Dell XPS 14z
Dell has some stiff competition at the moment. Apple has never been stronger in laptops, its Pro and Air ranges are some of the nicest-looking and more powerful computers on the market. Then there are Intel's new darlings, the Ultrabooks, lapping up a lot of the traditional computer market with thin-and-light machines that are almost as stylish as the MacBook Air.
So can Dell, with its new XPS range, and specifically, here, the 14z, come up with enough of a temptation to lure customers from all those super-sexy computers that are making laptops fun, in the face of stiff tablet competition?
Out of the box, there's a lot to like here. The silver-finished XPS has a whiff of the MacBook Pro about it. Dell has also made extensive use of aluminium which adds to the weight, but gives it a sturdy, trendy feel. There's no untoward bending or bowing when you press the case. This is a solid, well-built laptop and no mistake.
Weight-wise, it's a little on the chunky side. The official weight is 1.98kg, which sounds like a lot, but we've carried it around a lot, and in practice it's perfectly manageable. Of course, with all these things, it could always be lighter, but there are other thing to consider too. For example, this laptop has a DVD drive, which is likely to appeal to some.
You'll also find a full-sized SD card slot on the left-hand side, as well as headphone and microphone sockets. On the back, there are Ethernet, HDMI and DisplayPort sockets. You'll also find a pair of USB sockets here too. On the right, there is the DVD reader/writer and the battery status indicator - press the button, and a series of cool, white LEDs show you how much juice is left.
One of the nicest features has to be the island-style keyboard, with backlighting. Apple really popularised this feature, but in a dark room we found it quite helpful. It also looks great. The island keys are nicely shaped, and typing on this laptop is actually a lovely experience.
The trackpad too, works as it should. There's no ambitious attempts to copy Apple here. This is a standard pointing device with distinct and easily pressable buttons beneath that act as you would hope and expect. The whole package is nice to use, and if you're on the move, the Dell doesn't hinder your productivity at all. If you're sitting at a desk though, you'll want to use a mouse, it's just so much easier.
Multi-touch gestures are supported too. There's the old classic "pinch zoom" as well as that funny twisty two finger thing that rotates images. You can also do a three finger swipe to move through photos and the like. All of these work really well, it's one of the most responsive trackpads we've used. There's also the old, single finger, scroll on the right side of the trackpad, which you'll likely use the most.
Junk in its trunk
And here we are again, looking at a stylish, beautiful laptop on the outside and a mess on the inside. As usual, Dell seems to have gone out of its way to browse the Internet for the world's ugliest and most intrusive programs and has installed them all for you to revile.
First of all, there's a security app that allows you to use your face to log in. Only an idiot would opt to use this as security. If you're trusting, and you use your laptop at home, it's fine. If you actually want to keep your data safe, disable this function as quickly as possible. It's also useless, and for us hardly ever worked out who we were.
Also installed is the all-pervasive McAfee Nagware System. McAfee used to make anti-virus software in the '90s, but switched over to making software that uses your system resources and nags you about activation and payment on an hourly basis. We joke, of course. It's still an anti-virus application, it's just that now it's pre-installed on every laptop with a free trial that the company hopes you'll renew out of desperation at the constant messages. Some people do, which is why it pays Dell to install its trail. We despise this practice and encourage you to uninstall it and put the free Microsoft Security Essentials on instead, or another third-party system.
There is some more useful stuff installed too, like Roxio Burn for making use of that DVD writer and Office Starter Edition, which is likely to satisfy most people's word processing and document needs. If not, it's simple enough to hop online and grab a copy of Open Office.
Dell includes its "Stage" application, which provides a graphical interface that allows you access to photos, music, video, games and magazines. It's kind of pointless, but also stays out of your way unless you seek it out. It's largely pointless though, and acts mostly as a way to launch other applications on the machine.
The biggest issue for us was the fan built in to the 14z. It's small, because the laptop is, and that means it has to spin very, very, quickly to do its job. We found that, when plugged into the wall, even under modest load, the fan span at full speed quite a bit. This was true, even when we switched to the power saver mode. Pull the plug though, and the fan noise dropped off substantially, to the point where it was much less annoying.
This is a big deal, because the fan in the XPS really did make a distressing amount of noise. If you want to use it at home, it's likely to really end up annoying you. On the plus side, the machine itself never felt hot, so you can use it on your lap for extended periods with no discomfort.
Display and sound
Audio quality is reasonable. We did a lot of Skype calling with the 14z, and it did a good job with that, and with other media we played via its speakers. As always, your world isn't going to be rocked by the audio, but it's fine for most things.
The display has been criticised by some, and there certainly are issues. It's a quite low resolution affair, offering a little more than 720p (1366x768). It's also got a reflective screen, which is a pain in bright light. However, with those issues out of the way, in actual use, it's fine. There's more than enough detail on-screen to get things done, and the LED backlight is bright enough to cut through the fog of the reflective screen.
Power and battery
Our Dell XPS 14z had 4GB of RAM and a Core i5 which, with Turbo Boost can get up to 3GHz. For normal use, it's clocked at 2.4GHz, and it seems like enough power for most tasks. A £50 upgrade will take you to 6GB of RAM, and it's worth considering.
A 500GB hard drive is generous enough for most uses too. With the low cost of external drives and dirt cheap SD cards, we can hardly moan too much either. There's plenty of options for people who need to keep lots of files with them at all times.
In normal use, we found the laptop was beefy enough for our needs. Photo editing was a snap, and video plays back well too all the way up to 1080p which looks fine even though the screen is nowhere near good enough to display that much detail. Still, the dual graphics outputs mean you can throw video on to a TV if you so desire.
The 8-cell battery is good. You'll see around four or five hours use from it which is decent while turning down the brightness and switching off the Wi-Fi could see you get more towards five and a half hours too which is as much as you could ask for for such a small, portable machine. We have no complaints here at all, aside from the fact that it's sealed in to the body of the laptop. That means no spare battery, and user replacement is tricky, although not impossible.
In some ways, it's a little hard to tell what market this laptop is aimed at. It's a powerful enough machine for home use. The problem is, an i7 with more memory would be the minimum spec needed for a high-end setup for video editing and gaming.
And if you think if it more as a day-to-day machine, for users with more modest requirements, the price is perhaps a little high - starting at £800, going up to over £1000 with an SSD. But there is plenty to like about this laptop. It's powerful enough for most things, and despite being a little weighty, it's still perfectly portable and a nice machine to get out in Starbucks.
The installed software is mostly useless and quite annoying. Expect many, many, pop-ups asking you if you'd like to register this, or upgrade that. It's nagware like this that really makes us appreciate Apple's approach. Macs might be more expensive, but they come looking clean and clutter free, and that's a good thing.
The fan noise will also be a problem for those using the machine at home, but as it isn't an issue on battery power, it again commends itself to those looking for a computer to take out and about.
Product photography by Chris Hall