Dell's Inspiron laptops have always been the brand's middle-of-the-road workhorse: equally likely to turn up in a dorm room or coffee shop as at your mom's kitchen table. Dell periodically gives the series a physical makeover, but small differences in fit and finish are almost beside the point; this is still the go-to laptop line for reasonably priced systems that offer mainstream performance at palatable prices.
The new Inspiron 15R is built around Intel's Core i3 and i5 processors, with a handful of upgrades available for hard drives and basic discrete graphics (the same goes for the 14-inch version, the Inspiron 14R). Our review unit included a 2.26GHz Core i3, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, for a total cost of $639.
Though both more- and less-expensive prefixed configurations are available, from what we could see on Dell's Web site, the Inspiron R series lacks the highly flexible customization we're used to from Dell; we could only find about a dozen preconfigured models on offer. That said, for around $600, the Core i3 version of the Inspiron 15R is more than adequate for everyday use, and we suspect you'll see a lot of these during the back-to-school season.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$639 / $529|
|Processor||2.26GHz Intel Core i3 M350|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Intel GMA HD (integrated)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.5 x 9.7 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.1/6.7 pounds|
The new Inspiron design is a step up from the series' recent plastic-heavy look, with a brushed-metal pattern on the wrist rest and keyboard tray (although the materials still seem to be plastic). The back of the lid seems very similar to previous Inspirons, with a round Dell logo surrounded by a solid glossy color (ours was blue, but black, red, and pink are also available). The chassis has a slightly tapered design that makes it a bit thinner on the front lip, but fairly chunky at the rear.
The silver metallic wrist rest is offset by a matte-black keyboard. The keys are of the flat-topped, closely packed variety, and the wider 15.6-inch body allows for a number pad to sit to the right of the keyboard, although the number pad keys are especially narrow. The keyboard features healthy-size keys, including a huge right Shift key, but the four arrow keys are a bit on the small side. The touch pad, though not larger than previous Dell touch pads we've seen, has a new matte surface with none of the stickiness of its glossy predecessors. Basic multitouch gestures are supported, and two medium-size mouse buttons sit below it.
The Inspiron 15R includes Dell's now-standard software dock. Like the dock found on Apple's MacBooks, it puts shortcuts to frequently used apps in a bar across the top, bottom, or side of the screen. We like the idea of having quick access to media and troubleshooting apps, and the dock itself is customizable, which is handy for removing adware, such as the included links for the CinemaNow movie store and Wild Tangent games. Speaking of adware, we also groan a bit whenever a helpful McAfee message pops up, excitedly reminding us to "Save 38 percent on Dell PC Protection Renewal!"
The 15.6-inch display has a standard 1,366x768-pixel resolution, which is the default for everything from upscale 10-inch Netbooks, to 13-inch models, to most 14- and 15-inch midsize laptops. That's fine for Web surfing, DVD playback, and online streaming from sites such as Hulu or Netflix, but it's not true 1080p HD.
|Dell Inspiron 15R||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||4 USB 2.0 (1 USB/eSATA), SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The most interesting thing about the new Inspiron's ports and connections is that they're spread over three of the four edges of the system. The left side has an HDMI port, one USB, and audio jacks; the right side has the SD card slot, DVD tray, the USB/eSATA port, and the Ethernet jack; and the rear edge has the VGA port, power plug, and two additional USB ports. It's rare to see so many ports on the rear edge, but some people appreciate being able to route wires directly from the back.
Unlike previous generations of Dell Inspiron laptops, you don't get the nearly limitless build-to-order configuration options Dell is known for. Instead, we found about a dozen preconfigured models, which to be fair, cover just about every variation. You can drop down to a non-Core Pentium P6000 CPU with 3GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive for $599, or move up to a Core i5 with 6GB of RAM, Blu-ray, a 640GB hard drive, and an ATI Mobility Radeon HD5470 GPU for $974, with plenty of stops in between.
Our review unit clocked in at $639, with a 2.26GHz Intel Core i3 M350 CPU and 4GB of RAM. In our CNET Labs benchmark tests, it performed on par with other current Core i3 laptops, but there was a notable bump in performance for otherwise similar systems that move up to a Core i5 processor, such as the HP dm4. Most Core i5 midsize laptops will run you an additional $200 or more, so the speed boost may not be worth it, as the Core i3 is perfectly fine for the vast majority of everyday uses (although Dell currently has a 15R configuration with a Core i5 CPU for $709).
Some models of the new Inspiron R series (including the 14R model we reviewed) include discrete graphics from ATI, the less-expensive versions use Intel's standard integrated graphics, which are fine for video viewing and Facebook games, but not much else. Interestingly, this could be less of a hindrance for would-be gamers now that we've tried the OnLive PC game service, which plays A-list PC games over the Internet, rendering 3D graphics remotely and streaming the gameplay video to you in real time. It's not for everyone, and requires a wired Ethernet connection, but you can read our hands-on impressions here and decide for yourself.