When we reviewed the $829 model of the Dell Inspiron 14z, we praised its sleek and stylish aluminum design and fast performance. However, its price was on the high side for a budget-conscious consumer looking for a portable system. The starting $599 version has the same slick chassis, but a less powerful Core i3 processor, only 4GB of RAM, and lacks a backlit keyboard. So does this model do enough for the price?
Editor's note: Portions of this review were taken from our previous review of the Inspiron 14z.
Simple but elegant, the Inspiron 14z has a sleek 13.6 x 9.7 x 0.9-inch aluminum chassis and weighs 4.6 pounds. The notebook is available in a standard Espresso Black color, or, for an extra $29, Fire Red. We say go with the latter; we like how the red contrasts with the system's black base.
The only markings on the outside of the 14z are a chrome-colored Dell logo situated in the center of the lid and a single Inspiron logo stamped in the bottom-left corner. The black coloring continues onto the deck, where it again contrasts nicely with the 14z's black chiclet style keyboard and bezel.
Dell gave the 14z several chrome treatments, from the power button and the Dell Logo located on the bottom of the display bezel to a sliver of chrome encircling the keyboard. Thankfully, none of this feels like overkill and serves to make the 14z feel more expensive than its price tag would suggest.
At the top right of the keyboard you'll find Dell's Instant Launch button, which you can program to perform any number of tasks or launch a program or website. There's also a Dell Support Center button and Windows Mobility Center button. To the far left of those, you'll find the 14z's power button. The 14z's speakers are located at the front of the system just below the deck.
During our heat test, which involves streaming a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes, the 14z kept its cool. Between the H and G keys, the 14z only reached 85 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same temperature we measured in the center of the system's underside. The touchpad stayed even cooler than that, reaching just 80 degrees. We consider temperatures less than 95 degrees to be comfortable.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Inspiron 14z's chiclet-style keyboard offered excellent responsiveness and tactile feedback. The base model doesn't come with a backlit keyboard, but we think it's worth the $25 upgrade. Using the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor, we scored an average of 70 words per minute with an error rate of 3 percent, which is comparable to our performance on our desktop keyboard. However, the layout exhibited a bit of flex.
We also wish that Dell had reversed the Function row, so that we didn't have to press the Fn key to change volume, for instance. It's all the more inexplicable considering that Mute can be activated without having to press Fn.
The 14z's Synaptics 3.1 x 1.7-inch touchpad had its ups and downs. Navigating around the screen was smooth and accurate, but the pad had trouble with multitouch gestures. Two-finger scrolling and three-finger flicking worked fairly well, but pinch-to-zoom and rotate were inconsistent at best.
Display and Sound
The 14z's 14-inch 1366 x 768 glossy display provided great image quality when viewed head-on. Colors were vibrant and text appeared sharp. While watching a trailer for The Avengers, we noted plenty of contrast, and images were crisp and clear. The display's glossy coating, however, kicked back reflections. Images also washed out significantly when viewed from a modest angle.
As with all Intel Sandy Bridge notebooks, the Dell has built-in support for Intel's Wireless Display (Wi-Di), which allows you to send video and audio content wirelessly to a compatible media adapter and display it on an HD TV.
The Inspiron's SRS premium Audio HD speakers produced decent sound quality with just enough power to fill a small room. Jay Z's "Run This Town" sounded clear, and while bass hits were a bit on the soft side, they didn't sound dull. Above all, nothing we listened to sounded too harsh or tinny.
On the right side of the Inspiron 14z you'll find the tray-loading DVD+RW drive, as well as two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone input, and a security lock slot. On the left is a standard USB 2.0 port, as well HDMI and mini-Display Port. The left side is also where you'll find the 14z's 3-in-1 card reader. Around back is the power connector and Ethernet port, which features a port cover.
In fact, all of the ports are protected by flap covers. While this helps prevent dust from entering your system, these covers just got in the way and slowed us down.
The Inspiron 14z's 1-megapixel webcam provided fair video quality. We didn't notice any pixelation or artifacts when viewing recorded clips. In low-light situations, images became more pixelated, but the picture was still clear enough to make out the thin white stripes on our blue shirt. Dell's Webcam Central software provides users with a wide array of a effects, including avatars and animated frames.
The base model of the Inspiron 14z we reviewed has a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i3-2330M processor and 4GB of RAM, which powered the system to a score of 4,967 in PCMark Vantage. That's about 900 points below the thin-and-light average (5,891) and about 200 points lower than the similarly priced HP Pavilion dm4t, which also has a Core i3 CPU. The $829 version of the Inspiron 14z, which has a Core i5 processor, scored a much higher 7,743. Regardless, if all you're doing is surfing the web, checking Facebook, and doing e-mail, the Core i3 model will have all the power you need.
Unlike the $829 Inspiron 14z, which has a 7,200-rpm hard drive, our starting model has a slower 500GB, 5,400-rpm drive, and it showed. While it booted Windows 7 Home Premium in 1:06--nearly the same as the category average--it took a long 3 minutes and 57 seconds to duplicate 4.97GB of mixed-media files. That's a rate of 21.5 MBps, nearly 6 MBps slower than average (27.9 MBps), and less than the dm4t (24 MBps).
Thanks to the Core i3's QuickSync technology, which allows for quick video editing, the 14z transcoded a 5-minute 1080p video to an iPod touch format in 37 seconds using Cyberlink Media Espresso. It performed a complex VLOOKUP operation on 20,000 rows in a spreadsheet in OpenOffice Calc, the 14z took 8 minutes and 57 seconds, about a minute longer than the Lenovo IdeaPad V470, and about 4 minutes longer than average.
The Inspiron 14z's integrated Intel HD 3000 GPU certainly won't break any graphics performance records, but it managed to hold its own on our testing. In the 3DMark06 benchmark, the 14z notched 3,509, which is below the category average (4,228), but on a par with the dm4t (3,466).
While playing World of Warcraft with the graphics set to autodetect, the 14z managed 28 frames per second. That's equal with the 27 fps turned in by the HP dm4t, but nowhere near category average of 80 fps. Turning up the graphics resulted in an unplayable 12 fps.
The one area where the starting model of the 14z beats its higher-priced version is endurance. The $599 model lasted 7 hours and 15 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi), nearly an hour longer than the $829 version. That also beats out the HP dm4t by a few minutes (7:02), to say nothing of the category average of 5:28.
As is the case with most Dell notebooks, the Inspiron 14z is available in a variety of configurations. The $829 model, which we also reviewed, has a 2.3-GHz Core i5-2410M processor, 8GB of RAM, a 750GB hard drive, and an Intel 3000 HD graphics chip. It's just shy of being top of the line. The only thing it's missing is a $25 Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Hi Def Audio Software upgrade.
Dell also offers a similar system packed with the same Core i5 processor (although with only 6GB of RAM and a 640GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive) with the addition of a dual Wi-Fi and WiMAX mobile wireless card for $749.
Software & Warranty
Dell included a 15-month subscription to McAfee's SecurityCenter software suite, as well as Roxio's Creator Starter CD burning software. The 14z also features the usual suite of Dell software utilities, such as Dell DataSafe backup software and Dell Webcam Central.
Dell's Stage software is a widget that sits at the bottom of the screen and serves as a shortcut for accessing your photos, videos, music, movies, eBooks, and more. Stage Remote allows you to access each of these features from any Android-powered Dell device.
The 14z also includes SyncUp powered by Nero, which allows you to sync your files across multiple devices using your home Wi-Fi network or via the cloud from your Nero account.
Dell offers a standard one-year limited hardware warranty, which covers defects in materials and workmanship. You'll also receive a basic one-year service plan that includes remote diagnosis and in-home service if remote diagnosis is unsuccessful. You can also opt for a three-year service package that covers accidental damage, but that will run you an additional $323. See how Dell fared in this year's Tech Support Showdown and where the carrier landed in the Best & Worst Brands report.
We liked the Inspiron 14z at $829, but the $599 version is an even better choice for bargain hunters. While you give up some performance, you get an hour more of battery life in return. The aluminum chassis is stylish, and it's worth the extra $54 to spring for the Fire Red chassis and backlit keyboard. We're just not fans of the port covers or the way the laptop's touchpad handles some multitouch gestures. Other than those minor issues, the Dell Inspiron 14z is a very good value.