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CNET EDITORS' RATING                            
4 Stars | Excellent

Reviewed by: Dan Ackerman
Reviewed on: 05/23/2011
Released on: 05/24/2011


Dell XPS 15z

The good: The new Dell XPS15z is extremely thin for a midsize laptop, and includes a powerful CPU and midrange GPU, along with a 1080p display and backlit keyboard.

The bad: It's still not thinner than the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and in our high-end USD $1,500 configuration, we'd expect longer battery life and a better GPU.

The bottom line: Claiming to be the world's thinnest Windows laptop, the Dell XPS 15z is a sharp-looking package with upgradable high-end features and a reasonable USD $999 starting price.

Review:

Dell claims its new XPS 15z is the world's thinnest 15-inch laptop, or more precisely that it's the "thinnest 15-inch PC on the planet." The "PC" distinction is important (although to be more accurate we'd have said "Windows laptop"), because at 0.97 inch, it's definitely very thin, but it's still a hair thicker than the 0.95-inch 15-inch MacBook Pro.

So, if the XPS 15z is not going to beat the laptop it's most likely to be compared with, the MacBook Pro, in the category it's pitching itself as a ground-breaker in, system thickness, then what's the point? While it may not make for as compelling ad copy, the XPS 15z is better than its gimmicky thickness claims, and is in fact a well-made, reasonably configurable, upscale multimedia and gaming laptop that includes almost all the high-end extras we'd want, from an (optional) 1080p screen, to a backlit keyboard, to 3D support.

When you add in the solid metal construction, large speakers, and fair (if not inexpensive) price, which ranges from USD $999 for a more basic version to USD $1,534 for our tricked-out Intel Core i7 model, there's a lot to like, and the new XPS 15z is a solid alternative to other premium midsize laptops, such as HP's Envy line, Apple's MacBook Pro, or Dell's own XPS 14.

Price as reviewed / Starting price

USD $1,534 / USD $999

Processor

2.7GHz Intel Core i7 2620M

Memory

8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3

Hard drive

750GB 7,200rpm

Chipset

Mobile Intel HM67

Graphics

NVIDIA GeForce 525M

Operating System

Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

Dimensions (WD)

14.9 x 9.8 inches

Height

0.97 inch

Screen size (diagonal)

15.6 inches

System weight / Weight with AC adapter

5.5/6.6 pounds

Category

Midsize

When most people think of Dell, the image that comes to mind is of midpriced plastic laptops, such as the popular Inspiron line, that favor practicality over design. That may be changing, as recent Inspiron laptops have a bit more visual flair, and some even have detachable lids that can be swapped out. The XPS line has always aimed toward a more aesthetically minded customer, and the look and feel of XPS laptops have changed significantly over the years, although the current pre-15z XPS models are surprisingly thick and slab-like.

The new XPS 15z is a fresh start, although it carries over a few touches, such as the inset lid hinges that move the screen slightly closer to the user. Otherwise, this is a sleek metallic box, less than 1 inch thick, and thankfully monochrome, except for some chrome borders around the edge. Yes, it's very thin, but not as thin as the 15-inch MacBook Pro. But honestly, the two are within a hair of each other, so we're willing to call it a tie. Despite the slimness of the body, the XPS 15z still feels sturdy and solid; it's dense, but not too heavy (but it's still heavy enough that you won't want to lug it around every day).

The interior is sparse, with only a backlit keyboard, touch pad, power button, and a pair of large speaker grilles on either side of the keyboard. In many current 15-inch laptops, you'll find a keyboard paired with a separate number pad, but in this case the speakers eat up that space (and then some). Though very usable, the keyboard looks and feels small, and the shallow island-style keys aren't the most comfortable for long-term typing. The keyboard is backlit, which is a huge plus for us, but at some angles, the pale silver keys and the white backlight combined to wash out the actual letters, making it hard to see for the non-touch-typists out there.

The large multitouch touch pad is generously sized, but it's not one of the newer clickpad-style ones we've been seeing lately. Instead, it's a flat pad with two large mouse buttons beneath it. We liked the large surface area, but multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, were jumpy, which is a problem for just about every Windows laptop.

The 15.6-inch display on our review unit was one of our favorite features. Its native resolution is 1,920x1,080 pixels, which we rarely see outside of 17-inch desktop replacements (and even there, not as often as we'd like). The screen lacks the edge-to-edge glass that many high-end multimedia laptops include, but off-axis viewing angles were excellent. Note that the 15-inch MacBook Pro tops out at only 1,680x1,050 pixels. But also note that this higher-res screen is an upsold option. The base model has only a 1,366x768-pixel display.

With such large speaker grilles eating up so much of the bottom half of the chassis, we'd expect great things from the onboard audio. Of course you still have to keep in mind that these are laptop speakers, and the sheer physics of cramming them into a laptop will keep them from pushing too much air. In use, the speakers were plenty loud, but also thin and lacking low end, at least at the default settings. We popped open the audio settings panel and played with the settings, which included some audio enhancement software from Waves audio (a company known for its music-recording plug-ins) and boosted the bass, giving us a much better music experience without distorting the sound.

Dell XPS 15z

Average for category [midsize]

Video

HDMI, DisplayPort

VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort

Audio

Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks

Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks

Data

2 USB 3.0, 1 USB/eSATA, SD card reader

4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA

Expansion

None

ExpressCard/54

Networking

Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband

Optical drive

DVD burner

DVD burner

The XPS 15z is the first laptop we've seen to go all USB 3.0, or at least have no standalone USB 2.0 ports (there is a combo USB 2.0/eSATA port). With Thunderbolt, Intel's new peripheral technology currently only available from Apple as its main opposition, USB 3.0 seems to have all the momentum to become the next-generation high-speed data port. Also included is Intel's Wireless Display technology, which can beam onscreen video to a TV with the help of a sold-separately receiver box (which usually runs USD $99), and 3D support via HDMI, for playing 3D content back on a 3D-compatible TV.

The base model of the Dell XPS 15z starts at USD $999, which is a good deal less than a 15-inch MacBook Pro, and the same as an entry-level HP Envy 14. For that, you get an Intel Core i5 CPU and a lower-res 1,366x768-pixel display. Our review unit added several upgrades, including a faster Core i7 CPU, a version of the same NVIDIA GeForce 525M GPU with more video RAM, and the 1080p display, which all adds up to USD $1,534. A roughly comparable MacBook Pro is about USD $2,000, and the screen resolution there tops out at 1,650x1,080 pixels.

With the 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M in our XPS 15z, the system performed admirably in our benchmark tests, comparable to the Alienware M14x and the previous version of the XPS 15, both of which also have current-gen Intel Core i7 CPUs (although in both those cases they were quad-core CPUs). Our most recent 15-inch MacBook Pro, also a quad-core Core i7, was a bit faster on single-app tests and significantly faster on our multitasking test.

While XPS is Dell's high-end multimedia brand, hard-core PC gamers would do better to consider Dell's Alienware brand instead. The included NVIDIA 525M GPU is a middle-of-the-road part, and fine for most casual gamers. Running at 1,920x1,080 pixels, we got 50.3 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 (73.3fps at 1,440x900 pixels, as seen in our chart below) and 40.5 frames per second in Street Fighter IV, which is good news for those who will be tempted to play games at the full 1080p resolution.

We tried to run the latest GPU-melting PC game, just-released The Witcher 2, and found the game barely playable, even at the lowest detail settings. That game, however, is quickly becoming infamous for have very high hardware requirements. To make sure recent games would play well, we checked Dragon Age II and found that to be very playable, even at the maximum resolution.

(Prices listed in USD $)
CNET Review Bar Graph

The thinner and more portable a laptop is, the better we expect its battery life to be. While the 3 hours and 30 minutes the Dell XPS 15z ran on our video playback battery drain test was acceptable for a 15-inch laptop (and aided by NVIDIA's Optimus technology, which turns off the GPU when its not needed), Apple's MacBook Pro ran for twice as long, and even the previous generation of XPS 15 laptops ran for an additional 30 minutes.

Dell typically includes a one-year in-home service warranty with the XPS 15, and though the warranty upgrade options were not live on Dell's Web site at the time this review was written, based on previous XPS laptops, coverage should be expandable up to four years for an extra USD $290, or four years with accidental damage protection for USD $410. Dell's Web site offers 24-7 toll-free phone service and Web support, including software drivers and documentation that are easy to find.

Dell XPS 15z - CNET Review Bar GraphDell XPS 15z - CNET Review Bar Graph

Dell XPS 15z - CNET Review Bar Graph
Dell XPS 15z - CNET Review Bar Graph

Dell XPS 15z - CNET Review Bar Graph
Dell XPS 15z - CNET Review Bar Graph

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Dell XPS 15z
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M / 64MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Acer Aspire 8950G-9839
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.0GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB AMD Radeon HD 6850M; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Dell XPS L502X
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.0GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 667MHz; 2GB NVIDIA GeForce 540M + 64MB(Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 750GB Western Digital 7,200rpm

Apple MacBook Pro - Core i7 Sandy Bridge 15.4-inch - 2.2GHz OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; Intel Core i7 2.2GHz; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6750M / 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Alienware M14x
Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-2820M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 555M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 3000; 720GB Seagate 7,200rpm

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