Computers / Hands-on Review

The Dell 15.6" XPS 15 9550 Multi-Touch Notebook and Post-Production

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There are three stages to the film-making process: pre-production, production, and post-production. Pre-production involves work done on a film or broadcast program before full-scale production begins, and production is the act of shooting a project on film or digital media. Post-production refers to work done on a film or television show after shooting (production) has taken place, and is a general term for all the work that occurs after production ends. This includes editing the footage, adding special effects, the sound design, sound effects, ADR, and Foley, composing and recording the soundtrack, and color correction. Post-production also includes creating either a film print or digital output of the final edit, as well as creating physical DVD and Blu-ray media, and a Digital HD or iTunes file.

These days, most projects are shot digitally, as compared to using analog methods of capture, such as film. Consequently, traditional analog post-production has largely been taken over by digital methods that employ non-linear editing (NLE) software such as Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve, all of which have helped to make post-production more affordable and available to a wide variety of artists. Bearing this in mind, we decided to take a closer look at the Dell 15.6" XPS 15 9550 Multi-Touch Notebook to assess how well it performs when used for post-production.

Dell 15.6" XPS 15 9550 Multi-Touch Notebook

Quad-Core Processor and Dedicated Graphics Card

One of the more important aspects of post-production video is the time spent rendering the final product. While it might seem like a good idea to buy the biggest and baddest hardware out there to help speed the process along, the software you choose to use also plays a big role. The reason is that video software now can direct most of the workload to the GPU, allowing the CPU free to handle other tasks. Moreover, select programs also support multi-core rendering for an additional boost. Generally, most hyper-threaded quad-core processors are enough.

What’s more important, though, is that the Dell XPS 15 is equipped with a dedicated graphics card. Because it’s a separate entity, rather than an extension of the CPU in terms of integrated graphics, the graphics card handles the number of displays connected and the resolution of the content on them. The real reason behind the graphics card requirement is GPU acceleration. What usually makes video playback lag is decoding and rendering. These are tasks that, until recently, were the sole burden of the CPU. Now, with a split workload, the system will have an easier time.

Lastly, RAM is also important, but not as much as one would think. As mentioned before, post-production video relies heavily on the software used, and each program has its quirks. Some may work better with a certain amount of RAM while some may not, but don’t let that bother you. With more RAM in your system, it’ll have an overall boost in performance for an easier time multitasking, letting you work with multiple files and applications open without having to shuffle between tasks. The Dell XPS 15 is available with up to 32GB of RAM, meaning you will never have to worry about having enough RAM.

Solid-State Drive

A solid-state drive is probably one of the most commonly recommended hardware upgrades alongside RAM, and rightfully so, thanks to the many advantages it brings. Constructed without any moving parts, an SSD can perform faster and endure more than a traditional hard drive, allowing you to boot up and load applications and files much faster than usual. With it, you’ll be able to speed up your workflow and spend less time waiting around for files to load. Now, there are different tiers of SSDs, based on performance, but almost all of them should be able to handle the demands of post-production video.

Thunderbolt™ 3

For post-production video work, you might be able to squeeze by with whatever storage drive you’ve got pre-installed in the system, especially if it’s a short video; however, more serious content means lots of large files. To handle them, you’re going to need an external storage drive, especially one that supports the amount of data you have, as well one that’s fast enough so you’re not spending the whole day waiting for things to load. Luckily, the Dell XPS 15 is equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 port, which is a hardware interface that utilizes the reversible USB Type-C connector. Doubling the speed of its predecessor, Thunderbolt 3 features a maximum throughput of 40 Gb/s when used with compatible devices, and transmits data via USB 3.1 at up to 10 Gb/s. It also supports dual-bandwidth DisplayPort 1.2, allowing you to connect to two 4K displays simultaneously. Additionally, you can daisy-chain up to six devices from a single Thunderbolt 3 port.

I tested the Dell 15.6" XPS 15 9550 with Full HD video that was shot using my Nikon D800, which records 1920 x 1080 video at 23.98 fps with a bit rate of 24 Mbps. All media was recorded internally with MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 encoding, compared to external recording with ProRes 422 encoding. I used DaVinci Resolve to edit and found that this Dell system will serve as a post-production system for Full HD video. When imported into Resolve and played back from within, all Full HD video clips were smooth and did not exhibit dropped frames or stuttering during playback. In addition to Full HD, the CPU, RAM, and video card specs also make it suitable for limited, but not intensive UHD 4K work at a resolution of 3840 x 2160. My video tests were conducted using a PCIe SSD that was connected via USB 3.0, and while I was not able to conduct any video editing tests using the system’s Thunderbolt 3 port, I would expect to see some performance improvements, given Thunderbolt 3’s theoretical bandwidth of 40 Gb/s that would help provide improved read and write speeds, especially when using a RAID array.

Consequently, if you were thinking of purchasing a MacBook Pro (Late 2016), the XPS 15 9550 is also worth looking at. While there is no Touch Bar option available with the Dell, its Core™ i7-6700HQ processor, 32GB of DDR4 RAM option, 1TB PCIe SSD, and dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M with 2GB of vRAM make it a viable contender at a lower price. While there is only one Thunderbolt 3 port, Dell has opted for a UHD 4K 3840 x 2160 display, allowing users to work natively with 4K media that won’t be down-scaled.


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