MUCH Better Than I Expected – Dell XPS 15 9500 (2020) Review
Meet the new XPS 15 9500, this is one of the first notebooks that we have ever considered to be a true hybrid. Basically it can do pretty much anything with an asterisk, of course. This notebook was a bit difficult to evaluate against the competition because if you look at the majority of the notebook content that we publish on the channel most of them are catered towards gamers because they are gaming laptops in the first place. And so when I switched over to the XPS 15 I wondered is this thing a productivity device or a gaming notebook or an ultra-portable laptop? It could be all of those things, but it also could be none of them at all.
Dell has focused really hard on reducing noise to make the XPS 15 really easy to live with, so that means they are going to be some performance sacrifices, but does that make it the perfect all-around notebook or does the Jack of All Trades approach also make it a Master of None? Well for starters, it’s pretty expensive, so Dell needs to get a lot of things right. However, I do have some concerns as well since current owners of this notebook have highlighted some issues.
Before I get into my full review, I definitely have to talk about some of the issues that users have been experiencing with the current XPS 15. If you go onto Reddit or YouTube you can find some of the issues. For example, there have been problems reported with the trackpad not registering clicks and my friend’s unit randomly turned itself off every few minutes, so he had to return it. I have also seen a lot of negative feedback about the screen’s auto brightness feature and the fingerprint sensor not working after the notebook wakes up. The sample that I have is from a later batch and I thankfully haven’t encountered any of those issues.
Price & Models
Let’s start with the price, and I mentioned above it’s not cheap, but it’s not too bad either. The base model retails for $1,250 USD and for that you get a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB NVMe SSD, no discrete graphics, and a 1200P IPS 500-nit display. If you want a discrete graphics card you will have to step up to the Core i7 model and GTX 1650 Ti for about $1,650 USD. The sample that we have on hand comes with twice memory, twice the storage, the same GPU, the same display, and it goes for about $1,850 USD. That is expensive, but when you look at the overall package it’s actually not too bad that. Now Mike and I have been using this thing for the past couple of weeks and he’s drooling all over it, he absolutely loves everything about this machine. I guess I can sort of fall into that category too because there are a lot of reasons to like the XPS 15 as you will see below.
Design & Build Quality
One thing I love about this notebook is the design and build quality. It’s an absolute masterpiece. If you recall my XPS 13 review, I was waving about the incredible craftsmanship by the engineering team over a Dell. They produced the gold standard for what an ultrabook should be. Think of XPS 15 as a super-sized XPS 13 without any of the compromises needed in a smaller form factor. That means you are getting a robust hinge that doesn’t wobble, you can also open the lid with just one hand, and unlike the XPS 13 the lid is magnetic so you don’t have to worry about that gap between the lid and the main body. However, I did notice that the middle section doesn’t stay flush, but that’s just me being picky.
The interior space is a breath of fresh air after having used a variety of gaming notebooks. You are getting a standard layout, which I’m sure a lot of you will appreciate. Dell has made the keys bigger compared to last year’s model and the power button now acts as a fingerprint reader. The keys feel excellent, there is a good amount of travel distance so they don’t feel shallow. They are way, way better than my Razer Blade 15 Advanced because you get proper feedback. I love the font choice, I think Dell has utilized the space efficiently, especially with the Arrow keys and the Shift keys. There is one thing that bothered me just a little bit, and that is the backspace key on my sample felt a bit loose compared to the rest of keys, but other than that it’s a fantastic keyboard. It is also LED backlit and I didn’t have any problems viewing it at night. The cherry on top is the carbon fiber inspired palm rest. I think Dell has nailed this in terms of giving users a superior comfortable typing experience. It just feels like pillows for my palms, I’m not sure if that made sense, but this is one of my favorite features of the XPS 15.
Now moving on to the trackpad, it’s big… it’s really big. It’s bigger than my Razer Blade 15, it’s really the biggest trackpad that I have ever encountered on a Windows notebook. Furthermore, it’s amazingly good too. You have a glass surface with support for Windows Precision drivers. The finger navigation is just super smooth, it’s very responsive. I loved using this trackpad every single day. My sample did not have any of those wobbling issues that other users have reported, so take that for what it is. There is one thing that I do have to point out, and that is the middle click – cause the primary left and right buttons are integrated – but the middle click basically has no function. It’s kind of like a dead zone, so if I’m trying to drag-and-drop files from my explorer to the desktop it doesn’t work, so definitely keep that in mind. Personally, I think that the trackpad might be a little bit too big, but if a bigger trackpad is something that you are looking for this one is great. The palm detection/rejection also really good too, so that’s awesome.
Awful Webcam, Awesome Speakers
This is the webcam test, I have recorded this probably like 5 or 6 times because I would randomly hear some crackling noise happening in the background with my vocals. In some of the recordings I didn’t notice any of them, but in other cases I did. The video quality is not really the greatest compared to some of the other notebooks that I have encountered. I’m not really sure what’s up with that, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind when you plan on using this thing for business meetings or casual conversations over Skype or Zoom. Thankfully, the speakers on the XPS 15 were amazing. I legitimately watched Netflix for hours on this thing, and I didn’t really have a need to plug-in my headphones or an external set of speakers on this laptop. There was proper stereo separation/stereo imaging because you have two front-facing speakers with great projection, and there are also speakers on the side that help to give the audio more body. You also get a bit of bass response, the trebles don’t sound harsh, and this is just honestly a fantastic multimedia machine.
Moving on to the display, and this is yet another area where Dell hit a home run. Just like with the XPS 13, the XPS 15 has shifted to a 16:10 aspect ratio. Typically, most 1080P notebooks come with a 1920×1080 resolution, but in this case you get an extra 120 pixels vertically so that will give you more room to work with in an applications, which is really nice. It is an IPS panel, and as we ran our display analysis test I was blown away by how colour accurate it is. It covers 100% sRGB, 81% Adobe RGB, and 88% DCI-P3. I was watching some of my old videos on the channel and I compared it to my 4K BenQ display, and I really couldn’t tell a difference. This is a dream panel for creators like myself, because I can comfortably edit videos, photos, whatever. Not to mention it’s also a really bright display, it gets as high as 500 nits so you can take this thing outdoors without a problem. You can also opt for a slightly less colour accurate 4K option, but I prefer the 1200P display because it’s matte and I just prefer having that non-reflective panel over something that is glossy.
The I/O is unfortunately an area where you need to make compromises because you are not getting a whole lot of options. On the left-hand side, you get a Kensington lock and two Thunderbolt 3 ports, while on the right-hand side you get an audio jack, a full-size UHS-3 card reader, and a USB 3.1 Type-C. Here is where I stand with the port situation, I completely see what Dell is doing here with the current XPS line up: The XPS 13 doesn’t have a lot of I/O, the XPS 15 is all mostly USB-C, and I think they are trying to future-proof their lineup for the next generation of accessories. However, maybe they are moving too quickly.
If you look at the current situation, there are not a lot of accessories that come with USB-C wireless adapters or USB-C cables. If you want to connect other accessories you will definitely need a Type-A port, which surprisingly you can use because they do include a USB to USB-C hub device that comes with a full-size USB Type-A port and a full-size HDMI port, so that’s something I guess. It’s definitely a lifestyle change that you will have to adapt, but until you absolutely can use USB Type-C for everything that you do maybe it’s not the right time to switch.
The Insides & Upgradeability
In terms of upgradeability, this laptop surprised me for its form factor. As you can see, you have two RAM lots that can be easily accessed, with maximum supported memory of 64GB. The primary NVMe SSD is under a thick copper heatspreader and there is an extra M.2 slot for storage expansion, which is awesome. However, they don’t provide any screws for mounting that second drive… Dell, what’s up with that? The primary NVMe SSD is fast, in fact it’s the fastest that we have ever come across on a notebook, both in terms of read and write performance, especially on a notebook this thin.
Power Management & Battery Life
Dell’s power manager is a really deep program that’s worth a look, but it could actually be a bit too complicated for most everyday users. You can select when the battery is most likely to charge, which extends the battery life. Peak Shift allows you to manage when charging happens so you can lower your consumption during peak times when the utility may charge more for electricity. Thermal Management is more about comfort than anything else. For example, both Cool and Quiet modes prioritize surface temperatures by using a network of sensors that Dell has placed through the chassis. The XPS 15 can then increase the speed of either one of its fans or both to reduce temperatures in areas that would most affect you, for example in the palm rest area and the keyboard.
How does all of this translate to battery life? Well this is again a solid win for the XPS 15. During our light load test this laptop lasted for more than 16 hours, and it’s by far the longest lasting notebook in this segment. When I switched over to the heavy load test it does take a bit of a hit lasting for about only 71 minutes.
Temperatures & Noise
This is a good time to move on to some temperature results. Starting with the surface temperatures, and it looks like Dell is doing exactly what they promised. The keyboard area only gets to around 50°C at it’s hottest point even with the system under full load. It’s also nice to see all the hot air going out the back, so your mouse hand or lap isn’t going to get too toasty. Heat on the bottom chassis is also really well-managed here. Just to give you some idea of how cool this thing runs, the top and bottom temperature hotspots on the XPS are a good 10°C to 15°C lower than many of the other notebooks that I have reviewed. Considering how slim it is and the kind of specs this thing is running that is seriously impressive. How does that translate to noise? Well at idle the XPS 15 is dead silent, and even under full load when the fans are spinning at higher RPMs it’s still one of the quieter high-performance notebooks around.
What does all that focus on surface temperatures and reducing noise mean for overall performance? Well let’s check out clock speeds over time. I’m going to go a little more in-depth here and compare the XPS 15 to the MSI GS66, another notebook that uses the Core i7-10750H processor. Starting off with CPU temperatures, under a full Maya workload the first 10 minutes or so of the test sees a spike to a 100°C like every other Intel-based notebook. After that there is a really quick dip down to a more manageable temperature of between 80 to 85°C until the end. The odd thing is even when at the 100°C peak the XPS fans don’t seem to have an aggressive enough profile. Even with the CPU sitting near its thermal limit they just sat there and didn’t increase their speed until the 66 second mark. You can also see that at other times fan speeds dropped off and that caused temperatures to rise again. Either way, the temps stayed below that of the MSI GS66.
Power & Frequencies
The clock speeds stayed below the MSI notebook as well – by a good 300MHz – and they aren’t nearly a stable either. There are frequent dips to under 3GHz and those line up perfectly with the areas where temperatures started to increase. I guess that is a sacrifice that you need to make for a notebook that is quiet and runs pretty cool. A lot of the temperature and clock speed modifications are being controlled by changing the i7-10750H input power on-the-fly. It starts out pretty high, but then Dell’s algorithms cut back to just 47W with a few areas lowering to only 40W. This is actually right inline with Intel’s configurable TDP numbers, so it’s not like we are seeing throttling here. As a matter of fact, this is more inline with how the CPU should behave, whereas MSI seems to have their GS66 configured to the upper-end of Intel spec.
As far as the performance results, because of the XPS 15’s initial burst of high speed it should edge out the MSI GS66 in shorter tests like Cinebench, but that’s not really what happens in the real world. As the tests get longer we get to see a lot more realistic performance and longer processing workloads. The XPS 15 falls further and further behind, but that doesn’t mean it’s slow. This is still a super fast notebook for its size. As a matter of fact, it’s between 50% to 75% faster than a similarly-sized thin-and-light notebook like the ZenBook 15 that I tested just a few months ago.
Meanwhile, the discrete GTX 1650 Ti gives some pretty decent performance uplifts in Adobe Premiere and DaVinci Resolve, which is good news for anyone who wants to use the XPS 15 as a portable rendering machine. Remember the rest of the notebooks in these charts have much higher-end GPUs. WinRAR shows some respectable performance too, which will be pretty important for people who need to quickly load or process files from their internal drive.
Now it’s time for some gaming, but before I get into the results I do want to emphasize something very important. This laptop is not designed for gamers. In fact, the GTX 1650 Ti is more of a mid-range card rather than a really high-end fast GPU, and it’s really meant to accelerate programs that require GPU accelerations like Adobe Premiere or DaVinci Resolve or any of applications that would take advantage of CUDA cores. This is not really a gaming beast, but the reason why we are doing some gaming benchmarks is just show you that it has a little bit of horsepower to play some titles at respectable frame rates. With that out of the way, let’s see how the processor reacts in gaming over time. Temperatures and clock speeds are managed a lot when we hit the system with a full CPU load, that means a huge spike in temperatures and frequencies at first, followed by an epic dip and then everything pretty much levels off again. The only difference here in Doom Eternal is that since all the cores are partially loaded the overall average frequency was 3.8GHz. As for the GTX 1650 Ti, well for the first 30 seconds I was a bit worried about those high temperatures, but like we saw in the last test that’s the time it takes for the fans to actually realize that they need to turn on. I really think Dell needs to change this. I’m testing it in the highest performance mode and it would be so much better if the fan algorithm was load-based instead of it being so slow to respond. That way temperatures could be managed before they get high and maybe clock speeds wouldn’t fall off a cliff for a few seconds. Once things finally stabilized, the GPU was running right within NVIDIA’s specs and under 80°C, so there is nothing to worry about here.
How does that translate into actual gaming results? Well the XPS 15 might be sitting at the bottom of the charts, but in a few cases it actually comes within 5% to 7% of the MSI Bravo 15 with a Radeon RX 5500M. Basically, I classify this as a good fit for medium level gaming. Don’t expect ultra details, but if you turn down to settings a bit you will get playable frame rates in almost any game at 1080P or the XPS 15’s native resolution of 1920×1200. That is really not all that bad for a notebook like this.
I guess the question comes down to who is the XPS 15 catered towards? I think someone who is into stock trading or spreadsheets will appreciate the extra vertical screen real-estate, or if you are someone who uses programs like MATLAB or Autodesk Maya or applications that need just a little bit of GPU acceleration, but also need some that Intel Core i7 CPU horsepower. It’s also great for people who don’t want to sacrifice on light load battery life, and those who value design, build quality, and just want a premium notebook. For all those people the XPS 15 is worth checking out because it’s amazing.
I do want to mention that I wouldn’t blame anyone if they completely skipped the XPS 15, because of all the issues that are really well-known within the community, like the trackpad, the wobble issue, and some people have issues with the display. Not to mention my friend had to go through random BSODs and freezing, which again are all red flags and that is definitely a quality control issue that Dell certainly has to address. Personally, I really want a ditch my Razer Blade 15 and switch over to the Dell XPS 15 9500 just because of that beautiful, bright color, accurate display, the speakers, the trackpad, and I guess the battery life too. And most importantly, the fact that it’s just built really well, it’s so refined. There are just so many good things to like about the XPS 15, but I have to send it back. since regrettably Dell wants it back.