It's not just a buttoned-down black version of an Inspiron. The Vostro 1400, part of a new Dell notebook line, was designed from the ground up to appeal to the specific needs of small-business customers (offices with 1 to 25 workers). From tune-up and network-assistant tools to an easy online-backup solution, using the Vostro 1400 is like having a tiny IT guy inside your system. Plus, you get all of the multimedia amenities of a consumer notebook (webcam, multimedia controls, 8-in-1 card reader) without the crapware that bogs down other brands.
With its rounded edges and soft-touch-finish lid, this notebook certainly looks hipper than the corporate Latitude line. (You don't have the Inspiron's eight color options, but that's fine given this system's target audience.) The six-pound Vostro 1400 is relatively thick and heavy for a notebook with a 14.1-inch display, but the magnesium-alloy chassis feels sturdy. If you'll be plugged in most of the time, you can skip the nine-cell battery that hangs off the back of the system and opt for a lighter six-cell battery, which will save you $40 and about a half a pound. We loved the responsiveness of the full-sized and sealed keyboard; the nice-sized touchpad buttons were equally responsive without being noisy.
Because this Vista Business system is modeled after the Inspiron 1420, you'll find a row of media playback buttons and volume controls. You also get decent-sounding speakers, a two-megapixel webcam with dual-array microphones, and a Dell MediaDirect button. Pressing that grants quick access to music, photos, and videos, as well as to contacts and calendar entries--without having to boot Vista. The 14.1-inch WXGA display, with a matte finish, delivered good viewing angles. A glossy panel with the same resolution is the same price.
The rest of the notebook is pretty standard fare, with four USB ports, one FireWire, VGA, S-Video, and ExpressCard/54 on the sides, and the memory card reader up front. A DVD burner and 160GB hard drive round out the features.
What's not standard is the comprehensive suite of tools Dell includes to make the lives of small-business workers less stressful. Clicking on the Dell Support Center icon on the desktop, for example, gives you easy access to system information like the service tag number and warranty information. Should you need to talk to a live person, Dell will connect you with dedicated small-business technicians. Although given all of the included resources, you likely won't be making many calls.
Take the Dell Network Assistant utility: From one screen you can set up or repair your network, as well as share folders and printers. And within the Self Help menu in Dell Support Center, you can run performance and virus scans on your Vostro 1400. We especially like the Automated PC Tuneup feature (free for one year), which automates all the little things you either forget or don't know how to do. This tool will remove unwanted and temporary files, enable automatic Windows updates, update your security settings, turn on your firewall, and perform regular maintenance chores. Inspiron customers have to pay $19 for this feature.
If you want to be able to back your system up without sweating the details, there's Dell DataSafe Online. This easy-to-use service comes with 10GB of free Web-based storage, making it easy to safeguard documents and other files and retrieve them in case of a malfunctioning hard drive, theft, or user error. It's free for one year, and $19 per year after that. Dell offers free online storage for Inspiron customers as well, but it's limited to 3GB for one year.
The Vostro 1400's power comes from a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM, enabling the system to notch an impressive PCMark05 score of 4,683. That's nearly 1,000 points higher than the Inspiron 1520, which has the same CPU and amount of RAM but a larger 15.4-inch screen to feed. Thanks to Nvidia's midrange GeForce 8400M GS graphics card, the Vostro 1400 has more than enough horsepower for Vista's Aero effects and casual gaming. Its 3DMark03 score of 4,900 is well above average for a thin-and-light notebook.
Everyday performance was delightfully brisk, due in no small part to the lack of trial software. Dell lets Inspiron customers opt out of trial software when configuring a notebook online, but for Vostro systems the default is set to no trialware. As a result, bootup times averaged a reasonable 45 seconds, so you spend less time waiting for your laptop and more time working. Multitasking performance was also solid.
Given its hefty nine-cell battery, we're not surprised that the Vostro 1400 lasted a very good 3.5 hours on our DVD rundown test. Wireless scores were also impressive; the 802.11n connection delivered throughput of 17.3 Mbps and 16.7 Mbps from 15 and 50 feet away from our access point, respectively. Dell's Wi-Fi Catcher switch on the front of the system helps you locate the nearest hotspot without booting up. Integrated mobile broadband is optional ($150 for EV-DO Rev. A and $180 for HSDPA), but Bluetooth 2.0 is included with this configuration.
Other than Roxio Media Creator 9 and Adobe Acrobat reader, there wasn't any third-party software on our Vostro 1400, but you can opt for Microsoft Works 8.5 and a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2007 for no additional cost. Dell backs this notebook with a one-year warranty and one year of mail-in service. In-home service, available for the next business day, costs an extra $39. You even get a 30-day money-back guarantee, a unique perk for Vostro customers.
Although other vendors have attempted to court small-business customers with their existing corporate notebook lines, the Vostro 1400 is tailor-made for that audience and worthy of its own sub-brand. It's a powerful laptop that's as easy to use as it is to maintain.Editors' Note:
To redeem Dell's E-Value code, click here and type in "999" in the first field and "bqdzj7a" in the second field. Company representatives told us that the code should remain valid at least through early November.
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