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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  • JanusSoCal - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    I second everybody who has left comments to say that this is probably the most thorough and detailed review I've read of the XPS 15 so far. But I was curious about three things. First, you didn't mention what you thought of their new island-keyboard design, which I thought was a pretty big change from the 1st gen. Did you find the typing experience and build better with the 1st gen. keyboard or 2nd gen. keyboard? Also, you mentioned that the frame is solid but the top is plastic... I was wondering if that meant the build quality is good or not good, since the frame is supposedly made of magnesium alloy. So, is all that marketing about how the top cover and palm rests are made out of anondized aluminum for a sturdier build is just mere marketing? Is it literally like a very thin coat of aluminum over cheap plastic? And finally, I guess since you gave the Gold Editor's Choice to the 1st Gen XPS 15, did you consider the 2nd Gen XPS 15, against the current crop of laptops more of a silver, bronze, copper?

    Again, thanks for writing an excellent review, I've been waiting for Anandtech's take on the 2nd gen. XPS 15 for a long time.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    Ha! I knew something was wrong and I just couldn't put my finger on it, so to speak. I kept thinking, "this doesn't feel as solid as I recall from the first XPS 15," but I figured it was the same. Given the number of laptops I see, sometimes things get a bit fuzzy in my mind so I figured it was still fine. Now that you point it out, the keyboard definitely changed, and IMO it's not for the better. The palm rest on the L502x is also definitely made of plastic, where I believe (but am not certain) the previous model was anodized aluminum. In both cases, the change is a downgrade as far as I'm concerned.

    I've gone and updated the second page to discuss this a bit more. Ultimately, it's still a good consumer notebook, but it's not without flaws. The previous garnered a Gold by being one of the first laptops in a long time to give us good build quality, a great screen, awesome speakers, and decent all around performance for a moderate price of $1000. The L502x carries forward most of those aspects, but I'd actually downgrade it to a Silver this time around (or an honorable mention without the 1080p LCD upgrade).
    Reply
  • will2 - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    @jaredwalton. Would appreciate any feedback on my post on above - last post of yesterday, re. if you plan to review the Latitude E6520, and from anyone also, their thoughts on ideal screen size/resolution combinations for photo-editing, film viewing and general business use Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    Responded above... sorry I missed it before. :-) Reply
  • will2 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Many thanks for your views on screen sizes/resolution combinations which seems to support my thinking that after working on a 14" 1440x900 for last 4 years, a change to 15" 1600x900 will maintain my work surface but reduce eye-strain a little.

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

    Re. another posters question, I was thinking the 2520M a good choice of CPU when limited to a 35W TDP series, although I would have preferred a 25W TDP for reduced temperatures, yet giving sufficient performance.

    Re. other postings on selection of best SSD, if choosing the Latitude E6520, I was thinking to retain the HDD for data only, and take advantage of new SSD performance by adding a small internal PCIe or ExpressCard SSD to hold and boot the Windows 7 + Apps, as it has no mSATA slot. However, there seem to be few mainstream makers of miniPCIe or ExpressCard SSDs - and those I have seen, at 50 to 100MB/s Sequential Read max, are a long way short of the mSATA Intel 310 200MB/s performance - yet no cheaper ! Do you have any links to good advice on choosing small form factor SSDs for Notebook internal slots ?

    Thanks again for your views on screen sizes/resolutions
    Reply
  • cookiezulu - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I purchased this (LX502) and expected to have it delivered on Tuesday. (1080p, i7-2720, 8GB, 7 Ultimate)

    I live in the UK so at the time of buying I could only choose the 500 or 750 SATA HDD. I chose the 500 as I thought I was going to replace it with an SSD - I've been convinced by all the reviews here & elsewhere that the difference in speed/performance with an SSD is noticeable. However I'm struggling to decide (from reading the reviews) whether a 256GB Crucial c300 is the best available at the moment for this laptop in the UK. Best in terms of price / performance.

    Or should I wait another 2-3 months for some other, greater, better SSD? I've not followed the SSD market in depth so I'm just checking that we're not waiting for some big improvement any day now (and I get caught out buying the c300 now.

    Am I right in understanding that even for the same model (C300) the 256GB is faster than the 128GB one?

    Also, does anybody know what the SATA controller is in LX502?

    Thanks,
    Cookie
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    The L502x should have both 6Gbps and 3Gbps SATA ports from the HM65 chipset, and presumably the HDD/SSD would use the 6Gbps ports. As such, you can definitely get better performance from the latest 6.0Gbps capable SSDs.

    The king of the hill right now is the SandForce SF-2200 controller, but the C400 and Intel 510 are both reasonable alternatives. It's really going to come down to pricing. For a 240/256GB SSD, I would probably go for the OCZ Vertex 3. It'll run around $530, give or take, and I have no idea what the UK prices will be, but that's likely the fastest SSD we'll see in the next 8 months.

    Regarding size and performance, it depends in part on the process technology for the NAND. 34nm NAND you usually get optimal performance at 120/128GB, and maybe a little bit faster at 240/256GB. When you move to the new 25nm NAND, indications are that the 240/256GB SSDs will be where you start hitting maximum performance (thanks to parallel transfers from the NAND devices/banks). So 120GB Vertex 3 won't be as fast as 240GB, but 480GB will likely be within a few percent of 240GB. Anand discussed this in a recent article: http://www.anandtech.com/show/4256/the-ocz-vertex-...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Correction: HM67 chipset is what the XPS uses. Also, I have verified that while the system I have is only running the HDD at 300Gbps and the BD-ROM at 150Gbps, both ports are capable of 600Gbps operation (according to SiSoft Sandra). Reply
  • cookiezulu - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Jarred, thanks for your reply. I will wait for my unit to arrive and see what the price for the 240GB Vertex 3 is in a couple of months (currently around £450) and then buy. I was tempted by the more affordable 120GB (around £220) but I'll wait to see what the prices for the bigger one do.

    Let's hope that when I do swap the HDD for the SSD I don't damage any of the 20 or so clips!
    Reply
  • ashegam - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    This is has got to be one of the ugliest laptops I've seen in years. This thing looks like it was made in the 90's, wth were they thinking? Reply

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