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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  • GeorgeH - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    That was an excellent review, thanks. The commentary on each section was just enough to highlight important takeaways and asides without a lot of fluff.

    The only other (very minor) thing that I would have mentioned is that the external DVD burner (slim, eSATA, USB powered) from Dell is a $90 option or about $50-60 for a decentish USB unit from online retailers.
    Reply
  • tiberious - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    When i bought mine a few months ago, they included the CPU option of: Intel® Core™ 2 Duo T9550 (2.66GHz/1066Mhz FSB/6MB cache).

    Which makes it a much more useful machine.
    Reply
  • tiberious - Monday, October 26, 2009 - link

    I should also note the only reason i bought this laptop over other similar sized laptops (hp elitebook's/macbook) was the screen resolution. Short of splashing out on a sony Z series, there doesn't seem to be anyone making smallish laptops with decent resolutions. Reply
  • maddoctor - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    Good, because it's Intel Inside and with new Core Ix based laptops, nvidia will not have any chance with Intel's chipsets infrastructure business. Reply
  • themadmilkman - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    Just when I thought there was nothing worse than an Apple fanboy... Reply
  • stmok - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    themadmilkman, just ignore him. Reply
  • JohnConnor - Sunday, September 12, 2010 - link

    Jarred,

    I've read your reviews for many years. Please don't throw your personal color choice, preferences, into a review, as it isn't professional.
    I'm a straight male who is 43, and I like the plum purple, out of the choices given
    It 's one of the reasons why I bought my 14z. I got it refurbished, with a T4200, for $648
    with 3GB of RAM.(I bought the Dell USB dvd-drive, which can blaze using 2 USB ports.

    To all others who don't have this notebook should know this. with, the stock CPU, it was slow.

    Add a T9550 CPU, and a 4GB stick of DDR3 1066Mhz[for 5GB total RAM)
    [both of which I upgraded myself)] and the 8 cell battery, and you have a portable notebook, just above netbook size, which will give you over 8 hours of runtime without the AC!

    I run OS X 10.6.4 SL with Windows 7 Pro x64, in Virtual Box, and love it

    Reply

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