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
$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.
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.