Design and Other Considerations

Before we get to the benchmarks, let’s take a minute more to look at the design and aesthetics on offer. We’ve covered most of this already—the XPS 15 L501x had a decent keyboard with only slight flex, there are lots of matte surfaces to go around, and you get some of the best sounding speakers you’ll ever hear in a laptop. Except, this isn't exactly the same keyboard as the previous model, and the chassis feels slightly less sturdy as a result. More on this in a moment.

One upgrade that we didn't get to test previously is the 9-cell battery, and this is one of those hit-or-miss upgrades. On the one hand, you increase battery capacity and battery life (by about 55% in our testing). Unfortunately, the 9-cell battery really ruins the profile of the XPS 15, raising the back of the notebook almost a full inch and giving the bottom an uncomfortable bump that makes using it on your lap a dubious proposition. It's great for battery life, and if your laptop sits on a desk or table it's not a big deal; however, Dell should be able to put this much capacity into a better form factor with a few modifications to the chassis.

In the above gallery, we’ve included some comparison pictures of the 6-cell and 9-cell Dell batteries with ASUS’ 8-cell battery from their U-series. The ASUS battery is nearly as thin as the 6-cell but it’s substantially longer; it shows that it would be possible for Dell to fit such a battery into a 14” chassis if they were willing to rework the chassis and internal layout. Personally, I think Dell needs to reevaluate the battery design. While I really like the idea of a 90Wh battery, I don’t like the battery wart on the bottom of my laptop. Another option would be to go for a higher quality (and higher cost) Lithium polymer battery that could pack the same 90Wh into a smaller shell, which is the approach Apple tends to take.

Another tidbit worth mentioning is that upgrading your hard drive requires a bit of extra work. You can get at the memory, WiFi card, and the remaining mini-PCIe slot (occupied by an AverMedia TV Tuner in our test unit) through the single large bottom panel. The hard drive on the other hand is accessed through the top of the chassis. Interestingly enough, the top cover around the keyboard isn’t even secured by any screws; remove the battery and you can access a couple of the plastic clips that hold the cover in place. There are about twenty plastic clips around the top cover, and you’ll have to get them all to release before you can get at the hard drive; you’ll also need to detach the touchpad and media/power button ribbon connectors. While you won’t need to remove any screws, the end result is something of a pain compared to the simple bottom-hatch access most laptops use, and if you happen to remove the cover several times there’s a reasonable chance you’re going to start breaking the plastic clips.

The reason I get into the above is two-fold: first, it illustrates a design flaw and the difficulty of upgrading the hard drive/SSD. The other item to note is that the entire top cover is made of somewhat flimsy plastic, which feels more like Inspiron quality than XPS quality. The frame on the XPS line may be solid, but the actual shell around the frame is plastic and definitely not as sturdy as Dell’s Latitude line. I’d really prefer to see the XPS line go slightly more upscale—bump the price up $50 to $100 and give us a consumer chassis that feels like it will last. Or there’s the new Alienware M11x/M14x that might fill that niche, but aesthetics are still a matter of opinion and plenty of people dislike the bling that’s present on Alienware’s offerings.

Finally, let's discuss the keyboard. I actually liked the old L501x keyboard, and I sort of figured the L502x would be the same design. Well, it's not. The new keyboard is the chiclet style that has become so prevalent among consumer notebooks. I don't really mind typing on chiclet keyboards, and this one works well enough, but I felt there was more flex and less ruggedness to the overall design compared to the previous model. Some of that may just be my perception—I don't have the L501x handy to check—but as noted above the build quality feels more like a tweaked Inspiron rather than giving you the quality of a Latitude.

With that out of the way, let’s hit the benchmarks and graphs and see how the new XPS 15 compares to the old model, along with a selection of other recent laptops. Pricing for the reviewed configuration puts the L502x into direct competition with laptops sporting significantly faster GPUs—i.e. MSI’s GT680R can be found for just $50 more. What you get with the Dell is a more aesthetically pleasing design, a higher quality LCD, significantly better battery life (thanks to Optimus), better speakers, and a backlit keyboard. On the other hand, the GTX 460M walks all over the GT 540M in games, so if you’re looking for gaming laptops as opposed to Jack-of-All-Trades offerings, there are better options.

Dell XPS 15 L502x: Tweaking the Formula No Surprises: Quad-Core Sandy Bridge Is Still Fast
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    On the Dell site, it's the "XPS 15", but the L501x is the actual full model, to differentiate it from the original L501x. It's like the MacBook Pro 13/15/17 -- they don't specify which particular iteration you're discussing. I just happen to use the real model instead of the generic name so as to avoid confusion.
  • flyingpants1 - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    If I follow the link in the article and configure the $800 XPS 15 with all the options listed, the total comes out to $1505. Coupon code 932N$0ZCCHWZB9 for an additional $70 off brings it to $1435.

    However, if I follow the link on this page: configure THAT XPS 15 with the same stuff, the total is now $1764. $425 in coupon codes brings it down to $1339. So it actually works out cheaper, and it includes a 2 year service plan instead of the 1 year.
  • Wave_Fusion - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    I'm not following which parts are plastic and which are metal.
    My old XPS M1210 was metal except in one key area: the palm rest.
    So after about a year I wore an E.T. shaped hand print in the cheap silver paint below the keyboard.

    It'd be a major disappointment to buy this one and find it still has crummy plastic where it shouldn't be.

    If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times: My DV7 is better.
    I don't get why no one seems to know about my computer, but eventually someone will review it besides myself.

    Its faster, cheaper, most stylish; and also has amazing sound, but with a 2 year warranty too. I thought you guys announced the future launch of my computer, the DV6/DV7 spring refresh, but since then its been dark.

    They destroy everything that's been reviewed since; and its sad no one seems to know about them yet.
  • will2 - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Re. your concluding paragraph, interested in your views of screen size/resolution combinations.

    As frequently moving, I want a thin-light desktop replacement notebook for both photo-editing, multimedia playing, and general business use. I concluded as my present 14" lcd with 1440x900 gloss screen is tiring on eyes for long hours reading office documents, a 15" 1600x900 screen - maybe less tiring as text rendered slightly larger. Interested in your thoughts on that.

    With that in mind, I hope Anandtech can review the SNB Latitude E6520 with 1600x900 screen. Is that likely soon ?

    You surmise the M11x R3 worth a look. Too small screen for my needs, but I see Notebookcheck just reviewed it and they said very powerful but let down by a poor screen, meagre 150:1 contrast ratio, blacks are grey.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    So it really depends on the individual, but I use a 30" desktop for most of my photo work, and when I have to go mobile I already feel cramped on 1080p (or even WUXGA). I've used 1440x900 and 1680x1050, and they're okay, but nothing beats resolution for photo editing in my book. The problem is, outside of photos, those fine dot pitches can really be a strain on the old eyes! Heck, my 30" is a strain these days.

    So then you use the DPI setting of Windows, but it mucks up certain programs and can be irritating, or you run at a lower resolution or use the "zoom" feature in your web browser and office applications as needed. I, incidentally, have used all of the above and continue to use them depending on my mood. My 30" LCD is set to 120dpi and it still feels a bit small on a lot of text.

    For laptops, it's a compromise either way. Personally, I've ended up with the following sizes as my preferred options. Others will obviously disagree, but as a 37-year-old I don't have the luxury of running ultra-tiny fonts anymore.
    <12.1" - I'm not really a fan of this size laptop. It's too small for me to type on comfortably, so I prefer 13 or 14". However, 1280x800 (or 1366x768) works okay. I've used a 10.1" laptop with a 1366x768 LCD, and it was often too small to read comfortably.

    13.3" - 1600x900 is a bit of a stretch for me at this size, but it's better than the 1366x768 alternative. 1280x800 is actually still better in my book, but too many laptops are moving to 16:9 aspect ratios.

    14" - 1440x900 or 1600x900 works best; I'm not willing to go lower res if I can avoid it, and higher res is too small for my tastes.

    15.6" - 1600x900 or 1920x1080 (or 1680x1050/1920x1200) are all fine here, though 1080p can be a bit small at times.

    >17" - must have 1080p or 1920x1200 resolution. (I haven't seen anything in recent history with a higher resolution than that.)
  • NICOXIS - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    Is it possible to play games at native resolution with medium settings?

    Why should one get 540M when you can just do 525M with higher clocks? (besides additional memory)

    What is the difference between Intel Advanced-N 6230 and Intel Wireless-N 1030?

    If we replace Quad Core (Intel Core i7-2630QM) with Dual Core with higher clocks ( Intel Core i5-2520M), Should it get better performance at games and longer battery life?

    Appreciate any answers! :)
  • Wave_Fusion - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    It might be possible, it might not. My HP DV7 can run most games at maximum at its native resolution of 1600 x 900, but my AMD 6770 is significantly faster than the 540M in this Dell.

    Medium settings at 1920 x 1080 could easily overwhelm a card like that. I'd recommend a unit with either Nvidia 555M, 560M; AMD Radeon HD 6770, 6870; or above.
    Or the 540M would be fine if you played at a lower resolution; but if it were me I'd choose either a smaller laptop at 1366 x 768 or a larger one at 1600 x 900.
    15 inches is to me a spot neither of Dell's offered resolutions look good at that size.

    I believe the Advanced-N 6230 supports 5GHz band while the 1030 does not.

    Finally, my DV7 has a quad core i7-2720QM and switchable graphics with the AMD 6770. The new quad cores idle pretty low, but because the dual core processors have a lower maximum thermal output, they'll draw less power under heavy load. On the other hand a quad core might handle that same load without stressing it too hard.

    Short answer: Both are built on 32nm now, so probably little significant difference unless you're gaming or something.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    All of the gaming charts include the results at both our standard resolution as well as the native 1080p of the LCD. You can see that medium detail is >30FPS in five of the eight tested games, but of course that will vary depending on the game (and what settings you define as "medium"). For 1080p, realistically I still feel like you would want at least a GT 555M, and the GTX 460M is where medium to high 1080p is viable.

    Overclocking of mobile GPUs is possible, but in practice they bin pretty heavily and I'm uncomfortable trying to run a laptop with an overclocked GPU. I suppose it's only a 12% overclock to push the 525M to 540M levels, but YMMV. Since replacing your GPU on a laptop is difficult at best (i.e. finding a compatible part that doesn't cost an arm and a leg), I'd exercise caution. Besides, a 10% core overclock (with the same RAM speed) means the real-world performance difference is quite small.

    WiFi 6230 gives 2.4 + 5.0 GHz connections, so it's a 2x2 MiMo setup. The 1030 is 1x2 and omits 5.0GHz support. Both support up to 300Mbps connections, but in the real world you'll probably max out around 144Mbps with actual throughput of around 7-9MBps (56-72Mbps).

    As far as CPU changes, we do have performance results of the it-2520M in the charts (ASUS K53E). In games, the GPU is the major bottleneck. Remember that the 2630QM can still Turbo as high as 2.9GHz (2.8GHz dual-core, 2.7GHz tri-core, and 2.6GHz quad-core). The 2520M can go about 10% higher at 3.2GHz (3.1GHz dual-core), but unless you're playing at low resolutions and low details, you'll need more GPU than CPU.
  • NICOXIS - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    thanks Wave and Jarred, appreciate you took the time to respond ;)

    Regarding GPU at medium settings, there's no laptop I've seen (with L502x footprint and weight) that offers GT 555M or GTX 460M (or similar AMD solution) at that price point and price/features ratio.

    On the overclocking side, isn't 525M the same exact chip as 540M with clocks up a 12%? or are you saying 525M are chips that didn't qualify at higher speeds?

    And if that 10% overclock difference is minimal, Why should anyone upgrade anyway?

    Reg 6230 vs 1030, what's the difference in practice?

    Sorry for the blast, but it's interesting to know :D

  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    So all of the GT 525M, 540M, and 550M chips are the "same", but they're the same in the way that the i7-2630QM, i7-2720QM, i7-2820QM, and i7-2920XM are the "same" (barring differences in L3 cache sizes). Without actually looking at a large sample, I don't know if NVIDIA is tweaking voltage levels, but they're very likely doing some form of binning.

    Intel for example will do some tests to verify a chip can handle the desired speed at a reasonable voltage; if it can't do 2.2GHz at 1.25V (or whatever), then they'll try for a lower clock with that same voltage, or maybe raise the voltage slightly but drop the clock, etc. I don't know all of what Intel does or doesn't do with binning, but in general their higher-end (e.g. more expensive) CPUs run at lower voltages at stock and overclock better with more voltage. So, considering the number of chips NVIDIA is offering that are essentially the same, I suspect they have a way of determining which are the better chips.

    So if 10% is a minor difference in performance, why would anyone upgrade? Because they're generally uninformed. The 1GB to 2GB jump won't help at the settings where these chips run well -- which is usually lower resolutions at medium detail. 1GB to 2GB becomes useful when you're running at least 1080p with very large textures, and for that you really need at least a GTX 460M (or HD 5870M).

    This is actually one of the frustrating aspects of buying a laptop. So many companies will sell you a GT 420M/425M/435M/525M/540M/550M graphics chip with Optimus in a 14" or 15.6" laptop. (Those are all 96 CUDA cores with 128-bit DDR3 memory, so basically the only change is the clock speed of the cores, which ranges from 500MHz on the 420M up to 740MHz on the 550M.) Finding anything with the GT 445M/555M on the other hand.... Well, the Alienware M14x and Dell XPS 17 L702x are currently the only laptops with the GT 555M, and to my knowledge the old XPS 17 L701x was the only laptop with the GT 445M. I'm not a big fan of 17.3" notebooks, so that's why I think the M14x may be the best balance of price, size, and performance for a gaming laptop.

    Back to the wireless, in practice the difference is that if you have a wireless router that supports 2.4 and 5 GHz, you can get better throughput a lot of the time. Many less expensive routers don't support 5GHz, so in that case you'd see no difference at all. If you do have the appropriate router (I don't!), I understand that some people get much better performance on 5GHz because there's so much other traffic on 2.4GHz (e.g. 802.11b/g/n all use 2.4GHz, plus cordless phones and other devices).

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