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.