by Kevin O'Brien
The Inspiron 15 is the back-to-basics mainstream 15" notebook from Dell, offering good performance at a value price. Consumers can configure this notebook with basic lid configurations, or go all out with the customized lids from the Dell Design Studio for an additional cost. If you are just looking for a basic system to meet your needs at school or home, read our full review of the Dell Inspiron 15.
Our Dell Inspiron 15 Configuration:
Build and Design
The design of the of the Inspiron 15 is pretty good for a value notebook, offering a smooth rounded profile and clean lines. While our model doesn't offer one of the most expensive custom lid designs, it gives you an idea of what you would get if you chose the current "FastTrack" shipping option on this model. The only design element of the notebook that doesn't blend well with the stock matte lid finish is the fully glossy interior. The screen, screen bezel, keyboard trim, and palmrest are all glossy black inside the notebook, which doesn't always play well with reflections or smudges. If you keep it clean it looks great, but at times it did get annoying if you were sitting with your back to bright windows where the entire notebook turned into a mirror. Overall, if you don't mind the glossy surface the design of the Inspiron 15 is pretty nice compared to other budget models on the market.
The Dell Inspiron 15 has average build quality compared to other value-oriented models we have reviewed. The plastics used held up well in our tests, but did show signs of flexing and creaking in spots. The screen lid and palmrest were the two main areas which exhibited flex, with the palmrest giving off creaking sounds if you squeezed it in the right spot. The screen lid on the Inspiron 15 uses a latch-less hinge design which keeps it held down using friction and gravity. You need two hands to open it up with it placed horizontally on your desk, but if you were carrying it around under your arm it did have a tendency to open up about a centimeter or so. In most latch-less designs we like to see a secondary holding method, such as a magnet or spring loaded hinge to keep it shut when held in any direction. The plastics used in the construction of the chassis feel pretty durable and should hold up well over time, but the glossy finish around the keyboard and palmrest did have a tendency to show fine scratches.
Dell gives you easy access to all internal components of the notebook. This includes the system memory, hard drive, and wireless card, as well as the processor if you are so inclined. Underneath the main access panel (which includes handy circlips around each screw so they don't go flying) is the RAM, wireless card, and processor with heatsink. The hard drive and optical drive are removable through individual sections with their own retaining screws. Oddly enough Dell doesn't have any "warranty void if removed" stickers anywhere, including the screws around the processor.
Screen and Speakers
The glossy 1366x768 display on the Inspiron 15 is average compared to other panels we have seen. Colors and contrast are excellent thanks to the glossy surface, which tends to scatter less light than the equivalent matte surface. Backlight levels could be better on the high-end of the spectrum, but we found it adequate for most conditions, including a bright off setting, underneath shop lighting, and or just sitting on your couch enjoying a show. Viewing angles could have been better, with color distortion found in both the vertical and horizontal extremes. Colors started to shift when titling the screen 20 degrees forward or back. Horizontal viewing angles were better, only showing color shifting past 45 degrees.
The included speakers were good compared to other budget models, with clear high-range audio, but little low or midrange coming through. Peak volume levels were enough to fill a small room, but if you plan on sharing a movie inside a dorm room, it might be wise to connect the laptop to a set of external surround speakers. For enjoying music or movies by yourself, headphones are still a must-have accessory.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Inspiron 15 keyboard is very comfortable to type on, offering excellent support and a very good layout. The keys are of normal size with a light matte finish for excellent traction. Spacing is spot on compared to my ThinkPad keyboard, so no adjusting was necessary. Support underneath the keyboard is excellent, with no flex anywhere, even under very strong pressure. Individual key action is smooth with a very quiet "click" emitted when a key is fully pressed. It might not be the quietest keyboard I have used, but it still ranks up there. The function key layout is interesting compared to other notebook models, with use of the function keys backwards. Normally to adjust the brightness or volume, or toggle the WiFi settings you press the FN-key, then the appropriate function key. Dell went with a setup where the secondary command is now primary. To put it another way, if you want to hit F5 to refresh a webpage, you now need to press FN+ the brightness up key. For normal uses this might be more intuitive, but for advanced users who love using commands like window close, page refresh, full screen, and other function key commands, it is more confusing and complex.
The touchpad is a large Dell-specific model, with a nicely textured matte finish that gives excellent traction. Speed and accuracy were pretty good, with barely any lag noticed in our tests. We did encounter one situation where a quick tap and select movement wouldn't release the selection box, but that situation didn't come up frequently. The touchpad might not have been as nice to use as a Synaptics model, but for the notebook's intended market it should be fine. The touchpad buttons were a big surprise to see on a budget model. They provide excellent feedback and have a deep throw, instead of standard "clicky" touchpad buttons.
Ports and Features
Port selection on the Dell Inspiron 15 is lacking compared to notebooks of the same size, including only three USB ports, VGA, LAN, and an ExpressCard/34 slot. HDMI would have been greatly appreciated, since it would allow a user to hook the notebook up to a home theater to play movies, whereas now you would need to have a TV that supports VGA in, and still be limited to analog audio out. For quickly copying images off a memory card, there is a spring loaded SDHC-compatible memory slot on the front of the notebook. eSATA would have been another nice touch, but it is hard enough to find it on some high-end notebooks.
Left: Kensington Lock slot, 2 USB, VGA, LAN
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