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Dell Inspiron 15R — CNET Review

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The good: The 2011 Dell Inspiron™ 15R starts at just USD $499, and includes modern features such as second-gen Intel Core i-series processors, USB 3.0 ports, and an HD Webcam, along with optional swappable lids.

The bad: The Inspiron 15R's bulky body is heavy, and its battery life is a big letdown. Adding optional extras makes it nearly as expensive as a laptop from Dell's premium XPS line.

The bottom line: Dell's Inspiron 15R is an attractively priced budget consumer laptop with a welcome set of up-to-date features and design options, but beware of the cost of customizations.

Review:

When it comes to spending USD $500 on a laptop, beggars can't be choosers. One of the best things about the Inspiron 15R, Dell's 2011 update to its budget and midrange consumer laptop line, is that it starts at an aggressive price while still offering Intel's second-generation Core i-series processors. At USD $499, the new Inspiron 15R includes a Core i3 Sandy Bridge processor, along with a couple of USB 3.0 ports and Bluetooth, making it one of the better deals around.

The tricky thing about the Dell Inspiron 15R is upgrading it: depending on what options you choose, as with many Dell laptops, the price can easily soar up to USD $1,000 or more. Our review configuration of the 15R cost about USD $709, and comes with a Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, along with an extended 2-year warranty. That's a reasonable price, but you might want to pick your configurations carefully, and consider other alternatives. Up at the near- USD $1,000 range there are plenty of attractive options from other manufacturers, and there's also Dell's own XPS 15z.

The 2011 Inspiron R comes with an HD Webcam and second-generation Intel Core i-series CPUs, and optional multicolored and patterned back lids are available for USD $35 to USD $60 a pop. The upgraded processors are the most welcome addition, and in the USD $499 configuration the Inspiron 15R is a very attractive budget laptop option. Just be careful about going too far over that USD $700 threshold.

Price as reviewed / starting price

USD $709 / USD $499

Processor

2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M

Memory

6GB, 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM

Hard drive

500GB, 5,400rpm

Chipset

Intel HM67

Graphics

Intel HD 3000

Operating system

Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

Dimensions (WD)

13.5x9.7 inches

Height

1.2-1.3 inches

Screen size (diagonal)

15.6 inches

System weight / Weight with AC adapter

6.0 pounds / 6.7 pounds

Category

Mainstream

Solid, beefy, and clad largely in plastic, the best thing the Dell Inspiron 15R design has going for it is its clean looks. At 1.3 inches at its thickest point and nearly 6 pounds without its AC adapter, this Dell isn't a lightweight. However, open up its thick lid and you'll find a crisp interior awaiting, relatively free of the glitz and crud that often plague laptops.

This is, largely, a similar design to the Inspiron 15R we reviewed last year, which first introduced the revamped "hinge-forward" design and restyled keyboard. (Incidentally, last year's Inspiron R is still available starting at USD $449, but we wouldn't recommend it; this year's revamp is worth the extra USD $50.)

The Inspiron 15R wastes little room. The edge-to-edge raised keyboard includes a number pad, and the multitouch touch pad is very large, nearly as big as a MacBook's. The big, bright 15.6-inch screen fills most of the upper lid's space, with little bezel. We're still not a fan of the thick rear lip that houses some of the back ports, but if you're buying an entry-level USD $499 product it's hard to complain about the 15R's design. At higher-end configurations, it feels a little cheap. And the glossy plastic, with a pattern that resembles brushed metal, is an incredible fingerprint magnet.

Stylistically speaking, the biggest innovation in the new Inspiron R series is its swappable lid. The idea behind this feature is to offer some of Dell's famously large back catalog of laptop lid designs without forcing customers to commit to any particularly odd floral print or psychedelic landscape for the entire life of the computer. With a simple button-press and swap you can change colors or designs easily. Of course, we say easily, but it took four people at CNET to even figure out how to eject the lid properly, guided by an e-mail from Dell. Laugh at us if you must, but the process is a little less intuitive than you'd expect. Still, that's OK with us considering you'll likely switch your laptop lid infrequently, if at all (in fact, we wonder how many Dell Inspiron R owners will never realize the lid is swappable--unlikely considering the ad campaign, but we wouldn't be surprised).

The lids, offered in dozens of designs, aren't cheap, at USD $35 for a plain color or USD $60 for any of the other designs. They're like the swappable cases for Nokia phones back in the '90s, or the faceplates on the original Xbox 360: a gimmick, sure, but true fans will probably buy at least one lid for the sheer novelty. Being able to change the lid could also save you the frustration of trying to buy a particular color of laptop only to find it's sold out or been discontinued, a problem we've heard some readers complain of. We wonder how long it'll be before licensed sports lids and limited-edition seasonal designs start popping up, much as they already do for Dell's non-removable lids.

Now, back to the ergonomics of the Inspiron 15R. While the system feels heavy on a lap, its dimensions and proportions make for comfortable typing. The keyboard is generous in size and easy to navigate, although the keys feel a bit stiff for our tastes. We can't type as quickly or fluidly as we have on other laptops, but it's still better than the average keyboard. Even better is the touch pad, which was both responsive and unusually large. The discrete buttons below feel a little mushy, but we were able to navigate around the Web and use other programs easily.

The large 15.6-inch display has a standard resolution of 1,366x768 pixels that can't be upgraded, but games and videos looked vivid, with rich colors. Picture quality deteriorated at wide viewing angles, but head-on the Inspiron 15R looked better than we expected.

While the Inspiron 15R has "SRS Premium Sound" stereo speakers, front-firing and seated under the front edge, the sound quality was nowhere near the excellence of the higher-end Dell XPS series. Volume levels and bass were good enough to enjoy Netflix movies and games, but listening to rich music such as jazz was disappointing.

The HD Webcam included on the Inspiron 15R has a maximum resolution of 1,280x720 pixels, and video looks sharper and richer in low-light settings than standard Webcam offerings on budget laptops. It's a plus, especially in low-end versions of the Inspiron 15R.

Dell Inspiron 15R (Spring 2011)

Average for category [Mainstream]

Video

VGA, HDMI

VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort

Audio

Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks

Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks

Data

2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0/eSATA combo port, 1 USB 2.0, SD card slot

4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA

Expansion

None

ExpressCard/54

Networking

Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband

Optical drive

DVD burner

DVD burner

The Dell Inspiron 15R has a generous complement of ports: four USB ports, two of which are USB 3.0 and one of which is an eSATA-combo port, are studded throughout the sides and back of the chassis. The high-speed ports on the Inspiron 15R (three if you count eSATA) certainly outnumber those on other budget laptops, too. Still, hunting for ports can be a bit of a hassle when you're in a pinch. HDMI access is off to the left side, while VGA is stuck on the back along with a single USB 3.0 port and the power plug.

As mentioned above, add-ons and customizations can easily bump an Inspiron's price from budget to high-end. The entry-level USD $499 configuration gets you a 2.1GHz Core i3-2310M CPU, 3GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. Upgrading to 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and a Core i5-2410M CPU costs an extra USD $150. If ordering through Dell's Web site, you can upgrade to 6GB of RAM and a hard drive of up to 640GB. You can also add a Blu-ray drive, and if you want discrete graphics the only option is a 512MB AMD Radeon HD6470M.

What you get for USD $499 is indeed a bargain, especially when compared with HP's more expensive entry-level system, the HP Pavilion g6, which has last year's Core i3 processor.

Our configuration, not counting the extended nine-cell battery that Dell packaged with our review unit (an extra USD $179 on top of everything else), came to USD $709. For 6GB of RAM, a Core i5 processor, and a two-year warranty, that's a pretty decent deal.

The 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M CPU in our Inspiron 15R configuration is the same second-gen Sandy Bridge processor we've seen in many laptops recently, including the Lenovo ThinkPad X1. It's suitably fast for nearly every mainstream consumer's needs. Multitasking, including HD video streaming, iTunes encoding, and game playing, was easy, especially with the added RAM.

Graphically, however, the Inspiron 15R inevitably suffers a little due to the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics. As often noted, they're much better than Intel integrated graphics circa 2010, but their power equates to an entry-level NVIDIA GPU. Street Fighter IV ran at 26.9 frames per second at full-screen 1,280x720-pixel resolution, and better results might be obtained by lowering the graphics settings further. Unreal Tournament III ran at 66.7fps at native 1,366x768-pixel resolution with graphics set to medium.

This isn't a gaming laptop, but if you're determined to play PC games, you'd be better off spending USD $70 to upgrade to the AMD HD6470M.

Inspiron 15R - CNET Review Bar Graph #1
Inspiron 15R - CNET Review Bar Graphs #2 & 3
Inspiron 15R - CNET Review Bar Graph #4

All prices listed in USD $

The true letdown with the Inspiron 15R is its battery life. The included standard six-cell only lasted 2 hours and 21 minutes in our video playback battery-drain test. Anything less than 3 hours is a big disappointment, especially with a second-gen Core i5 CPU and no dedicated graphics. An optional USD $179 nine-cell battery lasted 4 hours and 13 minutes, which is still not that great, and the larger battery sticks out from the back of the system. Budget buyers can't complain too much, but anyone spending more than USD $600 has a right to expect more.

Dell offers a standard one-year warranty for the Inspiron 15R in lower-end Core i3 configurations, but includes an extra year of service if you opt for a Core i5. You can upgrade to a maximum four-year warranty through Dell's Web store (USD $90 extra for the two additional years), or add an Advanced Service Plan for accidental damage protection, which costs an extra USD $80 for two years or USD $190 for four.

System configurations:

Dell Inspiron 15R
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 6,144MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 500GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

HP ProBook 6360b
Windows 7 Professional (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel GMA HD; 320GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

Toshiba Satellite E305-S1990X
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420s
Windows 7 Professional (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel GMA HD; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm

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