Dell XPS 14z: Like an Ultrabook, Only Larger and No SSD Standard

We just had our first look at a shipping Ultrabook, ASUS’ UX21 Zenbook. With Intel’s ultrabook initiative now starting to bear fruit, Dell’s thin-and-light XPS z-series might seem like it’s slightly behind. It misses out on the ultrabook requirements by not coming with an SSD standard (though one is available in the highest-end configuration), and it’s also too thick at 0.9” (0.8” is necessary to qualify as an ultrabook). We can split hairs over where the sweet spot is for thinness, but really anything less than 1” thick is doing fine by me. It’s the other items that aren’t standard on the 14z that will hurt it a bit more—the SSD being a big one. Still, the 14z is plenty fast for most day-to-day tasks, it’s reasonably light, well built, and gets good battery life. For many potential buyers, that will satisfy their needs, but let’s dig a little deeper.

Without putting the 14z and 15z next to each other to see the size difference, there’s plenty the two laptops have in common. They share the same design language, with an aluminum lid and base, a magnesium alloy palm rest, and a matte plastic LCD bezel. The speakers are on the left and right of the keyboard, with the same patterned cut outs in the material, and the touchpad is reasonably large with discrete left and right buttons.

The keyboard is actually the same on the two models, with backlighting and no discernable flex, though I still prefer the layout on the XPS 15 to the 15z/14z (e.g. direct access to the Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys is desirable). The touchpad looks the same as well, but there has been a change from the Cypress touchpad in the 15z to a more common Synaptics touchpad. The result of the change is that I didn't notice as many errant touchpad activations while typing, particularly after tweaking the settings to my liking. At the default settings, the mouse cursor would often jump around a bit (though it didn't register any clicks at least); turning the PalmCheck setting to maximum and increasing the sensitivity took care of any issues in my experience. So far so good.

One area where the 14z breaks the mold is in the display. Dell notes that this is a 14” display stuffed into a chassis that would normally be used for a 13.3” display, and by our measurements they’re not exaggerating. We don’t have a large number of 13.3”-screen laptops on hand, but we do have a Dell Vostro V131 and an Acer TimelineX 3830TG. The 14z is virtually the same length and depth as the Vostro while the TimelineX is just slightly smaller (but the TimelineX is a small 13.3” laptop to begin with). I was also able to compare the 14z with a 14” Latitude E6410 and found the Latitude to be about a quarter inch deeper and thicker. The net result is that the left and right LCD bezels on the 14z are quite narrow, which looks really nice, but let’s not get too carried away. After all, we’re talking about a 0.7” difference on the diagonal, but there’s more.

While it’s true that the left and right bezels are narrow, the top and bottom bezels are still quite large. This is where the reoccurring 16:9 aspect ratio rears its ugly head and helps to tone down some of the praise we have for the 14z. The LCD is a 1366x768 panel, which we’ll have more to say about in a moment, but the chassis could have easily contained a 1440x900 16:10 panel instead. We’ve lamented the move to 16:9 aspect ratios in the past, and we’ll continue to do so. Even business laptops are beginning to succumb to the 16:9 displays, and unless someone starts making laptops that aren’t as deep we end up with larger top and bottom bezels. The 14z is no worse in this regard than most other laptops, but with Dell highlighting the narrow bezel it’s a shame they didn’t carry that to the top and bottom as well as the sides, and a 16:10 display would have helped accomplish this.

Speaking of the LCD panel, we hit the one area where I truly feel Dell misses the mark. We’ve noted in the past that the XPS line is supposed to be more of a premium brand than Dell’s Inspiron line, and part of that comes from the improved materials and build quality. What really sold us on the XPS 15 and later the XPS 15z was the availability of a 1080p high-contrast LCD in place of the standard 1366x768 panel. Really, that was the difference between a decent laptop and an Editors’ Choice award. At least for the time being, the XPS 14z only has one display option available, and sadly it is not high contrast, high color, nor high quality. In short, it’s a display that would be right at home in an Inspiron, and that’s a shame. If Dell added an option for a higher quality 1440x900 (or even 1600x900) panel, we might be back into Editors’ Choice territory.

The battery is a 58Wh 8-cell built into the chassis, and trust me when I say that getting to the battery (or hard drive or memory) is more difficult than most other laptops. In an attempt to improve the lines and appearance of the 14z (and 15z), the bottom of the casing is a single large piece of aluminum secured by eight screws and a bunch of somewhat-difficult-to-release clips. If you do open up the chassis, there’s another potential issue: getting everything back together may never feel quite the same as pre-opening. So let me emphasize this point: you don’t want to open up the chassis to upgrade components if you can avoid it. As much as it would be great to buy a lower cost unit and then upgrade to a 120/240GB SF-2200 SSD, you may end up degrading the fit and finish of the chassis. If you need to replace the battery in a year or two, you’ll probably want to take it to an authorized Dell service department, and make sure the chassis is put together properly after the battery replacement. My feeling is that removing the chrome trim and making the casing slightly thicker would have helped to alleviate these concerns.

The rest of the 14z is still good, but it’s not significantly better than the competition. We’ve seen the i5-2410M CPU a lot during the past six months, and the new i5-2530M is only an incremental improvement. Dell does deserve credit for cramming a full slot-load DVD-RW into a reasonably thin chassis, although the need for optical drives seems to be diminishing with each passing year. If you’re among those that still use CDs/DVDs regularly, however, that could be a very important distinction. The XPS 14z ends up being a nice looking addition to Dell’s thin and light portfolio, sporting better build quality and materials than the Inspiron 14z and Vostro V131 (we have a review coming shortly on the Vostro) while adding in the potential for discrete graphics. It’s also significantly thinner than either of those laptops while still packing a 8-cell battery. It’s just a pity that Dell didn’t give us a better LCD while they were busy using higher quality materials.

Dell XPS 14z: Lots of Features in a Small Package Performance Rundown
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  • hechacker1 - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    Apple's reputation I think is exaggerated because they take the time to factory color calibrate the screens. I don't think any other PC manufacturer does the same.

    But even Apple's factory calibration lately has tended toward the cooler 6800K temperatures instead of an ideal 6500K for web browsing or watching videos. They are playing into the fact that people tend to like the ultra bright, cool balanced screens that make them seen "bright and white" when comparing them side by side.

    Looking at past Anandtech reviews, it's clear the Macbook's generally have very high quality screens brightness, color quality, and contrast wise.

    Sure they are lacking in resolution on the laptops, but OS-X isn't resolution independent yet.
  • kishorshack - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    Go for DELL XPS 15 it has an awesome screen
    I can look at it for ages :)
  • MobiusStrip - Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - link

    "This is one area where I applaud Apple, they provide high quality, high-res (16:10 in some cases!) screens."

    Rendered garbage by Apple's insistence on shoving pathetic glossy screens down customers' throats.

    Oh, you can pay $150 extra for matte on the biggest MBPs, but you can't get it on the machines most likely to leave the house: the 13" MBP or the Airs.

    Glossy screens are the biggest regression in computers ever. Yet manufacturers just get a free pass on this fraud.
  • Stuka87 - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    So I like the small bezel around the screen. Its about time somebody did this (if somebody else has, I apologize for not knowing). This is one of the things that I really dislike about my Precision M4600. They could have easily fit a larger 16:10 display.

    Its a shame the quality of the display in the 14z is so poor. The rest of it seems to be a fairly decent design.
  • tipoo - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    I really wish they kept that 525M in there like the 15", the 520 is about half as fast. In fact, its not far from the HD3000.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    "I’m not sure why they include only one SS port, given the second USB port is right next to it."
    Not sure if this applies here, but I couldn't install Windows 7 from my USB stick on my Llano system with an AsRock A75M-ITX and A6-3500 CPU. It just didn't recognize the stick. In the USB 2.0 ports there was no problem. I guess it's driver issues. If that is the case, I can see why they want to keep at least one USB 2.0 port available.
    If that is not the case and USB 3.0 makes no problems when installing from media attached to it, then disregard this post. :-)
  • dagamer34 - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    Well, Windows 7 doesn't natively have USB 3.0 drivers included on the disk, so it's going to be confused by the chipset connected to that port. Should be fixed in Windows 8 though (it has native Windows 8 support).
  • dagamer34 - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    Ooops, I meant native USB 3.0 support.
  • hechacker1 - Monday, October 24, 2011 - link

    Isn't it backwards compatible though? The bios might have an option to run it in HiSpeed mode or whatever if it can't be detected as USB3.0 without a driver.
  • jpochedl - Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - link

    USB3.0 can run at USB2.0 speeds, but the WinPE environment still needs a driver that supports the USB3.0 chipset in order to access the USB3.0 port....

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