Dell XPS 15 2021 review: Dell’s premium Windows laptop gives the MacBook pro a run for its money

·7-min read
This 15in beast of a laptop is available in silver and black, or arctic white (iStock/The Independent)
This 15in beast of a laptop is available in silver and black, or arctic white (iStock/The Independent)

The Dell XPS 15 range has been around for over a decade. But it wasn’t until 2015 when the manufacturer’s flagship laptop really hit its stride.

Since then this top-flight device has consistently been one of the fastest and most highly awarded Windows laptops you can buy. It’s also one of the more expensive. Cheaper models are always available, but the top-specced configurations everyone gets most excited about typically set you back between £1,600 and £2,000.

For your money you get a laptop that does everything. Dell went through a brief phase of calling the XPS 15 an “all-in-one” (a term usually reserved for other desktops such as the Apple iMac), to suggest it could replace your PC entirely. While that badge didn’t stick, the fact remained that the Dell XPS 15 really did offer desktop-beating performance in a laptop.

In 2019 the model was upgraded with an incredible looking 3.5K OLED screen developed by Samsung – the sort of screen you’d expect on a high-end TV or smartphone. However, the breakthrough display was such an enormous battery drain that the option was removed in the 2020 model.

Now OLED’s back for 2021. The Dell XPS 15 9510 – to give this year’s model its proper name – can be configured with a bright and lifelike touchscreen display that sets it apart from most other laptops. That’s the version we’ve been testing, though keep in mind that the Dell XPS 15 is still a superb laptop even if you opt for the less expensive LCD screen.

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Dell XPS 15 (2021, with OLED screen): £2,098.99, Dell.com

 (Steve Hogarty/The Independent)
(Steve Hogarty/The Independent)
  • CPU: 11th gen Intel Core i7-11800H

  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti 4GB

  • RAM: 16GB DDR4

  • Screen: 15.6in OLED 3.5K (3456x2160) touchscreen

  • Storage: 512 SSD

  • Pros: Incredibly fast, stylish design

  • Cons: Expensive, not so portable

The Dell XPS 15 is the best laptop you can buy. Of course, that won’t be true for everyone, and the laptop is far from perfect. Some people may want to spend less, or would prefer something lighter, smaller, or less powerful. Others might choose a hybrid that can transform into a tablet at the push of a button, or sway towards a MacBook.

But when somebody asks me what laptop they should buy and want to end the conversation quickly, I recommend the Dell XPS 15.

This is a kitchen sink laptop with a glorious display and enough processing power to handle any task you could conceivably ask of it, whether that’s jumping about in Tomb Raider on ultra-high settings or working in content creation with giant media files.

 (Steve Hogarty/The Independent)
(Steve Hogarty/The Independent)

Launched this summer, the newest model refreshes the laptop’s already impressive specs for 2021, reintroduces an OLED display option, and addresses criticisms of the previous version we tested, from noisy fans to weak sound quality.

Design

Dell’s flagship device is a very handsome thing. It’s still a massive object – you wouldn’t want to drop this guy on your toe – but it’s slimmer and lighter than previous years.

The all-metal design feels premium to the touch. The bezels surrounding the display have either been removed or reduced, so that the screen takes up more of the top panel. While the textured carbon fibre deck has returned, surrounding an enormous glass touchpad and a super-comfortable keyboard.

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The Dell XPS 15 is as pleasant to look at as it is to work with. The curved base gives the illusion of a thinner laptop, and the keys are imperceptibly recessed into the deck to give you the tactile feeling of typing on a much deeper keyboard. There are three USB-C ports (but no USB-A port), an SD card reader and a 3.5mm audio jack, just in case you’re still rocking some old headphones.

Display and audio

The 3.5k OLED display is gorgeous. Bright, vibrant and lifelike compared to a traditional LCD panel, this is the best screen you’ll find on any laptop. Colours leap out of the display without looking overly saturated or losing clarity, and blacks are inky dark even with the brightness cranked all the way up.

Movies and TV look particularly great on the Dell XPS 15, but the OLED display accommodates more serious graphic work too. For video editors and photographers, a full-featured colour profile management system lets you tweak colour accuracy to suit your preferences.

 (Steve Hogarty/The Independent)
(Steve Hogarty/The Independent)

On either side of the keyboard are two recent additions to the range, a pair of front-firing speakers, which elevate the audio quality compared to the flatter down-firing ones found on older models.

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The drivers are beefy enough for watching movies and listening to music, and take advantage of the depth of the laptop to create a surprisingly rich sound. The bass is clear and has none of that warped, tinny quality you get with laptop speakers.

Performance

The configuration we tested is powered by Intel’s 11th generation Core i7-11800H processor, with 16GB of DDR4 memory and a discrete graphics card in the form of the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti. In performance terms this places the Dell XPS 15 right near the top of a busy pack of high-end laptops.

It’s a supremely capable machine whether you’re manipulating large video files, editing audio or playing video games. I was able to routinely leave my PC behind and churn through processor-intensive audio exporting jobs on the Dell XPS 15, confident that the laptop could chew through any task my workstation at home could handle.

 (Steve Hogarty/The Independent)
(Steve Hogarty/The Independent)

The GeForce RTX 3050 Ti isn’t the most powerful GPU you’ll find in a laptop. However, when helped along by Nvidia’s almost magical DLSS technology – a newly developed software technique that instantly unlocks giant performance boosts for less powerful cards – I was hitting 60 frames per second in the notoriously demanding Cyberpunk 2077.

There are better laptops for gaming, but the Dell XPS 15 has more than enough grunt to be a games machine.

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Another improvement is a greater degree of control over cooling versus performance. Under normal conditions the XPS 15 runs silently, but with multiple applications running at the same time things can get toasty. If you choose to let the CPU and GPU run riot in performance mode the fans will kick out some noise, but by selecting a quieter profile the XPS 15 can throttle performance before things can get too hot. Overall, this the quietest Dell XPS 15 we’ve heard in years.

Battery life

Laptops with bright, high-resolution screens tend to devour battery life, and here the Dell XPS 15 is no exception. You’ll easily get a full eight hour work day out of it – impressive for any device with a power-hungry 15in OLED screen attached to it – but to avoid battery anxiety and a drop-off in performance as the battery runs out of juice, you’ll want to keep your charger on hand.

 (Steve Hogarty/The Independent)
(Steve Hogarty/The Independent)

This is fine if you don’t plan on leaving the vicinity of an electrical socket very often, but if you want a truly portable laptop that’s less likely to expire on a transatlantic flight you can get the Dell XPS 15 (£1849, Dell.com) with half the resolution. This model extends the battery life by several hours and reduces the price for £240. You might also want to consider the smaller, longer-lasting Dell XPS 13 (£899, Dell.com).

Verdict: Dell XPS 15 (2021 with OLED screen)

There are lighter laptops, there are sleeker laptops. There are more portable laptops, and there are certainly cheaper laptops.

But if you’re in the market for a high-performance and productivity focused Windows laptop with a spectacular next-generation display, the new Dell XPS 15 is the best you’ll find. This is as about close to perfect as laptops get.

Dell XPS 15 2021

Buy now £1499.00, Dell.com

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Unsure whether this is for you? Read our round-up of the best laptops you can buy in 2021

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