Long-term review: The Dell XPS 15 Touch is the laptop to beat

Dell's latest Windows 10 laptop is lightweight and powerful, with one of the best displays around.

The recently introduced series of Dell XPS 15 9550 Touch and Non-Touch laptops has been getting a lot of attention. These devices are loaded with high-tech goodness -- in fact, there's no doubt in my mind that Dell served them up targeting would-be MacBook Pro buyers. And as someone who's been using the MacBook Pro 15 Retina for several years, I can tell you that Dell hit its mark.

I went top of the line for this review, selecting a unit that costs $2,230. This configuration of the XPS 15 Touch comes with a 6th-generation ("Skylake") Intel Core i7 quad-core CPU, a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port and a Precision Touchpad (more on this later). I added to the wow factor by selecting a 4K touchscreen, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M GPU with 2GB GDDR5 along with the Intel 530 integrated graphics, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB Samsung PCIe NVMe SSD (add $520 for a 1TB SSD).

If you’re looking for a equivalent Apple system, you’re not going to find one yet. Apple has still to release a Skylake MacBook Pro, and while it debuted new Skylake Macs in the fall, they still have Thunderbird 2 ports.

This means that if you’re looking for the latest high-performance technology, this Dell is the one you want. Here’s my long-term, in-depth review that should answer all your questions.

Display happy

Everything starts with the display on the XPS 15. Apple's Retina displays are extraordinary, but the top-of-the-line Dell XPS 15 4K touchscreen display is gorgeous. I've been using this laptop since Thanksgiving and I'm still impressed by the crispness of lines, curves and typefaces -- and the richly saturated colors. My only wish is that you could crank the brightness up to 110%. (Friends know me to be a brightness freak.) And in case you're wondering, Dell's specs put the screen brightness at 350 nits, which is about as bright as it gets.

Of course, you can't make full use of the Ultra HD 4K resolution for everyday computing on a 15.6-in. screen, but Windows 10 does a good job of scaling resolution. Still, scaling takes away the very thing that high-resolution gives you: Screen real estate and being able to see stunningly detailed images.

It isn't until you attach an external 4K screen that's 32 in. or so that you gain appreciable advantage. I connected a Dell UltraSharp 27-inch 4K monitor to the XPS 15 and found that the highest resolution I could stand with Windows 10 scaling was 2560 x 1440 (anything higher, and everything on the screen became too small to read). At that rate, I'd be better off with a less expensive 2K monitor.

There are, of course, professions that can easily cost-justify the use of Ultra HD on very large external displays. But for most people, any desktop computing benefit of 4K is more nice-to-have (actually, very nice to have) than have-to-have.

The machined aluminum outer shell and carbon-fiber keyboard deck complement the minimalist industrial design on the XPS 15's display surrounds, probably Dell's most inspired design decision and manufacturing feat. I measured the bezel at just under 6mm (or less than a quarter of an inch) on the sides and maybe a quarter inch along the top. The lighted part of the screen goes nearly edge-to-edge.

And because the rest of the laptop takes its dimensional cues from the screen and bezel measurements, this is one small 15-in. laptop. To the nearest 16th of an inch, it measures 14-1/16 in. wide by 9-1/4 in. long by 11/16 in. deep with the touchscreen. Without the touchscreen, it is 1/4 in. thinner at just 7/16 in. deep.

Dell pegs the XPS 15's weight (with the touchscreen and its larger 84 watt-hour battery) at 4.4 lb. Without the touchscreen and with the lighter 56 watt-hour battery, it weighs just 3.9 lb. Dell's touchscreen model is smaller and slightly lighter than the current Apple MacBook Pro 15 Retina.

An additional point worth noting about the XPS 15 9550's 4K display is that it shows 100% of Adobe's RGB color space, a feat many other displays don't match. The glossy 10-finger touchscreen is made of Corning Gorilla Glass NBT, which is bonded to the aluminum top lid for strength. The XPS 15 wasn't designed to function as a 2-in-1, but I find that I use the touch capabilities more frequently than I expected to and sometimes prop the screen up on my lap for casual Web surfing.

Precision Touchpad pluses and minuses

People who have used Apple's MacBook Pros over the years but were tempted to switch to Windows may have found themselves held captive by a single feature: Apple makes the best trackpad in the business. After using Apple's "glass" trackpad, I stopped using a mouse for about 90% of my pointing needs. Windows trackpads are barely functional by comparison. The quest to find a Windows laptop with a decent trackpad has been a frustrating experience. In most ways, the XPS 15 has answered the call. But it's not (yet?) a perfect solution.

The XPS 15 is one of the new crop of Windows laptops that makes use of Microsoft's Precision Touchpad driver, first evident in Windows 8. Microsoft's driver was recently revised with new gestures for Windows 10. Although not quite as smooth as Apple's trackpad, Dell's touchpad comes close and the hardware works well. My only wish is that Dell would make the trackpad a little wider. I may be wrong about this, but my inclination is that the touchpad should match or come close to the 16:9 aspect ratio of the screen.

It's most likely Microsoft's driver that has given me a mixed-bag experience with the touchpad. All the gestures that are supposed to work, do; but some are difficult to initiate consistently -- especially anything to do with lateral swiping. The most important finger functions all work: swipe three fingers down to reveal the desktop (my favorite new gesture); tap to click; two-finger tap for right-click; two-finger scroll; and move objects by pressing and holding them with one finger (I use my thumb), then dragging a second finger in the direction you want to move the object.

With that core set of gestures in hand, as it were, there's enough Mac glass-trackpad-like functionality for me to jump ship to Windows and the Dell XPS 15.

The problem with the Precision Touchpad is that it's finicky. When your intent is to make only a small adjustment to the mouse pointer's position, it sometimes balks. (Keeping the touchpad clean helps.) If you also use an external mouse with the touchpad, the two human interface drivers sometimes get confused and drop their settings.

Probably the most frustrating aspect is two-finger scrolling. It works great in most browsers. But scrolling through Outlook 2013's message list, I feel like I'm slogging through molasses. In Word 2013, scrolling sometimes just stops working altogether (especially in Draft view). In various other applications two-finger scrolling may be fast or slow. Scrolling speed and characteristics (such as whether it has momentum or stops right away) is inconsistent from app to app. It's ironic that Microsoft Office 2013 apps have the most difficulty with the Precision driver. The finicky behavior seems to come and go. If you don't use an external mouse in addition to the touchpad, you'll see fewer issues.

I've seen one other bad behavior. A single touchpad tap to click can become three or four clicks in a split second. For example, I sometimes find myself clicking browser back and forward buttons repeatedly until I can get the Web page I want because the touchpad overshoots. I'm not trying for multiple clicks, but I get two or three on a single tap. Mac trackpads don't add additional clicks based on the amount of time your finger is touching the pad after a tap, nor does the intensity of the tap add additional clicks. I'm not sure what's causing this, and it doesn't happen all the time. More than anything, the improved Windows touchpad needs a user setting for sensitivity and unified application support.

windows 10 precision touchpad settings Dell

In Windows 10, the pointer controls are divided into two locations: Some are found under Control Panel while others are found here in the new Settings applet.

And complicating the process is the fact that, in Windows 10, the pointer controls are divided into two locations: some are found under Control Panel while others are found in the new Settings applet. I've had to go back again and again to reset the tracking speed in Control Panel > Mouse > Pointer Options; those settings keep slipping back to the default middle point.

I've pointed out so many flaws in the XPS 15's touchpad you probably think I hate it. The truth is that, to me, it's the single most important feature; without it, I would not have adopted a Windows machine as one of my two daily-driver laptops. It could use improvement, but Dell and Microsoft are headed in the right direction.

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