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Dell XPS 15 (late 2021) review: Big screen, not so many thrills

Jonathan Bray
14 Feb 2022
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
1,899
inc VAT

The Dell XPS 15 is a big, beautifully constructed laptop but it lacks polish in the details

Pros 
Well built
Lovely keyboard
Sharp, vibrant display
Cons 
Poor battery life
Rivals provide better value
Screen requires calibration for professional use
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With so many of us working from home these days, bigger laptops are coming back into fashion, and the Dell XPS 15 is well set to take advantage.

With its 15.6in 4K display, comfortable keyboard and an array of high-powered components, it can take on most of what your working day can throw at it. Whether you’ll want to throw your cash at it, on the other hand, is an altogether thornier question.


Dell XPS 15 (late 2021) review: What you need to know

The Dell XPS 15 is a bit of a hybrid. It has all the credentials of a workstation laptop – fast CPU, plenty of SSD storage and a large, 15.6in, high-resolution display – and Dell also includes a discrete GPU in all models so you can do a little light gaming at the end of the working day.

At the time of writing, four variants of the Dell XPS 15 were available on the Dell website. All have the 45W Intel Core i7-11800H CPU inside; the main variations are to the storage, which can be either a 512GB SSD or a 1TB SSD, the RAM (either 16GB or 32GB of 3200MHz DDR4 RAM) and the display, which can be either a 4K, 500-nit touchscreen, a 3.5K, 400-nit touchscreen or a 500-nit 1,900 x 1,200 non-touch display.

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Dell XPS 15 (late 2021) review: Price and competition

Prices start at £1,899 for the cheapest Dell XPS 15 and they rise to £2,249 for the sample supplied for this review. This was the highest specification model available at the time of writing, with the 4K touchscreen and 1TB of storage.

The obvious competitor to this Dell XPS 15 is the 2021 Apple MacBook Pro 16in. It's more expensive than the Dell, though, with prices starting at £2,399 for the M1 Pro chip, and it comes with only 512GB of storage.

Windows alternatives are a little more affordable. One of our favourites at this size hails from Asus’ stable of workhorse portables: the 2021 Asus ROG Zephyrus M16. This laptop not only comes with a slightly superior specification to the Dell XPS 15, it’s also much cheaper.

At the time of writing, you could lay your hands on an Asus ROG Zephyrus M16 for £1,800 with an Intel Core i7-11800H CPU, 16GB of RAM, a faster Nvidia RTX 3060 GPU and a 2TB SSD. Its 165GHz 2,560 x 1,600 display is a real beauty, too.

The Dell is the physically more imposing laptop and has a slightly classier build to it but, overall, the Asus is the better-value machine.

Dell XPS 15 (2021) review: Design and key features

Not much has changed on the design front in recent times, and Dell’s 2021 refresh retains all the same key physical features as its recent predecessors. It's a solidly built wedge of black plastic and soft-touch carbon fibre sandwiched between plates of anodised aluminium, and it looks very smart indeed.

It’s big, but slim bezels keep it from being overly bulky, measuring 345 x 230 x 18mm when closed and weighing 2kg. This is around the same weight and size as the MacBook Pro 16in and a touch heavier than the Asus ROG Zephyrus M16. You can get lighter 15.6in laptops – the Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 15.6in comes to mind at around 1kg – but they tend to be a lot less powerful than the Dell XPS 15.

Despite its size and high-class build, the XPS 15’s connectivity is lacking. It has a couple of USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports on the left edge next to a Kensington lock slot and, on the opposite side, a single USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 socket accompanied by a full-size SD card slot and a 3.5mm headset jack. Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2 are supplied by a Killer AX1650s wireless card, and Dell also supplies a USB-C adapter in the box with a single HDMI and USB-A port on it, so it isn’t a complete disaster.

Flip the lid and you’ll see that the XPS 15 doesn’t make use of its broad chassis by slotting in a number pad, either. Instead, its backlit keyboard is flanked with a pair of stereo speakers capable of impressively weighty audio output.

The keyboard itself is a beauty – it has loads of travel and a soft, yet progressive action – and the large touchpad works well. It’s hinged at the top, but you can click pretty much anywhere on it aside from the very top edge, and its smooth surface is responsive to the slightest swipe and dab of the finger.

The only area for serious concern is the webcam, which produces blurry, low-resolution 720p footage. It may support Windows Hello biometric login (there’s also a fingerprint reader set into the power button in the top right corner of the keyboard), but in a workstation laptop costing around £2,000 I’d expect better.

Dell XPS 15 (late 2021) review: Display

Luckily, the 4K display on this review sample is a good deal more impressive. As usual for an XPS it has an aspect ratio of 16:10, which gives you more desktop height to play with than on a 16:9 screen, and the resolution is a crisp 3,840 x 2,400.

It’s touch-capable, too, but the refresh rate is a fairly staid 60Hz so you're never going to exceed 60fps when gaming. Not that you would with this GPU, but I’ll go into that in more depth in the next section.

The display itself is, technically, highly capable. It can produce a wider array of colours than either the DCI-P3 (114%) or AdobeRGB (111%) colour spaces. It’s bright, reaching a maximum of 460cd/m² out of the box, and the contrast ratio is excellent at 1,710:1.

The trouble is, out of the box, it isn’t very colour accurate. That’s despite the fact that Dell preinstalls its own colour management software, which allows you to switch between sRGB, Rec.709, DCI-P3, AdobeRGB and other colour profiles on the fly.

Indeed, I found the average Delta E in sRGB mode was dreadful (4.71), and while DCI-P3 and AdobeRGB modes were better, they’re still pretty poor at 2.55 for the former and 2.41 for the latter.

As ever, if you’re serious about colour accuracy you’re best off uninstalling the Dell Premier Colour application entirely, purchasing a colorimeter such as the X-Rite i1 Display Pro and calibrating the display yourself.

Dell XPS 15 (late 2021) review: Performance

Unusually for a Dell laptop, this year’s Dell XPS 15 only offers one choice of CPU – the Intel Core i7-11800H – and, as tested, this comes with a supporting 32GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU.

That’s a reasonably powerful combination that will soak up most demanding workloads. It doesn’t come close to matching the overall power of the MacBook Pro 16, even in its weakest configuration, but the Dell XPS 15 is the cheaper machine.

The Dell’s biggest challenge is that the Asus ROG Zephyrus M16, which we tested in its top-of-the-range Core i9 guise, is also available with the same Core i7-11800H CPU as the Dell, plus a more powerful GPU for £100 less. And as you can see from the Acer Nitro 5’s performance numbers in the graph below, the RTX 3060 is significantly more powerful for games than the Dell's RTX 3050Ti.

Rounding off this performance section is a fairly mediocre SSD score – again, it’s beaten by the Zephyrus M16 here – and battery life that, by the standards set by the MacBook Pro 16in, looks embarrassingly short of acceptability.

Dell XPS 15 (2021) review: Verdict

None of which makes this latest Dell XPS 15 a terrible product. It’s a well-made machine with a fantastic keyboard and touchpad, a decent blend of high-performance hardware, and a bright, sharp, wide-gamut display.

However, for this money, you can definitely do better. You can pick up an Asus ROG Zephyrus M16 with the same CPU, a faster GPU and a bigger SSD for less cash and, if you don’t mind paying more, the 16in MacBook Pro beats it in almost every area. At this level, good isn’t good enough – a laptop needs to be great in every way that matters, and it’s here that the XPS 15 is found lacking.

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