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Dell XPS 14z Notebook Review
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Date: Dec 09, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications
Earlier this year, we took a long, hard look at one of Dell's most highly-anticipated multimedia notebooks to date. That was the XPS 15z, and we thought pretty highly of it in almost every measurable way, including its delightfully thin dimensions. Fast forward a few months, and in slides the XPS 14z. According to its branding, this unit is just a single number different than the XPS 15z, and if you didn't know any better, you'd just assume that someone took a shrink-ray to the 15z. Indeed, the 14z really is just a small 15z in some ways, but by the same token, that's something that hasn't really existed outside of HP's Envy 14 and Sony's VAIO SA line. Sub-15" multimedia capable notebooks aren't exactly easy to come by, and most of them make pretty big sacrifices on performance somewhere along the way.


The 14z is Dell's "thinnest, fully-featured 14" laptop with an internal optical drive." That's a lot of qualifications, but one thing is clear: it's thin, it's compact, and it packs a punch for the size. LG's Shuriken display is one of the standout features here, enabling a 14" display to be crammed into a 13" form factor. How so? There's barely a bezel. The display stretches almost entirely from edge to edge. In other words, the dimensions here resemble that of similar 13" notebooks, but you're getting a 14" display. Unfortunately, Dell doesn't do a lot to really take advantage of it. There's only a single screen resolution option -- 1366x768 -- which is the same as found on many 12" and 13" machines. In other words, you aren't actually gaining any screen real estate with this in terms of pixel density, but it does make it a bit easier to see fonts and such without squinting. There's still no question that this machine is serving a niche. If you're in the market for a gaming-capable notebook, but you'd prefer the form factor more closely associated with an ultraportable, the XPS 14z is a worthy option.

Specifications-wise, you'll have options of Core i5 and Core i7 processors, plenty of RAM, NVIDIA Optimus technology (a discrete GPU paired with Intel's integrated GPU for times when battery life is important), a 7200RPM hard drive, optional SSD, an 8-cell battery and a built-in slot load DVD+/- RW drive. Here's a look at the full breakdown.

Dell's 14" XPS 14z
Specifications and Features (as tested)
  • Intel Core i5-2430M @ 2.40GHz
  • 8GB of DDR3 RAM at 1333MHz
  • 14.0" LCD (1366x768); WLED backlight, glossy
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M (1GB) + Intel HD Graphics 3000
  • NVIDIA Optimus graphics switching
  • Western Digital 750GB (7200RPM)  Hard Drive
  • Intel Centrino 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • 8x CD/DVD Burner
  • 1.3MP webcam
  • HDMI 1.4 output
  • USB 3.0 x 1
  • USB 2.0 x 1
  • Mini-DisplayPort
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • RJ-45 (Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • 7-in-1 Multimedia Card Reader
  • Backlit Keyboard
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Dell Stage software
  • 4.36 Pounds (with 8-cell battery installed)
  • Non-Removable 8-Cell Li-ion Battery (58WHr;2.0AHr)
  • 13.9" x 9.21" x 0.90" (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • Price (as tested): $1099.99
  • Price (starting): $999.99
  • 1-Year Warranty




What's clear is that this machine is no slouch. What's also clear is that it's not really a bargain. Dell is commanding premium for cramming this kind of component list into this small of a package, with the base machine starting at $999. Strangely, the XPS 14z's main competition is another 14z: the Inspiron 14z. It's definitely not as sleek, but it offers similar output and specifications with a $600 starting price. Is it worth the premium for the XPS variant? Find out in our full review in the pages ahead.
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Design and Build Quality
Taking a critical look at the XPS 14z's design and build quality is an interesting task. On one hand, it's easy to point out that this is one of the most sleek, beautiful and rigid ultraportables that we've come across in quite some time. But on the other, there isn't much to say here that wasn't already said in our review of the larger XPS 15z. But we'll try.

At under an inch think, you'll be hard-pressed to get much thinner without rolling into Ultrabook territory, and once there, you'll certainly not find the kind of oomph under the hood that you'll find in the XPS 14z. The overall shape and design is pretty much spot-on compared to the 15z. This machine is built on metal chassis with a backlit, chiclet-style keyboard, an oversized trackpad and an LCD hinge that's slightly recessed into the back of the body. All told, it's about as sleek as a PC notebook gets and competes with Apple design quality and style. The LCD hinge design won't allow the screen to lay completely flat, but it'll recline far enough to be visible from an upright viewing angle.


It should also be made clear that yes, this notebook looks a bit like a couple of other notebooks, namely, the MacBook / MacBook Pro line, and HP's Envy 14. All three are primarily metallic and minimalistic in their design cues. None of them have battery bulges. And all three have trackpads that are actually comfortable to use. But Dell does a decent job of taking a that design and making it their own. The speaker grills that flank the left and right sides of the keyboard are both unique and eye-pleasing, and the backlit keyboard is actually more beautiful we feel, than Apple's counterpart. Typing on these keys is a total joy; there's no noticeable keyboard flex, no texture on the curved keys and a perfect amount of key travel. We had to make no adjustments whatsoever typing on this keyboard coming from that of a 15" mainstream notebook.



The trackpad deserves a section of its own. At 2" x 4", it's huge in comparison to trackpads found on most 15" machines, let alone 13" and 14" machines. The segmented left / right click buttons posses a good amount of travel, with a soft, recessed "thud" after each key press. Those brittle, hard, impossible-to-love keys on Asus machines? These are the polar opposites. Better still, the trackpad surface area is multi-gesture capable, so two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom is enabled by default. We will say, however, that using these to more easily move about documents and Web pages didn't quite live up to Apple's MacBook implementation. We've still yet to find a PC trackpad that matches or beats Apple's line of trackpads, but this one comes close.


LG's Shuriken display definitely brings the bezel one step closer to complete obsolescence, but it's not quite good enough. There's still too much excess space below and above the top and bottom rows of pixels. 

We'd also be remiss of our duties if we didn't point out that the battery is non-removable. It's an 8-cell whopper, yes, but unlike the XPS 15z, you can't buy a spare here. This is becoming the norm in mobile computing; we aren't entirely sure we're onboard with the trend, but the general response is that the sealed battery can be made larger and provide longer life. So, if that's the case here, we'll let it slide. What we can't let slide, however, are the completely obnoxious trio of palm rest stickers. Dell clearly spent a great deal of effort polishing this machine, but when you open the lid, you're rudely greeted by a Windows 7 sticker, a Core i5 plaque (yes, it's large enough to deserve that label) and an Energy Star sticker.


Let's think about this for a minute. It's a Dell. Of course it's running Windows. Do we really need a sticker to remind us of that? So, there's a Core i5 within. I'm guessing you would've known that given that you ordered it from Dell with such a CPU within. Again, why remind the user? And seriously, Energy Star? Is this some sort of sick joke? Why don't we throw in an RoHS certification sticker and a participation prize from third-grade gym class while we're at it? We're being harsh on the stickers, but it's for good reason. No PC company will ever rival Apple completely until they muster the courage to tell Microsoft, Intel and Energy Star (among other entities) that they aren't going to mar an otherwise solid chassis with hurl-worthy stickers. Perhaps that's a bit overboard.  You certainly can remove the stickers and clean things up for yourself but one of these days the maybe our gripe won't fall on deaf ears.


Beyond that, we also think Dell took things a step too far with the chrome accents. You'll find slightly gaudy chrome trim adorning the trackpad and borders. The matte metal is beautiful; no need to chintz things up with strips of chrome. We will say, however, that we greatly appreciate the thought that went into port arrangement. Far too few notebooks place ports on the rear, but for anyone using a notebook as a desktop replacement, they know that having 'em there makes it easier to hide the cables, as they run from the rear and presumably behind the desk that you're working on.



Dell throws in a slot-loading DVD writer (nice touch), while the left side sports an SD card slot, headphone jack, 3.5mm audio input port, and a heat exhaust vent. The rest of the ports? Those are around back. There's an Ethernet jack, HDMI port, mini-DisplayPort, two USB ports (one USB 2.0; one USB 3.0), an AC input port and a Kensington lock slot. Overall, the XPS 14z's frame is rigid and well-polished, and the 4.36lbs. honestly felt much lighter carrying it around.
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Software and User Experience
We certainly have a few reservations about its software load and the overall user experience, but overall, Dell really hit it out of the park here with the XPS 14z. Basic tasks like opening apps, creating new folders, rearranging files, etc., all were handled with nary a hint of lag. We never felt as is the XPS 14z was struggling to catch up with our moves. Multitasking was a breeze, and both the trackpad and keyboard kept up with our every command.

Predictably, the panel was overly glossy, making it less-than-enjoyable to use in direct sunlight. Viewing angles were also a bit disappointing.  When looking straight-on, images were crisp and clean, but even a slight off-axis view in any direction began to wash images out. We were also let down with the lackluster 1366x768 resolution; if you're going to stretch 14" of diagonal panel in there, at least bump the resolution to 1600x900.


Dell also includes their Stage UI with the system -- a move that's becoming all the more popular on ultra-portable Dell machines. We really aren't that fond of it; we'd prefer far less intrusive shortcuts to our favorite programs right on the desktop, but at least it's easy to disable.


We also found it somewhat odd that not a single USB port was located on either side of the machine. That means basic chores like connecting a USB flash drive for a ten-second transfer requires you to flip your machine around, plug it in, transfer the file, flip your machine around again, and unplug the drive. A single (or two) USB ports on the side would've been majorly useful, though we appreciate the majority of them being in the rear.



During our normal use and testing, we rarely had a moment where at least one of the internal fans weren't roaring. When we really began to tax the machine, it sounded as if it were about to lift off. Perhaps not surprisingly, there wasn't a lot of heat building up on the bottom of the machine, nor on the palm rests, but it required an awful lot of noise and blown air for that to be true. Make no mistake; this is a noisy machine, and there's just no getting around it.


Unfortunately, Dell also chose to allow an absolutely obscene amount of "bloatware" to be installed here. It's not that we don't appreciate trial security software, online backup solutions or 2GB of free cloud storage, but seriously -- can you not throw it at our face all at once upon initial boot? We really can't think of too many more offensive ways to hamstring a new machine.


Rather than booting up quickly into Windows, it felt as if the XPS 14z was loading unwanted background applications for a solid minute upon first boot, and from there, we were assaulted with pesky pop-ups nagging us about this application and that application for many minutes. It's just unacceptable. Throw the free crap that no one truly wants onto a USB thumb drive or a DVD in the box. Don't install it on a computer that someone just paid $1000+ for.


Again, the overall user experience is buttery smooth, but getting to that point took wading through way too much unwanted software. We can only imagine how much zippier this machine would've been if it weren't saddled down with gobs of crapware from the factory.
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SiSoftware Sandra and Cinebench Benchmarks
Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2011
Synthetic Benchmarks

We started off our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speeds of 2.4GHz with 8GB of DDR3 RAM running in dual-channel mode.


Processor Arithmetic


Multi-Media


Memory Bandwidth


Physical Disk Benchmark

SiSoft Sandra didn't reveal anything surprising; the XPS 14z posted strong scores in all categories, though obviously the lack of an SSD holds the system back in the Physical Disks benchmark.  An SSD would be a very worthy upgrade for the machine in fact.

Cinebench R11.5 64bit
Content Creation Performance

Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.

 

Here's where we start to see some chinks in the armor. While the innards are impressive for medium-duty gaming and conventional chores, it's clear that the XPS 14z isn't cut out for heavy duty computational work. Or, it can cut it, but it'll cut far slower than workstation type notebooks. Same story as the XPS 15z, actually, but just slightly lesser scores.
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Futuremark 3DMark 06 / 11 and PCMark Vantage
We continued testing and fired up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various subsystem in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
 

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance


Given that this isn't a true, qualified gaming notebook per se, it's nice to see it hitting super close to HP's EliteBook 8560p and sibling XPS 15z, which is yet another half business-half pleasure machine. It also surpasses a few other Core i5 machines in this class, while looking loads better than all of them. The full Vantage score is below.

 

3DMark06
Light Duty DX9 Synthetic Gaming

The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.

 
The second-generation of Core i processors are strong performers, as shown here. The Core i5 hung tight with rivals during the CPU testing, and the other 3DMark 06 aspects...well, it didn't do too poorly on those, either. The full score is below.


Futuremark 3DMark11
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


Futuremark 3DMark11

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Extreme preset option, which uses a resolution of 1920x1080 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.

3DMark 11 is still a new benchmark, and we're still building up our database of machines that we've ran through this test. These four were set on the "Performance" setting, just to give you a vague idea of comparisons. The full score is below.

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Gaming Benchmarks and Battery Life

Metro 2033
DirecX11 Gaming Performance


Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is your basic post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment, but rather you’re left to deal with life, or lack there-of more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. The game is loosely based on a novel by Russian Author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Metro 2003 boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform currently including a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism. We tested the game engine using the Metro 2033 benchmark tool.

Let's not beat around the bush: Metro 2033 is an intense game. And we aren't just talking about gameplay. It's a title that seriously taxes a machine, and it requires serious hardware to run this title well. The CPU on the XPS 14z was probably ready for the task, but its lower-end NVIDIA Geforce GT 520M isn't exactly powerhouse. This is one of the compromises Dell had to make to keep heat and cost down.

FarCry 2
DirectX Gaming Performance

 


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the test systems in this article with the FarCry 2 benchmark tool using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.

Unlike Metro 2033, the somewhat dated Far Cry 2 benchmark isn't as hard on systems, and we were able to squeeze out a few more frames-per-second here. Things were plenty playable at even higher resolutions. In other words, Far Cry 2 is about as new a game as the XPS 14z can handle at high-res.

Battery Life
Power Performance

BatteryEater Pro tends to measure worst case scenarios, in that it doesn't really take into consideration power saving features, instead loading up the system until it dies out. It runs a spinning graphic constantly until the battery dies. We keep our test machines with Wi-Fi on, and screen brightness hovering at 50% for the life of the test.


 

A 58WHr, 8-cell battery is pretty impressive for a machine of this stature. There's no battery bulge, either. The XPS 14z managed to last just over two hours in our rigorous battery rundown test, which loops a graphic in BatteryEaterPro with screen brightness at 50% and Wi-Fi on. It handily beat the XPS 15z's battery, and while it's certainly not netbook-level longevity, it's pretty solid for a taxed Core i5 and discrete GPU.  Just browsing the web or firing off emails should net you a lot longer uptime as well.

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Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary: Performance-wise, tghe Dell XPS 14z is a stereotypical mixed bag. Regardless of benchmarks, the Core i5 + 8GB of RAM combo enabled us to whisk about daily desktop tasks with ease, and we were continually in awe of just how well this machine handled the rigors of Windows multitasking. Even with upwards of ten applications open at once, switching between them was seamless and quick. Bootup was also quick once we deleted the absurd amount of bloatware that Dell shoves on this machine, and wake-from-sleep happened in a matter of seconds. The 7200RPM Western Digital hard drive performed admirably, though more demanding gaming titles definitely took their time loading. As for the benches? Having a discrete GPU, even if it was "only" NVIDIA's GT520M, helped tremendously. The Optimus setup enabled our GPU to power through graphically intense tasks, while being able to switch that off during calmer sessions improved our battery life. It's no barn-burner, but for the target market of this machine, it's more than satisfactory.

The XPS 14z is a dead-ringer for the 15z. If you enjoyed that design, you'll enjoy this one. Plenty of metal, plenty of smooth edges. That said, Dell missed perfection somewhat by refusing to say no to three senseless stickers on the palm rest, and not having a single USB port on either edge of the machine. We generally appreciate having the IO ports in the rear, but there needs to be an additional 1-2 USB ports on one of the side edges for quick USB flash drive transfers.


On the plus side, both the trackpad and keyboard were world-class. Both were responsive; the keyboard had an ideal amount of travel (backlit too) and the touchpad supported multi-gestures rather well. The Dell XPS 14z is one of the more enjoyable machines to use overall. It's brisk, it's lightweight, it's compact and it's beautiful. It's hard to find all of that in a single notebook these days. Its display could have stood at least the option for a higher resolution panel, but at least we're making progress by trimming that bezel in a major way.


The biggest problem with the XPS 14z, outside of the horrific bloatware load that it ships with, is another 14z in Dell's line: the Inspiron 14z. While that machine is certainly not as sexy, it can be customized with similar specifications for less money -- oftentimes much less. The Inspiron 14z starts at just $600; the XPS 14z starts at $1000. That's a major price gap, and while the 14z performed well, the excess fan noise, awkward port layout and non-high res display make the price premium somewhat tough to justify.


Dell's XPS 14z is a solid little machine, and it'll certainly serve its customers well, but it's just a little too pricey with some of its shortcomings. Gamers will want more than a lowly GT520M, and bargain hunters will demand a lower price from a 14" machine. In a way, the XPS 14z stuck between a rock and a hard place, though it's well-built, a pleasure to use and very easy on the eyes.

  

  • Truly beautiful design
  • Huge touchpad with gestures support
  • Buttery smooth performance
  • Comfortable, backlit keyboard
  • NVIDIA Optimus graphics
  • Fans are entirely too noisy
  • No USB ports on the left / right sides
  • No user-serviceable battery
  • Pricey for this category


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