For years, Dell's been teasing supermodel-thin laptops, each one flawed out of the gate: too pricey, too underpowered, and with underwhelming battery life. This time, Dell told us we'd get something different: a laptop without compromise. Recently, Round Rock killed off the Adamo and nixed the XPS 14, and then rumors started to spin -- a spiritual successor would be the slimmest 15.6-inch notebook we'd ever seen, be crafted from "special materials" and yet cost less than $1,000. Dell even stated that it would have an "innovative new form factor" of some sort.

The company neglected to mention it would look like a MacBook Pro.

This is the Dell XPS 15z, and we're sorry to say it's not a thin-and-light -- it's actually a few hairs thicker than a 15-inch MacBook Pro, wider, and at 5.54 pounds, it weighs practically the same. It is, however, constructed of aluminum and magnesium alloy and carries some pretty peppy silicon inside, and the base model really does ring up at $999. That's a pretty low price to garner comparisons to Apple's flagship, and yet here we are. Has Dell set a new bar for the notebook PC market? Find out after the break.
Gallery | 53 Photos

Dell XPS 15z unboxing and hands-on

Dell

Dell XPS 15z

Pros

  • Bang for the buck
  • Optional 1080p display and nice loud speakers
  • Looks like a MacBook Pro

Cons

  • Middle-of-the-road battery life
  • No quad-core or Blu-ray options
  • Looks like a MacBook Pro
Summary



Design

Clean lines, smooth curves, and vast expanses of beautifully textured metal, cool to the touch -- the MacBook Pro has captivated Apple fans for years, and there's no doubt Dell's trying to capture much of the same charm. From the aluminum chassis to the placement of the speakers, DVD drives and majority of ports... heck, even the tiny arrow key bars on the backlit keyboard and feet on the bottom of the chassis are cribbed from Apple's product.


It's honestly difficult to find anything on the entire notebook that feels wholly original, though there are a few Dell tweaks -- the speakers and vents have the same pattern as those on the Inspiron Duo, and last year's XPS lineup contributed its distinctive hinged screen, which lies flat on top of the notebook rather than forming a traditional clamshell case. You'll also find plenty of chrome trim, ringing both the chassis and the oversized touchpad.

But let's get this out of the way right now: though the XPS 15z most definitely looks like a MacBook Pro and sports similar materials, you'll wind up disappointed if you're expecting the same exacting attention to detail. You're looking at an aluminum and magnesium alloy sandwich here, not a unibody frame, and much of that metal is thin enough to flex under a little bit of pressure. While typing, we noticed that if we put a little weight on the keyboard, we'd oh-so-slightly squish the whole frame, not enough to make a lasting impression, but enough to audibly restrict airflow to the system fan. And -- at least in our pre-production model -- that aforementioned chrome trim had rough edges that slightly chafed our wrists. We also have to laugh at Dell's decision to place all the I/O ports in a row on the left-hand side, just like Apple's rig, as we've often felt Cupertino sacrificed function for form in so doing.
Gallery | 13 Photos

Dell XPS 15z vs. 15-inch MacBook Pro (2011)


Still, it's a very attractive machine...

Display / Speakers / Keyboard / Trackpad

...and it looks even better when you lift the lid to find this optional 300-nit 1920 x 1080 screen. Yes, while Apple fans still have to settle for a 1680 x 1050 pixel picture in a 15-inch chassis, an extra $150 $100 buys the XPS 15z a full 1080p display, allowing for high-res movies, games, and wonderfully roomy split-screen multitasking. It's a pretty bright, beautiful picture on this particular screen, too, and though the contrast isn't quite as high as we'd like, Dell's software will automatically adjust the backlight to give you the best out of your blacks and whites. It's also quite glossy, unfortunately, and viewing angles are pretty terrible here, as the picture becomes far less vibrant if you shift your head even slightly to the left or right.

That's a shame, considering that the XPS 15z's speakers sound like they're designed to be shared. We're not sure what kind of drivers lie beneath those patterned grilles, but they sure are loud, and create a wide soundstage perfect for movies and games even though they have little bass to speak of. They're also a little shrill at maximum volume, but they're still a cut above most laptop speakers we've used.

Dell's been on a chiclet keyboard bent as of late -- following the global trend -- and while opinions differ regarding whether floating islands or distinct grids make for better typing, we can't complain about the sea of squares on the XPS 15z. As we've already alluded to, Mac users will find themselves completely at home with the layout, and the keys themselves are fairly friendly, too -- rounded, comfortable, slightly convex little squares and rectangles with a smooth, rubbery action and nice big tactile guides on the home row. There's no dedicated numpad here, a bit of a shame considering that there's definitely space, but we suppose some things have to be sacrificed for symmetry and a pair of speakers loud enough to fill the room.

Speaking of symmetry, you'll find the XPS 15z trackpad front and center in the experience, and we're happy to say it's a fairly pleasant one -- the oversized Cypress pad is quick, responsive and accurate for single-finger input, and comes with a pair of large, clicky and satisfying mouse buttons. What's more, it does two, three and four-finger multitouch gestures, though you'll note we didn't include them in the "quick, responsive and accurate" part. Some work amazingly well (swipe four fingers sideways to engage Windows Flip 3D, then drag one to flip through your open apps) and some fail miserably (far too often, the trackpad detected a pinch-to-zoom motion when we intended to do two-finger scrolling). You can tailor gestures at whim in the Cypress settings page, but we were surprised to find that our changes didn't stick. The next time we rebooted the machine, those problematic default settings were back again.

Did we mention that the entire palmrest is made of magnesium alloy, including those speaker grilles? The whole surface you interact with is smooth, durable, and dirt-resistant too, as the only way we were able to leave a visible fingerprint was by touching the glossy screen itself. We should note, however, that the metallic surface is a double-edged sword here. We noticed that our fingers were getting mighty toasty during a benchmark, as if the computer was venting hot air right right onto our skin, and during an intensive session of Bulletstorm, we found the magnesium spacers between the crucial WASD keys was burning hot to the touch. It seems that Dell may have put some important silicon right underneath those keys, so you may want an external keyboard at your next LAN party.

Performance and battery life

Yes, you heard us right, a LAN -- the XPS 15z may not be a gaming rig per se, but for $999 there's more than enough power under the hood for a few frag sessions. Even the base model is loaded with a dual-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M processor, switchable NVIDIA GeForce GT525M graphics with 1GB of memory, and 6GB of DDR3 RAM, a 7200RPM hard drive and loads of high-end connectivity. You'll find a gigabit Ethernet jack keeping the power socket company around back, two USB 3.0 ports on the left-hand side, along with one eSATA / USB 2.0 combo port, one Mini DisplayPort, and an HDMI 1.4 jack, a pair of 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks on the right, and a dual-band Intel 802.11a/g/n WiFi radio inside.

What can all that do in practice? Well, we're actually not quite sure about those particular specs, since we actually received the 2.7GHz Core i7-2620M version with 2GB of dedicated graphics memory and 8GB of RAM. That kind of rig will run you $1,534, but it'll also do some potent processing.

Case in point: We launched our Chrome browser with a dozen Engadget tabs, started playing a DVD copy of Hitch, fired up a 720p windowed version of Batman: Arkham Asylum, and started opening windowed 1080p movie trailers for The Dark Knight all at the same time... and it was only after the third concurrent trailer on top of our perfectly playable game session and DVD movie that we started noticing a little slowdown. In other words, multitasking is a go, and in case you're wondering, Windows told us that particular load still only used 80 percent of our available CPU cycles.

The XPS 15z also pulled its weight in a dedicated gaming scenario, playing that same Batman: Arkham Asylum at 1080p with all settings maxed save AA, and managed to deliver 30FPS on average. Similarly, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare gave us around 40FPS with 4xAA and all settings maxed. Bulletstorm proved pretty taxing, though: we had to drop resolution to 1366 x 768 and reduce details to medium to make that game playable. If you're aching for some more theoretical benchmarks, our XPS 15z pulled scores of E1511, P894 and X282 in 3DMark11, and earned 8023 PCMarks in PCMark Vantage and 7,317 in 3DMark06. By the by, boot times weren't amazing, but they're certainly not bad, as we clocked 40 seconds for the machine to load into Windows, or about a minute for the machine to finish loading startup programs and be completely ready for use.

PCMarkVantage 3DMark06
Battery Life
Dell XPS M15z (Core i7-2620M, GeForce GT525M 2GB) 8,023 7,317 3:41 / 4:26
MacBook Pro (Core i7-2720QM, Radeon 6750M) 8,041 10,262 7:27
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (Core i5-2410M) 7,787 3,726 3:31 / 6:57
Samsung Series 9 (Core i5-2537M) 7,582 2,240 4:20
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 (Core i5-2520M) 7,635 3,517 7:19
ASUS U36Jc (Core i5 / NVIDIA GeForce 310M) 5,981 2,048 / 3,524 5:30
ASUS U33Jc-A1 (Core i3-370M, GeForce 310M) 5,574 1,860 / 3,403 5:10
Toshiba Portege R705 (Core i3-350M) 5,024 1,739 / 3,686 4:25
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

We'd mentioned that Dell's previous attempts at premium systems failed price, power and battery life tests. With the XPS 15z, well... two out of three ain't bad. Despite the fact that the NVIDIA Optimus GPU turns off when not fully taxed (powering the laptop's display with integrated Intel HD 3000 Graphics instead), we weren't able to get much more than three and a half hours of regular use out of our review unit. Turning to our standard battery drain test (where we loop a standard-definition video with the screen at roughly 65 percent brightness, and with WiFi on), we saw much the same thing -- 3 hours, 41 minutes of use from the sealed 8-cell, 2.6Ah battery. It occurred to us that perhaps Optimus wasn't actually switching off the discrete GPU at the most appropriate intervals, and sure enough, we were able to eke out a little more runtime by completely disabling it, but you're still looking at 4 hours, 26 minutes of use. That's not bad, all things considered, but it's a good sight worse than the 8 hours of life that Dell's advertising here, and if the company wants to make a dent in the MacBook Pro's armor, it'll have to do better than that.

Software and Stage UI

The XPS 15z comes with the usual array of mostly unobtrusive bloatware, including a trial subscription to Norton Antivirus, the token copies of Microsoft Office Starter and Roxio for your disc burning needs -- but there is one thing out of the ordinary, and that's Dell's Stage UI. That's right -- the company's divorced its custom touchscreen interface from the Inspiron Duo and Streak, and turned it into a launcher bar that sits at the bottom of your desktop. There's no need to fear for your Windows 7 taskbar, though, as Stage buttons are just shortcuts to quickly launch your favorite multimedia, and the gallery, audio, video and podcast players are actually rather good-looking in our honest opinion. If you don't care for the bloat, it's all quickly uninstalled. Everybody wins.
Gallery | 16 Photos

Dell XPS 15z Stage UI and benchmarks


Wrap-up

These two laptops are not equals, but they never had to be -- for hundreds upon hundreds of dollars less than the Mac competition, Dell's unleashed an attractive, powerful and definitely desirable Windows PC. It's perhaps desirable enough to woo buyers who prefer Windows but love the Mac aesthetic. We suspect that's Dell's plan here, because while we really appreciate the XPS 15z's metal construction and choice parts, it hasn't really changed the game.

It's no lighter, thinner or particularly better armed than the competition, and when it tried to borrow the MacBook Pro's flair, it picked up some of Apple's failings along the way. We're not just talking about the inability to having chunky USB peripherals plugged in at the same time, but rather the ability to configure and upgrade the machine. While that dual-core Core i7 processor, GeForce GT525M GPU, 8-cell battery and DVD drive are nice to have, that's the best you'll get here -- even though Dell's slightly chunkier XPS 15 is configurable with quad-core processors, faster video options and a Blu-ray drive to deliver extra value to that 1080p screen.

When Dell tells you that the XPS 15z has no compromises, that's not quite the case -- it's a solid choice at this price point, but corners were cut to get here.

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