by Jerry Jackson
Dell's latest premium 14-inch consumer notebook, the Dell Studio 14z, promises to give students everything they want in a high-performance notebook for the back-to-school season. The Studio 14z is indeed the thinnest and lightest 14-inch notebook Dell has ever produced and promises more than 6 hours of battery life, but you might have to make a few sacrifices. Keep reading to discover what we found after spending a few weeks with the Studio 14z.
Dell Studio 14z Specifications:
Build and Design
The design of the Studio 14z looks extremely similar to the Studio 15, but Dell managed to make this notebook much thinner and lighter ... thanks in no small part to the removal of the optical drive. At first glance, the lack of a built-in optical drive might seem to be a disadvantage, but most students and mobile users will confess that they rarely use an optical drive when away from a desk. You can, of course, purchase a matching external optical drive (DVD burner or DVD burner/Blu-ray player) ... just in case you need it when you're working at the office.
The notebook chassis is constructed from a combination of plastics and magnesium alloy for a balance of light weight and durability, and I have no doubt the Studio 14z can survive several years of use and abuse by college students, although I'd feel better about the build quality if the plastic palmrests where made of magnesium alloy instead.
When closed the Studio 14z feels nice and thin, but the weight of the 8-cell battery in our review unit makes the notebook feel like it's a little too heavy in the rear. The Ruby Red screen lid features a nice thick matte paint with a rubberized texture that should hold up over the years of travel to and from classes. The screen lid shows signs of obvious flex under strong pressure, but I wasn't able to create any screen ripples when pressing on the back.
The Dell Studio 14z is currently available with your choice of colors including, Black Chain Link, Midnight Blue, Promise Pink, Spring Green, Plum Purple, and Ruby Red. Dell will also donate $5 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure from the purchase of each Promise Pink laptop. Starting in September the Dell Design Studio will offer the Studio 14z in your choice of more than 120 different designs, so you won't have to worry about owning a laptop that looks identical to a classmate's notebook.
The bottom of the notebook features the battery and a single access plates that must be removed in order to upgrade the RAM. My only frustration here is that you have no easy access to the hard drive, so be prepared to completely disassemble the notebook if you want to upgrade the hard drive on your own.
Screen and Speakers
The 14-inch high-definition panel on the Dell Studio 14z easily rates as one of the better screens we've seen with vibrant colors, excellent contrast, and good viewing angles. The LED backlighting in our review unit is pretty even and offers a range of brightness settings. Yes, it is a 16:9 screen ratio, but this is starting to become standard for all notebooks and Dell was wise enough to offer the Studio 14z with a higher resolution 1600x900 display like the one in our review unit. Horizontal viewing angles are extremely good, so you won't have any trouble sharing a movie with a friend or two. Upper vertical viewing angles are a little better than average since the colors don't wash out too much when viewed from above, but colors begin to distort and invert as you move the screen back.
At first glance the two tiny speakers located above and to either side of the keyboard on the Studio 14z look weak and pathetic. Most people would expect speakers like these to produce weak, tinny sound ... but we'll forgive those people for jumping to conclusions. In fact, the Dell Studio 14z includes four stereo speakers: the two tiny speakers located above the keyboard that direct sound up and two larger speakers located beneath the palmrests that direct sound down. The two smaller speakers focus on the high frequencies while the two larger speakers are tuned for the midtones and bass. The sound isn't quite as impressive as what you'll hear from two large speakers and a dedicated subwoofer, but this is easily the best sound quality we've heard on any 14-inch notebook. Bottom line, if you don't need to fill an entire room with sound for a party then external speakers are NOT needed with this notebook. The built-in speakers perform surprisingly well.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on our review unit has full-sized keys with good key spacing and an excellent depth to the key throw. Each key has a textured black finish and a relatively flat surface. More importantly, the keyboard is available with optional backlighting for easy typing in a dark classroom or dorm room. The only complaint that I have with the keyboard on the Studio 14z is the surprising amount of flex across the entire width of the board. Even when typing with minimal pressure the keyboard bounces and flexes as you type. If you apply heavy pressure then the keyboard almost feels like a trampoline. Considering that the Studio 14z doesn't have an optical drive to create an empty cavity beneath the keyboard we were very surprised to find this much keyboard flex while typing.
On the other hand, if you can overlook the keyboard flex this really is a very nice keyboard.
The multi-touch, gesture-based touchpad is reasonably large for a thin and light 14-inch notebook and the dual touchpad buttons have deep feedback with quiet clicks. The touchpad itself is an ALPS model that uses Dell proprietary touchpad drivers. I'm not a fan of the Dell touchpad drivers, but the touchpad was reasonably responsive with good sensitivity and very little lag.
Ports and Features
The port selection on the Studio 14z is a bit of a mixed bag. Dell included three USB ports, one of which is a combo USB/eSATA port, as well as FireWire and an ExpressCard/34 expansion slot. If you have a new external monitor or HDTV then you'll also be pleased to hear that the Studio 14z includes both HDMI and DisplayPort for digital video and audio output. Unfortunately, Dell made three sacrifices with the Studio 14z that might be problematic depending on what your needs happen to be. As previously mentioned, there's no built-in optical drive, so forget about watching DVDs or installing software from a installation disk unless you're using an external optical drive. Second, Dell forgot to include a built-in SD card reader with the Studio 14z. Dell does offer an optional SD card reader that fits inside the ExpressCard slot, but it's 2009 ... every laptop should have a built-in SD card slot. The last thing you might find missing on the Studio 14z is the lack of a standard VGA port. Granted, most new monitors and HDTVs use either HDMI or DisplayPort, but there are still many projectors that require a VGA port. Considering that many students might need to use this notebook to show a presentation in class it seems odd that there's no VGA port for a classroom projector.
Left: Kensington Lock slot, Ethernet, USB, heat vent, DisplayPort, and HDMI
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