It's been nine months since I started to live a nomadic life and do full-time travel and photography. To stay productive on the road, I had to exchange my old and trusty desktop PC for a portable solution. I'm a Windows user and decided to go with the Dell XPS 9510. In this article, I explain why and share how it held up over the past months.
You might think that this review is a bit out of date. After all, I'm reviewing a laptop released over a year ago. But I believe it's necessary to put the equipment through intense use before a proper review.
With the Dell XPS, I've done exactly that. I brought it on my travels through Portugal, Madeira, Costa Rica, Italy, Greece, and France, and I used it to edit my photos and videos in very different climates. The hot and humid climate of Costa Rica was especially challenging. I'd go as far as saying that editing videos in Costa Rica is the ultimate test for any laptop.
You'll also find that the new version of the Dell XPS is not that different from the unit I review here. The design is mostly the same, the screen wasn't updated as far as I can tell, and the ports weren't changed either. The only significant changes were done to the CPU and the RAM: 12th Gen Intel CPUs are now used together with DDR5 RAM.
The benchmarks I reviewed suggest that compared to my device, you could expect slightly more single-core performance and significantly more multi-core performance from the latest version. How this translates into real-world usage is hard to tell, but I'm sure the new Dell XPS will perform faster than my version in a typical creative workflow.
Why I Bought the Dell XPS 9510
Before I bought this laptop, I watched the typical benchmark-centric reviews on YouTube and studied Notebookcheck with some other sites, trying to figure out if this laptop would fulfill my creative needs. While it is certainly not the fastest laptop out there, it's better than my previous setup, which I already used to edit 4K videos in Davinci Resolve.
Aside from sufficient performance to smoothly edit photos and videos, I had additional requirements: my new laptop had to be compact and portable, weighing no more than 2 kg. Because of my upcoming travels, I also wanted a device with a robust chassis. I talk more about this in the feature video, which I recorded after buying the XPS.
This requirement reduced the selection of eligible notebooks considerably. Wobbly hinges, too much flex on the display, and a creaky case were all things I read in reviews of various laptops.
Eventually, I narrowed my selection to the Dell XPS, the HP ZBook Studio, and the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Extreme. I had used notebooks from all three brands in the past, both personally and at work, and they held up pretty well. The deciding factor was the price. Although the Dell XPS is one of the more expensive Windows laptops one can buy, compared to the other two, it was the only one I could afford. I went with the 11th Gen i7 version with 16 GB of RAM, a 1 TB SSD hard drive, and the Full-HD matte display option.
What I Like
First and foremost, the products I buy have to work; looks are secondary. But I must admit, I love the design of the Dell XPS. It looks beautiful, it's flat, and the bezels on its 16:10 display are so thin that I almost don't notice them.
But aside from its looks, how does it perform? First of all, the build quality is spot on. The display doesn't wobble or bend, the huge touchpad works well without the phantom clicks of the previous version, and the keyboard and interior feel solid. I do a lot of writing and enjoy typing on this laptop.
It's also thin enough to fit into my camera bag and weighs less than 2 kg. By using a 16:10 aspect ratio together with thin bezels for the display, its footprint is further reduced. Compared to other 15'' laptops, it's very compact.
I also appreciate the port selection and placement. On the right side sits an SD card slot with a USB-C port, which can be used to charge the device. On the left are two Thunderbolt 4 ports, which I can use to connect Thunderbolt and USB devices. They also work for charging the notebook.
Having a charging option on both sides is important because, during my travels, I never know where the power sockets are located. Being able to plug in the charger on both sides allows for more flexibility.
What about the monitor? For me, as a creative, a good display is essential. Since I can't control my editing environment during my travels, I went with the Full-HD version, which uses a matte display. It reduces reflections when I have to work in bright surroundings.
While the Full-HD screen can't display the Adobe RGB color space as the 4K and OLED versions, it can display most of the sRGB color space. With a colorimeter, it can also be properly calibrated. One thing I noticed is that colors are much less consistent than with my EIZO monitor. A recalibration is necessary every four to eight weeks to keep the colors correct.
Everything I mentioned so far provides a solid foundation for a good laptop. But what about performance? How do all those Geekbench, Cinebench, and 3DMark numbers translate into the real world?
As I already mentioned, I use Davinci Resolve to edit my videos. I can work with 4K clips from my Canon R5 without stutter as long as I don't add too many grades and effects. As a rule of thumb, if I bring a 4K clip into the timeline and apply basic color grading with one to three nodes, I can still smoothly scrub through the video. Rendering a 10-minute Youtube video in 4K takes about 20 minutes.
Now, if you work with Log or raw footage and do more complex edits that require intense color grading and effects, you'll likely experience the limitations of the Dell XPS architecture. Not only will the fans be buzzing constantly, but you'll also have to use proxies to be able to edit your videos. For that, I recommend getting more than 16 GB of RAM.
Lightroom and Photoshop don't pose much of a problem to this laptop. Importing photos into Lightroom and converting them to DNGs will create a load on the system, and the fans will become active. The same can happen with some filters in Photoshop and with programs that require a fast GPU and CPU, like Topaz Gigapixel AI, for example.
It brings me to the topic of fan noise. For 80% of my work, I don't notice the fans. This changes during photo import in Lightroom and while I work in Davinci Resolve. The sound is not very annoying to my ears, though. With headphones, I can do my video edits without being too distracted. Exporting videos is another story. Then, the Dell XPS works under maximum load, and the fans will get very loud. It's usually the time when I leave the room and grab something to eat.
I must also mention that while traveling through Costa Rica, I always had to export my videos at night when it got a bit cooler. I also did most of my video work after dark. Once, I froze the laptop when trying to export a video in the afternoon in an unclimatized room — lesson learned. With Lightroom and Photoshop, I didn't have to take such precautions, as the fans were capable of keeping the laptop operable.
What Could Be Improved
The Dell XPS has a problem none of the other reviews mention. The Full-HD display exhibits a vignette at the edges. Half a year before I bought the Dell XPS 9510, I purchased the 9500 version. It had the same problem. I talked to support and got a new display, which still showed the vignette. So, I returned it, hoping somebody else would notice and Dell would fix it.
Unfortunately, they didn't, and I was inches away from returning the 9510 version too. But due to a lack of good alternatives, I kept it, and I'm glad I did. I still notice the vignette, but since it's only visible around the outer areas of the display, it doesn't impact my work. The colors and brightness in the center area are consistent.
Another thing Dell should address is the high-pitched fan noise, which occurs if the laptop doesn't sit upon a flat surface. Then, the grill at the bottom creates an uncomfortable noise as air buzzes past. As you can see in the photo above, a simple piece of tape fixes it. If you apply this fix, attach it only to the very outer edge of the grill. Else it might impede airflow.
Finally, I want to address the battery life: I typically get between four and six hours out of this laptop before I must connect it to a power outlet. During that time I do a mix of editing in Lightroom and Photoshop, writing, watching YouTube videos, and listening to music. The speakers sound fantastic, by the way. If I only use it for writing or watching videos, I can get more out of it. But video editing will deplete the battery in less than three hours. Especially when I travel, I would love to get a bit more juice out of the Dell XPS.
What Annoys Me
Over the past year, I logged into at least 50 different networks. And quite often, I experienced problems with the connectivity of the Dell XPS.
While I'm surfing the internet with my Google Pixel without problems with any Wi-Fi, provided the signal is strong enough, the Dell XPS requires me to troubleshoot every few weeks. Sometimes, playing around with the settings in the Killer Intelligence Center helped. Occasionally, I had to reset my drivers, and twice, I had to manually start several of the Wi-Fi-related services. It's an annoyance, and from what I've gathered, something related to the Killer Wi-Fi card Dell uses for their notebooks.
Thankfully, I developed a routine for staying connected. It includes not installing any driver updates for the Killer card while on the road because I never know if those fix problems or cause new ones.
The Dell XPS is not perfect, and there are certainly faster systems available on the market. But it's still a great choice for creatives on the road. The vignette on the display is annoying, and the Wi-Fi problems can slow me down. But the longer I use this laptop, the less it bothers me. You could say that the positives outweigh the negatives, and I believe there are compromises to be made with any Windows laptop.
So, would I buy this laptop or its successor again today? The answer is yes. But the real question is: is this laptop the right choice for you? It is a question you can only answer yourself. My review might provide some help, but everybody has slightly different requirements. The good thing is that it's no problem to order a laptop, test it for a few days, and return it if it doesn't perform as expected. I did that with the Dell XPS 9500 because of the display, although all reviews I read and watched told me how great it is. In the end, you should trust your own assessment.