Dell XPS 15 (2021) review: The best just got better

A mid-life refresh adds new Intel processors and new Nvidia discrete graphics and an OLED display to an already fine laptop

Price
£2,040 exc VAT
  • Stunning IPS display
  • Powerful and omnicompetent
  • Easy to upgrade post-purchase
  • Disappointing battery life
  • Only 4GB of vRAM
  • No Type-A USB

Gather together a group of technology journalists and ask them what the best general-purpose Windows laptop is and a fair number will tell you it’s the Dell XPS 15 - and it’s hard to disagree. Yes, some Lenovo machines may have marginally better keyboards and some Samsung notebooks like the Galaxy Book Pro have more sumptuous AMOLED displays, but the XPS 15’s combination of looks, build quality, features and price have made it a very hard act to beat for the last few years. 

Dell’s latest hardware refresh adds an optional OLED display, a range of 11th-gen Intel Core processors and Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics. Our review machine came with a mid-range specification, including a Core i7 processor, 32GB of RAM and the RTX 3050Ti discrete GPU, a combination that will set you back just over £2,000 before tax.

Dell XPS 15 review: Design

Dell has resisted the urge to mess with the excellent design that has graced the XPS range for more than half a decade. The XPS 15 is still class-leadingly sleek with very narrow screen bezels and a tidy array of ports and cooling vents. At 2kg it’s considerably heavier than the incredibly light (but admittedly rather flimsy) Samsung Galaxy Book Pro, which is a consideration if you plan on carrying your laptop around for extended periods. The slightly soft-touch carbon fibre keyboard deck is an unusual but great piece of design that feels as good as it looks. 

The 16:10 InfinityEdge display occupies an impressive 93% of the body and while the screen doesn’t tilt as far back as some other laptops, hitting its stop at around 145 degrees, that won't be a problem when you're sitting at your desk. Despite the super-thin bezels, the XPS 15’s aluminium lid is impressively rigid, and the same is true for the rest of the laptop’s construction; in short, it’s a very solid-feeling device.

Dell XPS 15 review: Display

Thin screen bezels are a signature of the XPS line, and the 4mm side and 6mm top bezels continue to impress. The XPS 15’s new 3,456 x 2,160 OLED display also looks quite superb but unfortunately the review unit we were sent was the 3,840 x 2,400 4K IPS model. We’re not going to bleat about that too much, however, because as IPS panels go it's very, very good; the combination of a maximum brightness of 495cd/m2, a contrast ratio of 1800:1, comprehensive coverage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB and DCI-P3 colour spaces (100%, 99.9% and 91.3% respectively) and a MacBook Pro-beating pixel density of 290dpi makes this glossy screen one of the best currently on the market. 

The only real issue is the colour accuracy. We measured a Delta E rating of 5.5, which is rather poor, and too far off the mark for professional work. Recalibrating the panel using Dell’s pre-loaded PremierColor software should be easy enough if you have a colourimeter to hand, but beware it only supports the Portrait Displays C6 and X-Rite iDisplay Pro models.

Our only other slight gripe is the maximum 60Hz refresh rate. For this sort of money, a 90Hz panel would have been a compelling addition; Huawei has given its new MateBook 14s just such a display, and that laptop is considerably cheaper. Incidentally, both the OLED and 4K IPS panels have Gorilla Glass 6 screens and support touch, although the more budget-friendly 1080p model does not. 

Dell XPS 15 review: Keyboard and trackpad

The XPS 15’s keyboard isn’t the best we’ve ever used - the Lenovo ThinkPad range remains the gold standard for this - but Dell’s effort certainly isn’t bad, with a solid and precise action and nicely judged key travel. It’s a classically conventional layout, too, with no strange idiosyncrasies to trip you up along the way. 

At 150 x 90mm, the trackpad is also one of the biggest you’ll find on a Windows laptop and works all the better for it. The smooth surface is satisfyingly tactile, while the click action is perfectly calibrated in both feel and sound. 

Dell XPS 15 review: Specs and hardware

Lurking inside the chassis is a 1.9GHz octa-core Intel Core i7-11800H processor, 32GB of RAM and an Nvidia RTX 3050Ti GPU. That’s a pretty potent combination for a laptop that’s less than 2cm thick, and means the XPS 15 is capable of performing even quite intensive multi-media tasks with alacrity. It also ran impressively cool and quiet, even when stressed by heavy workloads.

Our standard multimedia productivity benchmark returned a score of 272, which is very impressive and only a little shy of the sort of score you’d expect from a high-end gaming laptop or workstation.  The GeekBench 5 CPU scores told a similar story: The single-core score of 1,551 and the multi-core score of 8,707 are up with the best you’ll see from any laptop regardless of specification or price. 

We also ran the SPECviewperf20 workstation benchmark. In the 3dsmax07 rendering test, the XPS 15 scored 54.3fps at 1920 x 1080. Laptops fitted with Nvidia’s RTX 3080 GPU can do significantly better - which highlights the difference in performance between the RTX 3050Ti and Nvidia’s more powerful GPUs, which also come with more dedicated memory. 

Our review model came with a 1TB Western Digital SN730 NVMe SSD which proved to be reasonably fast, recording read and write speeds of 2.85GB/sec and 1.47GB/sec respectively. Curiously, although the XPS 15 supports the latest PCIe 4.0 standard, Dell ships it with a PCIe 3.0 drive. If you find 1TB of storage or 32GB of RAM too restrictive, you’re in luck: all you have to do is remove 8 Torx screws and you can easily access the two SSD bays and both SODIMM memory slots, making the upgrade to 64GB and 2TB extremely straightforward. 

Dell XPS 15 review: Battery life

Unfortunately, all that power weighs the battery life down somewhat. At 7hrs 16mins, the results of our standard video playback test were reasonable for a laptop with a 4K display and an 86Wh battery, but far from exceptional. For comparison, the new 16in Apple MacBook Pro can wring more than 16 hours from a full charge. This, incidentally, is another reason to opt for a more power-efficient OLED display.

How long you can eke out of a full battery in real-world use depends entirely on what you’re doing and how bright the display is. If you’re gaming or doing something that makes similar demands on the hardware, expect between three and four hours, but it’s just possible to get through a full eight-hour workday if all you’re doing is some word processing and you keep the screen brightness low. Dell bundles the XPS 15 with a 130W charger, which is surprisingly small and light considering the power output and can recharge the battery to the tune of 45% every hour.

Dell XPS 15 review: Ports and features

As is becoming sadly common, the XPS 15 dispenses with Type-A USB ports altogether, in favour of three Type-C connectors. One of those is a 10Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 2 while the other two are Thunderbolt 4 spec, and all three support DisplayPort 1.4 video output and PowerDelivery charging. Usefully, Dell includes a simple Type-C to Type-A 3.0/HDMI 2.0 adapter in the box, but we’d still have preferred the additional flexibility of at least one Type-A port. 

Beyond that, all you get are a 3.5mm audio jack and an SD card reader. The Intel Killer AX1650 Wi-Fi 6 module proved capable of some impressive transfer rates though, averaging 1365 Mbit/sec outbound and 1425 Mbit/sec inbound. There’s also a Bluetooth 5.1 radio, although no option for cellular data. 

The sound system consists of 2 x 2.5W woofers and 2 x 1.5W tweeters, and the output is both loud and punchy with an impressive amount of bass, while the MaxxAudioPro control panel gives plenty of scope for modifying the XPS 15’s soundstage to match specific sources. 

The XPS 15 offers the full fist of biometric security with the 720p webcam supporting Windows Hello IR facial recognition and a fingerprint scanner built into the power button. The webcam itself is dismal, however, with images looking very grainy and dim even in decent light. Why Dell hasn’t used the massively superior 5MP webcam from the Latitude tablet range is anyone’s guess. 

Dell XPS 15 review: Verdict

The new XPS 15 is one of the most complete laptop packages on the market today. Thanks to the latest silicon from Intel and Nvidia, it’s massively powerful and competent for a machine which is still reasonably slim and light, and the 4K display is genuinely impressive (if a touch power-hungry).  

Add to that the handsome looks, excellent sound system, high-quality keyboard and accessible chassis, and you have a machine capable of doing just about anything you could ask of it - and getting it done sharpish, to boot. Whether you go for the OLED or 4K IPS model, you’ll still end up with a quite superb machine.

Dell XPS 15 specifications

Processor

Intel Core i7-1180H

RAM

32GB

Graphics adapter

Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050Ti

Storage

1TB SSD

Screen size (in)

15.6

Screen resolution

3840 x 2400

Screen type

IPS

Touchscreen

Yes

Memory card slot

Yes, SD card

3.5mm audio jack

Yes

Graphics outputs

Type-C DisplayPort x 1, Thunderbolt 4 x 2

Other ports

Type-C 3.2 Gen 2 x 1, Thunderbolt 4 x 2

Webcam

720p

Speakers

2 x 2.5W woofers, 2 x 1.5W tweeters

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi 6

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 5.1

Operating system

Windows 11 Home

Dimensions mm (WDH)

354 x 230 x 18

Weight (kg)

2Kg

Battery size (Wh)

86Wh

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