Dell's re-imagined Inspiron line continues to push the boundaries of what one can expect from this long-standing mainstream/budget laptop family. For years, an Inspiron was a bulky plastic box designed to offer competent computing at a reasonable price, with the added bonus of wide-ranging customization options, but many of the newer models have enough style to appeal beyond simply bargain hunters.
The new Inspiron 13z is not the thinnest, lightest, fanciest 13-inch laptop you'll find this year, but it's close to being the best balance of price, design, and components for price-conscious shoppers. At $699, you get a standard mainstream 13-inch laptop loadout, highlighted by a low-voltage Intel Core i5 CPU.
It's the low(er)-budget cousin of this year's crop of thin 13-inch ultrabooks, but manages to still look upscale and svelte at the same time, as long as you don't look too closely to see its smudge-prone plastic lid or cheap-feeling plastic port covers.
You can get a similar config for a little less, in the Acer Aspire V5-171-6867, if you trade down to a cramped 11-inch body that's much harder to type on. Or you can pay the same amount for a 17-inch Inspiron 17R, but that's only for people who need maximum screen size at minimum price (and the design of that system reminds me too much of the boxy Inspirons of old).
It's not quite an ultrabook, but for $699 it's a reasonably close facsimile, with mainstream power and design, that looks slim and sleek, at least from a distance.
|Price as reviewed||$699|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||6GB, 1333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.7 x 9.1 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.8/4.4 pounds|
The Dell Inspiron 13z is a bit of an in-betweener in laptop design. On one hand, it's easily identifiable as a lower-cost product, with a shiny plastic lid and body that's thicker than your average ultrabook's. On the other, it's part of Dell's "z" range of Inspirons (the "z" indicates a thinner design than some other models), which is a serious visual update to the Inspiron family.
Interestingly, the updated design works better in the slightly larger 14-inch Inspiron 14z. That system has a similar look, but better construction, with a metal lid and keyboard tray instead of metal-colored plastic. The 14z felt sturdier in the hand, and side by side with this 13z, the Inspiron 14z has a much more XPS-like feel. However, our Inspiron 14z, with the same CPU but adding discrete AMD graphics, costs $200 more.
As with many Inspiron laptops, the top layer of the lid pops off and can be replaced by aftermarket alternatives in different colors. The available options I saw were pink or red, each for $29.
A sunken black keyboard tray and black keys offers contrast with the dark-gray brushed-metal-like design (still mostly plastic) on the back of the lid and interior tray. The keyboard keys are Dell's standard variation on the flat-topped, widely spaced, island-style keyboard found in most current laptops. In the Dell version, the keys have more-rounded corners than most, and the top row of Function keys is half-height. The keys have a loose feel to them, and will wiggle under your fingers a bit.
This touch pad is the third Dell variant I've seen recently. The high-end XPS laptops have a buttonless clickpad, similar to what you'd find on a MacBook. The slightly more expensive Inspiron 14z has a similar, but larger, two-button touch pad, but with a much nicer matte surface. The two-button pad on the 13z lacks that matte surface layer. It's functional, but multitouch gestures, most importantly the two-finger scroll, stuttered.
The 13.3-inch display has a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is standard for a sub-$1,000 laptop of this size, and also very common in 14- and 15-inch laptops. For the money, you certainly can't complain, and the screen was sharp and bright, with decent horizontal off-axis viewing, but terrible vertical off-axis viewing.
Don't expect much from the small 1.5-watt stereo speakers. They'll do fine for Hulu viewing, but they don't pack much punch for music. A quick-launch button above the keyboard launches a series of audio presets from Waves, a company known for its sound plug-ins, but don't expect miracles; it's basically just a bunch of EQ presets.
|Dell Inspiron 13z||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 3.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
You get exactly what you'd expect from a 13-inch laptop in this price range, nothing more, nothing less. That means a pair of USB 3.0 ports, HDMI-out, and the standard Ethernet and SD card connections, but no mic input or secondary video output. The ports are hidden under fragile-feeling plastic flaps, which are annoying to manipulate and don't look like they'd protect from too much.
The 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U CPU is a low-voltage version of the third-gen Core i5 found in so many $600 to $1,000 laptops. Similar low-voltage Core i5 chips power most ultrabooks, even much more expensive ones, so it's no surprise that the Inspiron 13z performed nearly exactly like competing systems such as the Asus Zenbook UX31A or the Samsung Series 9. In those more expensive systems, you're paying for design and materials, and maybe SSD storage, rather than processing power.
Even though the 13z offers great application performance for $699, it has only Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics for gaming. Our Street Fighter IV test ran at the native resolution at 26.6 frames per second, which means newer games will need to be played at lower resolutions and detail settings to get acceptable performance, if they'll play at all.