Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

Dell has been on a tear with its redesigns in 2018. On top of a daring overhaul on its flagship Ultrabook, the Dell XPS 13, the Round Rock-based company has completely reinvented the Dell XPS 15 into a 2-in-1 laptop.

In converting a powerhouse laptop into a hybrid machine you actually want to use as a tablet, Dell turned to Intel’s new Kaby Lake G processors to deliver ‘discrete-level’ graphics on a single chip. This 15-inch performance machine also introduces Dell’s new magnetically driven keyboard and innovative cooling system to further reduce weight and compress the size of this convertible notebook.

Considering we already quite liked the previous XPS 15 model, giving it a 360-degree hinge and an 8th-generation Intel Core processor with AMD Vega graphics built-in has only sweetened the deal. If only this laptop could defy physics to run a little cooler and quieter, it would have earned a perfect score.

Price and availability

Dell begins selling the XPS 15 2-in-1 for $1,299 (about £957, AU$1,653). At this price you will 15.6-inch Full HD touch display, 8th-gen Intel Core i5-8305G processor with Radeon RX Vega M GL graphics, 8GB of DDR4 memory and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD). In Australia, the XPS 15 2-in-1 SKUs start at AU$3,399 with an Intel Core i7-8705G, 8GB of RAM and 512GB SSD.

The only other laptop currently equipped with the same Kaby Lake G chips is the HP Spectre x360 15 that starts at a higher $1,369 (about £1,010, AU$1,740) to start. That said, HP’s Kaby Lake G-powered hybrid comes stock with a 4K display.

In order to get a 4K screen on the XPS 15 2-in-1, you’ll need to spend at least $2,099 and upgrade to a configuration starring the Intel Core i7-8705G processor with the same Radeon RX Vega M GL graphics, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. In the UK and Australia, you’ll have to jump right up the configuration of our $2,349 (£2,199, AU$3,899) review unit for an Ultra-HD screen.

Comparatively, the Samsung Notebook 9 Pro when fully loaded for $1,299 (about £960, AU$1,720) comes equipped with a 7th generation Intel Core i7-7500U processor paired with AMD Radeon RX 540 graphics, FHD display, 8GB of memory and an 128GB SSD. The king of hybrids, the Lenovo Yoga 920, can comparably equipped with an 8th generation Intel Core i7-8550U, 4K display, 16GB of RAM and 512GB SSD for $1,799 or AU$2,649 (about £1,510).

Design

The XPS 15 2-in-1 has seen a similar hybrid redesign to the one that the smaller XPS 13 2-in-1 introduced at CES 2017, beyond its obviously larger dimensions. Dell seems to have found a design that works and is sticking to it.

You get the same silver-colored anodized aluminum lid and base with the carbon fiber keyboard rest that has released on prior XPS 15 models, this time with aluminum hinges that allow for 360 degrees of rotation. The only thing that’s truly unique to this laptop’s exterior is the rear vent that looks a bit like a reverse air scoop you would see on a car. This is where the laptop expels a lot of its heat – but we’ll get more into that later.

Dell’s most impressive revisions went into slimming down the powerhouse XPS 15 into a hybrid laptop that’s comfortable to hold. In fact, Dell claims this machine to be the smallest and thinnest 15.6-inch 2-in-1 laptop available today at just 0.35-0.63 inches (0.9-1.6cm) thin and 13.9 inches (35.4cm) wide. The laptop also weighs 4.3 pounds (1.97kg) to start, with higher-end options likely to add a few ounces.

Comparatively the Dell XPS 15 measures in at a larger 14.06 x 9.27 x 0.45-0.66 in (35.7 x 23.5 x 1.1-1.7cm), but is surprisingly 0.3 pounds lighter than its hybridized version. Still, to us, the XPS 15 2-in-1 doesn’t feel much heftier than a 15-inch MacBook Pro – impressive for a 15-inch laptop with a touchscreen.

Given this laptop’s size and lightness, we’re surprised by the selection of ports Dell has managed to make available within the XPS 15 2-in-1: two Thunderbolt 3 and two USB-C 3.1 – all of which support charging and DisplayPort – a microSD card reader and a headset jack. It’s sad to see the old USB-A and full-size SD Card reader bite the bullet, but perhaps Dell held off long enough.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review

Shrinking science

What has made this incredibly diminutive size possible is two-fold.

First is Dell’s use of its next-generation InfinityEdge display with a new 1,500:1 contrast ratio that makes blacks all but disappear on the screen. This nearly bezel-less display frame allows a laptop that’s just 13.9 inches wide to house a screen that’s 15.6 inches wide diagonally.

Beneath said screen is a 720p webcam paired with an infrared lens for secure Windows Hello login – and it’s centered just like the new XPS 13. Although the webcam placement gives your friends and family a a up-your-nose point of view during video chats, the Windows Hello functionality works surprisingly quick. Plus, there’s also a fingerprint reader built right into the power button, for yet another Windows Hello login option.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review

Second is a brand-new keyboard maglev technology that allows the base to be thinner than what was possible before. This maglev keyboard tech is similar to that of the bullet trains in Japan, but obviously applied at a much, much smaller scale. By employing rare-earth magnets beneath the keys, rather than domed membraned switches like most laptops, this laptop mimics the feel of a physical key response with only 0.7mm of travel.

After typing on the keyboard for just a few moments, that shorter travel is apparent: it’s definitely not a 1:1 simulation of standard laptop keyboard behavior. To make up for the lack of travel, the keys are more rigid, requiring a firmer press, but also reset more quickly. Overall, we feel like we move between keys as quickly as we’re used to on a taller keyboard.

At first it takes a little getting used to, especially with how the island keys just barely rise above the rest of the carbon fiber laden keyboard deck. Also, having page up and down keys right next to the arrow keys is just the worst. But, once you get the hang of it, it’s an impressive innovation that’s allowed for a mightily thin and light device with a comparably large screen.

Thankfully the glass-coated, Microsoft Precision touchpad remains unchanged and is as delightful to use as ever.

Performance

The new Intel-meets-AMD processor inside the XPS 15 2-in-1 is a force to be reckoned with. Dell promised the new Kaby Lake G processor would deliver Nvidia GTX 1050-equivalent performance. And then some. 

Across the board, the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 delivers 100-500 point higher scores in 3DMark and CineBench than the regular XPS 15 equipped with a Nvidia GTX 1050.

The Dell XPS 15 also left the Samsung Notebook 9 Pro in the dust as it was only able to achieve a 3DMark Fire Strike score of 2,495. The Lenovo Yoga 920 and its integrated Intel HD graphics fared the worst, with a Fire Strike result barely above 1,000 points.

On the processor end, the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 is no slouch either, achieving better Cinebench and GeekBench scores than any of its rivals.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review

All of this impressive performance can be attributed to a new sensor hub that tells the processor-graphics hybrid chip to liberally boost frequencies. This sensor hub works in tandem with software on the processor to monitor the device’s cooling and power to make these decisions for you – so its less of a tweakable overclock and more of an automatic performance boost.

Aside from impressive benchmark scores, this 15-inch laptop can use its extra frequency headroom to better perform either more serious tasks, like photo and video editing and even some light gaming. In fact, we’re able to play Overwatch at 1080p and high settings with a consistent 60 frames per second and Destiny only ran at a slightly lower 45fps with the game set to 1080p and Ultra quality settings.

Our only major issue with the Dell XPS 14 2-in-1 is updating this machine’s Radeon drivers. Throughout this review we attempted to update the Kaby Lake G video drivers only for the software to tell us “the selected driver failed to detect the current configuration.”

We hope this is an issue that Dell and Intel will resolve in the future, as currently it seems the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 isn’t able to update its display driver.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review

One loud baby

Of course, all of this performance comes at the price of heat. To help combat this, Dell developed a new type of Gore insulation. This material directs heat out of the device better than other solutions to allow components to operate at higher temperatures. To our amazement, it works really well. Having this machine on our laps, it feels no warmer than Ultrabook running on load.

Unfortunately, any time we plug in the laptop to wall power seems to result in the fans kicking on full tilt within minutes. Nvidia Max-Q laptops might have spoiled us for silent gaming notebooks, but this machine sounds as loud as a thick gaming notebook running at full performance. 

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review

Battery life

Dell claims the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 can last up to 15 hours on battery, but we found it to only run for about a third of that promised longevity. We got a maximum of 5 hours and 8 minutes from our usual local video playback test. With our regular web browsing, email checking and text editing tasks, the battery lasted for about an hour longer.

Comparatively the Dell XPS 15 with more traditional discrete graphics ran for nearly an hour longer on the same battery test. The Samsung Notebook 9 Pro held on for 6 to 8 hours with our video playback benchmark and general use.

So it seems the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 runs on the shorter side of available battery life.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review

Final verdict

The ‘smallest and thinnest 2-in-1 device of its size’ is very impressive indeed, thanks in large part to its new hybrid processor/discrete graphics chip. AMD’s Radeon RX Vega M graphics have given Intel’s processors a real shot in the arm, overtaking even a laptop equipped with Nvidia GTX 1050 graphics. All the while, this laptop maintains one of the thinnest profiles in its 15-inch class with mostly decent battery life.

However, all of this power contained in such a small package comes with a high price and it’s also one of the loudest 15-inch laptops we’ve ever tested. If you can look past these issues, though, this is one of the most innovatively engineered and powerful, thin 15-inch laptops in years.

Joe Osborne,Kevin Lee
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