Just in time for the back-to-school season, Dell Inc. (NASDAQ: DELL)has released its new R series of Inspiron all-purpose laptops. Though the stylish silver accents are the first thing you’ll notice, the Inspiron R series is more than just a cosmetic upgrade. The Inspiron 14R may have fewer configuration options than the Inspiron 14 and may carry a higher starting price, but its improved hardware and refined design more than make up for the difference.
You can get an Inspiron R laptop in any of four colours: Mars Black, Peacock Blue, Tomato Red, or Promise Pink. Anything other than black, however, will cost you an extra $40. The cheapest Inspiron 14R is $479 (as of July 14, 2010), just $30 more than the least expensive Inspiron 14, but that particular model includes a 1.86GHz Pentium 6000. The real reason to select an R model is to obtain a Core i3 or i5 processor, which you can’t get in a regular Inspiron 14.
Selecting such a processor bumps the minimum price up to $649, but it means a substantially faster CPU and better Intel integrated graphics.Our test machine, which cost $779 at the time of this review, came with a Core i3-350M processor (2.26GHz, two cores, and four threads), 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 with 1GB of graphics RAM. It also carried a 500GB, 5400-rpm hard drive. The R series doesn’t give you many configuration options: You can choose from several models with somewhat different specs, but once you pick a system you can only change its colour and upgrade to 6GB of RAM.
By way of comparison, when I tried to configure a regular Inspiron 14 that matched the specs of our review unit (as close as I could get, at least) the result cost about $40 more.
Beyond the internal hardware, the Inspiron 14R differs from non-R laptops in other important ways. The lid hinge is offset about half an inch forward from the back of the machine, and the internal keyboard-tray surface is a nice brushed-silver tone. The power plug extends from the back-right corner of the machine, next to a USB port (non-R units have the power plug on the left side, and nothing on the back). The left side of the Inspiron 14R includes the Ethernet jack, the exhaust vents, an HDMI output, a combination eSATA/USB port, and a multiformat card reader. The right side has another USB port, headphone and microphone jacks, and the 8X CD/DVD burner. In addition, 802.11n networking is standard (an upgrade over the non-R models), and the SRS Premium Sound definitely produces better audio quality through the speakers than you get on the non-R Inspiron models. In all, the Inspiron 14R is quite an attractive package for a 14-inch, 5.1-pound laptop.
Performance is quite reasonable for a sub-$800 notebook. Its WorldBench 6 score of 94 is a little on the low side, but typically you have to spend more to break past the 100-point barrier. The Mobility Radeon HD 5470 graphics board makes playing games on this all-purpose portable a real possibility. I had no problems running Left 4 Dead 2 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 at the display’s native resolution of 1366 by 768 with just a few minor tweaks to the graphics settings.
More-intensive games will require more sacrifices, but the 14R’s vibrant screen and reasonable graphics performance make it a pretty capable entertainment laptop, given its size and price. The biggest drawback to playing modern games on this system is the fan noise: The fan is fairly quiet in regular use, but spins up to a loud whir when you play a graphics-intensive game.
When it comes to getting work done, the Inspiron 14R is no slouch. Core i3 and i5 processors offer more than enough performance for everyday Web surfing, e-mail, word processing, and light image editing. With 4GB of RAM, the system is pretty responsive.
The keyboard has great key action and is easy to type on, save for one annoyance: The spacebar sits too low and flush against the inside surface of the laptop, making it a little harder to press with your thumb than it should be. The large touchpad tracks smoothly and evenly, and the two distinct buttons make it easy to click what you want to, when you want to, with no accidental misclicks.
Dell missed a serious opportunity in not making the graphics switchable between the discrete Radeon card and the Core i3’s integrated graphics. The option would have enabled users to get a lot more battery life out of the machine–our test model petered out in just about 3 hours, which is disappointing. Despite that flaw, and the somewhat annoying spacebar, the Inspiron 14R is an appealing system overall. It’s the right “does everything well enough” laptop at the right sub-$800 price for the back-to-school crowd, and it isn’t large, bulky, or ugly.