Dell XPS 15 L501X
For a widescreen 15-inch laptop, the latest version of the Dell XPS 15 is a huge - if stylish - slab of a machine. The hefty base, with a curved cutout for the dropped hinge and stereo JBL speakers flanking the keyboard, makes the screen look slender by comparison, but this machine is something of a multimedia monster - at a mainstream price. Be prepared for the weight; by hefty, we mean 2.8kg. But packed inside the sturdy magnesium alloy chassis and tucked under the brushed aluminium lid are an impressive range of features, including one of the best screens we've seen on a mainstream notebook yet. Many features are optional extras though, so check the spec.
The one you'll definitely want is the 1080p screen on our review model; the 1920 by 1080 resolution and beautiful, bright colours make watching movies or streaming HD content a delight and the Nvidia GeForce 420M can easily keep up. (The Core i5 and speedy 7200rpm hard drive make the XPS 15 a great performer generally.)
The JBL speakers and the subwoofer on the base deliver sound to go with it that's nothing like what you expect from a 15-inch notebook. There's more than enough volume and excellent stereo separation (at least when you've got the XPS 15 on your lap). The bass in particular is strong and vibrant, the midrange is punchy and details in the music are clear, although even boosted the treble is a touch disappointing (you can also tune the output from the Realtek audio with the Waves MaxxAudio control panel, which has profiles for movies, music and conversation). You wouldn't mistake this for a high-end hi-fi setup, and we think HP's Beats audio has a slight edge, but it's still extremely impressive.
The XPS is what Dell and Nvidia call 3D ready; that means you can play 3D content from the Blu-ray drive (or the small amount of content that's online so far) if you hook it up to an external 3D TV. DisplayPort and HDMI 1.4 mean it's easy to connect to newer screens, but be aware there's no VGA port. There is an SPDIF connection for plugging in to stereo components, or you can use it as a second headphone socket for sharing movies (and the excellent viewing angle makes that work well).
The keyboard is almost lost in the case, with a huge wrist rest and an equally large touchpad (at 4-inches it's nearly the size of the MacBook Pro's). The keys have a reasonable feel and amount of travel, although this isn't the smoothest keyboard we've used. There's no flex at all, as you'd expect with something this sturdy, and the keyboard is the standard XPS layout, with a vertical column of navigation keys from Home at the top to End at the bottom. There's a dedicated key on the function row to turn off the touchpad, and a light to remind you it's turned off, which is good use of the space available.
The matte surface on the touchpad gives you enough texture to make gestures comfortable; pinch/zoom, rotate and two-finger scrolling were all smooth and responsive and it's nice to see the full Synaptics control panel with options like momentum dragging (which carries on moving the pointer if you hit the edge of the trackpad - so you don't slow down suddenly in a game). The two separate mouse buttons are large enough to be usable rather than stylishly slender as well.
One thing confuses us about the mostly well-designed chassis; the battery and hard drive activity lights are on the top of the case - behind the screen where you can't see them. On the other hand, there's a second battery indicator on the touch control strip above the keyboard. The Wi-Fi indicator here isn't a control for some reason - that's an option on the function keys - and the three touch buttons open the Windows Mobility Centre (complete with plenty of useful Dell controls), the Waves Maxx control panel for the speakers and one program of your choice. Multimedia, volume and brightness controls are on the function keys and although they're selected by default, it still seems a shame not to have them on the touch strip where you could quickly mute the system.
The SD card slot (which accepts a total of 9 different card types) is conveniently at the front and although the sides are mostly taken up by the heat vent on the left and the Blu-ray drive on the right, it's nice to have the choice of the USB ports on either side where you can reach them or another one at the back where cables won't get in the way. And although three USB ports might not seem generous, two of them are USB 3 ports - ideal for a fast external drive for backups or videos - and the other is a combination eSATA/USB port that can charge devices like your phone or MP3 player even when the notebook isn't turned on.
Dell says the 2-megapixel webcam can do 720p HD and certainly it's Skype certified, but we found the image and colour fidelity disappointing on most calls, especially in low light (and the video you see depends on what webcam the person calling you has, of course). The bundled software isn't exciting; Windows Live and Office Starter are welcome, as are PowerDVD 9.6 and Roxio Burn, but the MacAfee security software not only slows the system down - it's extremely hard to disable in favour of your preferred antivirus solution.
If you like the design of the XPS 15 you'll call it understated and slab-like; if not, you'll call it boxy. Either way the size and weight mean you may not carry it around that much. That means the slightly disappointing battery life may not be an issue. Because of the Nvidia Optimus auto-switching technology, the battery life you see varies significantly with what you're doing; stick to surfing the Web and using Office and you'll see the 5 hours plus that Dell claims. Crank up games, videos, Blu-ray movies, HD Skype video calls and the screen brightness and you'll be done in about half that time. If you do want to use the XPS 15 on the go, you'll want the optional 9-cell battery instead.
Although you can get an XPS 15 for as little as £529, with Core i5, Bluetooth 3, the combo Blu-ray/DVD burner and the superb 1080p screen the model we looked at is nearly twice the price at £939. You can reduce that by leaving out a few of the options, but it's the combination of the screen, the sound system and the performance that makes the XPS 15 a winner. The word we keep wanting to use is solid - but in a good way.