The Studio is a good choice but bulky for its role. (July 20th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Dell
Price: $1,344 (2.5GHz, LED screen, Radeon HD 3450)
- Build and looks a step up from the Inspiron.
- Good minimum specs; moderately fast at the high end without spending much more.
- Excellent 1440x900 LED-lit display option.
- Ample expansion.
- Very customizable.
- Good battery life compared to earlier Dell systems and some rivals.
- Dell Dock and Dell Video Chat help out newcomers.
- Bulky for a designer notebook.
- Options somewhat hobbled for the sake of preserving XPS sales.
- Radeon HD 3450 only a mild help to 3D performance over earlier systems.
- Coming out just before Centrino 2 systems; may be best to wait before buying.
Dell has often enforced a hard split between its entry-level (Inspiron) and high-end (XPS) home notebooks, but that distinction is blurred with the Studio series: the new line should in theory be the best of the breed with the more upscale design and performance of the XPS but the customization normally reserved for Inspirons. The Studio 15 achieves many of these goals, though whether it can lead its class or simply fair well among fellow Dell PCs is its true challenge.
design and ergonomics
To say the Studio 15 is a spiritual cousin of the XPS M1530 would be a mild understatement. While there are numerous cosmetic changes that prevent it from being a direct clone, the influence in the layout is clear and might dissuade buyers who were hoping for something genuinely new from the Texas PC maker.
In most cases, however, these changes are steps forward for the home line rather than steps sideways. The one-piece hinge is much sturdier and produces less of the wobble that often occurs when typing on a two-hinge design like the Inspiron series. As a whole, the system also feels better-built than an Inspiron, although there is still a mild amount of chassis flex and creaking sounds -- evidence Dell is still at times valuing budget over build. It's certainly cooler-running and doesn't feel hot on the lap even after running demanding 3D software, which couldn't be said for the older system.
And there are welcome changes that aren't present in either the bottom- or top-end lines, as well. The Studio largely looks more refined than either of the company's either designs, with a subtler outer lid and a textured, imprinted palm rest that is arguably an improvement over the pure aluminum look of the M1530.
This extends to the keyboard, too, which feels slightly better than that for the XPS system tested just months ago. The keys are shallower on the Studio and seem to cut back on the amount of travel that artificially reduces typing speed. Since they're optionally backlit, they're also much better-suited to typing in dark lecture halls or late-night gaming sessions, although the software on the test unit would only allow manual activation and adjustments. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro both light up the keyboard dynamically and also happen to have a shorter key travel that at least feels more effective than what Dell offers here.
The display is the Studio's crowning hardware achievement: while a basic 1280x800 screen is still default, the Studio is the first non-XPS home notebook from Dell to have an LED-backlit display as an option. The review model came with this illumination, and the difference is immediately apparent: the lighting is consistent across the entire screen, gives off an impression of greater color accuracy, and contributes to a fairly thin display lid. The 1440x900 resolution is also a major improvement and makes the system much more usable for serious tasks; it's such a help that it should be considered the practical minimum for anyone custom-ordering a system.
This inheritance from the XPS is appreciated, but along with it also comes an unwelcome design flaw: the bulk. Although the system technically measures a reasonable one inch at its thinnest point, the system quickly gets much thicker and is a full third thicker at the back. Combined with the roughly 6.1-pound weight, the Studio 15 is manageable but is definitely not part of the thin-and-light class. That's especially unfortunate as it's clear there's a fair amount of wasted space on the sides: a few ports appear to float by themselves in blank seas of plastic that could have been filled or eliminated.
Still, the design is at least customizable, and it's here that many other computer builders could take a few lessons. While the test model is a safe black color, there are no less than seven solid colors to choose from and four gray versions with different-colored side trim. Some colors will likely be ignored, but the personalization is nonetheless a minor advantage for Dell.
One surprise for the Studio is a revised port layout: M1530 gone are the front audio jacks from the M1530 and the Inspiron 1525, which now get pushed to the side. Dell notably also replaces the S-video output of the XPS system with a second USB port (already present on the Inspiron), a move which is arguably more practical given how few users truly need the analog video format.
This leaves the Studio virtually identical in most respects to other Dell portables, though that's not necessarily a flaw. Four USB ports, a full-size ExpressCard slot, a card reader, and both HDMI and VGA out largely cover everything the notebook could be used for, although the usefulness of VGA for a home notebook is still questionable. The support for 3G wireless over Sprint or Verizon's 3G cellular networks is an option thanks to half-size card slots inside, though it's hard to say whether the same sort who would save by choosing a Studio would still be willing to pay extra for wide-area Internet service.
configurations and the test system
Like the 15-inch XPS model, Dell makes it a point to give the Studio 15 a relatively high performance floor; the slowest processor is a 2GHz Core 2 Duo, albeit one with a slightly slower bus speed versus most newer chips (667MHz versus 800MHz); the company also heeded warnings about memory and gives the Studio a minimum 2GB of memory, although with Windows Vista it's still recommended that users fit as much memory as they can reasonably afford.
The options checklist is slightly larger with the Studio than on the Inspiron equivalent with both the aforementioned 3G support and dedicated graphics, though it's becoming clear that Dell is segmenting the line in a way meant to push buyers up to more lucrative lines. The Studio 15 has the choice of a Blu-ray drive, but only a combo reader that won't write the HD format; there are no solid-state drive choices; and the fastest video option is a Mobility Radeon HD 3450 rather than the mid-range or higher options available in the Studio 17 or the XPS line. It's enough for many, but it feels arbitrarily limited. It's also curious that Dell doesn't allow any official Intel 802.11g or 802.11n Wi-Fi options at press time.
The review sample is one of the fastest models, though not the most feature-rich: it has both the 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo and Mobility Radeon HD options as well as the 1440x900 display and 802.11n wireless, all of which should in theory combine to make a fairly quick system in tests.
Compared to the M1530 tested earlier, the new system is in day-to-day experience much faster -- perhaps not surprising given the faster parts, but a change which is appreciated all the same. Vista in particular has a responsiveness that was almost, but not quite, present in the earlier test. That's most likely attributable to the 2GB of memory onboard as well as minor performance enhancements made in Vista Service Pack 1.
For gaming, that memory is also likely the deciding factor; gone is the choppiness that plagued Team Fortress 2 and other titles in the past. The Mobility Radeon HD 3450 should also be slightly faster than the GeForce 8400M GS in the earlier notebook and contributes to what seems an overall better frame rate that was enough to make the difference between struggling to play and playing almost as well as on a desktop. Having said this, the graphics option still puts a hard limit on what the Studio 15 is capable of: it's a fast system for an average user who may only play games casually, but it's merely average or even entry-level for gamers.
The benchmark test focused on for this review, Futuremark's 3DMark06, produces unusual results: despite the clear advantages for at least processor speed and RAM and the likely advantage of the graphics hardware, the Studio 15 actually performs slightly slower in two of the game environment tests and isn't fast enough elsewhere to outpace the allegedly slower M1530 in the overall benchmark score. An unexplainably low CPU score may well be the primary factor and is likely due to a flaw in the software, though even with a corrected score it would be difficult to explain the primarily video-oriented results, which should also skew more heavily towards the newer and theoretically faster AMD graphics. It's possible that NVIDIA's GeForce drivers are better-optimized for 3DMark than AMD's own for the Mobility Radeon HD part.
3DMark06 benchmarks (fastest scores in blue)
Regardless of tests, the single-digit frame rates for the Studio 15 make it clear that the system at its best still isn't designed for very visually advanced games like Crysis, which 3DMark is designed to represent; it's strictly a mid-range system, and in fairness to Dell few, if any, notebooks at Studio-level pricing are capable of playing the most modern games at good frame rates with at least medium detail.
For this review onwards, Electronista will be more selective about including additional benchmarks for notebooks, as portables using the same hardware generation are rarely going to vary wildly; expect them now only when there's a clear generational jump or the components vary wildly between a new system and recent models.
The core benefit of Intel's cooler, smaller 45 nanometer Core 2 Duo chips is battery life, and this was noticeable with the Studio 15. Combined with the power savings from the LED-backlit screen, the default settings net about four hours of wireless web browsing on average; expect about 20 to 30 minutes less using either of the two conventional, fluorescent-lit screens. The performance isn't astonishing and pales in comparison to the current 13-inch MacBook's nearly five hours, but it's a definite improvement over the M1530's roughly four hours while using a much bulkier nine-cell battery pack.
a word on the Dell Dock and Dell Video Chat
The Studio 15 signals the first appearance of two custom-written apps just for Dell's own systems, Dell Dock and Dell Video Chat. Both are billed as making the computer simpler to use. For the most part, this works: the Dock helps group apps together for quicker access, and Video Chat in particular goes a long way towards making multi-user audiovisual chats simple enough to understand.
This is largely true in practice, but both programs can't help but give the impression that they exist more to compensate for perceived deficiencies in Vista's Start menu and Windows Live Messenger software than a truly unique Dell advantage; many Mac owners can immediately point out the at least superficial similarities between Dell Dock and the Mac OS X Dock, or Dell Video Chat and iChat. It's an advantage for Dell over the software bundles for most modern Windows systems, but not much more in its current form.
wrapping up and model picks
As the mid-range system Dell intends it to be, the Studio 15 works well: it's enjoyable to use for many day-to-day tasks and even holds its own for more serious tasks where an only recently phased-out XPS M1530 would have struggled to keep up, though again this can be credited in no small part due to the extra default memory. It blends desirable elements from the Inspiron and XPS lines and adds a few appreciated twists of its own.
Taken out of the isolation of Dell's line, though, the new PC is simply good, not great. For a designer system, it's fairly unwieldy, even if it compares well against a system like the thicker-still HP Pavilion dv5t; Sony's VAIO FZ (or the upcoming VAIO FW) is a better example of a similarly-priced system that manages to blend a designer look with an overall thinner frame, though Dell trumps Sony and others in expansion and a handful of design decisions, including the single large hinge.
Dell's system therefore works best as a budget desktop replacement or a somewhat less expensive alternative to the XPS M1530 for those who like the basic design but don't need the extras of that model, and it's best to price accordingly. The 2.5GHz processor is simply excessive at at a $175 premium for a system that in most tasks won't use it; the 2.1GHz processor below it gives nearly all the speed and all of the battery life savings.
Unless Blu-ray is already a staple of the home, also avoid the matching Blu-ray drive; without the ability to write to the format, it's not ready for more than occasional movie viewings or for owners who intend to keep their portables for enough years that some software comes only on the higher-capacity discs.
If there's a necessity, it's picking both the 1440x900 screen and the dedicated Mobility Radeon HD video. These are the core features that separate the Studio from the Inspiron 1525, and they both contribute greatly to the system's performance as well as the nature of the software it can handle. Any serious creative professionals or just frequent multitaskers will immediately notice the difference. The extra battery life of the LED backlighting should also tilt in favor of the sharper LCD.
Before leaping to purchase such a system, though, be aware that the Studio 15 was announced just weeks before Intel introduced its Centrino 2 notebook platform, which should provide a boost to both speed and battery life with more efficient processors. The current-generation system is still worthwhile, but gaining the extra speed and battery power for "free" is an easy choice for those who can afford to wait.