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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  • dragonhype - Monday, March 10, 2014 - link

    Thank You! I will look into it! Otherwise I love the laptop!
  • xaml - Monday, March 10, 2014 - link

    Regardless of what causes it, the electric noise issue also is present on the XPS 13 – both Sandy Bridge and Haswell.
  • jphughan - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    It sounds like the display performance impressions were taken before disabling Dell's questionably named "splendid mode", which grossly oversaturates colors. It's unfortunately enabled by default in the factory build and it's managed unintuitively in Windows Mobility Center -- but once it's disabled, multiple calibrators have found that the display delivers a DeltaE of less than 1 BEFORE calibration, and perfect coverage of sRGB. I have no idea why Dell shot themselves in the foot by setting up their system this way out of the box, but display perfection is just one buried option toggle away, no calibration required.
  • skiboysteve - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I could not find this setting in my windows mobility center. I see:
    Brightness, volume, battery status, screen orientation, external display, sync center, and presentation settings. The bottom right box is empty.

    I'm going to contact dell support about this.

    Also, I didn't get any throttling issues with mine.. so wonder if mine is different somehow
  • skiboysteve - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Found it, you have to install dell quickset to get these options. You get 4 more:
    Keyboard backlighting, fn key behavior (change between requiring fn press for f1-f12 or requiring fn press for media controls), touchpad on/off, and the SPLENDID color setting
  • jphughan - Friday, March 7, 2014 - link

    You need Dell Quickset installed and your built-in display needed to be enabled when your system booted (not just an external display).
  • VisionX302 - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Great article. I picked one up a few months ago. This was my experience exactly. This thing should be a GREAT laptop, but it wasn't. I did some comparisons with the MacBook Pro using both OSX and Windows 8.1 under BootCamp and the new Lenovo X1 Carbon. The Dell was certainly a really good laptop, but the battery life was much better on the other two, resuming from sleep, even things like the keyboard and the touchpad in particular are much better on the other two. I was really hoping that the Dell would be my one size fits all solution for all my various needs, but it just left me wanting. If I hadn't compared it against the other laptops I wouldn't have noticed these little differences, but they really do add up. Things like the battery life are especially noticeable. With the Lenovo, I don't really even carry a charger anymore, I just top it off every couple of days. After a few hours, the Dell would have to be charged. The Mac very similar. I also had a problem with the touch screen that had to be replaced and ultimately returned the Dell due to a serious thermal issue / failure. I'm still waiting on the replacement. With those issues, I'm also left wondering whether the build quality is really there with the Dell or not.
  • jphughan - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Dell has definitely had some QC issues on this system. Much of those issues pertain to the QHD+ display (dead pixels, dust under the glass, pressure point revealing a weird color distortion in a corner when gripping the lid a certain way) and there's also the widely reported coil whine issue that Dell is currently investigating after numerous reports. The unresponsive touchscreen issue was resolved with a firmware update though.
  • hfm - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    If I recall the notebookreview threads the firmware update actually bricked some systems and they needed service. I wouldn't touch this thing until Dell gets a handle on the numerous build quality issues. It's really a shame as there are so many plusses with it.

    I'm personally waiting for the thin-and-lights sporting the 860M that are imminent. MSI GS60 looks like a 4.4lb monster.
  • jphughan - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    Two people reported bricks that were fixed with replacement displays. I don't know if that was due to a bug in the firmware updater code or perhaps a bug in the existing firmware on the display itself, in which case those people would either have to stick permanently with buggy firmware or get a replacement display anyway that can actually be updated. In any case, my firmware updated fine for what it's worth.

    The QC issues are indeed disappointing. I ordered before they came to light but I've been fortunate to only have the coil whine issue. I don't even consider that much of an issue since I've had that issue on numerous other laptops that use high-wattage AC adapters. But if Dell does actually fix it, I'll consider using my warranty to get a replacement motherboard at that time. I've got 3 years, after all.

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