by LAPTOP Staff on March 27, 2012
Thanks to better design, solid support and stronger audio quality, Dell is one of the most improved laptop brands.
UPDATE: Check Dell's 2013 Brand Report Card to see how the company fared this year.
The five Alienware notebooks we reviewed--four 4-star ratings, two Editors' Choice awards and a rare 5-star product (the M17x)--had a definite impact on Dell's overall score this year, propelling the brand from second to last in 2010 to third place in 2011. Outside of its gaming sub-brand, Dell produced eight laptop scores of 4 stars (such as the XPS 15 and XPS 17, which both had excellent audio and displays), and five notched 3.5 stars.
During the last year, Dell placed more emphasis on thin and light notebook designs, and we've liked the results. The Dell XPS 14z and 15z featured a sleek aluminum chassis and intricate grilles. The budget-minded Inspiron 14z looked good in aluminum with its optional Fire Red color. The XPS 13 is the most striking system in the Ultrabook category yet, combining Gorilla Glass with an elegant carbon fiber and aluminum body. In other words, Dell's designs continue to impress--and improve.
Dell's no-nonsense keyboards--across business and consumer notebooks alike--don't usually look snazzy, but they almost always offer solid tactile feedback and good key placement, with a sturdy flex-free base. In contrast, Alienware offers nifty customizable features, such as a colored backlit keyboard on the M18x (pictured). Dell doesn't often mess around with flavor-of-the-month touchpad designs, using an accurate two-button touchpad design on most of its notebooks.
During the past three years, Dell has steadily improved its tech support, rolling out new interactive tools and following up with customers to make sure they received satisfactory service. And the effort definitely paid off with a second-place finish in our last report. The company deserves high marks for its strong combination of helpful Web support, social-networking responsiveness and good old-fashioned phone service.
On higher-end laptops such as Dell's XPS 15, the audio is simply superb, thanks to JBL speakers and Maxx Audio technology. Thinner machines like the XPS 15z boast ultra-bright 300-nit displays, making them a feast for the eyes. The screens on the Inspiron and Vostro are just middle of the road, and some models delivered muffled audio because of poor speaker placement. If you're in the market for an Alienware, the M18x's beautiful 18.4-inch, 1080p screen and Klipsch speakers are awesome.
Just under 15 Dell notebooks passed through our labs in the last 12 months, and several of those, including the Inspiron 14z and the Vostro 3550, were below the $600 price mark. Through the Dell website, customers can tweak their purchase to their hearts' content, from adding switchable lids to bundling extra security software. And the company's notebooks are widely available at big box retailers, including Best Buy and Staples.
Dell preloads Dell Support Center for diagnostics, Instant Launch Manager for shortcuts, DigitalPersona Fingerprint Software, Dell DataSafe for backup and the Dell Webcam Central. Alienware services gamers with Alien Command Center, for changing a machine's backlight colors, creating power profiles and adjusting touchpad sensitivity. The AlienRespawn panel lets you back up and restore the system.
Among LAPTOP readers, Alienware users were the most devoted to their favorite brand, offering no negative comments about the company. However, Dell received the second-highest number of negative comments from Laptopmag
.com users; many faulted both the company's products and customer service. One user simply wrote, "Don't buy Dell." And while Dell received an A+ from the BBB, the company failed to break into Rescuecom's list of the top-five most-reliable brands.
The XPS 13 is certainly an innovative Ultrabook which integrates Intel Smart Connect technology to update your data even when the lid is closed. But Dell's most cutting-edge laptops continue to come from Alienware. For example, the M18X smoked the competition with its dual graphics chip and wireless HD (WiHD) technology, which lets users wirelessly stream video and games to a TV with zero lag.