A Closer Look at the Vostro V131

Outwardly, there’s a lot to like with the Vostro V131. It may not be as thin as an ultrabook or a MacBook Air, but it’s still very much a thin and light ultraportable. There’s also no optical drive to take up space, and while you can always use an external drive, most businesses (and homes) can transfer any important files from another PC over the network (or via a USB thumb drive). Here’s a gallery of the laptop, equipped with the now-standard 6-cell battery.

Outside of the Vostro name, at first glance it would be very easy to mistake the V131 for some form of Latitude. It comes in a classic Dell matte silver finish with black highlights. Open it up and you get more matte surfaces—why it’s good for businesses to have matte laptops but consumer models are so frequently adorned with glossy finishes is beyond me. Aesthetically, there’s very little I can find fault with in the V131 appearance. It looks nice and has everything most users would need. However, once you start to handle the V131 a bit the differences between Vostro and Latitude become immediately obvious.

The keyboard is an area that deserves investigation; some elements are praiseworthy, but it’s not without flaws. On the good side, you get a layout that I have grown fond of over the years—one which Dell could benefit from using on their XPS z-series in my opinion. All of the important keys are readily available, including dedicated document navigation keys on the right column, a context-sensitive key to the right of the right control key, and Fn shortcuts for various other functions. There’s also keyboard backlighting, which works just as well as on other laptops. On the not-so-good side, there’s some flex in the keyboard—particularly if you press hard (e.g. not necessarily typing, but just pressing hard on a key to see if there’s flex). It’s not enough to really detract from the typing experience, and the keyboard does make full use of the width of the chassis, but it’s definitely not anywhere near the level of the Latitude E6420 for example—it’s not even as durable as the XPS 14z, though the layout as noted is better. I can type fine on the V131 and key travel and spacing are reasonable, but it’s one of the areas where it feels like corners were cut—or at least trimmed.

Another item that you’ll find on the Latitude line which is missing here is the pointer stick and extra buttons. I know there are some people that really love the TrackPoint as a mouse alternative, but with the latest multi-touch and gesture capable touchpads I’m now firmly in the camp of touchpad users. I’ve used an E6410 quite a bit, and one item that always bothers me is the tiny touchpad surface area. It helps you avoid accidental activation while typing, but it also makes using it as a touchpad more like a netbook than a laptop. I’m not sure there’s an optimal solution that can please everyone, frankly, but I like the size of the V131 touchpad and I don’t miss the TrackPoint input or extra buttons in the least. The touchpad hardware comes from Synaptics, with a Dell-customized driver set. I didn’t experience any difficulty with accidental touchpad activation at the default settings, but if you’re experiencing such things you can set the touch sensitivity to maximum (“Heavy Touch”) and do the same for TouchCheck, at which point I had to specifically try to activate the touchpad while typing. YMMV, naturally, and I still use an actual mouse whenever I can, but the touchpad works as well as any others I can recall from recent memory.

The one area where the Vostro V131 fails to impress is in the build quality. At first it seems decent—it may not have a magnesium alloy frame, but it doesn’t feel like a complete joke. The LCD cover is composed of a magnesium alloy and feels quite solid, which at first made me think build quality was pretty close to that of the Latitude E6410. Start to massage the V131 a little more however and you’ll find that the frame and palm rest appear to be almost entirely made of plastic, and it’s not particularly thick plastic either. We mentioned keyboard flex as being present, but there’s flex throughout the chassis. Grab a corner of the laptop and lift it up and you can see a slight distortion in the shape of the casing. Grab the corners of the laptop and apply some pressure and you can also get the chassis to bend and warp quite easily. This isn’t a huge concern if you plan on handling your laptop with care (which we’d always recommend), but long-term the V131 is likely to develop more squeaks and creaks than a higher quality chassis.

One other complaint about the chassis is that the cover on the bottom that provides access to the RAM and storage can be quite difficult to remove—not difficult as in hard, but difficult as in, “Am I going to break this piece prying it off?” It has a single screw but probably six or eight plastic clips, and if you have to open it up more than a few times you’ll probably break a few clips. Opening up the slots on the bottom of a Latitude is child’s play by comparison; Latitudes are meant to be serviced quickly and returned to use, but the Vostro will take a bit more time and finesse. In short, the chassis design and materials are the major trade off in comparison to the Latitude line.

The Vostro line is targeted at smaller homes and businesses that want business class support without necessarily having to spend up for a Latitude. There’s no doubt that the build quality and materials in Dell’s Latitude line are better than the Vostro, but that doesn’t make the Vostro a bad laptop. Given the choice (and without looking at price), most people will prefer the Latitude models, but price almost always comes into play. There are other factors as well that may or may not matter to potential buyers. The Latitude laptops support docking stations and usually have at least one more USB port, and they go through additional validation testing—similar to how Intel and AMD test their Xeon and Opteron processors more rigorously than they do their consumer CPUs. In short, you give up some things by opting for Vostro over Latitude, but for some the tradeoffs will be perfectly acceptable.

Wrapping things up, I’m impressed on one level with how much you can get for a reasonable price. There are plenty of $600-$700 laptops out there, but a lot of them feel very cheap and flimsy and come with a generic 1-year warranty. (If you actually have to send a laptop back for repairs in the first year, let’s be clear: the laptop is a lemon.) The Vostro is thin but still feels reasonably durable, and the hinges are still metal so they’re not as apt to wear out after 18 months. Provided you’re not banging your laptop around, I can easily see the Vostro lasting through a few years of use, and the fact that Dell will sell you a 3-year NBD warranty for $80 extra indicates that they feel it should last at least that long without issues. Yes, it’s clearly a step down from enterprise class laptops in build quality and materials, but it’s also about half the price of a similarly equipped E6420.

To get into the specifics, if you start with the $919 Latitude E6420, you’ll need to bump up to 6GB RAM and a 500GB HDD, add a webcam and Bluetooth module, and the final tally comes to $1150 (with the current $448 rebate—again, prices are subject to fluctuations). The Latitude comes with a 3-year NBD on-site warranty standard, and perhaps more importantly there’s a $79 upgrade to a “Premium Panel” 1600x900 LCD. Such a configuration will weather the years better; however, for the price you can buy two Vostro laptops, or buy one Vostro now and upgrade to a new model Vostro in a couple years. You end up spending about the same amount, but which will be best in the long term is something of a personal/business decision. I know I’d prefer to spend more for a laptop I’m happy using, and I’ve had conversations with quite a few others who have used both Latitude and Vostro and they tend to feel the same, but if you’re looking to save some money for your business, the Vostro line is certainly a viable option.

Dell Vostro V131: What’s in a Name? Vostro V131: Let’s See the Benchmarks
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  • jigglywiggly - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    I don't really like the vostro series, they skimp on all the little things and they added up.
    For my vostro 1310, the power plug solder is messed up so you have to keep plugging it in, this is a common issue, and I rma'd the laptop 3 times and they never fixed it. Actually I lied, I never had this problem to begin with but I got it with an RMA. I RMA'd because of the gpu overheating on any 3d games, they never fixed that either. What they did do was change the whole body though, they did fix my mouseclick problem though.

    Screen is crap, but that's expected. I had to fix the overheating issue my self. There isn't enough pressure on the gpu. So I stuck a bunch of ram sinks on the heatpipe, and then put one in a place where the plastic of the case would force more pressure on the GPU. This fixed my issue.

    Still... I don't like the vostro line, or atleast the 1310. The latitiude series is lovely though, love the d630.
    Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    But that's a vostro 1310, not a 131 so the story isn't really relevant in the great scheme of things. I don't judge every model of Hp just because one is faulty (Envy 13 runs cool and quiet compared to 15/17) Reply
  • Samus - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    Cheap plastic crap. Better off with a HP DM1z for half the price and double the quality (and battery life) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    Don't make me laugh, Samus. We liked the dm1z quite a bit, but it's hardly "double the quality" -- it's a predominantly plastic laptop, with consumer level support no less. http://www.anandtech.com/show/4187/

    As for battery life (and what the heck, performance as well), "double the battery life" apparently means that the Vostro V131 offers 5% (idle), 10% (Internet), and 23% (H.264) better battery life. And the lowly i5-2410M in the Vostro is both faster in graphics and three or four times faster in CPU intensive workloads. The dm1z does have slightly better relative battery life in several areas, but even then it's at most 12.5% better than the V131:
    http://www.anandtech.com/bench/Product/436?vs=335

    If you've ever supported the PCs even at a small company, you'll find that anyone over 40 that isn't a computer geek will likely complain about laptop screens smaller than 14" and running at more than 1280x800 resolution. An 11.6" 1366x768 display will get both complaints, and trying to type on an 11.6" laptop on a regular basis will not be a happy experience for a large number of users.

    As an accessory laptop/netbook, the dm1z is awesome -- far better than any Atom-based laptop for sure! But business people do work on laptops (presumably), and improved multimedia abilities at the cost of general performance is a poor tradeoff, even if the price is only $450 instead of $600. The dm1z isn't a bad laptop, but for a business I'd take the Vostro V131 in a heartbeat.
    Reply
  • Samus - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    Since you're die hard set on the (un)fact the any Vostro is a 'business' class laptop, and we're not basing things purely on price and durability (which is why I brought up the DM1z) then you'd be quite crass to purchase a Dell Vostro over a Lenovo Thinkpad T-series, such as the T410 you guys reviewed last year (which can now be had for the same $800 as this Vostro) or Dell's own Latitude series, which is maybe 20% more expensive, but often can be found on sale quite comparably to this price.

    I just think calling a Vostro product 'business class' is an oxymoron. Vostro, after all, started a Dell's cheapest, lowest quality home-only product line. Look at the legendarily unreliable Vostro 1500/1600 series laptops which chronically overheat, have an awful power plug that I constantly see broken, and the keyboard feels like your typing on play-dough.

    Dell has an interesting product model. Interesting, because all of their basic product lines are about the same price, but vary vastly in quality and support.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, October 29, 2011 - link

    The class of support is really what makes this a business laptop. Take that away and you're right: go buy something else. If you read the conclusion, you'll see I said the exact same thing as you're suggesting: were I the person in charge of IT purchases, I'd still push for Latitudes because the $200 to $500 you might save over the lifetime of a laptop isn't worth the loss in quality.

    Also, I wouldn't say their products are "all about the same price"; there's overlap with Insprion and Vostro, XPS and Latitude, and Alienware and Precision. If you look at Vostro and Latitude, the cheapest Latitudes also overlap Vostro, but specs take a hit. Spend the same amount of money and Vostro will give you a faster CPU, more RAM, and more storage (with lesser build quality).

    If we take the V131 here for instance, even without a sale price you can buy that for $800 with 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, and i5-2430M processor. For Latitude, if you want 13.3" you'd have to get the E6320. The cheapest E6320 currently has a $450 "sale", but it will still cost $960 ($1000 with Windows 7 Pro). It also has an i3-2330M, 2GB RAM, 250GB 5400RPM HDD, no webcam, and a 3-cell battery--but it does have a 3-year support contract. So $200 extra for build quality and a longer support contract but you lose performance in every other area. Upgrade to similar components as the Vostro and it will cost you over $1300.

    As far as the power plugs, all of the Dell laptops I've seen in the last couple of years from the lowly Inspirons up through the most expensive Precision models have the same power connector. I haven't had problems with them getting broken if you're careful, but it can certainly happen. Luckily, Dell power bricks are ubiquitous so pricing isn't too bad if you have to buy a new one.

    So that's what I'm saying: Vostro gives you business support on a laptop that looks like a business laptop (even it it's built more like a consumer laptop). You can get that for around $650 with reasonable components. It's not perfect, but it's a lot more affordable than higher quality business laptops.
    Reply
  • Taft12 - Saturday, October 29, 2011 - link

    Jarred already pointed out what makes a business-class laptop, but in extreme conciseness for the benefit of all reading this post (and especially you Samus), if the laptop manufacturer will send a tech to your location to repair a hardware problem, you are using a business laptop. If not, you are using a consumer laptop

    This is truly the only distinction between the 2.
    Reply
  • jahlive2 - Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - link

    Funny that ppl are still praising the D630 (i still have it myself)
    It still works with just a few problems.
    The cpu always get;s quite hot (around 95C) under load ofc
    Noiselevel is moderate but not rly silent.
    The intel wireless NIC driver sometimes doesn't let the laptop go in sleep mode, and maybe once every 6 months, i experience a blue screen..other thn that. Rly not bad
    Reply
  • aznofazns - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    I am so weary of manufacturers using these subpar LCD panels in laptops. I hate to say it, but Dell should take a leaf out of Apple's book here.

    By the way, clockspeeds on page 1 are incorrect.
    Reply
  • aznofazns - Friday, October 28, 2011 - link

    By this way, this is coming from someone using a Dell E4310. The LCD is pure sh*t. Tilting it 15 degrees forward or back inverts the colors to hell. It's such a glaring flaw that the awesome build quality and solid performance aren't enough to make up for it. Reply

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