It's called rebranding, and by golly, Dell needs to do it. Once the world's top PC maker, it's ceded market share to the likes of HP and Acer and earned a reputation for bland designs and subpar customer service. So, we can see where the outfit would want to give its laptops a makeover as a way of distancing itself from its tarnished rap.
That's precisely what seems to be going on with the Inspiron 14z, a 14-incher with a slimmed-down aluminum body, available in a surprisingly staid color palette (sorry, guys, bubblegum pink isn't an option this time around). With a low starting price of $600, it's ideal for college kids and pretty much anyone looking for a good-enough laptop for the home. Then again, so are lots of reasonably priced 14- and 15-inch laptops. Is this one extraordinary enough to make your short list? Let's see.
Look and feel
For a redesigned laptop, the 14z initially looks an awful lot like some other Dell notebooks we've seen in seasons past. 'Round back, it has the kind of recessed hinge that's made Dell's notebooks unmistakable over the past several years. That is to say, there's about a half inch of deck space behind the hinge, which means the display sits lower than perhaps you're used to. It's mostly a bold design choice (one we approve of mightily), though that sunken hinge also makes for some balanced weight distribution when you set the computer in your lap.
With the lid closed, the 14z looks refreshingly simple. Call us suckers for finely brushed aluminum, but the company also chose a fairly foolproof pair of color options: in addition to the lush "fire red" found on our unit, you can get it in black for $30 less. Yes, Dell may have whittled its color options, but it hasn't ceased its practice of charging extra for colored lids. Old habits die hard, we suppose.
Still, it's obvious Dell had to cut some corners to hit that $600 price point. Even with a pared-down metal lid, the 14z still manages to feel cheap. Although the lid has a matte finish and isn't made of glossy plastic, it still picks up fingerprints -- stubborn little smudges than can be a beast to remove. Under the lid, that aluminum material extends across the palm rest and above the keyboard, but for whatever reason the area in between the keys is black. That color-blocking makes for a mismatched effect, with the keyboard looking chintzy against the smooth metal deck. To boot, the bottom side of the laptop is made of plastic and has an awkward bulge where the six-cell battery is. We'd be exaggerating if we said this was our least favorite design in the history of laptops, but we're not sure Dell's exactly turned over a new leaf either.
The good news is that the 14z comes well stocked with ports. The bad news: many of them are hidden beneath flimsy doors. Starting with the left side, you'll find door number one, housing DisplayPort, HDMI and USB 2.0 sockets, with a vent and an SD / MMC / MS card reader nearby. The front edge doesn't contain anything, though lift the laptop slightly and you'll see stereo speakers, along with four LED lights that glow white to match the backlit keyboard and power button. Tucked into the bezel is a 1.0 megapixel webcam. Moving along to the right side, there's a tray-loading optical drive and door number two, behind which you'll find two USB 3.0 ports and a combined headphone / mic port. Lastly, the back edge is home to the AC port and an Ethernet jack, the latter of which is also covered.
Keyboard and trackpad
To its credit, we typed most of this 3,000-word review on the 14z's chiclet keyboard, and got by with relatively few spelling mistakes. As with its higher-end sibling, the XPS 14z, the keys are cushy with plenty of travel. But these -- these are a good deal noisier. We grew irritated with the high-pitched clack, and we got the sense it was a distraction for some people unfortunate enough to be working a few feet away. That said, they're at least backed by a sturdy panel; we didn't notice a hint of flex as we banged out emails and web searches. Also, the Inspiron 14z's keyboard wins points for being backlit, even though you'll have to pay an extra $25 for that luxury.
And the trackpad? Not our favorite, but hardly the most maddening either. As a pared-down navigation device, it's perfectly adequate: it offers a low-friction surface that makes dragging the cursor across the screen painless. Once you start attempting multitouch gestures, though, its cramped quarters become a con. It's a shame, because if not for the fact that your fingers bump against the edges, the trackpad actually pulls off pinch to zoom quite well. Two-fingered scrolling is frustrating in a different way: you have to hold two fingers on the pad and wait for a scroll symbol to appear onscreen before you start. Even then, we the often felt like we had no control of where we ended up on the page.
The thing about the touchpad is that as well-behaved as it is with everyday scrolling, it's coupled with two tiny, rather stiff buttons. Pressing the buttons required quite a bit more thumb pressure than we would have liked, and throughout our testing we had moments where we found ourselves keenly aware of the effort we were putting in. Using touch buttons should be an unconscious experience. Fortunately, that's one thing you'll get if you have the cash (and aesthetic sensibility) to step up to the XPS 14z.
Display and sound
Like almost every system offered at this price, the Inspiron 14z's resolution is fixed at 1366 x 768. The screen's adequate enough for looking at documents and movies head-on, and it's also bright enough that you should be able to work comfortably in a well-lit, fluorescent room. Yours truly also streamed a good half dozen episodes of Breaking Bad, and the image quality was suitably crisp even at full screen.
The problem is, there's not much flexibility in the viewing angles. We had to adjust the screen angle very carefully before leaning back on the couch to watch Walter White lie and growl his way through season two. If the lid happened to be dipped too far back or if we watched from the side while a friend took the prime seat, the picture invariably looked darker.
As for sound, the 14z isn't notably terrible, but the audio is predictably tinny. We'd say any of HP's Beats-enabled laptops has the advantage here.
Performance and graphics
Our $730 unit came loaded with a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M CPU, Intel integrated graphics, 6GB of RAM and a 640GB 5,400RPM hard drive. Armed with those components, it landed a PCMark Vantage score of 6,177, which is higher than what we've seen from other systems with similar specs. For example, it bested the pricier Sony VAIO SB, which has the same processor, along with 4GB of RAM and a 5,400 RPM hard drive. The SB has two graphics cards -- one of which is the same Intel HD 3000 -- but even when we enabled its discrete AMD Radeon HD 6470M with 512MB of video memory, its PCMark score still didn't come close to what we got on the Inspiron 14z. As for graphics, its 3DMark06 score is in line with -- it not slightly higher than -- what we've seen from other systems with the same Intel HD 3000 card.
Dell Inspiron 14z (2.3 Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Dell XPS 14z (2.8GHz Core i7-2640M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT520M 1GB)
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Acer Aspire Ultrabook S3 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Samsung Series 9 (1.7GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
HP Envy 14 (2.3Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB)
Sony VAIO SB (2.3 Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6470M 512MB)
5,129 (stamina mode) / 5,636 (speed mode)
3,609 (stamina) / 5,128 (speed)
3:39 (speed) / 5:11 (stamina)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (2.5GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
3:31 / 6:57 (slice battery)
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.
As for real-world usage, the 14z had no problem keeping up as we juggled a bunch of browser tabs, downloaded and installed apps and spent hours watching movies off Netflix at full screen. Throughout, it didn't exactly stay cool, but it didn't get leg-scorching either, not even during those marathon streaming sessions. But as with its XPS brethren, the downside to such an effective heat management system is one noisy fan. Even when we opened a new tab in Chrome to check Twitter, the whirring kicked up a notch. As we said with the XPS 14z, it's not something you'll hear if you're on the couch, working with the TV in the background, but it might just grab your attention if you're toiling away in a quiet room.
As unsightly as that bulging battery is on the underside of the laptop, it gets the job done. The 14z's six-cell lasted an impressive six hours and 37 minutes in our standard battery rundown test, which involves looping the same movie off the hard drive, with WiFi enabled and the display brightness fixed at 65 percent. Had we just been checking email and web surfing, we bet we could have squeezed out even in more runtime. Even in our taxing video playback test, though, it lasted markedly longer than other laptops with the same processor and graphics card. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1, for instance, managed just three hours and thirty-one minutes. (At its best, the X1 can last seven hours, but with the help of a $170 slice battery.) Meanwhile, a Sony VAIO SB series laptop with the same processor and integrated Intel graphics lasted a shorter five hours and 11 minutes, even with the graphics fixed in a so-called stamina mode that disables the discrete card.
Dell already had a bad rap for saddling its PCs with bloatware, and if it wanted to look at the brand in a different light, it definitely didn't do itself any favors with the 14z. To be clear, the problem isn't what Dell pre-loaded; it's how invasive these apps become the second you boot into Windows. Immediately upon startup, you'll see pop-ups reminding you to back up your data using Dell DataSafe, activate McAfee, update your security settings and accept Nero's end user license agreement. Well good morning to you too, Dell!
The company also preloads its Stage software for easy access to photos, music and other media, which means you've got a large dock slapped across the bottom of the desktop (until you choose to remove it, anyway).
In terms of the worst bloatware offenders, we pretty much just spoiled the list for you. The most pernicious culprits include Roxio Creator Starter, the 30-day trial of McAfee Security Center and Dell DataSafe, which comes with 2GB of complimentary online storage. In addition, Blio, Cozi, Microsoft Office 2010, Skype 4.2, Nero SyncUp and Zinio Reader 4 come pre-installed, though these won't get in your way.
The 14z starts at $600. All told, there are four core configurations, and all come with Bluetooth 3.0, a DVD burner and a six-cell battery. The entry-level model, in particular, sports a 2.2GHz Core i3-2330M CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive, DVD burner, six-cell battery and Bluetooth 3.0. Moving up the ranks, the second-lowest config ($789, or $650 after instant savings) has a Core i3 CPU, 6GB of RAM and a 640GB 5,400 RPM hard drive, while the second-to-best config ($889, or $700 after instant savings) has a 2.4GHz Core i5 CPU, 6GB of RAM and a 640GB 5,400RPM hard drive. Finally, at the high-end you'll also get a 2.4GHz Core i5-2430M CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 750GB 7,200RPM hard drive. That configuration costs $989, or $750 after instant savings.
In all cases, the CPU, RAM, hard drive, battery and optical drive are fixed, leaving you to customize details like the warranty, lid cover and length of your security software subscription. A little more control beyond this miscellany would have been nice.
If anything about this laptop -- the stiff touch buttons, the sunken hinge -- rubs you the wrong way, the upshot is that every major PC maker is ready to sell you a 14-inch laptop in the $600 range. HP's best match is the 14-inch Pavilion dm4, available for $580 and up with the same 2.2GHz Core i3 CPU, a 1366 x 768 display, a promotional 6GB of RAM and a promotional 640GB hard drive. The options here aren't as expansive as with some other companies, like Sony: there's one other hard drive option (500GB 5,400RPM), one CPU, one screen resolution, one optical drive and one graphics choice. You want something with more oomph? Get ye an Envy. Nonetheless, though, these are some of the best specs you'll get for six hundred bucks.
In Sony's camp, you could configure the 14-inch VAIO E series ($500 and up) to match the 14z's specs, but really, the C series ($700) and up is a closer match -- albeit, a pricier one. For the money, it starts with the same 2.2GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, Intel integrated graphics, a 320GB 5,400 RPM hard drive and a 1366 x 768 display. What we appreciate about both of these VAIO lines, though, is that although they start with modest specs, they can be tricked-out if you're willing to invest the money. Both, for instance, have optional Blu-ray drives, discrete graphics and beefier 7,950mAh batteries (up from the standard 5,300mAh). The E and C series go up to Core i5 and Core i7, respectively, while the higher-end C series can be built with a 1600 x 900 display for an extra $50.
Though Gateway's been branded as the lower-end second banana to Acer ever since Acer acquired it back in 2007, its all-metal ID laptops are actually more striking than what most other companies are offering at this price. It's available in four configurations in the US, with the entry-level $630 offering a 2.2GHz Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, Intel HD 3000 graphics and a 14-inch (1366 x 768) display. Perhaps the most important spec here is that the screen is an LG Shuriken panel, which allowed Gateway to cram a 14-inch panel into a chassis normally reserved for 13-inch systems (translation: you'll enjoy some seriously narrow bezels). At the high end, the $700 model steps up to a 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, though the memory load, graphics and storage capacity remain the same.
What's funny is that although Acer's long been pitched as the higher-end brand, its 14-inch Timeline X laptop, the AS4830, starts with similar specs. The entry-level $580 model also has a 2.2GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, Intel HD 3000 graphics and a 14-inch (1366 x 768) display. Then again, the Timeline series' claim to fame is its long battery life, which in this case is rated at up to eight hours. We only tested the 15-inch AS5830, but we'd be willing to bet that the 14-inch TimelineX bests most of the laptops on this list when it comes to runtime. If you're curious, the highest-end AS4830 sold in the US rings in at $730 and steps up to a 2.4GHz Core i5 CPU, a 640GB hard drive and NVIDIA GeForce GT540M graphics.
In the case of both Acer and Gateway, the biggest caveat we always feel compelled to make, regardless of specs, is that there aren't any opportunities to customize your configuration. It's true that the company is careful to offer multiple configurations and different price points, but you still need to have a take-it-or-leave it attitude when it comes to specs.
Moving on to Toshiba, its most comparable laptop is the Satellite P740, which starts at $584 with a quad-core AMD Fusion A6 APU, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive. It, too, has a 1366 x 768 display.
In some ways, the 14z feels rough around the edges: while Dell was whittling the chassis, it forgot to fine-tune the multitouch trackpad and make sure the touch buttons were easy to press. And unfortunately, the intrusive bloatware load didn't even get a makeover. Still, the 14z redeems itself with fast performance, long battery life and an improved (though hardly perfect) design. Dell's clearly on the right track with this mostly metal design, beefy port selection and backlit keyboard, even if certain details like the bulging battery and color blocked keyboard underscore how inexpensive it actually is. All of our quibbles aside, the 14z remains a strong choice for what it is -- a cheap, everyday laptop that's good enough for students, kids and families.