Long-term review: The Dell XPS 15 Touch is the laptop to beat

Dell's latest Windows 10 laptop is lightweight and powerful, with one of the best displays around.

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Thunderbolt 3 on USB-C

The Dell XPS 15 9550 is something of a landmark laptop for more than just high-resolution, compact packaging and a MacBook Pro-like trackpad. It's among the very first model lines to sport the new USB Type C port-based Thunderbolt 3 technology.

Without Thunderbolt 3, the USB-C port -- such as the one that ships on Apple's 12-inch MacBook -- adheres to the USB 3.1 Gen 2 spec, which delivers a maximum data-transfer rate of 10Gbps. The same port with a lightning bolt symbol next to it supports Thunderbolt 3, which provides transfer rates up to 40Gbps.

dell thunderbolt dock tb15a Dell

The Dell Thunderbolt Dock provides a variety of ports for use with Thunderbolt 3 systems such as the XPS 15.

Thunderbolt 3 is about to become the new de facto docking station connection. It supports power up to 100 watts for system charging, up to 15 watts for bus-powered devices, four lanes of bidirectional PCI express, eight lanes of bidirectional DisplayPort 1.2, DVI, HDMI, VGA, 10-gigabit Ethernet and the ability to daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt 3 devices. The Dell XPS 15 is among the first laptops to be Thunderbolt 3 certified.

There weren't any Thunderbolt 3 products I could test at press time, but USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 had a solid presence at CES, with a long list of products announced and set to ship in the first quarter. One such product is the Dell Thunderbolt Dock ($299), which shipped on January 28th. It provides several ports, including three USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, DisplayPort, VGA and Thunderbolt 3. The docking station can support two 4K monitors simultaneously at 60Hz or one 5K monitor.

Disappointingly, the XPS 15's onboard HDMI port only meets the 1.4 spec, not HDMI 2.0, which means that it can't display a higher resolution than 1080p at 60Hz. I can understand why this would be the case in the $1,000 base model. But half the model line delivers 4K resolution; it's a shame that Dell didn't spring for the HDMI 2.0 port, which supports 4K at 60Hz. Better yet, it should have given strong consideration to a Mini DisplayPort, which also supports 4K at 60Hz. The XPS 15 is wholly dependent on the Thunderbolt 3 port for displaying 4K externally at the proper 60 frames per second (fps).

The XPS 15 9550 is also missing an Ethernet port. Nor is there any Thunderbolt 2 connectivity. In addition to the HDMI and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, it has two USB 3.0 ports with power-sharing, an SD Card port and a headset jack.

It's relatively easy to find inexpensive adapters for the slower 5Gbps USB-C standard to add ports for USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet, VGA, DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort. For full support of HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.2, however, you might be better off waiting and paying more for the much faster Thunderbolt 3 adapters that are on the way.

General design

The XPS 15 9550 has top-notch build quality. MacBook Pro 15 Retinas have more case flex than this Dell. It's very solid.

In fact, on first impression, I was a little surprised at the heft of the laptop, given its overall size. It's not heavy; it's just heavier than it looks. The sides slope upward and outward as they rise from the bottom. Even so, it has an overall boxy feel, probably because of the sharp corners.

The carbon fiber deck is supple and warm. Key travel is short at 1.3mm, but the keyboard manages to inspire the MacBook Pro's "dance across the top of the keys" typing style. The key caps would be slightly better with a bit more concavity and sculpting. The keyboard backlighting works exactly like the MacBook Pro's and can come in handy.

Even under heavy usage, this laptop keeps its cool and the fans aren't as loud as with some other laptops. Part of why it handles heat well may be due to the design of the "feet" that raise the flat bottom of the laptop about 3/16 in. to let air in. This may even work on uneven surfaces, because instead of placing four footpads in the corners, Dell machined parallel ridges, one in front and one in the back, that run continuously across the bottom of the case. The two raised footings sport rounded-over rubber strips, which also give the XPS 15 a lot of traction.

A large side-to-side fan intake sits between the two horizontally running supports. I suspect this laptop wouldn't have its cooling air choked off even if it were left on a soft tablecloth or a bed. It's a smart design.

One design point: It's impossible to open the lid of this notebook with one hand. The friction hinge is so tight that the whole laptop just lifts up. A second hand is required to sneak a finger in and hold down the bottom portion of the laptop as you raise the top. That can be a little tedious. Perhaps it will loosen over time. That said, I'd rather have this problem than a lid whose friction hinge is too loose.

Performance

The 6th Generation Intel i7 6700hq is a sort of middle-of-the-pack Skylake quad-core mobile CPU with an integrated graphics processor, the Intel 530. The Dell XPS 15 held its own in Maxon Cinebench r15 and Google Octane 2 benchmark tests.

Cinebench measured the Dell XPS 15 9550 at 96 fps on its OpenGL test. The Dell scored 138 for a single CPU and 674 with the four cores working in concert on Cinebench's CPU test. It turned out a Google Octane 2 score of 36157.

We ran the same benchmarks on a MacBook Pro 15 Retina that was configured with a 2.5GHz Intel quad core i7 4870HQ CPU; 16GB RAM; 512GB SSD; dual graphics processors (an AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and an Intel Iris 5200 Pro) and a 15.4-in. onboard display with a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1200 (2880 x 1800 external). Interestingly, and with the possible exception of the OpenGL score (which was surprisingly high, since high-resolution computers usually have trouble pushing frames per second), the Dell's test results were perhaps only half a notch faster than the Mac's. Keep in mind that the Dell was pushing around a lot more pixels -- if it wasn't a 4K notebook, the Dell might have done even better.

Benchmark results: Dell XPS 15 9550 vs. Apple MacBook Pro 15 (mid-2015)

 Dell XPS 15Apple MacBook Pro 15
Cinebench r15    
          OpenGL 96.04 fps 66.62 fps
          CPU 674 597
          CPU (single) 138 N/A
Google Octane 2 36157 33969
Higher is better for all results.

The Crucial 2133MHz DDR4 RAM is exceptionally fast in the Dell. In operation, for all kinds of computing tasks, I found the XPS 15 to be responsive and willing. I have yet to experience any kind of sluggish behavior in any activity. It's a fast machine, but not flashy about it.

I didn't do formal battery run-down testing on the XPS 15. But after living with the laptop for nearly two months, it's clear the huge battery in the touchscreen model gives you a lot of running time. Dell claims up to 17 hours, which is probably a bit overstated. I think most people will get 6 to 8 hours -- or more, if they're frugal with power. With a display like this one, that's excellent.

Bottom line

I've found a lot of mostly minor things to pick on, but don't be misled by that. The Dell XPS 9550 is a well-designed, well-equipped laptop, and although Windows 10 isn't perfect, it's a whole lot better than Windows 8. Together they're a pleasure to use.

In fact, the Dell XPS 15 9550 is the finest Windows notebook I've ever used. Getting a beautiful 15.6-in. 4K touchscreen in a package that feels hardly bigger than a 13-in. machine is a serious advantage, and the Precision Touchpad has been a contributing factor in why my MacBook Pro has collected a thin layer of dust over the past two weeks.

I didn't make a conscious decision, but I may have switched back to Windows without realizing it. Time will tell. One thing that's sure, Dell has built the laptop to beat. If there were a Super Bowl for laptop computers, the XPS 15 would be the champ.

This story, "Long-term review: The Dell XPS 15 Touch is the laptop to beat" was originally published by Computerworld.

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