Pros: display, power and memory, full-size keyboard
Cons: funky keyboard, might need more USB ports
Though it had only been a month since we replaced the Ms's four-year-old laptop, the offer that came across my email seemed too good to pass up. So that's why I have a (sort of) matching Dell Inspiron 15R (model number N5110) sitting on the counter next to hers. After all, mine was almost four years old, and on its second hard drive and due for its third battery. Might as well go whole hog: so I did. Here's what I think after a couple of months...
My previous laptop was a Dell Inspiron 1525, so I wasn't quite as surprised by the 15R's size as the Ms (she stepped up from an Inspiron 1410). It is big, though nowhere near as chunky as the Dell XPS17 I haul around for work. Even though tablets and smartphones have shrunk our size expectations, for a laptop this thing is still pretty big: the case measures about 10¼" x 14¾" x 1¼" with the standard battery. That translates to a 15.6-inch diagonal screen (and probably a new laptop bag).
The laptop's footprint and full-term infant weight (5 pounds, 13 ounces) aren't ideal for day-long schlepping, and the adapter weighs an additional 1.1 pounds for a total of about seven pounds. By comparison, a three-liter bottle of soda weights about 6.6 pounds. The 15R's large footprint, however, allows a full keyboard and a widescreen format. The screen is bigger than that on any of my first three desktop computers...
Yes, I said "full keyboard," including a numeric keypad, all of which fits into about 14 inches. That's sometimes a little tight, but it's still easier to use than those Alt-Fn keypads embedded in typical laptop keyboards. There is, of course a touchpad - centered on the QWERTY keyboard - that, mercifully, can be turned off if you're prone to touching it while typing..
Dell places this model as an entry-level system for home users who want multimedia capability but don't drive the processor or graphics until they're steaming. The base model runs an Intel Core i3 processor with 4GB of RAM. I opted for the faster Intel Core i5 processor and 6GB of RAM (DDR3 SDRAM rated at 1333Mhz). Supporting these uses, the model has a high-gloss, high-contrast Dell TrueLife™ widescreen LED display driven by an Intel HD Graphics 3000 card. For sound, the 15R comes with SRS Premium Sound, a pair of top-mounted 2-watt speakers and a built-in mic.
The 15R is positioned between the Inspiron 15, which is slower and has fewer features, and the XPS. There are other Dell laptops as well, including the juiced-up gamer version (AlienWare) and a smaller and faster Inspiron, the 14Z - I almost bought that one instead.
Besides the obligatory wireless/Bluetooth adapter (Intel Centrino 802.11b, g, n-compliant) , the 15R includes an integrated 1-megapixel HD (1280x720) webcam with Dell's proprietary camera-management software. The standard optical drive handles both CD-ROM and DVD. Naturally, the optical drive also writes to both CD and DVD. An eight-in-one card reader is mounted opposite the optical drive.
The heart of a laptop is, of course, the processor: my version includes an Intel i5 64-bit central processing unit rated at 2.5 gHz with turbo-boost to 3.1 gHz. The hard drive, a 7200 RPM affair, has a capacity of 500 GB - one version is available with a terabyte drive, but to my knowledge solid-state drives aren't available..
The 15R ships with Windows 7 Home Premium, which you can upgrade if necessary. Like all computer makers these days, Dell loads up the 15R with junkware (Stage, McAfee, something called "Nero" and other junk). Removing these, especially the TSRs, can speed up the system. I've noticed that they're getting harder and harder to find and extract, now employing some sort of whak-a-mole effect.
The array of external ports is important in laptops, too. Dell might have fallen a little short in that respect. They've provided one USB 2.0 port, two USB 3.0 ports, and a "superport" combining a USB port with an eSATA port - the USB is a "powershare" port for charging. I'd like another USB port or two, since I often have three in use. Naturally, there's an ethernet port, too.
There's an HDMI port on the side for hooking up a television or monitor, and a VGA port on the rear for an external monitor.The sound card supports a mic IN and a phone OUT jack.
And last, but not least, you can swap out the lid for a different color or even a brightly-patterned lid. If you're truly fashion-forward (well, in that case you'd naturally be flaunting an iPad, but you know what I mean), you can get more than one and switch them around. The Ms opted for a bronze-orange lid, but mine is the standard black. I figured 30 (or 40 [or 50]) dollars was more than I wanted to pay for a fashion statement.
Living with the 15R: I've had the 'puter for a couple of months, with daily use. I run office productivity software and internet applications, plus a little light programming - no games but solitaire and minesweeper. I have had no problems with operation; no problems with memory or any in- or out-put devices once I got all the device drivers current.
The TrueLife display performs quite well, providing excellent screen clarity with crisp color reproductions. Since I use computers mainly for internet applications and productivity, I have had little occasion to evaluate its suitability as an HD display device. The sound is acceptable through the little speakers, substantially better than the tin-can sounds from the 1525 it replaced, but nowhere near as robust as the XPS 17 that I use at work.
With a standard battery, the unit sits flat, and lacks the little fold-out legs found on my older Inspiron model. I miss that, and will eventually have to do something about it because it's not comfortable for typing. The battery lasts between three and five hours, depending on your settings.
There are just two things I think Dell could've done better. First, the keyboard is noisy and flexes far more than it should. It's not all clackety-clack like those mechanical IBM keyboards some people still cling to, but it's no silent Sam, either. It's not just my unit; the Ms's 15R has the same touch and sound. Second, the 8-in-1 card reader is almost inaccessible without standing the unit on one edge.
The 15R is about the size of the box most tablets come in, and heavy: there's no denying it. If you are looking for a basic or slightly better laptop that you won't be carrying around all the time, the 15R is definitely a contender. If, however, your chief concern in buying for a laptop is its weight, you will probably want to look elsewhere.
Recommended, 4½ stars out of five; rounded up.