Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review: Beefy but weedy

£1699
Price when reviewed

Small irritations are a bit like Japanese Knotweed. Unattended these unassuming plants can grow into serious problems – a gnawing threat that, if not dealt with, has the potential to cost you a whole lot of hassle. You might think this an odd way to start a review about a laptop, but bear with me for a moment or two, because the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 has more in common with the eponymous garden invader than you might at first expect.

It’s the keyboard that’s at fault. Not the action of the fancy new “MagLev” magnetic key switches; that’s absolutely tickety-boo. It’s a bit noisy, perhaps, but comfortable and responsive and spacious. It’s one particular element of the layout that’s the problem.

With the Page Up and Page Down keys lying immediately on top of the left and right cursor keys, like buttercream on a sponge cake, it’s horribly easy to catch one of the former by accident and, when you use the cursor keys as often as I do, that’s a serious issue.

In the first hour or two of using the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 – while editing a piece about Now TV in Google Docs – I must have accidentally switched tabs (Ctrl+Page Down) about 14 times. It’s highly irritating.

DAMMIT. It happened again.

Okay, okay, so not everyone’s a cursor-key-cluster-jockey like me. My fellow keyboard basher, Nathan Spendelow, who reviewed the laptop for Expert Reviews, didn’t have the same issues and neither might you. But if you do use them a lot, do not underestimate how irritating this tiny layout quirk can be; like Knotweed it’ll grow and grow until you simply can’t take it anymore.

READ NEXT: Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in review

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review: Design

And that’s a shame because the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 is a laptop that otherwise has very few flaws. The glass-topped touchpad, for instance, is a dream to use. It isn’t quite as large as some, but responsive and it has a feather-light, reliable clicking action.

The physical design of the laptop is attractive, practical and feels durable, too – like a big Dell XPS 13, but with two beefy 360-degree hinges visible just above the keyboard. These allow the 15.6in display to be folded flat for docking purposes or pushed right over so you can present or watch movies without the keyboard getting in the way.

It isn’t the lightest 15in laptop as a result, weighing a fairly hefty 2kg, but the slim bezels surrounding the screen ensure it doesn’t take up a huge amount of space in your bag. It’s slim, too, measuring 16mm at the rear of the tapering chassis when closed and 9mm at the front.

Looks-wise the 15 2-in-1 is classic XPS. Black, soft-to-the-touch carbon fibre surrounds the keyboard and touchpad, while thick matte-silver aluminium plates sandwich the XPS’ internals and a pair of long rubber feet underneath prevent the laptop sliding around on the desk.

There’s a decent selection of ports and sockets situated around the laptop’s edges, too, with a pair of Thunderbolt 3-enabled USB Type-C ports on the left edge and Type-C USB 3.1 ports on the right-hand side. You get a microSD slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack and network connectivity stretches to 2×2 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth 4.2 via the laptop’s embedded Killer Wireless 1435 chipset.

The latter includes a handy software console that allows you to manage apps and games, keep on top of what’s connecting and using your connection and gives you the ability to prioritise some while limiting others.

It’s a shame Dell couldn’t stretch to the Killer Wireless 1550, which supports 160MHz channels for stonking maximum speeds of up to 1.73Gbits/sec, but the 1435 here does benefit from some of Killer’s more interesting features, such as the ability to connect via both Ethernet and wireless at the same time and have high priority packets directed via the fastest connection automatically.

As for security, the laptop has both facial recognition – via the dual-camera array embedded in the bottom bezel below the screen – and fingerprint login, via a reader integrated into the power button, both of which function swiftly and reliably.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review: Display

The Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 supplied to us for review was fitted with a 15.6in 1,920 x 1,080 IPS touchscreen, but you can also specify the machine with a higher resolution 4K display if you have £2,199 to spend. That may not sound particularly impressive, especially for a machine this big, but it’s not a big problem. Text and graphics look perfectly crisp at normal viewing distances and you have to get right up close to see any kind of pixel structure.

Whichever model you choose, though, you’re getting a glossy finish with anti-reflective coating. It’s remarkably effective at cutting out distracting reflections and, while not quite as effective as a fully matte display, isn’t far off.

Quality-wise, the 1080p display is excellent, too, and it should be more power efficient than the 4K version. Out of the box, it hits 90.8% sRGB coverage and peak brightness reaches 414cd/m2, which is easily enough to work outdoors in a shady part of the garden. Contrast is excellent, with a measured ratio of 1,640:1 and general colour accuracy is decent without being outstanding.

As it’s a touchscreen with stylus support, it’s also possible to use the Dell XPS 15 as a massive drawing or sketch pad. I’d hesitate to recommend you use it for jotting down notes as it’s big, but you could do that, too, at a pinch.

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 review: Performance

Perhaps the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1’s most intriguing feature, however, lies under the hood. Instead of one of Intel’s eighth generation “Coffee Lake” CPUs, the Dell XPS runs one of a selection of quad-core Kaby Lake G chips. These incorporate AMD’s Radeon RX Vega M GL graphics chip for graphics and use Hyper-Threading technology to support a total of eight threads.

The Intel Core i5-8305G in our review device runs at 2.8GHz and Turbo-Boosts up to 3.8GHz while the Core i7-9705G in the more expensive variants of the XPS 15 run at 3.1GHz and boost to 4.1GHz but share the same GPU. In our entry-level review model, there’s 8GB of DDR 4 RAM and 128GB of NVMe SSD storage for backup and you can whack that up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage if you’re feeling really flush.

It’s a fast machine. In our 4K media-focused benchmarks, the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 gained an overall score of 123, which is the highest score we’ve seen on a 2-in-1 machine this size and this portable.

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It’s quicker than the Microsoft Surface Book 2 15, which has a Core i7-8650U and discrete Nvidia GeForce 1060 graphics, and outperforms it when it comes to graphics-intense tasks, too.

In Dirt: Showdown at 1,280 x 720 and with settings at medium, the Dell returned an average frame rate of 53ps and that dropped to a still-just-about playable 32fps with the resolution bumped up to 1080p. And it plays the notoriously poorly optimised Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (at 1,440 x 900 with medium settings) a lot more smoothly than the Huawei Matebook X Pro, which has an Intel Core-i7 8550U and discrete Nvidia MX150 graphics on board.

The Dell’s 256GB SK Hynix NVMe PCIe SSD is the one weak performance spot. It produced sequential read and write speeds of 2,126MB/sec and 509MB/sec in our tests, which is far from the fastest I’ve come across. But the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 stages a comeback when it comes to battery life, with the six-cell, 75Wh battery delivering an impressive 8hrs 29mins in our video rundown test. That’s not quite as good as the regular non-2-in-1 XPS 15 achieved or the SurfaceBook 2 15in with its twin batteries but still impressive for a laptop as beefy as this one.

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Dell XPS 15 2-in-1: Verdict

With prices starting at a £1,699, the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 is not only impressively powerful, it’s also a pretty good value machine. It’s cheaper than the Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in, yet performance is in most regards better and it’s slimmer and more portable as well.

Coupled with good build and decent screen quality (and, no, you don’t really need a 4K screen, even on a machine this large), it’s comfortably one of the best convertible 15in machines I’ve used, if not the best. And don’t forget, this is a convertible, too.

The one thing that might put you off – I know it does me – is the knotty problem of that daft cursor cluster design. You might decide, as I did in the end, that it’s worth losing Page Up and Page Down from your keyboard by remapping the keys, but that’s beside the point. You shouldn’t have to do that on a laptop costing £1,699 or more.

So that’s one star off knocked off the overall score, which is a shame because otherwise the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 is a top class machine.

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