Review: Dell Inspiron 14z

Dell’s Inspiron gets a big makeover this year, evolving (at last) into a sleek and modern-looking laptop while maintaining a very low price.

Marketed as an ultrabook, the new Inspiron 14z may surprise you at first since it’s a 14-inch model instead of the usual 13.3. At 23 millimeters thick, it’s also technically a bit fat to meet Intel’s ultrabook rules (21mm is the limit for 14-inch systems), but Dell probably skirts this by not including the rubber feet in its measurements.

A curvy and handsome blend of plastic and brushed aluminum, the 14z, at 4.2 pounds, is the lightest 14-inch laptop I’ve tested literally in years. I can’t complain about the specs, either, which include a 1.7GHz third-generation Core i5 (Ivy Bridge), 500GB hard drive, 8GB of RAM, and switchable AMD Radeon HD 7570M graphics. Ports cover only the basics: one USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, full-size Ethernet, SD card reader, and HDMI out. However, there’s also an integrated optical drive, another ultrabook oddity.

It all sounds pretty good, but that excitement is tempered once the 14z is turned on. The sheer volume of preinstalled software is daunting, from a large Accuweather widget to a backup manager to the giant Dell Stage quick-launch toolbar that dominates the home screen. Navigating the many popups all these apps throw out isn’t easy, particularly because the trackpad is so incredibly sensitive, and clicks fail to register with a surprising regularity, an unusual problem on a laptop with discrete buttons.

The keyboard is also a curious letdown. The keys are extremely small, a problem that is compounded by their heavily rounded corners and mushy action. All in all, typing just isn’t a comfortable experience.

On the performance front, the 14z comes through better than you’d expect at this price level. It’s nothing record-breaking, and while there were no problems with general apps, graphics performance was hit and miss. Mainly this was due to issues with the switchable GPU, which is configured via a control panel that lets you turn discrete graphics on or off on a by-application basis. This is an interesting approach, but it’s also an invasive one that creates even more pop-ups you have to deal with, and if you make a mistake, changing a selection you’ve already made once for an application is difficult.

I also encountered a bug where applications would report they were using integrated graphics whether or not I set them to use the discrete GPU. It’s a frustrating problem because there’s no easy way to tell which GPU is active. Either way, graphics performance is not terribly impressive, and even with the GPU active, I didn’t see framerates over 20fps on most modern game titles.

It’s important to keep in perspective, though, that this is an $900, 14-inch ultrabook that includes an optical drive and still weighs barely four pounds. Aside from its weight, little about the 14z is especially earth-shattering, but a proper ultrabook really shouldn’t be shattering anything, should it?

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