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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  • JimmyJimmington - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    I've owned this since this summer and it's a fantastic little laptop.

    I was considering going with an atom or ion netbook until I saw this thing. I upgraded to P8600, 8 cell battery, higher res screen, backlit keyboard, 7200 rpm hd, and a bunch of other bells and whistles. Total came out to ~$960 after student discount. (Take that Apple!)

    Lack of optical drive doesn't bother me since I haven't used an optical drive in several years. Even if I did, I have my desktop at home. I take this baby to class.

    Weight is the best advantage at 4.6 lbs. with the upgraded battery. The adapter is very light as well (didn't bother weighing it, sorry) which helps for carrying it with textbooks.

    I don't understand the complaints about aesthetics, I just got black because it was cheaper. Sorry I'm doing work, not staring at the thing.

    It's fairly thin, which is nice. What a lot of reviewers fail to mention is that there's a big trade off between thinness and heat. My girl friends MacBook Pro (not the new unibody, haven't tried those) sends all of the heat downwards. You wouldn't want to put that laptop on your lap. The bottom of the 14z never gets more than warm. CPU is at ~40 degrees as I type.

    I never really understood the appeal of "ultrathin" laptops. Light weight is the only thing that matters to me.

    I don't know about the low-res screen, but the high-res screen is fantastic. Even better than my very expensive desktop LG lcd when I compared side by side.

    Track pad was a little funky until I upgraded to Windows 7 and got the new drivers from Dell's website. I will also say that some computers have problems with inexplicably slow network transfer rates on Windows 7, that doesn't happen on the 14z.

    Linux was usable, but didn't like it very much if anyone is interested in that kind of thing.

    I never got CoreAVC Pro working, but that doesn't really matter to me. I just used the default HD video decoder in MPC-HC. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that only the video drivers available from Dell worked, the one's on Nvidia's website didn't work. On a related note, I was having some trouble getting dxva working at all in the 64-bit windows 7, telling me direct x run time wouldn't start and it couldn't be installed. Had to reinstall with 32-bit and it went away.

    I have aspirations of upgrading to a SSD at some point in the future, so it was a little disappointing to read that hd replacement might be difficult. Not a huge deal since the 7200 rpm is perfectly adequate.

    Overall, if you don't care about an optical drive, this is the laptop to get. I would gladly sacrifice that for the weight, and thinness advantages.
    Reply
  • Hxx - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    Why don't they include the optical drive? Is it because of its weight, cost, or what? I find this ridiculous since an optical drive is just as necessary as a keyboard. Since I was thinkin about gettin one for school, not everything i need comes on a flashdrive. I find the lack of optical a deal breaker for me. Reply
  • andrewaggb - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    Really? I almost never use an optical drive, I have a usb dvd burner that I use to backup my dvd's, and then I never use the optical formats. I find them too prone to damage, too annoying to swap in and out, they take up too much space, and optical drives are noisy....

    But that's me. Obviously everybody uses their computer differently. Still if you only occasionally need an optical drive, you could get an external usb drive that you can leave at home.
    Reply
  • Hxx - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    I completely agree with you about optical drives being inferior to usbs but they are still very much in use. Once they are ditched out of mainstream use then we're talkin. Gettin an external optical drive would defeat the purpose of buyin a laptop with one in the first place. Blah, maybe i'll just go with the new macbook even though i hate the idea of gettin featureless windows with overpriced hardware, i'll get used to it ... eventually. Reply
  • mindless1 - Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - link

    Well they are inferior, but I can accept software is far more often distributed on optical media than USB flash.

    The real question is, how often do you REALLY need to real an optical disk in a mobile environment, right then instead of later?

    I would much rather have the notebook price lowered, save on weight and size, and have a USB optical drive at home or the desk at work.

    To most people it does not defeat any purpose, the purpose of a laptop being it's mobility and let's face it, optical media is not tailored to mobility at all.

    However, I like having more battery capacity/runtime than many people seem to, so I have a compromise proposal similar to how many laptops used to be made. I propose a slot that can take either an optical drive, 2nd hard drive, or a 2nd battery, that slot having an included cover plate if the user wants none of these in the slot.

    Even cooler would be if the slot had more purposes, for example to fit a bluetooth mouse of reasonable proportions, or if the AC-DC adapter fit in the slot so the only thing external you needed for basic use was a power cord with a plug on the end that plugs into that AC-DC adapter in the slot, or perhaps it had a retractable cord so you had nothing at all external to carry with you.

    I would easily accept a slightly larger notebook if it meant less loose separate items to take with it, it's just that of all possible separate items, the optical drive is the least likely to be needed.
    Reply
  • gstrickler - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    ...a Windows laptop that is competitive with the MacBook. It's not a MB, but it's close, and it's not from Apple, and a lot of people will consider that an advantage. However, those same people generally aren't big fans of Dell or HP either, so....

    ...a Windows laptop with a decent combination of performance, battery life, and weight. As noted, no where near the 6.5 hours Dell claims, but perhaps with the low end CPU (lower clock speed and slower FSB), no backlit keyboard, and Windows 7, it might hit that at idle. Still, it got 3+ hours in all your tests, and that's where I set the minimum baseline for a machine that is intended to be mobile. 9400M G, C2D, and under 5 pounds with the 8 cell battery.

    ...a laptop with decent gaming performance that can run for 2+ hours when gaming. Resolution and detail may have to be stepped down, but those frame rates and resolutions are definitely playable.

    Regarding the display. I haven't seen it, but based upon your review, looks like it's got two main issues: It's glossy, some consider that an advantage, I don't. The black level is pretty high (resulting in a poor contrast ratio). That's really only an issue when using it in low light situations, so it's an issue, but probably not a killer one. Max brightness, gamut, color accuracy, etc. are all good.

    The single SO-DIMM slot and difficult HD access are tolerable, but definitely limitations. 3GB is enough for most users, 5GB covers almost everyone, but it would be nice to have 8GB as an option.

    With the P8600, 5GB RAM, an SSD, 1600x900 display, and the backlit keyboard, it sounds like a nice machine. But, at that point, you're getting really close the price of a MacBook Pro.
    Reply
  • The0ne - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    Anything beyond 4Gig on laptop will cost and arm and leg. Let me rephrase that. It will cost an arm and leg if you are purchasing 4GB dimms :D I would love to have 8Gig on my laptop but I cannot justify the hundreds of dollars for an extra 4gig that will benefit me little. Reply
  • gstrickler - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    But prices on 4GB DDR3 SO-DIMMs are coming down, and will continue to do so, it would be nice to have the option when prices aren't outrageous. Reply
  • Guntherman - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    I ordered mine with the 1600x900 and couldn't be happier with the screen. I do think it is a higher quality than the "720p" one.

    Also, I changed my color from black to blue. The blue has a matte finish which, is very nice. I believe it was a $40 upgrade but, well worth it.

    Overall, I am very pleased with this notebook and I have Windows 7 Pro on it and it runs great! It's also nice to watch Hulu and other HD content via HDMI on my HDTV.
    Reply
  • fokka - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    im very interested in this laptop and cant wait till it arives in europe. dell is always a little slow with that.

    imho the most attractive features of this laptop are the cheap keyboard backlight (25$), the hdmi-out in compination with the 9400m and the 1600x900 screen. also the speakers should be quite good in comparison to the competition and for those who need a cardreader, there is an expresscard-option for 25$, too iirc.

    after reading your article, the biggest turn-offs are the battery life, which i think is poor for a 70+wh battery and the poor contrast ratio.

    also i would like to see some metal-cases from dell, but i think in the budget-sector this will remain a dream.

    i now own a dell vostro 1310 and the resolution, grafics, hdmi and speakers would be a welcome upgrade for me, but with only 4 hours of runtime i dont think the 14z will cut it for me. also im dieing for higher contrast and better colours and looking at your measurements i doubt this one will deliver.

    i think the best option for me is the 13" macbook pro, although it still is very expensive.

    however, keep up the good work!
    thanks!
    Reply

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