It’s easy to forget that most people who buy new laptops buy inexpensive ones. Pay attention the next time you visit the house of a technically un-inclined friend — or even visit a coffee shop — and you’ll see plenty of Dell Inspirons, HP Pavilions and Lenovo IdeaPads. They’re not as hip or cool as a MacBook Pro, nor do they carry the geek cred of a rugged ThinkPad. But they are cheap, and they are quick, so they sell.
Enter the Inspiron 14z. The name itself is interesting, a mashup for Dell’s entry-level brand and the “z” designation, which is reserved only for the company’s thinnest and lightest designs. As far as we can remember, the Inspirion 14z is the first laptop to be badged with both bits of marketing lingo.
The result is a laptop that aims to be the everyman’s thin-and-light. You can buy one for as little as $549 on Dell’s website and still enjoy a chassis that’s under an inch thick. Though that is the base model, it still comes equipped with an Intel Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM.
Our review unit arrived with modest upgrades, including a Core i5-2430M processor and two extra gigabytes of RAM, bringing the total to six. Graphics power is provided by Intel HD 3000 graphics, the only option on the 14z. These upgrades bump the price up to $649, but that is still extremely reasonable. Let’s see if this is a budget hero.
Despite the affordable price, the Inspiron 14z comes clad in a metallic finish that covers both the display lid and most of the interior. The metal, along with our unit’s Espresso Black paint, provides a refined, understated aesthetic. Those looking for a more exciting exterior can buy the laptop in Fire Red instead. Both coats are only semi-gloss, so fingerprints aren’t a serious issue no matter your choice.
Look closely at this laptop and you’ll find a lot of unexpected details. The chrome trim around the keyboard is just enough to add some class, but not so bold that it becomes tacky. Around the display, you’ll find a bezel that is matte instead of glossy, which reduces the perception of display reflections. The hinges are stiff and every surface feels resistant to minor bumps and bruises. Like the HP g6, the Inspiron 14z is an example of a budget laptop that manages to offer build quality on par with laptops costing hundreds more.
Not everything about the design is perfect, however. Dell’s engineers — or perhaps the marketing team — apparently thought the laptop’s ports marred its smooth design. To fix this, they added flaps over all the connectivity options. Opening them is difficult and the plastic used to attach them feels flimsy.
Once you remove the annoying covers you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, HDMI, DisplayPort, a combo headphone/microphone jack and the obligatory card reader. This is a solid, though not exceptional, array of connectivity for a consumer laptop.
You don’t have to use the Inspiron 14z long to fall in love with its keyboard. It isn’t the best we’ve ever touched, but it provides reasonable key travel and comfortable, rounded keys with large gaps between them. The layout makes excellent use of available space and provides plenty of palmrest space, as well. Typing on this laptop is just as easy as typing on a larger 15.6” machine.
Our only complaint centers on keyboard flex. While the chassis of this laptop is robust, a fair amount of squish can be produced by pressing with moderate pressure on the center of the keyboard. We didn’t find it distracting, but some potential buyers might disagree.
Below the excellent keyboard is a not-so-excellent touchpad that appears to have been designed by Dell on opposite day. It’s as small as the keyboard is large, the buttons offer next to no travel, and there’s no texture or detail added to give it a premium feel. Don’t misunderstand us — it’s perfectly usable. You just won’t enjoy the experience.
Display and Audio Quality
Our review unit arrived with a 1366×768 display. Dell has a reputation for offering high resolution options, but the 14z doesn’t have an option for packing in more pixels. Gloss is the order of the day and makes using this laptop in bright rooms difficult. The backlight isn’t strong enough to overcome strong reflections.
Glossy displays aren’t without their perks, however. When playing movies and games this laptop performed well, offering a good visual punch. Test images revealed that black level performance is only average, but the gradient banding test image was fairly smooth. It’s unlikely you’ll have any complaints so long as you stay away from serious image editing and movies with numerous dark scenes.
Audio quality doesn’t impress. There is enough volume for movies, podcasts and other relatively simple audio sources, but complex music quickly overwhelms the laptop’s speakers, resulting in mild distortion. Some bass sounds disappear entirely. If you value your audio experience, you’d best pack a pair of headphones.
Though thin, the 14z isn’t ridiculously slim, and this seems to have a positive impact on its fan. Normally it is quiet, making no sound that would be notable above the ambient noise of a typical apartment. Stressing it ramps up the fan significantly, but still keeps the volume within tolerable limits.
Heat generation is more than tolerable at low load. The bottom of the laptop is no warmer than the high 80s, while the keyboard and palmrest hover just above room temperature. Stressing the processor produced almost no rise in temperature. The hottest portion of the laptop, the bottom near the left-side exhaust vent, rose to just over 89 degrees.
What this translates to is a laptop that is generally great for lap use. Don’t underestimate the value of this. Many laptops fail to remain cool enough during heavy load to be comfortable for use on anything besides a desk or some other flat surface.