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Dell's XPS 15z Ultra Slim Notebook Review
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Date: Jun 20, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications
Every so often, a company does something unexpected; something that sets the bar for its competition and really grabs the attention of potential consumers for one reason or another. Dell is a company that is capable of this and has done so in the past in both their desktop and notebook lines. While Dell has been known for pushing out a huge number of "beige boxes" years back, they're also the company that helped reinvigorate the ultraportable market thanks to the original Adamo, and with the help of Alienware, they're putting together some similarly interesting products lately, in the gaming space as well.


For some, Dell may historically have an undeserved reputation for producing run-of-the-mill products, but when you look at their recent smartphone offering like the Venue Pro, slates like the 5-inch Streak and computers like the Adamo XPS, it's hard to not give 'em credit where credit is due. Enter the XPS 15z. For all intents and purposes, this is yet another standout product from Dell, one that simply cannot be lumped into standard mainstream categories. There's something fundamentally different about the 15z that commands a second look, and in our case, an in-depth review of its features and capabilities.  First, here's a quick video walk-through we've put together, to give you a taste of what we're getting at here.



Dell's 15.6" XPS 15z
Specifications and Features (as tested)
  • Intel Core i7-2620M @ 2.70GHz
  • 8GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 15.6" LCD (1080p); LED backlight, matte
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M (2GB) + Optimus graphics
  • Seagate Momentus 750GB (7200RPM)  Hard Drive
  • 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • 8x CD/DVD Burner
  • 1.3MP webcam
  • HDMI 1.4 output
  • USB 3.0 x 2
  • eSATA / USB Combo Port
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • RJ-45 (Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • 9-in-1 Multimedia Card Reader
  • Backlit Keyboard
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Dell Stage software
  • 5.54 Pounds (with 8-cell battery installed)
  • Removable 8-Cell Li-ion Battery (up to 8 claimed hours)
  • 15.15" x 10.25" x 0.97" (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • Price (as tested): $1599.99
  • Price (starting): $999.99
  • 1-Year Warranty





As you can see from the specifications breakdown, the XPS 15z is no slouch. In fact, it's one of the better equipped laptops on the market today. But it's also shoved into an incredibly thin and striking chassis. And the $999 starting price is very competitive. The XPS 15z is hailed as the company's thinnest 15" PC, but is it cut out to be your next notebook? Join us in the pages ahead as we aim to find out.
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Design and Build Quality
We don't want to beat around the bush here: the Dell XPS 15z is one of the most surprising and innovative 15.6" laptops to arrive in years. Dell's XPS 15z is a monumental leap forward in overall design and build quality in the affordable notebook sector. And that "affordable" bit is key. This machine starts at under $1000, and the hardware that you get for that amount of money is impressive.


At less than 1" thick, this ultra-sleek machine just oozes style. It weighs around 5.5lbs., par for the course for a slim, stylish 15" mainstream notebook. We have watched other publications make the comparison, and it's a reasonable one: the XPS 15z looks a lot like the 15" MacBook Pro in many ways. There's no skirting the facts -- unless you're just attempting to overlook the obvious, you can see the similarities. But that's hardly a bad thing. Apple's hardware design has been world-class for years, and to see a PC counterpart come anywhere close with a price tag that's far less, well, that's a great accomplishment.


The entire machine is rigid and well-made. The accents are subtle, and aside from three small palm rest stickers, it's the most understated 15.6" notebook we've seen in some time. Dell really went out of their way on the style factor here. The silver body is highlighted with subtle chrome accents, the speaker grills have a snazzy pattern, and the matte black LCD bezel, well, you barely notice that it's there.


There are no ports or slots along the front lip, while the right edge is home to an 8x slot-loading CD/DVD burner, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a 3.5mm audio input. The rear edge is home to an AC input, a textured exhaust fan and a Gigabit Ethernet port. The left edge houses an HDMI port (full-size), a mini-DisplayPort, eSATA / USB combo port, two USB 3.0 ports and a 9-in-1 multi-format card slot.

The Apple similarities continue on the underside, there the 8-cell battery that is totally sealed within the frame, so you can forget about buying an extended batter and popping it in yourself. As you open the LCD up, you'll find a glossy 1080p (or 720p, depending on what build you get) display, a backlit keyboard, and a monster trackpad that sits in the center of the casing instead of aligned with the spacebar. Kudos on that, Dell!


The multi-gesture pad recognizes multi-finger pinch-to-zoom and scrolling efforts, while the left / right dedicated click buttons were just about perfect. There's a bit of a "plasticky" click feel, and they have a lot of travel, but most consumers won't even notice. The keyboard has keys that are gently sloped towards the middle, and typing on them was very comfortable. A truly awesome typing experience, and a world-class mousing experience.


The LCD, while glossy, is still fairly resistant to reflections, and the 1080p display on our test unit was just gorgeous. Colors were dead-sharp, viewing angles were above average (though not perfect at extreme angles), and fast motion was no problem for it. The keyboard itself had no flex whatsoever, and the LCD hinge was rock solid. Really, we can't complain about any of the design or construction choices; it's all top tier stuff here.
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Software and User Experience
The XPS 15z, for the most part, ships without too much bloatware. That's saying a lot for a mainstream, pre-fabricated machine, particularly a Dell. We have openly pleaded for companies to ditch bloatware, and it seems that even Dell knew that the classy nature of this machine would be marred with too much excess (and largely unwanted) software.


The Dell Stage UI is available for desktop access to multimedia and such, but it's easy to disable if you aren't into it. We prefer it off, but it's actually not too distracting. Our review unit also shipped with Office 2010, Roxio Creator 2011, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Live Movie Maker, Windows Media Center, Dell Webcam, McAfee anti-virus, and Adobe Reader. A 64-bit copy of Windows 7 Home Premium is included as well. The only real annoying parts were the My Identity Protection and eBay shortcuts on the desktop, but those were easy enough to remove.


The overall user experience with the machine is excellent though. It's hard to describe how huge of a leap this is for mainstream 15.6" notebooks. It's sexy, enjoyable to use, and fast. Our $1599 test unit was equipped with a Core i7 (2nd-gen) CPU, 8GB of RAM, NVIDIA Optimus + GT525M graphics and a massive 750GB (7200RPM) hard drive. That combo, along with a lovely 1080p panel, was enough to keep us happy even under demanding circumstances.


Windows 7 seemed pleased as punch to have that many resources at its disposal, with bootup times hovering around 35 seconds, wake-from-sleep times in the sub-3 second range, and quick application launch times. Overall, we felt as if we were never waiting for our system to "catch up" with us, which is a rare find at any price in the PC notebook market.

The typing and trackpad experience was truly second-to-none in. The curved keys were a delight to type on, and the massive multi-touch trackpad nearly matches Apple's MacBook Pro pad in terms of accuracy and texture. The backlit keys are a huge boon as well. We really wish there were a couple of extra USB 3.0 ports on here, and perhaps a VGA output, but otherwise the port selection is satisfactory.


In all-around use, you will be hard-pressed to find a more capable machine in the 15.6" sector, let alone one that looks this good. It's simply a joy to use, and it impressed us on numerous occasions with its speed. Even doing mundane tasks like toggling between a tab-packed Firefox browser and a host of Word documents was no issue, and the haste at which that was completed left us pleased. It probably helps that all that nimbleness is tucked into such a beautiful package, but hey -- it's the full monty that counts!

We have to say, however, that the one major user experience pitfall is the heat and noise. Even after some fairly basic Word processing, fans kicked on (they're impossible to not hear) and the heat level started to rise. After a half-hour gaming session, the left side of the keyboard plate was hot to touch. The bottom of the machine was simply smoking hot. That's the price you pay for cramming such high-end components into such a thin chassis, we suppose. Either way, those who are very sensitive to hot machines will want to take note; it's a staple in the gaming machine universe (where heat is a tough thing to avoid), but it's really notable on this particular laptop.
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Futuremark 3DMark 06 / 11 and PCMark Vantage
To start things off, we fired up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite 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.

 

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance


Given that this isn't a true, qualified gaming notebook per se, it's nice to see it matching up with HP's EliteBook 8560p, which is yet another half business-half pleasure machine. It also surpasses a few other Core i7 machines in this class, while looking loads better than all of them. The full Vantage score is below.


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.

 
The second-generation of Core i processors are strong performers, as shown here. The Core i7 within this machine smoked during the CPU testing, and the other 3DMark 06 aspects...well, it didn't do too poorly on those, either. The full score is below.


Futuremark 3DMark11
Synthetic DirectX Gaming

 


Futuremark 3DMark11

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Extreme preset option, which uses a resolution of 1920x1080 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.

3DMark 11 is still a new benchmark, and we're still building up our database of machines that we've ran through this test. These three were set on the "Performance" setting, just to give you a vague idea of comparisons. The full score is below.


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SiSoftware Sandra and Cinebench Benchmarks
Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2011
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speeds of 2.7GHz with 8GB of DDR3 RAM running in dual-channel mode.

 


Processor Arithmetic

 

 


Multi-Media

 


Memory Bandwidth

 

 

Physical Disks

 

 

SiSoft Sandra didn't reveal anything surprising; the XPS 15z posted strong scores in all categories, though obviously the lack of an SSD holds the system back in the Physical Disks benchmark.

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.

 

Here's where we start to see some chinks in the armor. While the innards are impressive for medium-duty gaming and conventional chores, it's clear that the XPS 15z isn't cut out for mass computational work. Or, it can cut it, but it'll cut far slower than dedicated gaming or workstation rigs.
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Gaming Benchmarks

Metro 2033
DirecX11 Gaming Performance


Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is your basic post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment, but rather you’re left to deal with life, or lack there-of more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. The game is loosely based on a novel by Russian Author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Metro 2003 boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform currently including a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism. We tested the game engine using the Metro 2033 benchmark tool.

Let's not beat around the bush: Metro 2033 is an intense game. And we aren't just talking about gameplay. It's a title that seriously taxes a machine, and it requires serious hardware to run this title well. The CPU on the XPS 15z was plenty ready for the task, but the middling GT 525M isn't exactly a top-tier notebook GPU. This is one of the corners Dell cut to keep heat down and price down, and it shows in the benchmarks. For what it's worth, Metro was plenty playable at 1024x768 with the details cranked down, but this machine doesn't measure up to some of the dedicated gaming rigs we've seen.

 

FarCry 2
DirectX Gaming Performance

 


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the test systems in this article with the FarCry 2 benchmark tool using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.

Unlike Metro 2033, the somewhat dated Far Cry 2 benchmark isn't as hard on systems, and we were able to squeeze out a few more frames-per-second here. Plenty playable at even higher resolutions. In other words, Far Cry 2 is about as new a game as the XPS 15z can handle at high-res; if your favorite title came out prior to the FC2, and has similar or lesser spec requirements, you should be golden.

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Battery Performance
Battery Life
Power Performance

BatteryEater Pro tends to measure worst case scenarios, in that it doesn't really take into consideration power saving features, instead loading up the system until it dies out. It runs a spinning graphic constantly until the battery dies. We keep our test machines with Wi-Fi on, and screen brightness hovering at 50% for the life of the test.


 

Given that the XPS 15z wasn't the beast of all beasts in the gaming benchmark category, and that NVIDIA's Optimus was employed here, we expected the 8-cell battery to power through quite a few hours for a thin-and-light, unlike most gaming notebooks. BatteryEater Pro tore through those hopes, mostly because its animation forces the discrete GPU to remain on. However, in general use, we easily got 3.5 hours of use before it dropped itself into sleep, using a mix of discrete & Optimus GPU, and keeping the screen on the entire time with brightness between 40% and 60%. In other words, if you press this thing hard with games, you'll be lucky to get 2 hours. If you take it easy, you could see 4-5 hours depending on usage. It's nice to have that range for days where you simply need an integrated GPU to handle Web browsing and document processing.
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Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary: Strictly from a benchmark perspective, the Dell XPS 15z's results were a mixed bag. It doesn't do well in highly-taxing, cutting edge gaming benchmarks, but it sails through common processing chores, particularly those focused on CPU performance. But real-world, daily use cases are a bit different. Unless you're looking for high FPS numbers and nothing else, this Dell machine is about as good as it gets in the 15.6" form factor. What the benchmarks have difficulty showing is just how quick this machine feels during desktop-duty, and how well it multi-tasks. Of course, our test unit was pushing $1600, but even the $999 base model is well spec'ced. Having Optimus onboard also means that the battery life will improve when not running GPU-intensive apps, that require the use of the discrete GPU.

There's just no question that the XPS 15z is a beautiful laptop. Yes, it looks a bit like the MacBook Pro, but is that really a bad thing? Dell has still made this design their own, and the keyboard / trackpad experience is currently among the best available. The 1080p display is excellent and as is the machine's weight and overall form factor. It just plain looks great, and the build quality is exceptional.

If we had to dig up some negatives, it's the three palm rest stickers, the excessive heat / noise produced when the machine is taxed, the non-replaceable battery and the omission of WiDi (or a similar wireless streaming technology). But to be honest, those quibbles can be overlooked fairly easily at under $1k. The $1599 build that we tested hits a nice sweet spot; a 1080p panel is tough to find on a 15.6" machine, and it really makes a world of difference. Having 8GB of DDR3 memory is also a huge plus, and of course, the extra CPU horsepower certainly help when churning through multiple applications.


The bottom line is that at it's price point, we doubt you'll find a superior 15.6" machine out there right now. Dell has done just about everything right with this one. Plus, it's fast. Really fast in everything save for hardcore gaming. For the vast majority of consumers, it'll do everything they need and more, and look great while doing it. The Dell XPS 15z is great buy, from top to bottom. 

  

  • Truly beautiful design
  • Huge touchpad with gestures support
  • 1080p LCD panel
  • Comfortable, backlit keyboard
  • Fast for the price
  • Too few USB 3.0 ports
  • Gets warm in heavy use
  • Fans can get a little noisy
  • Can't remove the battery


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