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Dell XPS 14z CNET Review

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  • Reviewed by: Dan Ackerman
  • Released on:
  • Reviewed on:

The good: The high-end Dell XPS™ 14z is an attractive, powerful 14-inch laptop built into a 13-inch body, with plenty of configuration options, including decent graphics.

The bad: Even with the approximate footprint of a 13-inch laptop, this still feels thick and heavy, especially compared with the new generation of Ultrabooks.

The bottom line: The Dell XPS 14z is a nicely designed, well-built 14-inch laptop, but the XPS "z" design works better on the 15-inch version, leaving this model feeling chunky.

Review:

Dell's XPS line of laptops has survived a few purges of the Dell rolls (Studio, Adamo, and so on) to become the company's flagship premium brand, akin to the Apple MacBook or HP Envy. The latest generation of XPS product, with the "z" designation, kicked off in May 2011, with the 15-inch XPS 15z. Dell claimed that laptop was the world's thinnest 15-inch laptop (Windows laptop, that is), and the new 14-inch XPS 14z makes a similar claim, again with a few asterisks to keep in mind.

Dell says that the XPS 14z is the "thinnest fully ... Expand full review

Dell's XPS line of laptops has survived a few purges of the Dell rolls (Studio, Adamo, and so on) to become the company's flagship premium brand, akin to the Apple MacBook or HP Envy. The latest generation of XPS product, with the "z" designation, kicked off in May 2011, with the 15-inch XPS 15z. Dell claimed that laptop was the world's thinnest 15-inch laptop (Windows laptop, that is), and the new 14-inch XPS 14z makes a similar claim, again with a few asterisks to keep in mind.

Dell says that the XPS 14z is the "thinnest fully featured laptop on the planet." What does that mean? According to Dell, it's a laptop with an internal optical drive and discrete graphics. More impressively, this is a 14-inch laptop screen in a body with the smaller footprint of a 13-inch laptop. We like more screen in less body, but it also has one unfortunate side effect.

With so many extremely thin 13-inch laptops hitting the streets right now, such as the first generation of Ultrabooks from Acer, Lenovo, and Asus, the XPS 14z has roughly the same length and width measurements, but looks chunky and thick in comparison.

If you can put those side-by-side images out of your mind, the XPS 14z is still an impressive engineering feat, with a 14-inch screen, Nvidia graphics, and a slot-loading optical drive in a smaller package than we've seen for that particular load-out before. Similar to the HP Envy 14, it starts at $999 USD (but that's for a version with only integrated Intel graphics), and our version, with an upgraded Intel Core i7 CPU, Nvidia 520M graphics, and a larger 750GB HDD, is $1,299 USD.

All prices listed in $ USD

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The new XPS 14z is a virtual clone of the larger XPS 15z we reviewed earlier in 2011. As in that model, the anodized-aluminum and magnesium alloy body has a sophisticated matte finish, lighter on the outer surfaces, with a darker keyboard tray and screen bezel. An inset hinge moves the screen slightly closer to the viewer, and that single large hinge looks like a tightly coiled spring, adding a touch of a steampunk element.

The design was frankly more impressive on the 15-inch version, where one's first impression was that this was an extremely thin 15-inch laptop. The same basic design, with the same thickness, on a much more compact footprint (the length and width are roughly the same as a 13-inch laptop) means the XPS 14z comes off as dense and squat, at least until one intellectually factors in the larger 14-inch screen and powerful components. That said, virtually all the z-axis height is in the base of the system; the lid itself is as thin as any we've seen.

Inside, the interior is highlighted by a pair of large speaker grilles on either side of the keyboard, with a unique cross-hatched pattern (which is repeated on the bottom surface for venting). This constrains the amount of space available for the keyboard itself, but it's still the same width as we've seen on most 13-inch laptops. The shallow island-style keys aren't the most comfortable for long-term typing, but we like the large size of Shift, Tab, Ctrl, and other important keys. The keyboard is backlit, which is a huge plus for us, with light coming from around the edge of each key, as well as though the letter or symbol stamped on the key itself.

The large multitouch touch pad is generously sized, especially for this small chassis, but it's not one of the newer clickpad-style ones we've been seeing lately. This is a more traditional flat pad with two large mouse buttons beneath it. Multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, were functional, but a bit jumpy, which is a problem for just about every Windows laptop.

The 14-inch display is one of the system highlights. By packing a bigger screen into a body that's more like that of a 13-inch laptop, you end up with an effect that is bold and cinematic. Plainly put, when you open the lid, there's more screen and less everything else than you'd expect. There's also a glass overlay that isn't quite edge-to-edge, but is close. On the down side, the native resolution is still just 1,366x768 pixels. On a premium laptop of this size, especially with our config running to $1,300 USD, we'd like to see a 1,600x900-pixel display or better. The Dell XPS 15z offers a 1,920x1,080 option.

Keeping in mind that these are still laptop speakers, the sound was clear and bright, with some heft, but not really thumping bass. It's perfectly fine for personal video watching or for sharing YouTube videos, but we'd hook up external speakers to DJ a cocktail party.

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With only two USB ports, you hopefully won't have too many peripherals that need to be plugged in, but at least one of them is USB 3.0. More interesting is the lack of a VGA port, which is a trend we've started to see on a handful of laptops. It may be that this very long-term legacy port is finally starting to fade away. The XPS 14z deserves serious bonus points for including an almost never-seen battery meter, in the form of a strip of tiny lights on the right edge. Even Apple has ditched this in recent years, and it's frankly pretty useful for quickly checking the road-worthiness of your laptop.

There are a handful of preconfigured versions of the XPS 14z available. The least expensive is $999 USD, and had an Intel Core i5-2430, with a 500GB HDD, and no discrete graphics (and therefore is not a "fully featured" laptop according to Dell's definition). Moving up to $1,199 USD gets you more RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce 520M, while our $1,299 USD version added a Core i7-2640 CPU. Finally, for $1,599 USD, the hard drive switches to a 256GB SSD (and for the same price as a 13-inch Lenovo U300s IdeaPad or a MacBook Air with the same SSD, but no discrete graphics).

With 8GB of RAM and a fast Intel Core i7 processor, it's no surprise that the Dell XPS 14z did well on our benchmark tests. It was very closely matched with the earlier XPS 15z, as well as the most recent 13-inch MacBook, the summer 2011 version of the Air. It was (in some cases, significantly) faster than the recent wave of superthin Ultrabooks, including the Lenovo U300s and the Acer Aspire S3. While any of those will be fine for casual use, from productivity to HD media playback, the XPS 14z adds an additional level of performance over laptops with low-voltage versions of Intel's Core i-series CPUs.

The big difference between the XPS 14z and other laptops of a similar size we've seen recently is its discrete GPU, in the form of the Nvidia GeForce 520M. This 1GB card isn't going to appeal to hard-core PC gamers, who are more likely to look to Dell's Alienware brand anyway, but it's certainly good enough for playing most current PC games, as long as you dial down the settings a bit (the limited 1,366x768-pixel resolution also helps). In Street Fighter IV at native resolution, we got 46.7 frames per second, while in the very challenging Metro 2033 test, we got 7 frames per second, but that test is deliberately brutal, especially on midrange laptop graphics.

All prices listed in $ USD

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The Dell XPS 14z has powerful components, which may negatively affect battery life, but at the same time, it also uses Nvidia's Optimus system to keep the GPU turned off when not needed, and Intel's current-gen Core i-series CPU are very efficient on their own. In our video playback battery drain test, the XPS 14z ran for 4 hours and 33 minutes, which is a score we'd classify as merely OK. That's 1 hour longer than the XPS 15z, but Apple's MacBook Air ran for more than 2 additional hours, and Lenovo's U300s ran for an extra 40 minutes. With judicious use, the XPS 14z should get you through most of a workday, but our battery life expectations have risen greatly in 2011, and scores that used to impress us no longer do so.

Dell includes a one-year mail-in service warranty with the XPS 14z, and though the warranty upgrade options were not live on Dell's Web site at the time this review was written, based on previous XPS laptops, coverage should be expandable up to four years for an extra $290 USD, or four years with accidental damage protection for $410 USD. Dell's Web site offers 24-7 toll-free phone service and Web support, including documentation and software drivers that are easy to find.

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System configurations:

Dell XPS 14z
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-2640M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 520M / 1GB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 750GB Western Digital 7,200rpm

Dell XPS 15z
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 525M / 64MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Toshiba Portege R835-P56X
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel GMA HD; 640GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-2677M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 256GB JMicron 616 SSD

Acer Aspire S3-951-6646
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 320GB Hitachi 5,400rpm + 20GB SSD

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