Dell's Inspiron Z series notebooks have long been known for offering solid portability at affordable prices. For 2012, the company has updated the 14-inch Inspiron 14z with Intel's 3rd Generation Core Series processor and a brand new design that's thin and light enough to make the system an Ultrabook. For $899 ($699 to start), the 14z provides solid performance and a premium design. Plus, this laptop includes a DVD drive. Does Dell's value-priced Ultrabook do enough to win us over?
With a high-tech aesthetic that reminds us of Dell's pricey Latitude E6400 series, the Inspiron 14z has a truly premium look and feel. Both the lid and the deck are made from dark gray brushed aluminum, ringed with a matte silver molding and matte silver sides. The bezel is a plain dark gray plastic, while the bottom of this space cruiser-esque design is a simple soft-touch black plastic.
At 13.66 x 9.45 x .83 inches and 4.2 pounds, the Dell Inspiron 14z is one the thinnest and lightest 14-inch notebooks on the market, especially when you consider that it has an optical drive. The new model easily eclipses 2011's 4.4-pound, 0.94-inch thick Inspiron 14z. The HP Envy 14 Spectre weighs a tiny bit less at 4.0 pounds and 0.79 inches thick while the upcoming 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is expected to weigh a mere 3 pounds. However, those two competitors are considerably more expensive.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Inspiron 14z's island-style, spill-resistant keyboard is a mixed bag. The 3.5-inch deep, brushed aluminum palm rest was more than large enough to support our wrists and stayed cool and comfortable throughout our use. However, though the keys are fairly responsive, they offered less vertical travel than a typical notebook, forcing us to be more deliberate in our strokes. The keyboard base also suffered from a small amount of flex when we pressed hard on the middle or top keys.
Despite these minor issues, we achieved a strong score of 89 words per minute with just a 1 -percent error rate on the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor test, better than our 80 words-per-minute average.
The 3.9 x 2-inch touchpad provided highly -accurate navigation around the desktop with just the right amount of friction. Because the pad has two discrete buttons, it doesn't suffer from any of the horrifying jerkiness we've seen on the clickpads that ruin the navigation experience on other Ultrabooks, like the HP Folio 13.
The pad on the Inspiron 14z supports a variety of multitouch gestures. After we enabled gestures in the touchpad control software, we pinched to zoom and performed two-finger rotates on photos without a hitch. We also used three-finger and four-finger flicks to switch applications, though the pad sometimes confused those gestures with zooming or scrolling.
The Inspiron 14z stayed pleasantly cool throughout our testing. After streaming a video at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured the touchpad at a 85 degrees and the keyboard at a mere 83 degrees Fahrenheit. The underside reached a much warmer 98 degrees. We consider temperatures above 95 degreesuncomfortable and those above 100 degrees disturbing.
With narrow viewing angles and dull colors, the 14-inch, 1366 x 768 glossy display on the Inspiron Z is nothing to write home about. The laptop registered just 154 lux on our light meter, well below the 189 lux thin-and-light notebook average and one of the dimmest we've tested, "surpassed" only by the 139 lux HP Folio 13.
When we tried streaming a 1080p YouTube trailer for "The Avengers" and a 1080p MP4 trailer for "Skyfall", colors that appeared vibrant on other devices we've tested like Iron Man's armor or Daniel Craig's blue eyes, seemed muted. Images began to wash out at just 30 degrees left or right of center and were completely inverted at greater than 45 degrees. With the overhead lights in our office, objects behind us were almost as prominent as icons on the screen.
With its Waves Maxx audio software enabled, the dual front-facing Skull Candy speakers on the Inspiron 14z provided solid audio playback that's loud enough to fill a room. When we tried streaming bass-heavy tunes like Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots" and Kool and the Gang's "Summer Madness," sound was accurate and pleasant, though not overly rich. However, guitar-heavy songs like the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man" and Motley Crue's "Too Young to Fall in Love" sounded a bit harsh at maximum volume.
When we hit the Waves Maxx audio button in the upper right corner of the deck, a small menu appeared in the lower right corner of the desktop. With press of the button, the Waves Maxx menu cycled through the audio software's audio presets for music, movies, games and other types of content. We found that songs sounded best when the system was set to music mode. Unfortunately, we didn't find a way to configure the audio for different types of music or to manually control the equalizer.
Ports and Webcam
For an Ultrabook, the Dell Inspiron 14z has a reasonable selection of ports. On the right side are a SD Card reader, an audio jack, a single USB 3.0 port and a DVD burner. On the left side, the notebook has two different port covers. The first cover hides an Ethernet port and the second protects an HDMI port and a second USB 3.0 port. We'd like to see more than two USB ports on a 14-inch chassis, but we were more annoyed by these flaps; they just get in the way.
The 720p webcam captured bright images even in low light. In our conference room, with light streaming in through a window about 15 feet away, our face was both sharp and colorful. In a dim area of our office and, in our dark living room, our face was equally bright and detailed, though there was a little bit of noise. Considering how poorly most webcams work in these environments, the Inspiron 14z's output is impressive.
With its 1.7-GHz 3rd Generation Core i5-3317U CPU, 8GB of RAM and AMD HD7570M switchable graphics, the Dell Inspiron 14z is powerful enough to handle any productivity task, play HD videos and even play demanding games at low settings.
On PCMark07, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance, the Inspiron 14z scored a solid 2,984, better than the 2,242 thin-and-light notebook category average, but less than the Sony VAIO T13 (3,334), which has the same CPU, and the HP Envy 14 Spectre (3,217) with its 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-2467M CPU.
Because it's assisted by a 32GB SSD, the Inspiron 14z booted Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) in a speedy 28 seconds. However, the 5,400-rpm 500GB hard drive took a modest 2 minutes and 51 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer Test, which involves copying 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of 29.8 MBps, about on par with the 29.6 MBps thin-and-light category average, but much better than the 18.6 MBps provided by the Sony VAIO T13. However, SSD-only notebooks like the HP Envy 14 Spectre (74.8 MBps) copied much faster.
The Inspiron 14z took a reasonable 5 minutes and 47 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro test, which involves matching 20,000 names with their addresses. That time is a bit better than the 6 minute and 5-second category average and much better than the HP Envy 14 Spectre and its 2nd Generation Core i5 CPU.
Because of its switchable AMD Radeon HD7570M graphics chip, the Dell Inspiron 14z is good enough to get reasonable frame rates on some hardcore games. Unfortunately, enabling discrete mode is a chore with the bundled Catalyst Control software, because you must designate each application you want to run with discrete graphics before you open it. We prefer Nvidia's Optimus technology, because it automatically detects graphics-hungry apps and switches on the GPU automatically.
With discrete graphics enabled, the Inspiron 14z scored a strong 6,032 on 3DMark06, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess. That's comfortably above the 5,060 thin-and-light category average and way better than integrated GPU-powered systems like the HP Envy Spectre (3,438) and the Sony VAIO T13 (3,829).
When we fired up "World of Warcraft," the Inspiron 14z returned a strong frame rate of 64 fps at the game's default settings and 32 fps when we turned the special effects up to the max. Those rates are far better than the 51 and 26 fps thin-and-light category averages.
The 14z was also fast enough to play the very demanding game "Batman: Arkham City." At low settings, the notebook produced a playable frame rate of 35 fps. However, when we turned up the special effects, the frame rate dropped to an unplayable 15 fps.
The Dell Inspiron 14z lasted just 5 hours and 35 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over a Wi-Fi connection on 40 percent brightness. That runtime is higher than the Sony VAIO T13 (5:05) but well below the thin-and-light notebook average of 6 hours and 18 minutes and miles behind HP Envy Spectre (6:24) and ASUS Zenbook Prime (6:28).
Our review unit carries an MSRP of $899. For that price, you get a 1.7-GHz Core i5-3317U CPU, AMD HD7570M switchable graphics and 8GB of RAM. The notebook starts at $699 with an older 2nd Generation 1.4-GHz Core i3-2367M CPU, integrated graphics and 6GB of RAM. A more expensive $999 system has the AMD graphics chip but upgrades to a 1.9-GHz Core i7-3517U processor.
We also tested the $799 version of the Inspiron 14z, which comes witha 1.7-GHz Core i5-3317U CPU, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive, and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU. Not surprisingly, that system posted a lower 3DMark11 score of 615, and "WOW" framerates of 47 and 23 fps than the configuration with AMD graphics. However, its other benchmark scores, such as Geekbench (5,971) were roughly the same, as was the battery life.
Software and Warranty
The Dell Inspiron 14z comes with the standard set of Dell utilities we've seen on many of its other consumer laptops. Dell Sync allows you to manage files and sync them across devices and with a free 2GB cloud storage box. Dell Remote allows you to stream content between devices using DLNA.
Dell Webcam Central shoots video and photos with the camera while also allowing you to tweak its settings, add silly effects to your face, choose an avatar like a cat face to replace your face or share your desktop instead of your image when chatting. Windows Mobility Center lets you control settings like the brightness, speaker, power mode, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
The Dell Stage, a dock with 14 Dell applications and the ability to add more, sits along the bottom of the screen. Music Stage is a simple but attractive player that organizes your albums and links to world radio. PhotoStage helps organize your images. The Nearby app shows restaurants and stores near you.
The Games Gallery lists shortcuts to over a dozen Wild Tangent casual games that come preloaded, such as "Dora's World Adventure" and "Jewel Quest Solitaire 2." The Weather tile launches an Accuweather widget that shows you the current time and conditions. Organizer launches Cozi Family Calendar, a free online service. The Reading app launches the Blio reader and bookstore.
Though you can add and remove tiles from the Stage bar, we recommend closing it to save precious screen real estate. You can always access the apps you want from the Start menu.
The Dell Inspiron 14z is one of the best looking Ultrabooks we've seen and, with its discrete graphics and 3rd Generation Core i5 CPU, one of the better performers for its relatively low $899 price. Users who want more battery life or a better screen should consider other 13 and 14-inch Ultrabooks such as the HP Envy 14 Spectre(though it costs a steeper $1,179). However, if you are looking for a lightweight laptop with a premium design, DVD drive and plenty of power, the Inspiron 14z could be right for you.