A Farewell to the Dell XPS 14

Sandy Bridge isn’t the only game in town, of course, so we’ve got a few other items to cover. After the discussion of Sandy Bridge on the previous page, we also want to take this chance to talk about what will likely be our last Arrandale laptops. First up we have the Dell XPS 14 L401x, the “little brother” of the XPS trio announced last October. In terms of specs, the L401x is virtually identical to the L501x, only in a smaller chassis.

Our test unit came with the same i5-460M CPU, GT 420M graphics, and 56Wh battery. Visually, the three XPS laptops are all the same: rounded corners with a silver matte finish, and aluminum palm rests. The design works well enough, though we tend to prefer cleaner lines. However, some of the extra features offered in the XPS 15 were enough that it garnered our Gold Editors’ Choice award—specifically, we liked the combination of a high quality 1080p LCD upgrade, Optimus Technology graphics, and excellent audio. We mentioned in December that the 1080p upgrade had disappeared from the Dell website, but we’re happy to report that the display upgrade is once more back in stock. (You can find it under the “Colors” configuration area—it’s now priced at $195 instead of $130, but the base price has dropped to $799 as opposed to $899 so the final cost with the 1080p display is now under $1000.)

We mention the things we liked about the XPS 15 as a jumping off point for the XPS 14, because unfortunately it loses most of the best features. The L401x still comes (rather, came) with JBL speakers and WAVES Maxx Audio, but without the subwoofer it lacks the bass punch of the larger models. There’s no LCD upgrade available either, and the standard 1366x768 display is just as poor as the other LCDs we’ve lambasted during the previous couple of years. Finally, the smaller chassis apparently doesn’t have enough space for USB3.0 support, so that feature goes missing as well. Smaller isn’t always better, and putting the same components into a more cramped space also resulted in generally higher temperatures and noise levels—we’d certainly be concerned about upgrading the L401x to the quad-core Clarksfield processors!

There were some good aspects to the design, though. For instance, idle battery life improved 16% and Internet battery life went up 35%. (We noted in the L501x review that our Internet test did quite poorly, and it appears the L401x doesn’t suffer the same fate.) H.264 playback remains nearly the same at just under three hours. For gaming, the 768p resolution is also a better fit for the GT 420M GPU—1080p is simply too much for anything but low detail settings on most games without a faster GPU. The final benefit of course is the size and weight. Personally, 14” laptops are one of my favorite form factors in terms of combining a smaller size with a comfortable keyboard, reasonable display size, and battery life/portability. If the XPS 14 had offered a 1440x900 quality LCD upgrade, it would have been nearly “perfect” for mainstream use.

Ultimately, I’m not surprised to see the XPS 14 disappear. It wasn’t a bad laptop design, but there was very little on tap that you couldn’t already find in the Inspiron 14R. The main change is that you got NVIDIA Optimus in place of either Intel IGP or ATI HD 550v (a lower clocked and renamed HD 4650). The XPS keyboard also offered backlighting and the palm rest is aluminum rather than plastic. If you configure similar performance, the XPS price premium is fairly reasonable: $899 for the XPS 14 we have compared to $809 for the Inspiron 14R with an i5-460M, 4GB RAM, HD 550v, and 500GB HDD. That’s worth $90, certainly, but it still feels like it waters down the XPS (“Xtreme Performance System” back in the day) brand.

Anyway, we’ve added results from the XPS L401x to Mobile Bench as well. Combined with the updated NVIDIA 266.58 drivers, graphics performance is actually up relative to the L501x in most games, and you can see how the two models compare. Like the notebook on the previous page, the L401x came with a Western Digital Black HDD instead of the ubiquitous Seagate 7200.4 that was in the L501x we tested, so PCMark scores are up as well. However, CPU performance was down slightly in Cinebench and x264 encoding, and temperatures were up. It looks as though the smaller chassis couldn’t cope with the heat as well, and the result is that Intel’s Turbo Boost isn’t able to run quite as fast in CPU intensive benchmarks.

We expect Dell to come out with Sandy Bridge XPS laptops sometime in the next two or three months, but we’ve been told not to expect an XPS 14 update. That’s a shame, as we still think it could be a great form factor. Imagine a high quality 14” LCD with better performance and thermals—sort of like the Dell XPS equivalent of the MacBook Pro 13. That’s what we’d really like to see Dell do with the XPS brand: look at the Apple MacBook line here. The MacBook has basic features and performance at a reduced price; move up to the MacBook Pro 13 and you get essentially the same performance, but you add the unibody chassis and a much nicer LCD. In fact, every laptop in the MacBook Pro lineup has a good contrast LCD with reasonable color accuracy and a nearly ideal (for sRGB work) color gamut. So ditch the rounded corners, improve the build quality even more, and make every XPS laptop come with a quality LCD; then we’d have a brand that we could point to and say, “Sure, it costs more, but at least you get quality for your dollar.” Reusing the base Inspiron chassis just doesn’t seem like a great idea for a “performance” brand.

Which brings up another laptop: HP’s Envy 14. Long heralded as a great combination of price, performance, build quality, and features, users were asking for a review of the Envy 14 for a long time. HP never did manage to get us one, but one of our readers was kind enough to let us borrow his Envy 14—complete with the 1600x900 Radiance display upgrade!—to run it through our tests. At this stage, it’s too late in the game for a full review of the Envy 14, and like the XPS 14, the Radiance LCD is no longer available. However, with this mobile update already in the works we have a perfect chance for a rundown of the Envy 14. I’ll turn this over to Vivek, since he was the one to actually lay hands on the fabled laptop.

Why Sandy Bridge Matters for Notebooks HP’s Envy 14: An LCD That Was Too Good to Last?
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  • Stuka87 - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

    I keep having to wait longer and longer to get a notebook. But I don't want to buy a previous generation machine :/

    Thanks for the update though :)
  • ajp_anton - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

    "and multithreaded tasks like video encoding and 3D rendering generally need more floating-point performance."

    The developers of x264 say that it (don't know about other encoders) uses pretty much only integer math.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

    See above: do they do integer math using MMX/SSE, or do they do it with regular integer instructions? At least one post I read from an x264 developer (http://x264dev.multimedia.cx/archives/51) makes me think they're using SSE/MMX extensions, which would use the FP registers if I'm not mistaken. "Emulating these float ops with complex series of integer ops is far too slow to be worthwhile, so unfortunately we cannot fully abide by Intel’s advisories." If anyone can confirm how much pure integer vs. MMX/SSE video encoding uses, I'm all ears.

    x264 is only one implementation, so we also have H.264 in general, WME, DivX, etc. we could discuss. Given how the GPU people are leveraging their DX10/11 cores to accelerate encoding/transcoding, and GPUs are considered "FP monsters" (even if they're working on INTs in FP registers), again it makes me think the dual-integer core design of Bulldozer might not be ideal for video encoding. We'll find out for sure in the next few months when the CPUs hit retails, of course, so all I can do right now is speculate.
  • ajp_anton - Tuesday, February 8, 2011 - link

    I don't know enough to give a good answer, but I think it has something to do with the fact that you can do multiple 8-bit ints instead of one single 32-bit that gives x264 so much speed. No (CPU) "FP monster" can make up for this advantage, as they can only do 32-bit floats.
    You could convert x264 to use floats instead of ints everywhere and get the same result, but you would lose a lot of speed.
    Or something... =)
  • LostPassword - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

    Sad to hear about HP LCD. Main reason I considered an envy
  • jonup - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

    Why are all Sandy Bridge laptops recalled if the two SATA3 ports are not affected by the recall? Most notebooks utilize only one HDD/SSD and an optical drive. Were most laptops built around the SATA2 controller, or is it that the SATA3 controller is affected by the recall but not as frequently as the SATA2 one? Is the holdup mandated by Intel regardless of which controller is used? Can you elaborate on this? It will be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!
  • JarredWalton - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

    eSATA, and I think a lot of laptops may have simply used the SATA 3.0Gbps ports even though 6.0Gbps ports were available.
  • jonup - Monday, February 7, 2011 - link

  • jonup - Tuesday, February 8, 2011 - link

    I just read that Intel allowed partners to ship devices if the partners guarantee that they are not using the faulty controller. So we should start seeing some Sandy Bridge lappy's soon.

    Disclaimer: Intel's announcement came after your response yesterday.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, February 8, 2011 - link

    Yeah, I would think some of the budget stuff (i.e. Acer where they only have one HDD, one DVD/BRD, and no eSATA) could go out. Hope to see it soon!

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