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Dell’s XPS 15: The best big-screen laptop

Published Jul 15th, 2016 9:00PM EDT

Dell’s XPS 15 has become the new trendsetter for big-screen laptops. Like Apple, Dell has come up with a stable, high-quality design.

I try out a lot of laptops and laptop-tablet hybrids, so it’s never easy to settle on one machine for long. But Dell’s 2016 update of the XPS 15 has been my main machine for the last month. Here’s why.

Big screen: Dell’s 15.6-inch display is so big that you probably won’t want anything bigger. But the company has done a good job making its biggest XPS laptop small and light for its size. The XPS 15’s almost-borderless display allows Dell to compress the chassis to the size of some 14-inch laptops. And the 3.9-pound starting weight (4.4 pounds with the larger battery) is well distributed, making it eminently portable for a 15-inch class laptop.

Dell is one of the few top-tier laptop manufacturers to use a so-called bezel-less (borderless) display (though others are finally beginning to catch on). This accomplishes two critical things: it makes for a really cool looking laptop and, as I said above, it keeps the weight and size down. Dell has also done this with great success on the XPS 13, which is essentially a smaller version of the XPS 15.

But getting back to the display’s size. What a 15.6-inch screen gets you is something pretty close to a standalone desktop display. It’s easy to unplug my external 25-inch Dell display and just use the XPS’s. In fact, if I owned an XPS 15 there would be really no reason for an external display. That’s why a big-screen laptop will always have a following: it’s essentially a movable desktop PC.

And be warned, once you start using a big-screen laptop, it’s really hard to go back to anything under 14 inches. Dell makes it even harder if you opt for the 4K Ultra HD (3,840-by-2,160) touch display – it has 3 million more pixels than the display on Apple’s 15.4-inch MacBook Pro. Made by Japan-based Sharp and co-developed with Dell, it’s easily the best big display I’ve used on a laptop. Windows 10 in high resolution is very different than Windows running on a lower-resolution laptop. And Dell and Sharp have done their homework with color accuracy and color reproduction.

Materials: Dell’s choice of materials sets it apart from the competition too. In order to keep the weight down, Dell uses a carbon fiber composite on the area surrounding the keyboard and touchpad. The soft feel of the weaved carbon fiber while you type is a nice contrast with the all-aluminum laptops prevalent today – the MacBook being the most prominent example. The only downside is that the carbon fiber can be a body oil magnet. (I find I generally need to clean the area around the touchpad every other day with a soft cloth moistened with soapy water.) The rest of the laptop (top and bottom) is aluminum. Overall, it’s a remarkably sturdy machine considering its light weight and thickness – only 0.66 inches at its thickest point.

Performance: The model I have packs a lot of punch with Intel’s newest i7-6700HQ 6th generation quad-core processor. It also has a no-holds-barred feature set, including 16GB of DDR4 RAM, a fast 512GB solid-state drive, an Nvidia GTX 960M graphics chip, and an 84 WHr (watt-hour) battery.

Big-screen laptops are often fast, because they can accommodate robust cooling systems and fans to keep even the speediest silicon from overheating. Fast silicon does make a difference. There really isn’t anything that can slow down the XPS 15 that I’m using. Opening a browser with dozens of tabs, or playing a 1080p video full-screen while tweaking an Excel spreadsheet, or diving into photo or video editing doesn’t faze it. And while I don’t play games, it can also keep up with some of the faster gaming laptops, based on tech site reviews. All of that speed can make it painful to return to less performance-oriented laptops.

Battery life: My computer has the extra-large battery so the XPS 15 can stay charged all day based on my on-and-off usage, as long as you turn down the display brightness to about 60 percent and don’t spend a lot of time watching movies or playing 1080p games. Battery life will jump appreciably if you opt for the cheaper version of the XPS 15 with a less-power-hungry, standard-resolution display.

Ports/connectors: The XPS 15 comes with an SD card slot, two USB 3.0 connectors, an HDMI port, and a USB-C/ThunderBolt 3 port.

Price: Pricing starts at $999 for a model with a standard-resolution (1,920-by-1,080) display and dual-core processor and jumps quickly into the $1,600 to $2,950 range if you opt for the high-resolution display and quad-core processor.