The XPS M1530 takes 15-inch Dell notebooks upscale. (February 8th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Dell
Price: $1299 (1.8GHz C2D, Vista Ultimate, 9-cell)
- Relatively stylish, intelligent design.
- Strong choices of CPU, graphics for the price.
- Free of nagging trialware.
- Good keyboard and expansion ports.
- 1GB RAM far too little for games, HD video, Vista.
- Downward-facing fan makes notebook uncomfortably hot in heavy use.
- Trackpad on the review unit is partly unresponsive after waking up.
- 9-cell battery doesn't add enough longevity to be worthwhile for most users.
design, heat, and noise
Dell has come a long way from its earlier days, when many of its notebook designs were more likely to be rebadged generic designs than custom hardware.
While the M1530 is less of a shock than it might have been otherwise -- the 13.3-inch XPS M1330 stole much of its larger sibling's thunder -- the reality remains that the new system is a far sleeker and more attractive design than just about any large Dell portable to date. The outer shell is refreshingly minimal for Dell and even makes use of aluminum on the edges. It's a refreshing break from an industry still dominated by plastic or low-cost metal bodies. That said, the colored part of the shell is prone to showing palm prints and may occasionally need a wipe-down to remain pristine.
Inside, the situation is thankfully much the same as on the outside. The aluminum extends to the entire palm rest and gives the XPS a quality feel: there's no creaking or other signs of a weak frame. The hinge is extremely sturdy and doesn't wobble the display even with frequent typing. Dell keeps the use of bright blue LEDs (often a problem with gaming notebooks) to a minimum and, like Apple, tucks the two-megapixel webcam neatly away at the top of the lid.
All the same, the design isn't as slim as it could be. In 15-inch form, the new-look XPS is big -- almost too big. The weight is reasonable (5.9 pounds), but at 14 inches wide and as thick as 1.4 inches, the system isn't nearly as totable as the MacBook Pro or some other systems with a similar-size screen. It does, however, bring a slot-load optical drive; this is a rare treat in an industry which often relies on flimsy and often unsightly tray loaders.
The keyboard and trackpad are, for the most part, surprisingly capable. While the keys are made of plastic, all of them are genuinely comfortable and a pleasure to type on for extended periods. The trackpad is not quite so ideal: while the scroll strips are comfortable enough to use and the pad has a nice feel, the surface area is unusually small for a 15-inch system and (at least in our review unit) sometimes suffers from short-term unresponsiveness after boot-up or coming out of sleep mode.
In actual operation, the M1530 is largely silent, even in very performance-intensive tasks. The loudest noise is more often than not the optical drive rather than any internal case fans. This may, however, come at the cost of users' laps: in an odd decision, Dell has a downward-facing fan that blasts hot air directly underneath the case. This is less of an issue for owners relying on the extended 9-cell battery pack (which lifts the fan away from the user), but for everyone else the heat can be enough to be genuinely uncomfortable for more than several minutes of demanding use.
Like most PC makers, Dell regrettably uses a glossy LCD to boost colors and subjects the M1530's 15.4-inch screen to the same flaws as most others: in dark areas or rooms with bright lights, reflections can sometimes overwhelm the image. Even so, the picture is bright and seems to resist color-shifting fairly well, at least with the 1280x800 panel used in our system. Serious users, however, will definitely want to investigate the sharper 1440x900 and 1680x1050 screens available in the custom-order process; while the default is perfectly usable for basic work and most gaming, the resolution is small for those used to a full-fledged desktop.
Few can complain about the expansion offered on the XPS M1530. While the three USB ports and one four-pin FireWire port are nothing special, most everything else is helpful and thoughtfully placed. I especially appreciated the front-mounted 8-in-1 card reader, the audio jacks, and the positioning of the ExpressCard slot near the front; some companies push these far to the sides, making them harder to use, or else limit their format support for the sake of size (such as the ExpressCard/34 slots on the MacBook Pro, or Sony's Memory Stick/SD slot).
Perhaps unsurprisingly for its role as a near-desktop replacement system, the M1530's video options are its strongest assets and may even border on overkill for Dell's target audience of gamers. HDMI out is an appreciated touch for HDTVs (especially for models with Blu-ray drives) but is also accompanied by VGA and S-video jacks. No doubt these are to appeal to students and workers who may need to link the XPS to a projector for a presentation, but it's difficult not to see these three separate ports and believe that Dell may have wasted space that could have been used by an extra USB port. The lack of any adapter cables (especially for DVI) is also somewhat puzzling.
Last year, Dell reacted to customer complaints about an increasing amount of trial software by pulling most of it from the XPS line. While I would prefer that it give customers of less expensive systems similar attention, the change has at least had a positive impact for premium systems like the M1530. Other than a Norton Antivirus registration and a few Dell utilities -- the Dell Support Center being the most intrusive of the bunch with its notices -- our review unit wasn't saddled with any of the noticeable overhead or pop-up requests that creep up on some large manufacturers' Windows PCs.
Having said this, most of Dell's current software lineup on the XPS M1530 (and in many cases, other notebooks) seems a bit redundant. While not everyone likes Microsoft's built-in apps, Dell's MediaDirect front end (which appears to blend in elements of Apple's Front Row) largely mimics Windows Media Center; while the latter doesn't have access to Office presentations, it offers more media choices in a sleeker interface. The question also remains whether gamers will really spend much time with either shell or the bundled (if convenient) remote.
This particular computer also came bundled with Windows Vista Ultimate, which itself is somewhat redundant for its audience; few gamers or entertainment-minded users need the business networking and DreamScene features, especially for the added cost of the software.
My test system shipped with performance only slightly higher than Dell's baseline configuration, and so gives a good idea of what you can expect if determined to keep costs down: a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo (since replaced with a 2GHz chip), 1GB of memory, and a 128MB GeForce 8400M GS came with the system. Those bent on performance can upgrade all these components during the order process: as of press time, a 2.6GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB of memory, and a 256MB GeFiorce 8600M GT represent Dell's top specs, which leave quite a wide margin for gamers bent on using the system as a replacement for a gaming desktop.
On the lower end, it's clear the 8400M GS is capable and a good choice as the M1530's base video option. Vista never bogged down, as it can with Intel's integrated video or slower dedicated chipsets; for games, it was clear that the included GeForce chipset could at least handle most common games (including Team Fortress 2) at medium detail at smooth frame rates. HD video also plays well, at least up to 720p without upgrading the specs during the ordering process.
What's not acceptable, however, is the 1GB of memory. It provides just enough performance for Vista and basic 2D uses, but little else. A repeated symptom of testing was to see a game or 1080p video play smoothly for a few seconds, followed by pauses or slowdowns; it was apparent that the CPU and video chipset were bottlenecked by a lack of memory, even when some items (such as HD video clips) required very little disk access. This isn't a deal-breaker for gamers, who are more likely to upgrade the RAM themselves, but the M1530 sorely needs 2GB at a minimum to be considered a genuine entertainment computer.
Testing notebooks is not as easy as with desktops: where it's often possible to build similarly-specified towers using replaceable parts, most notebooks are custom designs and rarely share the same specifications as competitors. In fact, my own tests revealed this first-hand: when using tests with online comparisons, virtually no comparable systems appeared that could be used to judge the M1530's speed against other systems.
Nonetheless, the tests can still reflect the performance one can expect, and this is where the sample M1530 reveals its low-end roots. In 3DMark06, a test which is just now becoming indicative of the performance of modern games, none of the game tests crossed the 10 frames per second mark. For gamers looking to play Crysis or other games that depend heavily on pixel and vertex shaders -- both of which are tested heavily in 3DMark -- the GeForce 8600M GT should be considered mandatory along with more memory and a faster Core 2 Duo processor.
3DMark06 game tests
For PCMark Vantage, a more general test, there was just one similar system to compare against. However, it essentially confirmed my worries about the stock Dell system's lack of memory: just by doubling memory to 2GB of RAM on the rival notebook, the overall score jumped by 14 percent. While games and most other tests that tax the video chipset, processor, and hard disk more often were at a dead heat, memory-reliant music and video encoding tests jumped significantly, in one case nearly doubling the number of megabytes encoded per second. For the less than $50 it would cost to upgrade the system to 2GB from a third-party vendor, the gap is dramatic.
PCMark Vantage media tests
Dell chose to ship the test system with its 9-cell extended capacity battery rather than the stock 6-cell pack, which prevented me from making a direct comparison to what most buyers are likely to choose. I nonetheless found the battery performance slightly underwhelming, if just because the extra capacity ultimately doesn't help the system as much as I would expect with the size (and cost) it adds to the system. After adding the pack, the weight increased to 6.4 pounds, making it about a full pound heavier than the MacBook Pro.
In a light-use test with basic browsing, Wi-Fi turned on, and the LCD at half brightness, the M1530 ran for just over 4 hours before automatically shutting down to protect the battery. While this is good compared to most systems' standard batteries, which often last roughly 3 hours, it's not the literal 50 percent increase in running time one would hope for. The power is enough for a 3-hour DVD movie such as one of the Lord of the Rings titles but is likely to disappoint with games, which (depending on the title) are likely to fall well below this mark thanks to heavy use of the GeForce 8400M GS. If your XPS is most likely to spend its time at gaming events, the 9-cell pack won't provide much of an advantage.
As a design exercise, the XPS M1530 is a genuine accomplishment for Dell. If a bit ungainly and less comfortable on the lap than premium notebooks from Apple and others, it's arguably Dell's most appealing 15-inch notebook ever. The design is surprisingly attractive and comes with a healthy range of features that are well thought out compared to the mish-mash that sometimes creeps up with other notebooks.
Dell's component picks at the low end are mostly well chosen, too. Even if shipping a performance notebook with 1GB of RAM is borderline unacceptable, the NVIDIA chipset, CPU, and webcam all work well. I didn't have an opportunity to test a fully-loaded system, but there's little doubt that the M1530 could serve as a capable (though not extreme) desktop replacement with graphics and processor upgrades.
Other than under-specifying memory, Dell's only true mistake is with the M1530's fan design. Gamers using the system at a desk (no doubt a large segment of the target market) will never notice, but without the bulky and somewhat limited extended battery pack, the system can be uncomfortably hot anywhere else.
With a solid design, then, the true question is whether the configured system and its $1,299 price (as of press time) are worthwhile. In my estimation, the primary issue is Vista Ultimate: the $150 needed for the extra features is better spent on 2GB of memory and accessories, such as a carrying case. Anyone who keeps their notebooks tethered to the wall can also feel free to scrap the 9-cell battery, which frees up $50 for even more upgrades; the extra hour or so of likely battery is not enough to appease all-day workers but will add too much of a burden in most other circumstances.
Configuring a system this way would provide a solid, entry-level gaming notebook. After testing, I suspect most users should still upgrade the system beyond just the memory, especially when considering the GeForce 8600M GT option. While the CPU doesn't need to be upgraded past the mid-range point in most cases -- few will immediately notice the difference - the $100 for the enhanced graphics will make a world of difference for gaming, even if few changes have been made. I would also consider adding relatively trivial upgrades such as the 1440x900 screen ($50) or 802.11n Wi-Fi ($35) for serious use.
As long as the XPS M1530 remains this flexible, it's easy to recommend the system for most Windows users looking for a fast but still well-crafted portable. It won't lure Mac users or the ultraportable crowd, but it's hard to top for mainstream performance.