Editors' note: This review is part of our Winter 2009 Retail Roundup, covering specific configurations of popular laptops that can be found in retail stores.
Dell's middle-of-the-road 15-inch Inspiron laptops have long been an excellent go-to choice for basic computing, especially if you take the time to configure a system to your needs via Dell's online configurator. Fixed configuration versions available in retail stores have been more hit-or-miss, sometimes undercutting the price of built-to-order versions, but also missing some key features.
The $649 Dell Inspiron I15-157B gives you a powerful combo of Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 4GB of RAM for not too much more than a decently configured Netbook. At the same time, it's about as stripped down as a laptop gets, with no media control buttons or HDMI port (which previous versions had). Adding another $50 bucks gets you a more upscale feel in systems such as the Gateway MD7818u, which has both touch-media controls and a bigger 500GB hard drive.
The Dell Inspiron I15-157B is a model of spartan design, and is never going to be mistaken for a high-end laptop. Its plastic construction and simple, clean lines point to a philosophy of commoditization, acknowledging that in this price range, providing the best value is paramount. The system looks basic, but not cheap. With a glossy black keyboard tray and a matte black lid, we'd almost call it two-tone.
The keyboard is the same full-size model found on Dell's other Inspiron laptops, flexing only slightly under the fingers. The individual letter keys are a bit too tapered for our tastes, but perfectly functional. Missing are the media control buttons we've gotten 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 Web cam.
The 15.6-inch wide-screen LCD offers a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is standard for budget-minded 16:9 systems. By way of comparison, Dell's online version has a 15.4-inch 4:3 screen, with a 1,280x800 resolution. None of the 15-inch systems in the Budget category of our Winter 2009 Retail Roundup had a higher 1,440x900 resolution.
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 the Bluetooth antenna, which was quickly becoming standard equipment in even the least expensive systems.
Like a vast majority of the system in the Budget section of our Winter 2009 Retail Roundup (covering laptops from $600-$900), the Dell Inspiron I15-157B has Intel's 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T6400 CPU. Performance among the Intel-based systems was virtually identical, with a slight edge in some tests to Toshiba's Satellite A305-S6916, which had ATI integrated graphics instead of Intel.
Any of these T6400-powered systems are perfectly adequate for basic Web surfing, working on Office documents, and media playback--although running too many applications or opening too many windows at once can lead to some slowdown.
The Inspiron I15-157B ran for 2 hours and 40 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included 6-cell battery. We like to see at least 3 hours of battery life from a midsize system. In the same price range, Gateway's MD7818u passed the 4-hour mark, but also had a bigger-capacity battery (71Wh vs. 56Wh).
Dell includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system, and the Dell Web site has a robust collection of support tools, including online chat, a Flash-based question widget, and 24-7 toll-free telephone support. Retail stores offer a variety of extended warranty plans with your laptop purchase, but they're generally expensive and hard to use, so we do not recommend them.