Just how powerful should a sub-$500 notebook be? Priced at $499, the 14-inch Dell Inspiron 14R includes a last-generation Intel Pentium processor, HDMI output, a 250GB, 5400-rpm hard drive, 2GB of RAM, and a modish, chrome-trimmed chassis. While it won't break any speed records, this version of the 14R has enough muscle for most everyday tasks. But is this machine the best choice for those on a budget?
The Dell Inspiron 14R has a modern look designed to appeal to a wide spectrum of users. It has a standard glossy lid and display bezel, as well as chrome-colored plastic surrounding the palm rest. Our review unit came in fingerprint-prone Mars Black, but other options include Peacock Blue, Promise Pink, and Tomato Red (all for $45 more). The 14R's edges are all curved and its surfaces polished. The only exception is the plastic bottom that looks just as fashionable despite its rough matte finish.
The Inspiron 14R also sports Dell's signature forward hinge, which means the display meets the deck before the back edge of the system, leaving a small ledge of space behind the screen. Measuring 13.5 x9.7 x 1.3 inches and weighing 4.8 pounds, this notebook was noticeable in our backpack, but not too heavy.
After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad, keyboard center, and underside of the Inspiron 14R clocked in at 87, 87, and 89 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. The left heat vent, where hot air is pushed out by the fan, was a hot 104 degrees, but we didn't notice it, even after an hour of on-lap use. When the fan kicks up though, you definitely hear it.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Inspiron 14R's keyboard features flat-surfaced keys that offered good tactile response, but we found it to be a bit cramped. For instance, we would try to press the left arrow and hit the nearby Menu button instead, or we would reach for the Enter key and end up with the Shift key. Still, after a bit of practice, our comfort with the keyboard grew. We appreciated that the top row of alternate function keys included buttons for media, brightness, and Wi-Fi radio controls.
At 3.7 x 2 inches, the touchpad was a good size for multi-touch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom in web pages or pictures and two-finger scrolling. The surface supplied a comfortable amount of friction and the chrome texture of the separated left and right touch buttons was another welcome touch.
Ports and Webcam
On the right side of the Inspiron 14R is a DVD drive, headphone and microphone jacks, and a USB slot. Along the back is the AC adapter connector followed by a VGA port and another USB port, and on the left is 7-in-1 card slot, a USB/eSATA port, HDMI, and Ethernet.
Top-center above the display sits the Inspiron 14R's 1.3-megapixel webcam. The hardware is paired with Dell Webcam Central software, which is filled with fun video filters, digital masks, audio effects, and more. Video was well lit even in a dark coffee shop, but details were rough and blotchy like an old TV set--something the settings in Webcam Central could not fix. The notebook's integrated microphone picked up loads of background noise. However, the other caller said he could make out our voice.
Display and Audio
The 14-inch 1366 x 768-pixel WLED screen offered decent horizontal viewing angles. An episode of Community didn't lose brightness until we reached the 120-degree mark. That's good enough for three people to sit side by side and enjoy. Vertical angles were more limited; when we pushed the screen back 10 degrees from vertical, videos were drenched in black. The fight scenes in an episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand were bright, and we could easily make out facial expressions.
Volume isn't a problem for the Inspiron 14R, thanks to SRS Premium Sound and a set of separated downward-facing speakers along the notebook's front edge. Even at half volume, the poetic Roman dialogue in Spartacus was intelligible from across the room. In addition, we could easily distinguish the notes in the alto singer's portion of Kanye West's "Good Morning." Just steer clear of the harsh-sounding max volume setting.
With its 2-GHz Intel Pentium P6100 CPU and 2GB of RAM, the Dell Inspiron 14r notched just 3,742 on the PCMark Vantage benchmark. That's more than 1,000 points lower than both the thin-and-light category average of 4,815 and the 4,773 points notched by another version of the Dell Inspiron 14R with a Core i3-350M CPU and 4GB of RAM. The Pentium 14R bested the HP Pavilion dm1z, an 11-inch system with a 1.6-GHz AMD dual-core E-350 processor, by more than 1,500 points, but the Acer Aspire 5742, a 15-inch notebook with a Core i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM, scored a much higher 5,327.
Transcoding a 114MB MPEG4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder took the 14R 1 minute and 9 seconds. That's not bad at all given that the category average is 1:02. It's also 7 seconds faster than the Toshiba L505, a 15-inch notebook with an Intel Pentium chip.
When duplicating a 4.97MB folder of multimedia, the Inspiron 14R's hard drive moved bits at 26 MBps, just a few ticks higher than the category average of 24.8MBps.
However, there are some limitations to a Pentium processor. During testing, some applications occasionally lagged for a few seconds when loading. The gravest slowdown occurred when we installed Microsoft Office Starter with 18 tabs open in Google Chrome. When Office connected to the Internet to complete the install process, each tab in Chrome was frozen until Microsoft Office Starter finished.
The Inspiron 14R features Intel's integrated HD graphics that share video memory with the CPU, so it's not surprising that it earned a 3DMark06 score of 1,402, which is less than half the category average (3,002). The 14R also performed poorly compared to the Acer Aspire 5742 and the Pavilion dm1z. Those machines earned scores of 1,752 and 2,217, respectively. Still, the similarly equipped Toshiba L505-es5018 notched just 722.
World of Warcraft frame rates were very low. We saw just 15 frames per second during gameplay with the resolution at native and graphics at the recommended Basic setting. The 14R should be used only for casual gaming and watching DVDs or online video, all of which it handled smoothly. We had an easy time playing games such as Plant vs. Zombies at Popcapgames.com and watching episodes of Robotech on Netflix. Even streaming movie trailers in 720p on YouTube was glitch-free and clean of stutters.
Battery Life and Wireless
This Inspiron 14R's standard six-cell battery is rated for 5 hours of juice but lasted just 3 hours and 7 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test. Yup, that's short; the category average for thin-and-light notebooks is 4:55. A different version of the 14R, one with a Core i3 processor, didn't fare much better, lasting just five minutes longer. There is good news: Fans of the Inspiron 14R can opt for a nine-cell extended battery that is rated for 10 hours of battery life. While that option adds less than half a pound, it'll take $180 out of your wallet.
The Inspiron 14R notched data transfers of 24.2 Mbps at 15 feet from a wireless router, which falls below the category average of 32.8 Mbps. Fortunately, the 14R's throughput only dipped slightly at 50 feet to 23.7 Mbps, which is slightly higher than the average (21.5 Mbps).
Software and Warranty
Dell bundles the Inspiron 14R with loads of proprietary software. The most prominent is Dell Stage, a dock that provides quick access to photos, documents, games, music, and websites; we suspect some users will opt to disable it, since it clutters the desktop. PhotoStage provides software to browse pictures and share them on Facebook or Flickr; Webcam Central adds visual filters to recorded video and still shots; DataSafe is for online and local backup; and Dell Support offers speedy access to the manufacturer's technical support.
Also bundled in is a 30-day trial of McAfee Security Center, Roxio for burning DVD/CDs, Skype, and Microsoft Office 2010 Starter which includes just Excel and Microsoft Word.
Dell backs the Inspiron 14R with a one-year limited hardware warranty that includes 24/7 phone support and free shipping. To see how Dell performed in our Tech Support Showdown, click here.
The Dell Inspiron 14R proves that Intel's Pentium processor is still powerful enough for those who need a basic notebook for surfing the web, watching videos, and working on Excel or Word documents. Though it scored low on some benchmarks, this 14-inch laptop handled everyday computing tasks fairly well. Those who want more oomph can spend just $50 more to get a Core i3 version of this machine. Unfortunately, the battery life is pretty short for a 14-incher (unless you spring for the larger battery). If your notebook is going to remain in one place most of the time, you might prefer the 15-inch Acer Aspire 5742 ($549), which offers a larger 15-inch screen, keyboard, and better performance with comparable battery life. But if you want good audio punch in a slicker-looking design, the Inspiron 14R is a good choice for the price.