Review: Dell XPS 15 Fixes the Worst Thing About Windows Laptops – Wall Street Journal
“Oh, the trackpad is still maddeningly frustrating to use? Ship it anyway! Then people will buy a mouse.”
I’ve long imagined that’s how the conversation goes when Windows computer makers are releasing a new laptop. Between stiff plastics and the unresponsive gestures, the trackpad’s build and behavior have been the weak point of otherwise decent laptops for years. It’s unacceptable.
But there is finally relief on the way for your poor, battered fingers. Laptop makers have teamed up with Microsoft
to fix the problem on new Windows 10 machines. And the fruits of their efforts begin arriving Thursday with the Dell XPS fall line-up. The company’s XPS 13 and 15 have been refreshed with the latest Intel
Skylake processors and have all been finely tuned for Windows 10. There’s also a new kid in town, the XPS 12 tablet-laptop hybrid.
I’ve been testing the powerhouse XPS 15 for the last week and the trackpad navigation is the best I have seen on a Windows laptop in my decade of reviewing. Yes, it even comes close to rivaling Apple
’s longtime champion trackpad responsiveness.
One essential that Dell nails is space. The textured glass pad measures five inches diagonally—dwarfing those skimpy rectangles of years past. There is plenty of room for regular mousing as well as long two-finger scrolls.
The real difference, though, is that for once, a Windows laptop actually responds to gestures as readily as my MacBook Air. Two additional factors make that possible: a new Precision pad technology and updated Windows drivers. Quick history lesson: For years, Windows laptop makers relied on third-party solutions to make their hardware and Microsoft’s software work together. Now, Microsoft has cut out the middle man, building the drivers right into Windows 10.
Things just work like they should. Crazy, right? Scrolling is very swift in Microsoft’s Edge browser, although less so in Chrome. Other gestures also work—even on the first try! Time and time again this week, without fail, I’ve used the three-finger swipe up to see all my open windows, and the three-finger swipe down to see my desktop.
Even my (odd?) behavior resting a thumb on the left mouse button while navigating with my index finger didn’t trigger any cursor jumps or mistaken zooms. Dell specifically engineered the pad to adjust to different or odd behaviors, Erin K. Walline, a director of engineering who oversees the user experience team, told me.
(And here’s good news for current Dell XPS 13 owners: Since that laptop has the same trackpad hardware as the new XPS 13 and XPS 15, updates to the software in Windows 10 should enable similar trackpad goodness.)
But What About the Rest of the Computer?
Oh right, the rest of it! It’s very good, too. Like Dell’s 13-inch model (which retains its appearance despite an under-the-hood overhaul), the new 15.6-inch screen is surrounded by a very thin bezel. It looks much closer in size to a 14-inch laptop. It’s not what I would call small, but the 4.4-pound machine is a tad shorter in height than most 15-inch laptops, including Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display. On annoyance: The webcam, which is now on the bottom bezel, isn’t at eye level. That meant everyone on my conference call knew I wasn’t paying attention.
The high-resolution 4K 3840×2160-pixel touchscreen on my test unit is gorgeous. Many apps including Spotify, Skype and iTunes look pixelated on it, however, since they haven’t been scaled for the screen. With more and more pixel-dense Windows laptops coming out soon, it’s something app developers need to prioritize.
Don’t get the 4K screen if you care about battery life, though. Pick the $1,000 1080p option. On my battery test, which loops a series of websites with brightness at 65 percent, the 4K model lasted five and a half hours. In normal use, I got about the same. The 1080p model should last twice that long, Dell says. (I didn’t have one to test.)
Still, the XPS 15’s screen high-end specs are a reason to choose it. My $2,100 review unit—with a quad-core i7 processor, 500GB SSD, 16GB of RAM and an Nvidia
GTX 960 graphics processor—can drive two 4K displays. It has a new kind of USB Type-C port that includes the Thunderbolt 3 interface, meaning it’s capable of driving the monitors and powering itself at the same time. (I did experience some display driver issues in my testing. Dell says this will be fixed in the shipping models.)
During my testing, I had planned to say that the Dell XPS 15 is the best premium Windows machine you can buy. Then, on Tuesday Microsoft announced the $1,500 Surface Book with a smaller screen but similarly powerful specs. Stay tuned for that review, and in the meantime, rejoice that a Windows laptop maker is finally taking it easy on your long-abused fingers.
Write to Joanna Stern at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoannaStern.