- Review Price: £1100.00
If you’ve hovered on over to Dell’s website of late you may well have come across a new marketing slogan that reads: ””A Fashionista Updates Her Look: Express yourself with a sleek and sophisticated new Inspiron””. I must admit to being somewhat puzzled by this approach. Is Dell suggesting that the new Inspiron is like a ‘Fashionista’? Or that people buying an Inspiron ought to aspire to being a ‘Fashionista’? Whatever your take it’s clear that Dell is attempting to revamp its image from its trusty Labrador status, to a more hip and contemporary brand that can excite. But is this all talk and no substance, or does the new Inspiron represent a real reinvention for the brand?
One of the main changes comes on the outside, where Dell has embraced the idea of customisation by providing a variety of different colours and finishes to choose from. This is hardly a new idea in the notebook space, but Dell has certainly jumped on board with vigour with a choice of standard Matte Black or Glossy White finishes, or a ‘Microsatin’ finish, which is available in ‘Espresso’ Brown, ‘Midnight’ Blue, ‘Ruby’ Red, ‘Bubblegum’ Pink, ‘Spring’ Green and ‘Sunshine’ Yellow. So, as you can tell, there’s no shortage of options.
For the record our sample came with the ‘Spring’ Green Microsatin finish, which I thought was rather fetching though some of my colleagues were less convinced. On the inside our sample was powered by a Santa Rosa spec Intel Core 2 Duo T7100, which is clocked at 1.8GHz with 2MB L2 Cache and an 800MHz front side bus. As things stand this is the slowest of the T7xxx series of notebook CPUs, while others in the range have 4MB L2 Cache. That said, it’s still a very capable CPU and it features all the clever power saving features outlined in our Santa Rosa feature.
This is supported by 2GB 667MHz DRR2 RAM, an nVidia 8600M-GT 256MB, a 160GB 5400rpm SATA hard drive, a dual-layer DVD-Rewriter drive, Bluetooth 2.0 EDR, 802.11a/b/g/Draft N Wi-Fi and HSDPA. As is typical, the system comes with Vista Home Premium as standard, while an embedded two megapixel camera is also included across the range.
This is a comprehensive specification, which also includes an upgraded 1,440 x 900 display and an extended 9-cell battery. However, one can’t help feeling that this particular configuration is a little unbalanced. The benefit of HSDPA in a notebook that weighs in excess of 3kg and features a 15.4in display is questionable, and with this included the price is a by no means cheap – £1,100 inc. VAT and shipping. I’d sooner drop the expensive HSDPA module for a faster 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, which would really boost overall performance. It goes without saying that this configurability is one of the main attractions of buying a Dell over other brands such as Toshiba or Acer, and this is something I’ll explore further later on in the piece.
On the design front the new Inspiron can best be described as pleasant. The colourful exterior is a nice touch, while the Microsatin finish has a classy feel and has the added benefit of being surprisingly durable and scratch resistance. This is certainly of real benefit, especially since the majority of notebooks with colourful finishes are far too prone to scratches and generally not very durable. Do bear in mind though that you have to pay £10.99 extra for a Microsatin finish, should that be what you want.
However, this aside there’s nothing about the new Inspiron chassis that screams out at you, and certainly nothing that justifies the ‘Fashionista’ tag. It doesn’t help matters that it’s a pretty bulky machine, measuring 358mm wide, 269mm deep and 37mm tall while weighing in at 3.2kg with its extended 9-cell battery. On the inside things are kept simple with an all silver finish and a general lack of too much paraphernalia; just a Power button, a shortcut to Dell’s Media Center rip-off and some media control keys that are discreetly embedded into the front edge.
A similar story can be told of the connectivity options, which are fairly thorough but lacking in a few fundamental ways. On the left edge there’s a Wi-Fi On/Off switch, 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks and a 54mm Express Card slot. On the front edge there isn’t a great deal to see, just an infrared sensor, media keys and the two speakers which point downward. These are fairly decent speakers, achieving some surprisingly high volumes and sporting sufficient clarity for film dialogue.
Moving to the right edge there are two USB ports, which are mounted horizontally above and below each other, a 10/100 Ethernet port, D-Sub, a 4-pin FireWire port and an 8-in-1 card reader, with the rest of the space taken up by the optical drive. Finally, on the back, there’s a 7-pin S-Video, two further USB ports, the DC-in and a modem port.
There are two notable absentees from this list; these namely being an S/PDIF jack, be it a combined or standalone port, or an HDMI output. These are two things that in this day and age are nigh on essentials, especially for a notebook of this size that claims to be about multimedia and entertainment.
When you also consider that a competing notebook such as Acer’s Aspire 5920 has both S/PDIF and an HDMI output as well as D-Sub, a 7-pin S-Video out and Dolby Home Theatre support, then the multimedia credentials of the Inspiron 1520 look dubious. Intriguingly, Dell does provide an option for a Blu-ray drive, and presumably Dell does add an HDMI port if this is selected.
Happily, it isn’t all doom and gloom for the Inspiron. As one might expect for a company with a strong foothold in the PC LCD market, the screen on this Inspiron is very impressive. It has a glossy finish which boosts contrast levels, producing pleasing black levels for excellent video viewing. Though this model has a 1,440 x 900 resolution screen, you can also opt for a lower resolution 1,280 x 800 panel or a more expensive 1,680 x 1,050 panel – an option I’d be sorely tempted by.
Another particularly impressive feature of the notebook is the keyboard, which is both nicely arranged and lovely to type on thanks to some crisp and responsive keys. There is very little by way of compromise to be found, with the Page Up/Down, Home and End keys arranged down the right hand side, with a slight gap between these and the Return key to avoid any tedious accidental presses.
In addition Dell bundles a very smart looking Bluetooth headset, which features a convenient fold away design and is charged via mini-USB to USB cable. Pairing the headset is relatively simple and on the right hand cup there are control buttons, allowing you to adjust volume, skip tracks and Play/Pause. Audio quality isn’t too bad either with some decent bass production, though things can get a little muddy in the mid-range. All in all though they’re quite a nice sweetener to the package, and will doubtless please the great majority who aren’t too concerned with audio fidelity.
Still, a pair of headphones doesn’t go too far to remedying the fact that the new Inspiron doesn’t represent great value. As noted earlier, our review sample sports a somewhat unbalanced specification, but even configuring different options doesn’t do much to improve the value of the range. If, for example, you spec something as near as possible to that of Acer’s Aspire 5920 you’ll be paying around £150 more, and that’s without Turbo Memory, HDMI, S/PDIF or Dolby Home Theatre. To be fair to Dell this isn’t a straight comparison since its systems are built to the buyers spec, but the Acer is the competition and that competition is fierce.
For me the ace up Dell’s sleeve is without a doubt its display options, which are far more varied than those of its competitors. Were one, for example, to take this system and remove the HSDPA but upgrade both the CPU to a Core 2 Duo T7300 and display to a 1,680 x 1,050 panel, you’ll still pay slightly less, at around £1,085, and gain greater performance and superior desktop real estate. Obviously options for a Blu-ray drive may also be attractive, though with the format wars still in full swing it would take a brave person to invest in it just yet.
For performance testing the Inspiron was put through our usual selection of notebooks tests, including PC Mark 05, our in-house Photoshop and Virtual Dub tests as well as a subjective battery test.
Overall the Inspiron put in a creditable performance, though it lagged behind the slightly higher specified (and cheaper) Acer Aspire 5920 in most of the PC Mark 05 tests. A similar tale can be told from our in-house tests, where the Acer was significantly faster in Photoshop tests, but roles were reversed in the Virtual Dub test where the Dell was slightly quicker, though not by as great a margin.
As both share the same graphics processing gaming performance was very comparable, and the Dell will happily play most recent games at playable frame rates with some effects. An added bonus of the 8600M-GT is DX10 compatibility; though don’t go expecting sterling performance when DX10 games begin to roll into view.
One aspect of the performance that was particularly impressive though was the battery life. To test this aspect the notebook was used for basic word processing and Internet browsing, using the recommended balanced performance profile with Wi-Fi enabled and display brightness set to full. Under these conditions the Inspiron’s 9-cell battery managed a very impressive three hours and 40 minutes, which is well beyond normal expectations. You do have to bear in mind thought that this is with the extended battery, which tips the overall weight of the machine to an arm aching 3.2kg. With a standard battery this is likely to be closer to 3kg, though battery life will obviously be less impressive.
This positive end note does, however, belie an otherwise mixed experience with the new Inspiron. Dell’s claims of fashionable design are fanciful, and though the choice of colours and simple design is attractive enough, it’s not nearly as revolutionary as Dell might like you to believe. Ultimately, the appeal of the Inspiron and of Dell is still entrenched in solid build quality and the safety of an established brand, with the customisation adding a conservatively creative twist to an otherwise ‘safe’ product. Putting aside arguments on value, there are other more fundamental problems, such as the slightly disappointing connectivity, which make any configuration of the Inspiron a less attractive option than what else is on offer.
An Inspiron remains a safe choice for many, and though there’s nothing inherently bad about the new version Dell hasn’t done enough to make it stand out in an increasingly competitive market.
Score in detail