Light and powerful, Dell's Vostro range is intended to add a little style to the small business or the home office. The latest member of the family, the V131, is a Sandy Bridge Core i5 machine, one of a new generation of thin and light 13.3-inch business machines. Does it match up to the competition – and does it better its predecessor, the V130?
A little bit nicer than most
Unlike many of the current generation of business laptops, which are uniformly black plastic, Dell has clad the Vostro series in burnished aluminium in a range of different colours, contrasting with the black plastic screen bezel and keyboard surround. The metal shell leaves the V131 feeling robust, though there can be a lot of flex on the thin screen - even with the burnished metal lid. Like the rest of the range ergonomics are important, and the V131 keeps the familiar Vostro wedge shape, with a large battery giving the keyboard a pleasant and comfortable angle. There's a very strong magnetic catch for the screen, and it takes quite a bit of force to open the lid.
Keyboard and trackpad
Once you do get it open you'll find a large backlit chiclet-style keyboard surrounded by chromed plastic. The keys have a subtle dimple and good travel, making this one of the more comfortable laptops we've used. A function key option controls the backlight - though it is hard to find, as the keyboard icon is very faint. Other function key options include basic media controls, volume and brightness controls and an option that lets you turn off the touchpad. Three buttons between the keyboard and screen launch the Windows Mobility Center and Dell's support tools - with the third ready for your choice of applications.
The large touchpad is slightly offset in the wrist rest, leaving your hands neatly over the keys. It's smooth and responsive, with two large buttons and the same chromed plastic surround as the keyboard. Dell provides its own touchpad management tools, with support for a familiar set of two and three-finger multitouch gestures for scrolling, zooming and pivoting objects. We weren't able to get the four-finger swipe to work, which you can configure to minimize windows, blank the screen or lock your PC.
A good screen
The wide-screen 1366 x 768 display is responsive and clear, with well rendered text in everyday applications and websites. Contrast is good too, and we were able to see plenty of detail watching a 1080p streamed video, with good clear blacks and no obvious artefacts from the downscaling.
Similarly we had good performance with 720p HD video from a local source, with fine detail clearly visible and a good frame rate. Audio quality is good too, with two relatively large stereo speakers on the very front. Bass is good, as is definition for higher frequencies.
Slots, ports and power
Dell's given the Vostro V131 plenty of ways to connect to the world. There's no optical disk, so there's plenty of space for ports - with two USB 3.0 ports on the right along with VGA, gigabit Ethernet and a single combined headphone/microphone headset socket. Much of the left is taken up with a large ventilation slot for the processor, but you'll find another USB port (2.0 this time), HDMI, and an SD card slot. There's the usual mix of Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth, as well as a 3G modem. You'll need to remove the battery to get to the SIM card slot.
Performance is good, as you'd expect from a Sandy Bridge Core i5 machine with 4GB of RAM. There's plenty of processing power under the hood, more than enough for most needs. Integrated graphics like the Intel HD Graphics don't have the same performance as discrete GPUs, and while you're unlikely to notice the difference with most applications, this isn't a gaming machine. Battery life is good, with around three and half hours of operation with Wi-Fi using a mix of local and cloud applications while streaming audio and video. We were pleased to see that the V131's battery life was much better than the model it replaces, the V130.
Dell's delivered a surprisingly clean Windows image with the Vostro V131, and there's very little bundled software. A trial version of Trend Micro's Security Agent handles malware protection, while copies of Office 2010 Starter and Windows Live Essentials 2011 help get you started with basic productivity tools. Other bundled tools include Skype and Dell's own support and webcam tools.
There are a lot of 13.3-inch laptops around, all with the same mix of Intel chips. Dell's given the Vostro V131 a distinctive look that makes it stand out from the usual crowd of matte and glossy black machines - but that's really it's only distinctive feature, and it is let down by the lack of an optical drive.
Even so, there's a lot to like here, with plenty of battery life, a good screen and an ergonomic design (and a distinct lack of bloatware). While the model we looked at is more expensive than some of the competition, there are cheaper options that can save you a considerable amount. One thing is for sure – the V131 is a considerable improvement over its predecessor, the V130.