again.
  • jphughan - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Nobody but Apple to my knowledge has bootable PCIe SSDs, because that's not a standard. PCIe is not designed to support storage directly, so Apple has had to bolt on some logic in order to make it work, but (as is typical with Apple), they've got a completely proprietary implementation. Have you ever wondered why you can't just buy a PCIe or miniPCIe SSD standalone, except for the ones that come from Apple laptops? That's why.

    And PCIe SSD storage being twice as fast is a benchmark fact, not a practical real-world one. I would bet that you couldn't reliably tell the two apart in a blind performance test.

    As for Thunderbolt, the only things I've ever seen anybody connect to a Thunderbolt connector are displays and Ethernet dongles. Sure I agree that as a connector it has potential, but frankly it hasn't reached market penetration. I think it will turn out to be the modern-day FireWire port personally.

    And Dell does make laptops under $1000. They just don't make ONLY laptops under $1000.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    I think he's referring to M.2 SSDs that use the PCIe interface for higher performance? I know the Sony VAIO Pro 13 has something like this at least -- maybe just M.2 in general is faster than mSATA. But since it's mostly a benefit for sequential IO and that much sequential IO isn't common in day-to-day use for most laptop users, it's not a deal breaker by any means.
  • Penti - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    The current gen PCI-e SSD's do use AHCI and non Apple PC's do use the same SSDs (in M.2/NGFF form factor) so I don't know where he wants to go with that rant. Logic is in the SSD-controller which isn't custom for Apple by any means. Note here that the PCIe based Apple-Macs support Bootcamp/Windows just fine. At most a bootable PCIe solution requires a BIOS-rom and OS-drivers, but these solutions aren't PCIe to SATA bridges (controllers/adapters) any more, and firmware support is there regardless if it's Apples UEFI or say the Sony's. Shouldn't really be any different to run any other AHCI-drive. Form-factor differs here, but it's the same type of controller and hardware on the (Apple) SSD as with PCIe M.2 drives, which has come with at least controllers from Samsung, Marvell, and SF/LSI now.

    None AHCI-drives (NVMe) are a bit away because the software (OS) doesn't really support them yet, but neither is they offered.
  • Samus - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Wow. $1500 starting price for a Dell?

    Bold, Michael, bold.

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