Update 2: The new BIOS update (1.2.0) has introduced bugs with TB3 docks with USB/Ethernet ports on them, causing them to disconnect during use and after waking from sleep.
Update 1: As of March 23rd, 2016, Dell has released an update for the WiFi driver here. This update seems to fix many of the WiFi-related problems that plagued my experience with the laptop earlier. In its current state, I have few remaining issues with the XPS 15 and would increase the rating to 4/5.
Original article: Ever since the XPS 13 with its “Infinity Edge” nearly bezelless display came out (and added the word bezelless to the lexicon), it has been topping most websites’ “best ultrabook” lists. Despite a rocky launch owing to quite a few BIOS, drivers, and hardware issues, the XPS 13 seems to have finally been sorted out by Dell and is now enjoying its reigning position as the Windows ultrabook to get for professionals who prize portability.
Dell’s XPS 15 series is a newer, bigger and badder version of the XPS 13, with a 15.6-inch display. The XPS 15 9550 (the most current model at the time of this post) takes advantage of its larger size with Skylake quad-core CPUs and a dedicated 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M graphics and just as Dell touted cramming a 13.3-inch display into a 12-inch chassis, the XPS 15 boasts the footprint of most 14-inch notebooks, while packing a larger display.
Unfortunately, the XPS 15 also mimicked—and outdid—its little brother in terms of a buggy and rocky release: Notebookcheck.net had to dedicate extra reviews and tests just for various BIOS updates to see if they fixed the crippling problems they found in their earlier models. At the time of writing (March 2016), NotebookReview also has a 62-page thread dedicated to establishing common problems (and possible solutions) endemic to the XPS 15.
With those in mind, this review will serve as up-to-date look at the current state of the newest iteration of the XPS 15, the 9550 and those of you looking to buy one of these computers past these dates will surely find it helpful. While most major bugs have been worked out as of the latest BIOS update and drivers, there are still quite a few software/driver/firmware wrinkles remaining which prevent this excellent laptop from getting the highest honors and my unqualified recommendation, and you’ll find all about it from this post.
Specs as reviewed
|Screen||15.6-inch 3840 x 2160 (UHD) touch screen, IGZO IPS|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6300HQ 2.3-3.2GHz|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M (2GB GDDR5)|
|Memory||16GB DDR4@ 2133MHz|
|Storage||Samsung PM951 NVMe m.2 512 GB SSD|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 802.11ac (DW1830, Broadcom 3×3, max speed 1.3Gbps), Bluetooth 4.1|
|Ports||1x Thunderbolt 3/USB-C 3.1, 2x USB 3.0, HDMI, 3.5 mm audio, SD card reader|
|Operating system||Windows 10|
|Size||(H) 357 x (W) 235 x (D) 17-11mm|
|Weight as configured||2 kg|
Standouts from the specs sheet include the Thunderbolt 3 (via USB C) interface, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M graphics, the NVMe storage and the quad-core CPUs (i5/i7), which make this system a prime candidate for an eGPU system such as the Razer Core once they are available.
Design and exterior
Made from aluminum and carbon fiber and measuring 17mm at its thickest point at the rear (aren’t we all?) to a 11mm taper at the front, the XPS 15 is durable and relatively lightweight for its class.
The silver anodized aluminum shell is precisely machined and it blends seamlessly into the dark-grey carbon fiber which it sandwiches. The carbon fiber is covered in Dell’s soft-touch coating, which feels very comfortable to the touch and is also nice respite for your palms while typing compared to the sharp aluminum or plastic palm-rests of other notebooks. The only downside of this coating is that it smudges easily from the oils on your hands, and you’ll need a microfiber cloth to keep it clean.
There is no flex of the base when subject to torsion, and the screen is also extremely stiff. The hinge, which opens to 135°, is solidly built and doesn’t wobble or give when you touch the screen. If anything, it is too tight: it requires the use of two hands to open the machine. Once you’ve come from a laptop that opens with one hand, going back to needing two is just annoying, so hopefully it will loosen over time.
Overall, the build of the XPS 15 is excellent, with only the force needed to open it bringing it down. Contenders for build quality of the XPS 15 would include the Razer Blade and Apple Macbook Pro. It looks and feels like a professional, solid, and high-quality device.
Issues: Some users on the forums have reported of issues with the quality of the bezel of the FHD (non-touchscreen) models, where the bezel was imprecisely constructed/warped. These faulty FHD models seem to have been weeded out at this point, however. It also seems that a recent batch of XPS 15 produced for Europe have major construction defects, such as ports misaligned with the chassis.
Perhaps the greatest draw of the XPS 15 is its 15.6-inch UHD (4k) IGZO panel with “Infinity Display” bezels: the screen is impressive in its own right, and becomes even more so paired with the 5.6 mm bezel.
The effect of the tiny bezel on a 15.6-inch display is even more impactful than on the XPS 13 due to the screen size/bezel ratio. Dell advertises 100% Adobe RGB coverage with this display, while the FHD non-touch screen is only about 72%.
The UHD model utilizes a Sharp LQ156D1JX01 display with a 1000:1 contrast ratio and brightness up to 330 nits. I don’t have a Spyder for calibration nor do I work in a field where color-accuracy is crucial, but I can say that the 4k UHD IGZO display wows me every single time I open up the computer to use it. The colors are vibrant and very lifelike, but the white point is high for my taste. As a result, I tend to keep it below 50% brightness unless outside. Even at higher brightness levels, there is no noticeable backlight bleeding on the 4k display, though there has been some reported for the FHD variant.
Like the majority of touchscreens today, this one is glossy and rather reflective. The Corning Gorilla Glass NBT that protects the screen on the 4k model is not as reflective as some, such as the mirror-like screen on my Razer Blade 2015 QHD+, but it still makes it difficult to use outside unless on higher (above 60%) brightness. For this reason, I have installed a matte screen protector on mine. If you will be working outside, in taxis, or otherwise in direct sunlight, you will want to consider doing this.
Issues: FHD backlight bleed. Red-cast when viewed from extreme angles. Reports of bad ghosting on both displays, but especially on FHD. These are not a result of the panels response times or the IGZO technology (which should, in theory, be faster than regular IPS panels) but seem to be the result of a manufacturing defect. If you notice ghosting on your display, the display is NOT working as it should and you should RMA it. I have compared my screen side by side with the IGZO IPS display of the Razer Blade, as well as an IPS monitor with a 5ms advertised response time. There was no visible difference between the three displays.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard is a small letdown on the XPS 15—but only because of how high the expectations were set due to the other technical aspects of the machine.
As far as I can tell it is exactly the same keyboard found in the smaller, thinner XPS 13. It lacks a number pad as well, though that isn’t surprising given the XPS 15’s compact chassis. You would hope that with a bigger laptop you would get a slightly improved keyboard, but the travel is the same paltry 1.3mm found on the 13. The keys do bottom out satisfyingly and there is no give in the keyboard area—it is a typing experience best defined as “crisp”.
If you write for a living and need a cushy, deep and relaxing typing experience, you may find the shallow travel a deal breaker. For me, I got used to it, hitting 106 WPM on the 10fastfingers typing test with only 1 error—above my usual 98 WPM. The keyboard is backlit with 2 levels of brightness.
The TrackPad is great. The generous trackpad is an improvement from the XPS 13, utilizing the extra space the chassis provides. It is spacious, but not too much so that it gets in the way of typing (as on the Spectre 360). I have never once experienced phantom-touches on the pad while typing, which is a refreshing change from previous laptops.
It is a glass Microsoft Precision Touchpad coated with a soft-touch material, using Synaptics technology but the Microsoft drivers. Thus, customization is extremely limited as you only get the basics Precision Touchpad settings offered by Windows. As it is a clickpad, without buttons, the ability to configure no-touch/tap zones would have been welcome. It is possible to install the Synaptics drivers through a hack, but it never gets quite the same level of functionality as a regular Synaptics device.
Overall, it is an excellent trackpad. Windows PCs have had horrible trackpads as standard for years, so it is nice to see that this key detail for productivity is not being overlooked by major vendors.
Issues: Some users have reported a tilted/unevenly seated spacebar. This seems to settle with use.
Hardware, upgrades and daily experience
With a quad-core Core i5/i7 CPU, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960m graphics, 16GB of DDR4 RAM, and a 512GB Samsung NVME SSD, the laptop is an all-around powerhouse for even the most demanding users.
I opted for the Core i5-6300HQ CPU rather than the Core i7-6700HQ because for non-hyperthreaded applications, the performance is nearly equal and I wanted lower temperatures and longer battery life. If you’re using hyperthreaded apps daily, then spring for the i7, but otherwise, don’t sleep on the i5 if you can get a good price.
It tears through everyday tasks and even has the GPU chops for games. Some users may be disappointed with Dell’s choice of the 2GB 960M rather than the 4GB—but for a chip like the 960 it is basically a waste, as trying to game above 1080p on it would be pointless. You can expect current-gen games to run at 60 FPS with medium/high settings at 1080p.
For the fans of 3D benchmarks, this XPS as configured gets a combined score of 5814 points in 3DMark 2011 and 3950 points in 3DMark 2013 Fire Strike. With a modest GPU overclock, if that’s your kind of thing, you can get above 4250 points easily.
This laptop is a performer and can churn through pretty much anything you might throw at it
In terms of communication hardware, there are a couple of issues. First is the 720p camera, which is directed up your nose. This is a point of design, not a defect, and it probably isn’t a huge problem unless you’re always on Skype or Hangouts and don’t want another camera.
However, the absolutely atrocious performance of the Broadcom 3×3 card that comes with the computer is a serious problem. I don’t know if it’s fair to blame the card hardware or the drivers, but in either event the card doesn’t perform well. Its 3-antennae design lets it perform well when it works, but it constantly drops signals where other devices get full connections. It only gets 4 bars when 4m away from my router while on a 5GHz network, and Bluetooth is buggy if not broken for wireless mice until you turn off “Bluetooth Collaboration” in the advanced options.
Besides this, I couldn’t get my Bluetooth speakers to work at all until I removed the terrible Dell/Broadcom software, which looks like it was last updated in 2003. The fact is that the current state of the wireless performance of the XPS 15 is substandard, if not terrible. I’d recommended that you swap this for an Intel 8260 WLAN chip if you do plan to buy the XPS 15—so it’s lucky that the XPS is so serviceable.
Indeed, of the nice things about the XPS 15 is that the SSD, RAM, and WLAN are all user-upgradable. After removing the 10 Torx (T5) around the edge and the 2 Phillips screws under the XPS label hatch, you will have full access to the RAM, SSD, and WLAN card (as well as fans/heatpipes for repasting). Because none of these are soldered on, you can upgrade them yourself after buying. This is especially good for RAM, because you can replace both DIMMs with 16GB sticks for a total of 32GB system memory. Overkill, but nice to be able to do.
The state of the Broadcom 3×3 WLAN chip is garbage. This might be fixed with future updates, but at the moment it still has major issues with dropping WiFi signals, Bluetooth pairing, and disappearing completely after sleep. Replace it with an Intel WLAN chip such as the 8260. As of 3/23/2016, Dell’s update to the WiFi drivers seem to fix all these issues.
Emissions (noise, heat, speakers)
Although powerful, the XPS does quite good for emissions.
Using Sound Meter (calibrated for -20 dB of background noise), the fans averaged around 31 dB under light usage. Under heavy load such as Prime95 + FurMark, they’ll hit 45 dB. They rarely switch off unless the laptop is completely idle, but the tradeoff is that the chassis remains cool under nearly all usage scenarios. 46 dB is quite loud, but it’s still lower than the piercing 55 dB my Razer sometimes hits.
The cooling solution might seem minimal, but it’s actually effective
The XPS 15 has two fans on the bottom which suck in cool air while expelling it from vents that are hidden behind the hinge. It’s a clever (though certainly not original) design to minimize vents and size, and seems to work quite effectively here: even under load, the keyboard deck and even the aluminum bottom never get too hot. At idle, the CPU temperature is ~32C°. During typical usage, the CPU averages a temperature of ~40C°. While playing taxing games, it will peak around 71C° while the GPU averages 76C°. Pleasingly, there is no thermal throttling in any scenario I have tested. The advantage of the Skylake processors’ smaller die size is apparent in the thermal efficiency they exhibit in a laptop this thin.
The speakers are decent, not great. They get loud enough, but lack natural base and begin to distort at high settings.. Unlike the XPS 13, whose speakers are on the side of the chassis, the XPS 15’s are downward-facing. I’m not sure why Dell chose to make the speakers muffled by pointing into the ground. The larger chassis of the XPS 15 begs for upward-facing speakers next to the keyboard—this would have been a much better choice for both design and performance, in my opinion. The Dell MaxxAudio software includes some equalizer presets that help improve the sound somewhat, but it can’t overcome the limitations of the speakers themselves to make them anything special.
Issues: Fans don’t ramp-down after gaming until machine is put to sleep. Some users complain of issues with headphones after reconnecting them: audio is lost and apparently the computer has to be restarted to restore it. Some users report speaker crackling as well.
Dell advertises up to 17 hours for the FHD model and 10 for the UHD. I also have a bridge to sell you. Initially, on my UHD with a 6-cell battery, I was only getting 4-5 hours of light usage. After a few days and once tweaked, I’ve been able to consistently get about 6-7 hours of light productivity work (browsing, typing).
Idle at 40% brightness yields about 10W drain. Light work averages between 12 and 14W drain. Heavy tasks, such as CPU benchmarks, will push consumption to 30W. Generally speaking, it is enough for an average workday—as long as you are doing word processing and browsing, not editing video.
Issues: None, other than that Dell (and most laptop manufacturers) are lying liars who lie about battery life.
Price and availability
While the XPS 15 advertises a starting price of just $999 USD, that’s for a Core i3 version without the dedicated GPU.
The most expensive version goes up to $2900 USD due to its 1TB SSD and 32GB of memory, but you’ll probably want one somewhere in the middle.
If you need the battery life, don’t like touch screens or will be using it outside, then an i5/i7 model with the FHD screen with the 6-cell battery would do you well.
Follow this link for up-to-date configurations and prices.
I think the $1500 (at Microsoft store) i5/UHD/8/256 is a good configuration for most, since you can upgrade the SSD and RAM yourselves for cheaper—especially if you wait for prices to go down. Unless you need hyperthreading, the i5 will use less power than the i7, but provide the same performance.
The XPS 15 is available in most countries through Dell retailers or the Microsoft Store, though not all configurations are available worldwide.
The XPS 15 ranges between $999 and $2899, with a solid mid-range configuration available for around $1500
Bugs are the weak point of the XPS 15 and probably why more people haven’t picked one up—or have picked one up only to return it.
It took me almost a couple of weeks of tinkering to get my XPS 15 into a reliable working state. There are so many updates released for the system that just downloading them and updating is a day’s task on its own, and that’s IF you do it correctly in the right order. Here are a list of issues I’ve experienced:
- Even once updated, I suffered frequent BSODs, especially when waking up from sleep. Reinstalling some of the Intel SSD drivers seemed to help and it hasn’t been happening since. Update: the Intel graphics driver seems to be the culprit for this. Try installing the beta HD graphics drivers from Intel’s website.
Sometimes when using HDMI through the Dell TB3 Dock, clicking the settings tray will crash the connection. I wake the laptop from sleep only to be greeted with a black screen and have to hard restart (keyboard lights up, though).
- The Broadcom WLAN on its own is responsible for a bunch of issues
The card sometimes fails to be detected upon resume from a low-power state. The computer will simply not see the device. Bluetooth pairing issues causing crashes or simply performing poorly.
- Poor signal close by wireless networks
resulting in dropped packets on 5GHz. Update: (signal is still not great, but no longer dropping packets)
- Connections to 2.5GHz networks impede Bluetooth signal.
Apps randomly crashing when the screen resolution changes or the laptop switches from AC/DC or vice versa. Tray apps will quit without notice and the desktop background will be set black (still an issue) Running in AHCI mode introduces random “BAD_POOL_HEADER” BSODs. Update: Fixed by using Samsung’s NVME drivers CPU does not downclock properly occasionally after switching to battery power. Occasional screen flashes/artifacts on desktop from Intel iGPU drivers. The Dell USB-C Trinity Dock (yours for a mere $70 USD) frequently drops connected USB devices and they have to be reseated. Not sure if this is a Thunderbolt 3 or dock issue. Laptop waking itself from sleep in my bag and running for hours without shutting off. Event log lists wake source as “unknown” and there are no wake-armed devices. May have been caused by Dell Foundation Services. Update: Has not reoccurred since tinkering with device wake settings. In the network adapter properties disable “wake on magic packet” and “wake on pattern match”. Also ensure that in BIOS settings the SATA 1 and 2 drives are both ENABLED.
Looking at this list, it’s more understandable why some people haven’t decided to go with the XPS 15. If you depended on your computer for your job, how could you keep something with so many issues?
The XPS 15 is a beautiful, powerful laptop that can handle nearly any task. It is sleek and relatively lightweight for its size, which is also another accomplishment given its brilliant 15.6-inch display: it is the most gorgeous display I have ever seen on a laptop, and that alone nearly is worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, while it has less issues now than at launch, they are still numerous and they should be a major consideration if you’re ordering online or overseas and you’ll have to pay to return or exchange it.
The XPS 15 is beautiful, fast and packs a great display, but the multitude of bugs and issues make it a far from ideal pick, at least for the time being
With time, I hope the drivers, firmware, and BIOS matures and these problems will be cleared up. If/once that happens and the XPS 15 becomes rock-solid, it would be a near perfect laptop deserving a very high rating. In its current state though, it’s still only deserving a qualified recommendation: I love my XPS 15 and I’m going to replace my Razer Blade with it as a my daily driver due to its power, portability, screen, and the future-proofing offered by the TB3. However, it’s still buggy, and if your computer BSODing or dropping a call can cost you your job or business deal, this is not the laptop to count on—at least not yet.
That’s about it for now. Let me know what you think about the XPS 15 or if you have any questions that I might be able to help you with in the comments section below.