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Dell XPS 14z

February 12th, 2012
Dell shrinks the XPS line for portable performance hounds.

The 13- to 14-inch notebook screen size is currently one of the hottest areas of competition right now: it's where Apple, HP, and others start off their higher-end models. Dell has certainly been one of the most active in this space and has brought its high-end XPS line to that space through the 14z. We'll check in our Dell XPS 14z review whether the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Sony VAIO S, or comparable rivals will feel the strain. The 13- to 14-inch notebook screen size is currently one of the hottest areas of competition right now: it's where Apple, HP, and others start off their higher-end models. Dell has certainly been one of the most active in this space and has brought its high-end XPS line to that space through the 14z. We'll check in our Dell XPS 14z review whether the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Sony VAIO S, or comparable rivals will feel the strain.

Design, expansion, and input

If you've seen our XPS 15z review, the design of the 14z will appear very familiar; that's because it's an almost literal shrinking down of the earlier design. That's not necessarily a bad thing in some regards, since the predominantly aluminum body is a step up from the plastic that Dell and some other Windows PC builders continue to use.

We have to backtrack slightly from claims that the current XPS line is eerily similar to the MacBook Pro. Some visual cues are undeniably lifted from Apple's system -- the aluminum itself, the overall keyboard layout, and certainly the five-dot battery indicator on the side -- but the XPS is different enough that it feels like its own beast. It doesn't compare that well in thickness, which despite Dell's "world's thinnest full notebook" claim doesn't feel as slim as some others, if just because of the "fat" base. Dell does manage to one-up Apple and others in total footprint where it lost out with the 15z, however: it uses an LG Shuriken LCD with thin bezels that lets it stuff a 14-inch screen in the same footprint as a usual 13.3-inch display.

Expansion here is good, if not especially broad. To stuff everything it wanted to fit into the notebook, Dell put most of the ports at the back: that lets it include both HDMI 1.4 and a Mini DisplayPort jack while still keeping a seven-in-one card reader and Ethernet. Having just a pair of USB ports, only one of them USB 3.0, does seem limiting on a Windows system and doesn't compare as well to those that have eSATA, Thunderbolt, or others with high-speed links. The battery isn't removable, either, so you're no different than a MacBook user when the eight-cell, 58Wh battery finally loses its ability to hold a charge.

Configurations start off with fairly substantial hardware that makes them fairly complete: our $1,000 testing unit had a 2.4GHz Core i5, a hefty 8GB of RAM, a 750GB (5,400RPM) hard drive, and a low-end but still dedicated GeForce GT 520M graphics chip with 1GB of video memory. All the same, there isn't much room to grow. There are three key trim levels, and they mostly up the processor to a 2.8GHz Core i7 and (in a $1,500 version) switch to a 256GB solid-state drive for those who like speed more than capacity. Extras are few, and you can't upgrade the display, opt for Blu-ray, or get faster graphics. We can't see there being a reason to choose anything but the base model unless you have some fairly specific requirements.

The keyboard and trackpad mostly translate over from the 15z intact and take all the blessings and curses that come with this. We still find the keyboard above average, with comfortable spacing and backlighting that uniformly illuminates each key. It mostly falls short of the MacBook Air/Pro golden standard through a spongier feel and a slightly gaudy light-silver-on-dark color scheme.

Exploring the trackpad shows both shows some solid design with some unfortunate choices. The trackpad itself is fairly precise and responsive. Multi-touch gestures like two-finger scrolling do work, although the lack of momentum-based scrolling or diagonal scrolling sometimes makes it feel like an imprecise shotgun to Apple's sniper rifle. Apart from missing more comprehensive gestures, the trackpad's real setbacks are its two main buttons, which have deep travel and require more of a conscious effort to press.

Display and sound quality

As we mentioned, the screen size relative to the size of the XPS 14z is an advantage, at least if you tend to sit back or have poorer eyesight. At 1366x768, though, it's not what we'd call crisp. The pixelated look is conspicuous, and this tends to exaggerate the blockiness of apps that don't scale fully to the native screen resolution, such as some games. We'd have liked a 1600x900 option, or even a smaller notebook with the same resolution but an effectively sharper display.

Most of our criticism of the hardware side of the notebook centers on the image quality. Simply put, it's where the cost-cutting went. The LCD is sometimes capable of good color reproduction, but the output is muted when looking head-on and washes out quickly when look at it from any other angle. Moreover, there's a persistent coarseness that creates a slight but visible screen door effect, where you can make out the individual columns of pixels. We suspect that not everyone will notice this, but for those who do, it'll be hard to shake.

Visibility in bright light isn't that good, either. At 200 nits of brightness, it becomes harder to see in well-lit indoors areas or a sunny outside, no matter which way you face. For an XPS-badged PC, the display feels too low-rent, especially given that HP and Sony can both muster better output at similar prices.

Audio is strictly average. We're happy that the speakers are on either side of the keyboard and directly facing the user. But they're not booming and don't stand out relative to other systems this size, even with the Waves MaxxAudio processing going on. The XPS 14z is noisy, too, and at full-bore in a game or heavy downloading session makes its cooling fan quite audible, if thankfully not shrill.

Performance: subjective speed, objective speed, and battery life

Thanks both to modern processor as a whole and Intel's much improved integrated graphics, we're well past the point where the interface and common app use struggles; even when switched to the Intel HD 3000 video to save power, there's no issues playing an HD video while you browse the web or encode content in the background. If you're a mainstream user, the sort outside of the XPS target market but who can still consider the PC a realistic option, don't worry about spending the extra $200 for a Core i7; you won't see the benefit.

The XPS mark was primarily intended for gaming at first, and you can most definitely play modern games on the 14z if you're willing to accept that you can't max out detail. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 at default settings ran very smoothly, no matter the scene, even if it wasn't using the full 1366x768 resolution. Portal 2, which isn't quite as demanding, can run at the native pixel count without a hitch. As long as you accept that you won't be pushing Crysis 2's maximum settings, you'll be in a good position. Our disappointment mostly comes relative to other Windows systems this size, since an HP Envy 14 (as an example) has a brisker Radeon HD 6630M inside.

Boot times are reasonable for a commercial system with third-party preloaded apps, averaging at about 53 to 55 seconds for us. Windows still has much to learn about resume performance, at least on a hard drive based system. Even if you've recently put it to sleep, it still takes several seconds just to get to the login screen, and a few more seconds after that before the PC's useful again. If you haven't required a password, a MacBook Pro is completely ready within a few seconds.

More objective performance tests vary. PCMark 7 benchmarks were in line with what we'd expect from that 2.4GHz, second-generation Core i5 at 2041 points, which was reflected in fairly speedy encoding and manipulation tests where the main processor was the target. 3DMark 11 shows how potentially underpowered the graphics are, though: at 641 points, even after upgrading from Dell's bundled drivers to the newer NVIDIA Verde 285.82 release (we tried both driver sets with either benchmark), it was still fairly low relative to some comparable notebooks and certainly many desktops.

As with any system carrying both Intel and dedicated graphics, battery life depends heavily on whether or not you're doing anything that would invoke the dedicated video. If we kept strictly to the more miserly Intel video and browsed the web while running mild background tasks like instant messaging, we netted about four hours, 45 minutes of use. Make the NVIDIA graphics core the default during that use, however, and you'll see as much as an hour of longevity knocked off of that runtime. Either way, they're somewhat short of Dell's claimed six hours and 42 minutes, and considerably shorter than the seven-plus hours a 13-inch MacBook Pro can manage in real life.

Preloaded software

One of the most common complaints about Windows PCs centers on the tendency towards software padding: apps that are either questionable attempts at simplifying the experience or trial apps that are primarily there to artificially lower the price of the notebook. Unfortunately, both are here in abundance, and the most conspicuous blame applies to Dell. Our first boot was spent mostly clearing up pop-up windows on the main screen and taskbar, whether it was from the more expected McAfee virus warnings, Java updaters, or multiple Dell services like cloud storage trying to ask questions that weren't really essential. We still encountered more of them on the next few boots.

The number of icons on the desktop is thankfully kept low, but that's somewhat mitigated by both the appearance of a large (if at times convenient) AccuWeather desktop widget and Dell's own Stage widget, the combination of which takes up a large amount of space. Either can be disabled, but it's something we'd rather not have to do.

Stage isn't fundamentally different than it was with the 15z, which is to say competently designed, but ultimately not very useful for the XPS line's core audience of experienced users. It mostly serves as simple front end for media, app shortcuts, and web links. While it's easy to use, Stage on a non-touch PC feels like something of a waste; it's really just an aggregation of several companies' other apps, such as ArcSoft (for photos) and Blio (for books). If you're experienced, you'll either already know to get these or have alternatives in mind.

Combining Stage with the trial apps, we're reminded of why some people are willing to pay the premium for Macs or to visit a Microsoft Store to get a clean Signature edition Windows PC (the XPS 14z is an option). It's true that you can turn off or delete many of the unwanted features, but you shouldn't need the knowledge and time to bring the system back to where it should have been in the first place.

Wrapping up

The XPS 14z is a competent system. The keyboard and other upsides of the 15z have mostly made their way over to the smaller notebook, so if you were already set on getting an XPS as soon as you could find a smaller size, you can certainly go ahead. If you're not too particular about raw performance, it's capable enough for some real gaming or media editing duties, especially if it's mostly filling in for those times when you're not at a desktop.

At the same time, we can't help but be somewhat underwhelmed by Dell's end result compared to its $1,000 price. It does have a few advantages over the HP Envy 14, such as a bit more RAM and more drive capacity, but the Envy's higher-grade display, faster graphics, and quicker 7,200RPM hard drive should make it better in practice. And if you're willing to spend extra to upgrade, there's no contest. The Envy buyer can get a quad Core i7 (albeit at the cost of battery life), up to 16GB of RAM, both an SSD and a regular hard drive at once, and a second battery. If you're going for speed in a small Windows notebook, you want the system with the most potential, and that's not the 14z.

And if you're not tied to Windows, you should at least consider a 13-inch MacBook Pro, especially if you're a student or corporate worker who can get a discount. While it's $200 dearer to own and doesn't have dedicated graphics, it's a considerably nicer experience from the battery to the display to the trackpad. The clean operating system experience out of the box may be worth the price by itself, and it has to be remembered that the XPS 14z partly owes its existence to its Mac counterpart for a number of good reasons.

Accordingly, Dell's system splits the middle in terms of our impressions. As capable as it is in some areas, there are several points where it could have fared better and other competitors have. It's currently best if you're insistent on a $1,000 maximum price and want as much RAM and hard drive space as you can get for the money in a portable which still has some attention to detail.

- 8GB of RAM and a 750GB disk at $1,000.

- Good backlit keyboard and overall trackpad.

- 14-inch display in usual 13.3-inch size.

- Solid main processor performance.

- Both HDMI and Mini DisplayPort.

- Decent battery life.

- Good external build quality.

- Too much intrusive, unwanted software.

- Poor display quality.

- Graphics a bit underpowered for the price.

- Somewhat noisy under stress.

- Sealed-in battery.

- Few high-speed ports or customization options.