It appeared an odd coincidence that on the day I realised my MacBook Pro would need to go in for some potentially pretty hefty repairs, I would receive delivery of the Dell XPS 15z, the high performance laptop that can only be described as a keen admirer of the machine that I hold dearest at the moment. From almost every angle, it would seem an obvious replica of Apple’s flagship portable, a machine which has won hearts and minds for its craftsmanship and its beauty. And here, in an almost mocking fashion, I’m being stared in the face by something which in truth, is kidding no-one.
The model I’ve been given to review for Zath is actually at the top end of the three which are available here in the UK, with the entry level model setting you back a modest £899 and offering a Sandy Bridge Core i5 clocked at 2.3GHz, 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive, however if you make the step up to the intermediate option, for £100 extra you’ll get a 1920 x 1080 display as I have in this, even more lucrative model. This last leap will also give you a Core i7 clocked at its advertised limit of 2.7GHz, an extra 4GB of RAM and a bump from 1GB to 2GB of VRAM inside an impressive NVIDIA GeForce GT 525m GPU. On top of that you’ll also be lavished with an extra 250gb worth of space. Obviously, you’ll only be lavished if you part with more cash, and this model is a more hefty £1,199. However, compared to a similarly specced MacBook Pro, or even a HP Envy, you’re saving a lot of dough, to the tune of not pennies, or a night out, but hundreds of well-earned pounds.
However, when a product is placed so closely in line with the latest MacBook Pro laptops, the problem becomes not what the machine is capable of, because it’s hard to deny that the spec on offer with this machine is extremely impressive, but more the ethos of the company that crafted them. Apple has a clear mentality that experience is everything. Create a near perfect user experience, and the price can be sorted out later. Dell, meanwhile, taking a far less luxurious stance, simply attempts to create the most capable and powerful machines for each individual budget. Why that’s a problem is clearer in the XPS 15z more than any other machine I’ve tested, as whilst it’s obvious it will handle almost anything I throw at it (more on that later), I just don’t enjoy using it as much as I do the MacBook. Of course, you pay a price for such exquisite engineering, but when you’re splashing out over £1000 on a laptop anyway, some of the little quirks are quite inexcusable.
With internals this good on paper, you’d expect performance to be more than impressive for the budget. And as I mentioned before, it has pretty much handled everything I could throw at it with aplomb, including graphically intensive games such as Crysis and Battlefield Bad Company 2 on medium visual settings. The machine features switchable graphics, using the battery saving Intel HD chip during basic tasks, but using the powerful NVIDIA GPU with 2GB of memory. Of course, for this budget it would be an odd move for Dell to make it too outstanding, as it’d encroach on its Alienware gaming laptops that are a great deal more expensive in general. However, for a circa-£1000 machine, it’s good for a casual gaming session on pretty much any current title.
Packing 8GB of DDR3 RAM is no mean feat either, and whilst it’s becoming a more common occurrence in top-end PC’s, it’s still good for most of your multitasking needs, and coupled with that GPU and i7 CPU, will allow you to make the most of that 1080p display, which incidentally has almost perfect viewing angles, watching movies, and still leave room for playing games and running your day-to-day tasks such as web browsing, email, Twitter and IM all simultaneously. Of course, it’d be a strange situation in which you’d be watching a movie and playing a game at the same time, but the fact is you can, and if you’re busy with a heap of stuff, you’re covered.
Interestingly, however, despite performing excellently in the practical tests I put it through, GeekBench gave it a relatively meagre benchmark score of 5830, which interestingly is only 300 more than my MacBook Pro, which has half the RAM, a Core i5, much inferior GPU and a slower spinning hard drive. And in spite of having one of the latest Sandy Bridge Core i7 processors, scores only half the incredibe 12000 score of the latest iMac in the floating point performance tests. Having said that, its still the most outstanding aspect of the machine according to the test.
Another obviously critical aspect of any PC test is the battery life, which also stands in pretty good stead. During normal use, it’ll suck it up for a good 3 hours, however there are a lot of variables to take into account, including use of the backlit keyboard, display brightness, and which GPU, apart from the obvious stress on the CPU etc. of course. Suffice it to say, you won’t be wanting to be gaming on the battery, you’ll only get an hour if you choose to do that, however for just catching up on a bit of work, checking email or browsing the web, you’ll be good for any healthy length of time.
Dell has also bundled in its own power saving settings, which dynamically adapts to what you’re doing at the time. No I don’t mean it’ll suddenly dim the screen under no instruction to do so, but it attempts to balance the power consumption of the internals when they’re not in use, for example. I’m a little skeptical as to whether this makes any difference at all, as having tested the battery on both ‘Dell’ and ‘Balanced’ power settings, the difference is hardly noticeable. Not at all, in fact. It sticks around 2-3 hours.
Of course, you get all the basics here such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, though the machine was plagued by Wi-Fi connectivity issues at launch, which are now fixed in case you have read user reviews elsewhere that put you off on this basis. Dell released a driver update recently which cleared up the constant network dropouts that became ever more infuriating.
What’s more interesting, however, are the ports, which are aplenty. You might not agree that only two USB ports is sufficient, but that’s all you get, and I have to say you seldom end up needing more. The problem, in an identical fashion to the MacBook Pro, is that the ports are confined to the left hand side, which can be uncomfortable and impractical, especially for a right-handed user trailing a wired mouse.
Apart from those awkwardly positioned ports, you have an eSATA port, HDMI-out, an SD-card slot, the interesting choice of a Mini DisplayPort and an even more Apple-esque LED battery life indicator down the left hand side.
Round the back you have the port for the charger, which typically of Dell is fatter than the standard AC adapter, alongside an Ethernet jack.
On the right, you’ve got a slot-loading optical drive and the headphone and microphone jacks.
So all in all a pretty well-baked pie on that front, though there’s definitely a hint of sweet, sweet Apples in there that leaves an all-too bitter taste in my mouth. Where’s the originality, the individuality and the innovation?
This is where things start to go a little pear-shaped for the 15z. Perhaps Apple-shaped would be more appropriate, but then again they tend to be a plump, perfectly rounded, nigh-on symmetrical, work of art. No, I’m not talking about the fruit, I’ m of course referring to the brain-child of Steve Jobs and co. The MacBook Pro is an arguably perfect example of aesthetics in minimalist computer design, and there’s no getting away from the fact that the 15z is striving not just for that level of endearment, but for that exact design. As you may have noted above, even the ports are laid out in a strikingly similar fashion, and the same could be said of the function keys that lay atop the keyboard in an entirely recognisable fashion. The minor details; the speakers laden either side of the keyboard, even the up and down arrow keys just meet in the middle in an originally MacBook fashion. Put it this way, it’s a good job they didn’t allow for those interchangeable lid designs on this model, or I’m certain a few would come bearing fruit as part of some kind of sick joke.
Having said all that with anger and a burning desire to get it off my chest, what we have here is, dare I say it, a good looking executive notebook. The design isn’t at all garish, the plain colours and the chrome trim provide a particularly ‘elite’ feel to it, and the slightly rounded silver keys provide a comfortable and perfectly bouncy typing area. I’ve used plenty of notebooks in my time on this beautifully crafted planet of ours, and I have to say, this is one of the, for lack of a better word, nicest to use.
Of course, without the unibody structure of the MacBook Pro, it doesn’t feel quite as sturdy, but the aluminium and magnesium alloy body feels firm and gives you just a little faith that a slight knock won’t turn it into Apple crumble.
One other small note I’d make is that I do regard Dell’s unique body design highly, in that rather than the typical clamshell design, the lid is offset from the very back and lays elegantly atop the machine itself by a solid metal hinge, rather than clinging on for dear life on a cheap plastic one.
Dell isn’t the only PC vendor we could accuse of bundling crapware with its computers, but that certainly doesn’t make it forgivable. Any of it being in any way usable is about as likely as a naked nun, however much less exciting I’m sure. In this instance, Dell has included its own suite, which so appropriately includes some sort of dock software, called ‘Dell Stage’. Now, anyone with any experience in Mac OS X will know that the dock is a fundamental part of the whole experience, but should that be besides the point, this is the most useful of all the bloat they’ve stuffed into this capable machine.
There’s also a data backup solution, some webcam software, which allows you to make funky filters all over your face just like in Photo Booth or the Microsoft Lifecam software, as well as a ‘support center’, which is pretty self explanatory I’m sure.
More importantly on the software side, though, is the inclusion of a multitouch trackpad. Of course you might be howling hardware at this point, but it allows for the inclusion of gestures, unseen on many a top-end PC, but mighty on the MacBook. This PC does indeed feature several of the gestures common to the Mac pre-Lion, but of course there’s a more limited selection, and without the glass trackpad, they really don’t work as well as I’d hoped. A three-finger sideways swipe will take you back or forward a page, a four-finger upward gesture will launch the task switcher , and the opposite will show the desktop. Sideways with as many fingers will launch that beautiful 3D task-switcher that arrived with Vista.
There’s no denying that the specs and the real-life performance of this machine are admirable. And even the lowest budget option of the three is still reasonable powerful considering the £899 price level. Both the design and the internals give every indication of a well-rounded machine that can adapt to any situation. It’s thin, it’s fairly light considering the materials it’s crafted from rather than the typical plastic, and therefore is suitable for home and business use alike.
However, there’s also no denying that when it comes down to it, there’s very little originality here, and that’s very disappointing. Taking many of the great features from the MacBook primarily, and making them slightly less good. The trackpad makes interaction, particularly with gestures especially awkward, and the overall user experience just isn’t on a par with Apple’s offering. Having said that, there’s a lot more competition out there than just from Apple – this is the notebook market, not tablet – and stacking up against most other PC’s of this budget, it is a worthy choice for any buyer.
The Dell XPS 15z is ‘cheap’, it’s durable, it’s powerful, and not to mention that Dell is renowned for it’s excellent support and service, you’d have to find something pretty special on this budget to sway you away from it. The bottom line is, I seldom enjoy using Dell machines, apart from the more luxurious offering of the Dell Adamo XPS when it was still around, yet I’ve lived with this for 10 days and once I got the Wi-Fi issue sorted out, it was very, very adequate.