Dell XPS 15z review

When you see the XPS 15z your first thought is likely to be about how much it resembles the old titanium MacBook. Its rounded corners, silver metal finish and slot-loading DVD drive all remind us of the Apple machine. Open the XPS up and start using it and not only is the resemblance not as close as you first thought, but your attention will be on other things, like the fantastic screen.

The case is anodised aluminium with a matte finish that looks good and shrugs off fingerprints. It's a full metal case too, no plastic undercarriage here with even the generous palm rest finished in magnesium. Apart from an unobtrusive matte black plastic screen surround, the slightly darker grey metal covers the whole interior and dips down to form the keyboard tray.

The screen is set slightly forward from the rear edge, giving the same suggestion of a shelf as in the previous XPS model, but there are no lights or controls trapped behind the screen. The speakers on either side of the keyboard have an unusual grill perforation that looks familiar from the Adamo. While the silver-grey keytops match the grooved circular hinge that runs most of the way across the case. One of the grooves is the charging light; little touches like that show a real attention to detail. The design is understated and the build quality is fantastic; barely any flex even when you twist the screen, no flex at all on the keyboard. And despite the all-metal chassis and serious spec, the XPS 15z is thin for a 15.6-inch laptop at under 25mm although, its weight is nothing remarkable at 2.54kg.

Keyboard and trackpad

The backlight keyboard looks as if it's more about style than efficiency. We didn't expect to like the rounded keys in the now-common isolated, island-style, keyboard but the spacing is good and the action is smooth and positive with good travel. There are drawbacks - the Caps Lock key is large and it's too easy to hit instead of the A key. The inverted-T of arrow keys is nicely spaced away from the other keys but it's disappointing not to get dedicated home, end, page up and page down keys on a notebook of this size. Instead, Dell has them as secondary functions on the arrow keys. The secondary controls on the function keys, however, are exactly the options most people need and they're logically arranged. Battery information is next to the Wi-Fi control, the control for the backlight keyboard is next to screen brightness and mute, volume controls and media controls are together, next to the DVD eject button.

The trackpad is large but thanks to the size of the case, and the generous palm rest, it doesn’t look oversized. The surface has enough texture to make it accurate as well as smoothly responsive and there are two separate, physical buttons again with firm, positive action when you click. The only problem is the inch of space between the edge of the case and the buttons; most notebooks have far less of a gap here and we found we were expecting the buttons to be further forward so we were trying to click on the palm rest instead.

Cypress trackpads aren't as common as Elan and Synaptics models but Dell get the most of them now it includes the full control panel. Two-finger gestures for zoom, scroll and rotate work well. You can choose the size of the scroll areas for vertical and horizontal scroll and while the three-finger back/forward flick isn't any more useful here than on other systems, the four-finger gestures stand out. Swipe four fingers down to show the desktop, swipe up to show the Alt-Tab list of running programs - and then swipe with one finger to pick the window you want. Swipe four fingers to the left or right to switch the focus between different windows (not including minimised windows). This is a combination of the best gestures from the Mac's Expose and Microsoft's Touch Mouse and makes controlling windows a breeze; something that can feel like an effort on a big screen.

The screen size leaves plenty of space for a sensible layout for the ports. Power and gigabit Ethernet are at the back where you won’t get tangled up by cables - separated by an air vent with the same quirky pattern as the speakers. Everything else is arranged along the sides. On the left are the HDMI and mini DisplayPort, a combined USB 2 and eSATA port that charges devices when the XPS is turned off and two USB 3 ports. There’s also an unusually stylish memory card slot (SDHX/XC) with a pop-out blank and slot that have rounded corners to match the power button and the battery meter button. On the other side are separate headphone and microphone jacks and the slot-load DVD burner.

Super screen

The XPS 15z has the best screen we've seen in any notebook since the last time we looked at an XPS with an HD screen. Colours are rich, vivid and saturated without looking unnatural, the contrast is superb, even in dark areas of images, and the brightness is good. Viewing angles are excellent from every angle; you'd have to pick the notebook up and tilt it in mid-air to lose any visibility. You'll see new detail in videos you thought you knew by heart; streaming 1080p video from the Web was stunningly crisp and detailed, playing smoothly with accurate colours and great contrast. 720p video looks just as good, although the quality of the screen will show up any imperfections in the video if you watch it full screen.

With a 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 525M graphics card partnering the 2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, 8GB of RAM and 7200rpm 750GB hard drive, video performance is good. The Nvidia Optimus graphics switching gives you a good balance between performance and battery life too.

There's also an £899 Core i5 version. This is a multimedia system rather than a gaming rig but you can get reasonable frame rates at medium detail at 720p. Avoid the full 1,920 x 1080 resolution for gaming and save it for movies; the XPS can pump out full HD to external screens and the HDMI 1.4 port can also send 3D video to a 3D-compatible screen or TV. Dell says the chassis is just too thin to fit a slot-load Blu-ray drive instead of the DVD burner, so don’t expect 3D Blu-ray movies. Even the HD Webcam is good quality capturing crisp detail and accurate colours, although there's a little lag if you move too quickly.

The previous XPS might have a slight edge on sound quality; you have to crank the volume closer to full than we prefer to get the full richness of the audio system on the XPS 15z but when you do it's impressive. You can hear a huge amount of detail in the mid-range, the treble is clear rather than sharp and there's plenty of bass. The position of the speakers makes for great stereo separation too. We have heard one or two notebooks with even better audio quality (and significantly higher price tags), but you'll really enjoy listening to music on the XPS 15z.

Battery life

The battery life is better than many notebooks of this size, helped by the second generation Core i7 and switching graphics. In light use we saw well over seven hours and even with screen brightness high and Wi-Fi in continuous use we had nearly four hours of battery life - stretching to five and six hours as we turned off some power-hungry options. That's good enough that we're not complaining that it's not removable.

The bundled software includes the usual favourites of Office Starter, Windows Live Essentials, Skype and the rather intrusive McAfee SecurityCenter, plus Nero 10 and Roxio Creator Starter. It's nice to see Internet Explorer 9 rather than the IE 8 standard with Windows 7. There's also a host of Dell utilities which are easiest to find from Dell's own on-screen launcher, which is part of the latest version of Dell Stage. This is now a more comprehensive media organiser and player and we like the option to use an Android phone as a DLNA remote control, picking music from one PC and playing it on another. The Dell Stage apps are still painfully slow to load, which makes them far less useful.

Verdict

The Dell XPS 15z is a really impressive combination of design, features, performance, battery life and all-round appeal. It's a good multimedia system with an excellent screen and the 3D output option, a workhorse system that will deliver performance with demanding software and a designer system that barely compromises to get its good looks unless you were dead-set on a Blu-ray drive.