Dell Inspiron 15R (N5110)

Dell's Inspiron 15R N5110 is, like all Inspirons, a mid-range laptop. With a large 15.6-inch screen and a second generation Core i5 processor - and wireless display - it promises much, at a budget price. Does it deliver?

Design

This is the new Dell style exemplified. Somewhat slab-like with a lip that juts out at the back, it's just a simple curved rectangle with a hefty hinge for the large screen. Press a small button on the back of the screen and you get the chance to personalise things; you can slide the screen back off and replace it with another colour or design - these are designed to be cheap enough for you to mix and match, although £30 seems rather steep. The rest of the machine is solidly built, with good hinges and a rigid plastic case. It doesn't get too hot, benefiting from the improved thermal performance of Intel's SandyBridge devices.

The chiclet-style keyboard is comfortable, and the large palm rest gives the machine a nicely ergonomic feel, placing your hands over the slightly recessed keyboard. With plenty of space, Dell's given the Inspiron a standard numeric keypad, ready for financial applications or as additional controls for games. The top row of function keys doubles as a set of secondary controls like screen brightness, plus built-in media keys to stop, start and fast forward music and movies.

The hardware

A generous set of ports are spaced around the edges of the chassis. There are two USB 3.0 ports, one on the right and one on the rear of the machine. On the left you'll find a standalone USB 2.0 port and a combined USB/eSATA connector. There's also a HDMI port on the left, next to a SD card reader. The back also has an Ethernet connector and a VGA port, while there's a DVD writer on the right together with sockets for headphones and a microphone. There's nothing on the front, apart from a set of indicator lights and a pair of speaker grilles. If you prefer connecting wirelessly there's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support (b/g/n) and wireless display.

Three additional buttons sit between the screen and the keyboard; the first two give you quick access to Dell's support centre and the Windows Mobility Center, while the third turns off the screen to save battery, glowing white to let you know that the machine is still on - that’s more useful than you might think because of the wireless display option. To make that work you also need the £70 Netgear Push2TV HD adapter; plug that into your TV and you can stream 1080p video from the Inspiron onto your TV screen. That's a higher resolution than the first version of Wi-Di and it looks good - and is fairly easy to set-up. We're not convinced it is that much of an advantage over running an HDMI cable to the sofa, although it's certainly neater.

Dell provides its own custom drivers for the large trackpad. You'll probably want to fine tune the settings, as we found it all too easy to suddenly be in a sideways scroll mode. There's support for the standard two and three finger gestures, including circular scrolling and pinch zoom. If you're using the three finger options Dell has added a third alongside flick and tap, a downwards drag that minimises all the currently open windows.

Like most 15-inch laptops, the Inspiron 15R's screen has a 1366 x 768 resolution, suitable for 720p HD video. It's perhaps a little on the small side for complex desktop applications, or programming tools - but eminently suitable for most day-to-day home computing tasks.

The LED-backlit screen is clear and responsive, with a lot of contrast. It's good for video and for gaming, and with 720p resolution makes an excellent platform for editing HD video content. The machine's performance matches the screen and we we're able to get good performance with streamed web video and with local and network video sources - so you shouldn't have any trouble hooking up the Inspiron 15R to a home media server to push content to your TV wirelessly.

We weren't quite so impressed with the audio quality, which was a little low on bass. There was negligible distortion playing music from a local media server, though we felt the overall volume was a little low compared to similar laptops. Speakers on the underside of the laptop probably don't help, directing sound into your desk or lap.

Performance

Performance is good enough, and much as we'd expect from an i5 with integrated Intel HD graphics. With a Windows Experience Index of 4.7, it's not going to slow you down, especially with games and other media intensive applications. Dell backs it up with 4GB RAM and a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium. Our test system came with a 500GB 5400rpm hard drive. While this is a budget system, we can't help but think it was time for manufacturers like Dell to start offering users 7200rpm drives as standard, as demand for media editing and high-quality games continues to grow (and you get an overall speedup in Windows with a faster drive too).

The integrated HD graphics supports GPU acceleration, so you'll get good performance with Internet Explorer 9 and the latest generation of tools like Photoshop. Power consumption was average, with our test system giving us around 3 hours of battery life while handling a heavy load and using wireless connectivity.

Dell bundles a lot of software with its consumer laptops. If you're looking for productivity tools there's a copy of Office 2010 Starter edition (which can be upgraded to a full Office installation with a separately purchased key). You'll also find the latest release of Microsoft's consumer desktop tools, Windows Live Essentials 2011 - giving you a powerful image gallery, video editing, and email software. Dell's own multimedia Stage environment ships with the Inspiron 15R. It's an odd piece of software for a laptop like this, as it's really for touch applications and can be quite slow, even on a SandyBridge system. Other bundled tools include Dell's own DataSafe local and online backup tools, McAfee's security tools and Roxio Creator for working with the built in DVD drive.

Verdict

You can't really go wrong with SandyBridge, and Dell's delivered a workhorse of a home laptop. It's got enough power to handle media playback, video editing and 3D gaming, and at the same time, enough battery life to work just about anywhere. The low price means you're getting a lot of bang for your buck. We're not so sure about some of the software bundle - for one thing we've never been fond of the Dell Stage environment, and it really doesn't work well on a standard laptop, with its large touch friendly icons. Still, it's easy enough to uninstall, and it's certainly not a reason to reject this otherwise very capable machine.

And of course, if you don't like the default black case, you can just order another from the Dell web site - if you don’t mind the price.