When it comes to spending $500 on a laptop, beggars can't be choosers. One of the best things about the Inspiron 15R, Dell's 2011 update to its budget and midrange consumer laptop line, is that it starts at an aggressive price while still offering Intel's second-generation Core i-series processors. At $499, the new Inspiron 15R includes a Core i3 Sandy Bridge processor, along with a couple of USB 3.0 ports and Bluetooth, making it one of the better deals around.
The tricky thing about the Dell Inspiron 15R is upgrading it: depending on what options you choose, as with many Dell laptops, the price can easily soar up to $1,000 or more. Our review configuration of the 15R cost about $709, and comes with a Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, along with an extended 2-year warranty. That's a reasonable price, but you might want to pick your configurations carefully, and consider other alternatives. Up at the near-$1,000 range there are plenty of attractive options from other manufacturers, and there's also Dell's own.
The 2011 Inspiron R comes with an HD Webcam and second-generation Intel Core i-series CPUs, and optional multicolored and patterned back lids are available for $35 to $60 a pop. The upgraded processors are the most welcome addition, and in the $499 configuration the Inspiron 15R is a very attractive budget laptop option. Just be careful about going too far over that $700 threshold.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$709 / $499|
|Processor||2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M|
|Memory||6GB, 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM|
|Hard drive||500GB, 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Intel HD 3000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.5x9.7 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.0 pounds / 6.7 pounds|
Solid, beefy, and clad largely in plastic, the best thing the Dell Inspiron 15R design has going for it is its clean looks. At 1.3 inches at its thickest point and nearly 6 pounds without its AC adapter, this Dell isn't a lightweight. However, open up its thick lid and you'll find a crisp interior awaiting, relatively free of the glitz and crud that often plague laptops.
This is, largely, a similar design to the Inspiron 15R we reviewed last year, which first introduced the revamped "hinge-forward" design and restyled keyboard. (Incidentally, last year's Inspiron R is still available starting at $449, but we wouldn't recommend it; this year's revamp is worth the extra $50.)
The Inspiron 15R wastes little room. The edge-to-edge raised keyboard includes a number pad, and the multitouch touch pad is very large, nearly as big as a MacBook's. The big, bright 15.6-inch screen fills most of the upper lid's space, with little bezel. We're still not a fan of the thick rear lip that houses some of the back ports, but if you're buying an entry-level $499 product it's hard to complain about the 15R's design. At higher-end configurations, it feels a little cheap. And the glossy plastic, with a pattern that resembles brushed metal, is an incredible fingerprint magnet.
Stylistically speaking, the biggest innovation in the new Inspiron R series is its swappable lid. The idea behind this feature is to offer some of Dell's famously large back catalog of laptop lid designs without forcing customers to commit to any particularly odd floral print or psychedelic landscape for the entire life of the computer. With a simple button-press and swap you can change colors or designs easily. Of course, we say easily, but it took four people at CNET to even figure out how to eject the lid properly, guided by an e-mail from Dell. Laugh at us if you must, but the process is a little less intuitive than you'd expect. Still, that's OK with us considering you'll likely switch your laptop lid infrequently, if at all (in fact, we wonder how many Dell Inspiron R owners will never realize the lid is swappable--unlikely considering the ad campaign, but we wouldn't be surprised).
The lids, offered in dozens of designs, aren't cheap, at $35 for a plain color or $60 for any of the other designs. They're like the swappable cases for Nokia phones back in the '90s, or the faceplates on the original Xbox 360: a gimmick, sure, but true fans will probably buy at least one lid for the sheer novelty. Being able to change the lid could also save you the frustration of trying to buy a particular color of laptop only to find it's sold out or been discontinued, a problem we've heard some readers complain of. We wonder how long it'll be before licensed sports lids and limited-edition seasonal designs start popping up, much as they already do for Dell's non-removable lids.
Now, back to the ergonomics of the Inspiron 15R. While the system feels heavy on a lap, its dimensions and proportions make for comfortable typing. The keyboard is generous in size and easy to navigate, although the keys feel a bit stiff for our tastes. We can't type as quickly or fluidly as we have on other laptops, but it's still better than the average keyboard. Even better is the touch pad, which was both responsive and unusually large. The discrete buttons below feel a little mushy, but we were able to navigate around the Web and use other programs easily.
The large 15.6-inch display has a standard resolution of 1,366x768 pixels that can't be upgraded, but games and videos looked vivid, with rich colors. Picture quality deteriorated at wide viewing angles, but head-on the Inspiron 15R looked better than we expected.
While the Inspiron 15R has "SRS Premium Sound" stereo speakers, front-firing and seated under the front edge, the sound quality was nowhere near the excellence of the higher-end Dell XPS series. Volume levels and bass were good enough to enjoy Netflix movies and games, but listening to rich music such as jazz was disappointing.
The HD Webcam included on the Inspiron 15R has a maximum resolution of 1,280x720 pixels, and video looks sharper and richer in low-light settings than standard Webcam offerings on budget laptops. It's a plus, especially in low-end versions of the Inspiron 15R.
|Dell Inspiron 15R (Spring 2011)||Average for category [Mainstream]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0/eSATA combo port, 1 USB 2.0, SD card slot||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The Dell Inspiron 15R has a generous complement of ports: four USB ports, two of which are USB 3.0 and one of which is an eSATA-combo port, are studded throughout the sides and back of the chassis. The high-speed ports on the Inspiron 15R (three if you count eSATA) certainly outnumber those on other budget laptops, too. Still, hunting for ports can be a bit of a hassle when you're in a pinch. HDMI access is off to the left side, while VGA is stuck on the back along with a single USB 3.0 port and the power plug.
As mentioned above, add-ons and customizations can easily bump an Inspiron's price from budget to high-end. The entry-level $499 configuration gets you a 2.1GHz Core i3-2310M CPU, 3GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. Upgrading to 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and a Core i5-2410M CPU costs an extra $150. If ordering through Dell's Web site, you can upgrade to 6GB of RAM and a hard drive of up to 640GB. You can also add a Blu-ray drive, and if you want discrete graphics the only option is a 512MB AMD Radeon HD6470M.