The ultra-sharp 4K display on Dell's XPS 15 laptop is impressive, but is it overkill on a work notebook? The XPS 15 is actually aimed at video and graphics professionals, as well as consumers who want the best possible display for viewing movies and playing games. But this premium notebook has the chops to woo general business users, with a nice keyboard, speedy performance and above-average battery life.
Plus, there's the option to downgrade to a lower-res display to knock around $550 off the price of the 4K model, bringing the cost of the laptop down from $2,150 to a more reasonable, but still steep, $1,600. But the question remains: If you're going to spend that much on a work laptop, should you opt for a business-class notebook instead?
The XPS 15 looks pretty slick, with an all-aluminum lid that's reminiscent of Apple's MacBook Pro. The matte-silver finish looks great, and it's certainly flashier than the no-nonsense black and grey designs of most business-class notebooks. Inside, the soft-touch keyboard deck feels luxurious, providing a really comfortable spot on which to rest your wrists. Meanwhile, the aluminum accent lines around the edges are a nice premium touch, while the bottom is made from tough carbon fiber.
Everything looks and feels extremely rigid and sturdy, which is a good quality in a work notebook. Keep in mind, though, that the XPS 15 doesn't offer the same military-grade durability certification as business-class notebooks like the ThinkPad W550s or HP ZBook 15u, which are tested to withstand short drops, dings, shocks and extreme temperatures. The XPS 15 feels solid, but you're sure to scratch up its pretty, silver lid if you start lugging it around on business trips.
The defining feature of the XPS 15 is its ridiculously sharp 15-inch 4K display, which has a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. But you'll pay a lot for the 4k model, which starts at $2,149. While the ultra-sharp display certainly looks impressive at a glance, only photographers and video professionals will really be able to make the most of this kind of pixel density.
Dell also sells a lower-end version of the XPS 15, which comes equipped with a full-HD, 1,920 x 1,080-pixel screen — in other words, half the pixels of the 4K model. This model sells for $1,600, which is still pricey but much more reasonable for the average business user. I didn't test the lower-end model, but I know from my experience with similarly equipped notebooks that it's an adequate resolution for a 15-inch laptop, providing enough virtual real estate for comfortable split-screen multitasking.
All models come with a touch display, which felt nice and responsive on my review unit for navigating around Windows 8.1. Touch panels add weight and cost, though, but probably don't add much useful functionality for the average business user. That's why I wish Dell sold a nontouch version of the XPS 15.
The XPS 15's keyboard just feels great to type on. The keys are large and well spaced, and each key has a nice, sculpted surface that makes the keyboard easy to navigate by touch. You also get about 1.6mm of travel, which is above the 1.5mm notebook average. That's good, since deeper keys offer a more comfortable, desktoplike feel. The keys also feel snappy, offering a good amount of feedback.
The 4.1 x 3.1-inch touchpad on the XPS 15 feels nice and roomy, with a smooth finish that my finger glides over easily. Mousing around feels nice and accurate, and gestures like two-finger scrolling work well.
The buttons are built into the pad itself, which is fine by me. Some users prefer dedicated buttons for more-precise left and right clicks, but built-in buttons leave more room to move the mouse.
It's worth pointing out that business-class notebooks like the ThinkPad W550s and HP ZBook 15u offer an additional cursor-navigation tool in the form of pointing sticks that let you control the mouse without moving your hands away from the keyboard. That's a feature you don't get on the XPS 15.
Long battery life is a crucial feature in a good business notebook, and power-hungry high-res displays like the one on the XPS 15 can work against that. Fortunately, the notebook manages to achieve above-average battery life for a 15-inch notebook, running for about 7 hours in our battery life test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi with the screen set to 100 nits of brightness.
That's more than an hour longer than the mainstream notebook average (5:49). The 15-inch MacBook Pro did last longer (8:29), but it has a lower-res screen.
I didn't get to test the battery life on the lower-end 1080p model, but I suspect that it lasts longer on a charge. That's because 4K displays tend to be power hungry, and usually drain your battery more quickly.
Ports and connectivity
The XPS 15 gives you most, but not all, of the same ports you'd find on a 15-inch business-class notebook. That includes four USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, a mini DisplayPort and an HDMI port.
Machines like the ThinkPad W550s and ZBook 15u give you additional ports, such as a Smart Card reader for added security, and an Ethernet port for connecting to wired Internet and office networks. Those machines also have special docking connectors that make it easy to link the notebooks to a desktop dock, something the XPS 15 lacks.
A good webcam is nice for meeting with clients and colleagues remotely, using video chat software such as Skype. I found that the XPS 15's front-facing camera captured nice, bright images. A selfie I captured in my brightly lit office was a bit grainy, but that's typical for notebook webcams. Plus, the XPS produces loud, clear audio, so you'll have no trouble hearing the person on the other end of your video call.
Performance and configurations
There are three different XPS 15 models to choose from. As previously mentioned, the low-end model packs a lower-res, 1080p touch screen, as well as an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive, all for $1,599. We didn't get to test it, but this model should offer enough power to satisfy the average business user.
If you want the 4K display — though most business users won't — you'll have to pay at least $2,149. In addition to the sharper screen, you get a speedier Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory and the same 1TB hard drive.
Our review unit was the top-end configuration, which replaces that model's spinning hard drive with a speedier 512GB solid-state drive (SSD). The machine proved incredibly powerful, running without a hint of slowdown during heavy multitasking.
On the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the XPS 15 notched an impressive score of 11,816, which is way above the category average of 9,308. However, a similarly equipped MacBook Pro netted an even better score of 13,352.
Lenovo's ThinkPad W550s has a 2,880 x 1,620-pixel, 15.5-inch display that's sharp, but lower-res than the screen on the XPS 15. The W550s also offers business-class features like an Ethernet port, extra durability, a fingerprint reader and a 10-key number pad, and it starts at a more affordable $1,196. But at 5.47 lbs., it weighs nearly a full pound more than the XPS 15.
HP's ZBook 15u G2 is a 15.6-inch notebook that's pretty slim compared to other business-class workstations, at 0.84 inches thick. But it's thicker than the 0.6-inch XPS 15. Meanwhile, the ZBook 15u's 1,920 x 1,080-pixel display is adequate for the screen size, but it's lower res than the screens on competing notebooks.
Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display has a 2,880 x 1,800-pixel screen that's slightly lower res than the XPS 15's display, but the MacBook Pro lasts longer on a charge. Otherwise, the machine matches up pretty well to the XPS 15, since it also lacks business-class features.
For its intended audience of graphics professionals and video-loving consumers, the XPS 15 is hard to beat. But does this pricey machine have a place in your office, especially when 15-inch business notebooks like the ThinkPad W550s offer more business-centric features at a lower price? It really depends on what you want out of your next notebook.
If you want a sleek and relatively portable 15-inch work laptop, the XPS 15 beats most (but not all) business-class challengers on that front. And while the notebook's supersharp 4K display is probably overkill on a work laptop, it is nice for screen-intensive multitasking — so long as you don't mind paying a premium price for it. Plus, there's always the option of downgrading to a lower-res model to knock around $550 off the price tag.
On the other hand, notebooks designed for work — such as the ThinkPad W550s and ZBook 15u — have business-centric features that you won't find here, including better security features, increased durability and additional ports. If you value those features, pass on the XPS 15.