Of course, if we're talking about standing out from the crowd, one name almost immediately comes to mind: Apple. Love 'em or hate 'em, Apple has definitely put more time and energy into creating a compelling mobile experience. It starts with building a high quality system, but it reaches beyond that into the core OS X experience. Whatever Apple is doing, the result is significantly better battery life under OS X for the components and battery capacity—and as we've shown, moving to Windows 7 largely negates any battery life advantage.
|Dell XPS 15 L501x Specifications|
|Processor|| Intel Core i5-460M |
(2x2.53GHz, 32nm, 3MB L3, Turbo to 2.80GHz, 35W)
|Memory||2x2GB DDR3-1333 (Max 8GB)|
|Graphics|| NVIDIA GeForce GTX 420M 1GB GDDR3 |
96 SPs, 500/1000/1600MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
|Display|| 15.6" B+GR LED Glossy 16:9 1080p (1920x1080) |
(AU Optronics B156HW1) (Upgrade)
|Hard Drive(s)|| 500GB 7200RPM HDD |
(Seagate Momentus 7200.4 ST9500420AS)
|Optical Drive||DVDRW (TSSTcorp TS-L633C)|
|Networking|| Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek RTL8168/8111) |
802.11n (Intel WiFi Link 6200AGN)
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR (Broadcom BCM2070) (Upgrade)
|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, 4.9Ah, 56Wh|
|Front Side||Memory Card Reader|
|Left Side|| Exhaust vent |
1 x USB 3.0
|Right Side|| Optical Drive |
2 x Headphone Jack
1 x eSATA/USB 2.0 Combo
|Back Side|| Mini DisplayPort |
TV Input (Optional)
AC Power Connection
1 x USB 3.0
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit|
|Dimensions||15.0" x 10.4" x 1.3-1.5" (WxDxH)|
|Weight||6.14 lbs (with 6-cell battery)|
|Extras|| Waves Maxx Audio 3 |
2MP Skype HD Certified Webcam (H.264)
86-Key backlit keyboard
Flash reader (SD/IO/XC/HC, MS/Pro/XC, MMC, xD)
|Warranty|| 1-year standard warranty |
2-year and 3-year warranties available
|Pricing|| Starting Price: $850 |
Price as configured: $1030
The speakers are another item where the XPS is head and shoulders above the crowd. The subwoofer adds much-needed bass, and sound clarity in general is very good. The Waves Maxx Audio 3 might matter more for audio professionals that regular users, but Waves does give you quite a few options for tweaking the way your laptop sounds. You won't be replacing your home theater system with laptop speakers, obviously, but the L501x can get very loud and do so without severe distortion. Personally, these rate as the best laptop speakers I've used (which isn't saying much), but how important that is depends on the individual.
Similar to the Waves audio in terms of how much it will matter is the HD webcam, and this is apparently the first Skype HD certified laptop. With H.264 support, the webcam in theory allows you to chat with others and get a higher quality video, though the video you get still depends on the other user's camera. In practice, getting an HD video connection with Skype requires at least 512Kbps of bandwidth in both directions, and even when you have that it doesn't always work. The webcam does work fine otherwise, but we never did manage a high quality HD video conference, perhaps because of bandwidth limitations (even though we tested on a 12/1Mb connection).
As mentioned, this is our first encounter with a mainstream NVIDIA 400M part, and we're quite curious to see how the 420M compares to the previous generation parts. NVIDIA has given us an estimate of 30% faster, but that would probably mean 30% faster than the 320M, which would make the 420M around the same performance as GT 335M—only with DX11 support naturally. In other words, we don't expect to be blown away by the 420M, especially if we try to run games at the 1080p LCD resolution! 400M also means the HDMI port is version 1.4, and there's a mini DisplayPort connection as well. This isn't a gaming laptop, unlike some of the previous XPS designs, but it will handle "mainstream" gaming…at a lower resolution than the 1080p panel. Thankfully, you can run at lower resolutions, and the panel is great in multimedia and general use even if 1080p requires quite a bit more GPU before it becomes reasonable.
Of the remaining features, only two final items are worthy of note. One is the backlit keyboard and the other is USB 3.0 ports—two of them. The keyboard isn't your typical chiclet option either; while it may not displace the ThinkPads for comfort, it works well. There's an eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port as well, so while expansion options don't include ExpressCard and you miss the Firewire port (sorry Dustin!), everything else you'd expect on a good mainstream notebook is here. Other extras like a Blu-ray combo drive, Bluetooth 3.0, a 2-year warranty, faster CPUs, a GeForce GT 435M, and a larger hard drive (or an SSD) are also available if you're interested. We do have one complaint about the upgrades, however: you can only order the faster 435M GPU if you get a quad-core CPU, which means you lose Optimus support in the process. The CPU+GPU upgrade also bumps the power adapter up to a larger 130W unit in place of the normal 90W brick, which addresses a problem some users experienced with CPU/GPU throttling on the old Studio XPS 16.
Given the price, what we have is Dell's direct competitor to Apple's entry-level MacBook, and frankly there's no competition in performance or features. The MacBook only leads if you want one of two things: a smaller size, or the ability to run OS X (without going the Hackintosh route). The standard 6-cell battery provides good if not great battery life, while an upgraded 92Wh 9-cell battery should provide for all-day computing if you don't try watching videos or playing games. The specs of our slightly upgraded unit also compete very well against the ASUS N82Jv—similar performance with a dramatically superior LCD—as well as the HP Envy line. If you pick the L501x up on one Dell's routine sales (i.e. the current sale available on all but the entry-level unit) you can cut costs even more. With improved build quality and features, the new XPS L501x is a great update to the old Studio XPS 16; the name change doesn't really matter in our book, as we thought the old model was good regardless, but Dell has addressed all the areas where users had complaints and produced a very compelling midrange (mainstream) notebook offering.