Dell XPS 14 (L421X) Ultrabook review
Dell XPS 14 (L421X) review: A 14in Ultrabook with discrete graphics and lots of storage, but it ain't perfect
- Good build quality
- Discrete graphics and overall performance
- Good battery life
- Dynamic contrast issue
- Crashed coming out of hibernation
- Vertical viewing angles
Dell's XPS 14 features an Ivy Bridge processor and discrete graphics, which make it quite powerful for its form factor. It's a decent Ultrabook overall, but not without its problems. It could use a screen with better vertical viewing angles and a USB port on the right side wouldn't hurt either. Consider it if you want a relatively mobile laptop with good overall performance and battery life, and business features such as TPM and Gigabit Ethernet.
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With the Dell XPS 14, you get an Ultrabook that includes discrete graphics, a third generation Intel Core i7 CPU, and up to half a terabyte of storage, with SSD acceleration on the side. It's designed for business or home users who want as much grunt as they can get from a relatively thin and light computer, and it can even be used for a little bit of gaming in addition to media encoding tasks and typical office work. However, it's not a perfect Ultrabook; ours was affected by a couple of problems that made the notebook annoying to use during our review period.
Note: Review updated with feedback from Dell on the problems we experienced.
Design and features
Physically, the Dell XPS 14 weighs 2.15kg, has a minimalist design and it looks good. Its silver, aluminium lid contrasts nicely with the black, magnesium-based palm rest, and the centrepiece is a screen covered from edge to edge by Corning Gorilla Glass. The chassis itself is sealed, which means that none of the components, including the battery, can be easily replaced (unless you happen to have a set of small Torx screwdrivers handy) and there is silicone on the base, which provides a soft texture and acts as grip for the notebook when it’s placed on a desk.
The unit feels solidly build overall. We didn't experience any bending in the chassis (which is aluminium) or keyboard tray, and the hinges that hold the screen are strong. The lid did bend a little when we applied force to it, and this produced puddling on the screen, but it wasn't too bad. The Gorilla Glass protects the screen from the front, but the downside is that its glossy finish will reflect lights, which can be very annoying unless you turn up the brightness. The screen is very bright on this notebook, and this will mitigate a lot of reflections. Be sure not to use the maximum screen brightness in a dark environment — we found it to be too bright and uncomfortable to look at . A lot of the time, we used the lowest brightness setting.
Around the edges of the chassis, the XPS 14 houses an SD card slot, a combination headphone and microphone port, full-sized HDMI, mini DisplayPort, Gigabit Ethernet, and two USB 3.0 ports. As far as Ultrabooks are concerned, it's a useful array of connectivity, although we would have liked at least one more USB port to be placed on the right side of the notebook — both USB ports are on the left. Wireless connectivity is supplied by an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 module that supports dual-band Wi-Fi and Intel Wireless Display (WiDi), and you also get Bluetooth. A Trusted Platform Module (TPM) is present for aiding data security.
The chassis is just shy of 22mm with the lid closed (and taking into consideration the silicone base underneath), and its cooling system sucks air from vents that are located on the underside of the base. Warm air is then pushed through the exhaust vent on the spine, just in front of the screen. The base got a little warm as we used it for Web browsing, YouTube watching and basic office work on our lap, but it wasn’t overly uncomfortable. Fan noise was bearable when the notebook was under a heavy CPU or graphics card load.
The majority of the ports are on the left side. Only the audio port and SD card slot are on the right side.
A cover sits over the Windows 7 product key sticker and asset tag. It's a classy touch.
Specifications and performance
An ultra-low voltage (17W) Ivy Bridge Core i7-3517U is at the helm of the configuration, and it has a 1.9GHz frequency, two cores and Hyper-Threading. It’s joined by 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM (1333Mhz rather than 1600MHz), an NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M graphics adapter (with Optimus switching technology), a 500GB hard drive (Hitachi HTS545050A7E380) and a 32GB solid state drive (Samsung PM830 SSD, m-SATA) to aid fast booting and caching. This configuration put up performance scores that are very good for a notebook with a thin chassis; in Blender 3D it got a time of 43sec, in iTunes MP3 encoding it got 51sec, while in the AutoGordianKnot DVD-to-Xvid test it got 53min. These results are faster than what the full-voltage, Sandy Bridge Core i5-based Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 Ultrabook achieved in the same tests, and also slightly better than what the 1.8GHz, Core i5-based Fujitsu LifeBook U772 Ultrabook achieved.
In the graphics department, the NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M is an adapter that can supply enough grunt for gaming. It recorded a score of 7367 in 3DMark06 and put up an average frame rate of 25fps in Battlefield 3, dipping to as low as 21fps. The game was smooth enough to be enjoyable. It’s not as fast as the Aspire Timeline Ultra, which is the other Ultrabook with discrete graphics that we have reviewed to date. That Ultrabook has a slightly faster NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M adapter in it, and it scored 11210 in 3DMark06.
The storage solution is a Hybrid one, which includes a 5400rpm, 500GB hard drive and a 32GB solid state drive. The SSD helps the system start up quicker and aids caching. In our tests, the XPS 14 performed a cold boot in 34sec, which is a decent time, but nowhere near the bullet-like performance of the Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook, which relies solely on an SSD and booted in a mere 13sec. The XPS 14 took around four seconds to wake up from sleep mode. At this point, it’s worth nothing that we had problems getting the XPS 14 to awaken from hibernation — the notebook’s keyboard backlight would switch on, but the system would not boot, forcing us to switch it off and on again. Dell didn’t get back to us with a resolution before the time of publication, but we’ll update this review with any possible fixes once we get them.
Note: Dell states that this issue has been fixed with a BIOS update that should be available from its support site.
In CrystalDiskMark, the 500GB hard drive put up good numbers despite its relatively slow spin speed, recording a read time of 124 megabytes per second (MBps), which isn’t far off the read time of the 7200rpm drive in the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 laptop, and a write time of 91MBps. In our file duplication test, it recorded 38.54MBps, which is an impressive rate for a 5400rpm drive. There isn’t an XPS 14 model available on Dell’s Web site with a strictly solid state drive solution, and the storage can’t be customised during the buying process for this model.
As mentioned previously, the XPS 14 has a chassis that’s difficult to open for a regular end user, so the battery can’t be easily replaced. It has a powerful battery though, with eight cells and a rating of 69 Watt-hours. It lasted 3hr 43min in our rundown test, in which we disable power management, maximise screen brightness, enable Wi-Fi and loop an Xvid-encoded video. This is a good result considering the very high brightness of the 14in screen (which is rated at 400 nits). You can get a lot more life out of it if you use a lower screen brightness and don’t perform many CPU-intensive tasks. We got over five hours out of it when we used the lowest brightness setting while browsing the Web, watching the odd YouTube clip, writing documents and listening to MP3 files now and then. The notebook uses the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics when running on battery.
With a large palm rest (it’s 93mm deep) and a chiclet keyboard with mostly full-sized keys, the XPS 14 is a comfortable Ultrabook to type on. The palm rest has a very soft feel to it and is only slightly rougher in texture than the touchpad. The keys are backlight (there are two levels of intensity) and they are responsive. They do feel a little bit shallow, but we found that we got used to them the longer we typed. The arrow keys are only half-height, but they stand out from the other keys and are easy to feel for. The page up and page down keys are secondary functions of the up and down arrows and require the Fn key to be pressed — this takes more time to get accustomed to.
The touchpad is a large one at 100x72mm and it feels good to use, although its texture could stand to be a little smoother. It was responsive and accurate during our test period and it performed multi-finger gestures without any problems. Because the pad is so big, it’s great for four-finger swipes as well, so you can show the Desktop and switch between applications with swift actions. The left- and right-click buttons are concealed under the pad and they worked well for us during click-and-drag operations. However, the bottom half of the touchpad sometimes felt like it was double-clicking on its own, a bit like it was catching on something as we pressed it.
As for the screen, its 1600x900-pixel resolution is on par with other high-end Ultrabooks, such as the Samsung Series 9, and it’s extremely bright, but the problem is that its viewing angles just aren’t good enough. Vertical angles can cause dramatic changes in contrast, which means that viewing photos and watching movies on this laptop can sometimes be a pain — we regularly had to adjust the screen to get better definition in the display. That said, viewing the screen from either side was not a problem, but since we sit in front the screen and not off to the side, we deem the vertical viewing angles to be of more importance.
Another thing we noticed was a dynamic contrast issue that we couldn’t disable, either in the graphics properties or the power settings. The screen dimmed slightly whenever we switched from a predominantly white window to a mostly dark window, and then got brighter again when we switched back to the white window. It was only a subtle change, but it become very frustrating. We’ve asked Dell about it and will update this review with any possible solutions.
Note: Dell informed us that this is part of the "Dell battery-saver" program, and it can be disabled through the preferences.
We feel that the Dell XPS 14 is an Ultrabook that could have been so much better than it is. It needs a screen with better vertical viewing angles (and IPS screen would be ideal) and some refinement to iron out annoying little usability issues, such as the dynamic contrast issue and the unreliable hibernation feature — it could also use a USB port on its right side. Shoving these issues to the side, we like the build quality of the unit, the input devices are comfortable to use and the performance was fast. It’s a laptop that provides good portability along with that performance and the inclusion of a Gigabit Ethernet port and TPM make it a fine choice for business users (glossy screen notwithstanding). It’s not a must-have Ultrabook, but if you’re in the market for good mobility and performance (especially for 3D graphics), then check it out.
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