When it comes to laptop design, you generally get what you pay for. There are, however, rare exceptions when more expensive laptops feel like budget models, and low-cost systems look like they should cost more.
The recently refreshed Dell Inspiron line has a bit of that price-bending effect, especially in the form of the Inspiron 14z, a modestly priced ultrabook that looks great, includes discrete graphics, and costs only $899. (Less impressive configurations start at $699.)
Of course, calling this an ultrabook is a bit of a stretch. It technically meets Intel's rules for a 14-inch ultrabook, but at 4.1 pounds, with an optical drive, it certainly doesn't feel precisely like what the ultrabook term has been pitched as -- a Windows version of the MacBook Air (no matter what anyone tells you, that's been the nonstop ultrabook drumbeat since last year). But this is still a fairly slim, very attractive midsize laptop that could even be a cost-conscious alternative to the 15-inch MacBook Pro if your budget is tight.
The 2011 version of the 14z (which looks very different from this one) was also a great-looking, slim, fairly priced laptop. It's almost enough to make you forget about Dell's higher-end XPS laptops. I wish the keyboard felt a little tighter, and a higher-res screen wouldn't hurt, either. Still, if finding the right price/performance/design balance is important to you, it wouldn't hurt to take the Inspiron 14z for a test drive.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$899 / $699|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm / 32GB SSD|
|Graphics||AMD 7570M / Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.7x9.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.1 pounds / 5.1 pounds|
Design and features
The Dell Inspiron 14z shows that Dell's mainstream Inspiron line has come a long way in the past few years. No longer are these big plastic boxes, too bulky to carry around more than occasionally, with mainstream, but limited, component options.
Instead, this new 14z (the "z" indicates a thinner design than some other Inspiron models) looks like the kind of laptop you wouldn't be embarrassed to pull out in your favorite hipster coffee shop, even if everyone else there has a MacBook.
The new designs are thin and modern, with two-tone lids -- most in either gunmetal-gray brushed metal (like our review unit) or red contrasted against a lighter border. The brushed-metal look extends to the system interior, with a sunken black keyboard tray and black keys. There's a bit of a back-and-forth feel, with your fingers touching metal one moment and plastic the next, and the construction looks just a bit sturdier than it feels in the hand.
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. It actually feels like there's plenty of room for bigger keys -- there's a good amount of dead space on either side. The keys themselves are usable, but not my favorite. There's a bit of clackiness to them, and some wiggle, too.
The touch pad is large, but still includes separate left and right mouse buttons. You'll have to trade up to the more expensive XPS line to get a full buttonless click pad. Gestures such as two-finger scroll worked, but sluggishly, at least compared with a MacBook.
The display is pretty much what you'd expect from a midprice 14-inch laptop. It has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is common, and works well on 13-inch laptops, but starts to look a little toylike on 14- and 15-inch screens. Despite the sharp overall design of the laptop, the screen is covered with overly glossy plastic and sits in the middle of a thick all-around bezel, making it one of the only visual cues that looks a bit low-budget.
The stereo speakers are not much to write home about. They get reasonably loud, but sound very thin, despite the inclusion of MaxxAudio software from Waves, a well-known maker of audio applications. In the row of quick-launch buttons above the keyboard, the middle button switches between MaxxAudio presets (none knocked my socks off), and the leftmost button accesses a Dell settings menu. The notable part is that there's an option to either keep the row of Function keys as is, or swap their multimedia functions, which means you could raise or lower the volume, change screen brightness, and so on without holding down the dreaded Fn key.
|Dell Inspiron 14z||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth,||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|