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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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    On the Dell site, it's the "XPS 15", but the L501x is the actual full model, to differentiate it from the original L501x. It's like the MacBook Pro 13/15/17 -- they don't specify which particular iteration you're discussing. I just happen to use the real model instead of the generic name so as to avoid confusion.
  • flyingpants1 - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    If I follow the link in the article and configure the $800 XPS 15 with all the options listed, the total comes out to $1505. Coupon code 932N$0ZCCHWZB9 for an additional $70 off brings it to $1435.

    However, if I follow the link on this page: configure THAT XPS 15 with the same stuff, the total is now $1764. $425 in coupon codes brings it down to $1339. So it actually works out cheaper, and it includes a 2 year service plan instead of the 1 year.
  • Wave_Fusion - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    I'm not following which parts are plastic and which are metal.
    My old XPS M1210 was metal except in one key area: the palm rest.
    So after about a year I wore an E.T. shaped hand print in the cheap silver paint below the keyboard.

    It'd be a major disappointment to buy this one and find it still has crummy plastic where it shouldn't be.

    If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times: My DV7 is better.
    I don't get why no one seems to know about my computer, but eventually someone will review it besides myself.

    Its faster, cheaper, most stylish; and also has amazing sound, but with a 2 year warranty too. I thought you guys announced the future launch of my computer, the DV6/DV7 spring refresh, but since then its been dark.

    They destroy everything that's been reviewed since; and its sad no one seems to know about them yet.
  • will2 - Wednesday, April 20, 2011 - link

    Re. your concluding paragraph, interested in your views of screen size/resolution combinations.

    As frequently moving, I want a thin-light desktop replacement notebook for both photo-editing, multimedia playing, and general business use. I concluded as my present 14" lcd with 1440x900 gloss screen is tiring on eyes for long hours reading office documents, a 15" 1600x900 screen - maybe less tiring as text rendered slightly larger. Interested in your thoughts on that.

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

    You surmise the M11x R3 worth a look. Too small screen for my needs, but I see Notebookcheck just reviewed it and they said very powerful but let down by a poor screen, meagre 150:1 contrast ratio, blacks are grey.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    So it really depends on the individual, but I use a 30" desktop for most of my photo work, and when I have to go mobile I already feel cramped on 1080p (or even WUXGA). I've used 1440x900 and 1680x1050, and they're okay, but nothing beats resolution for photo editing in my book. The problem is, outside of photos, those fine dot pitches can really be a strain on the old eyes! Heck, my 30" is a strain these days.

    So then you use the DPI setting of Windows, but it mucks up certain programs and can be irritating, or you run at a lower resolution or use the "zoom" feature in your web browser and office applications as needed. I, incidentally, have used all of the above and continue to use them depending on my mood. My 30" LCD is set to 120dpi and it still feels a bit small on a lot of text.

    For laptops, it's a compromise either way. Personally, I've ended up with the following sizes as my preferred options. Others will obviously disagree, but as a 37-year-old I don't have the luxury of running ultra-tiny fonts anymore.
    <12.1" - I'm not really a fan of this size laptop. It's too small for me to type on comfortably, so I prefer 13 or 14". However, 1280x800 (or 1366x768) works okay. I've used a 10.1" laptop with a 1366x768 LCD, and it was often too small to read comfortably.

    13.3" - 1600x900 is a bit of a stretch for me at this size, but it's better than the 1366x768 alternative. 1280x800 is actually still better in my book, but too many laptops are moving to 16:9 aspect ratios.

    14" - 1440x900 or 1600x900 works best; I'm not willing to go lower res if I can avoid it, and higher res is too small for my tastes.

    15.6" - 1600x900 or 1920x1080 (or 1680x1050/1920x1200) are all fine here, though 1080p can be a bit small at times.

    >17" - must have 1080p or 1920x1200 resolution. (I haven't seen anything in recent history with a higher resolution than that.)
  • NICOXIS - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    Is it possible to play games at native resolution with medium settings?

    Why should one get 540M when you can just do 525M with higher clocks? (besides additional memory)

    What is the difference between Intel Advanced-N 6230 and Intel Wireless-N 1030?

    If we replace Quad Core (Intel Core i7-2630QM) with Dual Core with higher clocks ( Intel Core i5-2520M), Should it get better performance at games and longer battery life?

    Appreciate any answers! :)
  • Wave_Fusion - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    It might be possible, it might not. My HP DV7 can run most games at maximum at its native resolution of 1600 x 900, but my AMD 6770 is significantly faster than the 540M in this Dell.

    Medium settings at 1920 x 1080 could easily overwhelm a card like that. I'd recommend a unit with either Nvidia 555M, 560M; AMD Radeon HD 6770, 6870; or above.
    Or the 540M would be fine if you played at a lower resolution; but if it were me I'd choose either a smaller laptop at 1366 x 768 or a larger one at 1600 x 900.
    15 inches is to me a spot neither of Dell's offered resolutions look good at that size.

    I believe the Advanced-N 6230 supports 5GHz band while the 1030 does not.

    Finally, my DV7 has a quad core i7-2720QM and switchable graphics with the AMD 6770. The new quad cores idle pretty low, but because the dual core processors have a lower maximum thermal output, they'll draw less power under heavy load. On the other hand a quad core might handle that same load without stressing it too hard.

    Short answer: Both are built on 32nm now, so probably little significant difference unless you're gaming or something.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    All of the gaming charts include the results at both our standard resolution as well as the native 1080p of the LCD. You can see that medium detail is >30FPS in five of the eight tested games, but of course that will vary depending on the game (and what settings you define as "medium"). For 1080p, realistically I still feel like you would want at least a GT 555M, and the GTX 460M is where medium to high 1080p is viable.

    Overclocking of mobile GPUs is possible, but in practice they bin pretty heavily and I'm uncomfortable trying to run a laptop with an overclocked GPU. I suppose it's only a 12% overclock to push the 525M to 540M levels, but YMMV. Since replacing your GPU on a laptop is difficult at best (i.e. finding a compatible part that doesn't cost an arm and a leg), I'd exercise caution. Besides, a 10% core overclock (with the same RAM speed) means the real-world performance difference is quite small.

    WiFi 6230 gives 2.4 + 5.0 GHz connections, so it's a 2x2 MiMo setup. The 1030 is 1x2 and omits 5.0GHz support. Both support up to 300Mbps connections, but in the real world you'll probably max out around 144Mbps with actual throughput of around 7-9MBps (56-72Mbps).

    As far as CPU changes, we do have performance results of the it-2520M in the charts (ASUS K53E). In games, the GPU is the major bottleneck. Remember that the 2630QM can still Turbo as high as 2.9GHz (2.8GHz dual-core, 2.7GHz tri-core, and 2.6GHz quad-core). The 2520M can go about 10% higher at 3.2GHz (3.1GHz dual-core), but unless you're playing at low resolutions and low details, you'll need more GPU than CPU.
  • NICOXIS - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    thanks Wave and Jarred, appreciate you took the time to respond ;)

    Regarding GPU at medium settings, there's no laptop I've seen (with L502x footprint and weight) that offers GT 555M or GTX 460M (or similar AMD solution) at that price point and price/features ratio.

    On the overclocking side, isn't 525M the same exact chip as 540M with clocks up a 12%? or are you saying 525M are chips that didn't qualify at higher speeds?

    And if that 10% overclock difference is minimal, Why should anyone upgrade anyway?

    Reg 6230 vs 1030, what's the difference in practice?

    Sorry for the blast, but it's interesting to know :D

  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 21, 2011 - link

    So all of the GT 525M, 540M, and 550M chips are the "same", but they're the same in the way that the i7-2630QM, i7-2720QM, i7-2820QM, and i7-2920XM are the "same" (barring differences in L3 cache sizes). Without actually looking at a large sample, I don't know if NVIDIA is tweaking voltage levels, but they're very likely doing some form of binning.

    Intel for example will do some tests to verify a chip can handle the desired speed at a reasonable voltage; if it can't do 2.2GHz at 1.25V (or whatever), then they'll try for a lower clock with that same voltage, or maybe raise the voltage slightly but drop the clock, etc. I don't know all of what Intel does or doesn't do with binning, but in general their higher-end (e.g. more expensive) CPUs run at lower voltages at stock and overclock better with more voltage. So, considering the number of chips NVIDIA is offering that are essentially the same, I suspect they have a way of determining which are the better chips.

    So if 10% is a minor difference in performance, why would anyone upgrade? Because they're generally uninformed. The 1GB to 2GB jump won't help at the settings where these chips run well -- which is usually lower resolutions at medium detail. 1GB to 2GB becomes useful when you're running at least 1080p with very large textures, and for that you really need at least a GTX 460M (or HD 5870M).

    This is actually one of the frustrating aspects of buying a laptop. So many companies will sell you a GT 420M/425M/435M/525M/540M/550M graphics chip with Optimus in a 14" or 15.6" laptop. (Those are all 96 CUDA cores with 128-bit DDR3 memory, so basically the only change is the clock speed of the cores, which ranges from 500MHz on the 420M up to 740MHz on the 550M.) Finding anything with the GT 445M/555M on the other hand.... Well, the Alienware M14x and Dell XPS 17 L702x are currently the only laptops with the GT 555M, and to my knowledge the old XPS 17 L701x was the only laptop with the GT 445M. I'm not a big fan of 17.3" notebooks, so that's why I think the M14x may be the best balance of price, size, and performance for a gaming laptop.

    Back to the wireless, in practice the difference is that if you have a wireless router that supports 2.4 and 5 GHz, you can get better throughput a lot of the time. Many less expensive routers don't support 5GHz, so in that case you'd see no difference at all. If you do have the appropriate router (I don't!), I understand that some people get much better performance on 5GHz because there's so much other traffic on 2.4GHz (e.g. 802.11b/g/n all use 2.4GHz, plus cordless phones and other devices).

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