When Dell told us of its plans to revive its tried and true XPS laptop line we were pretty darn excited. With so much brand dilution in the past few years -- there's been the Adamo XPS and the Studio XPS -- the products have noticeably strayed from providing the rock solid gaming and multimedia experience they were once known for. There's a reason XPS stands for Xtreme Performance System, right?! The new line, which includes 14-, 15-, 17-inch systems, has all the ingredients to set it back on track -- including Core i5 / i7 processors, NVIDIA GeForce 400M graphics with Optimus, JBL speakers, a backlit keyboard, an HD webcam and a solid aluminum lid – but has Dell succeeded in creating a well-rounded multimedia machine? And does it rival our oh-so-adored HP Envy line? We've spent the last week using the more mobile $899 XPS 14, so read on to find out in our full review!
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Dell XPS 14 review



Look and feel

If you want our honest opinion -- and we're assuming you do -- the new Dell XPS machines aren't gorgeous, but they're not hideous, either. These rigs are fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of design, and that's probably the reason that the bigwigs in Round Rock haven't gone out of their way to highlight design on Dell's website or in ads. All of the machines have anodized aluminum lids and bottom panels, while the rest of the chassis is made of black and gray plastic. Similar to the Inspiron 14R and M101z, the design takes on more of a wedge shape as the battery is built-in to the base of the system so that it doesn't jut out. We tend to fancy the flared look, but it does give it a chunkier trunk. We'll say it flat out: if you're seeking a more attractive 14-inch PC, you really don't have to look any further than the HP Envy 14, but if you're content with a laptop that doesn't turn heads, the Dell XPS will fit the bill.

The 13.9 x 9.7 x 1.3-inch / 5.35-pound XPS 14 is the most mobile system within the new XPS line, but it's still larger and thicker than some comparable 14-inch laptops out there – the Envy 14 is thinner at 1.09-inches and the ASUS U43jc measures 13.7 x 9.6 x 1.2 inches. That said, it's not as heavy as HP's alternative, and Apple's 5.6-pound MacBook Pro 15 will weigh you down a pinch more. That extra girth does leave quite a bit of port space – the system is surrounded by two USB 2.0 ports, a USB / eSATA combo jack as well as HDMI, Ethernet and DisplayPort sockets. Where's the VGA port? That's the question we've been asking ourselves for the last week. It's a pretty big bummer considering there's quite a bit of leftover room to fit one in. There's also a headphone and headphone / mic ports, but you'll definitely prefer listening to music through the speakers – more on that soon. Lastly, the DVD drive and SD card slot live on the right edge. You can add a Blu-ray drive to the configuration for a whopping $450. (That price seems to go down if you go with an XPS 15 or 17.)

Keyboard, touchpad and screen

Unlike every other laptop coming out of the gate, the XPS 14 doesn't have a chiclet keyboard. Not having the extra gaps between the keys was an adjustment -- we've gotten extremely adept at typing on those keyboards -- however, one we were able to make. The keyboard itself is quite firm, and there's no noticeable flex – although, the plastic keys have a slightly too much give. What happened to the rubbery feeling keys on the M1530 is beyond us, but we're happy to sign a petition to get Dell to bring 'em back! Still, we typed the entirety of this review at a very decent clip and we're big (big!) fans of the backlight. The backlight can be adjusted or turned off by either tapping the F6 key or sliding the toggle in Windows Mobility Center. The top row of function keys doubles as multimedia controls, and there's a strip of LED touch controls above it which includes shortcuts to WavesMax Audio settings, Windows Mobility Center and another that can be customized to launch a program or website of your choice.

Dell gets a major point in our book for using an "old school" touchpad with dedicated right and left mouse buttons. As we've said before, we've become increasingly fed up with the flaky integrated mouse button designs or ClickPads. The 3.2 by 1.8-inch pad isn't as wide as it could have been, but it does the trick for navigating the display. The two mouse buttons are slightly mushy, but we'd rather that than uncomfortable, firm buttons that have to be broken in.

The 1366x768-resolution, 14.0-inch WLED display is quite bright, and was crisp enough when watching a 720p Jackass 3D trailer. There's no higher resolution screen option on the 14 -- you've got to go up to the 15 or 17 to nab a 1920 x 1080-resolution display. The panel itself is decent, although vertical viewing angles are a bit problematic – tilting the screen back a bit while sitting on a table caused color distortion. Horizontal angles were better. Our biggest complaint about the screen comes with its glossy plastic bezel – we just would have liked to see a flush glass bezel here or something a lot less shiny and fingerprint prone. The hinge, which sits on top of the system to apparently bring it closer to you, feels solid and doesn't wobble much.

Smack in the center of the top bezel is an HD webcam – the first one ever to ship on a laptop. As you'd expect, the quality of our video in a video call over Skype was quite good – our buddy in San Francisco said he could tell that we had woken up early and that we'd recently gone to the dentist. It's hard for us to say if the native cam is better than some of the peripheral HD cams from Logitech and FreeTalk since we couldn't compare them side by side, but it's much better than the average VGA or 1.3 megapixel webcams, that's for sure. If you're a vlogger – you know, a video blogger! -- you'll love the fact that you can record 720p video right through Dell's Webcam Central software and upload straight to YouTube. Speaking of that software, it's definitely a time killer – we spent more time than we care to share distorting our face and putting on different accessories.

Speakers

Rarely do we dedicate a section of a laptop review to speakers, but the built-in high-fidelity JBL speakers on the XPS 14 are so impressive it only seemed right. Dell claims the speakers are the loudest, clearest and cleanest found in any laptop out there, and we have to admit they may just be right. Of course, we're waiting for a rebuttal from the HP Beats team in a matter of moments. The two 3W speakers above the keyboard (the XPS 15 and 17 both have subwoofers on the bottom) along with the Waves MaxxAudio technology software produced some of the best audio we've heard on a laptop...maybe ever. Keep in mind we are yet to test ASUS's giant NX90 with Bang & Olufsen speakers. Compared to our MacBook Pro 13 and the Envy 17, music in Windows Media Player and Pandora was noticeably fuller and more detailed. It is almost a faux surround sound, and even when we played Mafia II on the rig we were hearing voices from one speaker and the screeching of our tires through another. It's just an awesome audio experience.

Performance and graphics

The Dell XPS 14's 2.53GHz Core i5 460M processor and 4GB of DDR3 RAM didn't leave us with any performance complaints. Our typical day-to-day activities, which included simultaneously surfing the web with over ten tabs open in Firefox, checking Twitter via TweetDeck, chatting in Trillian, writing in Microsoft Word 2010 Starter, and light photo editing using Gimp, all went off without a hitch. The 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive was also quick to open applications, but it appears that you can easily swap it out for a faster SSD if that's your wont.


PCMarkVantage 3DMark06
Battery Life
Dell XPS 14 (Core i5-460M, NVIDIA 420M) 5796 6827 / 1955 2:58
HP Envy 14 (Core i5-450M, ATI HD 5650) 6038 6899/1928 3:51
Sony VAIO Z (Core i5-450M, NVIDIA 330M) 9949 6193 4:25
ASUS U33Jc (Core i3-370M, NVIDIA 310M) 5574 1860/3403 5:10
Toshiba Portege R705 (Intel Core i3-350M) 5024 1759 4:25


Being one of the first laptops to enter our "lab" with NVIDIA's newest GeForce 400M graphics cards, we were pretty eager to see how this guy fared against older systems and just how well it could power through some of our favorite games. As you can see in the chart above, the GeForce GT 420M card scored noticeably higher on 3DMark06, which just tests graphics, than the other systems we've reviewed with the previous generation GT 300M cards. However, it didn't score as high as the Envy 14's ATI HD 5650 GPU. Nevertheless, the GT 420M card blew through Batman: Arkham Asylum at 30fps and Shattered Horizon at 42fps. Our new favorite title – Mafia II – looked glorious on the screen and we were crusin' in our Smith Custom at 42fps and shooting our MP40 at 34fps. Obviously, the card was also able handle both 720p and 1080p video flawlessly.

Of course, we never had to lift a finger when it came to switching between Intel's integrated graphics and the discrete GPU, thanks to NVIDIA's Optimus. The GPU automatically flipped on when we launched the demo version of Mafia and even a 1080p clip. However, we should mention we couldn't get it to kick on when trying out the demo version of Lara Croft: Guardian of Light -- the software isn't listed in NVIDIA's profiles. We had to go into the Steam folder, find the game, and right click to launch it with the GPU on. Oh, how did we know the GPU wasn't on? Well, the lower frame rates were a good indicator, but also NVIDIA's got that new tool up there to help with that. Up until now, when we've wanted to see if the GPU was on or off we'd have to use a tool that NVIDIA designed for reviewers, however, the XPS comes with NVIDIA's latest Verde drivers, which actually displays the GPU activity at the moment as well as which programs are using it.

The G420M card also supports NVIDIA's new 3DTV Play technology, which allows you to plug in the laptop via HDMI to a three-dee TV and play your favorite 3D games or movies. Sadly, we don't own a 3DTV and thus, couldn't test it out. We're willing to bet that most of you are in the same boat.

The XPS 14 isn't immune to warm temperature and high fan noise. The system got considerably toasty when playing Mafia. The fan on the left side did go into overdrive, but the warm air got annoying enough on our lap that we opted to put it on a desk. During regular usage, the system was much cooler, though the palmrest did get a bit warm overtime.

Battery life and software

To be honest, we expected the Dell XPS 14 to last longer on a charge. On our video rundown test, which loops the same video at 65 percent brightness, the six-cell 56Wh battery with the GPU off lasted just shy of three hours. During regular use, we got closer to four hours before we had to scour around for an outlet. There are certainly other laptops with similar parts that last longer (eh hem, Envy 14!), and given the fact that Dell went with Optimus, it's a bit puzzling why the system didn't actually have better endurance. Dell does offer a nine-cell 92Wh battery for the XPS 14 for an extra $40, but, of course, that will add a bit more weight to the chassis.

Like most of Dell's recent machines, the XPS 14 boots to a very clean desktop with just Dell's dock centered at the top of the screen. As for deleteware, we're happy to say we didn't find all that much of it hiding within the Start menu. Dell does throw on Skype, CyberLink PowerDVD, Roxio Easy CD and DVD and McAfee, but there were no signs of website shortcuts disguised as programs!

Wrap-up

Without a doubt, the Dell XPS 14 packs some extremely attractive features: the system's JBL speakers are some of the best ever put into a laptop, its Core i5 processor combined with NVIDIA GeForce GT400M provides seriously solid gaming and performance muscle, and its HD webcam captures crisp video and pictures. When you consider you get all that for $899 it sounds rather amazing, but it's far from a perfect system – it's chunkier than the others out there, doesn't top the style charts, and its standard battery is gonna keep you close to a wall. If you're after a better combo of beauty and brawns, we have to say the $999 HP Envy 14 or $1,299 Envy 17 are your best bets, but the XPS certainly has enough going for it to make it worthy of its moniker.

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