Thin, light, and long-lasting are the key buzzwords these days when it comes to notebooks. And Dell has joined the party with one of its first laptops to use an Ultra-Low Voltage processor from Intel, the Inspiron 14z (starting at $649; $839 as tested). With its slim profile and sub 5-pound weight, this machine is easy to carry and lasts well over 6 hours on a charge. Plus, this 14-incher distinguishes itself from some of the competition by including an optical drive. However, a variety of competing notebooks offer comparable performance and even longer endurance.
At 13.4 x 10.0 and 1.0 inches and 4.6 pounds, the Inspiron 14z is a bit larger than competitors (and siblings) such as the Dell Studio 14z (13.2 x 9.0 x 0.8 inches and 4.4 pounds), ASUS UL30A (12.7 x 9.2 x 1.0 inches and 4.0 pounds), and the Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T (12.7 x 9.0 x 1.3 inches and 3.6 pounds). However, none of those systems include an optical drive.
The overall look of the Inspiron 14z is nearly identical to that of the Dell Studio 14z, from the rounded edges, to the black plastic sides, gray deck, hinge design, and glossy red lid (it comes in black or cherry red colors). The most significant difference is that the Studio 14z has a more sophisticated soft-touch lid, but the Inspiron 14z still has a highly functional design that will look good in the classroom, the coffee shop, or even the boardroom.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The spacious keyboard on the Inspiron 14z has large keys and great placement with no flex; however, tactile feedback wasn't as punchy as we'd like. Using the Ten Thumbs typing test, we achieved a rate of 74 words per minute, which is less than our usual 80, but with a low error rate of 1 percent.
The touchpad has a lightly textured surface that was moderately accurate as we moved around the desktop. The two mouse buttons gave just the right amount of feedback. Unfortunately, the pad does not support multitouch gestures, such as pinch-to-enlarge.
Display and Audio
The 14.1-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel glossy display provided bright colors and sharp images, even at viewing angles of nearly 90 degrees off center. However, colors do begin to wash out if you have to tilt the screen forward, as you might do on an airline tray table.
You can comfortably enjoy a movie with a couple of friends on the Inspiron 14z. While watching both a DVD of Dark City and a 720p episode of Fringe on Fox.com, colors were true, motion was smooth, and background noise was minimal.
The speakers were great for listening to movie dialogue and sound, but awful for music. When streaming Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” from Napster, the sound was loud, but tinny and unpleasant.
Ports and Webcam
The Dell Inspiron 14z has all the basic ports you’d expect from a consumer notebook. The left side houses a Kensington lock slot, VGA port, HDMI, Ethernet, USB, and a 7-in-1 memory card reader. The front lip of the system has audio in/out jacks, while the right side has two more USB ports, for a total of three. The only connection type really missing is eSATA, which would allow the 14z to connect to certain high-speed backup devices.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam delivered disappointing image quality (particularly in low light,) and Dell does not bundle any tools for adjusting its settings. When making a call on Skype from an indoor location, our conversation partner reported that our image was extremely blocky with washed out colors and jerky motion.
The Inspiron 14z’s 1.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU, integrated Intel graphics chip, and 5,400-rpm hard drive combined to give the system performance that’s good enough for everyday use, but weak when it comes to intense tasks such as transcoding video. In anecdotal testing, the system was responsive and pleasant to use for navigating around the desktop, surfing the Web, editing documents in Word, and watching videos.
In PCMark Vantage, a benchmark that measures overall system performance, the Inspiron 14z returned a score of 2,655, which is about 450 points below the thin-and-light notebook category average of 3,101, but on a par with such Intel ULV-powered laptops as the ASUS UL30A (2,442) and Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T (2,678). The Dell Studio 14z, which features a faster 2.1-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and discrete graphics, returned a much stronger score of 3,544.
The system took a pokey 15 minutes and 15 seconds to transcode a 114MB MPEG-4 to AVI using HandBrake. The ASUS UL30A completed the test in 10:55, while the much faster Studio 14z completed the same task in 7:30. Among its competitors, only the Timeline 3810T was slower (22:18).
The Inspiron 14z’s 5,400-rpm, 250GB Western Digital hard drive booted Windows 7 Home Premium in a reasonable 54 seconds. It also took 4 minutes and 6 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Transfer Test, in which we copy 4.97GB folder of mixed media files from one area of the hard drive to another. That’s a rate of 20.7 MBps, which is about equal with the category average (20.8 MBps) and ahead of the Studio 14z (18.5 MBps), but slightly behind the UL30A (23.2 MBps) and the Timeline 3810T (24.8 MBps).
The Inspiron 14z’s integrated GMA 4500MHD graphics provided adequate performance. In anecdotal testing, we had no problems watching DVDs and 720p Web videos. Using Google Earth’s flight simulator and zoom-in function, we were able to fly over Manhattan without jerkiness or delays.
However, on 3DMark06, a benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess, the system scored a measly 807, which is a little better than half the category average of 1,467. However, the ASUS UL30A and Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T weren’t any better, scoring 760 and 698, respectively. Due to its discrete graphics, the Dell Studio 14z returned an above-average score of 2,101.
Don’t even think about playing demanding games on the Inspiron 14z. When attempting to play Far Cry 2, we managed a slideshow-like frame rate of 5 frames per second at 1024 x 768 resolution. The Studio 14z, however, managed a playable 26 fps at the same resolution.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, our Inspiron 14z's six-cell battery lasted a generous 6 hours and 29 minutes, which is more than 2 hours longer than the category average of 4:18. However, the ASUS UL30A lasted a whopping 9:55, and the Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T managed 8:05. Likely due to its faster CPU and Nvidia graphics, the Studio 14z lasted 5:25.
At 15 feet from our access point, the Inspiron 14z’s 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi antenna mustered a throughput of 20.7 Mbps; that’s a shade above the category average, as is its throughput from 50 feet (16.4 Mbps).
It took a brisk 1 hour and 17 minutes to charge the Inspiron 14z’s battery to 80 percent, and just 2:26 to get to 100 percent. During the charging process, the system used an average of 47.3 watts. The LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating (total amount of watts it takes to recharge divided by battery life) was an impressive 17.8. This bests the category average of 27.1 and the 26.4 rating of the Studio 14z (lower scores are better). However, the ASUS UL30A had an even more impressive rating of 14.0.
Though our review unit has a price of $839, the Inspiron 14z starts at $649 and is available in red or black, with the red version carrying a $40 premium. It has processor options ranging from a 1.3-GHz Intel Dual Core SU4100 on the low end to a 1.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 on the high end ($120). You can configure the system with up to 4GB of DDR3 RAM ($70) and either a 7,200-rpm or 5,400-rpm hard drive in sizes up to 500GB ($175). The battery comes in four- or six-cell ($35) capacities.
Software and Warranty
Dell doesn’t bloat the Inspiron 14z with too much preinstalled software. However, the system comes standard with Roxio Creator 3D for burning CDs and DVDs, and trial versions of McAfee Security Center and Microsoft Office. Dell has taken the liberty of preloading Windows Live Essentials, a free Microsoft download that includes a photo gallery, movie maker, messenger, and mail clients.
Dell also includes its Dell Dock UI, which is an attractive menu that sits on top of the desktop and offers shortcuts to all the major programs, from Windows Media Center to Microsoft Office. You can also add your own shortcuts or remove those that came preinstalled. As attractive as this dock is, some may prefer to pin their own shortcuts to the taskbar in Windows 7.
The 14z has a two-year warranty, including 24/7, toll-free phone support. To see how Dell fared in our annual tech support showdown, click here.
The Dell Inspiron 14z offers long battery life, a fantastic screen, and acceptable everyday performance in a compact package. If you want much stronger performance and are willing to sacrifice an hour of endurance, the Dell Studio 14z ($749) makes a better choice. And if you demand even longer battery life and lighter weight, the ASUS UL30A ($799) is the notebook for you. However, if you want an optical drive on your thin-and-light system, the Inspiron 14z is a solid choice.