Hi There… this is probably not the type of review you were expecting to find for the just refreshed Dell XPS 15 2017 (I mean, the kind of review full of comparisons, benchmarks and measures); but if you’re wondering whether the new 9560/2017 model is a good choice for the photography business the honest and experiential feedback you’ll find in this ongoing review should help you make a decision. Before getting started let me tell you that I’ve never been an Apple guy as I never found the right motivation to switch to the dark side, so you won’t find a comparison between this new Dell laptop and the new 15″ Mac Book Pro 2016 here. That said, as a photographer, I feel that is really important to define a good workflow that allows you to save part of the time we spend in front of various screens to invest it in other activities that may help us improve our skills and develop our art. Also, I like to consider me as a power user, moving through high-resolution photos that literally eat space on HD and CPU power. Until today I worked with a Windows desktop computer and a small 13″ i5 Samsung laptop, that I was mainly using while traveling and at home. Having two different devices is not the best choice if you start traveling a lot or having your photographic stuff in many different locations (home + office in my case). Workflow has become more intricate as I wanted to access to my data wherever I was, and this was driving my crazy. So at the end of the past season, I started looking around to find a device that could replace my two ones without lack of performances. When I saw that Intel was in the process to release a new generation of core (the 7th, code name Kaby-Lake) I leaned on the window waiting to see the next step from Dell, because I was pretty sure they should get this opportunity update their 15″ laptop (as just happened with the XPS13) as soon as the new hardware has been available. So when I saw:
less power consumption
10% more performance
I placed the order, and I waited to have this
not so small beast in my hands. I must say that I was truly undecided between XPS 13 (I was dying for the rose gold option!) and XPS 15. But knowing that I wanted to use it to replace my desktop, I went in the direction that could guarantee best performance at the cost of some more weight and centimeters. Below some specifications about the laptop currently under my hands:
- 7th Generation Intel® Core™ i7-7700HQ Quad Core Processor
- Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
- 16GB DDR4-2400MHz (up to 32 GB)
- 512GB PCIe Solid State Drive (up to 1TB)
- 15.6″ 4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160) Infinity Edge & minimum of 100% of the Adobe RGB color spectrum (currently the only laptop that currently do this)
- 97WHr Battery
- NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 1050 with 4GB GDDR5 Video CardFull-size backlit keyboard
- Glass Precision Trackpad
- Ports/Slots: Full HDMI, (2) USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 3/USB Type C, SD Card Reader, Kensington Lock Slot
Together with the laptop, I bought the stuff you can see below. Also if at the first sight “the stuff” might seem a mere black box with a Dell logo, this thing will probably solve most of my workflow problems. I’m pleased to introduce you to TB16 Dell Thunderbolt Dock; this is the second generation of this kind of docking station (as the first one – TB15- miserably failed due to some big bugs and was quickly cut out from the market). The dock comes with an impressive series of ports allowing you to quickly connect a mobile workstation to your world through a single data and power source (USB Type-C Thunderbolt™ Cable). What’s really important for me it has the ability to connect up to two 4K displays, permitting me to use my two Dell U2713H monitors. Finger crossed before I switch on this beast! With a bit of luck, we’ll see how this TB16 and the XPS15 9560 perform together.
Case & Build Quality
With the XPS series, it seems that Dell learned a lot from Apple over the past few years. Quality is overwhelming and it’s really hard to find a weakness in this beauty. The external coating is CNC machined aluminum (that means it was cut from a single block of metal). Above, the 4K touch-screen is covered by edge-to-edge Corning®Gorilla® Glass; while below, a carbon fiber palm rest envelops a full-size backlit keyboard. Carbon fiber is refined with soft-touch paint that adds a unique look I really like. I suspect that this mat coating will get dirty easily and it might require frequent cleaning; but for now, it’s beautiful. In sum the whole product seems finely built and durable; I really love the way it looks like and I can’t wait to verify this first impression of durability at the end of the season.
Keyboard and Touchpad
I like the keyboard typing experience; both the typing noise and the key travel give you the right feeling while using it. Keys are made in a way that triggers precisely even when you only hit at the edges. I needed a bit to be used to the keyboard, as the one in my previous laptop was performing slightly different. The keyboard also has a two-stage illumination, that you can select through shortcuts. The light shines through the keys if you look at them from an angle, and it’s really helpful in dark environments.
All I can say about touchpad is that it’s awesome. Cursor movements are always precise and smooth; the force required for a click is well-adjusted and click results in well-defined tactile feedback. It’s not hard to believe this touchpad has been defined as probably the best on the market in various reviews. In addition, Microsoft introduced new touchpad gestures in Windows 10, including three-fingers gestures to access various features like the notification center, Cortana, or virtual desktops. Windows laptops may finally rival Apple’s MacBook trackpad features (unfortunately with the exception of the new Force Touch Trackpad).
From what I saw until now this monitor is outstanding. Easily it’s the most impressive aspect of this notebook. It’s “infinity edge” build make you feel immersed in the screen, as the bezel is just 5,7mm thick. Compared with my old 13″ Samsung ultrabook this laptop seems less than a 14″ in terms of dimensions. The second really important aspect that makes this laptop truly unique on the market is that this display (just the 4K touch-screen, not the FHD option you can find on some configurations) provides a minimum of 100%Adobe RGB, that is great for photography. The level of accuracy is impressing also the first time you switch on the XPS15, but once calibrated with the X-Rite i1 Display Pro it becomes really hard to see any difference form this monitor and the U2713 I normally use (that’s a 10 bit panel with internal LUT for calibration). And if I must be honest the glare coating makes everything looks more beautiful compared with the mat screen of the two U2713. If you want to give a try to my custom ICC profile you can download it HERE. To meet the color appearance requirements of the color space, the luminance of the monitor must be 160 cd/m2 at the white point. If you don’t have a colorimeter, to get approximately this result you can set the maximum luminance and then press 5 times the F11 key. Following some results, after I have calibrated and profiled this display (sorry for Italian text, guys!).
Just a couple of things more about the touch screen. I didn’t bet on this, but it’s really funny to use and, especially if you don’t have a mouse with you, it makes navigation easy and comfortable (once you get used to it). Secondly, it seems impossible to leave there your fingerprints. So also after one hour of use, it looks bright and clean. Lastly, I thought it might be nice to the user it in Lightroom but forget about this. Sliders are too small and it’s just comfortable if you use it to zoom or pan images.
SDHC Reader performance:
A considerable amount of time I spend in front of PC is used to download memory cards after services. Let’s see what changes in term of SD card reading speed, moving from my current desktop (a the end of the post you can find a quick recap about the hardware config I’m currently using) to the XPS15. On my desktop I have an integrated USB3.0 card reader; to do the test I connected a USB3.0 2,5″ portable hard disk (WD Elements 1Tb) to one of the motherboards USB3.0 port. On the laptop, I used a USB3 port on the TB16 dock, as it will probably be the most used setup over the next months.
As you can imagine most of the time i spent on my PC is importing, editing and exporting photos. So – to get an idea of the XPS’ performances – I took the 200 files above and did what I usually do when I import photos from disk: generating smart previews (if you don’t know what they are and why I use them ask me in the comments below the post) and standard previews.
Importing time ( 200 D810 raw files, smart previews + standard previews generation )
Dell XPS 15: 8′:25″ (+32%)
At first sight -32% performances might seem a bad result, but we must consider we are comparing two cores where the mobile one has a power consumption that’s close to 1/3 to the other. So I’m not disappointed with how things turned out and I think the time I’ll save having just one device will balance the time I loose generating preview (and I can do other stuff waiting, I must not say there looking the monitor).
Second test I wanted to do is to evaluate export time. When we finish editing a wedding our first desire is to deliver it, to forget about everything connected and to skip to next one. What separates editing phase from delivery is export time, let’s verify how much time I must wait more compared with my previous workstation. To do this I applied my preset to all the 200 files we used for the other tests and I exported it on desktop (SSD HD for both the PC). And here is a B E A U T I F U L surprise. Don’t ask me why, the new thing is more than 50% faster compared to my old (first time I writ “OLD”, noted?) desktop.
Export time ( 200 edited raw files, 5000px long side )
Desktop: 25′:40″ (+54%)
Dell XPS 15: 16′:37″
Third and last test I did: panorama photo merge in Lightroom. I just shot 12 photos (36mpx and 14 bit files – don’t try this at home!) out of my windows and I asked Lightoom to merge those photos as a spherical projection. It’s pretty interesting that while desktop is faster in generating preview, the XPS wins when it comes to generate the final image. It sounds odd but this is so.
Panorama photo merge: preview
Dell XPS 15: 0′:53″
Panorama photo merge: final image
Dell XPS 15: 2′:43″
I didn’t do at the moment some deep test, but I tried to use this laptop as it’s supposed to use a mobile workstation like this. I kept the last work I did (an engagement shooting) and I started following my workflow:
- importing files from SD on the hard drive using the built-in card reader
- selection of 218 files from 815 using Photo Mechanic 5 (if you don’t know how fast this SW is, click on the link and give it a try!)
- importing and creating Smart Previews
Following these steps I worked for 4:12 minutes, keeping the screen luminance around 160 cd/m2. I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t find on internet in-depth analysis but I’m definitely happy about the result. I think I will never spend more than 4 hours while editing far from a plug. Searching on-line I saw that the new Apple MBP 15 2016 battery life is less than 3 hours with heavy load tasks. It doesn’t have the 4K touch screen (that’s for Dell admission causes a bigger battery drain) but has a smaller battery (76Wh vs. 97Wh.) and an older CPU (Intel claims new 7th generation has a slightly improved power consumption curve).
Also, I had four days of travel on the past week and I kept the opportunity to use it in some less battery-drain tasks like emailing and internet surfing. I used it for several hours and I didn’t need a charge for the whole travel, that’s s awesome. I didn’t measure the time (from 6 to 10 hours I guess) but again, I’m happy about the performances in normal use. I’ll be more precise in the next few days about this aspect.
Almost nothing is perfect, you know, and unfortunately this laptop is not an exception. As you probably know this toy is brand new, and some of the hardware inside (I speak mainly about Nvidia 1050 GPU and Intel 7700HQ Kaby Lake CPU) is almost new on the market. When I got my XPS 9560 sample I went through some issues and I have been a bit frustrated by this: lot of lag/shuttering issues, some speed problems using wi-fi and several BSoD, also just seconds after i logged in. After some google action I saw that all those problems were already documented on-line and easy to solve, manually updating some drivers. I pasted following a quick summary of all the actions you may need, to get your machine perform as it must do (created by the keen Reddit user diabolical_furby ); personally, I skipped point one, fresh Windows 10 install: [flo_box box_bg_color=”#e3e3e3″ box_text_color=”#000″ content_width=”1140px” padding=”disabled” ] [flo_one_sixth padding=”20px 20px 20px 20px” class=”” ] [/flo_one_sixth] [flo_two_third padding=”20px 20px 20px 20px” class=”” ]
- (Optional) Did a fresh Windows 10 install to remove bloatware and get the device squeaky clean. Personally I don’t like that most laptops nowadays come with partitions on partitions, especially since there’s arguably no need for a recovery partition if you have a Windows 10 flash drive (which you’ll obviously create if you do this) to recover from. Anyway, here’s the link to the post by u/byitb going into detail on how to do a clean Windows 10 install.
- Do your own quality control check on your device to determine if you’ll need to get it replaced. Link courtesy of u/Neudious
- Run Windows update. After Windows downloads all updates and reboots, run it again, Continue until Windows update says you are up-to-date. This will take care of most of your drivers if you did a fresh install, and even if you didn’t, chances are you’ll still be hit with lots of updates.
- There is currently an issue with the integrated graphics drivers that causes lots of lag/stuttering issues. u/electroncarl123 posted this fix on the issue. Basically, Intel has put out new drivers for the integrated graphics, but Dell hasn’t added them to their website yet, and Windows automatically adds the old bugged drivers during Windows update. Anyway, upgrading to the drivers linked in this thread fixed the issue for me and all others who were experiencing the problem.
- Go ahead and manually update your NVIDIA drivers using the ones linked here. At the time of this post, DO NOT use the newest 378.66 drivers, as they are bugged and are rendering the video card useless if they are installed. u/kungfu1 posted this in regards to the bugged driver. Once they are fixed I will try to edit this post. Either way, it’s a good idea to install the older stable drivers because it also installs the NVIDIA GeForce Experience software which is very handy to have, and the default drivers that Windows downloads do not give you this software.
- Lots of people have complained about the Killer WiFi card having issues, but they have released new drivers to address the issue. I know that since I’ve installed them I haven’t had any of the issues people have complained about. Link to the thread by u/BackspaceNL (thanks to u/flyingjam for the reminder)
- Use this post by u/arshcaria if you’d like to calibrate your battery. My battery was a little off before calibrating, as in there was nothing physically wrong with the battery but Windows was giving me bad readings regarding it. After calibration, it seems to be working better.
portability, Battery life, pros/cons, and my personal conclusion
As I told you I don’t have the lastest Mac Book Pro 15 2016 with which to compare this brand new XPS15, but if you are in love with numbers below are the main specifications of the two 15″ laptops side by side (from US sites / prices @ February, 17th 2017)
My DESKTOP SPECS
- 4th Generation Intel® Core™ i7 4770 Haswell, 8 MB Cache, 3.40 GHz
- Windows 10 Professional 64-bit
- 16GB DDR3-1600MHz G.SKILL Trident X Series (2 x 8GB)
- SanDisk Extreme SSD 240 GB SATA 6.0 Gb/s (OS)
- SanDisk Extreme SSD 480 GB SATA 6.0 Gb/s (Lightroom catalogues + cache)
15/2 – Basic description/text/photos
16/2 – SD-card reader performances/ Trackpad / Keyboard
17/2 – Display
19/2 – Lightroom Performance
7/3 – Added display measures / Battery (to be completed)
Before to leave you, I want to set in stone a HUGE thanks to the moon and back to Susanna, Leonardo e Celeste, the awesome guys of TAF (Trova-Allestisci-Fotografa, literally Find-Equip-Photograph) that permitted me to use their laboratory and the photos of all the sets they have ever built. Together we share the same co-working workspace, Impact Hub Florence, the most spectacular place I could ever desire to work from, full of cool people with which share time, space, and projects.
Dell XPS 15 2017 Review / Photographer field test by Francesco Spighi