Dell's latest Vostro small business laptop packs quite a punch in its 14-inch frame. A Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor and 4GB of RAM make sure you've got the power and memory you need for most day-to-day tasks, if not for high-end gaming and image editing. There's a pleasing solidity to the Vostro 3450, leaving you feeling that this is a machine that can cope with most things you'll throw at it, and the sharp undercuts on the sides make it look a little like a Star Wars battlecruiser.
This is an attractive design, with a metallic bronze finish on the aluminium lid and sides (the case also comes in silver or red). The rest of the case is a pleasing matte black plastic that goes well with the non-reflective screen - apart from a chromed well around the keyboard. The slight wedge shape gives a corresponding rake to the keyboard, making typing a comfortable experience.
It may take you a while to get used to the backlit chicklet-style keyboard. There's not a lot of travel, and the keys are a little on the small side, so you may find yourself hitting the wrong key from time to time. Once you get a feel for the keys it does turn out to be surprisingly comfortable, even compared to an ergonomic desktop keyboard. There's no numeric keypad, and - surprisingly for a business notebook - no option to use any of the keyboard as numeric keys, which could make it harder to work with accounts packages and spreadsheets.
The function keys double as media and system controls with the basic play/pause button and volume controls (including the ever useful mute), as well as toggling the keyboard backlight and managing the Vostro's Wi-Fi connections. Three separate buttons below the screen give quick access to the Windows Mobility Center, Dell's Support Center tool, and your choice of favourite application.
The Vostro's touchpad is the same as we've seen on other recent Dell devices. A large smooth pointer area is easy to use, with an accurate sensor that makes it easy to work with tools like PowerPoint. The buttons are separate, with a good firm action. Like most modern touchpads there's support for the usual range of multi-touch gestures, from two finger scroll to pinch-zoom, as well as the much more awkward to use three finger gestures - for once the touchpad is large enough for the multi-finger gestures and they do actually work. The fingerprint sensor is at the bottom right of the keyboard.
Dell has done a good job with the Vostro's 14-inch screen. With a widescreen resolution of 1366 x 768 that we usually see on 15-inch screens, it's ready for 720p HD video. A matte finish means reflections are kept to the minimum, with the screen blending into the bezel. Image quality is good, with deep blacks and good contrast in both streamed and local video. The Vostro uses Intel's integrated HD graphics, with good performance and support for GPU acceleration with Internet Explorer 9.
If you're planning on playing music while you work, then while the Vostro's two speakers may not have the brand names cachet of some laptop speakers, they are good enough for most MP3s or internet radio. The two speaker slits under the front of the laptop are hard to see, and there's not much bass response on your lap. However, if you put the Vostro on a desk you'll find a distinct improvement in sound quality, using your desktop as a sound board for better bass.
The Vostro has all the ports you need - and then some. There are two USB 3.0 ports for high speed connections, as well as a combined USB/eSATA port, and a multi-card media reader. The fourth USB 2.0 port can charge devices while your machine is asleep, so you don't need to take a charger with you. There are also VGA and HDMI, so you shouldn't have any problems connecting to a projector, plus support for Intel's WiDi wireless video standard if you're lucky enough to find a screen or projector that supports it. The gigabit Ethernet port and the power socket are on the back of the Vostro, so you won't be left with a tangle of cables all over your desk. If you need to plug in more complex devices, there's even an Express Card slot. The 500GB hard drive spins at a nice, fast 7200rpm, and there’s a combo DVD-drive/burner (which does add to the weight).
Battery life is reasonable, with a replaceable 48Wh 6-cell unit. For a mix of working with documents, browsing the Web and streaming music and video with Wi-Fi on we were able to get 2 hours 40 minutes of use and we’d expect considerably longer with Wi-Fi off. Even so, we'd recommend getting a second battery if you're spending a lot of time on the road. Overall performance is good.
One of the Sandy Bridge features is the ability to boost the processor clock speed based on just how busy it is. Intel’s on-screen widget that shows you just how much CPU power you're using, and it's worth keeping an eye on this when working with media applications. An application like Windows Media Player indexing a remote share can chew quite a lot of CPU (and a fair bit of battery).
There's not much software bundled with the Vostro 3450 - and that's a good thing. What's there is, unlike the usual mishmash of software tools, actually quite useful. Microsoft's Office Starter gives you simple versions of Word and Excel (with the option of upgrading to the full suite), Dell's own Backup and Restore will help you keep your data from being lost, while Windows Live Essentials 2011 includes excellent blogging and image editing tools. If you want to stay in touch with friends, Live Essentials includes the Live Messenger social media application, and Dell has also bundled Skype for voice chat. While we'd prefer to see Microsoft Security Essentials, Dell's choice of Trend Micro's security suite is better than most. If you're planning on using the Vostro's DVD drive, you can watch movies using Cyberlink PowerDVD and create your own using Roxio's Creator Studio.
Dell's done a good job with the latest version of the Vostro. It looks miles better than the average small business laptop, with a unique shape and a comfortable keyboard. The Sandy Bridge i5 combination works well, and gives you all the performance you need - and with the mix of ports, you're able to connect anything you want. Nearly all business and no nonsense, the Vostro 3450 is the ideal first machine for a new business or for a home office.
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