Wednesday

Dell Inspiron 13z review

Dell's re-imagined Inspiron line continues to push the boundaries of what one can expect from this long-standing mainstream/budget laptop family. For years, an Inspiron was a bulky plastic box designed to offer competent computing at a reasonable price, with the added bonus of wide-ranging customization options, but many of the newer models have enough style to appeal beyond simply bargain hunters.

The new Inspiron 13z is not the thinnest, lightest, fanciest 13-inch laptop you'll find this year, but it's close to being the best balance of price, design, and components for price-conscious shoppers. At $699, you get a standard mainstream 13-inch laptop loadout, highlighted by a low-voltage Intel Core i5 CPU.


It's the low(er)-budget cousin of this year's crop of thin 13-inch ultrabooks, but manages to still look upscale and svelte at the same time, as long as you don't look too closely to see its smudge-prone plastic lid or cheap-feeling plastic port covers.

You can get a similar config for a little less, in the Acer Aspire V5-171-6867, if you trade down to a cramped 11-inch body that's much harder to type on. Or you can pay the same amount for a 17-inch Inspiron 17R, but that's only for people who need maximum screen size at minimum price (and the design of that system reminds me too much of the boxy Inspirons of old).

It's not quite an ultrabook, but for $699 it's a reasonably close facsimile, with mainstream power and design, that looks slim and sleek, at least from a distance.


Design 

 
The Dell Inspiron 13z is a bit of an in-betweener in laptop design. On one hand, it's easily identifiable as a lower-cost product, with a shiny plastic lid and body that's thicker than your average ultrabook's. On the other, it's part of Dell's "z" range of Inspirons (the "z" indicates a thinner design than some other models), which is a serious visual update to the Inspiron family.

Interestingly, the updated design works better in the slightly larger 14-inch Inspiron 14z. That system has a similar look, but better construction, with a metal lid and keyboard tray instead of metal-colored plastic. The 14z felt sturdier in the hand, and side by side with this 13z, the Inspiron 14z has a much more XPS-like feel. However, our Inspiron 14z, with the same CPU but adding discrete AMD graphics, costs $200 more.

As with many Inspiron laptops, the top layer of the lid pops off and can be replaced by aftermarket alternatives in different colors. The available options I saw were pink or red, each for $29.

Display 

 
The 13.3-inch display has a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which is standard for a sub-$1,000 laptop of this size, and also very common in 14- and 15-inch laptops. For the money, you certainly can't complain, and the screen was sharp and bright, with decent horizontal off-axis viewing, but terrible vertical off-axis viewing.

Keyboard And  Touch pad 
 
A sunken black keyboard tray and black keys offers contrast with the dark-gray brushed-metal-like design (still mostly plastic) on the back of the lid and interior tray. The keyboard keys are Dell's standard variation on the flat-topped, widely spaced, island-style keyboard found in most current laptops. In the Dell version, the keys have more-rounded corners than most, and the top row of Function keys is half-height. The keys have a loose feel to them, and will wiggle under your fingers a bit.

This touch pad is the third Dell variant I've seen recently. The high-end XPS laptops have a buttonless clickpad, similar to what you'd find on a MacBook. The slightly more expensive Inspiron 14z has a similar, but larger, two-button touch pad, but with a much nicer matte surface. The two-button pad on the 13z lacks that matte surface layer. It's functional, but multitouch gestures, most importantly the two-finger scroll, stuttered.

Speakers 
Don't expect much from the small 1.5-watt stereo speakers. They'll do fine for Hulu viewing, but they don't pack much punch for music. A quick-launch button above the keyboard launches a series of audio presets from Waves, a company known for its sound plug-ins, but don't expect miracles; it's basically just a bunch of EQ presets.

Features




You get exactly what you'd expect from a 13-inch laptop in this price range, nothing more, nothing less. That means a pair of USB 3.0 ports, HDMI-out, and the standard Ethernet and SD card connections, but no mic input or secondary video output. The ports are hidden under fragile-feeling plastic flaps, which are annoying to manipulate and don't look like they'd protect from too much.

The 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U CPU is a low-voltage version of the third-gen Core i5 found in so many $600 to $1,000 laptops. Similar low-voltage Core i5 chips power most ultrabooks, even much more expensive ones, so it's no surprise that the Inspiron 13z performed nearly exactly like competing systems such as the Asus Zenbook UX31A or the Samsung Series 9. In those more expensive systems, you're paying for design and materials, and maybe SSD storage, rather than processing power.

Even though the 13z offers great application performance for $699, it has only Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics for gaming. Our Street Fighter IV test ran at the native resolution at 26.6 frames per second, which means newer games will need to be played at lower resolutions and detail settings to get acceptable performance, if they'll play at all.

Battery life 
Battery life is another area where the 13z offers a mixed bag. The system ran for 5 hours and 1 minute on our video playback battery drain test, which is a decent number, and acceptable given the price, but it was also well behind ultrabooks such as the Samsung Series 9, Asus Zenbook UX31A, Acer Timeline M5, and Sony Vaio T. Spending more, you could easily get 2 or more hours of extra battery life from a higher-end laptop.

Conclusion
Dell's XPS laptops include extras such as accidental damage protection and LoJack service. The more basic Inspiron plan does include on-site service, which is welcome, but only 90 days of what Dell calls premium phone support, which it claims means shorter wait times. A three-year plan (including the upgraded phone support) is $149.

Despite my qualms about some of the fit and finish details of the Inspiron 13z, this is still a reasonably slim and attractive 13-incher that offers comparable performance to more-expensive ultrabooks. That said, the slightly bigger 14-inch Inspiron 14z has better construction and features, starting at around the same price.

Spaces

Processor 

  • 3rd Generation Intel® Core™ i5-3317U processor (3M Cache, up to 2.6 GHz)

Operating System

  • Windows® 7 Home Premium, 64Bit, English

Memory

  • 6GB Shared Dual Channel DDR3 Memory

Chipset

  • Mobile Intel® 7 Series Express Chipset (HM77)

Video Card

  • Intel® HD Graphics 4000

Display

  • 13.3" High Definition LED Display (1366 x 768) with Truelife

Audio and Speakers

  • 2 Skullcandy Speakers with Waves MaxxAudio® 4processing

Hard Drive 

  • Up to 500GB SATA hard drive (5400RPM)

Optical Drive

  • External tray-loading DVD+/RW optional

Power

  • 44 WHr Prismatic Battery

Camera

  • Native HD 1.0 MP webcam with digital microphone

Wireless

  • Dell Wireless 1703 802.11n + BT 4.0 
    Dell Wireless 1704 802.11n + BT 4.0 
    Intel® Centrino® Wireless-N 2230 + BT 4.0

Ports, Slots & Chassis

  • Externally Accessible
    (3) USB 3.0 + (1) USB 3.0 PowerShare
    RJ45 Ethernet
    HDMI™ v1.4a
    VGA
    Headphone jack
    Microphone jack
    Kensington Security Lock
    AC Power In

    Multi-media Card Reader
    Digital (SD) Memory Card 
    Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC)
    Secure Digital Extended Capacity (SDXC) with UHS 50MB/Sec
    Memory Stick (MS)
    Memory Stick PRO (MS Pro)
    Memory Stick XC (MSXC)
    Multi Media Card (MMC)
    Multi Media Card plus (MMC+) Supported in MMC compatibility mode only

    Dimensions & Weight

    Width: 13.7" (332mm) 
    Height: 0.82" (20.7mm)
    Depth: 9.05" (230mm)
    Starting weight of 3.81 lbs (1.73kg)

Regulatory

  • Regulatory Model: P11S
    Regulatory Type: P11S002