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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dell Inspiron 15R Definitely Fits The Bill For Me

As mentioned in this previous post, I picked up a Dell Inspiron 15R laptop over the President’s Day weekend last month. I was getting a little tired of juggling my vast digital horde of photographs, videos, ebooks, etc. on the 250 GB hard drive of my previous laptop, a Dell Vostro 1500. I managed for a while by buying an external hard drive, but eventually, I decided not to put up with it anymore. What pushed me over the top was a sale at Dell that brought this Inspiron 15R laptop down to a very decent price of just $450. My budget for a replacement laptop was $500, so when I got something decent for less than that, I decided it was not worth putting the purchase off. I probably will not see prices this low for equivalent hardware till near the end of the year.

By the way, the Dell Vostro 1500 is one of the best laptops I have ever purchased. It is a rock-solid computer that withstood all the abuse I threw at it and never once quit on me. It runs cool and quiet, and even though it is now over 3 years old, its battery lasts a full 6 hours when I do light web-surfing and music-listening on it (the battery is a 9-cell battery that used to last for just over 7 hours when it was new). It has a solid feel to it, and I love its screen quality, brightness and colors. And I paid about the same for it as I ended up paying for its replacement. My only problem with it, and the only reason I had to get a replacement computer was the lack of hard disk space on it. I considered replacing its hard disk, but the economics of it simply did not make sense to me.

The Inspiron 15R is obviously available from Dell, where you can customize it with different colors, play around with hard disk sizes, amount of RAM, etc. It is also available at online retailers like Amazon.com, but usually only in some base configuration without much ability for you to customize it. The configuration I got it in is not available at either Dell or Amazon right now, but you can get a 15R with a slightly faster processor than I got for $550 from Dell. By the way, even though the laptop is marketed as an Inspiron 15R, the official model number for the laptop is the Inspiron N5010. If you want drivers or other downloads for the laptop from the Dell website, you can’t find a product called the Inspiron 15R on the support side of the Dell website. There, the model is only referred to as an Inspiron N5010.

Let me start with the specifications of the laptop on which I am writing this review:

  • Intel Core i3 370M processor running at 2.4GHz
  • Windows Home Premium 64-bit operating system
  • Glossy 15.6 inch LED-backlit LCD display with 1366x768 native resolution, capable of 720P display
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM running at 1333 MHz
  • 500 GB hard drive running at 5400 RPM
  • 8X CD/DVD Burner (Dual Layer DVD+/-R Drive) with Roxio Burn
  • Intel Centrino Wireless-N 1000, 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth
  • 6-cell lithium-ion battery, rated to last just over 4 hours
  • Integrated 1.3MP webcam and microphone
  • Intel HD Graphics
  • 7-in-1 media card reader (SD, SDHC, SDHD, MMC, MS, MS Pro, xD)
  • Built-in stereo speakers with 4W of total power
  • 3 standard USB ports
  • 1 USB/e-SATA combination port
  • HDMI and VGA output ports
  • Ethernet port
  • 1 microphone and 1 headphone port
  • 14.7” x 9.6” in width and height
  • 1.02” to 1.48” inches in thickness (when closed), with the back thicker than the front
  • 5.8 lb weight including the battery, not including the power cord

The laptop arrived within 3 days of placing the order with Dell (free 2-day shipping was included in the sale, saving me about $50 more). In the package was the laptop itself, the laptop battery, the power cord and the instruction manual. There were no media disks or system recovery disks of any sort included. Unpacking and setting up the computer was trivial, as is to be expected.

The power cord is significantly different from the power cord that came with my Dell Vostro 1500. The adapter is still rated for 65W, and the tips are interchangeable (so my old laptop can be powered by the new power cord and vice versa with no problems), but the brick itself is much lighter and smaller than before. Moreover, the cord that goes from the brick to the wall outlet does not use the funky Dell 90-degree turn connector anymore. Instead, it is a regular straight connection that makes the entire power cord much better to look at. The adapter can take 100-240V, 50-60Hz AC power as input, so it should be possible to use it without the need for any transformer of any sort, pretty much throughout the world.

The casing of the computer is a greyish-black that Dell refers to as Mars-black. It is very smooth and shiny, and smudges easily. The screen is slightly smaller than the base of the laptop, so the screen hinges are located about an inch inside the base, and the last one inch of the base protrudes behind the screen. Whether it is open or closed, the laptop looks sleek and stylish. The screen is pretty much the same thickness throughout, with the base being significantly thinner in the front and thicker in the back. The laptop screen does not have any latches that keep it closed on top of the base, instead like all modern laptops, the hinges are designed to keep the lid closed when they are closed by the user. This also means that it is hard to open the laptop with a single hand (which is not a problem at all with my Vostro 1500).

The webcam is on top of the screen, and includes a small LED light next to it that serves a dual purpose: it tells you when the webcam is on, and it provides a little light to make the webcam image slightly better-lit. The microphone is located in the middle of the base at the front of the computer. The speakers are located on either side of the base at the front of the computer rather than being right next to the screen. Since the front of the base curves backwards, the placement of the speakers and the microphone is a little unintuitive since it feels as if they face the surface on which the laptop is placed rather than facing up and at the person sitting in front of the laptop.

The power button is located on the top left corner of the base. The base consists of a full keyboard, including a separate numeric keypad. Below the keyboard, approximately centered with respect to the space bar is the touchpad. The touchpad is clearly demarcated from the surrounding area, being slightly depressed below the level of the wrist rest, and being completely back instead of the chrome that surrounds the entire keyboard. The touchpad keys are chrome-colored.

The keyboard does not have chiclet keys that seem to be in vogue now. They are regular keys that are fine to type on. They appeared less solid than on my Vostro 1500, but I have banged away on them for the past month or so, and they have held up fine so far. The numeric keypad can be used for entering numbers when the numlock setting is on, and are used as arrow keys at other times. There are no arrow key markings on these keys, but I have used them as arrow keys and they do work (4 is left, 6 is right, 2 is down, 8 is up, 7 is Home, 1 is End, 9 is PgUp and 3 is PgDn). The dedicated arrow keys on the keyboard are half-height, so it takes some getting used to to use them accurately.

The row of function keys on the top row of the keyboard are dual-purpose keys that also control things like volume, screen brightness, media playback, etc. You have to press the Fn key on the keyboard to activate the function keys, otherwise by default they function in their alternate roles. You can change this behavior in the BIOS, or you can change them using a software application called Dell Quickset that comes with the computer. Most of the actions of these keys have an onscreen confirmation. In addition, the Caps Lock and Num Lock buttons create icons in the taskbar of Windows 7 that look like a capital “A”, and a “9” (white letters on a black background) respectively. These taskbar icons do not have infotips, and they don’t respond to mouse-clicks, right-clicks or double-clicks. It took me a while to figure out what they meant. Why Dell would write software to put these icons on the taskbar, but not even provide them infotips is beyond me! There is no Scroll Lock button on the keyboard.

On the back of the computer are the power inlet, two USB ports and the VGA port. On the left hand side of the computer are another USB port, air vents, the headphone and microphone ports and the HDMI port. On the right hand side of the computer are the ethernet port, the USB/e-SATA combination port, the optical drive and the card reader. On the front of the computer, on the left hand side are three indicator lights. One of them indicates power status, the second indicates hard drive access and the third one shows battery charge status. The meaning of the different light indications on these lights is explained in the user manual that comes with the computer.

The user manual is somewhat detailed, but is not really detailed. It is better than the manual that came with the Lenovo computer I reviewed earlier, but it is not in the same league as the thick manuals that came with my Vostro 1500 3 years back. The manual does have details about how to create recovery disks, how to use the recovery partition or the recovery disks to repair the operating system if necessary, etc.

Once you install the battery and plug the adapter in, you are ready to switch on the computer and set it up. The hard disk installed in the computer is a Seagate disk, model number ST9500325AS. It is partitioned into 3 partitions: a 100 MB partition labeled “OEM partition”, a 15 GB recovery partition, and a 451 GB partition that is for your use. The total size is approximately 466 GB, which is how a disk advertised as 500 GB will appear to the operating system (see here for an explanation of this shrinkage).

After I activated Windows 7 and created user accounts and what not, it was time to clean out the hard disk. It came loaded with a lot more junkware than other computers I have set up recently. The junk consisted of programs and trialware from various software vendors, and took me over 3 hours to identify and clean out. After that, I loaded the computer with my preferred software. I then transferred over all my files from the old computer using an external hard drive. It took me several more days to set the computer up just the way I like it, but the computer was useable within a day.

In terms of performance, the combination of the dual-core hyperthreading CPU (which essentially allows the computer to behave as if it has 4 independent processors) and the 4 GB of RAM make for a very high-performance computer. The lack of dedicated video hardware would probably make this laptop less than optimal for heavy-duty gaming, but this computer is more than adequate for all my needs. The computer opens documents and spreadsheets with blazing speed, and plays back video and audio files smoothly and without any glitches.

Unfortunately, in spite of the large amount of junkware on the computer, it did not come with any software dedicated to DVD playback. The computer comes with Windows Media Center, a monster of a program that seems to have more bugs than features. It crashed repeatedly when I played DVD’s using it, and even blue-screened my computer a couple of times. Eventually, I got sick and tired of it, and started using VLC to play DVD’s. But the lack of dedicated DVD playback software on the computer was disappointing.

The computer also comes with Dell software that allows one to make a system recovery disk that is capable of resetting the computer to factory state if needed. You can do it using the recovery partition on the hard drive anyways, but if you lose that partition because of hard drive failure, or if you decide to upgrade to a different hard drive, you can use the bootable media created by this software (called Dell Datasafe) to get the computer back up and running in short order. You need either a USB stick with at least 8 GB capacity or a dual-layer DVD to record the recovery media.

Unfortunately, the software did not work as advertised for a couple of weeks, preventing me from creating a recovery disk. The program kept complaining that I would need to reboot the computer at least once before it could create recovery media, but the message wouldn’t go away however many times I rebooted the computer. Finally, the message went away by itself one fine day, and I was able to create a bootable recovery image on a 16 GB USB stick.

The battery is decent, but obviously not as good as advertised by Dell. It easily lasts a little over 3 hours under mild use (web-surfing, listening to music, etc.), but not for 4 hours as claimed. The laptop includes an innovative feature that allows you to disable charging of the battery when the laptop is powered using the power cord. Some people claim that keeping the lithium-ion battery charged to between 40 and 60%, instead of keeping it charged up to a 100% (and continuing to charge it) is better for the health of the battery. This laptop gives you the ability to do that if you subscribe to that theory. However, one annoyance I have encountered with the computer is that the display blanks out completely for about a second whenever you switch from AC power to battery or vice versa. I have no idea why, and this is the first laptop I have seen that does this. Very weird, but nothing more than an inconvenience though (only the display is affected, not the programs running on the computer).

Apart from these annoyances, the computer has been just about perfect so far. The screen is very bright and absolutely gorgeous. The keyboard is responsive and easy to use. The touchpad is an absolute pleasure to use, and is multi-touch capable (thus allowing for zooming, rotating, scrolling and going back and forward on a web browser using multi-finger gestures). The computer runs very cool, and the fan hardly ever comes on. When it does, it is very quiet, and it is easier to feel the hot air coming out of the vent with your hands than it is to hear it with your ears. The wi-fi connects reliably and speedily. The speakers are quite loud, and even though they are not right below the screen, facing upwards from the base, they are easy to hear. I did not get a chance to test out the microphone.

So, here are my opinions about the laptop.

The good:

  • Fast processor, abundant RAM, generous hard disk size
  • Gorgeous screen with good brightness and contrast
  • Lots of USB ports, on all sides of the computer
  • e-SATA port, and 7-in-1 card reader
  • Bluetooth enabled (though I never tried out the bluetooth since I don’t have any bluetooth accessories to test it with)
  • High resolution webcam, built-in microphone
  • Good keyboard, excellent touchpad
  • Sleek, stylish looks
  • Decent documentation. In addition to the user manual, you can also download service manuals from the Dell website. Just remember to look for documentation for Inspiron N5010’s, not for Inspiron 15R’s
  • HDMI output for connecting the laptop to your HDTV
  • Ability to keep the battery in the laptop without having to charge it to 100%
  • Power supply compatible with (some) previous models from Dell

The annoying:

  • Creating recovery disks is a hit-or-miss process because of poorly designed Dell software
  • The screen goes completely dark for a second every time I change power sources
  • The cover-plate of the optical disk is large and reaches all the way to the bottom of the laptop, and sometimes opening the DVD tray can be difficult if the computer is on a soft or uneven surface, like on a bed for instance
  • The microphone and speakers sort of face downwards rather than up towards the user
  • No dedicated hardware buttons for controlling volume, screen brightness or media playback
  • The case and screen attract smudges and fingerprints

The bad:

  • Large amount of junkware on the computer, requiring lots of effort to get rid of
  • No dedicated DVD playback software included
  • No recovery disks provided with laptop though (unreliable) software is included on the machine to create recovery media (how much does it really cost to package a DVD with the factory image on it? Really, is it that much cheaper to develop buggy software, install it on the computer, and field support calls about it, than to just include recovery media with the computer and be done with it?)
  • No firewire (IEEE 1394) port to hook up my camcorder (yes, I know, it is high time I replaced my 10-year-old camcorder with something more contemporary, but that is another project for another time!)
  • Upgrading the laptop is very difficult. Except for the RAM none of the other parts of the computer (such as the hard drive) are directly accessible from the back of the laptop. Instead, according to the service manual, replacing the hard drive, for instance, involves almost completely disassembling the laptop, taking out the keyboard, touchpad, etc.

Overall, I would rate the computer a solid 4.5 out of 5. Improvements are possible, but the computer is an excellent buy as it stands right now. It is difficult to find a computer at this price with all the features this computer has. And when it goes on sale, it is even more difficult to come anywhere close to this kind of value. I wish Dell would stop loading these machines down with junk, and make some minor improvements such as providing buyers with recovery media out of the box. But none of these problems would keep me from buying this computer since there is really nothing else on the market that comes close in terms of value for the money. If you like tinkering inside your laptops, this may not be the ideal laptop for you, though the prospect of taking it apart to get to the insides might excite you if you are a hard-core tinkerer!

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