The Dell Inspiron Special Edition series promises a compelling multimedia experience along with a few extra bells and whistles. While not as svelte as Dell's XPS notebooks, the 15R SE (starting at $799) delivers more power and premium features than the budget Inspiron line. Our $1,099 configuration comes with a quad-core Core i7 CPU, 1TB of storage, and AMD Radeon discrete graphics powering a 1080p matte display. The stock Skullcandy speakers also add some extra audio punch. But does all of that justify paying nearly twice that of a standard Inspiron 15R?
Click to EnlargeThe Dell Inspiron 15R SE is a great looking notebook, combining black anodized aluminum with silver plastic trimming. A slightly raised honeycomb pattern covers both the lid and deck, enhancing the design and providing a pleasant texture while handling the machine. Unfortunately, this material picked up fingerprints quickly.
Directly in the middle of the lid is the trademark Dell logo, shining in silver chrome, which complements the silver plastic border surrounding the black honeycomb surface. For variety, users can purchase additional SWITCH lids, which start at $29.99 each, and are available in numerous colors and textures. The lids are easy to remove, but take some muscle to get back on.
Click to EnlargeThe interior of the 15R SE features an island-style keyboard sunken into the aluminum deck. There is a large chrome power button on the top left corner that glows while the notebook is powered on. The top right of the deck contains three Quicklaunch buttons, providing easy access to the Windows Mobility Center, Waves MaxxAudio and Instant Launch.
The Inspiron 15R SE measures 14.9 x 10 x 1.3 inches, slightly thicker than the Sony VAIO S Series 15 (14.9 x 10 x 0.9 inches) but smaller than the Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 (15.2 x 10 x 1.4 inches) and the ASUS N56VZ-DS71 (15 x 10 x 1.3 inches). The Inspiron 15R SE is definitely the heaviest of the above notebooks, weighing 6.4 pounds, compared with the S Series 15's 4.6 pounds, the Y580's 6.2 pounds, and the N56VZ-DS71's 6 pounds.
MORE: Dell Best and Worst Notebook Brands 2013 Rating
Click to EnlargeThe Inspiron 15R SE's 15.6-inch 1900 x 1080 LED display delivers a sharp picture. Plus, the screen's matte finish helped reduce background reflections. When we watched "The Great Gatsby" trailer, colors were vibrant; the patterns on Daisy Buchanan's dress stood out and each piece of glitter sparkled in the party scene. Viewing angles were decent: although some screen darkening occurred at around 15 degrees, the screen was still usable until around 30 degrees.
The screen brightness measured 244 lux, which is perfectly even with the category average and brighter than the 231 of the Sony VAIO S Series 15. However, this reading falls behind Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 (285 lux) and ASUS N56VZ-DS71 (313 lux).
This Dell's audio is powered by Waves MaxxAudio 4 software and Skullcandy speakers, located at the bottom of the deck. These speakers belted out a lot of sound, easily filing our testing room, but the speaker location proved detrimental when we placed the notebook on our lap, muffling sound volume and quality.
Waves MaxxAudio 4 has four different audio settings, adjusting levels to optimize for music, movies, voice or gaming. One of the Quicklaunch buttons on the deck of the notebook quickly toggles between these preset settings. We liked the Game setting the best, regardless of the type of audio we were playing.
We played Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now," and Freddy Mercury's vocals were crisp and clear above the accompanying piano and cymbals. We then switched to a song with more bass, "No Church in the Wild" by Kanye West, and were impressed by the rich lower notes. The bass wasn't thumping, but this listening experience was still positive. Volume dropped and sound quality quickly diminished when we switched from the Gaming preset to the Music, Voice or Movie preset.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Click to EnlargeThe Inspiron 15R SE has a roomy island-style keyboard that allows for quick and easy typing. We achieved our average score of 70 words per minute on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test. The backlit keyboard was bright, but we noticed a bit of leakage around the sides of the keys. You can adjust the brightness (high, low, off) by pressing FN+F6.
Click to EnlargeThe touchpad measures 3.9 x 2.2 inches, with two physical buttons along the bottom edge for left and right clicking, and is slightly sunk into the notebook's deck. Multi-touch gestures were responsive, and we easily performed 2-finger scrolling, pinch-to-zoom and three-finger flicking.
Within the Dell Trackpad control panel settings, you can also set a three-finger hold-down gesture to perform a number of different tasks, such as minimizing all, providing a blank screen, locking the computer, launching Internet Explorer, launching Mail or opening the Run prompt. We set ours to "minimize all" and found this multi-finger gesture very handy.
MORE: 20 Sexiest Laptops of All Time
On our heat test, where we play Hulu on full-screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad on the 15R SE was 83 degrees, the underside 87 degrees, and the space between the G and H keys 82 degrees. The temperatures increased significantly while playing "Batman: Arkham City": The touchpad reached 86 degrees, the space between the G and H keys was 93 degrees, and the underside measured 103 degrees. We consider anything above 95 to be uncomfortable.
Click to EnlargeThe 1.0-MP HD webcam inside the 15R SE produced clear footage with accurate colors. There was, however, a noticeable amount of visual noise, even at the highest quality settings. The HD-quality setting works with Skype, and you can use the bundled Dell Webcam Central software for capturing quick videos or still images.
Click to EnlargeThe left side of the 15R SE includes the power connector, VGA port, HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports and the headphone and microphone jacks. The right houses the Blu-Ray Reader with DVD+/-RW functionality, two more USB 3.0 ports and an Ethernet port. The front lip of the notebook has an 8-in-1 media card reader.
A 2.1-GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM processor with 8GB of RAM powers the Inspiron 15R SE, providing strong performance in our real-world testing. We opened 10 tabs in Google Chrome, put on music in Windows Media Center, and drew a picture in Microsoft Paint without any glitches.
On Geekbench, the 15R SE scored 10,155 against the average of 6,269, beating the Sony VAIO S Series 15, whose 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-3210M processor mustered a score of 6,985. The Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 and the ASUS N56VZ, both of which have the same CPU as the Dell, scored 8,824 and 11,254, respectively.
The 15R SE notebook has a 1TB, 5,400-rpm hard drive as well as a 32GB mSATA SSD cache. It took only 41 seconds to load 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium, thanks to Intel Rapid Start and Smart Response technologies that use the SSD drive to speed up boot and resume times. The Sony VAIO S Series 15 took 52 seconds (640GB 7,200-rpm), the Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 (1TB 5,400-rpm) took 42 seconds, and the ASUS N56VZ-DS71 (750GB 5,400-rpm) took a whopping 74 seconds.
On our File Transfer Test, where we duplicate 4.97GB of mixed-media files, the Inspiron 15R SE finished in 2 minutes and 42 seconds for a transfer rate of 31.4 MBps. This showing was just shy of the average rate of 35.8 MBps and slower than the Sony VAIO S Series 15 (35.1 MBps). The 15R SE, however, beat both the ASUS N56VZ-DS71 and Lenovo IdeaPad Y580.
For the OpenOffice Spreadsheet test, the Inspiron 15R SE matched 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses in 5 minutes and 4 seconds, which is 1 minute and 5 seconds faster than the category average. The Sony VAIO S Series 15 took slightly longer, performing the task in 5:10, but the 15R SE was beaten by both the ASUS N56VZ-DS71 and the Lenovo IdeaPad Y580, which took 4:28 and 4:50, respectively.
MORE: 10 Best Windows 7 Notebooks You Can Still Buy
Click to EnlargeThe Dell Inspiron 15R SE includes integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 and the discrete graphics AMD Radeon HD 7730M GPU with 2GB of VRAM. The notebook will switch automatically between the two GPUs, but unlike Nvidia's Optimus technology, you must first specify which GPU will be used for a particular application using the Catalyst Control Panel. These graphics support a wide range of games, but performance may falter on some of the more taxing titles.
The 15R SE scored 1,687 on the 3DMark11 benchmark test, above the category average of 1,037. This notebook also topped the Sony VAIO S Series 15, whose Nvidia GeForce GT 640M GPU scored 1,342. But the 15R SE was bested by the ASUS N56VZ-DS71 (2,408; Nvidia GeForce GT 650M) and the Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 (2,288; Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M).
When running "World of Warcraft" set on autodetect at 1366 x 768, the 15R SE averaged 101 frames per second, almost doubling the average (56 fps). However, Dell's showing falls shy of the ASUS N56VZ-DS71 (195), Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 (202) and the Sony VAIO S Series 15 (144). We then cranked the settings to maximum and the frame rate on the 15R SE fell to 56 fps, also beneath the competition. At the 15R SE's native resolution (1080p), autodetect fell to 69 fps and the maximum settings dropped it to 41 fps, both still playable.
Next, we ran "Batman: Arkham City," starting with 1366 x 768 and settings on low. The notebook registered 53 fps, on a par with the category average. The ASUS N56VZ-DS71 and Lenovo IdeaPad T580 scored 41 and 42 fps, respectively. The Sony VAIO S Series 15 blew them all away with 71 fps. On native full HD resolution, the Inspiron 15R SE scored 33 fps, which is better than the ASUS N56VZ (31 fps) but behind the Y580 (35 fps) and VAIO S 15 (47 fps).
Click to EnlargeThe Inspiron 15R SE didn't fare very well on our battery test, depleting after only 3 hours and 42 minutes. That's a full 1 hour and 49 minutes shorter than the average. The Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 lasted the longest, 5:49, followed by the Sony VAIO S Series 15 at 5:24, then the ASUS N56VZ-DS71 at 4:37.
Software and Warranty
Click to EnlargeDell Stage is a quick-launch utility comprised of 14 tiles, shown 10 at a time, that provide quick access to frequently used applications or folders, such as MusicStage, PhotoStage, VideoStage and the Documents folder. We could easily add folders and applications to the stage by clicking and dragging them to the desired position. While this software is useful, it takes up a large portion of the desktop, and the hover-over tile animations may grow tiresome.
Dell Stage Remote allows this notebook to connect with any other Dell Stage-enabled PCs or DLNA-certified devices. Launching Dell Stage Remote loads the setup wizard, which makes it pleasantly simple to find and connect to enabled devices on the same wireless network. We loaded a video on the 15R SE and were able to instantly watch the clip on a connected PC.
The 15R SE also comes with Microsoft Office Starter, which includes ad-supported versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, along with Skype, Adobe Reader X, a McAfee SecurityCenter trial and Dell DataSafe for local backup.
Dell backs the 15R SE with 90-day premium phone support and one year of in-home service after remote diagnosis. See how Dell fared in our Best & Worst Brands report.
There are four different configurations of the Inspiron 15R SE, and we reviewed the highest-end model. Our configuration sports a Core i7-3612QM CPU, 8GB of RAM, 1TB of storage with a 32GB SSD, AMD Radeon HD 7730M graphics, a 1080p screen and a Blu-ray drive. The base model for the 15R SE is $799 and includes an Intel Core i5-3219M processor, 6GB of RAM, a 5,400-rpm 750GB hard drive, a 720p display and a DVD drive. Each version supports the SWITCH interchangeable lids.
Click to EnlargeThe $1,099 Dell Inspiron 15R SE has a lot of things to offer multimedia mavens, including an attractive design, a glare-free full HD screen and plenty of audio oomph. While this notebook doesn't offer best-in-class performance, its third-generation Intel Core i7 processor and AMD GPU can handle any workload along with the most popular games. In this price range, we prefer the Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 and ASUS N56VZ, both of which offer more battery life. But if you like the idea of customizing the look of your system, the Inspiron 15R SE is a strong choice.