If you need a notebook to get work done, that no longer means it has to be big, boxy and dull. Dell's Vostro V130 is targeted at small business and home office workers but it is also a thin, light and stylish PC. Is it possible to look good and be smart at the same time?
You can see a lot of Dell's recent design cues in the Vostro V130. There's an overhang behind the screen, where you'll find most of the ports. The black plastic and magnesium alloy body is sheathed in the silver anodised aluminium we’re seeing on a lot of Dell notebooks, giving the machine a rather attractive look that's not what you might expect from a low cost business laptop (Dell also offers some models of the V130 in red). The screen is exceptionally thin, stabilised by two large hinges and the lip at the back and cut-away angles make the case seem even slimmer. But there are other influences: like Apple MacBooks, the V130 is a sealed unit - meaning you won't be able to replace the battery or carry a spare if you're taking it on the road.
Like most thin and light notebooks, the keyboard is completely flat, without the rake we’re starting to see on many larger premium notebooks; if you do a lot of typing you might want a stand to improve the V130's ergonomics. Still, the keyboard is large with well-spaced keys, and there is plenty of travel, although not the smoothest typing action. The magnesium chassis keeps the keyboard rigid, with no flexing as you type. We're not so sure about the size of the Caps Lock key, which dwarfs the more commonly used left-Shift key, making it easy to accidently switch Caps Lock on while typing. The usual Dell vertical strip of navigation keys sits on the right and the main concessions to the business user is the number lock for using the right-hand side of the keyboard as a numeric keypad.
Despite the flatness and overly-large Caps Lock, the keyboard is comfortable to use. The wide palm rest gives you a good typing position, and the large keys make it hard to hit the wrong key when touch-typing.
The usual function keys double as volume and wireless controls, but again there are no multimedia play and pause keys. One useful option turns the trackpad off, so if you're planning on a long typing session you won't have to worry about accidentally moving the cursor. The secondary functions and the numeric keypad are labelled in a light blue; clear enough in daylight or a well lit room, though we found them difficult to see in low light conditions. Indicator LEDs in the small gap between the keyboard and the screen shows when you've disabled the touchpad, as well as Wi-Fi and hard disk activity.
The touchpad is a decent size, with reasonably sized separate buttons and a smooth, slightly-textured surface that’s comfortable to use, although it is slightly offset to the left. It has a full range of multitouch gestures, including the familiar two-finger scroll, pinch zoom and rotate (all fluid and responsive), single finger circular scrolling and zoom and a pair of three finger gestures, one to launch a new application and one to flick the current application off screen. We'd recommend sticking with just the two finger options - the three finger gestures were hard to use (the flick gesture just didn't work at all) and the single finger options are awkward compared to their two finger alternatives.
The V130's 13.3-inch screen has a 1366 x 786 resolution, driven by the Core i5's integrated HD graphics. It's bright, with a fairly good contrast ratio, but you can't always see full detail in dark areas - and the colour isn't particularly vivid or saturated. Don't expect stunning performance though, as this is still integrated graphics. Local 720p video playback is smooth and has a good level of detail, but while streaming and downscaling 1080p video from the web is generally a good experience it stutters occasionally and fine detail isn’t as crisp as we’d like.
Don't expect anything exceptional in the way of audio performance from the V130 either. While the built-in IDT audio hardware works well, there’s only a single speaker; so if you want stereo sound you're going to have to plug in some headphones or an external speaker (or hook up the HDMI port). The overall audio quality is acceptable and there’s enough volume, though the speaker is somewhat tinny with very thin treble and there's little bass at high volumes. There's little or no distortion when using headphones, with good bass and treble response.
One advantage of a sealed battery is that it leaves more room for ports, even on a thin and light system like this. Most of them are at the rear of the machine. The two USB are standard USB 2.0 rather than the faster USB 3.0, but you do get a combined eSATA/USB port as well, and both an HDMI port and a standard VGA connector plus gigabit Ethernet. The SD card slot is on the right side; you'll need to be careful with this - it's a press-to-eject slot and the spring is powerful enough to send your card flying across the room. Don’t confuse it with the SIM card slot on the front (for the optional HSPA 3G module).
At less than 1.6kg this is a light and portable machine (although that does mean there’s no room for an optical drive). Performance is good, with a 1.33 GHz Core i5 processor that can handle most desktop software with ease; the fast (7200rpm) hard drive and 4GB of memory keep things speedy too. The Intel HD chipset supports GPU acceleration and manages reasonable performance in hardware-accelerated apps like IE 9.
The 2-megapixel webcam isn’t the best we've used, with a grainy image and poor colour balance. The bundled webcam software does have some amusing features, with a set of face tracking avatars. It would have been better if the V130's face tracking software had been more accurate, and we ended up finding its partial lip sync faintly disturbing.
Surprisingly for a business machine there's not much other bundled software on the V130, apart from the usual Windows Live Essentials 2009 for email, instant messaging, and image and video editing and Office Starter (giving you basic word processing and spreadsheets out of the box - and with no DVD drive the option to go straight to the full Office installation from Starter using an upgrade key is quite handy). There's basic security and backup with Trend Micro for anti-malware and Dell's own Backup and Recovery tools.
Sealing in the battery lets Dell make the Vostro V130 thin and light, but when you can’t replace the battery halfway through the day you need it to be able to last the day; there’s no chance of that here and you’ll need to carry the power supply with you (it’s a standard rather than travel size too).
We got just over 2 hours usage out of the 6 cell battery using a balanced power plan, with Wi-Fi on and using a mix of desktop and web applications. Turning off Wi-Fi and dimming the screen might let you eke it out to - at the most - 4 hours, but it's still a very disappointing performance, especially when compared to other laptops in its class.
Dell has delivered a good looking, reasonably powerful laptop at a competitive price and kept it slim and light, but still robust. While it's certainly aimed at small office and home office workers, it also makes an attractive buy for anyone who's looking for a laptop for school or college. The combination of Core i5 and a fast hard drive means there's plenty of performance, though we'd mark it down a little for not having an optical drive - and we were very disappointed with its battery life. The Vostro V130 is a work horse PC, not a multimedia powerhouse, and its media performance does suffer as a result. But if you prefer to snack at YouTube, rather than watching HD movies in surround sound, it'll do the job. That's the Vostro V130 in a nutshell: good enough. Luckily for Dell, most of the time "good enough" is all you need.