Dell XPS 15 (mid-2012) review

Pros

  • Fast performer thanks to Ivy Bridge CPU
  • Decent gaming prowess via the GT 640M
  • Impressive battery life
  • Premium chassis design elements

Cons

  • Does look pretty Apple-ish
  • No SSD cache on top-end model

Competition is tough among manufacturers of premium desktop replacement laptops, with plenty of players vying for the Windows PC market, and a growing number moving to Apple products. But while everyone is busy doing their best Apple impression, not every laptop has the performance to back up a premium price tag. The Dell XPS 15 (£1299 direct) does, thanks to a quad-core Ivy Bridge processor, switchable Nvidia graphics, and a design that is highly refined, if not entirely original. If you're not yet ready to go the Mac route, this makes for a solid backup plan.

Design

The Dell XPS 15 has a minimalist design, with a dark all-metal chassis sporting curves and smooth surfaces that echo the MacBook Pro's unique look. Dell has done its best to distinguish the XPS 15 with a two-tone design of dark metal on the lid and a stripe of bare silver aluminium around the edge, but it’s pretty hard to ignore the similarities to the refreshed MacBook Pro line. In fact, "similarities" may not be strong enough a term – perhaps "uncanny resemblance," "clear inspiration," or "out-and-out clone" would be closer. Dell may not mention the fact, but it's clear that this is the company's answer to the MacBook Pro. In fairness, Dell isn't alone in this respect, as others have cribbed from Apple, too.

Believe it or not, we're not knocking Dell for pulling a page from the Jony Ive design book. In fact, Dell has put a great deal of time and attention into improving the XPS 15's look, and has largely succeeded. Where Apple uses bare aluminium, Dell adds soft touch paint on the palm rest and a silicon panel on the bottom, making the XPS 15 both more touchable and a bit more stable on some surfaces.

Apple's unibody design has a hard edge around the palm rest, but Dell softens things with a minute bevel. The backlit chiclet keyboard adds some curvature to the key caps, making for a comfortable typing experience, and the clickpad is coated with the same soft touch paint as the palm rest. All in all, although the XPS 15 looks like an Apple product, it actually feels better.

The 15.6in widescreen display offers a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, surpassing the more modest resolutions of the Samsung Series 7 (NP700Z5A) and last year's Dell XPS 15z, but it can't touch the ground-breaking 2,880 x 1,800 Retina display on the new MacBook Pro. It's tough to compete with technology that Apple bought with its giant pile of money – but admittedly, you'll pay a £500 premium to get it. The XPS 15 also has solid audio, with Waves MaxxAudio 4 and two integrated two Watt stereo speakers. There’s no integrated subwoofer, though, a sonic boon which more notebooks are including these days.

Features

In addition to a quality design, the Dell XPS 15 offers a full selection of ports. Most are located on the left side of the laptop, with three USB 3.0 ports, a compact ethernet port, and HDMI and Mini DisplayPort outputs (for monitors and HDTV). On the other side you'll find a card reader (SD/MMC), jacks for both headphones and headset (the latter also doubles as a microphone jack), and a slot-loading DVD writer. Above the screen is a Skype-certified 1.3 megapixel webcam, and a dual-mic array provides clear sound while chatting.

Inside its magnesium chassis, the XPS 15 is equipped with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The notebook is available with both traditional hard drives and solid-state drives (SSDs), with cheaper models in the range offering a combination of the two (with a small SSD as a cache), although our review unit had a single 1TB hard drive on board.

On that hard drive you'll find several programs already installed, including Adobe Reader X, Microsoft Office 2010 Starter, Skype, Internet Explorer, Windows Live Essentials, and a 30 day trial of McAfee Security Centre.

Performance

Dell has updated the XPS 15 with an Intel third-generation Core i7-3612QM quad-core processor, paired with 8GB of RAM. The new Ivy Bridge processor provides a significant step up in capability, allowing the XPS 15 to surge ahead of systems equipped with second-generation CPUs.

Thanks to an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M discrete graphics processor and 2GB of VRAM, the XPS 15 also has some gaming prowess. It cranked through 3DMark06 with some of the best scores we've seen in this category, hitting 12,458. As for our real-world gaming tests, it tore through Crysis at 74 frames per second (fps) and Lost Planet 2 at 58 fps – only gaming-specific laptops did better. The Samsung Series 7 could only muster 49 fps in Crysis.

The Dell XPS also benefits from Optimus automatic switching, which allows the graphics processing to shift seamlessly between the Nvidia graphics card and Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4000, making for better energy efficiency without sacrificing graphics quality. As a result, the XPS 15 lasted an impressive 7 hours and 28 minutes on our MobileMark 2007 battery rundown test.

Verdict

Among premium desktop replacement laptops, the Dell XPS 15 is an above average contender, with top hardware and solid performance. Unfortunately – especially with such a strong physical resemblance to the MacBook Pro – it can't match Apple's Retina display, Thunderbolt connection, and top-tier operating system.

Then again, it doesn’t cost nearly as much as Apple’s offering, and Dell’s notebook boasts an impressive level of performance for the money. If you're in the market for a premium laptop, the refreshed XPS 15 is a good choice among Windows PCs.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Dell XPS 15 (mid-2012)

Type

Gaming, General Purpose, Desktop Replacement

Processor Name

Intel Core i7-3612QM

Operating System

Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium

Processor Speed

2.1GHz

RAM

8GB

Weight

2.6kg

Screen Size

15.6in

Screen Size Type

Widescreen

Native Resolution

1,920 x 1,080

Graphics Card

Nvidia GeForce GT 640M 2GB

Storage Capacity (as Tested)

1TB

Rotation Speed

5,400 rpm

Networking Options

802.11n

Primary Optical Drive

8X Slot Load CD/DVD Burner

Wireless Display Capability (WiDi)

Yes

WiMax

No

Battery Type

65Wh; 9-Cell Li-Polymer (built-in)

Tech Support

1 year