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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  • gstrickler - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    I don't know where I got 4.6 pounds either....my bad. However, that's still with the 6 cell battery and no optical drive. You say your machine is 4.6 with the 8 cell battery, which puts it about 2 ounces lighter than the 4.7 pound MB with it's built-in optical drive and 50% more run-time.

    Not pulling the comparision out of my ass, those are the closest configurations you can buy. Even using your comparison, machines, MB w/2GB RAM, 250GB 5400 RPM drive, optical drive, Wi-Fi N, Bluetooth, and 1 year wty, vs 14z with 3GB, P8600, 250GB 5400 RPM drive, optical drive, 8 cell battery, Wi-Fi N, Bluetooth, Win7, and 1 year warranty, the MB is $999, and the Dell 14z is $1079. Not everyone can get the student discount, some people (most people) actually pay around retail.

    Even if you're not going to carry the optical drive with you, you still need an external optical drive for loading software and/or burning disks (e.g. backup), so comparing price without it is only valid if you already have a compatible external optical drive.

    I used a 3 year warranty because that's what most people I know buy when they buy a laptop. In any case, adding the 3 year warranty works in favor of the Dell because their 3 year warranty is $60 less than Apple's 3 year warranty.

    I didn't mean Vista, I meant Windows 7. sometimes my fingers type what they're used to typing, not what I'm thinking. I would never recommend Vista to anyone, for any reason. Win 7 looks promising.
    Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    I would have to see hard proof of 50% more run time. Otherwise, it's just pulled out of your ass again. Reply
  • gstrickler - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    Go read some of Anand and Jarrod's older articles. They've compared run times with MB/MBP machines a number of times, in each case, the Macs get significantly better run times than the same or similar machine running Windows. Jarrod even mentioned that in the article.

    Here's a test with an older MB with the 45Wh battery.
    http://www.anandtech.com/mac/showdoc.aspx?i=3580&a...">http://www.anandtech.com/mac/showdoc.aspx?i=3580&a...
    3:15 minutes of very heavy (playing 2 XviD videos + wireless browsing + constant downloading) use, 5 hours of wireless web browsing. Multiply those by 1.33 for moving up to the 60Wh battery and you have 4:20 heavy use, 6:40 wireless web browsing. Compare that to the Dell at 3:40 internet browsing, and 3:30 video playback (single XviD only, not XviD + browsing + downloading) using the 74Wh 8 cell battery (from this article). I'd say that's at least 50% any way you look at it. And that MB had a faster CPU and used DDR2 DRAM, both of which will use more power than the new MB, so it may do even better.

    Any more "hard proof" you need?
    Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Friday, October 23, 2009 - link

    It would also have to be on Windows 7 to be "hard proof," by the way. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 23, 2009 - link

    We can't provide exact figures right now on the latest MacBooks, but we should have something in the not-too-distant future. Anand handles the Mac side of things, while I do most of the Windows laptops/netbooks. However, I can say with certainty that the latest MacBooks with a 60Wh battery are going to have better run times than the 14z. Priced at $1000, it's not even a big difference in price for what you get.

    The only real question is whether you are willing to make a switch to OS X. Personally, I'm not willing to switch - I'm stubborn/happy with Windows. Windows 7 also will help on battery life, but it's not going to make more than a ~10% difference (and that's compared to Vista) http://www.anandtech.com/mobile/showdoc.aspx?i=364...">based on my testing.

    The fact that Apple has full control over the OS and hardware is a huge benefit; word is they play with voltages more than normal, but I don't know for sure. It may simply be that OS X is very good at entering the deepest CPU sleep states and staying there as long as possible.

    Taking "best case", 14z with Win7 would get 253 minutes of Internet surfing (that's giving it a 15% boost, which I'd say is more than it will actually achieve). So with a 71.6Wh battery (Dell says 74Wh on the cover, but they also say 14.8V and 4.84Ah, which means 71.632Hw) the 14z could get 3.532 minutes per Wh.

    Taking the worst case on the MacBook, we achieved 186 minutes with a 45Wh battery on the older model. Boost battery capacity by 33% and you would get 248 minutes. Again, that's in a much heavier workload (download + Xvid + web). So in that worst-case test the MacBook should get 4.133 minutes per Wh -- about 17% better than the 14z.

    I just don't see any way for the gap to be smaller than 17% relative battery life, and more likely than not it will be 30% or more with comparable usage. Anand has my test scripts for Internet usage, and when he gets the latest MacBook (and time) we'll have the exact figures. In the meantime, I think I'll work on installing Win7 on the 14z and rerunning a few tests as well.

    PS: All the above said, I'd still take the 14z over the MacBook. Call it user bias, but as much as I like the Apple hardware and designs, I'm just not a big fan of changing OSes. I've played with Linux as well, and while I can function I'm far more at home in Windows. Been using DOS since version 3 (yeah, I remember how much better 3.3 was compared to the original 3.0!), and despite the quirks I just find it easier to get the tools/drivers/games I need on Windows.
    Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Friday, October 23, 2009 - link

    That's not hard proof, that's conjecture. Run the test with the 14z and the mac to compare them, then I will believe you. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    No need for an external optical drive for installing software if you have a network. I install all my stuff over Gigabit Ethernet and it works great. Or from an external USB HDD. I personally don't need an ODD unless I want to play a game or watch a non-ripped DVD. Both are not particularly common tasks for me on something like the 14z (or MacBook). Given the choice, I'd still rather have an ODD, but it's not a huge issue.

    Pricing for MB and 14z is quite comparable, with the difference being design and a few hardware options, plus the OS difference. I'm far more at home in Windows, though, so I'd pay the extra money to avoid the OS switch... and installing Win7 or Vista on a MacBook is pointless to me; you but a Mac for the OS, don't you?

    Anyway, my 2 cents. :)
    Reply
  • gstrickler - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    If you have a second machine that has an optical drive and a network (which is probably most of the readers on here), then, you may be fine without the optical drive. However, that is not true of most buyers. 80% or more of the buyers will need the optical drive.

    Like you and Jimmy, I don't often use the optical drive, mostly for installing software or converting my CDs to 256-bit AAC. I would prefer to have a laptop with room for two internal HDD/SSD and have a lightweight external optical drive that I can leave home/in my car. Taking half a pound off of what I regularly carry would definitely be welcome. It's not a huge difference, but I think I would prefer that configuration.

    You're right, the pricing is comparable, which is all I've been pointing out in my posts. Jimmy (and others, but not in this thread) keeps asserting that "you're paying extra for Mac OS X" with the Mac, and that simply is not true. In some configurations the Dell is cheaper, in some the MB is cheaper, but there is no "Apple tax" or "premium" for getting the MB vs the Studio 14z.

    In general, you should not buy a Mac to run Windows. While Intel based Macs run Windows very well, they're not intended to be "just another Windows machine". If Windows is your preferred OS, or if you have Windows only software that you need to run more than about 30% of the time, you should probably buy a machine designed to run Windows. The exceptions to that are when you have any Mac only software (or software that has a significantly better Mac version) that you need to use, or if you simply prefer Apple's hardware and attention to detail.
    Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    I agree with you Jared. I haven't used an optical drive in years. I fail to see the point of carrying it around with my laptop to class. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    Sorry... it was just a guess based on past MacBook pricing. Reply

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