capsule review

Dell Studio 14z All-Purpose Laptop

At a Glance
  • Dell Studio 14z

    PCWorld Rating

Editor's note: This laptop is a special fixed-configuration model offered only at the Best Buy retail chain.

I had a hard time trying to figure out which machines I should compare the Dell Studio 14z (also known as the S1440-022b) with. It's a slim, slick laptop with no optical drive, like the MSI X340 and Acer Timeline. It has a reasonable amount of horsepower and an nVidia GeForce 9400M GPU, akin to what you'd find in a MacBook Air. So I kicked the tires on this $750 Best Buy special (as of 8/11/09; at Dell's Web site, the customizable 14z starts at $650) to see how it stacked up.

The first thing you'll notice is the lack of an optical drive. One could make the argument that many netbooks and ultraportable laptops take the same tack these days; but those models are compact, while the 14z has a great 14-inch screen. With a machine this size, most people expect to see a place to slide in a disc. And don't feed me the line that external optical drives are pretty cheap now. (Yeah, usually they are, but Dell's aren't: The 8X eSATA DVD-RW drive sells for $120, and an external BD-ROM goes for more than twice that. In contrast, HP sells an external BD-ROM/DVD-RW drive for its Pavilion dv2 for $129.)

All right, so it lacks an optical drive. But offsetting that is the laptop's honest-to-goodness discrete GPU, an nVidia GeForce 9400M. While you won't be able to scream through games at the screen's 1366 by 768 (720p) native resolution, you will be able to enjoy solid frame rates playing at 800 by 600 pixels in games such as Left 4 Dead. Now, a quick aside on the screen: The 14z's crisp image reproduction actually took me aback. Colors jumped and looked appropriately rich. The 720p video we installed on the hard drive ran smoothly, with the bomb bursts in a movie trailer exploding across the 14-inch panel. The machine's display is great--so long as you look at it dead on. Veer too far to the sides, and colors fade. (Not that I expect five people to crowd around a laptop.) I should point out that videophiles opting to buy online from Dell can upgrade the screen to 1600 by 900 (900p).

Let's talk more numbers. The 14z knocked out a reasonable 80 in PC WorldBench 6 tests -- tying with the Sony VGN-NW125J. And keep in mind that our test Dell came with only 3GB of RAM and an Intel 2.1GHz T6500 CPU (one less GB of RAM than Sony). As I teased up top, there's one additional test I can run on this machine that I can't on the other Best Buy-branded machines, thanks to the nVidia GPU: Games. It won't blow the doors off, but at 800 by 600-pixel resolution, you can easily hit 40 frames per second in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and 34 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III. In short, this is the only machine you'll have to worry about him playing games on when he should be doing homework.

As for battery life, the 14z will last you through a couple classes (4 hours, 32 minutes), but not the whole day. That's a little above the average for all-purpose notebooks.

What I can tell you about is the extremely comfortable keyboard. You get a fairly good-sized, well-spaced set of QWERTY keys. Their toughened texture is nice to the touch. And while you might miss having multimedia shortcut keys, a few of the function buttons serve double duty. For instance, you can control brightness by pressing the F4 and F5 keys, while the F7 to F12 keys double as multimedia controls. On top of that, for a little style, the power button rests in the barrel hinge connecting the keyboard and screen, à la the Gateway UC7807u or any number of Sony laptops. The touchpad, however, is where I ran into a little trouble: The touch zone was good enough, for sure, but the buttons felt a little too small and junky. I would have loved seeing something a bit larger.

This is as good an opportunity as any to talk about how the rest of the laptop is designed. The machine is fairly light (4.3 pounds) and lean (13.1 by 9.0 by 0.8 inches). On the top is a slightly rubberized lid that's reminiscent of what Dell is doing with the Latitude 2100. The rest of the case consists of a slim, sloped, silvery plastic that makes the chassis look classy.

But let's focus now on what the 14z manages to cram in--and what it had to omit. This thing is all about watching high-definition media with a pal (even if you don't go to Dell's site and opt for the 900p screen). The proof: The machine has HDMI and DisplayPort outputs but no VGA, and it provides two headphone jacks for you and a buddy to watch flicks. It also sports three USB ports (one doubles as an eSATA port), a mic jack, a 1.3-megapixel Webcam, and an ExpressCard/34 slot. But that's it. (You know, Dell, I could have done without the DisplayPort if you had instead made room for any kind of flash card slot.) As it stands, you'll have to pony up an additional $20 for an ExpressCard slot adapter.

Last, but not least, the sound. I was prepared to keep my expectations low--since Dell didn't even manage to leave a spot for flash memory cards, I could only imagine what kind of emphasis the company placed on the 14z's audio. Imagine my surprise when decently loud sound came out of its two tiny speakers. Music pipes from below the keyboard and vibrates the keys. However, songs like Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody" rang a little hollow, while Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" lacked a meaty mid and caused intermittent crackles. Lesson learned: Loudness doesn't necessarily equate to quality.

So, is the Dell Studio 14z worth Best Buy's $750 asking price? That depends on whom you ask. I, for one, need a laptop that has a built-in flash card slot. It just seems silly to fork over extra money for that no-brainer. As for the optical drive, I could always buy something a little cheaper than Dell's offerings online. Then again, as a multimedia nut, that discrete GPU goes a long way.

Other laptops specially configured for retail sale at Best Buy include the HP dv4-1465dx, the Sony VAIO VGN-NW125J, and the Toshiba Satellite M505-S4940. And check out our video coverage of the four laptops from Best Buy in "Back-to-School Laptops: We Review Best Buy's Exclusives."

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The sleek, slim 14z all-purpose laptop delivers a great package overall--so long as you don't crave an optical drive.

    Pros

    • Crisp, vivid screen
    • Discrete nVidia GPU squeezed inside

    Cons

    • No built-in flash media slots
    • Pricy external optical drive
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