Despite the rapid growth in laptop sales over the past decade, the more things change the more they stay the same. You would think with the potential to snag a piece of the lucrative mobile market, we would see more innovation from smaller companies. We do have to give ASUS credit for kicking off the netbook "revolution", but elsewhere the status quo is well entrenched. If you're okay with OS X, Apple continues to release some of the best designed laptops. On the Windows side of the equation, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, Acer/Gateway, and a few others compete for your dollars. If you're looking for something affordable, however, and you don't want a netbook, you can generally eliminate many of those names. Today we have Dell's Studio 14z in our labs for testing, a reasonably affordable laptop that does a good job balancing features, design, and performance. Here's what you can get.

Dell Studio 14z Specifications
Processor Pentium Dual Core T4200 (2.0GHz 800FSB 1MB L2)
Core 2 Duo T6500 (2.1GHz 800FSB 2MB L2)
Core 2 Duo P8600 (2.4GHz 1066FSB 3MB L2)
Chipset NVIDIA nForce 730i
Memory 3GB DDR3 (Max 5GB):
1x1024MB DDR3-1066 CL7 Onboard
1x2048MB DDR3-1066 CL7 SO-DIMM
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce 9400M G
Display 14.0" 1366x768 LED Backlit Standard
14.0" 1600x900 LED Backlit Upgrade
Hard Drive 2.5" 250GB to 500GB 5400RPM or 7200RPM
Networking Gigabit Ethernet
802.11bg or 802.11n WiFi
Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (optional)
Audio HD Audio (2.0 Stereo Speakers with headphone/microphone jacks)
HDMI and DisplayPort audio out
Battery 6-Cell 56Wh or 8-cell 74Hw
Front Side None
Left Side HDMI
DisplayPort
Cooling Exhaust
1 x USB 2.0
Gigabit Ethernet
Kensington Lock
Right Side ExpressCard/34
2 x Headphone jacks
Microphone jack
Mini 1394A Firewire
1 x eSATA/USB
1 x USB 2.0
AC Power connection
Back Side None
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Windows 7 Business 64-bit
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
(Test system shipped with Vista Home Premium 64-bit)
Dimensions 13.23" x 9.02" x 0.79-1.22" (WxDxH)
Weight 4.3 lbs (with 6-cell battery)
Extras 1.3MP Webcam
Warranty Standard 1-year warranty
2-year or 3-year extended warranties available
Price Online Prices start at $699.
Price as configured: $1019 (with $159 rebate).

The base model 14z starts at around $700, but there are definitely compromises. The biggest compromise is going to be in the processor department, where the Pentium Dual Core T4200 might be "fast enough" to easily outpace any netbook, but it's not going to truly impress in terms of performance. The next bump up, the Core 2 Duo T6500, doubles the L2 cache, and increases clock speed by 5%, for a net increase of around 20% and a cost of $75. The top-end processor supported in the 14z (at present) is the Core 2 Duo P8600, which gives you 3MB L2 cache and a 2.4 GHz clock speed for $200 more than the T4200, again in improving performance by about 20% compared to the T6500. Depending on how much CPU performance you desire, all three processor options are viable; simply adding the P8600 will increase the price of a 14z by almost 30%, but you should get better than a 30% boost in performance.

Unlike some laptops, configuration options on the 14z are relatively limited. Other than the choice of processor, the only other major component decisions you'll have are the amount of memory (3GB or 5GB), the hard drive, and whether you want to spring for the 1600x900 LCD or stick with the default 1366x768 model. (Somewhat confusingly, Dell and others insist on calling 1366x768 displays "720p".) We would also recommend the 8-cell battery to improve battery life by about 35%. You also get to choose between five different colors (black, red, blue, green, or purple) and the usual selection of warranties, operating system, software, etc.

The overall package is good, but as with many thin and light systems you'll have to forgo an integrated optical drive. Dell also limits memory expansion to a single DDR3 SO-DIMM slot, with 1GB of RAM soldered onto the motherboard, so the upgrade from 3GB to 5GB RAM will cost a painful $275. Personally, I'd also like to see another option for color: white; all the others are either too garish (a yellowish "spring green" or "plum purple" -- yuck!), and the black chassis picks up fingerprints like a police detective canvassing a crime scene. The big selling point is of course size; starting at 4.3 pounds and with a relatively small 14.0" chassis, this is a laptop designed to be carried around rather than left on your desk. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that Dell uses NVIDIA's nForce 730i chipset, which means you can get a Core 2 Duo processor and integrated graphics that don't suck.

One of the interesting points of comparison is going to be Apple's standard MacBook. The 13.3" LCD is slightly smaller but the MacBook weighs 4.7 pounds making it slightly heavier. It also includes an optical drive and two SO-DIMM slots. Both use the GeForce 9400M/nForce 730i chipset. Apple lists the battery life for the MacBook as "up to 7 hours" while Dell claims up to 6.5 hours with the 8-cell battery upgrade. If Dell can deliver, we'll have a real contender for battery life compared to MacBooks using similar components.

Dell Studio 14z Overview
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  • DominionSeraph - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    System monitor in XP will show you percentage of C1, C2, and C3 time. (can't check vista right now)
    Reply
  • hybrid2d4x4 - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    I too would like to see an investigation of why the Macs get better battery life in OSX, and if it turns out that it is the hits on the HDD (I suspect you're right on this one) and unnecessary background processes, if there are any tweaks that we can perform to squeeze the most out of Windows. Reply
  • gstrickler - Sunday, October 25, 2009 - link

    I can't explain why Mac OS X is so much more power efficient, but keep in mind that Apple designed their own chipsets for 20+ years and co-designed the PPC for 10 years, all while developing their own OS. They've undoubtedly gained some insights into the operation of complete systems that no other company has (IBM might have, but they would not have shared that with MS without a big payoff). Sun has similar background, but never needed to be that concerned about power since they make high performance machines and don't make laptops.

    I am surprised that Apple has been able to maintain that advantage since moving to Intel CPUs and Nvidia chipsets, apparently a lot of it is in the OS design.
    Reply
  • Interitus - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    I've owned this laptop for about 4 months now. It really is a nice laptop. Very light, my config with almost everything set up for low power lasts ~6 1/2 hours on battery as long as I'm not running video or doing anything graphic or CPU intensive. For surfing the web and typing up papers and the like for school, this laptop is perfect.

    There are a few minor issues I've found with the laptop:

    1) the touchpad isn't the greatest as someone mentioned. It's really buggy, but if you leave it at the default settings it's not that bad. The issues start to arise when you change settings like sensitivity and click speed.

    2) DO NOT expect to carry this laptop around in your backpack and not treat it with respect. Mine has a clearly visible line on the battery (from the inside of the laptop between the monitor and the keyboard) where it appears to have been squished together too tightly and the lip of the screen has scratched the battery. Purely cosmetic, but still annoying considering I paid $1100+ for my setup.

    3) There is a common issue with screen flickering. Mine has it, but it's not enough to annoy me or make me want to have some idiotic Dell repair person compromise the integrity of the laptop by tearing it apart to fix it.

    4) My mother purchased one of these after seeing mine, and as a lot of people reported, the battery rattles a bit in its place. Mine doesn't exhibit this behavior.

    Those things aside I love this laptop. Most of them are minor issues too, so don't let it put you off of buying one. Just get a warranty to cover issues like those.

    My config was $1100'ish with a 2-year complete care package from Dell, pretty good price for a Macbook minus the OS.

    Don't understand the choice to solder 1GB to the board, kinda stupid from my point of view. 4GB sticks are still ridiculous in price.
    Reply
  • nysportz - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    I thought the MacBook comparisons were interesting. FYI, Apple released a new MacBook today weighing 4.7 lbs and advertising 7 hours of battery life. At $999, this is pretty competitive with the Dell.

    I say this as an impartial observer (and as someone shopping for a laptop in this size and price range).
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    We measured 3.1 hours with the MacBook using a 45Wh battery under our most stressful test scenario, so the new MacBook with a 60Wh battery will almost certainly hit 4+ hours worst-case, and typical battery life is likely to hit 6+ hours as advertised. The difference of course is that you run OS X vs. Windows, and you pay $1300 vs. $1000. If battery life is important to you and you don't mind ditching Windows, Apple is very much still in the lead. Reply
  • gstrickler - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    How do you get $1300 for the new MacBook? Base price is $999 with 2GB RAM and a 250GB HD. Take it to 4GB and a 320GB HD (closest config you can get to the Dell you 14z you tested) and you're at $1149.

    And the MB includes an internal optical drive in that price. Still comes in at 4.7 pounds and 4-7 hour real battery life. Of course, the Dell does have a 14" display, ExpressCard 34 slot, and a slightly faster (2.4 vs 2.26 GHz) CPU, so it's not a complete win for the MB. Both sound like nice machines, with similar features and similar prices.
    Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    Look at the baseline mac at $1000, vs the $960 14z that I described. It costs a bit more and you get a smaller screen with lower resolution (which is how they squeeze out the comparable battery life), less RAM, slightly heavier, slower proc, slower hard drive, no esata, and mini display port (I mean minidisplay port, are you kidding me?). The 14z wins on hardware alone.

    You're paying for the OS, no question about it. If you want OS X though, just buy a mac.
    Reply
  • gstrickler - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    Dell specs the 14z at 4.6 pounds with the 6 cell battery, not the 8 cell, as you claim in your config, so the MB is in fact slightly lighter then the Dell with the 8 cell battery. Of course, we're only talking about a couple ounces either way.

    Then again, the MB does include an internal optical drive in that weight, and gets better battery life, which is a clear win for the MB.

    Your ~960 price was "with a student discount", try comparing it to the price of a the MB with a student discount, not to the retail price. Since you didn't specify the size of your HD or RAM, I can't come up with a "retail" price for you system, but I just configured a Studio 14z with 3GB RAM, 320GB 5400 RPM HD, P8600 CPU, 8 cell battery, and the standard display, it's $969. The comparable MB is $1149 with 4GB RAM. BTW, that configuration is the one that gives the biggest advantage to the Studio 14z. Change the HD size or the RAM size, or and optical drive to the Dell, and the difference is smaller. The price comparison you gave is meaningless, if you qualify for the student discount on one, you'll almost certainly qualify for a student discount on the other.

    The "best" comparison of "comparable" machines would be a MB with 4GB RAM, 320GB HD, and 3 year warranty for $1389. The MB includes 802.11n, bluetooth, optical drive, and Mac OS X.
    vs.
    Dell Studio 14z with 5GB RAM, P8600 CPU, 320GB (5400 RPM) HD, 802.11n, internal bluetooth, standard display, 8 cell battery, Optical drive, Win7 Home Premium, and 3 yr warranty for $ 1544.

    Yes, the 14z has a slightly faster CPU and 1GB more RAM in that configuration, but Vista is more CPU and RAM intensive than Mac OS X, so they're very similar. The 14z also includes an eSATA port, 1394a port, ExpressCard 34 slot, and an HDMI port, but you're paying an extra $155 as well.

    There is almost no difference in the power draw of a 13.3" vs 14" display, nor does a slightly higher resolution display draw notably more power. That is not the reason the MB gets better battery life. The reason is better power management in Mac OS X vs Windows, and possibly use of some lower power components.

    Yes, Mini Displayport, get used to it. Displayport is the way the market is moving (which is why Dell includes it on the Studio 14z), and Mini Displayport is part of the Displayport standard, it's just a smaller connector, great for small laptops.
    Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    The starting weight with the 6-cell battery on the 14z is 4.3 lbs. according to Dell. I weighed the machine myself with the 8-cell battery and it's 4.6 lbs. so I don't know where you're getting your information from, the dell is lighter than the smaller mac.

    Your "comparable" specs make no sense at all. You're just pulling prices out of your ass.

    Again, look at the baseline white plastic mac, $950 with a student discount vs. mine which was $960.

    I didn't get the 320 gig hd, both the baseline mac and my 14z have the 250 gig hd, not 320. I opted for the faster 7200 rpm for $50 extra. So if you want to be as comparable as possible, itd be like $910 vs. $950

    I will even give you that the standard 2 gigs of RAM on the mac is comparable to the 3 gigs on the 14z. Upgrading either is overpriced and useless.

    The standard warranty for dell and apple are 1 year, so I don't know why you're throwing that into the comparison.

    I don't know why you think displayport is the future either. Most TVs, at least all the ones I've seen, come with HDMI, that's the universal standard.

    And it's not Vista, it's Windows 7. It came with a free upgrade to 7 and it can't even be bought with Vista anymore.

    Like I said before, the 14z has superior hardware at a lower price. As always, you buy apple laptops for the OS.
    Reply

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