Dell XPS Laptops: Back to the Future

Originally launched as the Dell Xtreme Performance System way back in 1993, the acquisition of Alienware in 2006 and corporate restructuring eventually led to the XPS brand fading away. The Studio XPS line continued the legacy in part, with a higher emphasis on multimedia capabilities and mainstream gaming, but XPS has a strong legacy that many customers still remember fondly, and thus Dell is going back to the XPS brand and will let the Studio and Studio XPS brands now fade out of the limelight. (Note that current Studio products will continue to ship, but future products will now switch to either the Inspiron or XPS lines.)

The primary reason for the relaunch appears to be branding: in the minds of many people, XPS stands for performance, and that's what Dell wants. What started out as a gaming brand eventually branched into other areas, and the focus is going to be less on enthusiast gaming—Alienware will continue to serve that market—and more on A/V enthusiasts and power users, as well as anyone else that values build quality, performance, and style over saving a buck. Dell states that the primary target is the A/V Enthusiast who has the latest and greatest home theater equipment and places a high value on multimedia, but mainstream gaming and content creation users will also find a lot of value here.

To coincide with the return of the XPS brand, Dell is shipping three new laptops as of today. In a sense, these three laptops replace the old Studio XPS offerings with updated features and performance, and they all look very nice. The three new models all have the same basic features, with size being a major differentiator; you can choose between 14", 15.6", or 17.3" (L401x, L501x, or L701x respectively), and in all cases you should get a high quality, good performance laptop.

The basic model for each size is similar: Core i5-460M (dual-core 2.53GHz, 2.80GHz Turbo), an NVIDIA 400M GPU with 1GB VRAM, 500GB 7200RPM HDD, 4GB DDR3 RAM, JBL + WAVES Audio, and a 2.0MP webcam with support for HD video conferencing. Some of the specifics differ, of course, like the LCD panels, speakers, and the specific GPUs. Beyond the basics, however, there are also plenty of upgrades, including support for quad-core processors, SSDs, more memory, upgraded GPUs, larger batteries, and different size power bricks. Worth note is that the 14" model lacks USB 3.0 ports while the other two include two ports; Dell informed us that it was a matter of not having enough room to fit another chip into the cramped 14" chassis—at least not without sacrificing something else. Below is the slide for configuration options.

The 14" and 15.6" models both come with a standard 1366x768 resolution LCD, though we have no idea whether these are high contrast displays or run of the mill offerings. Considering the pricing and XPS brand, we're hoping for the latter, but we'll have to wait for our review samples before we can say more. The two smaller models also ship with a GT 420M standard, but the 14" offers a 425M upgrade while the 15.6" has a 435M upgrade. As for the 17" L701x, it comes with a 1GB GT 435M standard and has the option for a 3GB GT 445M—quite a bit of memory for a midrange GPU, but the 192-bit memory interface will at least be put to good use.

Video output options are the same across the XPS range, with all three supporting HDMI 1.4, mini DisplayPort, and capable of driving 3D HDTVs and external displays—note than none of the laptop panels are 120Hz, so 3D support comes strictly from external displays. Honestly, the 3D aspect just isn't a major deal for us, but HDMI 1.4 is a nice addition and the combination of 400M with HDMI 1.4 means 3D is a buzzword that marketing can throw around. If our experience with the GTS 350M is any indication, though, 3D gaming even on the GT 445M may be a stretch. Going along with the GPUs, all of the models support NVIDIA's Optimus Technology—at least if you use a dual-core CPU. That means you can get the best of both worlds when it comes to graphics performance and battery life, as long as you're not trying for both simultaneously. With no integrated graphics, the quad-core CPUs trade more powerful CPUs for battery life.

Dell also made a point of emphasizing the quality of the speakers in the new XPS laptops. Dustin was quite impressed with the speakers in the Studio 17, and the new models look to build on that legacy and improve audio output even further. The speakers are JBL certified and are capable of pushing out enough sound to fill a room without distorting. They use Waves MaxxAudio 3 to enhance the audio quality, and while most of us probably haven't heard of Waves, it's apparently used by quite a few audio professionals. The goal here appears to be kicking HP's Beats Audio solution down a notch, and there's no upsell necessary—every XPS laptop will include the high quality speakers and Waves. We'll be testing this in the near future, obviously, and it's certainly an intriguing feature; hopefully we can get an Envy for comparison as well….

Rounding out the features is a 720p capable webcam that makes these the first Skype-certified laptops ever. Skype has put the laptop/webcam through rigorous testing to verify it provides a premium experience, and the combination of a high quality webcam and the premium speakers got their stamp of approval. We're still not sure what exactly differentiates this 2.0MP webcam from other 2.0MP and 3.0MP cameras, but having done enough blurry/pixelated chats over the past few years I'm really looking forward to seeing what the XPS webcam can do for video conferencing.

With all the premium components selected for the XPS line, it's also nice to see that the build quality received its share of attention. Anodized aluminum panels are used on the display back, palm rest, and speaker grilles. That's not so far out of the ordinary, but Dell is also using a magnesium alloy frame for the main structure—something typically associated with ThinkPad and other sturdy business laptops. The bottom of the laptop will be plastic (color matched to the rest of the exterior), but everything else should be a big step up from the cheap plastic so prevalent in the consumer space.

So welcome back, XPS—we've missed you! The changes and improvements Dell is making come from customer feedback, and they've tried to exceed users' expectations. One area we know caused some problems with the Studio XPS 16 was the power adapter, and Dell appears to have addressed that with larger adapters coming standard with graphics upgrades, so that peak power draw will still be well below the rated output. With build quality, performance, style, and battery life all on tap, the new XPS laptops ought to be able to shake up the laptop world and provide some real competition to the MacBook Pro, HP Envy, and Sony VAIO offerings.

You can see additional images of the various XPS laptops in the above gallery. Availability starts today, with pricing starting at $899 for the L401x, $849 for the L501x, and $949 for the L701x. Battery life is specced at 4.5 (17") and 5.25 hours (14"/15") with the 6-cell battery, or 7.5 hours to as much as 9 hours with the 9-cell battery. We should have our first XPS 15 laptop in hand Friday for some concrete benchmark results, and we're looking forward to putting it through its paces. Stay tuned!

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  • BoonDoggie - Thursday, October 21, 2010 - link

    Because, of course, if you buy a 14" laptop theres no possible way you ever want USB 3.0. Fucking FAIL! So, so, so, so tired of of fuckwit focus groups telling us how laptops should be.
    The whole issue is, laptops area closed system. No room to grow, sop its best to load them up as much as sensibly possible. Way to fuck us, Dell.
    Doesn't Dell have that sound-off website where we were supposed to be able to tell them how to build a better mousetrap?
  • MGSsancho - Thursday, October 21, 2010 - link

    maybe they didn't have room do add another chip for usb3 (nec or freelogic). perhaps it uses too much power for a 90w power brick. the bigger laptops can use either a 130w or 150w brick. only other feature the smallest model doesn't have for option is a dedicated subwoffer. of all the features to whine about i'm surprised its not that the 15" model can accept a 1900x1080 screen whil the 17" can not.
  • BoonDoggie - Thursday, October 21, 2010 - link

    Didn't have room? Kill the 2.0. Simple. What, 3.0 wont perform on par with 2.0 speeds for the Luddites? C'mon.
    And I'm bitching, not whining.
    And who really gives a shit about 1920x1080 on a a notebook? Reason why it shouldn't matter: You can attach a 1920x1080 monitor, for real enjoyment of said resolution. BAM, bitches!
    Solve the USB 3.0 problem.
  • BoonDoggie - Thursday, October 21, 2010 - link

    Its like making a Porsche Cayman with a flat 6 AND a 4 cyl for those that wanna keep it under 62....
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 21, 2010 - link

    I forgot to mention the USB 3.0 omission on the 14", but MGSsancho is correct that it's a matter of not having enough space. You can't just leave out USB 2.0 and add USB 3.0; you need a separate chip for USB 3.0 where 2.0 comes from the standard chipset. And your suggestion that LCD resolution doesn't matter because you can hook up to an external 1080p display... well, what's the point of a laptop if you have to connect to a separate display?
  • BoonDoggie - Thursday, October 21, 2010 - link

    I stand corrected, if and so the 3.0 has to have 2.0's controller on board, though I'm sure its a separate controller chip, but then you are in direct line with the Gods of production, Jarred.
    My point about the 1920x1080 that it doesn't matter because you have the option. For those that really enjoy 1920x1080 on 15", go at it. But I know many that don't like the that size res on such a small screen. and to know there room for DisplayPort *and* HDMI, well yay for Dell, all that landscape on such a tiny mobo.
  • DanNeely - Thursday, October 21, 2010 - link

    USB 2.0 is controlled by the southbridge. It does not need a separate chip unless you need more than the 12 or 14 ports that come standard.
  • Pitabred - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    So why not at least have 1600x900? 768 vertical pixels are pretty much useless. I'm not buying a laptop to have a mobile 720p TV. I'm buying a laptop to have a machine I can do various tasks on, and 768 pixels is just way too few.
  • stancilmor - Thursday, November 25, 2010 - link

    Even 1080 pixels is to few, because every program eats up half those pixels with worth menus and search bars. And websites make it even worse by placing all the advertisements at the top. I use a 1920x1200 screen,because the last 120 pixels actually have content instead of having to scroll past all the ridiculous advertisements. It's a complete waste of a decent monitor, but constantly having to scroll past ads and menus really stinks.

    as for usb 3.0, I agree put the functionality on the ditch sata if you have too.
  • debacol - Tuesday, October 26, 2010 - link

    Sorry, some of us have to work on a laptop sometimes, not just watch movies or play games. I dunno if you've ever used any Adobe products, video editing or Maya but if you are on the go and need to work, you'd be very happy your monitor has the real estate you need.

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