Introduction and Design
Can Portable Performance be Affordable?
When I think of inexpensive workhorse laptops, Inspiron is one of the first names that comes to mind. This may partially be because HP remains oddly committed to a strange number-based naming scheme that’s as easy to remember as my second cousin’s birthday, but it’s also because the Inspiron is as common as rice. In college, they seemed to be the most popular Windows PC by far, and they’re still sold by most brick-and-mortar electronics stores despite Dell’s significant online presence.
Part of the reason for this popularity is price, and that means Inspirons are often competent, but can also be a bit dull. There’s always exceptions to the rules, however, and Dell has decided to spice up the brand with the new Inspiron 14z. Starting at $599, this “thin and powerful” laptop could be appealing consumers who want to get on the slim-and-sexy train for cheap, but trying to cram a lot of hardware in a small chassis with an inexpensive price can sometimes result in compromises. Did Dell have to cut corners to make this possible?
One thing’s for sure – they certainly didn’t make this laptop inexpensive by stripping out the hardware. Even the $599 base model comes with a second-generation Core i3 along with four gigabytes of RAM. Our review unit had a few upgrades, however, as you can see below.
Configuring a unit exactly as tested is difficult, because Dell appears to have moved to using a slightly quicker Core i5-2430M as the upgraded option, rather than the Core i5-2410M available earlier and used in our review unit. The best match comes in at $749. That’s still affordable, though outside of what I would call the budget market.
Still, price isn’t everything. In order to earn a recommendation this Dell with need to have design that matches its hardware, and since this is a relatively small laptop, battery life will also be important. Let’s see if it’s up to the task.
Bam! This Dell is red. While the semi-gloss finish is called “Fire Red” officially, it’s really more of an elegant candy red. In fact, I suspect it’s the exact same finish that the company uses on its Vostro laptops. If there is a difference, it’s not visible to my eye.
If you aren’t saving every penny, I recommend the red, because it gives the 14z a much more luxurious appearance compared to the basic black.
Material quality is solid. Aluminum is used to coat the lid and interior surfaces, while the rest of the chassis is high-quality plastic. This makes for a solid combination, though there is the slightest hint of flex if you pick the laptop up from the side on which the optical drive is located. As is often the case, the plastic around the drive bay isn’t strong enough to completely resist deformation when it comes under direct pressure.
Yes, this thin-and-light laptop has an optical drive, which is somewhat unusual for products in this category (but certainly not a downside). Then again, the 14z isn’t really that thin. Though most of the chassis is just a hair less than an inch thick, there’s little tapering at the front. Dell’s official figures also do not include the six-cell battery, which juts out from the bottom of the laptop, adding an additional half-inch to the thickness of the rear.
Connectivity options are robust. Along the left flank there is HDMI, Mini-DisplayPort, one USB 2.0 port, and a card reader hides further forward. On the right you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports and a combo headphone/mic jack. This is a competitive array of ports, but there is one small issue – access. To preserve the smooth lines of the 14z, Dell covered the ports with plastic flaps. They’re a pain to remove, and if you want to put something in a port permanently – such a USB doggle for a wireless mouse – they’ll constantly be hanging open.
Consumers who buy this laptop expecting something akin to a budget MacBook Air will be disappointed. Even Dell’s own Vostro V131, which actually starts at just $499, is significantly thinner. If you can get over this issue, however, you’ll likely enjoy this laptop’s robust feel. It reminds me of Sony’s products, and considering the price premium attached to them, it’s surprising that Dell has managed to pack so much into a laptop that costs so little.