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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  • callmesissi - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Great review. I'd like to ask you WHY do you keep comparing Windows products to MAC products. In real life you cannot do in a mac what a windows machine can, and dont get me started on "simulation software", if you do run windows on top of mac add the cost of windows license + simulation software and then benchmark the mac and lets see how fast it is by running that.

    Dont get me wrong, this is NOT a "i hate mac" post. But for a living i repair and give technical support to windows machines, and you CANT do everything that you can do in a windows pc on a mac. from hardware to software. for example my main client has quite a few stores + the central base and the radio software (win only) the printers (win only) the accounting software (win only) and so on...

    I do hope you review Mac as a Mac versus other mac and not versus a windows pc. Macs are pretty much good for any user that does not use it for work, or business that use some specialized software like pilots, navigation, design and that's pretty much it.

    I know it wont be long where we wont have that windows / macOS / android / ios / etc. problems, future is aiming for an open source, html based software that can run on any platform. but this is today and as of today you simply CANT use a Mac to replace a pc.

    And not to mention a pc gamer... how many games are on a Mac?...

    Please, just compare apples to apples (pun intended) or if you do, then add parallax + windows to the mac and then set benchmarks. Windows has support for like a 1,000,000 things more than a mac does.

    my two cents.
    Reply
  • Ma Deuce - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    It's extremely easy to run windows on a mac... Saying that you can't replace a pc with a mac is just completely false.

    My line of work requires me to use several Windows only programs, and none of them have issues running on my macbook pro.

    About the only thing you can't do is make a good living providing repairs and technical support to mac owners, they just don't have as many issues lol
    Reply
  • Penti - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    Plenty of enterprises run Windows on Apple machines, support-people shouldn't be unaware of that, guess he's never heard of bootcamp or for that matter knows what parallels is. A mac is a qualified machine for volume licensing. Corporations can just stream their business apps from their TS/RDS/Citrix environment rather then let users who use OS X virtualize Windows. The only thing you really can't do is remote control everything like on vPro/iAMT-machines but the same goes for this Dell. For a end user, a Windows license is about 100 dollars. For business it's pretty much the same as including any other machine in your volume licensing program. If you need Parallels it's 70-80 dollars. A small business can run Windows only accounting software just fine, the virtualization software will make it launch from the dock just like any other program if you like to do that, some OS X users can use business and accounting software that run natively. It's really not an issue any more. It mixes really well with a Microsoft server environment, regardless which OS you choose to run albeit some extra software is required to administrate the OS X-machines with ease.

    For a end user who wishes to legally use Windows on their mac it's just the 100-200 dollars extra. Even with that extra cost a MBAir and so on usually does very well against semi-expensive Windows-powered Ultrabooks. If they do choices that makes it worse then it need to be at the price point it's worth taking note. Even if most mac users prefer to use OS X for 90% of work. There is also some software for OS X in a few professional fields that aren't available for Windows and has no alternative. You really can't treat them like say if they wore a ARM-based tablet, hardware-wise it's totally comparable and sites like this one do benchmark on Windows too. Prices and price ranges are easy to compare too.
    Reply
  • robco - Thursday, March 13, 2014 - link

    Comparisons of high-end Windows laptops with MacBooks is inevitable. Apple's industrial design is considered to be the best in the business. The price difference between the model reviewed here and the comparable rMBP config is $170. The Mac has Thunderbolt (which gives you GigE with an adapter), plus Apple has their own OS. Dell's support is less expensive though.

    As for not being able to use it for work, I know many people who would disagree. Most web devs I know (who don't use .NET) use Macs. Same with most mobile app devs (required for iOS, much easier to set up Android SDK on OS X vs. Windows). Not to mention quite a number of A/V pros. As for most general business tasks, a Mac can do those just fine - just not necessarily with the exact same software. Most F/OSS is *nix based and OS X is UNIX. Unlike other *nix systems, OS X has a fair amount of commercial software as well.

    If you are buying a system primarily for gaming, then of course you want a Windows box. But even that is changing. Check out Steam or even the Mac App Store and you will see quite a few titles available. For everything else, there's BootCamp.

    Ultimately a computer is a tool. Use the best tool for your needs. But understand that the needs of others may be quite different from yours. For me and my needs, a Mac works better. However I understand that for many, the opposite is true. But quite a number of people (including the primary author of this site), find Macs to be quite useful for getting "real" work done...
    Reply
  • blzd - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Never buying another one of these after the 15z battery would die after 1 year almost exactly. Reply
  • tviceman - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    Maxwell is jumping and screaming to get put inside this chassis! Reply
  • augiem - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    It would have been nice to see mbpr in some of the tests and benchmarks where applicable. After all, that's what this thing is trying to be. At the very least on the screen tests and battery life charts. Reply
  • JPDiueholm - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    Did you encounter any problems like:

    http://en.community.dell.com/support-forums/laptop...

    Which has rendered the XPS 13 unusable!
    Reply
  • petar_b - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    It would be nice to compare the above mentioned DELL notebook with ASUS NV550 touch screen. They have almost identical hardware, both come with SSD, however AUSU kept optical drive (blu ray burner), and still has two fans (one for each PU). for the height of 8mm-18mm DELL sacrifices optical drive, while ASUS kept height of 27mm (and has lots of empty space below, I am sure asus could save 3-4 mm if the case was closer to components. Price of asus is aprox 1200eu while dell is 2000 eu. Not sure if dell is overpriced... Reply
  • Flying Goat - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    Hmm...I can't find anything about an "NV550". Looks to me like the Asus N550 (No V) weighs 6 pounds, not 4.5, has a mechanical HDD, and a standard resolution screen, also does not have 802.11ac (Though it does have an ethernet port), so not at all comparable, except perhaps in terms of video card and CPU. If you don't care about the weight or the high res screen, then you shouldn't buy the Dell, but if that's what you want, the price seems competitive with comparable models.

    The ASUS model you should be comparing it to is the ASUS Zenbook UX51Vz-XH71, which costs $2400 (More than the Dell). It's also light, and has high res monitor. However, it has previous generation CPU/GPU (Ivy Bridge, 650GTX), no touch screen, only 8 GB RAM, no 802.11ac, and marginally lower resolution monitor. Only things it has going for it are an ethernet port and bing only 4 pounds instead of 4.44. Anyhow, given that price, I'd call the Dell's pretty competitive, if you want a light gaming laptop with a high res screen - there aren't a lot of models that fit that bill.

    If you want a gaming laptop, but don't care about the weight, and are happy with a lower resolution screen, the price premium may not be worth it.
    Reply

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