My Experience With the Dell XPS 15 UHD – A Windows Laptop to Compete With Your Desktop – Fstoppers

As a solo business owner, I find a good portion of my time has me tethered to a screen. For me, that means being at home in my office as I work on a desktop. I prefer having a large monitor to work on and the cost/performance ratio of laptops was prohibitive when looking at a primary machine. Recently, I also have found myself wasting a lot of time in between shoots – either waiting for the next shoot to start, or on public transport twiddling my thumbs – that could be used much more effectively. So, I decided to invest in a new laptop, and my searches took me to the Dell XPS 15 UHD.

In the low season, when I usually only have a few shoots a week, I can usually come home and get through the work I need to get done in no time. However, in the busy season, I can do two or three shoots a day. Some of these can be for media outlets or corporate events that need quick image turn-around. Until now, I’ve been using an old Samsung Ultrabook for this, mostly non colour-critical, work. Waiting for Lightroom to ingest and render previews on that machine was extremely time consuming, and for some of the media jobs, actually became impossible to use. 

Until now, there really haven’t been any high-end Windows laptops aimed at photographers specifically. There have been some fantastic gaming laptops with the power to effectively run the software we need, but they’ve generally been bulky and heavy. Of course, there is the MacBook Pro, which is a fantastic machine and ticks all the boxes, but it’s a Mac. The last thing I wanted was to be working with both systems. The Asus Nitro Black was an option, but one I couldn’t get a hold of in Korea. Then I came across the Dell XPS 15 UHD, it knocked all of my requirements out of the park. 

I had my apprehensions when looking at the XPS 15. Dell, as with many manufacturers and software producers of late, released a product with so much potential, but some glaring issues that should have been fixed before it hit the shelves. Issues with driver conflicts and BIOS issues causing BSODs brought back memories of the Windows 98 days, back when Mac users had a reason to gloat. These things really shouldn’t be an issue with a modern Windows machine, especially one in this price range. But a little bit of searching found that a BIOS update had been released, and that Intel had fixed the issue with their own video driver. Indeed they did, and I haven’t had a single issue with the machine since.

Dell offers a lot of configurations for this machine, but my goal was to get something that would be a mobile desktop, so I chose one of the higher configurations. I went with the 250GB SSD, 16GB of DDR4, and the 100 percent Adobe RGB 4K screen. An expensive machine, to be sure, but I was mostly concerned that it would be able to hold up to the quality and speed of my desktop. In short, it absolutely has. Let’s go into a little detail below. 

Specs and Heat

With it’s 4K Adobe RGB panel, i7-6700HQ Skylake CPU, fast NVMe SSD, 8-16GB of DDR4 RAM,  the Dell XPS 15 is clearly specced to be a design/video/photo machine. The modest GeForce 960M will keep high-end gamers away, but be plenty enough to run Premiere or Photoshop. All this in a close-to-zero-bezel case means that you have a smaller than average 15.6-inch laptop with the power of a moderate desktop setup. It is plenty for most on-the-go photo work.

With all this going on, I had expected it to run quite hot. But, I was pleasantly surprised. Heat dissipation is excellent. Even in summer here in Korea (hot and humid), I haven’t had the machine become hot to the touch. When running strenuous Photoshop tasks for a while, or rendering previews in Lightroom, you can hear the fans kick into high gear and feel the warm air coming out from under the machine. The screen puts out quite a bit of heat, as we expect from this resolution. However, it never becomes hot enough that you would worry about it.

That Gorgeous 4K Screen

This is not for everyone, and a luxury to be sure. 4K in a monitor this small seems somewhat pointless, but believe me the extra sharpness makes it worth it. You don’t really notice it when working exclusively on the XPS 15, but that’s the point. It improves your experience without calling attention to itself. Sitting it next to a 1080p screen though, you really notice it. Bringing up survey mode in Lightroom is beautifully detailed. You have four times the resolution, so everything renders just that little bit sharper. This is great for culling, as I can bring up four images in survey mode on this little monitor to check for sharpness, etc..

The 4K screen is also capable of displaying 100 percent of Adobe RGB. That is a game changer. This is another one of those things that you really don’t notice until you put it next to another screen. The range of colors this screen can display makes it a joy to edit on. After removing Dell’s Premier Color software and calibrating it with an i1 Display Pro, it matches my desktop monitor perfectly. I’m finally able to edit on location and trust what I am seeing. The only pitfall is contrast. It has significantly higher contrast than my Dell U2413, but I guess that’s to do with it being a glossy screen and the high white-point. When editing, I just need to be cognizant that what I’m seeing is more contrasty, and adjust for that.

Let’s talk about the glossy screen for a moment. This was almost a deal breaker for me. Why have a portable device that you can’t work on in a place that has lights in it? That would completely defeat the purpose of buying the laptop. However, after testing it for a while, is nowhere near as bad as I had expected. The reflections are noticeable, but with a little careful body positioning, you can eliminate them on the area of the screen you’re working on, and it becomes a moot point. 

Finally, it’s also a touch screen. Yay. Sure, there are uses for touch screens, but this laptop is not one of them. Having such a high end, color accurate screen and then covering it with a glossy coating and touch functionality really defeats the purpose. A matte, non-touch, screen would have been much more desirable for the market this laptop is aiming at. It’s not a tablet, it’s a work-horse. 

Speed

My main reason for picking up this new machine was so that I could work on the go, so it needed to be able handle the applications I would throw at it as quickly as I wanted it to. My home PC is nothing special, but nothing sluggish either. It has no troubles running Lightroom, Photoshop, a video, and all my other background tasks simultaneously. The Laptop itself outspecs my PC slightly, but I was still expecting the PC to outdo it, if only by a little. So, I ran a few tests using Lightroom and Photoshop. 

Here are the basic specs of each machine.

Custom Built PC

i7-4790 (non-K), 12GB DDR3, GeForce 750, Samsung EVO 830 250GB SSD

Dell XPS 15 UHD

i7-6700HQ, 16GB DDR4, GeForce 960M, Samsung 250GB NVMe SSD

For the Lightroom test, I went through the same workflow that I would for any shoot that I do. I copied the whole card over (59.4GB), imported all the images (2598), made my selection (100 images for this test), rendered 1:1 previews for my selection, and exported 1000px proofs for my gallery. The desktop took 59 seconds to import the files, 5:38 to render previews, and 1:59 to export the proofs. The laptop took 56 seconds to import, 5:35 to render the previews, and 1:46 to export the proofs. This was a surprise, even with the newer hardware in the laptop. 

The develop module in Lightroom runs beautifully on both machines, and there wasn’t any noticeable difference when working on either of them. However, I found that I liked working on the 4K screen more as scaling Lightroom’s interface left more screen real-estate to work on. Photoshop’s scaling works a little better, and I’m able to get a similar amount of relative space to work on using my 1920×1200 U2413 screen as well. 

For Photoshop, I decided to perform a memory/CPU intensive process that I do quite often: stitching a panorama. I took a nine image set from my Fuji X-T10 and loaded them in using Automate->Photomerge. Likely owing to the faster memory (DDR4) and higher memory bandwidth supported by the Skylake chipset, the laptop finished 11 seconds quicker than the desktop at 1:19. However, possibly due to the faster clock speed of the desktop CPU, adjustment layers operated much more smoothly on the desktop.

Battery Life

Here’s the biggest issue with Dell’s offering. Battery life. On the 4K version, it’s nothing short of abysmal. Now, I understand that powering the 4K screen isn’t the same as a lower resolution screen. That’s a given, but I feel like more work could have been done on this front. After all, it’s a portable computer. For typing and uploading my blog, I managed just over six hours of up time. This is what most reviewers have quoted. But a morning using Photoshop and Lightroom took that down to a meager three hours and 20 minutes. Not exactly what you’d hope for from a high end machine. 

You do get a USB-C port capable of charging the laptop, but so far the only powerbank that delivers enough juice for that is Dell’s proprietary one — too expensive for what it is. It would be great to have a powerbank that would charge my phone, my camera batteries, or my laptop when needed. For now though, the included wall charger is slim and easy to carry around, but I’m looking forward to smaller USB-C wall chargers in the near future that will be able to deliver what the XPS 15 needs.

What I Liked

  • Performance is fantastic
  • The screen is beautiful, and very accurate after calibration
  • Not too large or heavy, even with the big screen

What I Didn’t Like

  • Glossy screen
  • Battery life
  • A few issues to iron out before having a smooth running machine
  • Personal peeve: the whole computer is a fingerprint magnet
  • Personal peeve: Keyboard is slightly too narrow for my liking. Would have preferred full width.
  • USB-C Charging only working through Dell’s powerbank right now
  • A couple of extra USB 3.0 ports would have been nice

In Conclusion

So there you have it, a quick and dirty introduction to the Dell XPS 15 UHD. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s fast enough to handle all your editing needs and the screen is accurate. It comes clean of bloat-ware, with just the bare essentials installed and a couple of Dell apps that are easy to take care of. I am as happy working on this machine as I am on my desktop for any of the work I do.

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