Dell XPS 15 L502x: Tweaking the Formula

Late last year, we finally got a laptop with very few compromises that we could look to as the king of the mainstream market. That laptop was Dell’s XPS 15 L501x; it took a balanced approach to performance, battery life, and portability, with a great display upgrade as a bonus offering. Perhaps more important was you could get all of the important features and still pay less than $1000. It was only natural—nay, inevitable—that Dell would update the XPS line with Sandy Bridge processors, and that’s what we have for review today with the XPS 15 L502x. The graphics have also received a minor update to NVIDIA’s 500M line, though the 400M and 500M are basically fraternal twins.

We won’t spend a lot of time discussing the nuances of the build, as very little has changed relative to the original XPS 15. If you want more information on build quality, the keyboard, etc. we refer you back to our earlier write up. The short summary is that the build quality is still good, but it’s not at the level of something like a Dell Latitude. Dell uses a magnesium alloy frame in the XPS, but the top and bottom are still plastic. Perhaps the bigger issue some will have is with the curves; love it or hate it, the curves are here to stay for the time being. We’ll have a bit more to discuss in a minute, but first let’s start with our usual spec table. The following table lists the available options for the XPS 15, with our review configuration components bolded where applicable.

Dell XPS 15 L502x Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2410M (dual-core 2.30-2.90GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i5-2520M (dual-core 2.50-3.20GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i7-2630QM (quad-core 2.00-2.90GHz, 45W)
Intel Core i7-2620M (dual-core 2.70-3.40GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i7-2720QM (quad-core 2.20-3.30GHz, 45W)
Intel Core i7-2820QM (quad-core 2.30-3.40GHz, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333
1x4GB + 1x2GB DDR3-1333
2x4GB DDR-1333 (CL9)
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M 1GB DDR3
96 SPs, 600/1200/1800MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks

96 SPs, 672/1344/1800MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
Display 15.6” WLED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)

15.6" B+GR LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(AU Optronics B156HW1)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM HDD
640GB 7200RPM HDD

750GB 7200RPM HDD
(Western Digital Scorpio Black WD7500BPKT-75PK4T0)

Optical Drive 8X Tray-Load DVDRW
Blu-ray Reader/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CT30N)
Blu-ray Writer/DVDRW
Networking Gigabit Ethernet(Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n WiFi (Intel Wireless-N 1000)
802.11n WiFi (Intel Advanced-N 6150)
802.11n WiFi + Bluetooth 3.0 (Intel Wireless-N 1030)
802.11n WiFi + Bluetooth 3.0 (Intel Advanced-N 6230)
Audio 2.1 JBL Speakers + Waves Audio
(Stereo speakers and subwoofer)
Microphone and two headphone jacks
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-cell, 11.1V, ~5.0Ah, 56Wh
9-cell, 11.1V, ~8.1Ah, 90Wh
Front Side Memory Card Reader
Left Side Exhaust vent
1 x USB 3.0
Right Side Optical Drive
2 x Headphone Jack
Microphone Jack
1 x eSATA/USB 2.0 Combo
Back Side Mini DisplayPort
HDMI 1.4
Gigabit Ethernet
TV Input (Optional)
AC Power Connection
1 x USB 3.0
Kensington Lock
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 15.0" x 10.4" x 1.3-1.5" (WxDxH, 6-cell)
15.0" x 10.4" x 1.3-2.2" (WxDxH, 9-cell)
Weight 6.33 lbs (6-cell)
6.68 lbs (9-cell)
Extras Waves Maxx Audio 3
2MP Skype HD Certified Webcam (H.264)
86-Key backlit keyboard (Upgrade)
Flash reader (SD/IO/XC/HC, MS/Pro/XC, MMC, xD)
Warranty 1-year standard warranty (depending on variant)
2-, 3-, and 4-year warranties available
Pricing Starting Price: $800
Price as configured: $1425

We received a moderately upgraded version of the L502x this time around. The base model starts at $800 and you can still add the nice 1080p LCD for $150, so you’re still able to get a nice display for under $1000, but outside of Quick Sync the Core i5-2410M isn’t a major upgrade from the older i5-460M and the same can be said of the GT 525M vs. GT 420M. Basically, it’s better, and it’s about the same price, but if you already have the L501x there’s no need to upgrade to dual-core Sandy Bridge. Quad-core Sandy Bridge is a different story, as we’ll see in the benchmarks; Dell shipped the cheapest of the quad-core options, the i7-2630QM.

Along with the CPU upgrade, we’ve got the GT 540M, which is a faster clocked version of the 420M/425M/435M/525M/etc. The old XPS 15 came with a GT 420M by default, which clocks in at 500/1000MHz core/shaders and 1600MHz on the RAM, so the GT 540M has 34% more theoretical computational power and 12.5% more memory bandwidth, plus twice the RAM for good measure. The base model L502x comes with the GT 525M, which is clocked at 600/1200MHz core/shaders, so the 540M is only about 12% faster on the core but has the same memory bandwidth. Depending on the bottleneck, then, the new system should be 10-35% faster than the L501x in games, and potentially more than twice as fast in CPU calculations.

Other upgrades on the test system include 8GB RAM, a 9-cell battery (we still have the smaller 6-cell around as well), and this is the first time we’ve seen a 750GB 7200RPM 2.5” hard drive. Western Digital’s Scorpio Black is king of the 2.5” HDD hill, but unfortunately it’s also a far cry from matching even moderate SSDs. What it lacks in raw performance it makes up for with capacity, and with the increase in areal density the 750GB drive should outperform older 500GB 2.5” drives. Finally, besides the backlit keyboard, Dell also included the 1080p LCD, a TV tuner, and Bluetooth 3.0. The final tally for our test configuration is a much heftier $1425 at the time of writing. Is it worth it? As with so many other things in life, the answer is a nebulous “it depends”. Let’s discuss things a bit more before we get to the benchmarks.

Design and Other Considerations
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  • JanusSoCal - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    I second everybody who has left comments to say that this is probably the most thorough and detailed review I've read of the XPS 15 so far. But I was curious about three things. First, you didn't mention what you thought of their new island-keyboard design, which I thought was a pretty big change from the 1st gen. Did you find the typing experience and build better with the 1st gen. keyboard or 2nd gen. keyboard? Also, you mentioned that the frame is solid but the top is plastic... I was wondering if that meant the build quality is good or not good, since the frame is supposedly made of magnesium alloy. So, is all that marketing about how the top cover and palm rests are made out of anondized aluminum for a sturdier build is just mere marketing? Is it literally like a very thin coat of aluminum over cheap plastic? And finally, I guess since you gave the Gold Editor's Choice to the 1st Gen XPS 15, did you consider the 2nd Gen XPS 15, against the current crop of laptops more of a silver, bronze, copper?

    Again, thanks for writing an excellent review, I've been waiting for Anandtech's take on the 2nd gen. XPS 15 for a long time.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    Ha! I knew something was wrong and I just couldn't put my finger on it, so to speak. I kept thinking, "this doesn't feel as solid as I recall from the first XPS 15," but I figured it was the same. Given the number of laptops I see, sometimes things get a bit fuzzy in my mind so I figured it was still fine. Now that you point it out, the keyboard definitely changed, and IMO it's not for the better. The palm rest on the L502x is also definitely made of plastic, where I believe (but am not certain) the previous model was anodized aluminum. In both cases, the change is a downgrade as far as I'm concerned.

    I've gone and updated the second page to discuss this a bit more. Ultimately, it's still a good consumer notebook, but it's not without flaws. The previous garnered a Gold by being one of the first laptops in a long time to give us good build quality, a great screen, awesome speakers, and decent all around performance for a moderate price of $1000. The L502x carries forward most of those aspects, but I'd actually downgrade it to a Silver this time around (or an honorable mention without the 1080p LCD upgrade).
  • will2 - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    @jaredwalton. Would appreciate any feedback on my post on above - last post of yesterday, re. if you plan to review the Latitude E6520, and from anyone also, their thoughts on ideal screen size/resolution combinations for photo-editing, film viewing and general business use
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    Responded above... sorry I missed it before. :-)
  • will2 - Saturday, April 23, 2011 - link

    Many thanks for your views on screen sizes/resolution combinations which seems to support my thinking that after working on a 14" 1440x900 for last 4 years, a change to 15" 1600x900 will maintain my work surface but reduce eye-strain a little.

    re. "With that in mind, I hope Anandtech can review the SNB Latitude E6520 with 1600x900 screen. Is that likely soon ?" any input on that ?

    Re. another posters question, I was thinking the 2520M a good choice of CPU when limited to a 35W TDP series, although I would have preferred a 25W TDP for reduced temperatures, yet giving sufficient performance.

    Re. other postings on selection of best SSD, if choosing the Latitude E6520, I was thinking to retain the HDD for data only, and take advantage of new SSD performance by adding a small internal PCIe or ExpressCard SSD to hold and boot the Windows 7 + Apps, as it has no mSATA slot. However, there seem to be few mainstream makers of miniPCIe or ExpressCard SSDs - and those I have seen, at 50 to 100MB/s Sequential Read max, are a long way short of the mSATA Intel 310 200MB/s performance - yet no cheaper ! Do you have any links to good advice on choosing small form factor SSDs for Notebook internal slots ?

    Thanks again for your views on screen sizes/resolutions
  • cookiezulu - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    I purchased this (LX502) and expected to have it delivered on Tuesday. (1080p, i7-2720, 8GB, 7 Ultimate)

    I live in the UK so at the time of buying I could only choose the 500 or 750 SATA HDD. I chose the 500 as I thought I was going to replace it with an SSD - I've been convinced by all the reviews here & elsewhere that the difference in speed/performance with an SSD is noticeable. However I'm struggling to decide (from reading the reviews) whether a 256GB Crucial c300 is the best available at the moment for this laptop in the UK. Best in terms of price / performance.

    Or should I wait another 2-3 months for some other, greater, better SSD? I've not followed the SSD market in depth so I'm just checking that we're not waiting for some big improvement any day now (and I get caught out buying the c300 now.

    Am I right in understanding that even for the same model (C300) the 256GB is faster than the 128GB one?

    Also, does anybody know what the SATA controller is in LX502?

  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    The L502x should have both 6Gbps and 3Gbps SATA ports from the HM65 chipset, and presumably the HDD/SSD would use the 6Gbps ports. As such, you can definitely get better performance from the latest 6.0Gbps capable SSDs.

    The king of the hill right now is the SandForce SF-2200 controller, but the C400 and Intel 510 are both reasonable alternatives. It's really going to come down to pricing. For a 240/256GB SSD, I would probably go for the OCZ Vertex 3. It'll run around $530, give or take, and I have no idea what the UK prices will be, but that's likely the fastest SSD we'll see in the next 8 months.

    Regarding size and performance, it depends in part on the process technology for the NAND. 34nm NAND you usually get optimal performance at 120/128GB, and maybe a little bit faster at 240/256GB. When you move to the new 25nm NAND, indications are that the 240/256GB SSDs will be where you start hitting maximum performance (thanks to parallel transfers from the NAND devices/banks). So 120GB Vertex 3 won't be as fast as 240GB, but 480GB will likely be within a few percent of 240GB. Anand discussed this in a recent article:
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 22, 2011 - link

    Correction: HM67 chipset is what the XPS uses. Also, I have verified that while the system I have is only running the HDD at 300Gbps and the BD-ROM at 150Gbps, both ports are capable of 600Gbps operation (according to SiSoft Sandra).
  • cookiezulu - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    Jarred, thanks for your reply. I will wait for my unit to arrive and see what the price for the 240GB Vertex 3 is in a couple of months (currently around £450) and then buy. I was tempted by the more affordable 120GB (around £220) but I'll wait to see what the prices for the bigger one do.

    Let's hope that when I do swap the HDD for the SSD I don't damage any of the 20 or so clips!
  • ashegam - Sunday, April 24, 2011 - link

    This is has got to be one of the ugliest laptops I've seen in years. This thing looks like it was made in the 90's, wth were they thinking?

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