15in MacBook Pro vs Dell XPS 15: laptop showdown

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15in MacBook Pro vs Dell XPS 15: laptop showdown

Looking for a high-performance laptop? Our new comparison of the latest Apple and Dell flagships reveals which is best.

Dell and Apple have duking it out in the business ultrabook market for years, with the MacBook Pro and XPS going toe-to-toe to prove which is the better powerhouse.

Now that both laptops have been upgraded Intel’s latest seventh-generation (Kaby Lake) processors, has the balance of power finally shifted to Apple, or will the crown stay with the venerable Dell XPS?

We’ve updated this feature by comparing the latest models – again choosing the 15-inch versions of both laptops, because although both are available in smaller, lighter models, there’s a lot to be said for a fast, 15in workhorse for those who need to do serious work.

Design

Apple's notebooks have a reputation for being thin, sleek and lovely, and looking at the newest model in the Pro family, it's easy to see why. It's the same classic MacBook design you know and love, but with all the fat trimmed off it. Considering that this is effectively a powerhouse workstation, it's almost unbelievably elegant.

Dell’s offering is an attractive machine too but unfortunately, although Dell recently refreshed the XPS 15, it’s only the internal hardware that’s been updated rather than the design, which hasn’t changed since 2015. This means that the XPS 15 is already at a slight disadvantage compared to Apple’s recently redesigned MacBook Pro.

This is immediately apparent when you put them side-by-side; the XPS 15 isn’t an overweight machine by any means, but the MacBook Pro makes it look positively flabby. There’s a clear difference in thickness between the two machines, and though it’s only a couple of millimetres on paper, it feels decidedly pronounced in the flesh. The MacBook Pro is also more than 150g lighter than the XPS 15, which is a sizeable amount.

On the other hand, while Apple's smooth, minimalist silver chassis is undoubtedly gorgeous, it's now been aped by so many other manufacturers that it doesn't feel as exciting or special as it once did. It's still a classic design and the absolute pinnacle of production values, but it's no longer particularly eye-catching.

The XPS, meanwhile, manages to stand out for exactly the same reason. While other makers have been rushing to copy the rounded corners and bare aluminium chassis of Apple's notebooks, the Dell XPS has stuck to an angular design with matte-black fittings set into a carbon fibre keyboard surround, distinguishing it from a sea of identikit clones. All of this combines to make the XPS look sleek, unique and dangerous in a way that the MacBook just isn't.

One slight hiccup, however, is that the XPS doesn't have a cut-out section or raised lip for easy opening. While you wouldn't think that makes much of a difference, it actually leads to Dell's device being noticeably more awkward to open than the MacBook. It's an irritating oversight, and one that knocks points off an otherwise superbly designed machine.

Aside from this, both machines are exceptionally well-designed, and whether you prefer the look of one or the other will largely come down to personal taste. Both machines are absolutely stunning, and neither would look out of place in any boardroom.

Winner: tie

Keyboard and other inputs

The keyboard and trackpad are the heart of any laptop. Even if you're planning to use an external mouse and keyboard, it's worth making sure that the inbuilt ones are up to scratch, just in case you need to take it on the road. Thankfully, both the XPS 15 and the MacBook Pro are absolutely superb in this regard.

Dell has fitted the XPS 15 with an excellent keyboard and trackpad. The keys are responsive, offering a decent travel depth and good, crisp feedback. Similarly, the trackpad is sensitive, with a smooth matte finish that makes gliding your finger over it very easy.

The new MacBook Pro represents Apple's best trackpad and keyboard combo to date, too. The MacBook Pro's keyboard uses the same butterfly mechanism as the most recent 12in MacBook. It's been further refined since then, however. There's virtually no travel depth – which is usually a negative – but on the flip side, you need barely a whisper of actuation force to trigger a keystroke. This may take some getting used to – and may require you to modify your typing style a little – but once you have, your typing speed should improve.

Another small but important element is the different sizes of the individual keys. The MacBook Pro's keys are much more tightly-packed than the XPS's, as well as being around 15% larger, and are virtually flush to the rest of the chassis. Again, this may take some getting used it, but once you have typing should become easier and faster.

Overall, though, while we now prefer the MacBook’s keyboard, the Dell’s keyboard is also very capable and your choice here may come down to your taste. 

The track pads are another story, however. The MacBook's Force Touch trackpad dwarfs that of the XPS, providing a surface area that's almost 50% bigger. This makes both standard navigation and touch-based gesture shortcuts much easier and provides a generally more pleasant usage experience.

Of course, we'd be remiss to talk about touch controls without mentioning Apple's newest, shiniest feature, the MacBook Pro's OLED Touch Bar. The Touch Bar comes as standard on every 15in MacBook Pro, so those who prefer traditional function keys will be out of luck. Not to be outdone, the XPS 15 provides a touchscreen option – although it's only available on the two more expensive models.

The Touch Bar – despite being much smaller and more limited – is actually quite practical. It replaces the function keys, which means it's conveniently placed for interacting with while typing, and its actual use cases are handy and well thought-out: as well as shortcuts for things like volume and brightness, context-specific actions will also appear on the Touch Bar, such as prompts asking if you want to save your work when you close a document.

It won’t make a huge difference to the way you work right away, but over time, it may subtly make many of your interactions faster and more efficient.

On the other hand, the touchscreen might be essential for 2-in-1s and convertibles, but it’s not so useful for traditional notebooks like the XPS 15. Still, it can be handy for navigation and the like, and once you’re used to a touchscreen it can be hard to go back.

Overall, these are two eminently usable laptops, but the MacBook gets the nod overall, with its trackpad particularly superior.

Winner: 15in MacBook Pro

Display

The most striking element of the XPS 15 is its 1080p InfinityEdge display – a panel with virtually no bezel around the outside of the screen. Not only does that reduce the device's footprint while still maintaining the 15in screen size, it also makes the display appear more eye-catching, and impressive as hell. Once again, the XPS looks striking and unique, while the MacBook Pro does nothing unexpected.

It's matte-coated too, which means that screen glare – especially from harsh office lighting – is all but entirely eliminated. However, the matte finish has the unfortunate effect of leaving colours appearing somewhat muted. We also thought that it caused a small amount of distortion, making images seem very slightly fuzzier than they should have been.

Aside from this, there's little to complain about when it comes to resolution – the lower-priced models come with a 1080p Full HD panel, which is more than sufficient for working, watching movies or browsing the web. A touch-enabled 4K version is also available, but it's an unnecessary level of overkill on a 15in laptop. It's just going to put a massive strain on your machine's battery life in the name of a barely-perceptible increase in resolution.

It's also worth noting that the 4K panel is the only touch-enabled one, which means if you want touch interactions, you're going to have to shell out for an expensive screen, too. Given that touch controls on a laptop aren’t really necessarily, we would recommend sticking to the more cost-effective 1080p model.

Moving onto the MacBook Pro, Apple has (unsurprisingly) bagged a winner yet again. The company's laptops routinely carry best-in-class displays, and the MacBook Pro's Retina screen is no exception. Contrast, brightness and colour accuracy are all as good as you could hope for; it's a genuinely spectacular screen across the board.

Apple's ultrabook trumps the XPS in just about every display category – it's around 40% brighter, with a much higher contrast ratio and punchier, more vibrant colours. While Dell's screen is far from a let-down, it just can't keep up with the MacBook Pro.

Winner: 15in MacBook Pro

Next: Performance, features, price and verdict.

Specs and performance

The latest version of the MacBook Pro and XPS 15 both carry Intel’s latest seventh-generation Core i7 processors. The Dell currently offers the quad-core 2.8GHz Core i7-7700HQ in all models, while Apple offers the same processor and two faster options: a 2.9GHz Core i7 (i7-7820HQ) and 3.1GHz Core i7 (i7-7920HQ).

Dell offers a bit more freedom than Apple with memory. Configurations are available with 8GB, 16GB or 32GB of RAM, whereas the MacBook Pro is locked at 16GB, which may be overkill for some people. The XPS 15 features Nvidia's GTX 1050M GPU with 4GB of GDDR5 memory, while Apple uses a Radeon Pro 555 or 560 (again, depending on the model) with 2GB of graphics memory. As with the processors, this is also upgradeable to a more powerful model at checkout.

As you'd expect, both devices are lightning-fast and racked up seriously impressive scores in our tests. They’re pretty much evenly-matched too; the MacBook Pro is around 10% faster in terms of multi-core performance, but that’s a minor variance and they’re neck-and-neck for single-core scores. For reference, the newer MacBook Pro is roughly 10% faster overall than its previous-generation predecessor.

One key differentiator between the two devices is the performance of the solid state drives. Dell has upgraded the XPS 15’s drives, and its SSD clocked up sequential read and write speeds of 1.3GB/s and 457MB/s in our tests. These are highly respectable scores, and an immense improvement over the previous generation. They're dwarfed, however, by the MacBook Pro's frankly staggering result of 3.1GB/s and 1.4GB/s. This is jaw-droppingly fast, and ensures that long loading times and file transfers should be a distant memory.

One other thing to bear in mind, though, is that Apple's machines are notoriously difficult to service and upgrade. If you want to swap out or fix any components of the MacBook Pro, chances are you're looking at a trip to the Apple store, which can be costly and time-consuming. Dell have made it much easier to get inside the XPS; all you'll need is a screwdriver to open it up and get at the hardware (watch the warranty though).

Winner: 15in MacBook Pro

Ports and features

It's here that the XPS gets a serious advantage. While Apple has taken the decision to go all-in on Thunderbolt 3 ports, the Dell XPS retains a pleasingly wide variety of inputs, including an SD card reader, an HDMI output, two USB 3.0 slots with powershare and a Thunderbolt 3 port.

This puts the XPS squarely ahead when it comes to business use-cases, especially when it comes to hot-desking or mobile working. Rather than having to shell out on new monitors, docking stations and peripherals, CIOs can outfit their workforces with XPS units safe in the knowledge that all their existing equipment will integrate with no issues.

That's not to say that Apple's choice to go Thunderbolt-only isn't without merit, however. Because Thunderbolt can handle both power and data transfer, connecting all your desk equipment to a dock means that you only need to use one cable to connect to the MacBook itself, making it much easier to rapidly switch between desk-based and mobile work.

However, the XPS wins here, for its versatility and convenience. We've had a couple of issues with the MacBook's lack of ports, such as being away from our dock and needing to retrieve some data from a flash drive – a simple task rendered infuriatingly difficult by its Thunderbolt-only configuration.

Winner: XPS 15

Price

Apple products have always come at a premium, and so far that hasn't impacted their rising profile as business-grade hardware. In this case, however, the MacBook Pro is just too expensive.

The MacBook Pro starts at $3,499, which includes a quad-core 2.8GHz Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and 256GB SSD.

A similarly configured XPS 15 – albeit with 8GB of RAM – costs $1,000 less. (In fact, if you hurry, you can pick it up for $2,124 until 6 July 2017).  Want the 4K touchscreen, 16GB of RAM and 512GB SDD? The XPS 15 is still cheaper than the entry-level MacBook Pro, at $2,999.

The top-of-the-range XPS 15, with 32GB of RAM and 1TB SDD, costs a reasonable $3,799 (or $3,229 until 6 July) – while a comparable MacBook Pro will set you back $4,739.

How about the top-of-the-range MacBook Pro, with 3.1GHz Core i7 chip and 2TB SSD? That’s an eye-watering $6,339.

Winner: XPS 15

Verdict

The MacBook Pro is, by virtually every metric you could imagine, a near-perfect laptop. It's lightweight, attractive and it goes like a bat out of hell. It has a number of key advantages over the XPS 15 – a much better display and trackpad, for example, and a lighter, more streamlined chassis.

However, those advantages aren’t enough to offset its huge price premium. Fleet pricing for businesses will likely deliver some savings, of course, but the cost differential across multiple laptops will still be very substantial.

If you've got several thousands of dollars burning a hole in your IT budget, by all means go for the new MacBook Pro. For anyone that's looking for good value, the Dell XPS 15 is still the ultrabook to beat. And it is, after all, a very quick, very versatile, very usable laptop.

Overall winner: XPS 15 

This comparison is based on an article that originally appeared at IT Pro.

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Copyright © ITPro, Dennis Publishing
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