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Dell XPS 15 9500 (2020) review: Still the 15-inch laptop to beat

sandra-vogel.jpg
Written by Sandra Vogel, Contributor on
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8.5/10

Dell XPS 15 9500 (2020)

Excellent
Pros
  • Superb minimal-bezel UHD+ display
  • Large and comfortable touchpad
  • Good-quality speakers
  • Solid chassis
Cons
  • Moderate battery life with UHD+ screen
  • Heavy at 1.8kg
  • Fully featured configuration is expensive
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

Dell has given its top-tier XPS 15 laptop a makeover for 2020, with a redesigned chassis and updated specifications. It's a sturdy but powerful 15.6-inch laptop that can accommodate up to 1TB of storage, and a 4K UHD+ (3840 x 2400) touch screen if you go beyond the base £1,419 (ex. VAT) model. But how much of an advance is it on its predecessor?

Last year's Dell XPS 15 packed a lot of punch into a small chassis, and while we did have some issues, overall we found it to be a powerful and very competent -- if somewhat expensive -- laptop. The 2020 version of the XPS 15 (9500) has some design changes and upgraded specifications.

The most noticeable design change is that the significant bottom screen bezel on last year's model is gone; there are now narrow bezels all round, leaving just enough room for the webcam to sit above the screen. This one change makes a huge difference when it comes to viewing video and using the redefined InfinityEdge display more generally (see below).

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Dell's XPS 15 9500 has an almost bezel-free 15.6-inch screen with either FHD+ (1920 x 1200) or UHD+ (3840 x 2400) resolution and 500-nits maximum brightness. It weighs 1.8kg and is powered by 10th generation Intel Core i5, i7 or i9 processors.

Images: Dell

Cramming a 15.6-inch screen into a chassis with a 344mm by 230mm footprint is quite a feat. This year's model comes in at 18mm thick (1mm more than the 2019 XPS 15), and has a starting weight of 1.8Kg, which you'll certainly feel in a backpack. The trade-off is a very robust build utilising carbon fibre to add a real solidity to the chassis. There's no give in the thin lid section, nor in the base, wrist rest or keyboard. A sleeve probably isn't necessary to provide in-bag protection, unless you want to preserve a scratch-free finish to the outer chassis.

SEE: Windows 10 Start menu hacks(TechRepublic Premium)

There are two other notable design changes compared to last year's model. One of these is the touchpad, which has increased significantly in size. It now looks almost comically huge, but in fact the size makes navigation around the screen easier: there's no need to feel for one edge if you want to drag the cursor from one side of the screen to the other. After writing this review, going back to my regular laptop's smaller touchpad felt positively constraining. 

Above the touchpad, the well spaced, backlit keyboard is very responsive to use. Typing is very quiet, with just the faintest click as keys are depressed. There's plenty of spring to the action, and I had no trouble typing at my normal touch-typing speed.

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The backlit keyboard is flanked by grilles for the quad speaker system (2 woofers, 2 tweeters). Note the exceptionally large touchpad.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

The final design change from the 2019 XPS 15 is that the formerly unused areas to the left and right of the keyboard are now occupied by speaker grilles. That means sound from the quad speaker array is projected directly at you rather than outputting from the sides or even the underside of the chassis. This is a good move: the XPS 15 is not a 350-degree convertible, so this laptop will be used in standard clamshell mode for giving presentations or after-hours video watching, for example. Sound quality is impressive at low to middling volumes, and the XPS 15 puts out higher volume than I can recall hearing from a laptop for some time. Audio quality suffers at the top end, but mid-level volume is good enough for many situations.

The XPS 15 9500 really stands out for the quality of its 15.6-inch display. My review unit had the top-end 4K+ touch screen with 3,840 by 2,400 resolution (290ppi). Although the OLED option from last year's model is no longer available, the display is wonderfully sharp, clear and bright. The minimal-bezel InfinityEdge design makes it a real pleasure to watch the odd movie, and there's plenty of space to horizontally split two working windows while having a third document creation window open to the full height of the screen. If anything, the maximum brightness of 500 nits was a little too much for me while working, but it came into its own in 'TV viewing' mode. Photo and video editors will appreciate the screen's colour gamut support: 100% of Adobe RGB and 94%of DCI-P3.

There are six pre-built configurations of this laptop on Dell's UK website at the time of writing, all running 10th generation Intel processors (including two Core i9 options), some with the touch screen and some with discrete graphics:

My review sample was different: it ran Windows 10 Home on an Intel Core i7-10750H processor with 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti graphics -- and, as already noted, the 4K UHD+ (3,840 x 2,400) touch screen.

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Connections on the XPS 15 9500: three USB-C ports (the two on the left support Thunderbolt 3) and a full-size SD card reader. 

Images: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

There are three USB-C ports, all with power delivery and DisplayPort, two of which (on the left side) also have Thunderbolt 3 support. There's also an SD card reader -- an unusual sight these days -- and a 3.5mm headset jack. That's it as far as on-device connectivity is concerned, although Dell throws in a small dongle that adds USB 3.1 and HDMI connections via one of the USB-C ports.

Dell provides quite granular and specific information about battery life. The XPS 15 9500's 6-cell 86Wh battery can deliver up to 24 hours with the FHD+ model when using productivity applications like Word or Excel, or up to 16 hours 52 minutes when streaming Netflix. With the high-resolution UHD+ panel, Dell says the battery can deliver up to 13 hours 46 minutes using productivity apps, or up to 8 hours 27 minutes of Netflix streaming.

My real-world battery tests were done with the UHD+ panel. I deliberately left video streaming throughout a 3.5-hour period during which I worked into web apps, viewed web pages, and watched the occasional video. Initially the display set itself to its 100% brightness on battery power, but I found this too bright for comfort, and reduced it to 50% after an hour and a half. In that first period the battery fell from 100% to 71%. The subsequent two hours with the screen at 50% saw the battery fall to 44%. So that was a net loss of 66% of battery life in 3.5 hours. Don't expect all-day battery life from this laptop unless you keep screen brightness low and run relatively undemanding workloads.

A couple of other operational points of note: the chassis got a little warm both on the keyboard and on the underside, and the fan, while not noisy, was a little distracting at times. This may not apply to all configurations, though.

Conclusions

The Dell XPS 15 9500 (2020) is a heavy laptop with a sturdy chassis. The minimal-bezel screen, at least on the UHD+ model I reviewed, is extraordinarily good. In this respect, Dell sets a benchmark for other manufacturers. The large touchpad is a pleasure to work with -- as noted earlier, I found it constraining to return to the smaller touchpad on my regular laptop. 

There's room for improvement in battery life, although it's asking a lot for true all-day battery life from a laptop running a high-resolution 3840-by-2400-pixel screen. Still, even with that caveat, the XPS 15 9500 (2020) sets a new high bar for 15.6-inch laptops.

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