capsule review

Dell Inspiron 14z: Too Quirky to Be Lovable

At a Glance
  • Dell Inspiron 14z

    PCWorld Rating

I wanted to like the Dell Inspiron 14z when I first opened the laptop's lid. Alas, love at first sight faded to “let’s just be friends” in short order. The Inspiron 14z--Dell sent us a "special edition" unit for testing--has a lot to like, but a few quirky design choices kept me from true love.

Let’s talk about the positives first. The Dell Inspiron 14z we received is configured with a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M processor, 6GB of DDR3 memory, and a capacious 640GB hard drive. At 4.5 pounds without the power brick and just barely 5.25 pounds with it, it’s not too hefty, either. The 1366-by-768-pixel backlit LED screen is bright and seems to provide moderately wide viewing angles.

Closed, the Inspiron 14z offers an uninspired, muted exterior, though you can also get it in red if the black metallic lid isn’t your cup of tea. Pop open the lid, and you'll see a brightly backlit keyboard that’s slightly recessed into the chassis with an attractive chrome accent around the keyboard. This keyboard design, however, turns out to be a poor choice for touch-typists. Typing on the Inspiron’s keyboard, I noticed a distinct lack of white space between most of the words--my thumb kept hitting the lip surrounding the keyboard rather than the spacebar, making accurate typing a chore.

The touchpad has its share of issues, too, mostly because of the buttons. One thing Dell gets right with its touchpads is their lack of oversensitivity. A palm hovering over the touchpad won’t send the cursor skittering across the screen. However, the buttons require substantial force to push down. At times, I had to consciously exert effort to press down the touchpad buttons. That’s two ergonomic strikes against the Inspiron 14z.

The display appears bright, although colors in digital photos seem just a little muted. Video looks good, however, as does upscaled DVD content, lacking the noisiness I’ve seen with other systems. However, Dell defaults to Nero’s SyncUp app for playing back video, and large files streaming across the LAN stutter and pause. Once, after closing SyncUp, the audio continued to play, and only a reboot fixed the issue. Switching video playback to Windows Media Player completely cleared up the problem.

Audio sounds pretty good, but I was initially appalled at how the stereo imaging wandered from left to right aimlessly. I discovered that the Inspiron 14z uses SRS Premium Sound HD, which is relabeled "Dell Audio." Firing up the SRS control panel and adjusting the SRS 3D Space setting to something minimal--around 20 percent--fixes the imaging issue. At this SRS setting the overall sound quality for music is pleasant enough, if not particularly loud, but your best bet is a good set of headphones.

Performance seems on a par with similar 14-inch laptops, though the Lenovo T420’s Core i5-2520M CPU plus its Nvidia discrete graphics outruns the Dell. Still, the T420 also weighs nearly a pound more.

Another petty annoyance is the Inspiron 14z’s insistence on trying to hide its ports beneath flimsy plastic covers, which only serve to restrict access to the ports without really improving the overall appearance. Two USB 3.0 ports and a lone multipurpose audio jack are hidden beneath one cover on the right side, adjacent the DVD drive. The left side contains a single USB 2.0 connector plus HDMI and mini-DisplayPort connectors, along with an SD card slot.

The special edition of the Inspiron 14z ships with 8GB of DDR3 memory and a 640GB, 5400-rpm hard drive. However, as noted earlier, our unit actually showed only 6GB of RAM in Windows, so I’m uncertain whether Dell simply forgot to upgrade this particular system, or if a DRAM module is problematic. Networking includes 802.11n, gigabit ethernet, and Bluetooth. You can buy an Inspiron 14z preconfigured with Intel’s WiMax adapter if you want wireless broadband.

Overall, the Inspiron 14z is a light, attractive laptop that’s easy to lug around and offers good performance for its $599 sale price. However, strange ergonomic choices make this a less than an ideal unit, particularly if you’re a touch-typist.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Inspiron 14z offers good performance in a lightweight chassis, but with some quirky flaws.

    Pros

    • It's lighter than most similar laptops
    • Bluetooth included

    Cons

    • A good keyboard, marred by poor chassis structure
    • The touchpad buttons require too much force
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