by Kevin O'Brien
The Inspiron 11z is a new netbook from Dell, hoping to change the way we think of the ultra-portable segment. Instead of using the long-favored Intel Atom processor, Dell decided to use the new ultra-low voltage Celeron 723 and the GS45 chipset. On paper the processor has more grunt, and when paired with X4500 integrated graphics, it has a huge advantage over Atom machines. In this review we take an in-depth look at the new 11z, to see if it is the netbook we have all been waiting for.
Our Dell Inspiron 11z Specifications:
Build and Design
The Dell Inspiron 11z has a very simple design, with a plain black glossy screen cover, matte black chassis, and a silver painted palmrest. When closed the shell is nearly flat, with few items sticking out the bottom cover, making it easy to slide into a slipcase or backpack. Inside the 11z has no superfluous features, just the touchpad, keyboard, power button, and power indicator. There are no media buttons outside of function keys on the keyboard, and there aren't even activity lights or touchpad buttons. Dell really tried to take out unneeded or cluttering features to make this netbook as clean and easy to use as possible.
Build quality is average, with a few minor annoyances we noticed out of the box. With most computers you don't see chassis flaws right out of the box. What you do notice are cosmetic flaws, which even if they are minor are still depressing to see on a brand new machine. Our 11z came with a battery preinstalled that looked like it had been tumbled around in a box with other batteries up until the assembly stage. It was scuffed and marred all over, which was easily noticed since it has a fine matte finish. The rubber bumpers on the screen were also incorrectly installed. They are square pieces of rubber designed to fit in square holes, but installed crooked like diamonds. In the entire scheme of things these are minor problems that don't affect the durability of the notebook, but needless to say don't instill confidence in the end-user.
The chassis felt durable with strong internal support under most structures. The palmrest and keyboard showed very few signs of flex under strong pressure, which is a must for a good typing experience. Outside of the marred battery, the screen cover and chassis resisted scratching and other wear. The screen hinges felt durable, and kept the screen securely shut even when held in a vertical position.
Internally the design of the 11z is very friendly for users wanting to upgrade or replace components. At first you might notice there is no bottom access to components, with a solid panel covering the bottom. Instead Dell put all user-accessible components underneath the keyboard, which can be removed by three screws. With the keyboard off you have access to an open WWAN slot, the system memory, hard drive, and heatsink assembly. The WWAN slot was functional, recognizing the Verizon card borrowed from my D630; but it lacked antennas to allow the card to send and receive data.
Screen and Speakers
The 11.6" screen on the 11z was an excellent change from the common 1024x600 netbook screen. With a resolution of 1366x768 you have as much screen space as full-size notebooks, meaning that menus and other items that need more vertical space are no longer a problem. The panel looks great, with good color reproduction and very even lighting thanks to the LED-backlighting. Contrast was average, and varied depending on the vertical viewing angle. The viewing sweet spot didn't allow for an entirely black screen to be viewed, instead you either had some shift at the top or some at the bottom. Brighter colors didn't have this problem, and looked fantastic in everything from viewing images to just browsing the web.
Vertical viewing angles were average, with a 15-20 degree viewing sweet spot before colors started to significantly distort. Horizontal viewing angles stayed true even at very steep angles. Viewing brightness was fine for use in bright office conditions, but outdoor viewing was limited unless you found a shared area.
The speakers sounded slightly better than average when compared to other netbooks. Instead of no bass and midrange, you could hear a hint of lower tones that might be completely passed over on smaller netbooks. Peak volume was fine for watching a movie or listening to music. For a larger room or to enjoy movies to their fullest potential, HDMI out is the best option. It can pass both video and digital audio to your home theater system, which even the worst stereo will sound better than most notebooks.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on the 11z is basically full-size and very comfortable to type on. The layout is easy to follow, taking no time at all to transition to and start typing at full speed. The key design is flat, similar to Chiclet style keyboards, but without an inner bezel dividing the keys. Individual key action is smooth, giving off a soft click when pressed. One odd feature Dell has been transitioning to on newer models is the reversed function key layout. If you want to adjust brightness, you press the correct button and the brightness changes. To hit F5 to refresh a page, you now need to hit FN+F5. Thankfully this feature can be disabled for more advanced users.
The touchpad on the 11z is the first one that I absolutely can't stand to use. Some notebooks have laggy touchpads which might be annoying, but they are still usable. This is not the case with the all-in-one touchpad on the 11z. Dell decided to copy Apple by going with integral buttons under the touchpad surface, but didn't design the hardware or driver support correctly. On a MacBook if you have a finger resting on the touchpad surface to trigger the button while selecting text or moving around objects, it can tell the difference. It knows that finger shouldn't be recognized as a variable in the multi-touch movements or standard movements; the Elan touchpad can't.
If you hold one finger on the touchpad over the left or right button and try to move around the screen a few things might happen. Either the cursor will pop into a corner, usually the start menu corner without warning, or sometimes the top right. Another problem is unwanted zooming, which now controls the size of icons on the desktop, viewing size of documents, and even the size of webpages. We experienced everything except the zooming of documents roughly 10 minutes after turning the 11z on for the first time. The last problem which isn't as important, but still annoying, is the speed of the X and Y axis input. Moving your finger side to side makes the cursor move more than if you travel the same distance up and down. A simple test is drawing a circle on the screen with your finger, where the 11z makes wide ovals instead.
For the majority of the reviewing process we had to resort to using an external mouse exclusively. While the average user could easily do this, it takes away from the portability of a netbook and really shouldn't be required.
Ports and Features
Port selection is average for most netbooks, with the exception of HDMI in place of an older VGA port. Dell included three USB ports, audio jacks, an SDHC-card slot, and LAN connector. Users might also notice that Dell went with a full-size power connection on the 11z, the same shared with every other Dell notebook. The power adapter is another change over most netbooks, as Dell included a 65w thin power brick with this model. On one hand it is nice to get a high quality power adapter that will probably hold up better over time than most netbooks' adapters, but on the flip side it is pretty big.
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