Dell Inspiron 15z

Dell's Inspiron line continues to look sharper than its budget reputation would suggest. The touch-enabled version of the 15z works as a reasonably priced Windows 8 laptop.

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The majority of touchscreen Windows 8 laptops seen during the first wave of hardware for this new operating system have had screens on the smaller side. There have been plenty of 13-inch laptops and hybrids, and several 11-inch or smaller tablets. What we have not seen much of is the traditional midsize laptop.

Dell takes a stab at combining touch with Windows 8 and a larger screen in the Inspiron 15z. The "z" designation means that this is part of the higher end of Dell's lower-end laptop line (if you can follow that logic). The affordable Inspiron series tacks on the "z" to designs that are slightly thinner and sleeker, while not rising to the level of the more expensive XPS series.

Both the Inspiron z and, to a lesser extent, the regular Inspiron line have made great strides with design in the most recent generation. Laptops such as the Inspiron 14z, despite an occasional hint of plastic construction, look and feel like more-expensive laptops, and certainly much better than the thick, clunky Inspirons of just a couple of years ago.

The configuration of the 15z we reviewed costs US$899, and includes an Intel Core i5 processor, a 500GB, 5400rpm hard drive with a 32GB solid-state drive (SSD) and 6GB of RAM. Less expensive versions are available, but they lack the touchscreen, making them less suitable for the tricky Windows 8 interface.

In Australia, the model drops to a Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM for AU$899, with a AU$1299 model offering a Core i7 and 8GB RAM.

Only the low screen resolution, stuck at 1366x768 pixels, keeps this from being an excellent go-to recommendation for anyone needing a mid-sized touch laptop.

Design and features

Like its 14-inch cousin, this Inspiron 15z looks like the kind of laptop you wouldn't be embarrassed to pull out in your favourite hipster coffee shop, even if everyone else there has a MacBook.

When we first saw the current Inspiron design in mid-2012, we thought it looked especially thin and modern, with a two-tone grey-on-grey brushed-metal lid. That brushed-metal look extends to the system interior, with a sunken black keyboard tray and black keys.

While you're moving your hands around the system, your fingers may be touching metal one moment and plastic the next, which can break the illusion that this is a higher-end laptop, but compared with the budget-looking Inspirons of old, it's a big improvement.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

One interesting break from current trends is that Dell still managed to work in an optical drive despite the thin chassis. Many ultrabooks and ultrabook-style laptops skip that now, even ones with bodies as thick, or thicker, than this. If you're living in the world of the MacBook Air and its pretenders, it's easy to forget that many people still rely on optical drives for storage, media playback and backup.

The keyboard keys are Dell's standard variation on the flat-topped, widely spaced, island-style keyboard found in most current laptops. In the Dell version, the keys have more rounded corners than most, and the top row of function keys is half-height.

While there's no separate number pad, a feature sometimes found on 15-inch laptops, this version does add a right-side column of navigation keys, such as the Page Up and Page Down keys. That column is missing on the smaller-bodied Inspiron 14z, which is otherwise very similar.

The touch pad is large, but still includes separate left and right mouse buttons, which is another of those subtle hints that this is not considered a premium product. You'll have to trade up to the more expensive XPS line to get a full button-less click pad. Multi-touch gestures worked well, but two-finger scrolling felt sluggish at times. Trying to use the touch pad to navigate the Windows 8 interface can be a hassle, which makes it even more important to have that touch-enabled screen.

The big 15.6-inch screen is covered by edge-to-edge glass, which is normal for a touchscreen laptop. However, the screen is one of the few parts of this laptop that clearly gives away its budget origins. With a native resolution of 1366x768 pixels, text and icons can appear overly large, especially when using the traditional desktop mode (the Windows 8 tile UI handles different resolutions better), and some apps and games can lack clarity and detail because of the lower resolution. For a 14-inch or larger laptop, a resolution of at least 1600x900 pixels, or even better, 1920x1,080 pixels is recommended. For the $900 our review sample cost, a higher resolution is not out of the question.

Connections, performance and battery life

For a mid-price, mid-sized laptop, it's hard to be too disappointed with the ports and connections on the Inspiron 15z. All four USB ports are of the faster 3.0 variety and a slim DVD burner is integrated into the right side. Still, it would have been nice to have a second video output besides the single HDMI jack, and I'm always a fan of having separate headphone and mic jacks, instead of the single combo one here.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

The Dell Inspiron 15z was not the fastest low-voltage Intel Core i5 laptop of recent vintage, but it also didn't lag behind by an unreasonable amount in performance benchmarks. As we frequently point out, this basic Core i5, found in many current laptops, is perfectly fine for everyday tasks from media consumption to basic productivity, and even fairly heavy multitasking. It's unlikely you'd run into any slowdown or stuttering, even with all-day use.

With only Intel's integrated HD4000 graphics, don't expect to do much gaming on here. Casual games will work fine, but locked in at a 1366x768-pixel resolution, this isn't going to be a PC gaming powerhouse anyway.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Even though this is a big laptop with room for a big battery, the six-cell 44WHr battery included here performed merely adequately, running for 4 hours and 46 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. Mid-size systems such as the ThinkPad Carbon X1 and the HP Elitebook Folio 9470M ran longer, but other, more budget-minded systems such as the Acer V5 ran shorter by nearly an hour. Still, it's a decent-enough battery life for a 15-inch laptop that probably won't travel all that often.


The world needs more midsize, midprice laptops that match Windows 8 with a touchscreen. And, if they can work in a slim optical drive, as in the case of the Dell Inspiron 15z, all the better. But, once you get close to that magic $1,000 mark (this 15z is $899), your options become very wide, and an upgraded Inspiron, still stuck with a low-res screen, may not be your top choice.


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