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Dell XPS 14 Notebook Review: Optimus Infused
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Date: Oct 26, 2010
Section:Mobile
Author: Paul Lilly
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Introduction & Specification
Break out your party hats and spike the punch, we're throwing a 'Welcome Back' party. The guest of honor is Dell's XPS brand, whose return is marked by a new family of laptops built around Intel's Calpella platform and featuring Nvidia's Optimus technology. At this point you're probably scratching your head and wondering if we've been drinking too much punch ourselves, because the XPS brand never went anywhere, right? That's both true and false. The XPS moniker never died off completely, but it was relegated to Dell's Studio line and XPS One all-in-one (AIO) desktops for a time.

Dell tells us they've listened to their customers and decided to simplify their brand structure. After deciding that the "XPS brand has a great heritage and strong association with performance," those three letters are making a comeback starting with the above mentioned laptop line. The model we're reviewing today is the Dell XPS 14 (L401x) with a 14-inch LED screen (1366x768), Intel Core i5 460M processor (2.53GHz), and Nvidia GeForce GT 420M graphics. It's the smallest of the new laptops, but sports many of the same features as the XPS 15 and XPS 17, including Nvidia's 3DTV Play software which allows users to tether their laptop to a 3D HDTV and view games, movies, and photos in stereoscopic 3D (provided you own a pair of 3D glasses).


Dell XPS 14
Specifications & Features
Model

XPS 14

Display

14.0" (1366 x 768)

CPU

Intel Core i5 460M 2.53GHz

Memory

4GB DDR3

Graphics

Intel HD integrated graphics
Nvidia GeForce GT 420M

Storage

500GB 7200RPM

Optical

DVD Burner

Operating System

Windows 7 Home Premium x64

Wireless

Intel 802.11 A/G/N

Webcam

2.0 Megapixel

Wired Internet

10/100 Ethernet

Ports

2 USB 2.0, eSATA/USB Combo, 9-1 Media Card Reader, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort

Weight

5.35 lbs with battery

Dimensions

13.9" x 9.7" x 1.4" (WxDxH)

Warranty

1 Year

Price

$899



Measuring just shy of 14 inches wide, the Dell XPS 14 isn't much larger than a netbook, but the sum of its parts add up to a heck of a lot more machine. And at less than five and a half pounds, you don't need to be a gym rat to tote this sucker around. At a glance, the only thing we can really gripe about right off the bat is lack of USB 3.0 support, but even that's a bit of a stretch at this point.
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Accessories & First Boot


Dell plucked our XPS 14 fresh off the factory line and beamed it to us faster than the speed of light so we could be one of the first to see it, and as a result, our test unit came in barebones form. That means no retail accessories, like a user guide or driver disc, and it also means no pictures of any accessories. Sure we could have snapped a photo of the power cord, and if that's the sort of thing that excites you, please accept our semi-sincere apologies.

Based on our prior experience with Dell products, you can expect the usual assortment of paperwork and other odds and ends that you'll ultimately toss aside.



Included in Dell's new XPS line is Nvidia's 3DTV Play software. Don't confuse this to mean the laptops themselves are 3D capable -- they're not -- but if you hook one up to a 3D HDTV, the software is able to play back 3D content. You will, however, have to bring your own HDMI cable and 3D shutter glasses, neither of which are included.



To our surprise, a first boot into the Dell XPS 14's desktop revealed almost no bloatware. And the few that were shoveled into the system were neatly tucked away in the dock rather than cluttering up the background. Skype comes pre-installed, as does a trial of Microsoft Office and McAfee software.

On average, the XPS 14 booted in 1m11s and shutdown in just 22 seconds. Part of the credit goes to Microsoft because of how well Windows 7 runs compared to its predecessor, and Dell deserves kudos here as well, provided retail shipments ship as lean as our sample did.
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Overall Design & Layout


Dell's Studio XPS line takes a playful approach to aesthetics with an assortment of colorful lids and custom designs. The new XPS notebooks may appear a little bland by comparison, at least until you take a closer look.



There are two things we like about the XPS 14 right off the bat. First, there aren't any funky or psychedelic designs on the lid. And secondly, Dell steered clear of the glossy fiberglass look that's become so popular as of late. A glossy finish certainly looks attractive, until you muck it up with fingerprints.



Popping open the lid reveals one slick son of a gun. The black metal interior surrounding the keyboard is flanked by a glossy bezel that's just thick enough to catch your fingerprints, but more easily wiped away than if Dell had gone overboard like some notebooks we've seen.



If you've ever owned a high end desktop enclosure from the likes of a Lian-Li or Silverstone, then you know how gorgeous brushed aluminum can look. It translates equally well to notebooks, especially when used as an accent like Dell did rather than dominate the entire chassis.

The backlit keys aren't of the raised chiclet variety that we typically prefer, but the click action on the XPS 14's keyboard was surprisingly snappy, rather than mushy like we expected it to be. We're still not fans of typing on notebook keys in general, however this is as good of a mobile keyboard as we've typed on. We were slightly bummed at not being able to change the color of the backlight.

The Function keys double as media keys, allowing you to play, pause, fast forward, toggle Wi-Fi, and a few other odds and ends. Above these sit a row of touch-sensitive action keys giving you quick access to volume control, various system settings, and a customizable app launcher.



On the left side of the XPS 14 sit the mic and headphone jacks, SPDIF input, a USB 2.0 port, and the main exhaust vent. Over on the right is the optical drive, eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, and Ethernet port.



Around the back you'll find an HDMI port, mini DisplayPort, power connector, and a third USB 2.0 port. Despite weighing under 5.5 pounds, the XPS 14 doesn't feel the least bit flimsly.
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PCMark & 3DMark Tests


As we normally do, we kicked off our gauntlet of benchmarks with Futuremark's unforgiving PCMark Vantage benchmark and the less stringent 3DMark06 suite. At some point we'll likely drop the latter, but in the meantime, it gives us a quick point of reference as to how the XPS 14 stacks up against previous notebooks we've had in our labs.


 3DMark06
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.




We expected the Dell XPS 14 to get outclassed by the Lenovo and Toshiba, both of which sport an Intel Core i7 processor, and we're not terribly concerned that it lagged slightly behind the Asus U43F. Both the Dell and Asus use the same Core i5 chip and boast similar specs, and while the Dell sits at the bottom of the pack, only 43 synthetic points separate it from the Asus machine.


 PCMark Vantage
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmarkvantage/introduction/

Futuremark's PCMark Vantage simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.


Whereas the XPS 14 trailed the pack in 3DMark06, it was quite a different story when we turned our attention to PCMark Vantage. The XPS 14 jumped ahead of the similarly spec'd Asus machine and also came out in front of the slower-clocked quad-core Lenovo rig. Overall a very good showing for Dell's 14-inch notebook.
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SiSoft Sandra & CineBench


Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2010, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and ReportingAssistant. 
All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clockspeed with 4GB of DDR3-1066 RAM running in dual-channel mode.






Sandra results were a mixed bag. In terms of CPU performance, Dell's XPS 14 stood tall and only trailed Lenovo's quad-core machine. When we switched our focus to memory bandwidth, however, the XPS 14 slid down to the bottom, though within spitting distance of the Asus U43F.
 
Cinebench R11.5 64bit
Content Creation Performance

Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.



If those scores look ugly, it's because that's by design. CineBench is absolutely brutal on mobile machines and even most desktops, as it focuses heavily on 3D content creation. So while the 2.16-point CPU score might seem woefully low, it's actually fairly respectable when you consider AVADirect's Clevo X1800 Core i7 desktop replacement system pulled in a score of just 3.39 points. Regardless, the XPS 14 isn't the machine for serious CAD design.
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Game Tests & Battery Life


Resident Evil 5
DirectX Gaming Performance


Resident Evil 5

Resident Evil 5 is capable of benchmarking stereoscopic 3D performance, though the Dell XPS 14 isn't a 3D notebook. We ran Resident Evil 5 in DX10 mode at 136-x768 at a variety of anti-aliasing settings.


Let's face it, bigger is better folks, and there's nothing like gaming on a ginormous screen. At the same time, one of the main benefits to gaming on a smaller panel like the XPS 14 is the lower native resolution. The XPS only supports up to a 1366x760 screen res and it doesn't take much gaming muscle to pull off playable framerates at that setting. We weren't blown away by the performance in Resident Evil 5, though we were impressed to see the XPS 14 handle the increased anti-aliasing without much of a performance hit.

H. A. W. X.
DX10.1 Gaming Performance


H.A.W.X.

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. is an aerial warfare video game that takes place during the time of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter.  Players have the opportunity to take the throttle of over 50 famous aircrafts in both solo and 4-player co-op missions, and take them over real world locations and cities in photo-realistic environments created with the best commercial satellite data provided by GeoEye.  We used the built-in performance test at 1366 x 768 utilizing DX10.1




H.A.W.X. underscores the point we made above about one of the benefits (or consolations) of gaming on a lower resolution panel. With the GeForce GT 420M only having to push out a 1366x768 res, the GPU was able to maintain high framerates even with 4xAA turned on.

 Battery Life
Power Performance



Dell claims you'll see up to 5 hours and 23 minutes of run-time on a single charge using a 6-cell battery, or up to 8 hours and 29 minutes using a 9-cell battery. BatteryEater Pro showed significantly less, though that's because it's designed to eat through battery life with reckless abandon. Think of BatteryEater Pro as the 3DMark Vantage or CineBench of battery performance metrics.

The XPS 14 comes equipped with Nvidia's Optimus technology, which means the notebook will intelligently switch between the discrete GeForce GPU and integrated Intel graphics depending on the task. Fire up a game, for example, and the GeForce chip will come into play. But while you're surfing the Web or hammering out an email, the XPS will help conserve battery life by tapping into the integrated graphics of the Intel chipset that is on board.
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Performance Summary & Conclusion


Performance Summary: Dell's XPS 14 (and XPS 15 and XPS 17) marks the return of the XPS brand as a standalone moniker as opposed to being attached to Dell's colorful Studio line. With it comes a bit of weight on Dell's shoulders to live up to the branding, which stands for Xtreme Performance System. Did Dell pull it off?

If you consider that this is a 14-inch notebook and not much larger than a netbook, then the answer is 'yes.' Sure the XPS 14 costs twice as much as a netbook, but it also offers more than twice the performance across the board. For the most part, performance numbers fell about where we expected them to, and because the relatively small panel tops out at 1366x768, the XPS 14 doesn't have to work as hard to put out playable frame rates. You're not going to get away with cranking up the IQ settings in Crysis, but you will be able to play modern games, and in some cases turn on/up anti-aliasing.

We're particularly impressed with the look and feel of the XPS 14, at least when you open it up. While the lid is rather bland, the inside is anything but. The brushed aluminum wrist rest looks stunning, and the click action of the keys is as good as you're going to get on a laptop keyboard. Everything feels solid, including the trackpad.



Unfortunately, Intel continues to drag its feet in supporting USB 3.0 natively, and the ones who suffer are the end-users and vendors like Dell who undoubtedly would like to offer their customers the faster spec (the XPS 15 and 17 both come with two USB 3.0 ports presumably by using an NEC chip). The XPS 14 is also missing an ExpressCard slot, but otherwise is well thought out. There's a mini DisplayPort, HDMI, media keys, touch-sensitive keys, and a customizable app launcher. If you're buying into the 3D hype that's everywhere these days, then you'll probably be as excited as Dell over the Nvidia Play 3DTV software that comes installed on new XPS machines, though we're decidedly less enthused. You'll still need a 3D HDTV to take advantage of it, and yes, you'll also need to pick up a pair of stereoscopic glasses. We're much more jazzed about the inclusion of Nvidia's Optimus technology, and the JBL speakers sound better than your average notebook.

While it's not going to replace your desktop, the Dell XPS 14 is a wonderful alternative to the spate of underpowered netbooks. Put simply, the XPS looks stunning and packs a respectable performance punch in a highly portable package.

  

  • Brushed aluminum looks fantastic
  • Lightweight yet sturdy
  • Comfortable to type o
  • Core i5 platform
  • Nvidia Optimus technology
  • No USB 3.0 support
  • No ExpressCard slot


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