Dell Studio 14: Entering the Welterweight Ring

When confronted with a machine like the Dell Studio 14 we received for review, it's difficult to find the right approach to take. Flexible mainstream units like this one seem surprisingly rarefied in our field; usually there's something in particular with a build that stands out. There's the video card, or the form factor, or the battery life...something segments it into a particular market. In that light, the Studio 14 could certainly seem unexciting. But there's something to be said for a solid, well-rounded build, and as you'll see, the Studio 14 is exactly that.

Dell Studio 14 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-430M
(2x2.26GHz, 32nm, 3MB L3, Turbo to 2.53GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM55
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1333 (Max 2x4GB)
Graphics ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 1GB GDDR3
(80 Stream Processors, 675MHz/1.6GHz Core/RAM clocks)
Display 14" LED Glossy 16:9 720p (1366x768)
Hard Drive(s) Seagate Momentus 7200.4 500GB 7200RPM
Optical Drive Slot-loading DVD+/-RW Combo Drive
Networking Gigabit Ethernet
Dell 1501 Wireless (b/g/n)
Audio HD Audio
2 stereo speakers with 2 headphone jacks and a mic jack
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 56Wh battery
Front Side N/A
Left Side Kensington
Ethernet
Exhaust vents
1x USB 2.0
1x Combo USB 2.0/eSATA
VGA
HDMI
ExpressCard/34 Slot
SD/MMC Reader
Right Side 2x Headphones, Mic
1x USB 2.0
Slot-loading Optical Drive
Power button
Back Side N/A
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 13.25" x 9.48" x 0.98"-1.52” (WxDxH)
Weight 5.25 lbs (with 6-cell battery)
Extras Webcam
Flash reader (MMC/MS/MS Pro/SD)
Warranty 1-year basic warranty
Pricing Starting at $599.99
~$900 as configured from Dell

Interestingly, the Intel Core i5-430M in our review unit is no longer available for custom configuration off of Dell's site, but the processors as a whole are bumped up in spec and refreshed. Ours is a dual-core running at a nominal 2.26GHz, able to turbo up to 2.53GHz as thermals permit and performance requires. Dell pairs it up with 4GB of DDR3-1333 in a pair of SO-DIMMs, all connected through Intel's HM55 mobile chipset.

The rest of the build for the most part covers all the bases. Our review unit came with a 500GB 7200-RPM Seagate Momentus 7200.4 hard drive and a frankly swanky slot-loading DVD writer. Networking duties are handled through Dell's capable if unexceptional 1501 wireless-n half-card and Broadcom's NetLink Gigabit Ethernet. Port options are well-rounded: two USB 2.0 ports and a combo eSATA port bring the USB up to a low-but-par-for-the-course three USB ports, and the VGA and HDMI ports provide the necessary monitor connectivity. People who need to expand are thankfully accounted for with an ExpressCard/34 port. And finally, battery life should be respectable given the healthy 56Wh battery that sits flush with the unit.

Where things get a little foggy is the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 on graphics duty. We aren't the biggest fans around here of ATI's 5-series entry-level chip (or NVIDIA's entry-level chips for that matter), owing in no small part to the fact that it isn't really a step forward from the last generation. Like the 4330/4550/4570 of old, the 5470 is still stuck sporting an anemic 80 stream processors on a 64-bit memory bus. The only advances brought to the table by the move to the 5-series are Eyefinity—which isn't relevant here because the unit doesn't have a DisplayPort—and DirectX 11 support, which the chip is just too slow to make use of. The 5470 is outfitted as well as you could hope for, with a 675MHz core clock and GDDR3, but 1GB of video memory is wasteful on a GPU this weak.

The 5470 is also not the default GPU; it's a punishingly expensive $160 upgrade. A step below it at a still irritating $85 is the Mobility Radeon HD 540v with a more reasonable 512MB of video memory, which is basically just a rebadged Mobility Radeon HD 4570. The $75 premium to add 512MB of additional video memory you'll never use along with DirectX 11 support the chip is too slow to take advantage of is frankly a lousy deal. The 5470's only tangible advantage is being built off of a 40nm process that will further reduce power consumption.

Jarred and I have discussed a general displeasure with just how anemic entry-level graphics solutions from both vendors are right now, so all we can really fault Dell for is the pricing on these upgrades. As discrete options the 540v and 5470 are certainly improvements over the Intel integrated HD graphics, but as you'll see when we get to the benchmarks, they still aren't capable of making games terribly playable at even the notebook's low native resolution.

The Studio 14 Examined
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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    Windows 7 does use VRAM to cache windows, saving some system RAM and helping to smooth out Aero a bit. Outside of that edge case, if you haven't actually used a current Intel HD Graphics solution, you are way off base on most of the other complaints.

    OpenGL used to be horrible on ATI as well back in the day, and it was really 3dfx that started the consumer interest with glQuake--prior to that, no one outside of professionals really cared about the API.

    Today, OpenGL is becoming a minor player compared to DirectX. Professional apps still use the API, but there are a ton of users that will never even use an OpenGL tool. Even if they do, my experience is that the Intel HD Graphics are at about the same level as ATI's HD 4200 series, with a few things like DX10 games not always running properly (but who cares at single digit frame rates?)

    All things being equal, yes I'd prefer an NVIDIA or ATI GPU over an Intel IGP. That said, on a laptop you have to worry about power, and in that case you want switchable graphics. NVIDIA's Optimus trumps ATI's switchable tech right now, though it's not without a few concerns (i.e. Linux support). Anyway, the real problem is this entry-level GPU crap being foisted onto unaware consumers for $150 extra. For $150 you should get an HD 5650. I'm not sure they couldn't get it in there on the heat side either, considering you have GT 335M in 14" and 13" laptops. But then GT 335M would probably be better, since it has Optimus and you could still get the 6 hours of battery life.
    Reply
  • ESetter - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    I'm glad to here the Intel drivers are better nowadays, but just 4 years they were quite buggy. I've never had problems on ATI GPUs in the last 6-7 years, though.

    If you look at the battery life charts, this notebook seems comparable to similar models with integrated graphics and similar batteries. The power consumption of these entry level GPUs is very low at idle.

    In the end it all depends on what you're looking for, but in my opinion there is still reasons to get entry level ATI/nVidia GPUs.
    Reply
  • mino - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    They are still, and NOT getting better.

    For example during their latest driver refresh with Win7 & i7 they managed to remove display profiles ...

    So now EVERY single time I plug/unplug notebook to display device I have to manually configure everything.
    Funny thing is that Intel was the first with profiles - it was the only thing they had better even ~5 yrs ago ...
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, August 22, 2010 - link

    There are no major issues with Intels mobile graphics solutions. Where the issue lies, is the end user not doing enough research on hardware they can afford for certain task(s).

    I myself own a laptop, with Intel 4500 IGP, and am surely a little disappointed in its performance for certain situations. With that said, I did look into the situation before I made my purchase, and am willing to live with my decision. Blaming Intel for my mobile choice in graphics only serves to make me look foolish, and accomplishes nothing else.

    Inform yourself. Then if something does not work for you, do not buy the technology. Intel, and the other technology companies out there are not in the fire fighting business. But they are more than willing to extinguish many a fire, by accepting that hard earned cash burning a hole in your pocket.
    Reply
  • hybrid2d4x4 - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    I think you hit the nail on the head here, rootheday. If you don't game, you don't gain anything from "moving up" from integrated. And if you do intend to play games, these bottom-of-the-barrel solutions aren't going to give you a good experience unless all you want to do is play the good games you missed 3-7 years ago. The one thing I think they do right (and I'm probably in the minority here) is that they at least use low-res 768p displays- I'd hate to see single digit FPS @ native res on a higher res display. If only they made GOOD QUALITY, MATTE 768p displays...

    As an aside, I've seen some notebooks that advertise switchable graphics with the ATI 5 series. Any chance one of those might be finding it's way for review?
    Reply
  • futurepastnow - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    If it's not adequate for playing games, then why bother with a discrete GPU in the first place?

    If the integrated graphics are good enough for non-gaming use (and they are), then the GPU is just a leech.
    Reply
  • cknobman - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    Sell it for a decent base price but add any meaning full upgrades to it and the consumer gets raped.

    My Sonly 14'CW has a Intel i520 cpu and gforce 330 in it and also has 4gb ram and a 500gb hd and it was $900 just like the dell.

    Dell needs to stop the business practice of trying to lure people in with low base prices and then gouge them on upgrades, its downright despicable and frustrating and the sole reason why I have never purchased a dell and probably never will.
    Reply
  • Hxx - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    Dell almost always has the studio lineup on some sort of sale so if you do some research you will end up paying around 700 for a config that would otherwise be 900. I got mine for 660 back in april when studios were going for arround 1k.

    Either way this is a great laptop for the price and Dell does what everyone else does when it comes to imflating prices on upgrades.
    Reply
  • mino - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    I feel Dustin that you at AT are a bit too comfortable using HD5850 a "low-end" rig.

    For a WORK/BUSINESS notebook anything above current AMD/NVDA low-end mobile GPU's is not feasible from the power POW.
    That is, at 40nm.

    We can hate TSMC/Glofo for that, but that is about it.
    Reply
  • ismailfaruqi - Thursday, August 19, 2010 - link

    Could you review HP 8540w with Dreamcolor 2 display configuration? It has 15 inch, IPS, 10-bit screen that maybe the answer for anyone dreaming laptop with excellent screen. Also could you measure its power consumption, because when configured with Dreamcolor 2 the power brick should be changed to 150W. Reply

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