Dell XPS 15 Subjective Thoughts: Life on the High-DPI Edge

We like to start every laptop review with our subjective impressions of the system in day-to-day use. Here, the XPS 15 really does well, as the design looks great and at least in my experience feels great as well. The build quality is solid and I would say this may be the best Dell laptop I’ve ever encountered in terms of the look and feel. The touchpad and keyboard work just as they should, with a good feel and responsiveness. This is such a rarity that it still boggles my mind – getting the basic input devices more or less right should be something from Laptops 101, but somehow there are a lot of laptops with terrible touchpads and/or funky keyboard layouts. I still miss having dedicated document navigation keys and a “Context Key” (Shift+F10 equivalent), but I’ve adapted to the XPS 15 layout with no substantive issues.

There were a few oddities that did come up in testing – the big one being that at times, the touchpad and touchscreen basically stopped working properly for “clicks”. I could move the mouse cursor around, but as soon as I tried to click it appeared that the OS was sending that click to the far reaches of space. The active application would lose focus, and pretty much nothing would happen. The solution was to reboot, which seems pretty crazy as a “solution”, but I think I tracked down the issue to updating video drivers. Normally, that’s a simple process, and in some cases NVIDIA and AMD are able to update the drivers without a reboot. Well, perhaps thanks to the high-DPI display or some other factor, every time I’ve updated the NVIDIA drivers I’ve ended up needing to reboot (via keyboard shortcuts no less) in order to get proper mouse functions back. This is a rare enough occurrence that the only reason I mention it is that it may help others, and perhaps the driver teams at Dell/Intel/NVIDIA may be able to fix the root cause.

Sound quality on the XPS 15 continues to be decent, particularly for this size/thickness. Bass response isn’t really there and the earliest XPS 15 models sounded better, but that’s partly because they were a lot thicker and so there was more opportunity for putting in a subwoofer and perhaps getting better reverb/acoustics/whatever. Sorry if that’s not particularly technical – I’m not an audiophile by any stretch of the imagination; basically, I just go with what my ears tell me sounds good. Earphones of course will sound better than any laptop if you’re after true quality, but even without the XPS 15 sounds quite good. Perhaps more importantly, when listening to audio through the headset jack, I didn’t notice any static or other interference, which is definitely something that has come up with other laptops I’ve used.

Moving on to perhaps the most important aspects for many of you, let’s talk about the display and storage. I received the QHD+ panel for this review, and that tacks on quite a bit to the final price. The base model comes with a 1080p display, but there’s no way to get pure SSD storage unless you spring for the top-end model. That’s a bit of a misfire I’d say, as we’re fast approaching the point (or perhaps even past it) where including mechanical storage in a laptop is a serious faux pas – and for a high-end laptop like the XPS 15 that’s designed to compete with the likes of the Apple MacBook Pro line, there’s simply no reason for it. I also think Dell is being too conservative with the use of an mSATA SSD; I’m not sure how much of a difference it would make to go with an M.2 SSD (particularly a PCIe-based solution), but there are occasions where the SSD feels just a bit less responsive than some of the 2.5” SSDs I’m used to running. It’s still far better than any of the HDD + caching SSD laptops I’ve used, however, so unless you absolutely need maximum storage throughput, I wouldn’t worry too much about the use of Samsung’s SM841.

Subjectively, the 3200x1800 display on the Dell XPS 15 looks impressive out of the box – the pixels are fine enough that it's very difficult (perhaps impossible in my case, as my eyes aren’t what they used to be) to see them with the naked eye, and with my basic lenses on my Nikon D3100 I likewise am unable to capture an image of the pixels. Within the Modern UI, everything works as expected as well – everything scales nicely and you simply use the applications as you would on any other tablet or laptop. Where things get messy is when you switch to a desktop application. People often argue about whether or not Windows handles DPI scaling well; my personal opinion is that it remains a mixed bag. Some things scale nicely and look as you would expect; others don't scale at all, and still others scale the size of text but not other elements. Some of this you can blame on the programmers behind the various applications, but particularly on programs that are several years old (but remain useful) we can't really expect new versions (for free) simply because Microsoft has a new way of doing scaling. There's also the question of how many applications really work well within the Modern UI, and again personally there are many times that I simply like the desktop view and don't want to lose that.

But what's a 3200x1800 display really like in Windows 8.1? There are a few options for how you want to run things. You can run at native resolution and use DPI scaling (100%, 125%, 150%, 200%, or some other custom number), or you can run at a lower resolution (like 1600x900 or 1920x1080) and just let the display scaling do the work. As you might suspect, neither option is perfect. 200% scaling in theory is pretty easy – you just double everything – but doubling images doesn't always look great and so apparently that doesn't happen, even with Windows 8.1. The result is that most apps look fine, but there are exceptions. And needless to say, anything running at an unscaled DPI looksreally tiny, for example the StarCraft II launcher looks is unscaled whereas Steam’s UI scales.

Here's a gallery showing just two instances of the scaling not doing what most people would expect. Look at the browser tabs in Chrome, where in one screen it's running at 1080p 100% and in the other it's at 3200x1800 200%. The second shows Steam and the StarCraft II launcher, with 125% and 200% DPI settings I believe; you can see SC2 is the same size in both images while everything else changes.

So those are a couple instances of DPI scaling not working, and it’s basically the fault of the developers, but if Microsoft wants this high-DPI stuff to really work then they need to find solutions to dealing with…let’s just call them “obstinate programmers”. Windows has been around for a long time and creating a new way of doing things (i.e. Modern) doesn’t help at all with existing programs. It’s one of the reasons I think a lot of people are sticking with Windows 7 for the time being. A proper solution needs to work for any reasonable application that someone might run, and perhaps give the user the option to enable/disable the scaling if it causes problems. For now, unless you’re ready to live mostly in the Modern UI (or have exceptional vision and can run at 100% scaling and 3200x1800), just know that there are going to be quirks to deal with.

Meet the New Dell XPS 15 (9530), Late 2013 Edition Dell XPS 15: QHD+ LCD Testing
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  • oleguy682 - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I understand the desire for 16:10 in place of 16:9. But if both are 1800 lines, do you really notice the missing 200 pixels at the bottom? I realize that the AR will resize a displayed window slightly, but it would be interesting to see the actual difference between what is displayed on 16:10 vs. 16:9 on a similar document or webpage that is scaled appropriately for the AR. Unfortunately my 4:3 screen only will give me a 16:10 or 5:3 (16:9.6 or so) AR so I can't really make the comparisons myself. Reply
  • Fox5 - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I had this laptop. I actually had a hell of a time with the intermittent throttling. Believe it or not, it happens fastest and most often with simpler games. Also, I had heavy display corruption with Steam Big Picture mode when using the nvidia gpu.
    Dell eventually fixed the throttling by replacing the heatsink and fan assembly. It's a tiny piece of hardware too. The corruption in Big Picture mode is still there though.
    Reply
  • Silma - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I haven't had any throttling issue since november but then again I'm not using it to play. Reply
  • unni - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    If you keep it on a level surface, there doesn't seem to be any throttling. Also, try nVidia inspector and set FPS to 30. That helps as well. Reply
  • Fox5 - Sunday, March 9, 2014 - link

    Lol, locking the fps to 30 shouldn't be required. Also, the level surface did nothing for it. I had a legitimately defective model, and replacing the heatsink fixed it. Reply
  • whyso - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Good that they fixed the throttling. I had a 2nd gen model that would idle at 60 degrees and reach over 100 degrees on games like skyrim.

    Interesting to see that the 750m performs very closely to the 765m in the razer blade.

    Also, would it be possible to do some sort of test to see if the PCI-E SSD in the mac lineup actually brings any advantages? Random performance isn't better than anything else out there. Copying files to anything other than a SSD won't be different. The Macbook air reviewed didn't boot up any faster than the 2012 model either. What exactly are the advantages and are they even apparent?
    Reply
  • VisionX302 - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I tested the performance of both of these. The Mac was around 1 Gb/s while the Dell was in the 500 Mb/s range. For most real-life activities you wouldn't notice a big difference, but I could a difference in copying files, booting, resuming from sleep, etc. Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I wonder if it's the same issue, my Studio 15 after some days/hours use would always lock itself at the minimum clock multiplier, had to reset to fix it. I could also fix it through forcing multipliers through Throttlestop, which was also good for me since on Penryn processors they could be undervolted so much that the top clock could use the bottom clocks voltage. Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 13, 2014 - link

    And do the larger battery sizes change the size (do they jut out like older models) and how much do they change the weight? Reply
  • superflex - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Jarred,
    Why make the comparison to the retina MBP in the intro if you dont provide a comparison to the MBP in the charts?
    Full retard, baby.
    Reply

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