Dell XPS 15 9550 review

The XPS range is where you'll find Dell's most desirable laptops. These aren't all-practical workstations, or budget models. XPS is where Dell's fanciest designs team-up with higher-end components. The idea is these are laptops you'll be proud to use.

This is the larger of the two Dell XPS models, the XPS 15. Much more than just a larger version of the XPS 13, reviewed, this one trades away stamina in order to pack in a high-power CPU and a graphics chipset that'll let you play recent games without making the visuals look like those of an original Xbox title.

The Dell XPS 15 does this by retaining portability too. This is still not a laptop for those after something to use for a day's work as they sit in Starbucks. But as a mostly home-bound machine that can tackle tasks that'd make a MacBook 12in wince, it's a winner.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review: Price

These abilities don't come cheap, though. We're looking at the very lowest-end Dell XPS 15 spec, which costs £1029 from Dell and makes some fairly significant spec sacrifices to even get down to that price.

Namely, it has a 1080p display rather than a 4K one, and a hybrid drive rather than full SSD storage. If you're drawn to the XPS 15 because you've heard about its flashy Infinity Edge 4K screen, you'll need to pay at least £1319 for that.

To see the Dell XPS 15 at the height of its powers you'll want to buy the £1489 model too, which has a 512GB SSD rather than a hybrid drive. Our review is based on the base model, so bear that in mind.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review: Design and Build

No matter which spec you're after, the Dell XPS 15 gets you the same design and chassis, though. For the most part, its style is similar to previous XPS models.

It looks and feels nice, but is not as flashy as some. The look is sober and accessible: there's nothing wrong with that if you don't want an Alienware model.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review

What brings the design into the 2015/2016 era is a very slim-surround display. There's only about 5mm of plastic between the end of the display and, well, the end of the laptop. This helps the Dell XPS keep very petite for a 15.6in machine - it's around the size of most 14in laptops

While there are better options out there if you're a road warrior, I had no problem carting in the Dell XPS 15 around in a rucksack and using it in a coffee shop for a few hours. It's 23mm mm thick, after all, and our review sample weighed slightly less than the stated 2kg at 1.945kg. Dell says the SSD version is even lighter at 1.78kg.

For a laptop with a fairly powerful discrete graphics card, that's impressively light. It's only around 400g heavier than the much smaller-screened Microsoft Surface Book.

The Dell XPS 15's connectivity isn't much better than you average, fairly well-equipped 13-inch laptop though. You get just two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port, full-size SD card slot and a full-size HDMI. It'll do the job for most, but if you want to use this as a main home PC you may well need to get a USB hub involved to avoid having to swap over USB cables all the time. There's no Ethernet port, and no included USB adaptor - it's optional.

It's also worth noting there are no 'special' design moves here. This isn't a hybrid, the screen hinge doesn't flip around 360 degrees (just 120-ish) and unlike some previous XPS laptops, you don't even get a touchscreen. Not in the version reviewed, anyway. The 4K models all have touchscreens.

The aim here is to pack traditional laptop power into a much more friendly and convenient shell. No gimmicks involved.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review: Performance

Given that the Dell XPS 15 is fairly slim and light for a 15-inch laptop, it's a little surprising that it uses an 'HQ' series processor rather than the 'U' kind we normally see on portable-friendly models. The base model has an Intel Core i5-6300HQ. While not the top-end brain you'll see in the more expensive XPS 15 models, it's still designed to eat up more power and run hotter than the U-series chipsets you'll see.

U-series chipsets are designed to use just 15W, but this one's thermal load is 45W. Being happy to suck up more power lets these HQ chipsets push much harder, but it naturally means they're less power-efficient and need a more serious cooling system.

As with pretty much any HQ-equipped laptop, the Dell XPS 15's CPU fan runs all the time. It's a very light whirr, but if you dream of a totally silent laptop, this is not it. If that's a top priority, be sure to check out an Intel Core M laptop like the Asus UX305, reviewed. It doesn't use a fan at all.

Using a hybrid hard drive rather than a pricier SSD, our particular review model also emits the light clicks when writing data, common to all hard drives. And it occasionally makes mysterious louder ones too: we’re not entirely sure why.

There's nothing magical going on in a hybrid hard drive, though. It gets you 1TB storage, but has an extra 32GB SSD attached, used as a cache to increase performance beyond that of a regular mechanical hard drive.

It works, but still doesn't quite seem to get you the instant zippiness of a pure SSD system. Powering-up and coming back from standby is quick, but not near-instantaneous. The CrystalDiskMark benchmark results show that it's no replacement for an SSD too. While read speeds reach up to an SSD-alike 475MB/s, write speeds are around 70-80MB/s. That's the performance of a bog-standard 5400rpm hard drive, not an SSD.

This base spec isn't really designed for the most demanding of buyers, though. While it uses an Intel HQ series CPU, it's still a Core i5 rather than an i7, a quad-core i5-6300HQ 2.3GHz. Of course, when paired-up with 8GB RAM you still have enough power on tap to do virtually anything.

Fairly serious video editing, involved Photoshop work and audio sequencing are not beyond its abilities - and you'd expect this north of a grand. The mid-grade spec leaves it with very solid middle-ranking benchmark results. For example, in Geekbench 3 it scores 9808 (3165 single core) points. The Intel Core i7 versions will, naturally, score much higher, but it's still much better than what you get from the dual-core 'U' alternative. That CPU scores 5500-6000 in the XPS 13, a pretty dramatic difference.

It is what's common to all versions of the Dell XPS 15 we really need to take into account, though: the discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 960M graphics card.

This is a fairly good card, and one that doesn't demand the ultra-loud fans and heat vents that gamer-specific GeForce GT980M systems tend to have. For those with a bit of knowledge about graphics card families, you do need to consider the 'laptop tax' when it comes to mobile GPUs, though.

This spec is good enough to play recent games, including top-tier games like The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. However, to play at the native 1080p resolution you'll need to watch settings carefully. For example, in The Witcher 3 we needed to drop down to 'medium' settings and switch off performance-sapping effects like Nvidia Hairworks to reach a reasonable frame rate.

Compared to 'full-fat' desktop CPUs, the GT 980M is really closer to the Nvidia GTX 750 than this card's desktop namesake, the higher-end GTX 960. As with the CPU, it's all about the sort of hardware you can fit into a laptop shell without generating loads of heat.

The Dell XPS 15 is a laptop for people who want to play games, but not one for hardcore gamers. If that's your priority you can do better for £1000. See our roundup of best gaming laptops, for example.

That said, we were fairly impressed with how the performance scales away from the charger. The GT 960M GPU isn't simply 'switched off' as soon as you unplug. You can happily game on the train with the XPS 15, and you can naturally fiddle with the performance settings to favour stamina or performance.

It's also very good at managing heat. While the fans run constantly, they don't become annoyingly loud even when the system is working flat-out. We also experienced none of the odd fan revving we heard when reviewing the XPS 13. It's not engineered for silence, but it is well-engineered.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review: Keyboard and trackpad

The keyboard and trackpad are other pivotal parts of any laptop experience, and both are good in the Dell XPS 15. The keyboard is crisp, with decent resistance against your fingers that provides well-defined feedback for each keypress. It’s a bit softer than a MacBook keyboard, but not dramatically so.

As you'd hope at the price, the keyboard is also backlit, using a set of white LEDs. You control the level using a one of the function keys, although it's limited to high-low-off. You don’t get fine control.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review

The Dell XPS's trackpad is clearly indebted to that of the MacBook Pro. It's a similar size, a similar shape, and has a textured glass finish for that smooth, high-end feel. Among Windows PCs it's a great pad, with an easy but thoroughly clicky button action. This is one area where no Windows laptop can really touch Apple's designs, though, even those from the pre-Force Touch era (the pressure sensitivity now built into the latest MacBook trackpads). It’s not miles off, mind.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review: Display

There's a good chance you don't want to hear about the display of the Dell XPS 15 we're reviewing. One of the series's key appeals is its 3840 x 2160-pixel screen, but we're looking at the baseline 1920 x 1080 version.

There are some very important things to note here, though. First, there's the thin-bezel design we mentioned earlier. Aside from the thick bit at the bottom, the top half of the Dell XPS 15 appears almost all-screen. If you're upgrading from laptop a few years old, the different is quite alarming.

This is also a matt display, pretty unusual among 'premium' laptops. This reflection-busting screen finish is great if you want to use the Dell XPS 15 outdoors, and is also a good surface for gaming. You might not notice reflections of a lounge lamp while you're looking at a web page, but a dark Skyrim dungeon is much more likely to show it off.

The downsides of matt screens include more muted colours 'pop' a bit less and tend to make a raised black level a bit more obvious. Colour and contrast are still very good though. The display appears well-saturated, and while blacks aren't perfect, it is strong.

The one slight disappointment is the obvious one: resolution. Having used many smaller, higher-resolution laptops over the last couple of years, the slight blockiness of 1080p stretched over 15 inches is obvious. Of course, the glossy 4K versions of the Dell XPS 15 look immaculate in this respect. You'll just have to live with their highly reflective nature.

Contrary to what you might assume, it's not gaming or films that show up the limited resolution. The XPS 15 doesn't have the power for 4K gaming anyway, and 1080p films look fantastic on this display. It's text that makes you wish for a slightly higher ppi count. Characters just aren't that smooth.

Dell XPS 15 9550 review: Battery Life

On the battery life front, you'll be glad of the lower-resolution screen. Due to the higher-power processor, the Dell XPS was never going to be a real battery stamina winner even with a 1080p screen.

Still, it could be a lot worse. Using the laptop for an hour as a simple word processor (with a bit of browsing thrown in) in indoors lighting requiring about 30 percent screen brightness, an hour took 17 percent off the battery life. With light use you'll get just under six hours between charges.

While plenty of HQ-series-CPU laptops do worse, it's pretty poor among XPS lim and light-ish laptops. If you need your laptop to last a full work day, look for one with a more efficient, lower-power CPU.

When playing back a high-quality MP4 video at 120cd/m2 brightness, the Dell 15 lasts five hours and 55 minutes. It’s pretty much the same result we saw when using the Dell XPS 15 for ‘normal’ work, which is no great surprise. When laptops of this power level often last for four hours, or even less, it’s not bad stamina as such. But we can’t get around that some of you will be much better-served by a longer-lasting laptop like a Toshiba Portege Z20t or Lenovo ThinkPad X1.

Anything else to consider? A few things. First, the ultra-slim screen bezel has forced Dell to move the webcam below the screen. It's angled so you don't need to push the screen back too far to get in view, but it's not the most convenient or flattering camera placement. It's a real double-chin emphasiser.

The XPS 15 uses a basic 720p camera too, turning indoor shots into undersaturated watercolour-like images thanks to limited sensor quality/size and hardcore noise reduction processing.

The Dell XPS 15's speakers are a little disappointing too. They're loud, but sound quite boxy and are prone to mid-range distortion when driven at maximum volume. A bit more finesse would be nice.

Dell XPS 15 9550: Specs

  • 15.6in (1920x1080) IPS 16:9 screen
  • Intel Core i5-6300HQ 6th-gen 'Skylake' chip
  • 8GB 2133MHz DDR4 RAM (4GB x2)
  • 1TB 5400rpm HDD + 32GB SSD (SATA)
  • 2x USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 3 (also supports USB-C 3.1 Gen 2)
  • DW18303 3x3 802.11ac 2.4/5GHz + Bluetooth4.1
  • Mini-DisplayPort
  • headset jack
  • SDXC reader
  • Noble lock slot
  • 720p webcam
  • 357x235x11-17mm thick, 2kg
  • 56Wh lithium-polymer battery, non-removable, 1 year warranty
  • 15.6in (1920x1080) IPS 16:9 screen
  • Intel Core i5-6300HQ 6th-gen 'Skylake' chip
  • 8GB 2133MHz DDR4 RAM (4GB x2)
  • 1TB 5400rpm HDD + 32GB SSD (SATA)
  • 2x USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 3 (also supports USB-C 3.1 Gen 2)
  • DW18303 3x3 802.11ac 2.4/5GHz + Bluetooth4.1
  • Mini-DisplayPort
  • headset jack
  • SDXC reader
  • Noble lock slot
  • 720p webcam
  • 357x235x11-17mm thick, 2kg
  • 56Wh lithium-polymer battery, non-removable, 1 year warranty

OUR VERDICT

The Dell XPS 15 is a great all-rounder laptop. Come to it expecting superlatives, especially the version tested, and you may come away disappointed. However, it is very versatile indeed. It offers a powerful CPU, a competent discrete graphics card, a screen happy with the outdoors and a frame that's light and slim given the rest of the spec. It can do everything pretty well, without the power compromises of an ultra-skinny laptop, or the portability ones of a workstation. Some will be disappointed with the stamina, but it's actually rather respectable given the processor. It's a laptop that's good at just about everything, bar lasting absolutely ages between charges.

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