Dell XPS 15 9550 Review (I5, GTX 960M)

A convincing niche premium gaming ultrabook/laptop

++ Main reason to consider:

Very good 15.6″ premium thin and lightweight gaming/multimedia laptop reasonably priced compared to its qualities and competitors

-- Main reason to avoid:

Not the best performance/price for gamers

Availability

Currently, only Dell – link, but watch for coupons, like the 10% off that was not long ago (December 2015)

Pro : + No competition as a lightweight and thin gaming laptop with such quality for its price (around $1000-$1100 new)
+ Good gaming and 3D performance for the price with Skylake I5-6300HQ and GTX 960M 2GB
+ Very good build quality, very rigid body, very rigid outer lid protecting the panel, strong hinges
+ Very lightweight (1.76kg) and thin for a laptop with such gaming performance and thermal performance
+ Thermals with the I5 CPU are quite good with essentially no CPU/GPU throttling under gaming
+ Chassis max temps are relatively low
+ Keyboard is not perfect (resistance, layout), but will be quite good for most
+ 32GB mSSD cache drive alongside the 1TB HDD making the system a lot more snappy
+ Very comfortable touchpad
+ Relatively very good 1080p IPS display with good colors and very high contrast + low black (Not perfect though)
+ Thunderbolt 3.0 USB-C connection port (eGPU, PCIe x4 v.2, USB 3.1 gen2, DP)
+ M.2 SATA/NVMe + 2.5" SATA bay
+ Solid stylish looks
+ Bios is not unlocked as the usual in gaming laptops for such a price.
+ Good driver and software update support
Con : - The 1080p IPS display has some color variation across the display (but not big ones)
- Fans are noticeable audible on moderate load and even more on gaming load
- many reports about very noticeable ghosting in the FHD model
- GPU clocks won't get as high as in other laptops like the VN7-592G (but not that crucial for gaming)
- Speakers are just a bit above the average, if at all (but not too bad)
- Keyboard layout might be suboptimal for some or some use scenarios
- Battery performance could be better at around only 5-5.5 hours of light use (56Whr)
- Only 2xUSB ports (aside of the thunderbolt 3)
- TPM 1.2 and not 2.0
- GTX 960M is the 2GB version, not 4GB
- Two RAM slots occupied. You'd need to replace the DDR4 modules to have more RAM.
- No RJ-45 connection port

Introduction

Dell XPS 15 9550 side display sunlight

So, the new XPS 15 9550 is available and here for a review! The 9550 is Dell’s premium 15.6″‘ thin&light multimedia/gaming laptop/ultrabook. It is a bit unique in this sector. The XPS 9550 promises high level of build quality, feature-set, screen and stylish looks.  The XPS 9550 I have for a review cost $1200 MSRP, but it had already seen some 10% off coupons, so bare in mind that the practical price for those who can wait is around $1050-$1100, maybe even less.

This version comes with an I5-6300HQ Skylake CPU (4C/4T), GTX 960M 2GB GDDR5, 1080p IPS display, 1TB 5400RPM HDD + 32GB mSSD cache M.2 drive (via Intel Raid). The M.2 connection in this version is connected via a SATA controller and not a PCIe/NVMe, but people over the web confirmed it works well with the Samsung 950 Pro PCIe NVMe. I didn’t understand that till now, but Jeff from RamCity says the M.2 keying (see here) means also the appropriate controller exists, not sure it is exactly like that though, but there is a UEFI drive entry “M.2 PCIe SSD” alongside “SATA 0” and “SATA 1″ so both controllers probably live side by side in this system. The battery if 56Whr, but other versions has a 84Whr battery and only one M.2 PCIe drive (not SATA) and also weigh more (2kg vs 1.76kg). Thunderbolt 3 USB-C connection with PCIe x4 v.3 and 2xUSB 3.0 with PowerShare feature also employed here – 2 USB ports are not enough for many people, but I guess soon TB3 hubs will be available more vastly. Moreover, the bios is not locked (or not as locked) as in the usual gaming laptop.

If you are looking for a $1000-$1100 thin&light 15.6” laptop, you won’t find many currently, especially not new. Older versions of GS60 could be bought for such a price from time to time, but otherwise, I don’t know of other such laptops, at least currently.

OK, let’s see if this XPS walk the walk!

 

ComponentDescription
ModelDell XPS 15 9550
PriceAs tested, $1200
CPUIntel Skylake I5-6300HQ, 4C/4T, 2.3-3.2GHZ, 6MB cache
GPUNvidia Geforce GTX 960M 2GB GDDR5, GM107 (Maxwell I), 640 shaders, core@1097-1200MHZ, GDDR5@1252MHZ, 128-bit bus
Motherboard / ChipsetDELL 0X2P13 / Intel HM170 (Skylake PCH-H)
4xPCI Express x1, 1xPCI Express x2, 1xPCI Express x16
RAMHynix 2x4GB DDR4@2133MHZ HMA451S6AFR8N-TF
StorageRaid 0 1TB HDD + 32GB M.2 Sata SSD
HDD : TOSHIBA MQ02ABF100
SSD: LITEON CS1-SP32-11 M.2 2242 32GB with extension, can house an M.2 2280 SSD. PCIe/NVMe card confirmed
M.2 : M.2 SATA/PCIe/NVMe 2280
LCD PanelIn review: 1080p Sharp LQ156M1 [DELL P/N: 1203M] IPS eDP display
Weight / Dimensions1.76kg (~3.9 Lbs.)
357 x 235 x 11-17 mm
14.06" x 9.27" x 0.45 – 0.66"
(w x d x h)
KeyboardWhite backlit (3 levels including off), 1.3mm travel
Connection Portsright side: 1xKensington key, Battery gauge button and indicator, 1xUSB 3.0 w/PowerShare, SD Card Slot
Left: AC power, USB 3.0 w/ PowerShare, HDMI, 1xThunderbolt 3 USB-C with USB 3.1 gen2, PCIe x4 v.3, headset jack
rear: None
Camera720P
WiFi / EthernetWiFi: Broadcom DW1830 BCM15700A2 802.11ac 3x3
Ethernet: None
Speakers / Audio2.0 speakers
RealTek ALC298
Battery56Wh
Bios / EC version (test unit)01.00.07
Extra features
more details

Build quality, Case, design and looks

The chassis build quality is quite good. It is very firm and sturdy. The screen’s outer lid is rigid and won’t easily bend under pressure, unlike all the other gaming laptops around $1000 or less I’ve tested (Dell 7559, VN7-592G, Y50, PE60). Hinges are strong too. the keyboard surface itself will yield a bit under high pressure, but nothing too practical unless you type with a hammer.

The chassis build quality is certainly above average and in the $1000 gaming section it is way above average, surpassing all others, especially the outer lid which protects the panel.

From The XPS 9550 information:

“CNC machined aluminum
Edge-to-edge Corning® Gorilla® Glass NBT™ on 4K Ultra HD display
Carbon fiber composite palm rest with soft touch paint”

So, carbon fiber composite palm rest and aluminium, according to this description.

Looks

The 9550 has simple but solid and professional looks, to my eyes and brain. The silver and black combination is very nice. The keyboard surface has some nice kind of net texture to it. Ofcourse, the 9550 is slim and thin. The display bezel is rather thin too which is nice.

 

Maintenance and inner parts

Opening the XPS 9550 is not hard to open, but you’ll need the “star” shaped screwdriver (Torx) and remember to remove the two screws that are under small panel in the bottom’s center. In this version, you’ll see  an HDD, 56Whr battery, M.2 mSSD cache drive

Dell XPS 15 9550 motherboard

Dell XPS 15 9550 Cooling Heatpipes

The GPU and CPU share two heatpipes and two fans, which is less than in the 7559 (see?). Air is sucked from below and thrown out beaten and hot from the rear. Only two DDR4 slots.

CPU and GPU and soldered and cannot be changed.

 

Keyboard and touchpad

Keyboard. Well, I have mixed feelings about the keyboard. Mostly, I feel like the keys lack resistance, although the overall experience is quite good. Feedback is good, textures are nice, spacing is good. I often felt that I clicked the keys too strong, hitting them too hard, but actually my fingers didn’t hurt and I had good sense of how strong to hit and when to stop. I could also type rapidly (unlike the Dell 7559, for example). So, I guess that although the personally I’d like more resistance or travel depth, the keyboard could be described as good. Two points, though : one, I’d prefer the keys to be a little bigger – I often hit the keys on their edges and missing clicks or clicking on two keys in one stroke. I guess this is also a matter of getting used to the keyboard. Second point, is that some keys are integrated with others, in a way that might inter with productively. For example, the “PgUp”/”PgDn” are the same as “up” and “down” and are located close to your right palm and you have to click “Fn” button to use them, which is not comfortable for quick operation.

I’d say the keyboard is good, and suitable for rapid and comfortable typing but I’m left with mixed conclusion.

Touchpad. The touchpad surface is extremely smooth and nice to touch and it works well. Buttons are nice to click – not too hard or soft. Probably the best I’ve used

Sound & Speakers

Above average, but not by a lot. The 2.0 speakers are located around the front bottom of the laptop. The sound is a bit muffled as a result of the positioning, but even listening to the speakers directly, the sound quality lacks. The bundled MAXX sound software helps a bit in balancing the audio (used “music” preset, but removed all except treble and bass) and some of the missing bass, but it’s not enough because – if I get it correctly – the speakers themselves cannot produce it sufficiently. I’d suggest climbing further on the treble scale, it did helped things out for me.

Clarity isn’t very high, but I’d say that the low mids sound good and so are the highs, but that’s only my subjective hearing/attention.

One downside is that when using the MAXX software and cranking the Treble/Bass bars a bit, you’ll notice that the speakers falter with heavy basses – you’ll hear “cracking” noises.

bottom line, I do feel the speakers above average, but remember to use the equalizer and fix the sound a little. I felt something is missing when listening to music, and clarity lacks as I said, but I did enjoyed music (unlike in the PE60 case or even with the Dell 7559) and I’m not an audiophile and my music isn’t anything special, but still. Not ‘Premium’ for sure.

General subjective performance experience

The 1TB 5400RPM + 32GB mSSD do a very good job in providing smooth experience and fast boot speed. It is not as fast as a good SSD, but it is a cheaper option and is better than 1TB HDD and maybe even 1TB SSHD (maybe because the OS knows better).

Added CPU-Z and GPU-Z screenshots.

 

Gaming Performance

Test Methods & Drivers

OS : Windows 10, fully updated

Drivers: Nvidia Geforce 359.06

Synthetic 3D benchmarks

3DMark performance – link to source:

Dell XPS 15 9550 GTX 960M 2GB I5-6300HQ 3DMark

Summarized gaming performance

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : GTX 960M gaming benchmarks

Crysis 3

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review Crysis 3 GTX 960M benchmarksDell XPS 15 9550 Review : CPU and GPU clocks Crysis 3 1080p

Thief

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Thief GTX 960M benchmarks

Bioshock Infinite

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Bioshock Infinite GTX 960M benchmarks

Civilization : Beyond Earth

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Civilization Beyond Earth GTX 960M benchmarks

Total War : Attila

The new iteration of Total War : Rome II, Attila is a much more demanding game and FPSs are much lower.

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Total War Attila GTX 960M benchmarks

Metro : Last Light

Metro : Last Light is a very demanding game with AO and tessellation taking a lot of the GPU juice. It might be a matter of optimization too.

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Metro Last Light GTX 960M benchmarks

Battlefield 4 Campaign

BF4 campaign benchmark

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Battlefield 4 GTX 960M benchmarks

World of Tanks

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Total War Attila GTX 960M benchmarks

Shadow Of Mordor

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Shadow Of Mordor GTX 960M benchmarks

Dragon Age : Inquisition

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Dragon Age Inquisition GTX 960M benchmarks

Anno 2205

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Anno 2205 GTX 960M benchmarks

Fallout 4

The new Fallout 4 is rather demanding, but the benefits of the high graphics presets are not clear to me. I try and test more settings soon. I guess that the TAA Anti Aliasing and SSAO are largely responsible for the big performance hit. From my tests it seems like these settings impact isn’t that big, somehow (maybe there is a problem).

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Fallout 4 GTX 960M benchmarks

Thermals, Throttling & Noise handling

As described before, the GPU and CPU has two heatpipes which are connected to two fans. Cool air sucked from the bottom of the machine (hence, it’s important to keep its bottom above the sitting surface) and is thrown from the rear ventilation holes.

Four tests:

1. Idle, power saver mode

2. Gaming : Crysis 3 gameplay. “very high” settings with SMAAx2 For Crysis 3, “High performance” power mode.

3. Prime95 torture test. “High performance” power mode.

4. Prime95 + Furmark on 1366×768 test, AAx2. “High performance” power mode.

5. Prime95 + Furmark on 1366×768 test, AAx2. “High performance” power mode. GPU is OC’ed with MSI Afterburner, to negate the core downclocking.

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : CPU and GPU TemperaturesTemps for such a thin laptop are good. Combined with the low to none throttling, the thermal performance could be described as good.

Heat

The XPS 9550 chassis did warm up a bit, but the heat didn’t build up above a certain point, even after half an hour of Prime95 + Furmark load. The area around the center of the keyboard and around the cooling system ventilation fins will warm up the most, but it did not reach ‘annoying’ levels and actually, I didn’t mind it at all.

Same goes for the bottom of the 9550. It did warm up a bit, but not above certain point. I do no consider it to be a problem.

Noise

  1. Under light load / browsing load and ‘balanced’ power mode, the fans were really quite. I did hear the HDD, however. Nothing too bad or unusual though.
  2. With ‘high performance’ power mode and moderate load, the fans did spin faster and were audible – seems like Dell took the aggressive approach here, with no real need, at least in the I5 version case. Under high system load or gaming load, the fans were quite audible. Nothing too unusual, but it was more than the VN7-592G or Lenovo Y50, for example.

Screen & Screen quality

The Dell XPS 15 9550 utilizes the 1080p Sharp LQ156M1 [DELL P/N: 1203M] IPS display

 

  1. Viewing angles were good, but I did notice some distortions in color. Nothing too bad, but when looking on a white screen and tilting the screen horizontally. You’ll notice some red/blue colors when tilting. Moreover, it seems to me like there is a color variance across the display with some parts exhibiting a little different colors. I don’t know/remember how it fares compared to the other displays I’ve used, but I think some were better, like the AUO ones.
  2. Colors were pretty good, but not unusual. Satisfying, I’d say
  3. Contrast was very high with very low black and high whites
  4. When setting brightness to 0%, flickering was obvious. Maybe it is the PWM mechanism in use, but I didn’t notice it when setting the brightness to more than 15%. I tried to check if the screen uses PWM with the camera test and the frequency at 40% was either very high or PWM was not in use. I hope to begin to test it more thoroughly, but other sites do this test anyway. Notebookcheck review showed PWM in use, but frequency is indeed very high in more than 10% brightness (read), so no worries there.
  5. As andw77 commented, there are many reports about very noticeable ghosting in the FHD model. I don’t remember heavy ghosting, but I didn’t look for it either. Many people say it happens in their laptop, so it’s true probably (link)

Bottom line, the screen is very good with very high contrast and generally good colors, but I wouldn’t say it is a “premium” display, for those who are buying the XPS thinking that is what they’ll get.

 

ContrastBrightnessBlack levels
10803020.28
sRGBadobeRGBNTSC
957469

Battery Performance

I wish the 9550 could do better. 5.5 hours under light load is not bad, but other laptops can do better and this one too.

Dell XPS 15 9550 Review : Battery Performance

Issues

Competing gaming laptops / Alternatives

  • Really, in its price range, barring special discounts on older models like the MSI GS60 or Gigabyte P34G/P34W, it has no competitors.

    However, I’ll list the other options for those who are in look for a slim & thin gaming laptop:

    1. Gigabyte P34W series (Amazon) laptops and MSI GS30, GS40, GS60 – the GSs are not on the same level of build quality, in my opinion. However, for higher price, you can get laptops with GTX 970M GPU which is much more powerful for gaming, but then again, the price is higher and most of these options are not 15.6″ laptop.
    2. The usual $1000 and below gaming laptops – VN7-592G, Y700 and the others

     

Conclusion

I’ll try to keep it short this time. The Dell XPS 15 9550 I5/960M version is a very good machine in my opinion, more than the usual $1000 gaming laptops – way more thin & lightweight, much better build quality, display has much higher contrast than the others and keyboard is better than compared to some of them too. And remember the better support in the form of drivers/bios updates. Thermals are also better than in the VN7-592G, for example. Display is good but not perfect, Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.0 w/ PowerShare are also employed.

The MSRP for this version is $1200, but you could get it for $1070 not long ago (and add tax) and I’m pretty sure there will be lower prices too. It is more expensive than the VN7-592G/Y700/7559/PE60/GE62/N150SD, on average, but you get something none of them provide, such as higher build quality, better support (drivers, bios) and overall, much lower weight, but also, you can’t point on anything too bad in this laptop which should be a deal breaker, which is the case in all the others. I think it is hard to call it a premium laptop completely, but it is pretty good and feels like it.

From above, the XPS 9550 is smashed by GTX 970M equipped laptops like the MSI GS60/GS40 and Gigabyte P35W/P35W (they killed the P34G, no?) and Clevo P640RE, but they cost more and have different qualities, with most of them not even 15.6″ laptops. So, the XPS 9550 is unique currently and its aim is to be a premium thin and lightweight gaming/multimedia laptop.

Bottom line, I’d certainly recommend it for those who are looking for that thing specifically premium thin and lightweight gaming/multimedia laptop, but for around $1000-$1100, not more than that, and remember to check its downsides too, like the not-perfect screen (important for photo editors)

.

  • andw77

    Have you experienced any issues with screen refresh with FHD screen? There are some reports of it being a serious issue… http://forum.notebookreview.com/threads/serious-response-time-issue-of-dell-xps15-9550-fhd.785197/

    • I sincerely don’t remember
      I think I didn’t test it and I don’t remember such an issue like in those images people have uploaded, but it might have been there

      I should have tested it more carefully – sorry :

      Anyway, if people say it is there, then it’s there and that’s a risk

  • Jad

    Well I had a very bad experience with this laptop, check it here http://bit.ly/21MeJvm

    • Thanks
      I don’t understand what went wrong with the USB 3.0 – what kind of OS did you try to install?

  • subzero788

    Great and fair review. I also bought the i5, 1080p, 8GB, 1TB HD version of this laptop and couldn’t be happier with it.

    For my purposes of general multimedia consumption, occasional work and occasional gaming it is pretty much perfect. Was glad I didn’t waste more money on i7 and 4k screen as it was unnecessary for my purposes. Will likely upgrade the RAM and install a larger SSD at some stage, but it really isn’t needed now. Despite having the smaller battery, battery life is also great for my use (5-6 hours on half brightness and general web surfing/work) with the most recent jan 2016 bios update.

    Also, for those who are worried that the i5 may be under-powered for games compared to the i7 version, you don’t need to worry, it’s perfectly fine. The most demanding game I’ve played is fallout 4 and it handles it very smoothly on 1080p, medium settings. All these games with high CPU requirements these days are mostly a bunch of bs, IMHO!

    • Thanks for the update!!
      About the screen – they do say that the 4K is really really good, but I guess it is more important for photo editors and such

  • Noah

    hey junky,
    Please confirm if the m.2 port with the 32 GB liteon SSD can actually not support PCIe gen 3 or NVMe please because there are conflicting post from a guy fishy007 here https://www.reddit.com/r/Dell/comments/3u3fp0/xps_9550_has_anyone_successfully_replaced_the/
    He added in a Samsung 950 pro 256 nvme drive in that port and it works fine.
    Also here on German dell community site: https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://de.community.dell.com/support_forums/laptops/f/103/t/5915&prev=search

    Thanks.

    • I’m really trying to understand it too now:

      1. M.2 could come in multiple flavors and it a connection type
      2. M.2 can be connected or utilized by, a controller which is a PCIe/NVMe controller or SATA controller, roughly speaking (I’m not technically knowledgeable in this area)
      3. PCIe M.2 drive is back compatible, meaning it could be housed in an M.2 PCIe or M.2 SATA, but it will be limited to SATA speeds in the SATA controller case
      4. M.2 SATA drive could be run on with M.2 SATA controller

      =>

      So, it no wonders that a 950 Pro PCIe can run inside it, but ask him if he can check the speed..

      My problem is that I’m not really sure what is available there. I’m pretty sure that the 32GB mSSD is SATA one, but in the UEFI bios there is an M.2 PCIe option.. In HWInfo, the PCIe buses are not occupied by any drive, only the GPU and one Wifi card (PCIe x1)

      • Noah

        https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.notebookcheck.com/Test-Dell-XPS-15-2016-9550-InfinityEdge-Notebook.155430.0.html&prev=search

        The M.2 port on the 1 Tb and 32 GB ssd is m key and PCIe.
        Should assume that its enabled for NVMe as the m key type of M.2 should have 4 lanes.

        • Noah

          And this is the main point of the whole discussion as am planning to get this one: http://www.dell.com/us/p/xps-15-9550-laptop/pd?oc=dncwx1624h&variant=760:FHD&model_id=xps-15-9550-laptop#overrides=dncwx1624h:760~FHD, wait for 950 pro price to get reasonable and then see if we can upgrade the 56 whr battery to the 84 whr for more battery time.

          • Well, when it will become reasonable you’ll have more options. Personally, I think many people don’t need the very high read/write speeds, but the other features are useful – the parallelism and much lower latency, if I get it correctly

            • Noah

              If the core i5 8GB fhd 1 TB 32 gb version is below the 1000 usd mark then it would be reasonable.
              Its just enough horsepower for me.
              The i7 16 GB 4k is overkill for me and most guys.
              The m.2 ssd is a plus so that you can fit the 84 whr battery when it is available and remove the 2.5 hdd.
              By the way you are the first one to review this unit in FHD.
              Thanks.

              • Thanks for thanking (-: But I’m not the first – I think notebookcheck reviewed it before, only in German (still)

        • Yes, it seems like an M key, with 5 pins in the host port. For some reason I counted 6
          It seems that it has controller for both SATA and PCIe/NVMe. I didn’t know it works this way and some articles said otherwise

    • You know what, maybe it uses ACHI instead of NVMe?

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.2