Dell XPS 15 OLED 2021
“The Dell XPS 15 is all you could want in a powerful 15-inch laptop.”
- Superior build quality
- Beautiful aesthetic
- Excellent creative and productivity performance
- Good keyboard and awesome touchpad
- Gorgeous OLED display
What do you do to make the best 15-inch laptop even better? Well, you don’t change what’s on the outside. It already has a killer design and an excellent OLED screen.
Instead, you change what’s on the inside instead. That’s exactly what Dell did with the 2021 refresh of the XPS 15, which adds 11th-gen Intel H-series CPUs and the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti to significantly increase performance.
I reviewed the XPS 15 with a Core i7-11800H CPU and the RTX 3050 Ti, which runs a cool $2,400. This is not an inexpensive laptop. But as we’ll see, you get what you pay for with the XPS 15 — a laptop that does what it needs to do to hang on to the crown.
My wife, who rarely comments on the laptops I review, called the XPS 15 “beautiful.” That’s high praise, and it’s well-deserved for this remarkably designed laptop. It’s hard to make simplicity stand out, but that’s what Dell has done. The XPS 15 doesn’t have the extravagant gem-cut aesthetic of the HP Spectre x360 15, for example, with contrasting colors and extensively chamfered and angled edges.
Instead, the XPS 15 has squeaky clean lines, a silver aluminum lid and chassis bottom with soft-touch black carbon fiber or white glass fiber keyboard deck, and double-anodized chrome edges that resist scratches and pull the design together. The tiny display bezels afford a true 92.9% screen-to-body ratio (no large chin hidden under the back of the keyboard deck) that makes the taller 16:10 screen seem to float in the air. In short, the XPS 15 has a cohesive look and feel that’s unmatched among 15-inch laptops.
And the XPS 15 doesn’t just look great. It’s also solid as a rock, with no bending, flexing, or twisting anywhere in the lid, keyboard deck, or chassis. The machined aluminum combined with the carbon or glass fiber gives the XPS 15 a sense of durability that you won’t find in many other laptops. The Spectre x360 15 and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3 are as rigid, but I struggle to think of another 15-inch laptop that feels as solid. Even the XPS 15’s hinge works better than most, allowing the laptop to easily open with one hand, yet firmly holding the display in place. These are all traits shared with other XPS laptops like the XPS 13 and XPS 17, and it’s obvious that Dell has paid a great deal of attention to making laptops that exude quality.
If the XPS 15 has one weakness in its design, it is connectivity.
The XPS 15 is also a remarkably small laptop for such a powerful machine, coming in at narrower than both the Spectre x360 15 and ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3. It’s slightly deeper than the Spectre thanks to the taller 16:10 display, and it’s still shallower than the ThinkPad even given that laptop’s old-school 16:9 panel. The XPS 15 comes in at 0.71 inches thick compared to the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3 at 0.72 inches and the Spectre x360 15 at 0.79 inches.
Finally, the XPS 15 weighs 4.31 pounds with the OLED display and 86 watt-hour battery, compared to the Spectre at 4.23 pounds and the ThinkPad at 3.75 pounds. Overall, that makes the XPS 15 a smaller laptop that’s slightly heavier and feels denser in hand, which isn’t a terrible thing at these weights — none of these laptops are particularly heavy for larger machines.
If the XPS 15 has a weakness in its design, it is connectivity. You’ll find just three USB-C ports, two with Thunderbolt 4 support, a full-size SD card reader, and a 3.5mm audio jack. Dell does include a USB-C to HDMI and USB-A adapter, which is a plus, but it’s unfortunate to need dongles at all. The SD card reader will be welcome to creators, though, compared to the microSD card readers you typically find on modern laptops. Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1 provide wireless connectivity via the Killer AX1650 chipset.
You can configure the XPS 15 with a range of Intel 11th-gen H-series processors, from the Core i5-11400H to the Core i9-11900H. My review unit was equipped with the Core i7-11800H, a fast 8-core, 16-thread CPU that has performed well in other machines, along with 16GB of RAM (up to a whopping 64GB can be configured) and a 512GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD and up to 4TB can be ordered). Two SSD slots mean that you could install dual 4TB SSDs for a total of 8TB of storage.
You’ll also find an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti discrete GPU inside, which lives near the bottom of the RTX line but still beats integrated graphics by a country mile. You’d expect this combination to perform well in demanding tasks like video editing and others that appeal to both creators and productivity power users.
In our benchmarks, the XPS 15 was an admirable performer. We didn’t run all the same tests on the 2020 XPS 15, but where we have overlap, the new model is faster. That’s to be expected. The new XPS 15 doesn’t dominate our comparison group, but it’s right there in the running. It does particularly well against the XPS 17 that benefits from a larger chassis and even better thermals than the very well-designed XPS 15.
Looking at the CPU-intensive benchmarks, our Handbrake test that encodes a 420MB video to H.265 and Cinebench R23, the XPS 15 competes strongly against the XPS 17 and the Lenovo Legion 5 Pro running the AMD Ryzen 7 5800H. The Ryzen chips are speedy at CPU-intensive tasks, and so the XPS 15’s score here is impressive. If you bump up to the Core i9 model, you’ll probably exceed the Ryzen 7’s performance. The XPS 15 also did well in the PCMark 10 Complete benchmark, scoring in the upper echelon of the laptops we’ve tested and doing particularly well in the Content Creation portion of the test.
On the Pugetbench test, which uses Adobe Premiere Pro to perform several brutal tasks, the XPS 15 scored 507. Dell has equipped the XPS 15 with its power utility to tune the CPU for lower heat and fan noise while limiting performance or running flat-out in performance mode. In all our other tests, the utility made no difference in performance, but in Pugetbench, performance mode boosted the score to 590. That’s well under the XPS 17’s 692 (with the faster RTX 3060) but closer to the Legion 5 Pro’s 622. That makes the XPS 15, which benefits from both a fast CPU and a discrete GPU that can speed up some tasks in Adobe apps, a strong performer for Adobe creators — although not the strongest we’ve seen.
Overall, the XPS 15’s refresh has increased its performance enough to make it worth the effort, and it’s one of the faster 15-inch laptops you’ll find — especially for such a thin and light machine. Of course, it flies through productivity tasks and won’t slow down no matter what you throw at it. As alluded to earlier, it works for both mobile creators and productivity power users.
|Laptop||3DMark Time Spy||Cinebench R23||Geekbench 5||Handbrake
|Civilization VI (1080p Ultra)|
|Dell XPS 15 OLED 2021 (Core i7-11800H)||4540||1513 / 9979||1544 / 8299||101||6024||50 fps||73 fps|
|Dell XPS 15 (Core i7-10875H)||3860||n/a||1314 / 7549||122||n/a||60 fps||53 fps|
|Dell XPS 17 (Core i7-11800H)||7039||1525 / 10145||1568 / 8801||n/a||6209||78 fps||104 fps|
|LG Gram 16 (Core i7-1165G7)||1390||1394 / 4137||1573 / 5454||213||4827||13 fps||n/a|
|Lenovo Legion 5 Pro (Ryzen 7 5800H)||9175||1430 / 11195||1460 / 7227||99||n/a||101 fps||114 fps|
The RTX 3050 Ti that Dell installed in the XPS 15 is limited to 45 watts, despite technically being rated to run up to 80 watts. Therefore, it’s not the fastest iteration of the chip you’ll find. Theoretically, that limits its performance, particularly in gaming. In our testing, though, the XPS 15 was a good performer, scoring 4540 in the 3DMark Time Spy test. That’s a solid result for laptops running the RTX 3050 Ti.
It managed 73 frames per second (fps) in Civilization VI at 1080p and ultra graphics, which beat out the Acer Swift X with the same GPU and a Ryzen 7 5800U that hit 66 fps and the 2020 XPS 15 at 53 fps. Finally, in Fortnite, the XPS 15 managed 50 fps at 1200p and epic graphics, oddly behind the 2020 XPS 15 but within a few fps of other RTX 3050 Ti laptops. The XPS 15 makes for a good entry-level gaming laptop despite its slower-clocked GPU.
Dell offers several 15.6-inch 16:10 displays for the XPS 15. You can choose a Full HD+ (1,920 x 1,200) non-touch display, a 3.5K (3,456 x 2,160) OLED touch display, and a UHD+ (3,840 x 2,400) IPS touch display. The latter two support Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) for excellent Netflix binging (although, read on). My review unit was equipped with the 3.5K OLED display, and it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Colors pop, blacks are inky, and it’s bright enough to use outside (although maybe not in direct Southern California sunlight). I’m not sure why Dell opted for the 3.5K resolution versus true 4K, given how awesome the latter would be for watching 4K HDR media, but the display is sharp enough for anything else you’ll want to use it for. Subjectively, this is one awesome display.
This is an excellent display that matches up well for creators with the XPS 15’s performance.
My colorimeter agreed with me. Colors were extensive, at 99% of AdobeRGB and 100% of sRGB, and they were also spectacularly accurate with a DeltaE of 0.49 (1.0 or less is considered excellent). Brightness wasn’t as high as some OLED displays at 381, but that’s nothing to complain about. Contrast came in at a gaudy 381,130:1, which accounts for the inky blacks. Compare this with the AMOLED display on the HP Spectre x360 15, and you’ll find similarly wide colors and high contrast, although the Spectre was slightly brighter at 405 nits and not as accurate at 1.29.
The 2020 XPS 15’s 4K IPS display was just as colorful and almost as accurate at 0.65 and much brighter at 442 nits. Its contrast was 1480:1, high for an IPS display but not as otherworldly as the XPS 15’s OLED panel.
Subjectively or objectively, this is an excellent display that matches up well for creators with the XPS 15’s performance. It’s also a lovely display for productivity workers who will appreciate the luscious colors and the black text that leaps off white backgrounds.
The XPS 15’s audio is also impressive. Four speakers — two upward-firing flanking the keyboard and two firing down and to the sides — pump out tons of volume with zero distortion. There’s more bass than usual, and mids and highs are clear and pleasant. This is the best set of Windows 10 laptop speakers I’ve personally tested, with only the MacBook Pro’s speakers being better. You don’t need to worry about carrying around a set of headphones unless you want your privacy — this audio system will more than suffice for your Netflix binging and music listening needs.
Keyboard and touchpad
The XPS 15’s keyboard is spacious with large keycaps and light gray lettering. There’s plenty of travel and a light touch that’s consistent across the keyboard, although I found the bottoming action to be less snappy than I remember on the last XPS laptop I used, the XPS 13. There’s a reason for that — the XPS 13 keyboard has less travel, so Dell tuned the mechanism with more of a snap.
The XPS 15 has a comfortable feel that would support long typing sessions without fatigue, but I did miss the precise response provided by the XPS 13. I like the keyboard on HP’s Spectre line quite a bit more — it, too, has plenty of travel, but it’s also snappier and provides more feedback for each keystroke. Many people will love the XPS 15’s keyboard, so I won’t fault it, but it’s not my personal favorite.
The XPS 15’s touchpad is huge by Windows 10 standards, thanks to the copious amount of palm rest afforded by the taller display and Dell’s decision to fill most of it with touchable surface area. It’s a joy to use, with soft-click buttons and a smooth glass surface that feels incredibly expansive. Of course, the touchpad supports Microsoft’s Precision drivers, so Windows 10’s multitouch gestures are reliable and responsive. It’s the best touchpad you’ll find on a Windows 10 laptop (next to the XPS 17). In addition, the OLED display is touch-enabled, and I appreciated that as I tapped on-screen buttons and scrolled long web pages with my thumb.
Windows 10 Hello password-less login support is provided by a fingerprint reader embedded in the power button and an infrared camera for facial recognition. Both worked perfectly, logging me in the minute I pressed the power button if I went that route or immediately on waking up the laptop if I enabled facial recognition.
Dell doesn’t provide any webcam privacy option. That’s a shame because the feature has become a standard on premium laptops.
Dell knocked maximum battery capacity from 97 watt-hours down to 86 watt-hours on the new XPS 15 design, but usable battery life actually improved in some areas. In our web browsing test, the XPS 15 managed over nine hours, while the 2020 XPS 15 achieved just seven hours in this test, and it was equipped with a 4K IPS display. The Spectre x360 15, with its 4K OLED display and 82 watt-hours of battery, hit just six hours. Yes, the XPS 15’s display isn’t quite 4K, but it’s close enough that we shouldn’t expect to see 50% more battery life. In the video test that loops a local Full HD Avengers trailer, the XPS 15 hit 11.15 hours. Many laptops exceed 14 hours on this test, but they don’t have power-hungry high-resolution OLED displays. And the 2020 XPS 15 managed just seven hours on the test, making the new version’s results significantly better by comparison.
I also tested using the PCMark 10 Applications battery benchmark, the best test of typical productivity battery life. The XPS 15 endured just eight hours of this test, less than I expected given the web browsing results. We didn’t test the 2020 XPS 15 with the benchmark, and the Spectre x360 15 came in at 6.5 hours. We don’t have many other relevant comparisons, that is, 15-inch laptops with H-series CPUs and OLED displays, but to get an idea of what’s possible, the LG Gram 16 with a Core i7-1165G7 and WQXGA (2,560 x 1,600) IPS display lasted for a spectacular 17.8 hours in the test. In the PCMark 10 Gaming battery test, which pushes the CPU and GPU, the XPS 15 made it to about 1.5 hours. That’s typical for the more powerful laptops we’ve tested and demonstrated that the XPS 15 keeps up the speed while on battery.
Overall, these results are quite good for a machine of the XPS 15’s caliber. It’s entirely possible to make it through an entire workday on a single charge, not something I would have expected. Of course, you’ll need to keep your charger handy if you’re doing anything intensive, but for general productivity work, the XPS 15 is a surprisingly long-lasting laptop.
The Dell XPS 15 is the best 15-inch laptop you can buy. Even more than that, it’s one of the best laptops available today, period. It’s beautiful, evokes an immediate sense of quality the minute you touch it, and performs extremely well. You’ll probably love the keyboard, you’ll definitely love the touchpad, and the 3.5K OLED display is awesome.
You could complain about the price if you want, but that would be silly. Yes, the XPS 15 is expensive, but Dell obviously put a ton of engineering into crafting this luxurious and powerful laptop — and that’s worth the money.
Are there any alternatives?
Frankly, there aren’t many 15-inch laptops that I would recommend as serious alternatives. The HP Spectre x360 15 offers good performance and its own gorgeous OLED display if you want the flexibility of a convertible 2-in-1, and it’s less expensive. So there’s one option.
You could jump up to the XPS 17 and get even better performance, the same build quality, and a display that — while not OLED — provides excellent colors, brightness, and contrast. It, too, is expensive, so keep that in mind when choosing.
If you really want to save some money, you could also consider the HP Envy 15. It’s also fast and offers an even faster GPU, along with an AMOLED display that’s just as good as Dell’s OLED version.
How long will it last?
Forever. No, seriously, the XPS 15 will last you as long as you’ll want to use it, with a build that can withstand abuse and a configuration that will keep Windows 10 humming along for years. You can also upgrade the RAM to 64GB if you find the configured 16GB in our review unit too little and add a second SSD to expand storage.
The one-year warranty is disappointing for such an expensive laptop, but at least it provides on-site service.
Should you buy it?
Yes. If you’re looking for a 15-inch laptop that’s as beautiful as it is powerful, look no further.