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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  • Flying Goat - Sunday, March 9, 2014 - link

    Calling this a "gaming laptop" may be a bit optimistic... There are much better mobile GPUs, but the 750 is about as good as you're going to see in a thin and light machine. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Saturday, March 8, 2014 - link

    Good review, interesting laptop, but not for me (15" is just too large for my use case). I've been using a Samsung tablet with 11.6" 1080p display for the past ~ year and I've been running it at 125% with no problems and I'm no user of moder UI apps. All my note taking, browsing, the occasional gog or steam game have been very fine with that resolution and scaling. :-) Reply
  • Flying Goat - Sunday, March 9, 2014 - link

    Looks like a nice laptop. If it weren't for concerns over throttling and the lack of dedicated page up/down keys, I'd probably have bought one after reading the review. I've been waiting for a Haswell update of Asus's 15 inch Zenbook, or something comparable, and this pretty much fits the bill, modulo those two concerns. Reply
  • snuuggles - Sunday, March 9, 2014 - link

    I'm still not sure why you wouldn't just get the mbp and bootcamp it. The price difference is minor considering the mbp is simply a better machine, with better support, and gives you a choice between osx and windows.

    I am frankly stunned that nobody can beat Mac at making a windows machine--and they aren't even -trying-! Wtf is wrong with dell etc?
    Reply
  • jphughan - Sunday, March 9, 2014 - link

    Did you read the comments earlier about this? Here are SOME issues with Boot Camping a Mac:

    - Some hardware requires proprietary Apple drivers which hardly ever get updated on the Windows side

    - Thunderbolt ports are not hot-pluggable (i.e. if you didn't have the device connected when you booted, it won't be usable until you reboot).

    - The discrete GPU runs all the time (because of Apple's proprietary implementation of switable graphics rather than using Optimus), resulting in much worse battery life

    - The keyboard layout isn't ideal for a PC (frankly lack of a TRUE "Delete" key in addition to the Backspace key that Apple calls Delete is a dealbreaker for me whether in Windows or Mac OS X, same for not having Home/End/PgUp/PgDn at all, even as functions of other keys)

    - Support from Apple for issues you encounter on the Windows side is probably going to be difficult
    Reply
  • Teerav13 - Friday, March 21, 2014 - link

    From someone that runs bootcamped windows on a retina mbp all day every day. The worst part by far is the battery life. In visual studio and doing casual web browsing I can expect a 2.5-3hr runtime with reasonable screen brightness. No switchable GPU support in windows is a mega bummer.

    The keyboard layout is annoying (but not a dealbreaker).

    I recently ordered the dell because of these two factors. I really hope the coil whine that people are making a splash about is either resolved or a non-issue.

    As a side note though, I worry because every review or comparison I have really seen seems to favor the macbook. The only thing they don't really take into account in them is the users OS preference.

    Any idea when a refresh would happen on this line of laptops?
    Reply
  • cptcolo - Sunday, March 9, 2014 - link

    I can't wait for the Lenovo equivalent. 0.7" thick, 4.4lbs, and a 91 wHr battery is impressive Reply
  • Hrel - Monday, March 10, 2014 - link

    Looks like the Gigabyte Laptops are still better. P35K and P25K I think are the model numbers? 15" and 14"? Still waiting on the full review of those btw. Reply
  • lucyfek - Monday, March 10, 2014 - link

    And this is just another thing that makes it suck - I'm "fighting" surface 2 pro connected to external monitor. You either get good picture on the tab and really crappy on 1920*1200 screen or your eyes will bleed when looking on the tab but external screen will look good. The best I got to was I lowered resolution on the surface (it's small so 720p actually look ok) and the external display goes with small text (and this is fine).
    Now if MS allowed to manage themes (not just wallpaper) and there was a way to limit the size of window borders (waste of space).
    I'm trying hard to stay within environment limitation (no classic shell yet, trying to keep it "corporate") but usability does suck. And for what? - I removed all metro apps anyway.
    Reply
  • Jeffrey Bosboom - Monday, March 10, 2014 - link

    You can reduce the window border thickness with the BorderWidth and PaddedBorderWidth values in the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics key in the registry. Reply

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