Up Close and Personal with the Dell XPS L501x

Looking at the specs and figuring out that the XPS L501x sounds like a good laptop is easy enough, but how does it fare in actual practice? In fact, it does very well, and this is easily one of my favorite laptops from the past several years. The old Studio XPS 16 had an impressive LCD option, just like the L501x, but from a design standpoint there were areas that I didn't particularly care for—chief among these being the use of glossy plastic surfaces all over the chassis. To say that fingerprints on the piano black finish were a problem is an understatement, so the switch to a matte plastic bezel and aluminum surfaces removes our biggest complaint.

The new design looks better, and it feels better as well—though we didn't have any real complaints with the Studio XPS build quality to begin with. The L501x has rounded corners and beveled edges that fit together snugly and look attractive. It's a sturdy laptop—not at the level of business notebooks perhaps, but definitely a step up from the Inspiron and other consumer offerings. Some may prefer the industrial design aesthetic of the Adamo line, but personally the L501x is more my speed. The palm rest is plenty large, with an equally large touchpad in the center. Like most modern laptops, the touchpad is multi-touch and gesture aware; it may not integrate with the OS as well as the MacBook touchpad does with OS X, but that's more of a Windows and application problem.

Besides the keyboard backlighting, there's not much to say other than it works well. The layout is fine, and Dell skips on the numeric keypad to make room for the speakers. Normally, we'd question such a move, but in this case there's some good sound quality to back it up. The key travel is good, all of the important keys are readily accessible with no funky Fn-key combinations required (the function keys default to multimedia, but you can switch that setting in the BIOS). There's also very little flex—only if you mash down on the keys with several pounds of pressure do you see flex, and in regular use the keyboard works well.

To the left and right of the keyboard are cutouts for the JBL speakers, and Dell is rightfully proud of their audio quality. There's a similar cutout pattern on the bottom for the integrated subwoofer. While I'm no audio expert by any means, what I can tell you is that subjectively these speakers blow away any other laptop I've used, and they can get very loud without distortion. To compare speaker quality, I grabbed a couple other laptops and looked at maximum volume without [noticeable] distortion.

The XPS L501x managed an impressive 83dB at three feet, with good bass and no serious quality concerns. The ASUS G73Jw, which also sounds good for a notebook and has 5.1 speakers, reached around 80dB as well, but there was some distortion and static present in our test audio files. We had to dial it down to 75% volume (~70dB) to eliminate the distortion, and while that's still reasonably loud the sound quality simply wasn't as good as the L501x. Bringing up the rear and representing "typical" laptops, we have an Acer 5551G we're working on reviewing, this time with just the two stereo speakers. While better than some Acer laptops we've looked at in the past (the 5740G for example had serious distortion problems), the 5551G put out a maximum of 67dB and was very thin and light on the bass (as expected). The JBL speakers in the L501x are very impressive…for a laptop. They're still small, so temper your expectations: you won't get the soundscape of a set of large studio monitors from a couple of small tweeters in a laptop chassis, no matter how hard you try, but you could at least watch a movie with a couple of friends and not strain to hear the audio.

Another big upgrade relative to the older Studio XPS comes in the graphics department. Okay, the 420M isn't going to set the world on fire with its performance, but it does manage roughly the same level of gaming capabilities as the GT 335M (which is roughly on par with the HD 4670). More importantly, Dell now has Optimus Technology in the dual-core XPS laptops, so now you can have performance when you need it but still get good battery life. Like all 400M equipped laptops, the L501x supports HDMI 1.4, and Dell includes free support for NVIDIA's 3DTV Play. If you have a 3D HDTV and upgrade to a Blu-ray drive, you can use the L501x to watch 3D movies on your television. Again, I'm completely unsold on the whole 3D video concept—I've tried it and simply wasn't that impressed—but at least you're not stuck paying extra for a feature that should just work.

Finally, there's the display to discuss. I'm not sure what the deal is with "B+GR LED" marketing—that would imply separate blue and green/red LEDs, which would be a halfway house between standard yellow LEDs and the RGB LEDs used in the top LCD panels. Anyway, the 1080p panel in the L501x is an AU Optronics B156HW01, and if that's the same as the B156HW03, that would make this a WLED backlight. Subjectively, that's not particularly important, as the image is still great. We'll get to the display measurements later, but the short story is you get a near-100% AdobeRGB 1998 (ARGB1998) gamut, good viewing angles, and a good contrast ratio.

So with all the good, what's not to like? Not being able to upgrade the CPU and GPU independently is probably the issue that will come up first for most users. What if you want better gaming performance and would like the GT 435M, but you want to keep Optimus? What if you want a quad-core processor for content creation but you don't need a faster GPU? In either case, you're out of luck—at least for now. We'll probably see a new Sandy Bridge version of the L501x that gives you both quad-core and Optimus, hopefully with better performance and battery life, but we're still waiting for the official Sandy Bridge launch. My only other complaint is with the HDD, specifically it's a pain to get to the HDD if you happen to want to do an SSD upgrade on your own. Since Dell is still using Samsung SSDs, if you want maximum random read/write performance you'll probably want a SandForce controller (or wait a bit longer for the third generation Intel parts and other offerings to arrive). Dell charges $550 to upgrade to a 256GB Samsung SSD; you can grab a 240GB SF-1200 for as little as $430, which is a far better proposition. But to do the HDD upgrade, you'll need to remove the palm-rest first, which isn't super difficult but it's far more cumbersome than simply removing the bottom plate. Our final complaint is that as good as the 1080p "B+GR LED" LCD is, that's not the standard panel, and we would be more than a little surprised to see anything remotely comparable from the stock 768p display. If you want a good LCD, make sure you pay for the upgrade!

Are we picking nits here? Yes, we certainly are, and that's because the L501x gets so many things right. The build quality is much better than average, battery life is good, performance is a substantial bump from the old Core 2 Duo Studio XPS—in both graphics and CPU workloads—and the audio really needs to be experienced to hear how good it is (relative to other laptops as well as basic desktop speakers). There really isn't a single show-stopper in sight. Gamers will still pine for a better GPU like the 460M, particularly if they want to drive the 1080p panel at native resolution and medium to high detail settings, but for the price the new XPS line comes with everything I would recommend in a modern laptop. That's the initial experience, but I'm sure you want some benchmarks and concrete data to back things up, so let's get to it.

Dell XPS L501x: Windows' MacBook Pro Alternative Dell XPS L501x Application Performance
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  • Goblerone - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Still waiting for clarification for why the GTX 580 review compared against reference clocked competitor cards whereas the Radeon 6870 review compared against factory overclocked cards.

    Cool thanks!
  • The_Assimilator - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Maybe because there weren't any overclocked GTX 580s available at launch? And please, stop with the whining about the comparisons.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Because everyone complained about the use of an overclocked card so Ryan and Anand chose to not use any overclocked cards in future comparisons. I thought that was pretty clear, in light of all the complaining that occurred, and the overclocked results for 6850 are available. Besides, GTX 580 is going up against 6900 next month or whenever, and that will be the real comparison.

    As I see it, imagine NVIDIA came out with GTX 560 right now, instead of AMD with the 6800. Imagine AMD's partners had a ton of highly overclocked 5870 parts and we put one in as a reference point for what the competition could do. Then we concluded that the GTX 560 was still a good card and worth purchasing, based on power and performance and price, but that the overclocked 5870 was highly competitive. That's basically what happened in reverse, and I'm still surprised at how upset people got.

    But this is neither the time nor the place for that discussion so I'd appreciate it if we could avoid bringing up separate articles that have nothing to do with this review.

    Or if you want another example, imagine I reviewed an ASUS laptop, and in the conclusion I put the whole package into the grand scheme of the market. What if I then said that while the performance was good, other factors were so neglected that need work. Or what if I discussed something like a MacBook, Envy, etc. in a review of a Dell laptop? The horror!

    Personally, I view my job as a journalist/hardware reviewer to be one of coming up with the best recommendations, regardless of manufacturer. If HP suddenly priced the Envy 14 at $850 just to compete with the L501x, but it was a limited time offer, I'd still happily mention the option in my review. Giving more detail and points of reference has never been a bad thing to me (unless it gets to the point where my graphs become unwieldy of course). That's my two cents, for what it's worth.
  • Evil_Sheep - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Actually the Envy 14 was dropped to $850 about a week ago in a limited time deal (already expired), only available through Logicbuy. It was actually a $400 off coupon on any config over $1250, which meant some decent specs as well.

    I wouldn't be surprised to see more offers like this from HP in the future to keep them competitive, especially after disappointments like the loss of the Radiance panel and, on the Beats edition, the removal of the included headphones.
  • khimera2000 - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Isint this already covered??? its like beeting a dead horse for a week strait. they goofed, and now there doing there best to make up for it. thats all i need.
  • erple2 - Friday, November 12, 2010 - link

    I'm also waiting for clarification about the global economic recovery plan put forth by the G20 Summit meeting in S. Korea!
  • a1trips - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    I didn't weigh into the debate earlier but i would tend to support your position that all information must be given the reader on the assumption that they are mature adults who can make up their own minds.

    I still don't see what the hullabaloo was about regarding the overclocked card and i thought those who didn't care were in the majority, but that's just my take.

  • Osamede - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Let's face it Dell still doesnt get it. Shipping a 15" unit with a 6 cell battery that isnt going to last all that long is no good. And the "option" of a 9-cell that sticks out like a sore thumb is just outdated.

    I'm no Apple fan but at least they understand that a quality laptop is one that doesnt leave you worrying about your battery AND doesnt have huge lumps sticking out of it.

    In any case this 15" brick unit is a sideshow and is no change really, as Dell has always had 15" units with a decent screen that were ugly like this one.

    The real point where we will know that PC makers are actually interested in upping their game is when they start producing lightweight laptops at 13" or 14" that have top notch screens. At that point we can discuss. But really only Sony is making a play there. The rest are jokers, Dell included.
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    There are plenty of users for whom 3-4 hours of battery life is plenty, as they use the system mostly as a DTR and not on the go. No point in making the system large enough to hold the 9 cell battery when a large number of users don't need that capacity.

    Better battery life by default in Windows would be nice, but if it is a choice between having all the varied hardware available and better battery life tweaks I would definitely take the hardware choices. I also don't consider Apple's integrated battery to be at all an option.
  • pieterjan - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    This thing must be the ugliest notebook Dell ever pooped out. Okay, it has some aluminum panels, but so do street poles.

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