Review: Dell Studio XPS 16

I’ve finally retired my Dell XPS M1730. The M1730 was, and remains, a very powerful machine but I’d only ended up with that beast because of bad timing. When I needed to buy last time there just weren’t any reasonable machines in the upper mid-range. The available systems were either just a little underpowered, or you had to go with the overpowered gaming rigs.

The short battery life of the gaming rig has been a challenge though, so I have grown very eager to leave it behind for something a little more reasonable.

I picked the Dell Studio XPS 16, also known as the Dell Studio M1640.

So now it’s review time again.

Here we go!

Here is my configuration:

  • Intel Core 2 T9800 (2.93GHz 6M cache)
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • 256GB Solid State Drive
  • ATI Radeon Mobility HD 4670 (1GB Ram)
  • RGB-LED Display (1920 x 1080 – 16:9 aspect ratio)
  • Slot load DVD/CD burner
  • Intel Wireless N-Ultimate
  • 9-Cell Battery (std is the 6 cell)

The XPS Brand:

When Dell first came out with the XPS line, the purpose was to make ulra-cool gaming machines to compete with Alienware.

My last XPS screamed “I AM A BADASS!” as soon as you saw it! Even the packaging it was delivered with was somewhat over-the-top. It even came with a leather binder for the manual, and an inscribed micro-fiber sham to clean the screen with. When you opened the box, it gave the immediate impression that you just bought something special! The system itself was eye-catching. If you pull out an XPS M1730 in public, heads will turn and jaws will drop! It is so flashy that it may as well come with spinners!

But dell bought Alienware and has phased out the XPS gaming rigs in favor of the Alienware brand. The other XPS was an ultraportable that has since been replaced by the Adamo

All these changes left the XPS brand in a lurch. Recently Dell re-launched XPS as a sub-moniker for the Studio laptop line where it just denotes a high-end Studio instead of being a distinct brand in its own right.

The Studio XPS 16 comes in a plain black box without frills and extras now.

The new machine itself is very sleek and sophisticated, but gone are the flashy lights, complex color schemes, and gaudy logos. Anyone that looks close will still notice the high quality fit and finish, but it doesn’t draw the eye from across the room like older XPS models did. Fortunately I have no interest in drawing attention, but if you buy for the “look-at-me!” factor, then get an Alienware instead.

Exterior:

The Studio XPS 16 is very thin and light for a full-size large-screen laptop. It is as thin as the last generation’s ultra-portables were, but it still packs a lot of firepower into a small package.

The exterior surfaces are made from that glossy coated plastic that is all the rage these days. Mine is black of course, but you can get it in white or red if you want to spoil it.

The glossy finish looks fantastic, but it is a finger-print whore! You cannot touch it anywhere without leaving prints. Even the touchpad gets prints! You’ll find this complaint in every review about this system because it really is THAT damned annoying!

Like the rest of the studio line, this one uses round side-mounted hinges. Because of this, the display doesn’t “stand up” on top of the housing like it does on most laptops. Instead it falls off the back covering the rear of the system entirely when open. Because of this, you will need to tilt the screen a little further back, especially if you are tall. Sometimes this angle causes the glossy screen to catch some glare from overhead lights though.

Also, the new hinge design requires that all of the ports be on the sides of the system instead of in back. This cuts the number of ports down a bit, but it does has all the ports you’d expect; except for the odd decision to omit the DVI port. Instead of DVI you have HDMI, DisplayPort, and an old-fashioned VGA port (for projectors). Fortunately you can get HDMI to DVI adapters for a couple bucks easily enough.

Unlike other Studio laptops, this one doesn’t put the power button on the side of the hinge, but it does use the space for the battery status lights. This looks kinda cool, but I’d rather have the battery indicator where I can see it while I’m working.

Screen:

Dell has always had phenomenal screens on the high-end laptops, and I’ve been very fond of their 17″ displays for years. I’ve been using the 17″ screens with a 16:10 ratio at 1920 x 1280 for about 8 years now (longer than they’ve even been available in external displays).

The smaller 16″ screen of the Studio XPS gives you the option to switch to the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio at a slightly reduced resolution of 1920 x 1080. This is the native resolution for 1080p HD TV, which is convenient if you watch movies on your laptop. I personally preferred the 16:10 ratio myself, but since the TV market picked 16:9 we may as well all just settle on the one standard and be done with the argument already.

What I wasn’t prepared for though was just how much smaller a 16″ screen would be compared to older 17″ screens. Not only do you lose the diagonal inch, but the change in aspect ratio also reduces the screen’s height considerably.

The screen is fantastic, but I really would love to see Dell offer it in 17″ or 18″ versions at 16:9. The drop in size is tolerable, but it really does cut close to the bone for those of us that need every scrap of screen real-estate that we can get.

The optional RGB-LED display on this model has gotten rave reviews, and I will tell you that those reviews are NOT overstated in any way!

This is the sexiest laptop display I’ve ever seen! Well worth the price of the upgrade (about $350 extra).

It is amazingly bright and vivid –So bright that I keep mine at about 1/4th of the max setting. If you turn it all the way up you will get tan, I promise!

The image clarity is fantastic too, and the colors are exceptionally vivid and distinct compared to traditional LCD displays. Keep in mind that I’ve been using high-end displays for years, and my eyesight sucks to boot; so for me to notice a significant jump is unusual.

My favorite part though is the uniformity of the illumination. The backlight on even the best traditional LCD always has a slight variance in brightness from one edge to another.

All this clarity and crispness is awesome for graphics and movies, but it does have a drawback too… White and black are also vivid colors, so back text on a white background ends up being TOO clear and crisp! This effectively undoes the deliberate blurring (ClearType) that most OSes use for more readable font rendering.

Most people won’t notice this effect, but for programmers working in text editors all day this can be a really big deal!

You can compensate for too crisp text by using an off-white background, dimming the brightness, and/or modifying the cleartype settings. If your editor supports it, you can invert it to use a black background with light text — my preferred solution.

Video Card & Gaming:

I’m not a die-hard FPS guy, but I do game a bit. I can live with slightly reduced detail levels, but I do like my games run smoothly at, or near, the native resolution of the display. I also don’t like to be prohibited from playing certain games due to limited video hardware.

My enthusiasm for high-end screens and video hardware is not gaming related: My eye-sight is REALLY bad, and I was still losing a lot of vision even into my late 20’s from staring at crappy monitors all day.

So for the last 10 years I’ve insisted on only the best displays and video cards, more as a matter of personal protection than for gaming.

Also, as a programmer, the tools I use really do benefit from large screens and high resolutions.

I figure that if I’m going to spend 10+ hours a day using a computer, the least I can do is invest in the best display I can get my hands on.

My last several laptops have used NVidia mobile GeForce GPUs, which handle most games well. But I’ve grown increasingly annoyed by NVidia’s lack of concern for mobile customers. They tend to abandon driver support as soon as the next generation GPUs hit the market (which is about 5 minutes after you buy your laptop). After that, you have to scrounge for hacked up desktop drivers online and hope they are stable enough to use.

I’ve also noticed a decline in the overall quality of NVidia’s mobile GPUs recently too. In my opinion NVidia is just so focused on the “next big desktop GPU” that they neglect the fine tuning and engineering in the mobile versions.

So this time I decided to give ATI another shot. At least they seem to actually CARE about the mobile market, and they’ve been doing much better on the high-end than they have in the past.

I haven’t played a lot of games yet, but so far it has run everything I’ve thrown at it as well as my M1730 does. Left 4 Dead 2 just came out, and it runs at high quality settings at the native 1920 x 1080 resolution, though I did turn down the anti-aliasing to 2x instead of the default 4x.

Time will tell for sure, but so far I’m pretty happy with the ATI card.

Keyboard:

This laptop does away with the numeric keypad seen on most full-size laptops. This was necessary because the frame is a little too small, plus they put the speakers on either side of the keyboard instead of the front to allow the laptop to be thinner.

I don’t mind the loss of the keypad one bit. Having my hands offset from the center of the screen is more annoying than any convenience that a keypad might add.

The keyboard is white backlit, and it has a very pleasant feel to it, though the action is a little mushier than on past Dell models. The tactile feedback is still sufficiently good though.

One thing I’m not sure about are the slightly oversized keys. This is taking some getting used to. The keys aren’t crazy big, but for a touch-typist the subtle difference is noticeable at the outer edges.

My biggest gripe is the return of the dreaded “Apps” key (sometimes called the “context menu key”). I HATE this key on desktop keyboards and I wish the inventor a long and painful death. This key has been blessedly absent from most laptops until now. But the worst is that Dell put the apps key right next to the arrow keys… specifically to the immediate left of the left arrow key. This placement is an outright sadistic move on Dell’s part!

Nothing sucks more than “CTRL+SHIFT+Apps” when you were just trying to “back-select” text in your text editor!

Fortunately SharpKeys makes a utility that allows you to perma-kill the apps key via a registry tweak.

Overall I like the new keyboard better than the one on my old M1730, but I REALLY wished they’d just pick a standard keyboard layout and stick with it on all their systems. I hate having to relearn how to type every time I change laptops. Actually, I’d much prefer that they just go back to the old keyboard layouts they used 5 years ago… that was the perfect layout, which is why dell had used that same design for 10 straight years before they started mucking about with new keyboards.

Solid State Drive:

This is by far my favorite part of my new Studio XPS, though it isn’t a feature unique to this specific system by any means.

On laptops, hard drives have long been THE performance killer. It takes a lot of power to spin a metal disk around at several thousand RPM, and laptops don’t have a lot of power to spare. While traditional drives have gotten faster over the years, the power limitations have kept the laptop versions performing far below that of their desktop cousins.

With solid-state drives becoming a viable option, it is moronic not to jump onboard with your next laptop purchase. The reduced power requirements alone are worth the price tag! But the best part about SSDs in laptops is that power and spin rates aren’t an issue anymore. SSDs on a laptop operate at the same speed that they do in desktops!

Dell doesn’t offer the “best” SSDs on the market. Mine is a Siemens, which is decidedly a mid-grade SSD. But Dell’s price on these is crazy good (only about $300 for the 256GB SSD). Even with the lower-end SSDs the performance will still far exceed even the best traditional spindle based drives.

Since this is THE bottle neck, switching to SSD will improve every aspect of your system’s performance. Everything is smoother and snappier. Boot times are amazing with Windows 7 (about 10 seconds if you don’t load a bunch of startup junk!). Programs smoothly spring up when you launch them, and local drive searches are outright zippy!

I can’t overstate just how much faster the whole system is with an SSD under the hood!

If you can afford the price of the high-end Intel solid state drives, then I’d advise you just buy the dell with the cheapest spinel drive they make and replace it with the Intel SSD yourself. But even if you are on a budget, I still strongly advise getting the Dell SSD.

This laptop comes with an eSATA (external SATA) port, so you can compensate for the smaller sizes of internal SSDs by just buying an external spindle drive to store your music and movie collections. The eSATA connection allows those external drives to operate at full speed unlike traditional USB based externals (and eSATA doesn’t add but a few dollars to the price of the external drive either).

Battery:

The default battery is a rather small 6 cell lithium ion. The reason for this is that the chassis is thin and small, so the 6 cell is just what fits. You can upgrade to a 9 cell battery, but to make extra room for the additional cells the battery is taller. The 9 cell battery acts like a stand and has its own rubber feet. This jacks-up the back of the system a good bit.

The extra life of the 9 cell really is worth the upgrade price though.

After two years working on a gaming rig with only about 1 hour per battery, the life on the Studio XPS 16 is great! But this is a high end system, and so it has some power hungry hardware still. For that reason it isn’t going to get the kind of crazy battery life that you hear about with more conservative high-end systems, but it still does very well.

With wireless turned off I get about 5 hours on the 9 cell battery. With wireless-n under heavy use I get about 3.5 hours. But with the power-hogging Verizon broadband card I get just shy of 3 hours at best.

Personally I dislike having the back of my system jacked up by the 9 cell battery, but many people do prefer this –it is similar to the angle you get with a desktop keyboard. I personally find that the angle adds stress on my hands, so I’ve ordered some tall rubberized feet to put on the front of the system to match the height of the battery.

For most people though, the jacked up rear is probably not a problem, so I still recommend the 9 cell battery.

Odd Stuff:

Core i7 CPU:

At the time I bought this system, the Core i7 CPUs have just become available with this model laptop. The Core i7 sounds like a fantastic upgrade, but it is also a major change in architecture. Last time I jumped onto the brand-new architecture was when the first Core Duo CPUs came out. Those were much faster and nicer than the previous CPUs, but they also ended up being a little flaky. It wasn’t but a few months after that that Intel replaced Core Duo with the Core 2.

So this time I decided to go with the highest end of the previous generation rather than jump pre-maturely on the i7 bandwagon. Since i7 is out, the Core 2 line has gotten a major price cut too. This allowed me to get the extra-high-end Core 2 at a decent price tag. The Core i7 costs a fortune by comparison, but prices will drop for i7 pretty fast I expect.

If you are buying you should consider the quad-core i7. They will likely be worth the upgrade price over the Core 2, but don’t expect miracles here. Most software still can’t really unleash the true power of multi-core processors.

IR Receiver:

This laptop doesn’t come with the “travel media remote” like many previous XPS systems did, but it is still supposed to be compatible with them. The travel remote is neat because it fits into the Express card slot. No one ever has an actual express card (I have NEVER seen one in person), so storing it in the express slot it is a convenient use of otherwise wasted space.

On the rare occasions that I connect to my TV, the remote is handy and having it stored away in the express slot keeps me from losing track of it.

But when I tried to move my travel remote to the new Studio XPS 16, it wouldn’t work!

Eventually I discovered that there is a driver for the built-in IR Receiver, but for some odd reason Dell didn’t pre-load the driver at the factory. The device manager didn’t report a malfunctioning or unknown device either (which is the truly strange part), so it was not obvious what the problem was about.

Once I figured it out and installed the receiver’s driver the remote worked like a charm. No additional software is needed for the remote (another reason I really like it).

FastAccess Software:

One of the new toys shipping on many newer Dell systems is a software app called FastAccess. This is a face recognition login system. When you go to login, FastAccess will turn on the camera and take a look at you. If it recognizes your face, it automatically logs you in without typing your password. Otherwise you can just type the password as normal. The software “learns” how to better recognize you over time.

It is a neat feature, though not much of a time saver. The recognition is quite snappy, but typing a password doesn’t take much time or effort either. Still it is a really nifty feature in that “pure-nerd” way.

The software also has some advanced capabilities beyond just desktop logins, and it does actually work surprisingly well! After a couple of manual logins it was able to pick me out almost every time (as long as the lighting was good).

The big problem though is this thing’s insane usage of CPU resources. It sits there chewing up a massive 10% to 15% of my CPU resources… continuously! All the time!

Since it isn’t doing anything unless I’m actually logging in, I have no idea what it needs all that CPU power for. I tried turning off all the optional features, but it still sat there sucking down clock cycles like mad.

So I uninstalled it of course. Neat utility or not, nothing is worth sacraficing 10% of the available CPU!

Maybe future versions will fix this problem.

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