Editors' note: This review is part of our Winter 2009 Retail Laptop Review Roundup, covering specific configurations of popular laptops that can be found in retail stores.
A decent Netbook configuration, with an Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, Windows XP, and a good-size hard drive will run you about $499, or the same as this basic 15-inch Inspiron I15-156B laptop from Dell.
Trading away size and portability, you get a dual-core Intel CPU (but not an official Core 2 Duo), 3GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, Windows Vista, and something foreign to Netbook users--a DVD burner. For another $150, you can trade up to Dell's similar Inspiron I15-157B, which doubles the HDD and has a faster Core 2 Duo T6400 CPU.
The cheaper 156B model performed well against similarly priced laptops (many in this price range have AMD processors), but we were disappointed by its poor battery life compared with our favorite current entry-level retail laptop, the HP G60-235DX.
|Price as reviewed||$499|
|Processor||2.16GHz Intel Dual Core T3400|
|Memory||3GB, 667MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||160GB 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel GM45 Express Chipset|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 4500MHD (integrated)|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Premium|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.6x9.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.7/6.5 pounds|
Nearly identical physically to the Inspiron I15-157B, the 156B trades that model's matte black lid for a glossy midnight blue. We think the matte look is a little classier, but that aside, the two laptops would be difficult to tell apart, even if sitting right next to each other.
While it is never going to be mistaken for a high-end laptop, its plastic construction at least offers simple, clean lines. This is the laptop cast as commodity, aiming to provide the best value for the dollar (it may not entirely succeed, but it at least makes a good argument).
The keyboard is the same full-size model found on Dell's other Inspiron laptops; it feels solid and hardly flexes under the fingers. The individual letter keys are a bit too tapered for our tastes, but they are perfectly functional. Missing are the media control buttons we've become accustomed to finding on even low-end Dell laptops--a victim of cost-cutting, perhaps. While there's no fingerprint reader, you do still get a built-in 1.3-megapixel Webcam.
The 15.6-inch wide-screen LCD offers a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is standard for budget-minded 16:9 systems, and the same as the more expensive Inspiron I15-157B. By way of comparison, Dell's online version has a 15.4-inch 16:10 screen, with a 1,280x800-pixel resolution.
|Dell Inspiron I15-156B||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi,||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
While you're probably not going to be hooking up a budget machine like this to a big-screen TV via HDMI, we do miss Bluetooth, which was quickly becoming standard equipment in even the least expensive systems. However, finding an ExpressCard slot in a $499 laptop is a nice extra, and is useful for adding a mobile broadband modem.
Most of the laptops in the Entry Level section of out Winter 2009 Retail Roundup (covering laptops up to $599) have AMD processors. These systems, for the most part, were slower than the two entry-level Intel-powered systems we tested, the HP G60-235DX and this one, the Dell Inspiron I15-156B. Unlike some of our previous low-end Intel versus AMD comparisons, it wasn't a blowout, and the real-world performance difference will be minimal.
All these systems are acceptable for basic multitasking--Web surfing, working on office documents, and media playback--and will handle multiple applications much better than an Intel Atom-powered Netbook. Running too many applications or opening too many windows at once will lead to slowdown, so keep your expectations modest.
The Inspiron I15-156B ran for 1 hours and 43 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, which was the lowest score from any of our entry-level retail laptops. We generally like to see closer to 3 hours of battery life from a 15-inch system, but very inexpensive systems usually fall short. HP's largely similar G60-235DX ran for 2 hours and 20 minutes in the same test. The step-up model from Dell, the Inspiron I15-157B, ran for 2 hours and 40 minutes, thanks to its larger-capacity battery (56Wh versus 41Wh).