Dell XPS L501x: Windows' MacBook Pro Alternative

We've lamented the state of Windows laptops on numerous occasions; the formula is "tried and true", but that doesn't mean we like it. Put in reasonably fast components, give us sufficient memory and hard drive capacity…and then match this with a cheap (usually glossy) plastic case and the least expensive (again, glossy) LCD panel you can find. Acer (and sub-company Gateway) has truly perfected the art, with a keyboard that all three of our laptop reviewers dislike/loathe/vilify, but they're certainly not the only culprit. ASUS, Toshiba, Dell, HP, and many others use variations of the same basic pattern, and what we're left with is a matter of finding out who if anyone can make something that truly stands out from the crowd.

Of course, if we're talking about standing out from the crowd, one name almost immediately comes to mind: Apple. Love 'em or hate 'em, Apple has definitely put more time and energy into creating a compelling mobile experience. It starts with building a high quality system, but it reaches beyond that into the core OS X experience. Whatever Apple is doing, the result is significantly better battery life under OS X for the components and battery capacity—and as we've shown, moving to Windows 7 largely negates any battery life advantage.

HP created their Envy line to go after the same target market, only forget the OS X stuff and simply build a better consumer notebook that doesn't feel like a cheap piece of plastic. Now, Dell is throwing its hat into the ring with the return of their XPS line. Yes, you could argue that the Studio XPS went after the same market, but the chassis now comes with a magnesium-alloy frame and eschews glossy plastic; the result looks and feels better (in our opinion) than the old Studio XPS 16. Dell also ships Waves Audio Maxx and JBL certified speakers on all the new XPS models, with a claim that these are the best laptop speakers on the market. We'll try to put that claim to the test, but before we get to the evaluation here's the specifications on our test system.

Dell XPS 15 L501x Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-460M
(2x2.53GHz, 32nm, 3MB L3, Turbo to 2.80GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM57
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333 (Max 8GB)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 420M 1GB GDDR3
96 SPs, 500/1000/1600MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
Display 15.6" B+GR LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HW1) (Upgrade)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM HDD
(Seagate Momentus 7200.4 ST9500420AS)
Optical Drive Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo (Upgrade)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n (Intel WiFi Link 6200AGN) (Upgrade)
Bluetooth 3.0 (Upgrade)
Audio 2.1 JBL Speakers + Waves Audio
(Stereo speakers and subwoofer)
Microphone and two headphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 4.9Ah, 56Wh
Front Side Memory Card Reader
Left Side Exhaust vent
1 x USB 3.0
Right Side Optical Drive
2 x Headphone Jack
Microphone Jack
1 x eSATA/USB 2.0 Combo
Back Side Mini DisplayPort
HDMI 1.4
Gigabit Ethernet
TV Input (Optional)
AC Power Connection
1 x USB 3.0
Kensington Lock
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 15.0" x 10.4" x 1.3-1.5" (WxDxH)
Weight 6.14 lbs (with 6-cell battery)
Extras Waves Maxx Audio 3
2MP Skype HD Certified Webcam (H.264)
86-Key backlit keyboard
Flash reader (SD/IO/XC/HC, MS/Pro/XC, MMC, xD)
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
2-year and 3-year warranties available
Pricing Starting Price: $850
Price as configured: $1220

Most of the specs are standard stuff, but a few areas stand out from the crowd. One clear advantage over competing laptops is the 1080p LCD, and it takes about two seconds after you first power on the laptop to determine that yes, we have a winner here! Throw in what is obviously a higher-than-500:1 contrast ratio and the 1080p resolution and we're sold. The high color gamut (~100% AdobeRGB 1998) means the picture looks oversaturated at times, but given the choice between a 45% gamut and a 100% gamut we'll take the latter. What's great is that the total price of the LCD upgrade is only $130, and considering the amount of time you spend staring at the display it's money well spent in our book!

The speakers are another item where the XPS is head and shoulders above the crowd. The subwoofer adds much-needed bass, and sound clarity in general is very good. The Waves Maxx Audio 3 might matter more for audio professionals that regular users, but Waves does give you quite a few options for tweaking the way your laptop sounds. You won't be replacing your home theater system with laptop speakers, obviously, but the L501x can get very loud and do so without severe distortion. Personally, these rate as the best laptop speakers I've used (which isn't saying much), but how important that is depends on the individual.

Similar to the Waves audio in terms of how much it will matter is the HD webcam, and this is apparently the first Skype HD certified laptop. With H.264 support, the webcam in theory allows you to chat with others and get a higher quality video, though the video you get still depends on the other user's camera. In practice, getting an HD video connection with Skype requires at least 512Kbps of bandwidth in both directions, and even when you have that it doesn't always work. The webcam does work fine otherwise, but we never did manage a high quality HD video conference, perhaps because of bandwidth limitations (even though we tested on a 12/1Mb connection).

As mentioned, this is our first encounter with a mainstream NVIDIA 400M part, and we're quite curious to see how the 420M compares to the previous generation parts. NVIDIA has given us an estimate of 30% faster, but that would probably mean 30% faster than the 320M, which would make the 420M around the same performance as GT 335M—only with DX11 support naturally. In other words, we don't expect to be blown away by the 420M, especially if we try to run games at the 1080p LCD resolution! 400M also means the HDMI port is version 1.4, and there's a mini DisplayPort connection as well. This isn't a gaming laptop, unlike some of the previous XPS designs, but it will handle "mainstream" gaming…at a lower resolution than the 1080p panel. Thankfully, you can run at lower resolutions, and the panel is great in multimedia and general use even if 1080p requires quite a bit more GPU before it becomes reasonable.

Of the remaining features, only two final items are worthy of note. One is the backlit keyboard and the other is USB 3.0 ports—two of them. The keyboard isn't your typical chiclet option either; while it may not displace the ThinkPads for comfort, it works well. There's an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port as well, so while expansion options don't include ExpressCard and you miss the Firewire port (sorry Dustin!), everything else you'd expect on a good mainstream notebook is here. Other extras like a Blu-ray combo drive, Bluetooth 3.0, a 2-year warranty, faster CPUs, a GeForce GT 435M, and a larger hard drive (or an SSD) are also available if you're interested. We do have one complaint about the upgrades, however: you can only order the faster 435M GPU if you get a quad-core CPU, which means you lose Optimus support in the process. The CPU+GPU upgrade also bumps the power adapter up to a larger 130W unit in place of the normal 90W brick, which addresses a problem some users experienced with CPU/GPU throttling on the old Studio XPS 16.

Given the price, what we have is Dell's direct competitor to Apple's entry-level MacBook, and frankly there's no competition in performance or features. The MacBook only leads if you want one of two things: a smaller size, or the ability to run OS X (without going the Hackintosh route). The standard 6-cell battery provides good if not great battery life, while an upgraded 92Wh 9-cell battery should provide for all-day computing if you don't try watching videos or playing games. The specs of our slightly upgraded unit also compete very well against the ASUS N82Jv—similar performance with a dramatically superior LCD—as well as the HP Envy line. If you pick the L501x up on one Dell's routine sales (i.e. the current sale available on all but the entry-level unit) you can cut costs even more. With improved build quality and features, the new XPS L501x is a great update to the old Studio XPS 16; the name change doesn't really matter in our book, as we thought the old model was good regardless, but Dell has addressed all the areas where users had complaints and produced a very compelling midrange (mainstream) notebook offering.

Up Close and Personal with the Dell XPS L501x
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 23, 2010 - link

    Hilarious... search for L501x and all you get are support documents for the XPS L501x, including a BIOS update. Search for XPS 15 and you get a bit closer. Just go to the following link and select the model you want:
  • danielt - Monday, November 22, 2010 - link

    Nice screen at 1080p, but GPU is not up to the task. Even the cheaper Acer Timelinex 4820TG performs better than XPS15 (same core i5) in gaming and multiprocessing.
    So for XPS15, GPU fail while A/V is good.
    For 4820TG, GPU is good while A/V fails.
  • danielt - Monday, November 22, 2010 - link

    You guys at anandtech should give 4820TG some tests, and see for yourself its benchmarks and gaming power.
    BTW, judging from your tests on XPS15, even the cheaper Gateway ID49 performs better in many games..
  • CalvinW - Tuesday, November 23, 2010 - link

    Is it out there the perfect PC or Mac?Will it come the day when we can go to the store and grab the perfect computer? NO, it won't . I hope not, otherwise the experience of shopping/ reviewing computers will be meaningless. If you want a quasi-perfect PC just build a desktop or if you want a portable one well, go with the market.
    Moreover,I like this XPS15 because its features, but not because of its design. Dell could have gotten one of those guys that design for Apple and get something aesthetically beautiful to the eye. But what is beautiful for me, might be ugly for you though.
    If you need a Mac to go out to a cafe and get looks of approval from people, or being accepted by a social group, well do it if you have the means to spend for a computer. I do love Macs but the MacPro are not professional at all.
    As for PCs there is variety out there, there is more space to innovate, and there are many of us that want something more flexible in hardware, and perhaps OS system. Certainly, Windows 7 has its flaws, and it won't be perfect, but guys you have options... if you don't like this PC don't buy it, don't even read the reviews; also, and if you have problems with self-esteem, and therefore need a machine to show off buy one appealing to your friends and stop whining like a child.
  • Tetranode - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    I'm about to buy one of these, but I want to know if it's at all possible to install XP on it. Yes, I'm a software luddite etc. who runs XP on a q9550@3.6 and so forth, but I like the results.

    Any info is appreciated.
  • EnzoM3 - Monday, December 6, 2010 - link

    Hopefully it'll as good as the review says.
  • Luke2.0 - Sunday, December 12, 2010 - link

    Out of curiosity, I was just checking the site
    That's the correct model, right?

    As of this moment, the option to upgrade to full HD resolution is gone.
    Just a few days ago, it was priced at $195 for the upgrade. (too high demand?)

    For whatever reason causing the hike and the subsequent removal of that upgrade, the gold-medalist is not so golden now IMO. Hmmm...
  • IanWorthington - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    Looking on dell's site for the 1080 screen today, can't find it. Is it still available?
  • Taimfrey - Wednesday, December 15, 2010 - link

    I've been looking at this laptop for a while and have customized it on their website a few times to figure out what I want and how much I want to spend. Tonight I got on and the option to add the 1080p screen was no longer available. I called Dell and apparently now only the alienware laptops have the 1080p screen as an option. I hope this is a temporary adjustment due to the holiday, or else I'm going to buy somewhere else. Seems like a rather poor move on their part, especially after a review like this.
  • Photon0000 - Monday, December 20, 2010 - link

    The 1600 x 900 LCD display on the XPS 17 is for me not usable for image work and unpleasant to use period. It does not have any viewing angle you can tilt the lid to that will provide a consistent appearing image. Lift your chin and the image changes. If you tilt the lid so the webcam has you centered the image on the LCD is washed out like you are looking at it through mist. There is no sweet spot. As you tilt the screen its a continuous unbroken progression from washed out to loss of detail in dark areas. In any given position just lift your chin and the image changes. The only thing wrong with this laptop is the LCD but even the replacement they sent has the same unacceptable screen. I'm returning both. I'll just have to make do with my 5 year old 17" Inspiron 9300 which doesn't have any lid tilt viewing angle issues. Hopefully Dell will make a quality 17" screen option available at some point.

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