Dell XPS 14 (mid 2012)

It's built well, performs well and is our new battery life king. At 2.1kg, it's heavier than most ultrabooks, and minor usability issues and shallow viewing angles could turn some off.


8.0
CNET Rating

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About The Author

CNET Editor

Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.


Dell's XPS laptops are now out in force. Along with an XPS 13 refresh, there is also a 14-inch and a-not-quite-ultrabook XPS 15 that joins the club.

Not to be confused with the XPS 14z, or even the previous XPS 14, the new XPS 14 comes in five different SKUs — from a Core i5 3317U, all the way up to an i7 3517U — with the top model packing a 512GB SSD. There are a few things included over standard notebook fare; the 1600x900 resolution screen, for instance, is quite welcome. We're a bit puzzled by the inclusion of the GeForce GT 630M, but more on that later.

Connectivity

  • USB 3.0: 2
  • Optical: None
  • Video: HDMI, mini-DisplayPort
  • Ethernet: Gigabit
  • Wireless: Dual channel 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0

The XPS 14 commits some of the same sins the original XPS 13 did — washed out screen colours as a result of poor viewing angles; shallow keyboard that is hard to adjust to; and you can't tell the thing is actually on when you press the power button, as it takes time for the screen to power up and the button itself is not lit. We found ourselves bending over to keyboard level to see if the back-lighting had turned on and the boot up process had begun.

One repented sin has been that of the Cypress touchpad, now thrown out in favour of standard Synaptics. While this improves the experience markedly, something weird is going on with Synaptics' scrolling settings in its drivers. While it worked fine in most places, in Steam it was sketchy and often unresponsive, something we haven't seen before. For the most part, Synaptics is fine, but Elan definitely packs the best hardware/drivers to date.

The added size of the 14 brings some more ports: while the original 13-inch features one USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0, a headset jack and mini-DisplayPort, the 14 gets two USB 3.0 ports, headset jack, mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, drop-down gigabit Ethernet and an SD card reader.

Application performance

Our particular XPS 14 came with a Core i7 3517U at 1.9GHz, 8GB RAM and a 500GB mechanical hard drive that is complemented with a 32GB SSD cache, putting it at AU$1799.

Choose a benchmark: Handbrake | iTunes | Photoshop | Multimedia


Performance is excellent, all round, with the newer Ivy Bridge-powered CPUs making significant ground with their predecessors. We'll be very interested to see how the Core i5 variants hold up when we get one in.

Gaming performance

Our XPS 14 featured a GeForce 630M — indeed, all but the bottom rung SKU.

There are multiple GeForce 630Ms in the market, and just to confuse things further, they're all quite different. Two are rebranded GeForce 540Ms, using the old 40nm architecture; one uses DDR3, the other DDR5.

Yet another, which uses DDR3, is based on the newer 28nm Fermi architecture and, given the blank readouts from GPU-Z, we assume that's what we have here.

You'd figure this would be an advantage, but not so in the case of Dell's implementation. For a start, its bandwidth is hamstrung by plugging it into a PCI-E x8 1.1 slot, it runs a core clock at 625MHz with a boost to 725MHz, a 1000MHz memory clock and features 1024MB memory.

Batman: Arkham Asylum
NOT
PLAYABLE
FPS
Max Avg Min
89 58 13
1366x768, 0x AA, Detail level: Low, PhysX off.
Metro 2033
NOT
PLAYABLE
FPS
Max Avg Min
66 17 5
1366x768, DirectX 9, 0x AA, Quality: Low, PhysX: Off.
The Witcher 2
NOT
PLAYABLE
FPS
Max Avg Min
27 20 11
1366x768, low spec.
Skyrim
NOT
PLAYABLE
FPS
Max Avg Min
36 26 17
1366x768, low detail

We require a minimum frame rate of 30fps to deem a certain level of detail playable, with the exception of Metro 2033. This is because the Metro benchmark will stutter to around 10 frames per second on even the gruntiest of systems, something we've not experienced in playing the game, itself.

The XPS 14 failed to deliver a single playable game from our benchmark suite; if you intend to game here, you'll have to stick to older, extremely forgiving titles.

Asus' N56V, which runs the older architecture GT 630M, delivered considerably better results. Then again, it's also clocked at 660MHz core on PCI-E x16 2.0, boosts to 800MHz, but features 2048MB memory, which operates at 900MHz. At 1366x768 it's capable of playing Batman: Arkham Asylum/Skyrim at medium detail, and Metro 2033 at very low detail, leaving only Witcher 2 in the unplayable stakes.

While the XPS 14 roughly performs twice as fast as the included Intel HD Graphics, it still couldn't manage our most forgiving test, Batman: Arkham Asylum at lowest detail, making us wonder why the 630M was included, at all. It is technically more capable, but not by a useful amount.

Battery life


While the discrete graphics card seems to have taken its toll in the heavy battery test, in the light battery test, Dell has weaved some magic, overtaking the Folio 13 as our most frugal battery user. This thing lasts an exceptionally long time.

Conclusion

It's built well, performs well and is our new battery life king. At 2.1kg, it's heavier than most ultrabooks, and minor usability issues and shallow viewing angles could turn some off. If your focus in an ultrabook is purely performance and battery life though, then add this to your short list.



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