Dell XPS 15 Mini-Review – A Developers Perspective

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If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know I’m mostly a Mac user and am fortunate enough to have a super nice 16″ MacBook Pro that I definitely consider my benchmark for a good developer laptop. From a usability / tactility perspective the hardware quality is still the best out their in my opinion and you get a lot of power in the box.

However I do like to keep my hand in with Windows 10 and “full” Visual Studio and so like to keep a Windows machine around too. On the one hand having another laptop for this is definitely extravagant… on the other I spent 3/4 of my life with this stuff (and the other 1/4 with my bikes!) and its nice to be able to freshen things up through switching device. My previous Windows laptop was a Surface Book 2 but although at first I was quite impressed over time and with long term use its flaws become obvious.

Firstly Microsoft’s own updates managed to brick the dedicated GPU on two occasions. It would just go missing. And their support teams were hopeless in terms of resolving the actual issue – sure they’d sent me a new unit almost no questions asked (awesome!) but it was clearly a software issue relating to a Windows Update and would likely happen again (their were loads of people effected by it). There have been driver issues with screen detachment. Honestly just not good enough when you own the hardware and operating system and are charging as a premium product.

And finally the hardware itself – its got a great feel to it but their are some glaring issues, particularly in 2020 and with the Surface Book 3 too as its not really been updated. Specifically:

  • The device is unstable on a lap – there’s a lot of weight in the screen so it can tip over easily
  • The trackpad is tiny
  • There are huge borders round the screen

To me, in the price point, all these things make it an absolute no-goer at the price point. I applaud trying something new but the compromises are in all the wrong places for most use cases.

I considered the Surface Laptop range – I really like the tactility aspects, great solid feeling kit, decent trackpad and keyboard. But my word at the prices they are underpowered. In fact they are underpowered full stop.

Plenty of people are fans of them I realise… but to me its like the Apple contingent ignoring the keyboard issues on the laptops or the thermal and expansion issues on the trash can Mac Pro. Obvious issues for premium devices.

So all that leads me to the Dell XPS 15 which I picked up about 3 weeks ago, have done a lot of coding on, and am writing this on. Its an i7 model with the 4K touch screen and 32Gb of RAM and the 1650 GPU. That’s a touch behind my MacBook Pro which is the i9 model with 64Gb of RAM.

Hopefully all the above gives you context for the following comments. Some might be operating system related but unless you want to go Linux the hardware and software go together.

Good Stuff

  • It was really well packaged with a great unboxing experience – Dell have definitely learned from Apple here, first impressions count.
  • Purchase and delivery was easy. The Dell website is a bit “dense” when it comes to how it presents information but I clicked buy and it arrived the next day.
  • The screen is beautiful – it really is. Bright, high pixel density, very thin borders, vibrant, sharp. I love it. I never use it as a touch screen. I hate grubby finger prints on my screens.
  • I’ve not benchmarked it but it feels plenty fast.
  • Plugging it in to my daisy chained Thunderbolt monitor setup via my existing Thunderbolt hub on a single cable “just worked” and it seems to have no trouble running three 4K displays (its own and the two attached)
  • The interior of the laptop feels really nice. Its almost soft and feels more approachable than the now in comparison cold feeling MacBook Pro.
  • Windows 10. I really like Windows 10 – its a nice operating system and things like WSL are neat touches. That said…. see bad stuff too.
  • It handles external displays better than a Mac. Why Apple cannot get this right is beyond me – but when I plug my MacBook in its like a lottery as to what it will decide to do with the screens and its not unusual for me to have to unplug it and try again several times and even restart. The Dell “just works”.
  • I can use XBox Game Pass on it – this has a decent selection of strategy games (my favourite) that I can now play without having to buy them on Steam. Awesome!
  • It has WiFi 6 support – I’ve recently upgraded to a WiFi 6 network to resolve some issues and it was nice to find the Dell has hardware of this standard.

Ok Stuff

  • The trackpad is ok. Its not dreadful and its certainly big enough but clicking it is weird and less accurate than the Mac. It can sometimes feel what I can only describe as “loose”. Gestures are nowhere near as accurate as on a Mac. I’ve got used to it but I don’t like it.
  • The keyboard is ok. Again not dreadful but not quite to my taste (for context I really like the Apple magic keyboard and the reworked and fixed keyboard on the new MacBook’s). It just feels a bit… squidgy?
  • The outside of the device isn’t very attractive to my eyes. Sat next to my MacBook it looks like a cheap device – it is not a cheap device!
  • Battery seems ok. I’ve never found myself desperate for power.

Bad Stuff

  • The fans are noisy when working hard and it seems to spin fans up more readily than the MacBook Pro. Relatedly it also seems to get hotter easier than the MacBook.
  • Windows 10 spyware. Not being able to disable telemetry is, and excuse me, a fucking disgrace.
  • The out the box Windows 10 experience is terrible. After initial boot up there were loads of updates to apply. The Store was only partially working until one of the updates downloaded. Worse it does all these downloads in bits and pieces with many reboots and no end in sight to it. Its confusing and incredibly user hostile. I don’t mind an update but gather them together and do a single update – and if the operating system is only going to partially work until this is done hold off until it can be done. Rubbish frankly. Utterly rubbish.

Overall

I like it! Interestingly I’m finding myself preferring the Dell, and Windows 10, when plugged in at my desk and preferring my MacBook when on the move and thanks to WSL I don’t have to grapple with different shells. When at my desk I’m using an Apple Magic Keyboard and Logitech MX Master mouse and so that is certainly part of it.

I don’t (and won’t again) do app development so if Apple messes up with this ARM transition or we end up with borked lower power laptops as a result I feel I’ve got a decent way forward with hardware. At the moment I feel as if I could happily use this as my daily driver.

All this said – longer term problems may emerge. I guess I’ll find out.

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  • If you're looking for help with C#, .NET, Azure, Architecture, or would simply value an independent opinion then please get in touch here or over on Twitter.

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