A Real World “On The Road” Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 (2018) Review

[disclosure – I work for Pivotal, which is part of Dell Technologies – so read on with that context, and assess whatever I say with whatever bias you ascribe to me… regardless of how much I tell you I don’t have any 😉 ]

Like many of you, dear readers, my laptop is a huge part of my life.  It’s my work-mate, it’s what I game on while on the road.   It entertains me, inspires me, arms my creativity.   I spend more time in my life with my laptop than any other tool.   I travel a LOT for work (many times around the world every year – 80-90% of the time I’m not at home) – likewise I lean on my laptop a LOT, and like my body, my laptops need to withstand a road warrior’s life.

I’ve had great laptops, good laptops, mediocre laptops, bad laptops, and terrible laptops.

It’s also interesting to see how everyone has come around from the silliness from a few years back where everyone thought we would only use our mobiles for work.

Sidebar – this is a theme I’ve noticed to be remarkably consistent – humans always seem to want to make things binary, think of A replacing B, or express choices in OR statements rather than AND statements.   We ended up using mobiles, tablets, and laptops – and if any segment is challenged, it turns out it’s the tablet (the “tweener”)

For context, I’ve also been an Apple fanboi for years – the elegance of their design and style, integrated ecosystem experience.

I have used so many laptops and client devices over the years…  Macbook Pros, Macbooks, Surface Pro 2, 3, 4, Surfacebooks, Razers, old Thinkpads in their glory days (including one of the first X-series convertible/pen units – I dug that one a lot).   I’ve used Windows, Linux, OSX – and yes, tried using a iPad Pro with a keyboard as my main work machine for months.

In our house, it’s a veritable museum of every generation of tech.

I’ve never (not once) “settled” for a corporate issued machine in my work life.   My joy/happiness (and associated productivity) of the machine I’m working with is too important to settle – and I don’t mind paying out of pocket if I don’t have to compromise.   I have consistently paid for, used my own laptop – one that I pick, one that I specify (and of course, work to align with the IT standards for security/encryption/MDM – using a BYOD model).

That all said – starting in 2015, I think Apple really, REALLY started to lose their way – just as Windows 10 started to show Windows could be good again, and as the Windows laptop ecosystem started to embrace design, innovation, style – and become interesting again.

In 2016, when Dell acquired EMC – I bought a new XPS 13 laptop (I got issued a slightly less awesome corp standard variant – but wanted the loaded RAM/SSD config).   I loved it.  It became my standard.

In 2017, I bought a XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible – and learned there was something beyond the love I had for the XPS 13.   Lightweight, long battery life, great industrial design – and yes, touchscreen/tablet form factor and pen input.  The only downside?   Gaming sucked.   Intel integrated graphics just don’t cut it for things other than work.

So – when I saw the new XPS 15 2-in-1, I wanted to give it a whirl.   I’d used the XPS 15 2017 for a bit – and didn’t love it.   It was bigger and heavier than my XPS 13 2-in-1, but didn’t buy much in terms of graphics boost, and I lost the 2-in-1 form factor.

To make the need for a review more clear – when I transferred to Pivotal from Dell EMC – I got issued a new laptop – and I had two choices – a Macbook Pro 13 and a  Macbook Pro 15 2018 😊   Time for a head-to-head!

So – here you have it – after one month on the road (at least one “around the world” equivalent 😊 ) – my Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 2018 on the road review!

First – unboxing…

Second – the first impresssion, physical form factor.

Third – on the road gaming!

Beyond the videos, what DO I like?

  • The maglev keyboard is really solid. I miss long travel keys – but I get the demands of the thin form-factor.   The keyboard is WAY, WAY, WAY better (IMO) than the Apple butterfly keyboard mechanism.   The key travel on the XPS 15 2-in-1 feels longer than the Macbook Pro.  The sound is far less “clacky”.   This matters a lot to me – the sound of a bunch of Macbooks with the butterfly keyboards in a meeting can be absolutely deafening.
  • I can’t go on enough about the leaps and bounds on pen-input in Windows 10 – particularly after the Creator’s update. The new Dell Active Pen hardware is nice – rare-earth magnets to attach to the laptop (I missed this from my Surfacebook with previous Dell Active Pens), and tilt-sensitivity (matters a lot).    Pen input varies from app to app – so more work needed there, but it’s already very, very VERY useful to me.  Some people think of pen input as a gimmick – I don’t.   I NEVER use it for text entry (why would you – you have a keyboard, so much more efficient).   What I use it for all the time is for marking up docs in collaboration, as an ad-hoc whiteboard in customer meetings, for sketching out ideas.   There’s something about a pen as the input for forms of real-time creativity that just is RIGHT.
  • The integrated software/hardware experience has improved a ton. I remember back in the day, Dell and other Windows laptops came loaded with craplications, all polluted until you did a wipe and clean install, which in turn necessitated a frustrating process of getting install media and building a bootable image – not hard, just annoying.   Also, updating drivers/bios was a huge PITA.   Not anymore.   The Dell factory install is clean.  If you want to, doing a media-less factory clean install is as simple as it is on a Mac.   And the Dell Update utility works well, grabs updates at every level (firmware, bios, drivers, etc).   Windows update isn’t nearly as annoying as it’s been in the past.   Windows trackpads used to just SUCK relative to Mac (really crappy software for the most part) – but while I would still give this to the Apple universe, it’s only by a nose.

What DON’T I like?

  • Early driver support was not ideal. I’ve seen this time and time again (it was BRUTAL on the Surfacebook).   Early in their lifecycle – almost all laptops have kinks that get worked out in firmware/bios/driver updates.   On the XPS 15 2-in-1, this was particularly true for the Intel/AMD RX VEGA M combined CPU/GPU.   For a while, they were using really old (Q4 2017) AMD drivers – and you can’t get the AMD Adrenalin drivers from AMD, you have to get the Intel package.   But – right before the review – there was an update, and it’s improved things a fair bit.
  • Early fan noise was a little excessive. After a couple BIOS updates – it’s gotten nice and quiet as I would expect.   When you’re playing a game it still spools up a lot, and has a pretty high whine – but that’s hard to get around – thin form factors don’t make for large slow spinning fans with high air displacement.   Thin form factors and hot GPUs demand fast spinning thin fans to get the necessary delta airflow.   This is an area
  • It gets hot – REALLY hot. Not in “normal work use” – but in a solid gaming session, the base of the laptop gets toasty indeed.   I’ve found that you really need to make sure you game on a solid surface which gets a little clearance for the vents on the base of the laptop – the rear exhaust fan isn’t enough.
  • Power/Battery. The XPS 15 2-in-1 has OK but not amazing battery life.   It’s more than enough for me – I get 5-6+ hours unplugged if I extend things out (dim screen, power save settings).   Hard-core gaming gets me 1.5-2hrs.  Now, my unit has the 3840 x 2160 panel, which uses a lot of juice.   The BIGGER problem is a physics fact – associated with the fact of a lot of power consumption.   The AC Adapter is a 130W unit – and that means something buyers need to know – you cannot charge on the AC sockets you tend to find in airplanes.   These in-seat plugs aonly support 65W in some cases 80W total output – about .   When you plug it in – the little green light in the in-seat plug goes out (meaning that it cuts out due to current draw that is too high).   I’ve tried this now in Airbus 319, 320, 330’s, in Boeing 737, 757, 767s, 777s – and even in brand spanking new 787 Dreamliners.   No joy.   This means that you need to make sure you have juice, and on really long flights, you’re not going to make it.
  • While I LOVE the infinity screen on the XPS units (great panels, and tiny bezels) – the trade-off on the placement of the cameras at the bottom of the panel is just not ideal. At Pivotal – people work remotely all the time, and we use Zoom videoconferencing all the time.    Having the camera looking up your nose all the time is not ideal – but more importantly – the camera placement means that you don’t seem to be looking at the person you’re talking to, which breaks an important psychological effect.   This is a big enough issue that I needed a workaround, so now I carry around a Logitech webcam, which works fine, but isn’t ideal.   Dell – I know I’m asking to have my cake and eat it too – but view this as an engineering challenge.   Keep the small bezels.  Keep the awesome screen.   Move the camera to the top.  Maybe you make the camera super-slim.  Maybe you make it pop out of the top.   Maybe you do some sort of fiber-optic routing.   You folks are awesome – figure it out.

What am I testing next?

  • I want to try VR on this thing. I have an Oculus Rift and a Vive setup – will give it a whirl and update this post.
  • eGPU support. I’m holding off for the next NVIDIA GPU release which should be soon – but really want to test out eGPU over Thunderbolt 3.   Yes, I’ve seen the data that it’s not as good as when it’s on the PCIe bus directly, but we’re getting close.

To Apple…

…. you guys have really, REALLY got to get your head back in the game.   Yes, the iOS device business continues to be great.   But you have GOT to stop deluding yourself.   If the Pencil is good enough for the iOS devices, then it should work on a Mac.   Getting rid of the function keys with the OLED touchbar?  Great.  It’s NO substitute for a touchscreen.   If people are doing heavy work, no matter how much you make great ads showing that you can use an iOS iPad as a work machine, it’s just not true.   Your Mac hardware is obsolete.  Your OS advantages are reducing fast.  Your game ecosystem still kinda sucks.  If you aren’t abandoning the laptop/macbook business – you sure are faking it well.   You can do better.

Conclusion

Back to the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1.   This one is a keeper.   It’s fast.   It works hard, like me.   It games like a champ when I need it to.   While there are better dedicated gaming laptops (Dell Alienware and others), better thin-and-lights (this is definitely heavier than my XPS 13 2-in-1) the XPS 15 2-in-1 is a blend of it all without compromising too much in any one dimension.

Pivotal has a great set of IT tools, we use Okta, Google Docs, Real Time Board – all apps that are modern, cloud-based apps and totally client independent – so I can use whatever machine I need.   The Macbook Pro 15 2018 I was issued is going back to IT.   I think I’m like a lot of people at work – loving your client device makes you work harder, faster, more efficiently – you can collaborate more broadly.

If I have one machine I’m taking on the road with me, the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 is my new workhorse.

 

4 thoughts on “A Real World “On The Road” Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 (2018) Review”

  1. Cheers to the XPS, I couldn’t agree more!

    I have the “Dell XPS 12 12.5-Inch Convertible 2-in-1 Touchscreen Ultrabook”. It’s a mouth-full but it’s the best computer I’ve ever used. Clean features, fast, very mobile, and the touchscreen makes for quick and easy selection.

    Now as a Pivotal employee, I’m getting used to the Mac, but once you go XPS…

  2. I never thought I see the day that I would jump ship and buy a PC. I’ve been a Mac owner for over 25 years. But, enough is enough. I’m an artist first and I can see where the wind is blowing. Sadly, it’s no longer going Apple’s way. Dell’s, other PC Manufacturers, partnership with Wacom and Adobe has sold me on their commitment to designers and creatives.

    So I purchased my first PC ever, a XPS 15 2 in 1, last weekend. I’m looking forward to pushing its limits.

    Thanks for your reviews so far. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  3. I suppose Win10 does have Linux subsystem for Windows now so a decent cli is only a few clicks away. I was at the Cloud Foundry Summit last year and even the Microsoft Azure guys were using macs, they’re usually the best tool for the job in Linux-land.

    P.S. My corporate 2016 XPS 15 sounds like a jet taking off.

  4. I tried to love the XPS 15, but the inability to charge on airplanes, and the general noise and Win 10 annoyances turned me off… and I’m quite happy with the MacBook Pro 15. The Windows 10 Linux shell support is still a mess IMO, unlike on a Mac, and most of the world needs a native *nix/bsd shell that isn’t in its own strange sandbox.

    I still don’t understand why I would want a touchscreen on my laptop – I have my iPad Pro for that, which I find best for presentations or for doing whiteboarding on conference calls. Every time I use a touchscreen windows laptop I can’t fathom it, it’s just not a fit UI-wise.

    Still I’m hopeful for the competiton will lead Apple to listen to the touch bar and keyboard complaints (I’ve been okay so far) and refresh the line.

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