Editors' note: This review is part of our back-to-school 2010 retail desktop and laptop review roundup, which covers specific fixed configurations of popular systems found in retail stores.
The Dell Studio s1558-5691MSL is a Next Class laptop from Best Buy. Like the retailer's Blue Label systems, Next Class laptops are designed based on customer feedback; in this case, feedback from college students. A Next Class notebook comes preloaded with a full version of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2010; 12 months of Webroot antivirus protection; a backlit keyboard; a built-in Webcam; and at least up to 4 hours of battery life. Including Office is nice and does make the s1558-5691MSL a better value. It's loaded with good components, too, including a 7,200rpm 500GB hard drive and an Intel Core i3 processor.
However, if you've made the switch to Web apps like Google Docs, are fine with free antivirus software like AVG or Avast, and would rather have a more entertainment-minded laptop for that $800, check out the Sony Vaio EA24FM/W, which has similar performance and battery life, but has a Blu-ray drive and Intel Wireless Display. Or if you like everything here, you can configure the Studio s1558 on Dell's site and get it for about $75 less without the software.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$799.99|
|Processor||2.26GHz Intel Core i3 M350|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD HM55|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.6x10 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.5/6.4 pounds|
The Dell Studio s1558 has sort of a wedge shape to it, tapering from 1.5 inches at the back to 1 inch at the front. It's a solid-feeling laptop, too, but at nearly 6.5 pounds with the power adapter, it might be a bit much for some to drag around campus all day. Although it's plastic, Dell gave this model a convincing brushed-metal finish that doesn't hold onto fingerprints nearly as much as you'd expect. That finish continues on the inside on the keyboard deck. The bottom is a standard matte-black plastic found on mainstream and budget laptops, as is the glossy black bezel around the LCD. It's a nice-looking and seemingly well-constructed system, likely to hold up to a good amount of use.
Bucking the Chiclet-style keyboard trend, Dell went with a pretty standard keyboard design, but it is large and comfortable with good movement and response. The keys are flat, but don't have the separation you'd find on a Chiclet-style keyboard. The keyboard is backlit and the light can be dimmed or shut off entirely with the F6 key. There are no extra media controls or a button for turning on and off wireless. Instead Dell clearly marks the function keys so adjusting things like screen brightness and volume can be done quickly and you don't have to hit the Fn key. (In case you actually want to use the Function keys for nonmedia tasks, a simple change in the BIOS settings under the Advanced tab will make the media controls the secondary function, meaning that you'll have to hit the Fn key to use the media controls.)
The touch pad is an indentation in the palm rest with a textured coating allowing fingers to glide smoothly. It seems a bit small, as do the mouse buttons that rise from within the bottom of the pad. The button movement is a little mushy without a satisfying click. On the other hand, we never had any problems using either the pad or buttons. Dell programmed in a few extra gesture features such as circular scrolling for quickly moving up and down with a swirl of a fingertip and pinching for zooming in and out. They're activated out of the box, but can easily be turned off.
The 15.6-inch glossy wide-screen LCD has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is standard for laptops in this price range (budget 15-inch systems typically have 1,280x800-pixel displays). It's perfectly adequate for most mainstream applications with easy-to-read text and icons. The LED-backlit LCD gets reasonably bright, too. Viewing angles off to the sides are pretty good, but like most displays in this class, you'll have to adjust the screen position to get the best color and contrast. Overall the performance is good, though.
Above the Studio's screen is a functional Webcam and mic that performed OK in our informal Skype testing. The stereo speakers are able to get fairly loud without distortion--plenty of volume for movies, music, and games. They don't have much bass to speak of and can sound a bit thin at times, but for casual listening they get the job done. If you're looking to use it for a lot of entertainment you'll want to pick up a set of external speakers.
Again, the software package is a big part of why you'd choose a Next Class laptop over a regular retail laptop. If you don't need or want a paid-for copy of Microsoft Office Home and Student (which doesn't include Outlook, by the way), you might want to investigate other options in our desktop and laptop review roundup.
|Dell Studio s1558-5691MSL||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA-out, HDMI|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, 2 headphone and 1 microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, USB 2.0/eSATA combo, Mini-FireWire multiformat card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|