Dell Inspiron 15z review: A budget-minded 15-incher with touch

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MSRP: $899.00

The Good The Dell Inspiron 15z has a great, slim design for a budget-minded 15-inch touch laptop, and even includes an optical drive.

The Bad It's at the top end of the budget category, and for the same money, there are more-upscale systems available. Low screen resolution looks cartoonish.

The Bottom Line Dell's Inspiron line continues to look sharper than its budget reputation would suggest. The new touch-enabled version of the 15z works as a reasonably priced Windows 8 laptop with a big screen and an optical drive.

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7.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Battery 7
  • Support 7

The majority of touch-screen Windows 8 laptops seen during the first wave of new hardware for this new operating system have had screens on the small side. There have been plenty of 13-inch laptops and hybrids, and several 11-inch or smaller tablets. What we have not seen as much of is the traditional midsize laptop.

Dell takes a stab at combining touch with Windows 8 and a larger screen in the Inspiron 15z. The "z" designation means this is part of the higher end of Dell's lower-end laptop line (if you can follow that logic). The affordable Inspiron series tacks on the "z" to designs that are slightly thinner and sleeker, while not rising to the level of the more expensive XPS series.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Both the Inspiron z and, to a lesser extent, the regular Inspiron line have made great strides in design in the most recent generation. Laptops such as the Inspiron 14z, despite an occasional hint of plastic construction, look and feel like more-expensive laptops, and certainly much better than the thick, clunky Inspirons of just a couple of years ago.

The configuration of the 15z we reviewed costs $899, and includes an Intel Core i5 processor, a 500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive with a 32GB solid-state drive (SSD), and 6GB of RAM. Less expensive versions are available, but they lack the touch screen, making them less suitable for the tricky Windows 8 interface.

To be fair, for $899 or a little more there are a lot of excellent options, although fewer for touch-enabled 15-inch laptops. Only the low screen resolution, stuck at 1,366x768 pixels, keeps this from being an excellent go-to recommendation for anyone needing a midsize touch laptop.

Price as reviewed $899
Processor 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317-U
Memory 6GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm + 32GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD4000
Operating system Windows 8
Dimensions (WD) 9.8x15 inches
Height 0.8-0.9 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 15.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.3 pounds / 6 pounds
Category Midsize

Design and features
Like its 14-inch cousin, the 14z, this Inspiron 15z looks like the kind of laptop you wouldn't be embarrassed to pull out in your favorite hipster coffee shop, even if everyone else there has a MacBook.

When we first saw the current Inspiron design in mid-2012, we thought new designs looked especially thin and modern, with a two-tone gray-on-gray brushed-metal lid. That brushed-metal look extends to the system interior, with a sunken black keyboard tray and black keys.

While you're moving your hands around the system, your fingers may be touching metal one moment and plastic the next, which can break the illusion that this is a higher-end laptop, but compared with the budget-looking Inspirons of old, it's a big improvement.

Sarah Tew/CNET

One interesting break from current trends is that Dell still managed to work in an optical drive, despite the thin chassis. Many ultrabooks and ultrabook-style laptops skip that now, even ones with bodies as thick or thicker than this. It's easy to forget if you're living in the world of the MacBook Air and its pretenders that many people still rely on optical drives for storage, media playback, and backup.

The keyboard keys are Dell's standard variation on the flat-topped, widely spaced, island-style keyboard found in most current laptops. In the Dell version, the keys have more rounded corners than most, and the top row of function keys is half-height.

While there's no separate number pad, a feature sometimes found on 15-inch laptops, this version does add a right-side column of navigation keys, such as the Page Up and Page Down keys. That column is missing on the smaller-bodied Inspiron 14z, which is otherwise very similar.

The touch pad is large, but still includes separate left and right mouse buttons, which is another of those subtle hints that this is not considered a premium product. You'll have to trade up to the more expensive XPS line to get a full buttonless click pad. Multitouch gestures worked well, but two-finger scrolling felt sluggish at times. Trying to use the touch pad to navigate the Windows 8 interface can be a hassle, which makes it even more important to have that touch-enabled screen.

The big 15.6-inch screen is covered by edge-to-edge glass, which is normal for a touch-screen laptop. However, the screen is one of the few parts of this laptop that clearly gives away its budget origins. With a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, text and icons can appear overly large, especially when using the traditional desktop mode (the Windows 8 tile UI handles different resolutions better), and some apps and games can lack clarity and detail because of the lower resolution. For a 14-inch or larger laptop, a resolution of at least 1,600x900 pixels, or even better, 1,920x1,080 pixels is recommended. For the $900 our review sample cost, a higher resolution is not out of the question.

Dell Inspiron 15z Average for category [midsize]
Video HDMI VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 4 USB 3.0, SD card reader 2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

Connections, performance, and battery life
For a midprice, midsize laptop, it's hard to be too disappointed with the ports and connections on the Inspiron 15z. All four USB ports are of the faster 3.0 variety, and a slim DVD burner is integrated into the right side. Still, it would have been nice to have a second video output besides the single HDMI jack, and I'm always a fan of having separate headphone and mic jacks, instead of the single combo one here.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are a couple of less expensive configurations of this 15z, but as they lack a touch-enabled screen, I would not recommend even considering them for use with Windows 8. For an extra $200 ($1,099), you can add a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 630M graphics card, plus trade up to a Core i7 CPU and add 2GB of RAM, for 8GB total. That's not a bad upgrade price, but if I were spending $1,100, I might start elsewhere and work my way down, rather than starting with a midprice system and working my way up.