|Introduction & Specifications|
Give credit to Intel for recognizing the notebook market needed a swift kick in the pants, and for putting a noose around the necks of netbooks, which have all but been eliminated from the market place. Sure, a few straggling netbooks remain, but by and large, Intel is now heavily invested (both literally and figuratively) in the Ultrabook platform. These thin and light machines represent the natural evolution of laptops, and the form factor continues to evolve right before our eyes, which is something that's underscored by the likes of Dell's Inspiron 14z Ultrabook.
When man discovered fire, everything was different from that point forward. Ribeye, Filet, and the Weber -- how did we survive without these bare essentials? By that same token, Dell seems to have discovered that it's possible to mate a discrete GPU with an Ultrabook form factor, giving birth to one of the first Ultrabooks capable of slicing through games. We're not talking about titles like Peggle and Angry Birds, but bona fide titles that previously had no business being installed on a thin and light machine, and certainly wouldn't have been allowed to come within 100 feet of a netbook.
The configuration Dell sent us to examine sports an AMD Radeon HD 7570M GPU with 1GB of onboard memory, a mid-class graphics chip with the chops to handle DirectX 11 visuals. It also has an Ivy Bridge processor, 8GB of fast DDR3-1600 memory, and an optical drive, still somewhat of a rarity in this form factor. It has the foundation of a premium notebook, but at $900 retail (as configured), it's priced several hundred dollars below the going rate of a high-end Ultrabook.
If you don't care about having a discrete GPU, Dell sells a pair of less expensive baseline configurations starting at $700 and $800, which boast Intel HD 3000 and 4000 Graphics, respectively. The $900 configuration we tested is similar to the $800 model, but with a Radeon GPU and a bit more RAM (8GB versus 6GB). As you'll discover on the following pages, it's a $100 premium well worth considering if you like to game on the go occasionally.
Part of the reason why Dell is able to offer a discrete GPU while still keeping the price below four figures is because storage chores are primarily relegated to a mechanical hard drive, and a slow spinning one at that (5400 RPM). Dell also squeezes a solid state drive in the Inspiron 14z, but it's only 32GB, which acts as a cache buffer to improve boot up time and general responsiveness.
This is a solid setup, and also a little larger than all those 11-inch and 13.3-inch Ultrabooks out there, as well as a bit heavier at 4.12 pounds. For the sake of comparison, Dell's XPS 13 Ultrabook, which we reviewed in March of this year, weighs 2.99 pounds.
|Software & First Boot|
Part of Intel's vision for its Ultrabook platform is that you'll spend less time waiting around for things to happen, and Dell delivers on that concept with its Inspiron 14z. We recorded a mere 28 seconds for a full boot, which is the time that elapses from pressing the power button until Windows is fully loaded and ready to use; a complete shutdown took just 8 seconds. That's a pretty impressive startup time for any system, let alone one that relies on a 5400 RPM mechanical hard drive as its primary storage device. It goes to show how beneficial it can be to equip a system with a 32GB mSATA solid state drive (SSD).
Dell hasn't completely abandoned its penchant for loading up systems with third party software and utilities. Our test system shipped with an attention-seeking copy of McAfee Antivirus that kept imploring us to register and update the program (right up until we uninstalled it so that our benchmarks could run uninterrupted). We also received popups from Absolute Software's Computrace Data Protection utility, which users have ranked 2 out of 5 stars on Dell's website, a clear indication that customers would rather not be bothered by this program if given the choice.
Popup annoyances notwithstanding, Dell delivers a mostly clean desktop experience on the Inspiron 14z. It isn't littered with icons and shortcuts. There's a weather widget in the upper right corner, and Dell's customizable Stage software along the bottom, which you can disable if you prefer.
By default, Inspiron 14z Ultrabooks come with 90 days of phone support and a 1-year hardware warranty. For less critical issues, Dell's included Support Center software helps keep tabs on your system's vitals and allows you to create backup media, check the status of the battery, and other odds and ends.
Windows Mobility Center is a handy utility baked into Windows that doesn't often receive a ton of attention. It's made even more robust by Dell on the Inspiron 14z, giving users quick access a wealth of knobs and dials related to various wireless technologies and audio, as well as the touchpad.
|Design & Layout|
At a little over 4lbs (or 1.87 kilograms), Dell's Inspiron 14z is a bit heavier than your typical Ultrabook, but it's also larger than most of the first generation models that currently litter the market place. It has a 14-inch display, whereas many of yesterday's models boast 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch screens.
Brushed aluminum is still in style, and it's represented well on the Inspiron 14z in elegant fashion. Situated in the middle of the lid is Dell's chrome-colored logo. Unlike most notebooks, the Inspiron 14z has clearly defined curved edges, which Dell pitches as being better suited to stuffing in your backpack or laptop bag quickly and easily without snagging the corners. In other words, it's more of a functional design cue than an aesthetic one
With regards to construction, the lid has some flex to it when you forcibly try to bend it, though it doesn't feel as flimsy as Toshiba's Portégé Z835-P330. The rest of the laptop has a sturdy feel, an important quality when you're shopping a thin and light machine.
On the other side of the lid is a 14-inch display with a 1366x768 screen resolution and WLED backlight. That's a bit less than what we would like to see on an Ultrabook of this caliber. It has both the GPU and the real estate to run a higher resolution, and while we wouldn't expect a Retina Display resolution in a 14-inch system, the Inspiron 14z certainly has the chops to process visuals across larger screen real estate.
Whereas we found ourselves slightly disappointed with the screen resolution, we absolutely adore the keyboard. Typing on the Inspiron 14z is a terrific experience, which is something we're not used to saying often enough, but is totally warranted here. The chiclet style keys are slightly indented and spaced appropriately to foster fast typing. Data entry folk will lament the absence of a dedicated numpad, but had Dell chosen to shove one in the limited space it has to work with, it would have destroyed what's otherwise an delightful plank.
Above the keyboard in the upper right-hand side are three quick-launch buttons. From left to right, these buttons open up the Windows Mobility Center, Dell Audio, and Dell's Instant Launch Manager utility, which you can designate to perform one of several pre-configured actions or a custom one of your own.
The right side of the Inspiron 14z is dominated by a tray-loaded DVD burner. It's listed in the Device Manager as an HLDS GU60N DVD+/-RW burner and can read/write DVDs at up to 8X and CDs up to 24X. Next to the optical drive is a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port, headphone/microphone combo jack, and a 4-in-1 media card reader.
Dell's decision to include an optical drive increases the Inspiron 14z's entertainment skill set, whether for its for watching movies, installing games, or backing up your photos and videos to DVDs.
On the other side of the laptop is an Ethernet port, HDMI 1.4 output, another USB 3.0 port (this one supports PowerShare), and a Kensington lock slot. With the exception of the Kensington lock slot, all of the inputs are hidden behind chintzy plastic covers, presumably to keep out dust and debris, though they do give the machine a clean, trimmed-up look as well. There's also an exhaust vent on the left side and the power jack.
|SiSoft SANDRA, ATTO, & Cinebench|
|We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2011 suite (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth and Physical Disk Performance). All of the scores reported below were taken with the Dell Ultrabook running at its default settings with full performance mode enabled and the notebook plugged into the AC adapter.
SANDRA CPU Arithmetic and Multimedia Performance
SANDRA Memory and Physical Disk Performance
In putting the Inspiron 14z through its paces, synthetic benchmarks like SANDRA give us an overview of performance, but it doesn't tell the whole story. In particular, SANDRA fails to gauge the performance impact of the 32GB mSATA SSD, which pays dividends the moment you press the power button. At the same time, SANDRA does reveal the limitations of a 5400 RPM hard drive for disk intensive chores
On the CPU and memory side, the Inspiron 14z posts strong numbers in SANDRA, just as we would expect from an Ivy Bridge processor and high frequency DDR3-1600 memory.
Dell Inspiron 14z and Asus Zenbook SSD Performance Comparison with ATTO
We were so impressed with the SSD performance numbers with our first round of ultrabooks that hit the lab, that we had to double check with ATTO to make sure everything was on the level. Here's how it shook out:
Asus Zenbook UX21
To this day, the Zenbook holds the crown for fastest disk performance from an Ultrabook, at least in our labs. Can the Inpiron 14z usurp the king?
Dell Inspiron 14z
Not today. The Inspiron 14z posted respectable read and write transfers in its own right, topping out at over 87MB/s (write) and 325MB/s (read). Subjectively, all around performance is snappy and responsive; objectively, the Zenbook's high-performance SSD still reigns supreme in this benchmark.
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on the company's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation 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.
Looking at the CPU portion of this test, the Inspiron 14z doesn't separate itself from the pack in either direction. But when we examine the GPU/OpenGL component, Dell's latest Ultrabook is able to hit another gear with its AMD Radeon HD 7570M GPU that systems equipped with Intel HD graphics (3000 or 4000) simply don't have. This is the best OpenGL score we've seen from an Ultrabook to date.
|PCMark Vantage & PCMark 7|
|Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite, recently released last spring. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment. It combines 25 individual workloads covering storage, computation, image and video manipulation, Web browsing, and gaming.
PCMark 7 isn't quite as disk sensitive as PCMark Vantage (see below), hence why the Inspiron 14z is able to hang relatively close to systems armed with must faster storage devices. It's also interesting to see the Inspiron 14z pull ahead of the Alienware M18x.
Next up, we ran our test systems through Futuremark’s previous generation total-system performance evaluation tool, PCMark Vantage. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. Since we have a large database of scores for this test, we felt it would be good to give you additional reference points to compare to.
The benchmark divide between the Inspiron 14z and the systems equipped with fast SSDs is a bit more pronounced in PCMark Vantage, a benchmark that pays a lot of attention to disk performance. One thing to remember here, however, is that performance in frequently used applications will improve in time as the 32GB mSATA SSD priorities caching chores. If we were to run this benchmark multiple times, it's likely the score would increase with each subsequent run until reaching a performance plateau.
|Ultrabooks aren't really built for gaming, but you know what they say about all work and no play. Even though the Z835-P330 is rocking integrated graphics, we ran a couple of low level game tests to see what it's capable of.
Just like Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), Dell's Inspiron 14z has game. The same isn't true for most Ultrabooks up to this point, but as component prices and power come down, it's finally feasible to squeeze a discrete GPU into the mix and still stay under Intel's soft $1,000 ceiling. The Radeon HD 7570M GPU is relatively mediocre by desktop standards, but in a thin and light machine only pushing a 1366x768 resolution (at its native resolution, the Inspiron 14z benched 34.57fps in Far Cry 2), it provides plenty of pixel pushing power.
Far Cry 2 showed us the Inspiron 14z has the moxie to deliver playable framerates in older titles, but what about today's DirectX 11 games? The Radeon HD 7570M is, after all, a DX11-capable GPU, but that doesn't necessarily mean the system as a whole can play modern titles. Or does it? Well, not only does the Inspiron 14z have enough muscle to punch through more demanding titles, but it can do so at its native resolution.
We did end up dialing down the settings to "Low" quality and turned off both AA and AF, but at the same time, we left Hardware Tessellation enabled. The takeaway here is that the Inspiron 14z can handle new and old games as long as you're not trying to push the envelope with graphics intensive effects and settings.
|Let's face it, if you're shopping an Ultrabook, you're less concerned with gaming performance and more interested in what kind of battery life you can squeeze out of these featherweight systems. This is perhaps the most important metric, at least for some, and what we have below is one example of a worst case scenario.
With the brightness set at 50 percent, we fired up BatteryEater Pro and let the brutal benchmark do its thing. When it was finished, the Inspiron 14z slid into the upper echelon of average performers, offering comparable battery life to Dell's own XPS 13 and Lenovo's U300s, but well below the two top performers, the Zenbook by Asus and Toshiba's Z835.
Real-world battery life will depend on how you utilize the 14z. For basic tasks like Web surfing and word processing, you should be able to squeeze five our six hours of uptime before hunting down a wall socket. If you're going play a lot of games and tax the discrete GPU, however, you can expect far less.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Dell's Inspiron 14z proved itself an all-around multimedia workhorse, but where it really pounds its chest is in games. Not only does it handle older titles well, but Dell's decision to equip certain models (including the one we tested) with a discrete AMD Radeon HD 7570M GPU translated into playable framerates in some newer DirectX 11 titles as well. As an all around Ultrabook, it's a fast and responsive system, though not the speediest machine around. Throw gaming performance into the mix, however, and the Inspiron 14z stands taller than most.
At this early stage, Intel's hardware partners are still trying to figure out how best to utilize the Ultrabook form factor and how far they can push the envelope. As such, we never know quite what to expect each time a new model lands on our doorstep. In this case, Dell surprised us with above average gaming performance and a slot-load optical drive, two traits we haven't seen much of in the Ultrabook category.
Dell should also be credited for building an all-around entertainment machine that can fit a variety of budgets. If you don't care a whole lot about gaming, you can forgo the discrete GPU and pick up a toned down model starting at a penny shy of $700. But for those who want the extra power, the $200 premium is well worth it, especially since the final price is still a Benjamin below Intel's preferred $1,000 ceiling.
We're not sold on Dell's claim that curved edges makes the Inspiron 14z any easier to slip into a bag than any other notebook, but it's an interesting aesthetic nonetheless, and we dig the brushed aluminum finish. We're also big fans of the keyboard, even though it lacks a backlight. Less inspiring is the 1366x768 resolution, especially with the Apple camp bragging about Retina Display panels (on the MacBook Pro, not the MacBook Air). On the bright side, 1366x768 isn't particularly taxing, and combined with the discrete GPU, allows the Inspiron to play games that most Ultrabooks can't.
With that said, if you're at all interested in playing a game or two on an Ultrabook, recommending the Inspiron 14z is a no-brainer. For everyone else, the Inspiron 14z is another solid entry in a fast evolving form factor.