Home / Tech / News / Dell’s latest XPS 15 has a speedy processor and gorgeous display, but it isn’t a slam dunk

Dell’s latest XPS 15 has a speedy processor and gorgeous display, but it isn’t a slam dunk

If I drew up a diagram of the perfect traditional laptop, a maxed-out Dell XPS 15 7590 would come pretty damn close.

On paper, it seems to have everything I might want or need: an octa-core Intel Core i9 processor faster than my current desktop PC, a 15-inch 4K OLED panel bright enough to read outdoors, 64GB of RAM for serious multitasking, 2TB of blazing fast NVMe solid-state storage, and GeForce GTX 1650 graphics potent enough for some portable gaming as well. All of that inside an aluminum and carbon-fiber clad chassis with a Windows Precision Touchpad and well-spaced backlit keyboard, plus all the most important ports: two USB 3.0, one Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C, one HDMI, a 3.5mm jack, and an SD card slot.

Did I mention it’s got one of the largest batteries you can carry on a plane — 97Wh — to keep it all charged?

In other words: it’s the ultimate version of the laptop I already own. In 2017, I bought an XPS 15 because it looked like the perfect Windows alternative to the MacBook Pro, with enough performance, battery life, ports, and occasional gaming chops to be whatever I needed it to be on the go.

After over a month of testing, there’s no question: the new 2019 model is even more desirable than the laptop that wowed me two and a half years ago. Dell didn’t fix anything that wasn’t broken, and did fix one thing that was: the company came to its senses and moved the awkwardly angled nose-webcam up to the top bezel where it belongs. Aside from slightly more cushion (and slightly less click) in the keyboard and a slightly whiter aluminum finish, the industrial design is exactly the same.

But if you’re looking to buy one, I’d advise investing in a beefed-up warranty and skipping its most potent parts.

My personal XPS 15 9560, next to the new XPS 15 7590. I can’t tell them apart at this angle.

It’s not that the OLED screen isn’t gorgeous, or the Core i9 isn’t powerful. They absolutely are. OLED laptops are an idea whose time has come, and my heart sings when I stream a 4K HDR movie on the exceptionally clear, searingly bright OLED non-touchscreen that Dell offers starting at the $1,949 mark. Dell advertises this panel provides 400 nits of brightness, but I suspect that’s a conservative number — Tom’s Hardware measured 626 nits on average, which would explain why I had no trouble writing a chunk of this review in the sunlight outdoors, and why the light sources in HDR movies felt so real when I watched them on this laptop.

But actually finding 4K HDR movies that’ll stream in Windows is a different story. Netflix works great as long as you’re using Microsoft’s Edge browser, but I was astounded to find the state of Windows and 4K / HDR playback is still so poor: when I tried to fire up my copy of Blade Runner 2049 in Vudu, Google Play Movies & TV, Movies Anywhere, FandangoNow, and Microsoft’s own Movies & TV app, I discovered none of them support HDR on Windows PCs, few support 4K, and those that do didn’t recognize the XPS 15 as 4K-ready. Similarly, you can’t use this screen for HDR gaming, because Windows doesn’t recognize that as a possibility.

None of that means this screen’s inky blacks and vibrant colors don’t lend themselves to regular movies or even games — and I was pleasantly surprised how much gaming this non-gaming laptop can do. My original XPS 15’s GeForce GTX 1050 graphics chip can’t quite manage to play the latest games like Borderlands 3 and Mordhau at 1080p resolution anymore; but with the 2019 model’s GeForce GTX 1650, both Borderlands and The Witcher 3 look great at 1080p and medium detail, with only occasional dips below 60 frames per second. You can run less intensive games like Overwatch at 4K resolution in a pinch, too.

You’ll really want a different laptop with an RTX 2060 or better if you’re truly set on gaming, since the XPS 15 maxes out at that GTX 1650. But I still felt comfortable playing the graphics-intensive Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 1080p and medium settings, where the deep, deep blacks of the OLED panel made spelunking through dark caves a delight —instead of the muddled gray mess you get from a screen that can’t display true black in the dark regions of a game.

You may just have to imagine how gorgeous that sunlight looks with OLED…

…or how dark this cave feels.

This isn’t a criticism of Dell or this laptop, just something you should know: a laptop-sized 4K OLED screen is still a giant battery hog, to the point you can’t expect all-day battery life even from a 97 watt-hour battery pack. One of the biggest reasons I bought the 2017 model was so I could get seven to eight hours of real-world battery life with its comparatively bland 1080p LCD panel, but no matter how I tweaked the brightness I haven’t been able to get more than 5.5 hours of work done on the OLED model — and sometimes just four hours. We only saw slightly better from the 15-inch HP Spectre X360 with OLED. The Dell does last long enough to watch an entire 4K HDR movie at high brightness with some charge left in the tank, though, and I could game for a whole hour on battery.

When the industry figures out how to put a truly HDR-capable 4K 120Hz OLED screen in a laptop with enough horsepower to run games at that resolution and refresh rate, it’s going to be something special. But for now, it’s still hard for me to justify the price and the huge battery life hit of the OLED panel.

Another thing I’m looking forward to: a future Dell XPS 15 that’s actually designed to house a demanding Core i9 chip inside its frame. I wasn’t exaggerating when I called this laptop’s Core i9-9980HK more powerful than my desktop: I run a Skylake Core i5-6600K, and this chip not only has twice the cores (eight), four times the threads (16), and up to a 5GHz boost clock, it visibly launches apps (and giant browser windows filled with tabs) much faster than my aging desktop PC.

But it also gets notably hotter than my XPS 15 from 2017, to the point it can get uncomfortable to use on a lap for extended periods. And if you stress the Core i9 and the GeForce GTX 1650 at the same time, they seem to require more cooling and power than the XPS 15’s unchanged design can offer. Using MSI’s Afterburner system monitoring app, I saw the Core i9 repeatedly throttle itself in the middle of a game, something I suspect might come up in similarly intensive tasks. (It’s the reason I couldn’t keep The Witcher 3 locked at 60 fps, though PCWorld’s Gordon Mah Ung says the throttling wasn’t as bad when encoding 4K video.) Windows would also sometimes throw warnings that the 130-watt AC adapter wasn’t providing enough electricity.

The keyboard and touchpad are still responsive and well-spaced, though I did have one weird issue where two-finger scrolling can freeze.

And those weren’t the only glitches I saw. I encountered several Blue Screens of Death across two review units (each time related to the GPU), and occasionally found the speakers had suddenly gotten much quieter than before, even though I verified that the system’s (surprisingly excellent-sounding) Waves MaxxAudio virtualization was still turned on. Once or twice a day, I’ll be using two fingers to scroll through my Chrome browser with Dell’s otherwise impeccable touchpad, and suddenly two-finger scrolling will fail to work. And I’ve had the entire system hang twice while using one of Dell’s own USB-C docking stations, one that worked perfectly fine with my 2017 model.

That’s why I’m going to give you the same advice I’ve given family and friends: if you buy an XPS 15, spend the extra $100 for a couple years of Dell’s premium support to go with it. With my personal laptop, I had to replace the Wi-Fi radio, then the entire motherboard, to fix hardware issues that Dell didn’t catch by itself. It wasn’t too hard for me to get those problems solved because I paid for the premium support and Dell quickly sent a technician to my house. But I read plenty of stories on Reddit of others with the same issues who first had to argue, then ship their laptop to Dell.

I’m seeing similar stories of quality control issues with this new XPS 15 as well, and the handful of issues I’m experiencing with my own review units makes me think they might be true — like how the fingerprint reader on one of my units, but not the other, doesn’t show up in Windows.

I wouldn’t shy away from buying the new XPS 15, because my personal machine has been a solid workhorse ever since the initial repairs, but I wouldn’t personally pay $2,500+ for the configuration I tested. I’d wait for a sale and maybe spend $1,500 for a Core i7 with a 1080p screen, the Nvidia chip, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and two years of premium warranty. That’s the sale price for that config (with coupon code) at the time I wrote this review.

And if you do succumb to the siren song of OLED, you may want to spend a moment in the Intel Control Panel disabling a feature called “Panel Self Refresh,” which is supposed to prolong battery life, but instead made me spend hours wondering why the screen would flicker every so often. Thankfully, that turned out to be a really simple fix.

But before I buy my next Dell XPS 15, I want to see this aging design replaced with a new one. Not a thinner laptop or one with fewer full-size ports, as manufacturers typically tend to do — those are fine as they are. But I wouldn’t mind a lighter laptop, one that boots faster, with a second Thunderbolt 3 port on the other side of the laptop for charging, and a thermal design that can actually keep a Core i9 and game-capable GPU cool. Maybe a carbon-fiber-coated magnesium alloy frame for less heft? I’d gladly take an RTX 2060-class chip as well.

And while we’re adding to the wishlist, I’d sure love if Dell replaced the proprietary 130W power brick with the company’s more versatile USB-C version, too.

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