Dell Inspiron 15 (M5030) Review

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Pros: Very inexpensive; Comfy keyboard; Much faster than similarly priced netbooks; Runs cool

Cons: Lackluster benchmark scores; Bland design; No HDMI; Relatively short battery life

Verdict: For about the same price as a netbook, the Inspiron 15 delivers a larger screen and plenty of oomph for basic computing.

Talk about a bargain. For $349, about the same price as a premium netbook, you can nab the Dell Inspiron 15 M5030. This 15-inch laptop features AMD's Athlon II dual-core processor and has many of the features offered by other mainstream machines. Read on to find out how many trade-offs you need to make and whether this steal on paper is really worthwhile.

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Design

The Inspiron 15 M5030 is a basic black rectangle that weighs 5.6 pounds, with nary a curve or sleek line in sight. The flashiest part of the system is its glossy black lid with an embossed chrome Dell logo in the center. Lifting the lid, the glossy black turns into trim around the screen, power button, and edges of the deck and keyboard. The remainder of the deck is a harsh matte black, which is reminiscent of the forgotten-about underside of many budget notebooks. Thankfully, the touchpad surface is a much smoother version of matte black.

Unlike other Dells we've seen recently--such as the Inspiron 17R and the XPS 15z--the Inspiron 15 trades the hinge-on-the-deck design for a dropped hinge design, which we prefer. The Inspiron 15's profile is fairly attractive, but the overall look of the laptop is bland, which is not surprising given the price tag.

Heat

The Inspiron 15 stayed comfortable and cool sitting on our lap, although we did notice that it was slightly warmer near the power adapter port when we first unplugged the notebook. After streaming a 15-minute Hulu video, the Inspiron 15 heated up to just 89 degrees Fahrenheit on the underside, while the touchpad measured 87 and the space between the G and H keys moved the mercury up to 93 degrees. We consider anything below 95 degrees to be comfortable.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard on the Inspiron 15 M5030 uses a traditional layout with the keys positioned more closely together, as opposed to the more modern chiclet style. Nevertheless, we found the keyboard to be comfortable. On the Ten Thumbs Typing test, our score of 63 words per a minute was identical to what we achieved on an external keyboard. However, while clicking away, we noticed that the keys made some noise, which could be due to the small amount of flex in the layout. We like that the Inspiron 15 M5030 uses inverted function keys, which makes it easy to adjust the volume and display brightness.

The 3.5 x 1.8-inch touchpad on the Inspiron 15 is roomy and features recessed mouse buttons, which worked well. The touchpad itself is almost too responsive; the on-screen arrow was a bit jumpy until we lessened the sensitivity in the control panel. Unfortunately, the pad does not support multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, but it does offer vertical, horizontal, and circular scrolling (the last of which allows you to scroll by spiraling your fingertip on the touchpad).

Display and Audio

The 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel resolution display on the Inspiron 15 M5030 is bright, but the colors looked a little washed out. While watching a 720p trailer for The Muppets on IMDb.com, we noticed that Kermit didn't look quite as vibrant as he did on other displays.

Sound from the Inspiron 15 M5030 was more than loud enough to fill a mid-sized room as we cranked up Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," but higher-range audio sounded shrill and distorted at loud volumes. Likewise, lower-range sounds become distorted at higher volumes. At lower volumes, the laptop sounded a little better, but the overall audio was harsh.

Ports and Webcam

The Inspiron 15 M5030's port spread is more akin to a netbook's than a typical laptop's. Don't expect to find USB 3.0 or even an HDMI port along the edges of this system. The Inspiron 15 has three USB 2.0 ports on the left side, two of which are stacked on top of one another, an Ethernet port, and a VGA port. Under the front lip are a 3-in-1 card reader and headphone and mic jacks. On the right side are the DVD burner and a Kensington lock slot.

The 0.3-megapixel webcam on the Inspiron 15 M5030 delivered better results than we expected. Our Skype caller reported that, while it wasn't the brightest image he had seen, it was still clear and sharp. Dell also includes its Webcam Central software, which gives users the option of applying multiple (fun/cheesy) scenes to their images.

Performance

Compared to other mainstream notebooks, the 2.3-GHz AMD Athlon II P360 processor inside the Inspiron 15 M5030 didn't blow us away, but it's fine for getting online and completing productivity chores. On PCMark Vantage, this laptop scored 3,318. That number is well above the average netbook (1,375) but well below the mainstream notebook average of 5,550 and other budget 15-inch systems. The AMD-powered Toshiba Satellite L655D notched 4,140, and the HP Pavilion G6x reached an even higher 5,384.

Nevertheless, we didn't experience any lag while writing this review on the system with 13 tabs open in Google Chrome, three tabs in Firefox, and Windows Media Player open and active. The Inspiron 15 M5030 took 1 minute and 23 seconds to convert a 114MB MP4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder. That showing is 13 seconds below the mainstream laptop average and 22 seconds longer than the G6x, but it's still a lot faster than the netbook average (5:55).

On the LAPTOP internal file transfer test, where 4.97GB of mixed media is copied from one folder on the hard drive to another, the Inspiron 15 fell just slightly below the average time of 3:17, completing the file transfer in 3 minutes and 31 seconds, which translates to a rate of 24.1 MBps, 2 MBps below the average.

It's a good thing that we didn't need to restart the system often during our testing. The Inspiron 15 took a whopping 1 minute and 32 seconds to boot. That's 27 seconds longer than the mainstream notebook average and longer than both the L655D (1 minute, 10 seconds) and the G6x (1 minute, 14 seconds).

Graphics

Just as one might expect, this budget machine isn't meant to compete in all-night gaming parties--unless your gaming involves lots of Angry Birds. The Inspiron 15 M5030 scored 1,725 on 3DMark06, which is just slightly below both the G6x (1,826) and the L655D (1,817). Still, this score is nearly four times higher than the netbook average.

The Inspiron 15 M5030 eked out an unplayable 17 fps in World of Warcraft at its native 1366 x 768 resolution with the graphics set to "Good." When we upped the graphics setting to its highest level of detail, it dropped to just 8 fps. Though this system isn't meant for serious gamers, it handled casual games such as Angry Birds from the Chrome web store quite well. We were able to send birds flying through the air without any lag or inaccuracy.

Battery Life and Wireless

The Inspiron 15 M5030 lasted just 3 hours and 7 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. That's almost 1:20 below the mainstream notebook average and the HP Pavilion G6x. It's 10 minutes longer than the L655D, but that's nothing to be proud of here.

On a higher note, the Atheros AR9285 wireless card inside the Inspiron 15 M5030 delivered solid wireless speeds of 36.1 Mbps at 15 feet away from the router and 22.1 Mbps at 50 feet away. These speeds are almost identical to the average wireless speeds for mainstream notebooks (36.7 Mbps/21.8 Mbps).

Software and Warranty

The Inspiron 15 M5030 comes with Dell Stage, a dock that gives users quick access to music, games, photos, program shortcuts, videos, websites, and, of course, Dell's websites. There's also Dell DataSafe backup software and Microsoft Office Starter 2010 Edition. You'll also find the Best Buy PC app, which provides links to software and games for the notebook. Finally, there's a 30-day trial of McAfee Security Center, which popped up numerous times to warn us that we were not protected.

The Insprion 15 comes with a one-year limited warranty. For a taste of Dell's support prowess, see how the company fared in our Tech Support Showdown.

Verdict

Though the Inspiron 15 M5030 didn't shine in our benchmarks, we still found it adequate for everyday computing chores such as surfing the web, updating Facebook, and playing casual games. It's not often that a 15-inch notebook is priced as low as $350 and is still viable, with a comfortable (albeit loud) keyboard. The lack of HDMI will turn off some, and this is definitely not a machine for multimedia enthusiasts, but if you're looking for something bigger and more capable than a netbook, the Inspiron 15 M5030 is a good value.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU AMD Athlon II P360 2.30-Ghz dual-core processor
Operating System MS Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 6GB
Hard Drive Size 320GB
Hard Drive Speed 5,400rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Hard Drive
Display Size 15.6
Native Resolution 1366x768
Optical Drive DVD /-RW DL
Optical Drive Speed
Graphics Card ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4250
Video Memory Shared
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Atheros AR9285
Bluetooth
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3.5 x 1.8 inches
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Kensington Lock
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
USB Ports 3
Card Slots 3-1 card reader
Warranty/Support 1-year limited warranty
Size 14.9 x 9.6 x 1.6 inches
Weight 5.6 pounds
Company Website http://www.dell.com