Dell XPS 15 Subjective Thoughts: Life on the High-DPI Edge

We like to start every laptop review with our subjective impressions of the system in day-to-day use. Here, the XPS 15 really does well, as the design looks great and at least in my experience feels great as well. The build quality is solid and I would say this may be the best Dell laptop I’ve ever encountered in terms of the look and feel. The touchpad and keyboard work just as they should, with a good feel and responsiveness. This is such a rarity that it still boggles my mind – getting the basic input devices more or less right should be something from Laptops 101, but somehow there are a lot of laptops with terrible touchpads and/or funky keyboard layouts. I still miss having dedicated document navigation keys and a “Context Key” (Shift+F10 equivalent), but I’ve adapted to the XPS 15 layout with no substantive issues.

There were a few oddities that did come up in testing – the big one being that at times, the touchpad and touchscreen basically stopped working properly for “clicks”. I could move the mouse cursor around, but as soon as I tried to click it appeared that the OS was sending that click to the far reaches of space. The active application would lose focus, and pretty much nothing would happen. The solution was to reboot, which seems pretty crazy as a “solution”, but I think I tracked down the issue to updating video drivers. Normally, that’s a simple process, and in some cases NVIDIA and AMD are able to update the drivers without a reboot. Well, perhaps thanks to the high-DPI display or some other factor, every time I’ve updated the NVIDIA drivers I’ve ended up needing to reboot (via keyboard shortcuts no less) in order to get proper mouse functions back. This is a rare enough occurrence that the only reason I mention it is that it may help others, and perhaps the driver teams at Dell/Intel/NVIDIA may be able to fix the root cause.

Sound quality on the XPS 15 continues to be decent, particularly for this size/thickness. Bass response isn’t really there and the earliest XPS 15 models sounded better, but that’s partly because they were a lot thicker and so there was more opportunity for putting in a subwoofer and perhaps getting better reverb/acoustics/whatever. Sorry if that’s not particularly technical – I’m not an audiophile by any stretch of the imagination; basically, I just go with what my ears tell me sounds good. Earphones of course will sound better than any laptop if you’re after true quality, but even without the XPS 15 sounds quite good. Perhaps more importantly, when listening to audio through the headset jack, I didn’t notice any static or other interference, which is definitely something that has come up with other laptops I’ve used.

Moving on to perhaps the most important aspects for many of you, let’s talk about the display and storage. I received the QHD+ panel for this review, and that tacks on quite a bit to the final price. The base model comes with a 1080p display, but there’s no way to get pure SSD storage unless you spring for the top-end model. That’s a bit of a misfire I’d say, as we’re fast approaching the point (or perhaps even past it) where including mechanical storage in a laptop is a serious faux pas – and for a high-end laptop like the XPS 15 that’s designed to compete with the likes of the Apple MacBook Pro line, there’s simply no reason for it. I also think Dell is being too conservative with the use of an mSATA SSD; I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make to go with an M.2 SSD (particularly a PCIe-based solution), but there are occasions where the SSD feels just a bit less responsive than some of the 2.5” SSDs I’m used to running. It’s still far better than any of the HDD + caching SSD laptops I’ve used, however, so unless you absolutely need maximum storage throughput, I wouldn’t worry too much about the use of Samsung’s SM841.

Subjectively, the 3200x1800 display on the Dell XPS 15 looks impressive out of the box – the pixels are fine enough that it's very difficult (perhaps impossible in my case, as my eyes aren’t what they used to be) to see them with the naked eye, and with my basic lenses on my Nikon D3100 I likewise am unable to capture an image of the pixels. Within the Modern UI, everything works as expected as well – everything scales nicely and you simply use the applications as you would on any other tablet or laptop. Where things get messy is when you switch to a desktop application. People often argue about whether or not Windows handles DPI scaling well; my personal opinion is that it remains a mixed bag. Some things scale nicely and look as you would expect; others don't scale at all, and still others scale the size of text but not other elements. Some of this you can blame on the programmers behind the various applications, but particularly on programs that are several years old (but remain useful) we can't really expect new versions (for free) simply because Microsoft has a new way of doing scaling. There's also the question of how many applications really work well within the Modern UI, and again personally there are many times that I simply like the desktop view and don't want to lose that.

But what's a 3200x1800 display really like in Windows 8.1? There are a few options for how you want to run things. You can run at native resolution and use DPI scaling (100%, 125%, 150%, 200%, or some other custom number), or you can run at a lower resolution (like 1600x900 or 1920x1080) and just let the display scaling do the work. As you might suspect, neither option is perfect. 200% scaling in theory is pretty easy – you just double everything – but doubling images doesn't always look great and so apparently that doesn't happen, even with Windows 8.1. The result is that most apps look fine, but there are exceptions. And needless to say, anything running at an unscaled DPI looksreally tiny, for example the StarCraft II launcher looks is unscaled whereas Steam’s UI scales.

Here's a gallery showing just two instances of the scaling not doing what most people would expect. Look at the browser tabs in Chrome, where in one screen it's running at 1080p 100% and in the other it's at 3200x1800 200%. The second shows Steam and the StarCraft II launcher, with 125% and 200% DPI settings I believe; you can see SC2 is the same size in both images while everything else changes.

So those are a couple instances of DPI scaling not working, and it’s basically the fault of the developers, but if Microsoft wants this high-DPI stuff to really work then they need to find solutions to dealing with…let’s just call them “obstinate programmers”. Windows has been around for a long time and creating a new way of doing things (i.e. Modern) doesn’t help at all with existing programs. It’s one of the reasons I think a lot of people are sticking with Windows 7 for the time being. A proper solution needs to work for any reasonable application that someone might run, and perhaps give the user the option to enable/disable the scaling if it causes problems. For now, unless you’re ready to live mostly in the Modern UI (or have exceptional vision and can run at 100% scaling and 3200x1800), just know that there are going to be quirks to deal with.

Meet the New Dell XPS 15 (9530), Late 2013 Edition Dell XPS 15: QHD+ LCD Testing
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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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