Dell XPS 15z: A Good Copy or a Cheap Clone?

If you’ve been living under a rock and happen to see the XPS 15z as the first laptop after emerging, there’s a lot to like and it would set a high bar for other laptops to clear. It’s thin, reasonably light, has plenty of performance for all but the most demanding tasks, and it gets good battery life. For the rest of us, however, it’s going to look a lot like a MacBook Pro 15. Here’s a gallery of the 15z.

Gallery: Dell XPS 15z


Dell XPS 15z Keyboard

Apple MBP15 Keyboard

There are certainly similarities between the appearance of Dell’s XPS 15z and the MacBook Pro 15, so let’s cover where things are the same and where they’re different, since comparisons will be inevitable. Both are thin, have aluminum covers, and the new Dell keyboard layout bears a striking resemblance to the MBP15 layout. Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys are accessed via Fn+Cursor key combinations, and there are large speaker grilles on the right and left of the keyboard. So far so good.

Where they’re different is in the shape of the keys on the keyboard, and then there’s the fact that the aluminum covers on the XPS 15z feel extremely thin and flexible, almost to the point where I’d think the covers are plastic (but they’re not). The palm rest also has some give, and I’m not sure if it’s plastic or aluminum. The MBP15 sports a unibody construction that adds to the rigidity where the 15z definitely has some flex. So if you’re after something that feels like a MacBook Pro but comes standard with all the Windows 7 goodness… well, this isn’t it. It’s decent, and overall I have no problems recommending it, but this feels more like a copy of a copy of the MPB15—with each iteration losing a bit of fidelity.

Other differences aren’t in Apple’s favor, however. There’s the 1080p LCD compared to a 1680x1050 or 1440x900 panel on the MBP. The quality of the MBP15 display is better, but it’s hard to argue with a higher resolution and the 15z panel at least has a decent contrast ratio and brightness. The 15z also comes with either 6GB or 8GB of RAM without fleecing you, something Apple is wont to do. Wrapping up the comparison, with Apple you get a quad-core CPU (it’s faster but can draw more power and thus run hotter than the dual-core SNB chips Dell uses in the 15z) and either an anemic Radeon HD 6490M or a faster HD 6750M. Dell gives you a GT 525M, which should somewhere between the two in performance, but closer to the 6750M than the 6490M—not to mention gaming happens to be a stronger area on Windows than on OS X.

Given the price premium of the MacBook Pro 15, it’s safe to say that these laptops play in different leagues. Just as you’d expect a luxury sedan to offer more comfort and style than an inexpensive vehicle, the MBP15 wins out in style and build quality. If you’re not willing to pay north of $1500 and you don’t care to run OS X, however, it’s a safe bet that buying a MacBook is already out of the question. Let’s forget about the MacBook Pro then and focus on the XPS 15z and the previous XPS 15. The following gallery shows some comparison shots between the XPS 15 L502x and XPS 15z, along with a comparison of the 15z with the Clevo W150HRQ.

Compared to its big brother, the XPS 15 L502x, the 15z has a lot going for it. It’s thinner and lighter and looks more attractive. Gone is the bulbous casing and excessively rounded corners. Pricing is good, build quality is reasonable, and Dell still lets you upgrade to a decent 1080p display. The 15z also comes with a 64Wh battery integrated into the chassis, and battery life and relative battery life are substantially higher than the XPS 15. However, the XPS 15 has other advantages that become apparent once you start using it.

First, the speakers on the 15z don’t sound anywhere near as good as those on the XPS 15. The lack of a subwoofer is certainly part of the problem, but the extra thickness on the XPS 15 seems to provide a better starting point. Going back to the keyboard, I’m actually not happy about the copying of the MacBook layout. I really like the layout on the XPS 15, with Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys in a column on the right. I also happen to use the “Menu Key” regularly on my PC, so I immediately noticed it was missing with the 15z (and for those of you who love keyboard shortcuts, Shift+F10 isn’t nearly as convenient). Eventually I adapted to being reasonably comfortable with the 15z layout, but I still prefer the layout on the XPS 15.

The final area where the XPS 15 wins out is in raw performance. In the quest to create a thinner chassis, something has to give, and with the 15z that something is performance options. The XPS 15 can be had with dual-core CPUs from the i5-2410M up to the i7-2620M, or quad-core processors from the i7-2630QM up to the i7-2820QM; the 15z in contrast comes with two options, both dual-core: three of the configurations use the i5-2410M while the top-end configuration comes with the i7-2620M. In single-threaded or lightly-threaded loads the i7-2620M (or even the i5-2410M) will be plenty fast, but for multi-threaded workloads there’s no beating more cores. The XPS 15 also supports an upgrade to the GT 540M, and while it’s only clocked about 10% higher than the GT 525M that’s still something. Lastly, the 1080p LCD on the XPS 15 is better than the 15z panel—it has better color accuracy and color gamut, with slightly higher contrast.

Something else to consider with the XPS 15z is that upgrading the RAM or HDD is more difficult than on many other laptops. Sure, there’s the XPS 15z Service Manual, which even has detailed instruction for removing the base cover. Well, let me just say that after trying for 15 minutes to remove the base cover, I was ready to call it quits. When I got to the part where you’re supposed to “use your fingertips to release the tabs on the base cover from the slots on the palm-rest assembly”, it’s more difficult than it sounds and you feel like you might break something. Eventually I did manage to pry off the cover by using a small plastic card and starting on the side with the connector bezel, though I might have left a few marks on the casing in the process. Anyway, consider yourself warned: getting at the hard drive and/or RAM will require a bit of work. The above gallery has a few shots of the internals as the fruit of my efforts. You can see things are well laid out with very little in the way of empty space, but getting to that space will require some finesse.

Dell XPS 15z: Imitation with a Twist Dell XPS 15z General Performance
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  • ptuttle - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    The problem was even when i was using a mouse with it, it would still do the same thing while i was typing. I don't beleive it was from brushing up against the touchpad either. When i would be typing the cursor would move around almost like it was from the vibration. Dell finally admitted that it was a defect in the system so they know what the problem is, they just haven't fixed it.
  • ptuttle - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    I will admit that performance wise the system was very nice, my main complaint was the touchpad. I mainly used it for business and while on a business trip i would play some games on it while stuck in a hotel room. I played some league of legends on it and got 60fps in medium settings. Rift would play in Medium/High settings at 30-40fps. So performance is nice they just need to fix some of the issues such as the touchpad.
  • tipoo - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    Its nice that you included the decibel reading for this laptop, I've wanted to know that in a few laptop reviews, thanks. It would be nice to have some reference points though, for instance you said the MBP gets louder at load but how loud is that? Did you test it with the decibel meter? And which is quieter during basic tasks like web browsing?
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    I don't have dB results from the MBP, at least not for the same environment and equipment. I've heard the MPB15 in person under load, though, and it's pretty darn loud subjectively. At low loads, I think I hear the spinning HDD as much as the fan. 31dB is pretty close to the limit of my SPL meter, as well as my environment.
  • tipoo - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    What about sound during mainstream tasks like web browsing, youtube, etc? My Dell is two years old and the fan becomes audible just with those tasks. In my experience with modern MBP's, during those things they are barely audible. I'd like to know how a more modern Dell system competes.
  • darwinosx - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    I don't know why you are so obsessed with comparing this to a MacBook Pro but the fact is many of us want nothing to do with Windows.
    You also say nothing about service and support and Apple blows Dell away here.
  • araczynski - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    but personally i find the speaker grill/mess by itself just completely making the thing look ugly. the rounded keys don't help, nor does the smaller keyboard. but hey, at least they got the body looking decent.
  • bji - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    I guess you're the editor so you can choose what you want to give an award to, but I didn't see a single thing about this laptop that definitively puts it above any of the other similarly spec'd laptops you have reviewed recently. And the keyboard on this Dell is the most laughable one I have seen on any computer in quite a long time. That alone would send this laptop to the bottom of the pile in my book.

    Also the styling is butt ugly. There is no creativity or, well, style. Just a generic looking shell and some ugly rectangular speaker grills and fan grills placed in conspicuous locations.

    Others in this forum have mentioned poor Dell support; I can't speak to that, but I don't think that a laptop with a history of poor support should get an editor's choice award.

    Glossy screen, with only one resolution upgrade option? How is this better than other laptops with a much better choice of screen resolutions + matte options? Answer, it is not.

    Can you please explain why you decided to pull out the editor's choice award for this model as opposed to the other laptops you have reviewed lately? It looks very arbitrary, and with so much going against this crappy Dell laptop, really leaves one wondering what is going on.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    Because ultimately, out of the dozens of laptops I've looked at in the past six months, I really enjoyed using the XPS 15z more than a lot of the others. Clevo? No thanks! Toshiba, Acer, MSI, ASUS... they all have areas I'm not happy about. Even if the design is similar to the MBP, that doesn't make it bad. It's a "poor man's MBP", and that's exactly what a lot of people would like to get. Good screen, good battery life, comfortable to use for every day tasks, and fast enough for anything beyond high quality gaming and serious number crunching. This is a laptop I'd like to hold onto and use as my "work laptop" if I could -- and I wouldn't say that about 90% of the laptops I test.
  • bji - Friday, September 2, 2011 - link

    Sorry to have to hound on this topic, but can you give some more specifics?

    The charts show that the Dell is middle-of-the-pack in performance; so that's not an advantage to the Dell. The Dell screen does seem to be good but the Clevo screen you reviewed recently was as good. In the article you lamented the thinness and flexiness of some of the enclosure and that would seem to be contrary to the position that the laptop is more pleasurable to use than others.

    Honestly, reading between the lines it really feels like you really just like the Macbook styling and design and are giving the Dell an editor's choice because it's "kind of like a Macbook".

    I believe you when you say that you like using the laptop more than 90% of others you have tested, and having myself bought a Clevo recently purely because of the specs and price, and then selling it at a loss two months later because it was just so unpleasant to use, I absolutely understand the value of that intangible quality of a laptop that makes it pleasurable to use. No matter how great a laptop performs or how good its specs are, if it's unenjoyable to use, it will sit on the shelf with other options taking preference wherever possible (I found myself constantly pulling out my 6 year old Panasonic Toughbook Y2 because I just couldn't stand to use the Clevo, and that convinced me that I needed to get rid of that Clevo ASAP, which I did).

    It feels like you've given the Dell an editor's choice based on personal preference, not a more objective conclusion based on the merits of the laptop itself. If someone was not enamored with Macbook design above all else, would they still prefer the Dell over another offering? Is there something about the Dell that makes it better than other PC laptops? If you had never seen a Macbook before and you were comparing this Dell to other PC laptops, would you still conclude that the Dell is better?

    I have nothing against Apple, or against PC laptops either; I'm not saying these things because I think that there is something inherently inferior (or superior) about a laptop that takes its styling cues from Apple. I just wonder what exactly there is about this Dell that earns it an editor's choice when I can't see anything in pictures or in the review that makes it obviously better than other PC laptops.

    BTW, the Samsung 7 series posted about recently really looks like a *much* better effort at imitating the Apple look and feel. I hope you get an opportunity to review one of those soon.

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