|Introduction and Specifications|
Dell's XPS line of laptops have always been about foregoing compromise in the pursuit of a premium mobile experience. The company's latest lineup of XPS 15 touch-enabled systems carry that tradition into a new era of computing, driven by Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system. These machines are anything but cookie cutter, and even if you're not a fan of the unified approach Microsoft took with Windows, there's more here than just a touch computing experience. Much more.
To begin with, the real star of the show is the optional 15.6-inch Quad HD+ (3200x1800) display. Dell's the first system builder to employ a QHD+ IGZO panel, which trumps any of Apple's MacBooks with Retina-class displays. Packing 5.7 million pixels into a 15.6-inch frame results in a stunningly sharp viewing experience, and it looks gorgeous from virtually any angle.
Optimus graphics switching technology. Further adding to its future-proofing configuration are amenities like 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth 4.0, and SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports with PowerShare technology,
In short, Dell provides a lot of bang in exchange for all those bucks, and at a glance, we're hard pressed to discern any obvious weak points. We've gone beyond the spec sheet, however, and like all systems that end up at HotHardware, we put this one through the wringer. Find out what we learned on the following pages.
You'll notice this laptop teeters on the edge of being an Ultrabook with a height that ranges from just 0.3 inches to no more than 0.7 inches at its thickest. That's impressive when you consider all the power sitting underneath the lid, though at 4.44 pounds, the XPS 15 Touch won't challenge the lightest laptops out there in terms of weight.
The additional weight isn't wasted, as you won't find an Ultrabook that offers everything the XPS 15 does. Dell uses premium materials such as machined aluminum, carbon fiber, and hardened Corning Gorilla Glass. In doing so, the XPS 15 Touch looks and feels like a high-end laptop, which is not always the case with true Ultrabooks.
|Software and First Boot|
If you're the impatient type, try pairing a high performance SSD with Windows 8/8.1. That's what Dell did with the XPS 15 Touch and it's about as close to instant-on as we'll get until true, instant-on becomes a reality. More specifically, we were able to boot into Windows in about 10 seconds, and it only took 6 seconds to shut down.
Even though Dell is a bulk OEM builder, the company has been veryl good about not bogging down its XPS systems with copious amounts of bloatware. McAfee security software is installed -- you get a 12-month subscription to the AV service -- but for the most part, this is a clean desktop.
By that same token, there's not a ton in terms of pre-loaded software. Microsoft Office is on there, but it's only a trial version, and other than McAfee, there really aren't any software-based value adds. We're okay with that, as we'd rather pick out our own software versus spending time uninstalling programs we have no intentions of using anyway.
In terms of utilities, Dell does include a handy interface for quickly looking up driver downloads, support contacts, and so forth. You can also create a system backup, which Dell's software encourages you to do.
|Design and Layout|
Dell took an interesting approach to the XPS 15 Touch by essentially shoehorning a potent laptop configuration with a crazy high resolution into an Ultrabook's body. As previously discussed, it's a bit heavier than your typical Ultrabook at 4.44 pounds and it doesn't carry the Ultrabook designation, but it's easy to mistake it for one at a glance.
If you've seen a recent XPS laptop in person, you have a pretty good idea of the XPS 15 Touch will look like. It follows the same basic blueprint, one that calls for a machined aluminum finish with Dell's logo sitting unobtrusively in the center. Though the XPS 15 Touch definitely has some gaming chops -- we'll get into that in a bit -- there are no flashing LEDs or aggressive angles to designate a peppy GPU underneath the hood. Those seeking a flashy exterior can head over to Dell's Alienware division, whereas the XPS 15 Touch is designed in way that you can take it to the board room without it being a distraction.
As we noted when we revisited Dell's XPS 13 Ultrabook last year, the XPS 15 Touch is constructed out of a single block of aluminum that's precision cut. The lid itself is not the least bit pliant or flimsy like some lighter weight notebooks tend to be, and it fights gravity to stay open at whatever angle you choose. You'll also notice that all four corners are rounded. That might not seem important, but it can actually help when slipping the laptop into or out of a backpack, briefcase, or laptop bag. Sharp corners have a tendency to grab hold of whatever they can, especially when you're in a hurry.
There's really no way to capture of the essence of the Quad HD+ panel in photos, but trust us when we say it's a gorgeous display. The 15.6-inch touch screen IGZO (indium gallium zinc oxide) panel is made from the same material as today's 4K Ultra high definition displays. This one doesn't pack quite as many pixels at 3200x1800, but crammed into 15.6 inches of real estate with 400 nits brightness, you'll be loathe to go back to a Full HD 1080p laptop, especially after seeing high resolution images and super HD video at this resolution.
The other benefit running at a 3200x1800 resolution is that you have more room for multitasking. We never felt like we had to strain when viewing the QHD+ display, and it sure is nice having all that room to play with, whether it's browsing the web or shuttling files between folders or drives. We were also impressed with the generous viewing angles, which allowed us to see the screen in high detail without having to sit dead center in front of it.
Typing on the backlit keyboard is comfortable, even for long stretches. This has been a high point of previous XPS laptops and it continues to be a standout feature here on the XPS 15 Touch. Curved keycaps with just the right amount of spacing ensure that you'll spend more time pecking away your thoughts than you will going back and fixing typing errors. Our only real gripe is the lack of a Numpad, which would have been hard to squeeze into a 15.6-inch laptop. Hint to OEMs: Try using that space to the right of the trackpad. There could even be a sliding door to cover and reveal the Numpad as needed.
Nestled dead center below the keyboard is a big trackpad with gesture support. A rubberized finish wraps around the trackpad and extends up and around the plank as well. It's cool, smooth, and comfortable, and best of all, it doesn't attract finger prints like those glossy finishes are notorious for.
Dell did a good job with its port selection too. Over on the right side of the laptop is a memory card reader, a USB 3.0 port (non-color coded), a USB 2.0 port, and a Noble lock. Both of the USB ports (as well as the ones on the other side) feature PowerShare technology, which allows you to charge USB devices even when the laptop is turned off or in standby mode. Do note, however, that if you turn the system off while charging a device, it will stop charging. To resume, just unplug and plug and plug it back in.
On the left side of the XPS 15 Touch you'll find the AC power port, HDMI output, mini DisplayPort, two USB 3.0 ports with PowerShare, a headset jack, battery gauge indicator (press circle for light), and a battery status LED.
None of the USB ports are color coded, though if you forget which of the four is a slower USB 2.0 port, just peer at the scribblings next to each one. Each of the SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports are designated with "SS" next to them.
|Cinebench, ATTO, and SiSoft SANDRA|
|In terms of comparing performance, the Dell XPS 15 Touch presents a bit of dilemma. It's configured with high-end components, including a discrete GPU that can hold its own in gaming, but it's not a gaming laptop, nor is Dell pitching it as one. It's also not a true Ultrabook -- it's heavier and typically much more powerful (and more expensive) that most Ultrabooks on the market.
To give you a broad view of performance, we mixed things up a bit in our benchmark comparisons. Since the XPS 15 Touch has more in common with an Ultrabook than a gaming system, we leaned in that direction, though when possible, we sprinkled a few gaming laptops into our graphs to paint a better overall picture of this system.
Let's get this party started, shall we?
Cinebench R11.5 is a 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation suite used by animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
When ranked by OpenGL performance in the Cinebench test, the Dell XPS 15 Touch took the top spot. The discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M is in a different league altogether compared to Intel's integrated HD 3000 and 4000 series graphics, and it's also a nice upgrade compared to previous generation discrete GPUs. The GeForce GT 750M is based on NVIDIA's Kepler architecture. It has 384 unified shader cores and 2GB of GDDR5 memory on a 128-bit bus. In the grand scheme of things, it's a mid-range mobile GPU.
The XPS 15 Touch also posted an impressive CPU score (though not the fastest), and we'd be surprised if it didn't. Intel's 22nm Core i7-4702HQ (Haswell) is a quad-core chip with Hyper-Threading support. It runs at 2.2GHz with a Turbo frequency of 3.2GHz and has a generous 6MB of cache to lean on.
One question remains -- even with a fast CPU, how is it that a laptop with a mid-range GPU can outrun gaming laptops we've reviewed? The simple answer is that not all gaming laptops are included in the above chart. We left some out, not because we're trying to skew anything in Dell's favor, but because many of the gaming laptops we receive for review wield dual GPUs in SLI or CrossFire configurations. Dell obviously isn't trying to compete with those machines, and it doesn't really make sense to compare them.
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, File System).
As we compile a database of Sandra scores to compare today's Ultrabooks (and derivatives) against, we can make some observations about the XPS 15 Touch based on its benchmark run. In the CPU and multimedia tests, the XPS 15 Touch posted some of the highest scores we've ever seen from a laptop in Sandra, which matches the fact that this is one of the fastest processors you can own for mobile before dipping into desktop parts.
Likewise, the performance oriented mSATA solid state drive zipped through Sandra's disk benchmark with a 534MB/s read speed, while the 16GB of DDR3L-1600 RAM posted an impressive bandwidth score of 19.15GB/s. What these numbers mean in a real-world sense is that you don't have to worry about either of these subsystems acting like a performance bottleneck. In terms of capacity, 16GB is more than enough even for power users, though if you're a digital pack rat, you'll have to keep an eye on the 512GB SSD since they're no secondary storage device.
Dell XPS 15 Touch and Asus Zenbook SSD Performance Comparison with ATTO
High performance SSDs aren't as uncommon in laptops as they once were, though still to this day one of the fastest solutions we've come across is the speedy drive in the Asus Zenbook UX21. Here's a look at what that drive posted in ATTO:
Those are some fast numbers still by today's standards, though how do they compare to Dell's XPS 15 Touch? Let's have a look:
Read performance is a wash with both SSDs posting a high of nearly 558MB/s (554,948) read, while the Zenbook still holds the title in write performance, albeit not by a ton. The XPS 15 Touch managed a high of over 461MB/s in write transfers.
Subjectively, zipping around Windows 8.1 and loading programs feels fast and responsive on the XPS 15 Touch. There's rarely any lag even when heavily multitasking.
|PCMark 7 and PCMark 8|
|Futuremark’s PCMark 7 is a well-known benchmark tool that runs the system through ordinary tasks, including word processing and multimedia playback and editing. Graphics and processor power figure prominently in this benchmark, but graphics power doesn’t play as big a role here as it does in another Futuremark benchmark, 3DMark (which is designed for testing the system’s gaming capabilities). This test also weights heavily on the storage subsystem of a given device.
As we saw in the Cinebench benchmark, Dell's XPS 15 Touch bullied its way to the front of the line, even edging out some gaming laptops like CyberPowerPC's Fangbook. This further illustrates the lack of performance bottlenecks on any of the XPS 15 Touch's subsystems, and also underscores the high speed nature of the 512GB mSATA SSD, as this test heavily favors systems with flash based storage solutions.
Futuremark recently launched PCMark 8, which has several built-in benchmark tests. The Home test measures a system's ability to handle basic tasks such as web browsing, writing, gaming, photo editing, and video chat. The Creative test offers similar types of tasks, but has more demanding requirements than the Home benchmark and is meant for mid-range and higher-end PCs. The Work test measures the performance of typical office PC systems that lack media capabilities. Finally, the Storage benchmark tests the performance of SSDs, HDDs and hybrid drives with traces recorded from Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office and a selection of popular games.
What we like about PCMark 8 is that it's a more balanced benchmark that separates different types of workloads. This way the overall scores aren't overly affected by any one piece of hardware.
Ranked by storage, the XPS 15 Touch comes out on top once gain, this time by a hair. It also posted a strong score in the Home Accelerated portion, which measures performance based on common home computing tasks (web browsing, writing, photo editing, video chat, and casual gaming), though surprisingly fell close to the bottom in the Work benchmark, which measures a system's ability to handle basic office work tasks.
|This is where things get really interesting. It's worth reiterating that Dell isn't pitching the XPS 15 Touch as a gaming laptop, though we can't ignore that it has a discrete GeForce GT 750M GPU. The primary reason it's there is to drive the QHD+ (3200x1800) display without any performance hiccups along the way, though as a bonus, it affords users the ability to do more than just casual gaming.
As a synthetic gaming benchmark, 3DMark 11 puts extra emphasis on your system’s handling of DirectX 11. However, 3DMark 11 measures more than just the graphics card’s performance; the processor has a definite influence on the score. As a result, this benchmark is a good way to get a feel for how well the system can handle gaming and general computing tasks.
Dell's XPS 15 Touch fell squarely in the middle of our 3DMark 11 benchmark run, though there's an explanation that goes along with that ranking. Compared to the crop of Ultrabooks we've reviewed, the XPS 15 Touch not only tops them all in 3DMark 11, it soundly beats them. We didn't even bother posting laptop scores of below 1,000 because it makes our graph look funky, so what we have is mostly a comparison of gaming laptops.
With that in mind, the XPS 15 Touch impressively carves out a space in the middle ground, standing on the shoulders of previous generation laptops built specifically for gaming and resting within arm's reach of systems with strong GPUs. The lone exception is Dell's Alienware M17x, a powerfully equipped single-GPU gaming system that's in a class of its own.
3DMark is the flagship benchmark in Futuremark’s catalog. As a result, it is a popular choice for testing all types of computers. Recognizing the technology differences between different types of PCs are significant, 3DMark has a separate test suite for each device category. The Cloud Gate test is aimed at entry-level PCs and laptops. It has two subtests: a processor-intensive physics test and two graphics tests. Cloud Gate uses a DirectX 11 engine but the graphics are designed to be compatible with DirectX 10 systems. We ran the test suite at its default 1280 x 720 resolution and at default rendering quality settings. It’s important to remember that 3DMark Cloud Gate scores aren’t comparable to scores from other categories such as 3DMark Fire Strike (gaming PCs) or Ice Storm (smartphones and tablets).
Futuremark's 3DMark Cloud Gate benchmark is a newer piece of software that wasn't available when we reviewed the gaming laptops that appear elsewhere in this review. That's okay because this gives us an opportunity to put into graph what we mentioned before, which is that the XPS 15 Touch is able to trounce traditional Ultrabooks in gaming performance. No Ultrabook we've reviewed has even come close, with Dell's rig posting a score that's more than twice as high.
Far Cry 2 uses high-quality texture, complex shaders, and dynamic lighting to create a realistic environment. Using the game’s built-in benchmark, we can get a better look at a system’s performance with DirectX 10 level gaming graphics.
As dated as Far Cry 2 is at this point, we still use it to measure system performance both because we have a large database of configurations to compare scores with and also because systems with integrated graphics still struggle with it. That obviously isn't an issue for the XPS 15 Touch with its discrete GeForce GT 750M GPU, which pulled way out ahead.
Of course, it would be a shame to run anything on this laptop at 1280x720, and when we cranked the resolution up to 1920x1080 and turned on 4xAA, framerates dipped in half to 54.03fps. Compared to dedicated gaming laptops with single GPU configurations, the XPS 15 Touch falls in about the middle, right behind a pair of Alienware systems. That's a good showing for a system that offers gaming performance as an afterthought.
|Since the XPS 15 Touch sports such a high resolution display and discrete GPU, we didn't hold out hope of being impressed by its battery life. However, the results did surprise us.
In an attempt to quantitatively measure the XPS 15 Touch's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we ran Battery Eater Pro. This test is designed to tax a laptop’s resources to give a feel for how long the laptop’s battery will last under heavy use. For the test, we set the XPS 15 Touch's' display to 50% brightness.
Only a couple of minutes of run time separate the XPS 15 Touch from finishing towards the upper end of the middle where it sits, which is a bit lower on the totem pole. Nevertheless, it managed to beat out a handful of Ultrabooks -- not too shabby when you factor in the hardware.
What really surprised us is how long the XPS 15 Touch stayed on during our web browsing test, which is a bit more indicative of real-world use. It managed to stay running for 7 hours and 10 minutes. Some might consider that all-day battery life -- we consider it close, though not quite all-day. Still, it's a credit to the laptop's 6-cell (91Whr) battery and power efficient components. We should also note the XPS 15 Touch has NVIDIA Optimus graphics switching technology on board in this configuration, which allows the discrete GPU to kick in when needed for gaming etc., or power down when not required for light duty apps like web browsing.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: You would expect a fair amount of performance for the kind of investment it takes to own a top-of-the-line XPS 15 Touch system, and Dell's spunky laptop certainly delivered. Compared to its Ultrabook kin, it took them behind the barn and gave them all a thorough beating in practically every benchmark. It topped the Cinebench chart in OpenGL performance and scurried to the front of the class in PCMark 7, and when it came time to game, the XPS 15 Touch posted framerates more in line with dedicated gaming laptops that Ultrabooks.
Have you ever street raced against a sleeper car? That's sort of what Dell has on its hands with the XPS 15 Touch. It looks like an Ultrabook and feels like one too, but hidden inside that unassuming exterior is some seriously fast hardware. Between the fast Intel Core i7 4702HQ processor, 16GB of DDR3L-1600 memory, 512GB mSATA SSD, and discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU, there's nary bottleneck to be found, at least in terms of speed.
Despite the presence of discrete graphics, this isn't a dedicated gaming laptop, though our benchmarks prove you can certainly play games on this machine. In addition, the GPU is there to make sure working with applications and media with its brilliant QHD+ (3200x1200) touch-enable panel never overwhelms the system. In our testing, it never did. The display is absolutely gorgeous, though be warned -- once you've spent time on a QHD+ laptop, it's difficult to go back to just a full HD 1080p display.
Other than craving more storage space beyond what the 512GB SSD provides (Dell does offer the option to configure a machine with up to a 1TB HDD), the only real knock against a system like this is the price tag. We've mentioned it's not a gaming laptop, but at $2,350 for the configuration we reviewed, it's priced somewhat like one. It's hard to support the notion of spending a king's ransom on a laptop these days. So, is it a deal killer?
Not in our opinion, though you'll have to make your judgment call on that one. We should also point out that you can find less expensive configurations, especially with a standard HDD and 32GB SSD hybrid setup. All told, it would be a different story if you didn't get much in return for your hard earned dollars. However, if you've got the budget for a system like the model we tested, Dell delivers not only an all-around computing experience, but a superb one at that. Whether it's editing photos and video, burying yourself in productivity software, or even playing games, the XPS 15 Touch has the hardware to do it all, and do it with aplomb. We're so fond of the XPS 15 touch, with it's svelte 4.4 lb profile, that hits like a heavyweight, that we're giving it our Editor's Choice award.