Dell XPS 15 9500 Review: Buy this laptop instead of a MacBook Pro 16

Dell's completely redesigned XPS 15 9500 arrives just in time to kick the MacBook Pro 16 into its grave

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Display

xps15 front screen view blue fill Dell

The XPS 15 9500’s panel is Dolby Vision and HDR400-certified.

Before we go on to performance we do want to call out the display, which has more acronyms than a Ph.D. student who never left the university. The panel is UHD 4K+ with a 16:10 aspect ratio. It’s not an off-the-shelf design either: While a typical 4K panel has a resolution of 3840x2160, the XPS 15 9500 features a native resolution of 3840x2400. The  panel will hit 100 percent of Adobe RGB and 94 percent of DCI P3 color gamut. It meets VESA’s Display HDR 400 spec, and it's also Dolby Vision-certified.

The screen is touch-enabled and sheathed in Gorilla Glass for protection. It has an anti-reflective coating to minimize glare, while still sporting that glossy look and feel people want.

Finally, the screen features Eyesafe technology, which reduces blue light emissions that keep you up at night—while still looking natural (more primitive blue-light reduction techniques look about as subtle as a fake sunset scene from a 1980s TV show). The screen is very bright and rated at 500 nits, which is about what we measured as well. 

Compared to a standard laptop’s screen, the XPS 15 9500 is a stunning difference. We also stood it up against the Gigabyte Aero 17 which similarly features an HDR400-rated 4K panel, and the MSI Creator 17 with an HDR1000 miniLED panel. Viewing various HDR1000 and HDR400 videos as well as still images, our eyes give the MSI Creator 17 the edge. There’s a zing and contrast the HDR1000 miniLED panel produces that’s undeniable. We’d say the XPS 15 9500 is very close to the Gigabyte Aero 17’s display, but we give the latter a very slight edge. All three are spectacular, though, so you basically can’t go wrong. 

One thing we should mention: When you unplug the XPS 15 9500 from the power brick, the screen will go black for a few seconds before coming back on. The reason is harmless but still likely to annoy people: Anytime you switch a Windows laptop from displaying HDR content, it will automatically switch back to standard color gamuts when on battery to reduce power consumption. You can turn off this behavior by switching off HDR completely, or unchecking the Don’t allow HDR games and apps on battery option from the display properties.

XPS 15 9500 Performance

We’ll kick off our performance testing of the XPS 15 9500 with Cinebench R20—which is an updated, harsher version of the older Cinebench R15 we’ve typically used. Both are valid measurements of CPU multi-core performance at 3D modelling (one lighter-duty and one heavier-duty), and they give you a general idea of how the laptop could perform in other tasks that are heavily multi-threaded.

For pure CPU tasks, the Core i7-10875H in the XPS 15 9500 represents well. It’s right there with Gigabyte’s much larger Aero 17, which uses the same CPU, and is awfully close to the 8-core Core i9-10980HK in the MSI GS66.

As this generation of laptop is highly dependent on performance settings, we tested the XPS 15 9500 in both its default and its “Ultra Performance” states.

Overall, this is a great showing for a 4.5-pound, 15-inch laptop, as it can hang with more gaming-focused and better-cooled laptops in CPU operations. The only fly in the ointment is the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14 with its Ryzen 9 4900HS, which is an even smaller and lighter laptop that generally whups laptops using Intel.

dell xps 15 9500 cinebench r20 nt IDG

Even though Cinebench R20 takes three times as long as Cinebench R15 to run, it’s still a fairly short load. Modern laptops slowly taper off performance as they build up heat over longer loads. To test that impact, we use an older version of the free HandBrake utility to convert a 1080p file using the Android Tablet preset. Although even this isn’t the stress test it was a few years ago, it still takes an 8-core laptop 20 minutes or more to run it.

Given that longer workload, you can see the thermal limitations of a thinner laptop in the results. The larger and heavier Aero 17, with the same CPU as the Dell XPS 15 9500, opens up a 15-percent lead over the Dell. To be fair, the Aero 17 when set to its own “Turbo” mode is quick to trigger its fans and makes quite a racket. You might think the 8-core XPS 15’s 6-core-level result is terrible, but this is the reality of a laptop this small running an 8-core CPU. On long-running CPU loads, it’s going to give up ground.

dell xps 15 9500 handbrake IDG

For gaming, we’ll throw in the results from running Rise of the Tomb Raider at 1920x1080 resolution, set to Very High. This older test is run in DX11 mode without exclusive full-screen mode selected.

First you probably noticed that Dell’s “Ultra Performance” setting didn’t make much of a difference in CPU tests. But in this GPU load, we see a big difference.

Second: The result should be no surprise. Every laptop in this chart except the XPS 15 9500 are primarily gaming laptops, with big, hairy GPUs. They also tend to make more noise and generally have screens better for gaming, but poor for content creation.

Why are we even comparing the XPS 15 9500 to gaming laptops? Because people often do, just as they would do with the MacBook Pro 16. If that MacBook Pro 16 were in this list, it would be at the bottom or near the bottom.

Of course, the problem for the 4.5-pound XPS 15 9500 and the 4.3-pound MacBook Pro 16 is that gaming laptops—while certainly far thicker and larger—aren’t too far off in weight. The MSI GS66 Stealth weighs the same as the XPS 15 9500 despite its GeForce RTX 2080 Super Max-Q. The XPG Xenia 15 is just over 4 pounds with a GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q. So yes, it’s fair to show the Dell here.

dell xps 15 9500 rotr IDG

XPS 15 9500 Battery Life

The XPS 15 9500 gets its revenge in perhaps the most critical test of all for a laptop: battery life. For that we loop a 4K video at a fairly bright 250 to 260 nits, in airplane mode and with earbuds in place.

The XPS 15 9500 simply crushes those gaming laptops, with about 10.5 hours of video playback. Incredibly, that's with a 4K panel—which typically eats a third of run time—and an 84-watt-hour battery. Many of the gaming laptops you see here are packing much bigger gas tanks. The MSI GS66 Stealth runs the maximum allowed on an airplane: 99.9 Watt-hours. So yes, the XPS 15 9500 gets the last laugh.

dell xps 15 video run down IDG

Should I dump my old XPS 15 for a new one?

We've reviewed enough XPS 15s over the years to give you some context for how much of an improvement the new 9500 delivers over prior generations. The results aren't as obvious as you'd think.

First up is the older Cinebench R15 CPU test. News flash: An 8-core XPS 15 (like last year's 7590) is faster than a 6-core XPS 15 (including this year's 9500), which is faster than all of those old 4-core XPS 15s.

Although last year’s XPS 15 7590 is actually faster, that’s because it features a Core i9 CPU. Note that this year’s model seems to give you about the same performance from a Core i7. 

xps 15 off cinebench r15 nt IDG

While the XPS 15 9500 gave up ground in the longer HandBrake encode test to larger gaming laptops, the performance against its own cousins is actually quite good. Here you can see that it’s actually as fast as last year's Core i9-based 7590.

xps 15 off handbrake IDG

For graphics, the picture gets a little more muddled. The previous XPS 15 7590 eats the new XPS 15’s lunch, and the two-year old XPS 15 9570 is tied with the new XPS 15 9500 even when set to Ultra Performance. This particular test result focuses solely on GPU performance and excludes CPU performance from its score, so we’re a bit surprised by the result here.

xps 15 off skydiver IDG

We’ll end with a video rundown test. As we said earlier, 4K panels eat power. You can you see it here, where the XPS 15 9500 with its 4K IPS panel, and last year’s XPS 15 7590 with its 4K OLED panel, easily lose three hours of battery life when compared to the XPS 15 9570 with its FHD screen. Even so, we’ve come a long way from the fairly miserable five-hour battery life of an XPS 15 9560 with its 4K panel. So yes, the new XPS 15 9500 is extremely good for a laptop with a 4K panel.

xps 15 off video run down IDG

Conclusion

There’s a lot to unpack with the XPS 15 9500. CPU performance is very good—it doesn’t significantly move the needle over the previous model, but you’re getting more bang for buck from the current Core i7 over the earlier, pricier Core i9 configuration.

On gaming performance, it looks like the XPS 15 9500 actually takes a step back for unexplained reasons. However, disappointing gaming doesn’t mean bad encoding, so video editors can rest easy. Gamers: Buy an Alienware.

The primary focus of this generation of XPS 15 is the outside, an upgrade that was long overdue. The keyboard and trackpad are quite good, the sound is probably the best on a PC laptop this size, and the screen is gorgeous with its no-bezel look. It’s slim and relatively light even with its 130-watt USB-C power brick. It is, basically, probably the perfect laptop for content creators on the move.

So yes, we’re sticking with our original clickbait line, that the MacBook Pro 16 killer has finally arrived. We just didn’t expect Apple would help push its own laptop overboard along with Intel.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated what award music producer Jack Joseph Puig has won. He is a multi-Grammy Award winner. PCWorld regrets the error.

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At a Glance
  • The Dell XPS 15 9500 is finally the MacBook Pro killer it's always wanted to be, with a gorgeous display, better keyboard and trackpad components, and strong productivity performance. We miss USB-A, though.

    Pros

    • Gorgeous slim-bezel display
    • Fantastic audio for a laptop

    Cons

    • GPU performance takes a step back
    • Not even one measly USB-A port
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