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Dell Vostro V131 Notebook Review

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Tucked away from the prying eyes of most end users on Dell’s website, you’ll find the Vostro lineup of notebooks. These may be geared towards professionals who have higher expectations for quality and functionality but most of the hardware used is identical to what’s included in the mass market Inspirons. Indeed, many who are used to buying from Dell know to go straight to the Vostro and Latitude pages to get the best value for their money. It may sound counter-intuitive to push everyday consumers towards professional oriented products but by the end of this review, we’re certain you’ll be paying just a bit more attention to the the Vostro series has to offer.


Dell has been angling most of their product stack towards more value oriented market segments and the newest addition to the Vostro lineup – the V131 – seems to follow this same path but with some interesting twists along the way. As with many of Dell’s notebooks, it is available in a number of flavors ranging in price from just $399 with a Celeron ULV processor, 2GB of memory and a 320GB HDD up to about $900 for a fully equipped model with an i5 processor, 750GB HDD and 4GB of memory. Options here in Canada are a bit more modest with a pair of Celeron-equipped models on tap while the most expensive model boasts an Intel i3 processor and won’t even hit the $700 mark when 4GB of memory and a 750GB hard drive are both added. All of the configurations also come with an Intel WiDi module for wireless communication with compatible display devices. For those of you wondering, our review unit came to about $825 with the specifications listed above.

One of the most important inclusions on all of these models is a 6-cell 65WHr battery. With it equipped, Dell claims up to 9 hours of battery life when paired up with a Celeron ULV processor but even with the i5 processor included in the highest end model, we should still expect up to 7 hours of unplugged use. This will be a key selling point since many other notebooks in this price rage barely manage to hit the five hour mark.

The warranty plans for the Vostro are a key factor when catering towards small business that may not necessarily have dedicated IT staff to troubleshoot problems. Most of the Vostro models come with Dell’s basic one year warranty and overseas 9 to 5 technical support but for a nominal fee, the ProSupport service can be added. As it is described, ProSupport not only gives you access to tier-2 North American based technical support but if the problem can’t be diagnosed and fixed over the phone, Dell will send a support technician (within no more than 24 hours) to your location. Not only does this service minimize downtime but it should also give you peace of mind, regardless of whether you are a business or home user. As for pricing, three years ProSupport goes for about $125 and we HIGHLY recommend it if your notebook costs more than $600 and accidental damage protection at a small premium as well.


The Vosto V131 was first introduced just a few months ago and it eschews the usual preconceptions associated with business friendly notebooks. Instead of using the heavy, plain and thick designs of past generations, it is finished in a scratch and smudge resistant aluminum exterior (with black magnesium alloy bumpers on the front and back), weighs just 4 lbs with the 6-cell battery installed and is at most just 0.83” thick. This isn’t your daddy’s brick-like company laptop and with an available Lucerne Red finish, it can certainly stand out in a crowd too.


For a sub-$1000 notebook, the build quality here is surprisingly good but our unit did come with a slightly loose screen bezel and the cover exhibited a bit too much flex for our liking. The interior was awash in black plastic but even here, there was very little to fault for a notebook in the V131’s price range.


Dell has chosen to incorporate the same hinge system as seen on some of the Inspiron notebooks and that suits us just fine. Even though there is an odd overlap between the lid and the main chassis that somewhat limits the viewing angle, its opening motion is smooth and the whole affair locks securely into place.



The connector layout on the V131 is surprisingly complete considering the limited amount of space Dell’s engineers had to work with. It may lack an internal DVD / Blu Ray drive but the I/O connector layout more than makes up for this. On the left edge there is a HDMI 1.4a output alongside a USB 2.0 port and 8 in 1 media card reader. The USB port is compatible with a handy feature called PowerShare technology (this can be enabled in the BIOS which allows for device charging when the notebook is turned off.

The right edge houses a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a headphone / mic jack, the ubiquitous network port and an essential item for all business class notebooks: a VGA connector. If you were wondering about the absence of the power connector and Kensington lock, they’re both located on the notebook’s back edge yet are still easily accessible.


The bottom of this particular notebook doesn’t house any interesting features other than a removable tray for access to the memory modules and hard drive (more on this later). It should be noted that with the 6-cell battery installed the V131’s rear portion is elevated by about ½”, making for a more comfortable, ergonomic typing experience. Unfortunately, Dell hasn’t included a docking station port which may be a deal killer for some potential buyers.
 

SKYMTL

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Keyboard & Touchpad / Upgrade Options

Keyboard / Touchpad



The V131’s spill resistant keyboard with its subtle touches of chrome and glossy backdrop could easily be mistaken for the one on a much higher end product. The grip enhancing finish used for the palmrests also conveys a sense of quality which belies this notebook’s budget friendly price.

While it is certainly refreshing to see a full sized chiclet style keyboard on a sub $800 13.3” notebook, Dell actually takes things to the next level by also including a variable backlight. However, due to the V131’s form factor, some sacrifices had to be made. The inclusion of full sized arrow keys necessitated the use of a smallish space bar and the keys themselves are rectangular rather than shaped like squares so typing may take some getting used to.

A fingerprint reader has been included in a logical spot on the keyboard’s bottom right edge so straying fingers or palms won’t inadvertently set it off. Above and to the left of the main typing surface is a trio of quick launch buttons for Widows Mobility, Dell’s Support Center and the installed Launch Manager software.


Throughout typing this article on the V131, it constantly surprised us with well spaced keys, excellent feedback and tactile surfaces, all things that aren’t normally seen on lower priced mobile platforms. Granted, the experience wasn’t perfect due to a slightly undersized spacebar and a minimal amount of center keyboard flex but we feel that Dell nonetheless hit the nail on the head. Seeing this kind of typing surface on an inexpensive notebook gives us some hope that the competition is taking note and will bring their keyboards up to the new standard set by Dell's V131.


The trackpad follows in the keyboard’s footsteps by being one of the best we’ve come across. From well defined buttons with just the right amount of travel to a surface that’s perfect for any gesture regardless of how small, it is simply everything a trackpad should be. The finish Dell used is just a bit slippery while offering sufficient grip for more fine grain cursor movements. There’s also a small, handy LED light which glows a muted orange when the trackpad is disabled.


Upgrade Options



Unlike quite a few other ultra portables, the V131 is easy to upgrade through a flush mounted door that can be removed for access to the hard drive caddy and memory slots. On the 4GB model, one of the slots is left empty so the system could be potentially upgraded to 8GB.

Dell also includes a SIM card slot behind the battery compartment for the included 3G / 4G WiMax module. Unfortunately, the broadband communications module is only included in US models.
 

SKYMTL

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Screen & Audio Quality / Included Software

Screen Quality



Let’s start this section off with two words: matte screen. In our opinion, this is an integral part of any notebook that will be used by on-the-go individuals. It allows for the virtual elimination of headache inducing reflections but to some it will make the screen look a bit washed out when compared to panels that use ultra reflective coatings. Honestly though, when you’re sitting in a bright airport, on a park bench, in a conference room or at a window seat on a plane, you’ll be counting your blessings for the lack of glare.

While the overall build quality is quite good for a sub-$1000 notebook, we did notice some flexing around the V131’s plastic screen bezel and top lid. It didn’t warp to the extent seen on some models and there’s no danger of screen damage but this was one of the only noticeable slip ups.


The TN panel used on the V131 may not be able to produce the rich and vibrant colours of IPS technology and it should only be used for photo editing in a pinch. However, this is still one of the better panels we’ve seen on a budget friendly notebook in some time. Its contrast may be far from great and colour reproduction tended to shift towards the blue end of the spectrum but it doesn’t tend to wash out lighter colours like the 14Z did and blacks remained relatively true to form. Don't worry about output either since the panel’s backlight can be increased to retina burning levels, which certainly comes in handy when the V131 is used in brighter environments.


Unfortunately the viewing angles we see here are typical for TN panels. In short, they are horrible and you’ll need to be looking at the screen straight on in order to get an optimal viewing experience. A few degrees off from center in any direction will result in washed out colours and diminishing contrast.


Audio Quality


In our recent reviews, we have only come across one notebook that really stood out from the pack for its auditory abilities: the Alienware M14x with its Klipsch designed speaker system and audio software. The Vostro V131 doesn’t come anywhere close to the M14x but it does boast some surprising attributes in this area.

Instead of the tinny, hollow and relatively quiet sound we’ve become used to from small, thin and light notebook designs, this Vostro has the ability to really pump out sound even though it lacked significant distinction between the extreme high and low ends of the spectrum. Even with the speakers blasting, there was nary a hint of distortion which is a huge accomplishment for a product in this price category.


Included Software



One of the main reasons most of us gravitate towards professional oriented notebooks is their near lack of unnecessary pre installed software. If you recall, our Dell 14Z sample came with a litany of pointless fluff that not only dragged down its performance but also ate up a good portion of hard drive space and made a significant footprint upon the system memory allocation. The V131 on the other hand still has a few pre installed bits and pieces but the Trend Micro Titanium Business Edition antivirus software is a full version with 15 months of protection (an upgrade to 36 months is available for $40 through Dell) and features some decent protection. An easily removable version of Skype is also included but there are no oddball apps and the Apple wannabe custom launch bar from other notebook families is completely MIA. Dell’s DataSafe Local Backup is included as well.

This limited amount of software results in a compact Windows memory footprint of just 1.18GB which should give plenty of overhead for application running without sacrificing multitasking performance. All in all, we’d call this a relatively clean installation on Dell’s part.


Dell’s backup utility may be a royal pain in the ass when it comes to initial popup notifications but once it has your data synced, it happily runs in the background without bothering you all that much and can really come in handy if you’ve lost information.
 

SKYMTL

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







The V131’s general system performance sits firmly at the middle of the pack with wins over the 14Z in areas that take advantage of its slightly faster hard drive and smaller amount of memory-eating startup applications. While our unit did have the same processor as the more expensive XPS model, it was able to hang in there in certain areas.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






Again the V131 trades blows with the 14Z, coming out on top in areas where slightly more of its tighter timed memory can be accessed by bandwidth hungry programs like Photoshop. Unfortunately, in some other applications it falls a bit behind its mass market sibling.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Network Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.




As with most modern notebooks, the V131 didn’t have any issue playing back high definition content but processor usage did peak at some relatively high levels.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



Business notebooks need good wireless performance since their users tend to travel within areas that may not have great WiFi coverage. The V131 certainly has you covered since its performance in these tests is second to none, picking up every one of our routers and successfully transferring our 1GB test folder to five separate points. We have yet to see a notebook that comes close to matching this.

We should also mention that with the inclusion of the optional WiMax module, the V131 can act as a mobile, connected information hub for on the go business professionals.
 

SKYMTL

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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.





It should go without saying that the Vostro line isn’t geared towards running games on a regular basis and the V131’s framerates reflect this. However, the HD3000-series graphics core integrated into the Sandy Bridge processor is able to play some basic games at lower detail settings if you need to step away from work for a few minutes.
 

SKYMTL

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Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



Dell makes some far flung claims about the V131’s battery life and we’re sorry to report that reality fell well short of marketing hype. In our standard usage test we managed to squeeze just under six hours of unplugged life from this thing. While it missed the seven to nine hour mark talked about on the ordering page, we can’t help but be satisfied with a battery that will last the length of most international flights, even with WiFi enabled. If you are using a basic program like MS Word or Excel, then expect a good 30 to 40 minutes more than our results.

Naturally, as load increases, battery life takes a serious nosedive with heavily threaded workloads causing it to dip below the three hour mark. All in all though, these are still some respectable results, particularly for an inexpensive notebook.
 

SKYMTL

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Temperatures / Acoustical Testing

Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Battery power is used during these tests. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 85°F to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 85°F and 95°F will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 95°F is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



Core temperatures stayed well within comfort levels throughout testing even though the V131 was pushed well beyond what most users would demand of it. We did see a few spikes to the 80 degree mark but that’s still a good 15 to 20 degrees away from a point where throttling may be occurring.



Going hand in hand with low CPU temperatures is a near lack of hot spots on and around the V131’s exterior. Indeed, very little heat seems to be transferred to the chassis on this notebook from the interior components which should make for a comfortable experience, even when used on your lap for long periods of time. There is one temperature spike near the battery compartment but it remains isolated and likely won’t make direct contact with anything due to the battery’s slightly elevated position.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



We now see the reason some of the low temperatures from past tests. At idle and lower loads, the V131 is as quiet as they come, exhibiting nary a murmur throughout word processing, photo editing Flash gaming and movie watching. However, when processor load is pushed past the 80% threshold, its fan starts to scream bloody murder. Our advice to you is this: with to use transcoding, folding and other processor intensive applications until you have the chance to put the V131 in a secluded room where its overly loud fan won’t be a distraction.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,861
Location
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Conclusion

Conclusion


Every once in a while we come across a product that stands out from the competition due to unique features, innovative technology or genre changing performance. The Vostro V131 can’t boast any of these points but it still succeeds in being everything most of us could possibly want in a notebook.

Dell’s goal here wasn’t to create something that would blaze its way through benchmarks, nor play games at high framerates. Rather, they sought to create a notebook that performed well in most applications, didn’t sacrifice quality in order to hit a low price point and was above all else practical for their intended professional market clientele. The result is a phenomenal success story for not only business users but for just about anyone in the market for an ultra portable, well designed, feature packed and affordable notebook that can last more than six hours on a single charge.

The Vostro series hasn’t necessarily distinguished itself as a lineup that offers something for everyone but this particular model almost has an abundance of connectivity options, a matte screen and next to no bloatware, allowing it to stand head and shoulders above most other products in the sub-$1000 market. Add to that better service plans and longer battery life (through a user replaceable battery no less) than a typical Inspiron or XPS model and we have to wonder why the V131 is in an out of the way area of Dell’s site, away from prying eyes. This is the notebook many have been waiting for but few know it exists.

Our experience with the V131 wasn’t completely without fault since it did have a very loud fan under full load, a few build quality SNAFUs that could impact upon long term durability and if we really stretch to find issues, Dell’s Backup utility popup can get downright annoying. The lack of a docking port could also be a deal killer for some professional users.

Ultrabooks may have captured the public’s attention but the V131 has shown that a great product doesn’t need a ton of publicity to be successful. It truly is a hidden, affordable gem in a market that’s been far too cluttered with generic notebooks boasting horribly reflective screens, less than stellar battery life and sub standard warranties. We just love this thing and find it to be one of the best values currently on the market.


 
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