The Dell Vostro 3400 combines the latest Intel Core i3 and Core i5 processors, good battery life and range of security options for business, in an affordable 14-inch laptop. Is this the next best thing for small business owners? How does the Vostro 3400 compare to other business laptops? We answer these questions and more in our in-depth review of this notebook.
Dell Vostro 3400 Specifications:
The Vostro 3400 is an evolutionary design change for Dell's line of small-business laptops. The first Vostro notebooks were nothing more than black-painted Inspiron laptops with some extra software, better warranty and return coverage, and a lower price. The Vostro 3400 is 14-inch business notebook with a unique design and an impressive array of features and available options. Although the Vostro line is designed for the "small and medium business" market this series of PCs has generated far more than "small" revenue numbers for Dell. The most recent financial statements from Dell show mobile PC revenue is up 18 percent and Dell specifically mentioned the Vostro line as a key factor in that success.
The Vostro 3400 itself is a mixture of plastic and metal construction that tries to strike the difficult balance between business-grade durability and small-business affordability. The metal side panels provide exceptional ruggedness and no doubt protect the delicate internals of the 3400 from accidental impacts. The rest of the exterior chassis is made of plastics of varying thickness. The matte black plastics of the palmrests and keyboard surround is pretty firm with just a hint of plastic creaking around the edge of the keyboard where the plastic meets the metal side panels. This frequently used area of the laptop feels durable enough to handle the average use and abuse from a typical user.
The bottom of the notebook features the battery and single access plate for the RAM, hard drive and wireless card. I appreciate the fact that you can make all of the standard internal upgrades simply by removing two screws. The matte black plastic used on the bottom of the 3400 is textured and provides a good grip surface if you're holding your laptop while you run to catch a meeting. Again, the metal sides of the chassis provide extra durability and should help protect the notebook in the event that you drop it on the side or corner.
Screen and Speakers
The 14-inch high-definition (1366 x 768) panel on the Dell Vostro 3400 provides reasonably vibrant colors that are just a little cool (blue) at the default settings. The LED backlighting in our review unit is pretty even and offers a range of brightness settings with just a hint of backlight bleed in the top left corner of the screen. Again, since all 11-inch notebooks/netbooks now come with 1366 x 768 resolution displays we'd like to see 1600 x 900 as the "minimum" resolution of 14-inch notebooks. Still, for the base price of $550 this is a nice display. Horizontal viewing angles are extremely good, so you won't have any trouble sharing a movie with the person sitting next to you on a plane or in a meeting room. Vertical viewing angles are average or below average with colors quickly washing out when viewed from above and colors beginning to distort and invert as you move the screen back.
The single biggest complaint our editors have with the Vostro 3400 is the significant level of flex in the screen lid. Dell uses fairly thin and weak plastics in the lid and even light pressure on the back of the screen causes it to "bend" in toward the notebook. If you happen to store your laptop in a bag with other items pressing against the lid you may risk damaging your screen. Likewise, if someone on your next flight jams a heavy item into the overhead compartment next to your laptop it could result in a bad scene. In the images below you can see how the screen lid flexes with light pressure from two of my fingers. The plastic screen bezel also starts to pop off from this modest amount of pressure.
It's important to note that the screen on the Vostro 3400 never failed to function during our stress tests. Still, this degree of flexibility may have a negative impact on the longevity of any LCD panel.
In terms of audio performance, the built-in speakers on the Vostro 3400 are adequate for listening to a webcast or system alert sounds, but this clearly isn't a multimedia entertainment notebook. Music sounds tinny with limited range and you will notice significant audio distortion if you increase the speaker volume to the maximum setting. Once again, the speakers are probably fine for the intended market of small business owners. Still, you'll probably want to use a good set of headphones with this notebook if you plan to listen to music while you work.
The keyboard on our review unit has full-sized keys with acceptable key spacing and an excellent depth to the key throw. Each key has a textured black finish and a relatively flat surface. The keyboard is firmer than the keyboard on the Dell Inspiron 14 that I recently reviewed and doesn't suffer from any flex under heavy typing pressure. I was a little sad that our review unit didn't come equipped with a LED backlit keyboard, but I'm happy to see it is an available option on the Dell website. The backlit keyboard is an essential upgrade if you're typing onboard an evening flight or inside a dark meeting room during a presentation.
Ports and Features
The port selection on the Vostro 3400 is quite exceptional for a budget 14-inch notebook. Dell included three USB 2.0 ports (four if you count the combo USB/eSATA port), VGA and HDMI video out ports, Ethernet, a multi-format memory card reader, and even an ExpressCard slot for expansion. In short, I'm pretty impressed since most budget business laptops don't provide a combo USB/eSATA port for high-speed external storage or an ExpressCard slot for broadband wireless cards or future upgrades. About the only ports that are missing are FireWire and USB 3.0 ... and a modem jack for those few people still using dial-up.
Left: Kensington Lock slot, power jack, heat vent, VGA, Combo USB/eSATA, HDMI, and two USB 2.0.
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