PC companies are striving to make their 13-inch laptops ever thinner and lighter, a trend that has been good for our shoulders and backs but not as good for performance. Luckily, 15-inch laptops are there to serve as a counterweight, offering not just quad-core processors but increasingly powerful and desktop-like graphics chips.
Dell’s XPS 15, much like Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro, attempts to straddle the line between svelte and powerful. It’s not the smallest or most powerful laptop, but last year’s model struck a good balance between size and speed even if the best configurations were on the expensive side. This year’s version doesn’t change a lot, but a new more power-efficient GPU, a Kaby Lake CPU upgrade, and a fingerprint reader all make it worth reconsidering anyway.
Look and feel
This iteration of the XPS 15 design is just over a year old, and Dell hasn’t messed with it much. The laptop is essentially a blown-up version of the thin-bezeled XPS 13 that the company released to glowing reviews in 2015. The slim border around the top and sides of the screen looks pretty cool and also helps Dell reduce the laptop’s footprint, fitting a 15-inch screen into something slimmer and lighter than a 13-inch laptop might have been five or six years ago.
Like all the modern XPS designs, Dell uses aluminum for the lid and the bottom of the laptop, combined with a pleasant-feeling (but oil-capturing) soft-touch palm rest and keyboard tray. Add a solid backlit keyboard and a Microsoft Precision Touchpad, and you have pretty much completed the recipe.
Dell offers two 15.6-inch display options with the XPS 15: a base 1080p IPS screen with no touch support and a 4K touchscreen. Our review unit uses the latter, and it’s a gorgeous panel (although it could really use an anti-glare coating). It’s high-resolution and tack-sharp, yes, but it also supports the Adobe RGB color gamut instead of the more common (and limited) sRGB. Apple is accomplishing something similar with the DCI-P3 panels it has been using in recent Macs, iPads, and iPhones, though the two color spaces have different strengths. Apple’s P3 space covers more reds, yellows, magentas, and some green tones, but Adobe RGB has an edge when it comes to blues and greenish-blues.
The nice thing is that Dell also ships an app called PremierColor with the XPS 15. By default, its “Vibrant” setting covers not just the Adobe RGB gamut, but also the P3 gamut. If you need to work in a specific color space, it allows for easy switching between Adobe RGB, P3, and sRGB. If you think you can use a wide-gamut screen, the XPS 15 should serve you well. The 1080p screen will probably be OK, too, based on the panels that Dell normally uses in the XPS machines, but that’s a bit on the low-resolution side for a modern laptop of this size.
The weight of the laptop differs based on the configuration you go with. Cheaper models with 1080p displays use a 56WHr battery; they also usually pair a 32GB sold-state boot drive with a 2.5-inch spinning HDD to expand the amount of available storage. Those versions weigh four pounds, in line with Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro. More expensive XPS 15 configurations with 4K screens go all-in on PCI Express SSDs and fill the space saved from the 2.5-inch drive with more battery. Those 97WHr versions weigh 4.5 pounds, though they have exactly the same dimensions otherwise.
Below the screen is the XPS series’ trademark, weirdly positioned webcam that shoots straight up your nose (women have also pointed out to me that it’s positioned at chest level), an oddity we’ve never liked but which is necessitated by the narrow top bezel. And positioned below the keyboard and to the right of the trackpad is a ($25, optional) static Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint reader. It’s a nice addition that addresses one of our minor complaints about the original XPS 15 and ticks one of the boxes on our list of requirements for high-end laptops in 2017.
Speaking of that list, the XPS 13 also includes a single USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port on its right side. This port isn’t used for charging—the adapter that comes with it is rated for 130W, and the fact that the USB Power Delivery spec only goes up to 100W might explain why, and, unfortunately, you can’t charge the laptop with a USB-C charger even if you have one. The port does open the door to high-speed storage and external GPU connections, though, in addition to 10Gbps USB 3.1 gen 2 and DisplayPort output via USB-C Alternate Mode.
The laptop otherwise offers a small but respectable array of ports: two USB 3.0, one on each side; a full-size HDMI port; a full-size SD card reader; and a headphone jack. A lock slot and battery indicator button round things out.
If you want to read more about how we feel about the XPS 15’s design and the general look and feel of the lineup, you can check out our original review of the XPS 15, plus reviews of the XPS 13 and the XPS 13 2-in-1. Our general verdict remains the same as ever: it has a weirdly placed webcam and it’s hard to completely clean the palm rest of oil from your hands, but Dell has constructed a very nice laptop overall. It checks most of the premium PC boxes, and it has a distinctive look that doesn’t immediately look like a clone of a laptop from Apple or anyone else.
Just the briefest of notes on the XPS 15’s software loadout, which is Windows 10 Home by default but can become Windows 10 Pro with a $50 upgrade: entry-level PCs are the ones most heavily subsidized by crapware, and as a premium consumer PC, the XPS 15 keeps it to a minimum. You’ve got a McAfee subscription that’s easily removed, a 20GB Dropbox storage offer, a Microsoft Office demo, and a shotgun blast of Dell utilities and driver files (including Nvidia’s whole GeForce Experience deal).
The aforementioned Dell PremierColor app is probably the most interesting of the Dell software, followed closely by the Dell Update utility, which promises the prompt download and installation of new BIOS and driver downloads from Dell. An 11GB recovery partition takes a chunk out of your usable space, but, as always, you can reclaim it in favor of using Windows 10’s built-in recovery options if you want those gigabytes back.
Listing image by Andrew Cunningham