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Laptops

Dell Vostro 1400 preview

Let's not put too fine a point on it: the Dell Vostro 1400 thin-and-light laptop is fantastic value for money. There aren't many laptops as cheap or as configurable as the Vostro series. This model is perfect for light users and you can always upgrade it with faster components

Before the Asus Eee PC, budget computing was only possible with underpowered desktops, rubbish laptops or useless thin client PCs, all of which had the computing power of a pocket calculator.

Today, we have access to computers that are both low cost and offer good performance. Such machines include the Dell Vostro series of laptops and desktops. These are aimed primarily at small businesses but there's nothing stopping consumers taking advantage of its uber-low price and surprisingly good specification.

The Vostro laptop range is available in four versions. The Vostro 1000 is the 15.4-inch entry-level model designed for basic productivity tasks; the Vostro 1400 is slightly more powerful and portable, thanks to its use of Intel CPUs and a 14.1-inch screen; the Vostro 1500 packs a high-resolution display and a half-decent graphics card, while the top of the line Vostro 1700 sports a 17-inch display. Read on to find out how you can score yourself a bargain.

Upsides
Let's not kid ourselves -- the biggest advantage of a Dell Vostro is its obscenely low price. The entry-level specification of the Vostro 1400 comes in at a very wallet-friendly £233. For this you get an Intel Celeron M 540 CPU, 1GB of DDR2 667MHz RAM, a 120GB hard drive and Intel GMA X3100 graphics. Considering the price and specification, the Vostro 1400 is fantastic value.

Don't bother spending the extra £20 to get the Celeron 550 CPU. Notice it doesn't have an 'M' suffix? That means it's a desktop CPU, not a mobile one. It therefore lacks all the clever stuff inside to optimise battery life.

Thankfully, Dell gives you a number of CPU options that are worth considering -- all built for laptops and all dual-core. There's the option of a Core 2 Duo T5270 running at 1.4GHz for an extra £90, a 1.6GHz T5470 for an extra £125 or a 2GHz T7250 for an extra £170. Prices are correct at the time of writing, and they do send the initial tag skyrocketing. Still, they're worth it if you plan to use the machine for long periods of time or want to run several applications simultaneously.

The standard 120GB of disk space on the Vostro 1400 is absolutely fine for most business users, just as long as your business isn't downloading BitTorrent movies. An extra £20 will buy you a 160GB drive but we wouldn't bother with that. If you really want extra storage then you should probably get yourself an external USB hard drive. You can buy 500GB models elsewhere for about £65.

You probably don't need us to tell you this, but the Vostro 1400 isn't designed as a gaming machine. Not in its standard configuration, at least. The integrated Intel GMA X3100 graphics card is OK for day-to-day tasks like presentations, watching non-high-definition movies and the like. But check this out: for an extra £64 you can add a graphics card that is capable of playing games. Show us another sub-£300 laptop that can (sort of) run Half-Life 2 -- in theory. You can't, can you? That's because there aren't any -- yet.

Downsides
The Vostro 1400 ships with Microsoft Windows Vista as standard, which is fine, but be aware that Vista needs some meaty components to run smoothly. The standard Celeron 540 can run Vista, but only in the same way that a guy on a pogo stick can complete a race at Silverstone. If you intend on doing any real multitasking then we'd recommend upgrading to 2GB of RAM and one of the Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs.

Those who do watch movies on the Vostro 1400 shouldn't be too disappointed. The panel runs at a native resolution of 1,280x800 pixels, which is fine for displaying most widescreen movies. An extra £15 buys you Dell's TrueLife system, or an extra £35 buys you TrueLife with a 1,440x900-pixel resolution. TrueLife is basically a reflective coating that helps improve perceived contrast and makes colours look nicer, but it has the disadvantage of making the screen difficult to see in direct sunlight. Only buy this option if you're not planning to use the screen outdoors.

Our final gripe with the Vostro 1400 is regarding its looks. It's not the most attractive laptop in the world, and worse still, it has a Dell badge on the lid. The Asus Eee PC proved that even cheap laptops can look good, so here's hoping Dell does better next time round.

Outlook
The future looks very, very good for Vostro. If word of this range hits mainstream, it could disrupt the laptop market in a big way. Why, after all, would anyone spend double or triple the money for something they can get for next to nothing? Watch for a full review including performance benchmarks very shortly.

Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday

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