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
Comments Locked


View All Comments

  • cknobman - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    I agree completely.

    This notebook is bfugly, big and fat!!!!!!
  • JohnMD1022 - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Seagate drive?

    I'll pass.

    Just had another bad one pass thru the shop.
  • vant - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Are you kidding me? This is quite possibly one of the ugliest laptops I've seen in a while. I seriously feel like no one at Dell's design team is younger than 50. Just look at the first picture posted and tell me thats not more hideous than a puddle of urine.

    At least the previous XPS had leather and modern styling. This seriously looks like 'hey we need some high quality materials and Apple like design cues!' but then they just f*ed up everything in the process of getting it to market.

    Seriously, with a design like that you can stuff two quad core i7s (desktop of course), 16GB of RAM, a GTX480, 200+ ppi display, a $1k price tag and NO ONE WOULD BUY IT.

    Dell, HP, Toshiba, ASUS, etc.: They all need a wake up call and realize that their products are being used in the public at coffee shops, not in private homes. We have to use these products around people who look at us. We need products that look modern and work well with our mobile lifestyles. That means we need LIGHTWEIGHT, SMALL FORM FACTOR (thin would be nice), and LARGE AMOUNTS OF BATTERY LIFE.

    The average user doesn't need a Core i7 on their laptops, the average user needs 12 hours of battery life instead. We don't need 420Ms, we need laptops that will actually fit in our backpacks (without making us look like we are carrying an animal).

    How companies are still losing market share while putting trash products like these to market and surviving is baffling. They will continue to bleed until death or change. Their choice.

    I'd like to take this time to also point out that copying the competition gets you nowhere. Innovating is where the money is.
  • barnett25 - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Are you sure you are talking about the "average user" and not just yourself?

    Cause I have no need for a thin and light laptop. I've got a smartphone for that. If your spending all your time at starbucks showing off you should get a Mac.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they should not make thin and lights, just that not every computer has to be one.
  • nafhan - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Uhm, I'd say your wrong, there are some people who need 12 hours of battery life, but it's not the "average" user. The average user is rarely going to take their laptop out of the house/dorm, and when they do, it's going to be to a coffee shop or something. I also think there's still a few people out there who aren't going to pay an extra $800 to make sure their PC is pretty.
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Umm, yeah, I would say you fit the target market for a Mac exactly. But that is not the "average user". I have had one laptop or another for 11 years, and have used one in a coffee shop maybe 5 times (when meeting with clients). And I certainly have never needed 12 hours of battery life, I've never spent 12 hours straight at any computer portable or not. Not to say I am an "average user" either, but I'm not delusional enough to think everyone needs what I would like. And I don't derive feelings of self-worth from what my laptop looks like.
  • B3an - Friday, November 12, 2010 - link

    Who the fuck takes there laptop to a coffee shop to pose? Oh yeah... mactards.
    For the rest of us mature people with more than single digit braincell counts, we want laptops like this that are actually useful.

    This isn't even meant to aimed at these kind of sheeple. Theres laptops made specificity to be very portable, thin, lightweight, with low power usage/long batter life, and this CLEARLY is not intended as one. Idiot.
  • PlasmaBomb - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Any chance of you asking for one and doing a review of it?

    Thanks :)
  • tipoo - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    Why are Macbook Pro battery life results never put in with windows laptop reviews? I understand the differences in benchmarking performance between the two, but in terms of battery life it should be a straightforward comparison, no?
  • kake - Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - link

    If you look at the charts on the battery performance page, you'll find the Apple MBP 13 near the top of the heap in every scenario.

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now