Despite the rapid growth in laptop sales over the past decade, the more things change the more they stay the same. You would think with the potential to snag a piece of the lucrative mobile market, we would see more innovation from smaller companies. We do have to give ASUS credit for kicking off the netbook "revolution", but elsewhere the status quo is well entrenched. If you're okay with OS X, Apple continues to release some of the best designed laptops. On the Windows side of the equation, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, Acer/Gateway, and a few others compete for your dollars. If you're looking for something affordable, however, and you don't want a netbook, you can generally eliminate many of those names. Today we have Dell's Studio 14z in our labs for testing, a reasonably affordable laptop that does a good job balancing features, design, and performance. Here's what you can get.

Dell Studio 14z Specifications
Processor Pentium Dual Core T4200 (2.0GHz 800FSB 1MB L2)
Core 2 Duo T6500 (2.1GHz 800FSB 2MB L2)
Core 2 Duo P8600 (2.4GHz 1066FSB 3MB L2)
Chipset NVIDIA nForce 730i
Memory 3GB DDR3 (Max 5GB):
1x1024MB DDR3-1066 CL7 Onboard
1x2048MB DDR3-1066 CL7 SO-DIMM
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce 9400M G
Display 14.0" 1366x768 LED Backlit Standard
14.0" 1600x900 LED Backlit Upgrade
Hard Drive 2.5" 250GB to 500GB 5400RPM or 7200RPM
Networking Gigabit Ethernet
802.11bg or 802.11n WiFi
Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (optional)
Audio HD Audio (2.0 Stereo Speakers with headphone/microphone jacks)
HDMI and DisplayPort audio out
Battery 6-Cell 56Wh or 8-cell 74Hw
Front Side None
Left Side HDMI
DisplayPort
Cooling Exhaust
1 x USB 2.0
Gigabit Ethernet
Kensington Lock
Right Side ExpressCard/34
2 x Headphone jacks
Microphone jack
Mini 1394A Firewire
1 x eSATA/USB
1 x USB 2.0
AC Power connection
Back Side None
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Windows 7 Business 64-bit
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
(Test system shipped with Vista Home Premium 64-bit)
Dimensions 13.23" x 9.02" x 0.79-1.22" (WxDxH)
Weight 4.3 lbs (with 6-cell battery)
Extras 1.3MP Webcam
Warranty Standard 1-year warranty
2-year or 3-year extended warranties available
Price Online Prices start at $699.
Price as configured: $1019 (with $159 rebate).

The base model 14z starts at around $700, but there are definitely compromises. The biggest compromise is going to be in the processor department, where the Pentium Dual Core T4200 might be "fast enough" to easily outpace any netbook, but it's not going to truly impress in terms of performance. The next bump up, the Core 2 Duo T6500, doubles the L2 cache, and increases clock speed by 5%, for a net increase of around 20% and a cost of $75. The top-end processor supported in the 14z (at present) is the Core 2 Duo P8600, which gives you 3MB L2 cache and a 2.4 GHz clock speed for $200 more than the T4200, again in improving performance by about 20% compared to the T6500. Depending on how much CPU performance you desire, all three processor options are viable; simply adding the P8600 will increase the price of a 14z by almost 30%, but you should get better than a 30% boost in performance.

Unlike some laptops, configuration options on the 14z are relatively limited. Other than the choice of processor, the only other major component decisions you'll have are the amount of memory (3GB or 5GB), the hard drive, and whether you want to spring for the 1600x900 LCD or stick with the default 1366x768 model. (Somewhat confusingly, Dell and others insist on calling 1366x768 displays "720p".) We would also recommend the 8-cell battery to improve battery life by about 35%. You also get to choose between five different colors (black, red, blue, green, or purple) and the usual selection of warranties, operating system, software, etc.

The overall package is good, but as with many thin and light systems you'll have to forgo an integrated optical drive. Dell also limits memory expansion to a single DDR3 SO-DIMM slot, with 1GB of RAM soldered onto the motherboard, so the upgrade from 3GB to 5GB RAM will cost a painful $275. Personally, I'd also like to see another option for color: white; all the others are either too garish (a yellowish "spring green" or "plum purple" -- yuck!), and the black chassis picks up fingerprints like a police detective canvassing a crime scene. The big selling point is of course size; starting at 4.3 pounds and with a relatively small 14.0" chassis, this is a laptop designed to be carried around rather than left on your desk. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that Dell uses NVIDIA's nForce 730i chipset, which means you can get a Core 2 Duo processor and integrated graphics that don't suck.

One of the interesting points of comparison is going to be Apple's standard MacBook. The 13.3" LCD is slightly smaller but the MacBook weighs 4.7 pounds making it slightly heavier. It also includes an optical drive and two SO-DIMM slots. Both use the GeForce 9400M/nForce 730i chipset. Apple lists the battery life for the MacBook as "up to 7 hours" while Dell claims up to 6.5 hours with the 8-cell battery upgrade. If Dell can deliver, we'll have a real contender for battery life compared to MacBooks using similar components.

Dell Studio 14z Overview
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  • Shadowmaster625 - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    Newegg has a notebook for $399 right now. Please explain how you justify twice the price. A slightly faster processor, slightly more battery life. Big whoop. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    It helps to link to what you're talking about, or at least mention the name. Let's assume you're looking at the http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...">Acer Aspire AS5517-5671, which currently sells for $400.

    1) 15.6" vs. 14.0"
    2) 6.0 lbs. vs. 4.6 lbs.
    3) AMD Athlon 64 TF-20 (1.6GHz) vs. Core 2 Duo P8600 (2.4GHz)
    4) DDR2 vs. DDR3
    5) 160GB HDD vs. 320GB HDD
    6) "Up to" 2.4 hours vs. 4.5 hours (measured)

    When you combine all of those areas, plus chassis design, the Studio 14z is clearly superior to this particular $400 laptop in every way. Does that mean it's worth the extra money? You'll have to decide that. Keep in mind that the Gateway NV52 (benchmarked in this article) is going to be at least 30% faster CPU than the $400 Acer (2.1GHz vs. 1.6GHz), and the 14z with P8600 is almost twice as fast.

    If all you need is a basic laptop and you want to save money, sure, go for a cheap $400-$500 laptop. Don't expect top performance or battery life, and you won't be disappointed. Unfortunately, don't expect top quality either (but it's possible you'll still get a notebook that doesn't have any issues).
    Reply
  • JimmyJimmington - Friday, October 23, 2009 - link

    Also a different GPU, no wireless N, no blue tooth, no esata, no 1600x900 resolution screen.

    My question would be, if all you care about is saving money, why not go with a $150 netbook refurb? It would certainly be lighter and have more battery life. And if you drop it and it breaks you don't have to feel so bad because you can just go out and buy a new one :D
    Reply
  • hybrid2d4x4 - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the excellent review, Jarred. I really like how you included the POST times, calling out Dell on glossy finish+screen and LCD quality and also adding FPS bars at the native res. One minor request for future reviews of laptops that are obviously unable to handle top-end games: throw in a Source-based game (or some other older engine) for comparison to show what the cutoff seems to be for what kind of game it actually CAN play well with med/high settings at the native res.

    On the POST issue, I wonder if there's something about the GF9400 that makes it POST slowly. My Gigabyte 9400-based mobo takes around 10s as well. I know it's not a vendor-specific issue since a Dell Mini 9 I've had my hands on did it in probably under 5s and booted to XP desktop in exactly 25s (8B SSD, uninstalled factory bloatware). I wonder if the Zotac and Asus 9400 boards also POST slowly...
    Reply
  • jasperjones - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    very nice review. the comparison you make to the macbook is well-balanced. and i agree that it is a viable--although more expensive--alternative.

    macs tend to be a good deal shortly after their model refresh (since apple tends to keep prices fixed until the next refresh). my problem with macs is that i don't like os x. basically, i run linux or windows as my main os on a mac. given the hint in a comment that anand might review the new macbook, one thing i'd really like to see on anandtech would be benches and battery performance under operating systems other than os x (yeah, i know linux is gonna suck battery-wise but win 7 might be an interesting option).
    Reply
  • Kishkumen - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    If only it didn't have a glossy screen (or rather had a matte option) I'd be the proud owner of one of these otherwise cool, little laptops.... Reply
  • Pirks - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    You were putting MacBooks there always, in the relative battery life graphs, but now you don't? Did you get enough hate mail from wintrolls or what? Death threats maybe? ;)

    Also, do you intend to do a review of the new $999 MacBook they just released? Mighty sweet machine, could you touch it up and pass your thoughts you know? I'd be VERY interested, thanks!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - link

    Honestly, I removed the Mac from the graphs more because I know that the testing wasn't entirely Apples to apples. Different browser and web pages mean the Mac may have gotten a boost. Still, when a MacBook can last 3.1 hours with a 45Wh battery on our heaviest load (downloading files, playing a movie, and surfing the web) while a Windows laptop with similar specs can only get 4.5 hours at idle using a 74Wh battery, it's clear that OS X remains better optimized. Reply
  • DominionSeraph - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    I can't wrap my head around the MacBook run times under OS X. I mean, it ain't like there are magically more c and p states available under OS X. And in your OS Mobility roundup you ran Vista in Power Saving mode -- I know that on my desktop that locks my X2 5200+ into its lowest p-state. If that's applicable to the AMD laptops, then the differences can't be explained by Microsoft OS idle processes causing blips to full-throttle.

    Could you test the MacBook with a MS OS, locked to the lowest SpeedStep setting using RMClock (or the like)? And then try @ max undervolt whilst still locked at idle?

    If max undervolt while locked to lowest frequency can't match OS X at stock settings, I think my head will explode.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 21, 2009 - link

    I can ask Anand to give it a shot... I think he's working on some MacBook articles already so it's definitely something to investigate. But don't discount the possibility that Windows (especially Vista) is preventing the CPU (and peripherals) from entering minimum C-states for long periods of time. Windows seems to constantly "ping" HDDs and other devices to make sure they're still around or something. LOL Reply

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