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Dell XPS 14z Notebook Review

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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As the traditional personal computer space begins to constrict, the mobile market has become the new de facto battleground for the likes of Dell, Apple, ASUS and many others. But with an increasing number of companies vying for your hard earned dollar it has become increasingly challenging for certain products to stand out from the competition. To a large subset of end users, Apple seems to have their marketing and creative mojo working in sync which has driven an increasingly large number of consumers away from Windows-based machines and into OSX’s waiting arms. As a result quite a few of the largest PC makers have been struggling to keep up but as time goes on, they have begun to adapt their designs to reflect the new realities.

Dell –once deemed the Bastion of Beige- is at forefront of the battle against people’s perception that Windows-based notebooks are a thing of the past. In a short amount of time, they’ve effectively moved their whole lineup away from boring designs and have instead focused upon bringing a wide variety of choices to their customers. From ultra thin mobile powerhouses to entry level notebooks, they have it all and the new XPS 14z seems to encompass everything someone could possibly want in a package that’s infinitely portable.

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Dell bills the XPS 14z as one of the thinnest fully featured laptops on the planet and these specifications coupled with a svelte 0.9” height sure lend some truth to this claim. Our sample came with one of the lower end configurations but it still included an Intel Sandy Bridge i5 2430 processor (a decent upgrade from the processors available in many competing models) and 6GB of DDR3 memory and it is possible to choose certain 14z models that come with 8GB.

Speaking of upgrades, Dell has gone against their usual grain and instead of offering incremental component upgrades upon a basic configuration, lump sum packages are the new norm. Want a 256GB SSD? You’ll need to pony up for the $1600 configuration along with an i7 2640M processor and 8GB of system memory. The NVIDIA GT 520M is only available in a package that costs $1100 since it also upgrades the memory to an 8GB configuration and the HDD to 750GB (which is actually a great looking combination for the price). Basically the only “upgrades” available to a given 14z are software-oriented and we’re sure that won’t sit well for anyone who remembers the highly customizable Dells of yesteryear.

With such a wide array of standard items, a weight of only 4.36 lbs and a long list of possible upgrades, you’d think Dell’s XPS 14z would sport a high end price but that isn’t the case. At a starting price of only $899 it offers (at least on paper) some surprising value in a market segment cluttered with expensive competitors. However, upgrades can push the 14z’s price past the $1600 mark.

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Normally we don’t even touch upon the packaging notebooks come in since it usually consists of a simple beige or black box. Yet Dell went down a different route by playing up on the 14z’s extraordinary design and housing it in a suitably padded, well-heeled box.


You’d be forgiven if the first words out of your mouth were “Wow! It looks like a Macbook.” because that’s exactly the essence Dell seems to be going for here. With an anodized aluminum top cover in a colour aptly named Elemental Silver and a formed solid aluminum base, the 14z certainly has what it takes to compete from a fit and finish perspective. Throughout almost a month of intense testing, it stayed remarkably scratch free and fingerprints remained largely invisible. For those interested, the 14z is also being offered in a less Apple-esque black.

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Opening the 14z up gives us a view into Dell’s design world and things start to look a lot less like a Macbook. Instead of the exterior finish continuing to the inner confines, the palm rest and keyboard frame are done in a slightly darker grey. Meanwhile, the screen bezel uses a matte black colour in order to better blend in with the screen itself and give a the illusion of an edge to edge perspective.

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The opening mechanism on this notebook allows the screen to rotate within the main chassis, locking it firmly in place. Unfortunately, this does limit its radius and the odd spring-like design Dell uses to hide it can only be described as ugly. Especially on such a clean looking notebook.

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Dell has instituted an interesting connector layout on the XPS 14z and for those of you who tend to plug and unplug peripherals a lot, prepare for a ton of annoyance. The right edge houses the slot loaded DVD drive along with a battery wear meter while the left side only has mic / headphone jacks and a covered multi card reader.

In order to conserve as much space as possible, Dell has grouped the ports behind the notebook which leads to a fair amount groping before you find the right connector. Here there are ports for USB 3.0, USB 2.0, DisplayPort and HDMI along with a Kensington lock and a LAN jack. Unfortunately, there is no VGA output. This could cause an issue for professional users who live and die by their notebook’s ability to connect to older VGA-equipped conference room projectors.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Keyboard & Touchpad / Upgrade Options

Keyboard & Touchpad


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The 14z’s dimmable backlit keyboard uses a typical chiclet design and is bordered on either side by wide-spaced speaker grilles. The keys are well spaced with suitably large Enter and Shift buttons but like many other thin and light notebooks there is very little travel, diminishing the amount of feedback each keystroke gives. Nonetheless, typing for long periods of time didn’t post any problems while we wrote this review and we actually found the experience quite comfortable.

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There are a few small issues here but let’s prefix this section by mentioning that each one of these items is very, very minor. First of all the compressed directional arrow keys take a bit of getting used to and we were constantly groping around for them when touch typing. In addition, the keyboard does have two settings of dimmable backlighting (which is certainly a welcome addition) but the difference between maximum and minimum output is next to nothing and there is a hesitation of several seconds before it responds to commands.

Dell has also used a magnesium alloy to coat the palm rest to increase durability and decrease unsightly oil stains from your hands. The repellant surface does get a bit slippery after extended use but that didn’t overtly impact our typing speed.

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The trackpad on this notebook is simply massive and its expansive area along with a slightly resistant surface really helps tactile feedback. Regardless of its size, the trackpad is well positioned so it doesn’t pick up any inadvertent presses as your fingers fly across the keyboard. Its two physical buttons should also be taken as a lesson for all other manufacturers since they respond perfectly to input commands without requiring too much force.


Upgrade Options


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Upgrade options on the XPS 14z are non-existent. Dell does claim that you can open the chassis to add an extra stick of memory (there aren’t any slots available the 6GB configuration) but opening this thing up is impossible without wreaking havoc to its finish. Unfortunately, the battery isn’t user upgradable either.

The lower portion of the 14z is a single piece of milled aluminum which is held in place with eight small screws. You’ll then need to wedge a small flat head screwdriver into the gap between the top and bottom panels while praying to every deity you know that nothing crack or bows. After a few minutes, we gave up since this is one notebook that is being sent back to Dell without any blemishes.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Screen & Audio Quality

Screen Quality


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While in our possession, the newest member of the XPS mobile family became a bit of a world traveler, coming with us to Austin, Denver, Toronto, Marseilles and Ankara. After dozens of flight hours and more departure delays than we thought possible, we have to say that its screen performed admirably but that isn’t to say there weren’t any pressing concerns.

The webcam Dell included is also top notch with a sensor size of 1.3MP and dual microphones. During conference calls, we always fielded compliments about this camera’s capabilities and the incredible directional quality of the included mics.

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Sony Vaio Z IPS @ Left / Dell XPS 14z TN @ Right

Colour reproduction was good albeit a bit too cool for our liking and the amount of backlight intensity it can push out is borderline ridiculous. However, the glossy finish led to headaches in well lit environments like airports and conference rooms. The only real way to compensate for the overly reflective qualities was to increase screen brightness to almost 100% which tended to gobble up battery life.


Viewing angles were poor at best with contrast drastically falling by the wayside if viewed at even a few degrees off center. This led to us constantly tilting the screen in order to get just the right viewing angle. Off center viewing on the horizontal plane has actually quite a bit better though.

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Dell bills the 14z as having a 14” display packed into the body of a 13” chassis. They have accomplished this by utilizing a Shuriken-style edge to edge display but looks can be deceiving. As you can see above, upon first glance it may seem like the panel runs to within a few millimeters of the top cover’s edge but the actual viewable image space begins nearly ½” further in.

While we love the look without the screen turned on, this “false” bezel pretty much defeats the purpose of an edge to edge screen. It also happens to reduce the diagonal image size from Dell’s claimed 14” down to about 13.65”.

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Sony Vaio S Above / Dell XPS 14z Below

Another interesting item we noticed is how apparent this screen’s individual pixels are when seen from typical viewing angles (zoom into the pictures above to see the difference). In a side to side comparison with another 13.3” screen, you can see the difference. It isn’t a deal breaker but this slight “screen door” effect was noteworthy nonetheless.


Audio Quality


For a slim and relatively light notebook, we were moderately surprised by the sound produced by the 14z’s two widely spaced speakers. They didn’t recreate a distortion free experience but Youtube videos and music played at a reasonable volume and most sounds were easily distinguishable. Bass was lacking though and we found treble to be overly emphasized but in a pinch, these speakers perform admirably considering the market they play in.
 

SKYMTL

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Included Software

Included Software


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We’ve reviewed a few notebooks now and this one is by far the worst offender when it comes to bloatware and completely unnecessary pre-installed programs. As you can see above, the list of pre-installed junk is just epic. These aren’t processes running in the background either. Every time the 14z boots, the software starts spamming in earnest with Macafee and Dell’s own DataSafe Local Backup utility putting in a valiant tag team effort by assaulting you with constant popups and warning messages. It became so bad that we actually performed a clean install on this notebook prior to brining it on a business trip. Useful? No. Offensive? Hell yeah.

There are also some very odd additions. NVIDIA’s PhysX was installed by default even though our sample didn’t come with a GeForce graphics card, Zinio Reader –a mostly pointless ebook application- is here along with bloatware like Cozio, Blio (ANOTHER ebook application) and the Ebay toolbar.

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There is however some moderately useful programs here and some desktop inclusions that go well beyond anything we’ve seen before. 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.

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Dell also did their best to replicate Apple’s program launch bar with a unique quick launch bar and the result is something that is quite functional albeit a bit hard to manipulate or modify. Each icon you see is clickable and will immediately open up a given program or feature. For example, clicking on Photos will bring up Dell’s Photostage application while Documents will of course bring up your Documents folder. Additional programs / shortcuts can be added and all in all it is quite intuitive and presents an easy to understand, straightforward launch platform. Unfortunately, it eats up a surprising amount of resources so we chose to disable it most of the time.

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Dell’s aforementioned MusicStage, PhotoStage and VideoStage all grant quick access to your media libraries, are tied to any folders you select and provide a convenient one stop jump off point for file sharing. They all work very well and can actually make your life a lot less complicated once they are set up correctly.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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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.

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With a middle of the pack processor and a decent 7200RPM hard drive, it looks like the XPS 14z is a solid middle of the pack competitor. However, its Start Up times were a bit long due to the amount of bloatware it has to load while Shut Down was relatively quick.
 

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.

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All in all, we were reasonably happy with these results but one thing is for certain: the XPS 14z won’t turn any heads with its application performance. Its scores in our WinRAR test were among of the worst we’ve seen and its integrated graphics processor tends to hold OpenGL performance back as well.
 

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 to a 1080P HDTV.


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The 14z really didn’t have any issue with this test even though its integrated graphics struggled to display a completely smooth 1080P reproduction of Iron Man. The reason behind this isn’t processor bottleneck though but rather a decoding limitation imposed by Intel’s HD engine.


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.


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This test actually proved to be a bit of a shock for us. Of the four laptops in our testing lab, three are Dells and all of them post excellent results in this network test….except this 14z. It posted the worst performance of any notebook we’ve reviewed, other than the Samsung Series 9 that is. We’re not quite sure what’s causing this issue but one thing is certain: unless you have a clear line of site to a WiFi transmitter, getting a reliable signal isn’t easy.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,841
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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.

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Gaming certainly isn’t this notebook’s forte but its full voltage processor delivers an acceptable experience, unlike Samsung’s ULV equipped Series-9. Just don’t expect to be playing any games above low detail settings.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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12,841
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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.


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Battery life is what makes or breaks mobile devices and in the thin and light category Dell’s XPS 14z plays in, we expect no less than four hours of unplugged time. Unfortunately, at just over three and a half hours of life while running very light tasks the 14z didn’t hit that mark. The reason behind this lowish number partially comes down to the amount of bloatware installed; it gobbles up a ton of system resources and causes the processor to run at higher power states. Normally this wouldn’t cause an issue but there is no way to add a longer life battery so you’re pretty much stuck with under four hours whether you like it or not.

This also goes to show that while Dell advertises this notebook as using an 8-cell prismatic battery, its actual capacity is equal to some 6-cell units.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
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.


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In order to achieve a sub-1” chassis, Dell had to make some sacrifices, one of which is slightly higher thermals than some other notebooks in this category. Anything less than 90 degrees is perfectly normal in our opinion regardless of the 14z’s less than stellar position in our chart.

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While the processor does get a bit toasty, Dell’s aluminum and magnesium alloy chassis stays remarkably cool. There really aren’t any points of concern here.


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.


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While the XPS 14z is a mild mannered and downright quiet ntotebook when working on mundane tasks, its fan does spin up quickly when additional load is put on the processor. It isn’t loud by any stretch of the imagination but when transcoding, playing a game or decompressing large files, it will certainly make its presence known.
 
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