Review: Dell XPS 14Z

The latest in Dell's XPS line of performance-oriented laptops, the 14z could double as a contender in the ultraportable stakes (it's just 23mm thick) if not for its comparatively 'heavy' 2kg weight.

NameLaptop: Dell XPS 14Z
At a glance:Slim 23mm profile,Dedicated Nvidia GeForce GTX 520M graphics,Fast Intel Core i7-2640M CPU,Slot-loading CD/DVD writer
Summary:A well-performing multimedia machine with a portable profile.
RRP:$2,199 (as reviewed), $1,499 - $2,699 (depending on configuration)

The latest in Dell’s XPS line of performance-oriented laptops, the 14z could double as a contender in the ultraportable stakes (it’s just 23mm thick) if not for its comparatively ‘heavy’ 2kg weight.

We first got a sneak peek at the XPS 14z in mid-2011. We were immediately captivated by its attractive silvery design and the promise of the then-unheard-of Nvidia GeForce GT 520M graphics chipset – promising both great graphical performance and extended battery life thanks to Nvidia’s ‘Optimus’ GPU-switching technology. We then had to wait a few months before the 14z finally arrived in our labs.

Our review model costs $2,199 with an Intel Core i7-2640M CPU, 8GB RAM, and a 750GB hard drive – second in spec only to a $2,699 model with a 256GB SSD, but otherwise identical to the one we tested.

In a relative rarity among laptops with such a thin profile, the 14z features a slot-loading CD/DVD writer. That’s a win for those who regularly need to work with optical discs.

There’s also an SD, xD and Memory Stick card reader, headphone and microphone sockets, mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, wireless-n, Bluetooth 3.0 and a dedicated side-button that indicates the current battery level on a row of LEDs, whether the laptop is on or off.

Speakers are set either side of the keyboard under a sort of latticework design, and pump out clear sound at high enough volume to comfortably watch a movie or YouTube clip with a few friends. The 14-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel display is just large enough for the purpose, with good image quality and brightness.

So, does the XPS 14z live up to our initial performance expectations? In short, yes. It thoroughly outperforms all of the machines in our recent ultraportable laptop roundup, both graphically and in CPU-intensive benchmarks. It still lags well behind 15- and 17-inch models, particularly in the graphical stakes, but that’s to be expected.

You could expect to play a modern game at low to medium graphical settings at, or slightly below, the native resolution. However, this isn’t a gaming laptop and shouldn’t be bought with that as the primary purpose in mind.

Scores in one of our nine benchmarks, the all-around PCMark 7 suite, are slightly eclipsed by the 11-inch MacBook Air and 14-inch Acer TravelMate 8481g, both from our ultraportables roundup. Both of these use SSD storage, which gives them an advantage for hard drive-related tests. The SSD-based XPS 14z would likely outperform those models; our hard drive-based review model outperformed them in all of the less storage-dependent benchmarks.

The downside to great performance is battery life – in our ‘productivity’ battery test, the 14z ran for just 2 hours 40 minutes. This is almost 70 minutes below the average set by our recent ultraportables. It’s underperformed only by a MacBook Air running Windows 7, which managed just 2 hours 17 minutes.

Dell claims a very specific battery life of ‘up to 6 hours 42 minutes’, under a different (and apparently much less draining) battery regime. This is not inconceivable, but you’re unlikely to achieve it with any kind of real-world use. Dell helpfully points this out in a footnote.

If you need a compact, portable machine for multimedia use – graphical work, transferring large files via USB 3 and reading or writing DVDs, Dell’s XPS 14z is a good solid package. You’ll pay for the performance in battery life and weight, but tradeoffs have always been the cornerstone of mobile computing. Besides, if you do need CD/DVD support, remember to factor in the weight of an external drive before comparing the 14z to its optical drive-less competitors.

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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