On the left, the Dell Inspiron 1420. Dell's 14-inch laptop starts at $699. On the right, the Sony VAIO NR160. Sony's 15-inch laptop starts at $829. In a nice design touch, both models forgo the clunky, plastic hooks above the screen that fit into the dust-and-dirt collecting slots on the base. Instead, the laptops' hinges snap the lid close, and hard rubber pads surround the display to protect the laptops' surfaces when closed.
The Dell Inspiron 1420 features a comfortable keyboard, coated in a slick silver finish. Above the keyboard you'll find media control buttons along with volume and mute buttons. You'll see in the next slide that these much-appreciated buttons are absent on the Sony VAIO NR160.
The Sony VAIO NR160 features a flat-key keyboard, which is among our favorite laptop keyboards. Though no wider than the Dell's keys, the flat keys look and feel roomier. Below the keyboard, however, is a deal breaker (for me, anyway). While the touchpad is big and wide and useful, the mouse buttons are the loudest I've ever used. I felt that with every mouse click, I'd stop conversations and turn the head of every patron while surfing about the Web in my local bagel shop.
Both laptops are available in a number of colors. Our Inspiron 1420 came outfitted in Dell's crimson red offering. The lid comes coated in a soft, satin finish that resists finger prints and contrasts nicely against the brushed silver finish found on the screen bezel, keyboard, and keyboard tray. The Sony VAIO NR160, seen here in silk (a.k.a. white), is coated in a textured finish, both here on the lid and inside on the keyboard tray.
While the Sony VAIO NR160 textured finish is resistant to showing fingerprints, it's easily marred. Small nicks and bits of grime get stuck in the depressions of the textured plastic, which detracts from the Sony's sparse, minimalist design. Perhaps a darker color such as Wenge brown or granite silver would hide them better than the silk.
The Dell Inspiron 1420 silver monochrome color scheme on the inside is pleasing. And in contrast to the Sony VAIO NR160, its mouse buttons are soft and quiet. The Dell also puts its audio jacks on the front edge, which is preferable to the Sony's placement along the right side where a headphone wire is more likely to interfere.
If you venture into a big-box retailer, you're likely to find a host of sub-$1,000 laptops. I spent some time in the laptop aisle of my local Circuit City yesterday. If I walked out of the store with a laptop, it would have been with this HP Pavilion dv6000. I liked the combination of the black screen bezel and silver keyboard tray. The keyboard was comfortable, the mouse buttons were blissfully silent, and I like the Pavilion design of the slightly sunken touchpad.