With the Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook, you can have it your way: from a $600 low-powered version to a loaded model for $1,000. That starting price seems pretty attractive for a 14-inch Ultrabook, but a closer look reveals some warts.
Mediocre battery life. You can get a Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook for $600, but that's with a lesser processor (Intel Core i3) and less RAM (4 GB) than the competition. Experts ignore that configuration. Instead, they test one that typically sports a Core i5 processor, 6 GB RAM, 500 GB hard drive and 32 GB solid-state drive. That'll cost you at least $750, depending on what other goodies you add.
The built-in integrated graphics (standard for cheap Ultrabooks) is fine for everyday tasks, but will only play graphics-heavy games at low settings. Gamers will instead probably want the optional 1 GB AMD Radeon HD discrete graphics.
Battery life doesn't impress. Testers get just four to six hours per charge -- and that's without a touch screen.
No touch screen. Unlike the best budget Ultrabooks, the Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook lacks a touch screen. This means you won't get the most out of touch-oriented Windows 8, although you can still use it. There's a big multi-touch touchpad that works pretty well in tests, although not as smoothly as a MacBook's.
The full-size keyboard isn't backlit. Testers say it feels just OK to type on. Even worse, the keyboard actually flexes during tests at Laptop Magazine and TrustedReviews.com -- a weakness that's "especially galling if you buy the maxed-out Dell Inspiron 14z," writes Ardjuna Seghers at TrustedReviews.com.
The Dell runs fairly cool, although the underside reaches an uncomfortable 98 degrees after streaming full-screen video for 15 minutes in Laptop Magazine's tests.
Ultrabooks with an optical drive (like the 4-pound Dell) tend to be heavier than those without. Still, it's slim and easy to haul. The Dell gets the usual array of ports for this class, including two USB 3.0 jacks, Ethernet, HDMI, a combination headphone/microphone jack and Kensington lock slot.
Premium finishes -- but maybe too many of them. Like other Ultrabooks, Dell strives for a MacBook Air look. Some critics like it. Others hate it.
"A truly premium look and feel," says Avram Piltch at Laptop Magazine. "The kind of laptop you wouldn't be embarrassed to pull out in your favorite hipster coffee shop, even if everyone else there has a MacBook," says Dan Ackerman at CNET. Piltch likes the brushed-aluminum lid and deck, matte plastic trim in silver and dark gray and soft-touch black plastic bottom.
But it looks like a mishmash to Seghers at TrustedReviews.com. The glossy black keyboard, matte black keys and chrome power button and hinges -- plus the aforementioned four finishes -- add up to "probably more type and colours of finish than we've ever seen on a single laptop ... this 14z isn't ugly, but it looks a little too much like 'my first laptop' to earn plaudits in the design department."
The 14-inch, 1,366-by-768-pixel screen isn't full HD, and it isn't the brightest. It's hard to see at an angle in tests, and the glossy finish can throw off glare, which doesn't help. The Skullcandy speakers sound reasonably loud and clear -- "about average," Seghers says.
Good warranty, but lousy phone support. Dell backs the Inspiron 14z Ultrabook with a strong warranty, including 90 days of phone support plus one year in-home service after remote diagnosis. However, Dell fails to win a Readers' Choice award (which considers reliability) at PCMag.com.
"Dismal phone service" lands Dell dead-last among laptop brands in Laptop Magazine's tech support showdown. Online techs were helpful, but phone reps "repeatedly gave us pushy and unnecessary sales pitches, even going so far as to fake a sweepstakes" to try to sell an extended warranty.
Scrape up the extra $100, if you can. Dell's $600 starting price is very low for a 14-inch Ultrabook. However, the Acer Aspire M5-481PT (*Est. $700) offers pretty much everything the Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook has, plus a touch screen, sturdier build and better customer service, for $100 more. If you can swing it, reviews indicate that you'll probably be happier with the Acer.
1. Laptop Magazine
Review Credibility: Excellent Laptop Magazine tests a mid-level version of the Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook, with a faster processor, more RAM and better graphics capability than the base model -- a configuration that pushes the price to the high end of the budget range. Performance is naturally better than the base model, but other factors are the same. Avram Piltch knocks off points for a dim screen, flexy keyboard, irritating port covers and so-so battery life.
Review: Dell Inspiron 14z (Ivy Bridge) Review, Avram Piltch, June 19, 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent PCMag.com tests the same upgraded version of the Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook as Laptop Magazine. Performance aside, the Dell's rather heavy build and short battery life can't quite keep up with its rivals.
Review: Dell Inspiron 14z (Summer 2012), Joel Santo Domingo, June 22, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good CNET gets its hands on the same performance-upgraded version of the Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook as most other sources. Dan Ackerman likes it, praising its mostly "upscale feel." Battery life could be better, though.
Review: Dell Inspiron 14z Review, Dan Ackerman, June 19, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good This British reviewer tests the upgraded Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook, but everything else applies to the base model -- Ardjuna Seghers' critique of its design, ergonomics, battery life and more. He says it's "not a bad budget laptop," but a little heavy and clunky to call an Ultrabook. He rates it 7 out of 10.
Review: Dell Inspiron 14z Ultrabook Review, Ardjuna Seghers, Jan. 18, 2013