Long-term review: The Dell XPS 15 Touch is the laptop to beat

The recently introduced series of Dell XPS 15 9550 Touch and Non-Touch laptops has been getting a lot of attention. These devices are loaded with high-tech goodness -- in fact, there's no doubt in my mind that Dell served them up targeting would-be MacBook Pro buyers. And as someone who's been using the MacBook Pro 15 Retina for several years, I can tell you that Dell hit its mark.

I went top of the line for this review, selecting a unit that costs $2,230. This configuration of the XPS 15 Touch comes with a 6th-generation ("Skylake") Intel Core i7 quad-core CPU, a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port and a Precision Touchpad (more on this later). I added to the wow factor by selecting a 4K touchscreen, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M GPU with 2GB GDDR5 along with the Intel 530 integrated graphics, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB Samsung PCIe NVMe SSD (add $520 for a 1TB SSD).

If you’re looking for a equivalent Apple system, you’re not going to find one yet. Apple has still to release a Skylake MacBook Pro, and while it debuted new Skylake Macs in the fall, they still have Thunderbird 2 ports.

This means that if you’re looking for the latest high-performance technology, this Dell is the one you want. Here’s my long-term, in-depth review that should answer all your questions.

Everything starts with the display on the XPS 15. Apple's Retina displays are extraordinary, but the top-of-the-line Dell XPS 15 4K touchscreen display is gorgeous. I've been using this laptop since Thanksgiving and I'm still impressed by the crispness of lines, curves and typefaces -- and the richly saturated colors. My only wish is that you could crank the brightness up to 110%. (Friends know me to be a brightness freak.) And in case you're wondering, Dell's specs put the screen brightness at 350 nits, which is about as bright as it gets.

Of course, you can't make full use of the Ultra HD 4K resolution for everyday computing on a 15.6-in. screen, but Windows 10 does a good job of scaling resolution. Still, scaling takes away the very thing that high-resolution gives you: Screen real estate and being able to see stunningly detailed images.

It isn't until you attach an external 4K screen that's 32 in. or so that you gain appreciable advantage. I connected a Dell UltraSharp 27-inch 4K monitor to the XPS 15 and found that the highest resolution I could stand with Windows 10 scaling was 2560 x 1440 (anything higher, and everything on the screen became too small to read). At that rate, I'd be better off with a less expensive 2K monitor.

There are, of course, professions that can easily cost-justify the use of Ultra HD on very large external displays. But for most people, any desktop computing benefit of 4K is more nice-to-have (actually, very nice to have) than have-to-have.

The machined aluminum outer shell and carbon-fiber keyboard deck complement the minimalist industrial design on the XPS 15's display surrounds, probably Dell's most inspired design decision and manufacturing feat. I measured the bezel at just under 6mm (or less than a quarter of an inch) on the sides and maybe a quarter inch along the top. The lighted part of the screen goes nearly edge-to-edge.

And because the rest of the laptop takes its dimensional cues from the screen and bezel measurements, this is one small 15-in. laptop. To the nearest 16th of an inch, it measures 14-1/16 in. wide by 9-1/4 in. long by 11/16 in. deep with the touchscreen. Without the touchscreen, it is 1/4 in. thinner at just 7/16 in. deep.

Dell pegs the XPS 15's weight (with the touchscreen and its larger 84 watt-hour battery) at 4.4 lb. Without the touchscreen and with the lighter 56 watt-hour battery, it weighs just 3.9 lb. Dell's touchscreen model is smaller and slightly lighter than the current Apple MacBook Pro 15 Retina.

An additional point worth noting about the XPS 15 9550's 4K display is that it shows 100% of Adobe's RGB color space, a feat many other displays don't match. The glossy 10-finger touchscreen is made of Corning Gorilla Glass NBT, which is bonded to the aluminum top lid for strength. The XPS 15 wasn't designed to function as a 2-in-1, but I find that I use the touch capabilities more frequently than I expected to and sometimes prop the screen up on my lap for casual Web surfing.

People who have used Apple's MacBook Pros over the years but were tempted to switch to Windows may have found themselves held captive by a single feature: Apple makes the best trackpad in the business. After using Apple's "glass" trackpad, I stopped using a mouse for about 90% of my pointing needs. Windows trackpads are barely functional by comparison. The quest to find a Windows laptop with a decent trackpad has been a frustrating experience. In most ways, the XPS 15 has answered the call. But it's not (yet) a perfect solution.

The XPS 15 is one of the new crop of Windows laptops that makes use of Microsoft's Precision Touchpad driver, first evident in Windows 8. Microsoft's driver was recently revised with new gestures for Windows 10. Although not quite as smooth as Apple's trackpad, Dell's touchpad comes close and the hardware works well. My only wish is that Dell would make the trackpad a little wider. I may be wrong about this, but my inclination is that the touchpad should match or come close to the 16:9 aspect ratio of the screen.

It's most likely Microsoft's driver that has given me a mixed-bag experience with the touchpad. All the gestures that are supposed to work, do; but some are difficult to initiate consistently -- especially anything to do with lateral swiping. The most important finger functions all work: swipe three fingers down to reveal the desktop (my favorite new gesture); tap to click; two-finger tap for right-click; two-finger scroll; and move objects by pressing and holding them with one finger (I use my thumb), then dragging a second finger in the direction you want to move the object.

With that core set of gestures in hand, as it were, there's enough Mac glass-trackpad-like functionality for me to jump ship to Windows and the Dell XPS 15.

The problem with the Precision Touchpad is that it's finicky. When your intent is to make only a small adjustment to the mouse pointer's position, it sometimes balks. (Keeping the touchpad clean helps.) If you also use an external mouse with the touchpad, the two human interface drivers sometimes get confused and drop their settings.

Probably the most frustrating aspect is two-finger scrolling. It works great in most browsers. But scrolling through Outlook 2013's message list, I feel like I'm slogging through molasses. In Word 2013, scrolling sometimes just stops working altogether (especially in Draft view). In various other applications two-finger scrolling may be fast or slow. Scrolling speed and characteristics (such as whether it has momentum or stops right away) is inconsistent from app to app. It's ironic that Microsoft Office 2013 apps have the most difficulty with the Precision driver. The finicky behavior seems to come and go. If you don't use an external mouse in addition to the touchpad, you'll see fewer issues.

I've seen one other bad behavior. A single touchpad tap to click can become three or four clicks in a split second. For example, I sometimes find myself clicking browser back and forward buttons repeatedly until I can get the Web page I want because the touchpad overshoots. I'm not trying for multiple clicks, but I get two or three on a single tap. Mac trackpads don't add additional clicks based on the amount of time your finger is touching the pad after a tap, nor does the intensity of the tap add additional clicks. I'm not sure what's causing this, and it doesn't happen all the time. More than anything, the improved Windows touchpad needs a user setting for sensitivity and unified application support.

And complicating the process is the fact that, in Windows 10, the pointer controls are divided into two locations: some are found under Control Panel while others are found in the new Settings applet. I've had to go back again and again to reset the tracking speed in Control Panel > Mouse > Pointer Options; those settings keep slipping back to the default middle point.

I've pointed out so many flaws in the XPS 15's touchpad you probably think I hate it. The truth is that, to me, it's the single most important feature; without it, I would not have adopted a Windows machine as one of my two daily-driver laptops. It could use improvement, but Dell and Microsoft are headed in the right direction.

The Dell XPS 15 9550 is something of a landmark laptop for more than just high-resolution, compact packaging and a MacBook Pro-like trackpad. It's among the very first model lines to sport the new USB Type C port-based Thunderbolt 3 technology.

Without Thunderbolt 3, the USB-C port -- such as the one that ships on Apple's 12-inch MacBook -- adheres to the USB 3.1 Gen 2 spec, which delivers a maximum data-transfer rate of 10Gbps. The same port with a lightning bolt symbol next to it supports Thunderbolt 3, which provides transfer rates up to 40Gbps.

Thunderbolt 3 is about to become the new de facto docking station connection. It supports power up to 100 watts for system charging, up to 15 watts for bus-powered devices, four lanes of bidirectional PCI express, eight lanes of bidirectional DisplayPort 1.2, DVI, HDMI, VGA, 10-gigabit Ethernet and the ability to daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt 3 devices. The Dell XPS 15 is among the first laptops to be Thunderbolt 3 certified.

There weren't any Thunderbolt 3 products I could test at press time, but USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 had a solid presence at CES, with a long list of products announced and set to ship in the first quarter. One such product is the Dell Thunderbolt Dock ($299), which shipped on January 28th. It provides several ports, including three USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, DisplayPort, VGA and Thunderbolt 3. The docking station can support two 4K monitors simultaneously at 60Hz or one 5K monitor.

Disappointingly, the XPS 15's onboard HDMI port only meets the 1.4 spec, not HDMI 2.0, which means that it can't display a higher resolution than 1080p at 60Hz. I can understand why this would be the case in the $1,000 base model. But half the model line delivers 4K resolution; it's a shame that Dell didn't spring for the HDMI 2.0 port, which supports 4K at 60Hz. Better yet, it should have given strong consideration to a Mini DisplayPort, which also supports 4K at 60Hz. The XPS 15 is wholly dependent on the Thunderbolt 3 port for displaying 4K externally at the proper 60 frames per second (fps).

The XPS 15 9550 is also missing an Ethernet port. Nor is there any Thunderbolt 2 connectivity. In addition to the HDMI and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, it has two USB 3.0 ports with power-sharing, an SD Card port and a headset jack.

It's relatively easy to find inexpensive adapters for the slower 5Gbps USB-C standard to add ports for USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet, VGA, DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort. For full support of HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.2, however, you might be better off waiting and paying more for the much faster Thunderbolt 3 adapters that are on the way.

The XPS 15 9550 has top-notch build quality. MacBook Pro 15 Retinas have more case flex than this Dell. It's very solid.

In fact, on first impression, I was a little surprised at the heft of the laptop, given its overall size. It's not heavy; it's just heavier than it looks. The sides slope upward and outward as they rise from the bottom. Even so, it has an overall boxy feel, probably because of the sharp corners.

The carbon fiber deck is supple and warm. Key travel is short at 1.3mm, but the keyboard manages to inspire the MacBook Pro's "dance across the top of the keys" typing style. The key caps would be slightly better with a bit more concavity and sculpting. The keyboard backlighting works exactly like the MacBook Pro's and can come in handy.

Even under heavy usage, this laptop keeps its cool and the fans aren't as loud as with some other laptops. Part of why it handles heat well may be due to the design of the "feet" that raise the flat bottom of the laptop about 3/16 in. to let air in. This may even work on uneven surfaces, because instead of placing four footpads in the corners, Dell machined parallel ridges, one in front and one in the back, that run continuously across the bottom of the case. The two raised footings sport rounded-over rubber strips, which also give the XPS 15 a lot of traction.

A large side-to-side fan intake sits between the two horizontally running supports. I suspect this laptop wouldn't have its cooling air choked off even if it were left on a soft tablecloth or a bed. It's a smart design.

One design point: It's impossible to open the lid of this notebook with one hand. The friction hinge is so tight that the whole laptop just lifts up. A second hand is required to sneak a finger in and hold down the bottom portion of the laptop as you raise the top. That can be a little tedious. Perhaps it will loosen over time. That said, I'd rather have this problem than a lid whose friction hinge is too loose.

The 6th Generation Intel i7 6700hq is a sort of middle-of-the-pack Skylake quad-core mobile CPU with an integrated graphics processor, the Intel 530. The Dell XPS 15 held its own in Maxon Cinebench r15 and Google Octane 2 benchmark tests.

Cinebench measured the Dell XPS 15 9550 at 96 fps on its OpenGL test. The Dell scored 138 for a single CPU and 674 with the four cores working in concert on Cinebench's CPU test. It turned out a Google Octane 2 score of 36157.

We ran the same benchmarks on a MacBook Pro 15 Retina that was configured with a 2.5GHz Intel quad core i7 4870HQ CPU; 16GB RAM; 512GB SSD; dual graphics processors (an AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and an Intel Iris 5200 Pro) and a 15.4-in. onboard display with a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1200 (2880 x 1800 external). Interestingly, and with the possible exception of the OpenGL score (which was surprisingly high, since high-resolution computers usually have trouble pushing frames per second), the Dell's test results were perhaps only half a notch faster than the Mac's. Keep in mind that the Dell was pushing around a lot more pixels -- if it wasn't a 4K notebook, the Dell might have done even better.

The Crucial 2133MHz DDR4 RAM is exceptionally fast in the Dell. In operation, for all kinds of computing tasks, I found the XPS 15 to be responsive and willing. I have yet to experience any kind of sluggish behavior in any activity. It's a fast machine, but not flashy about it.

I didn't do formal battery run-down testing on the XPS 15. But after living with the laptop for nearly two months, it's clear the huge battery in the touchscreen model gives you a lot of running time. Dell claims up to 17 hours, which is probably a bit overstated. I think most people will get 6 to 8 hours -- or more, if they're frugal with power. With a display like this one, that's excellent.

I've found a lot of mostly minor things to pick on, but don't be misled by that. The Dell XPS 9550 is a well-designed, well-equipped laptop, and although Windows 10 isn't perfect, it's a whole lot better than Windows 8. Together they're a pleasure to use.

In fact, the Dell XPS 15 9550 is the finest Windows notebook I've ever used. Getting a beautiful 15.6-in. 4K touchscreen in a package that feels hardly bigger than a 13-in. machine is a serious advantage, and the Precision Touchpad has been a contributing factor in why my MacBook Pro has collected a thin layer of dust over the past two weeks.

I didn't make a conscious decision, but I may have switched back to Windows without realizing it. Time will tell. One thing that's sure, Dell has built the laptop to beat. If there were a Super Bowl for laptop computers, the XPS 15 would be the champ.


Scot Finnie

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