Review: 13 inches for a fistful of dollars
Supplied by Disti Sarajevo
Dell's Vostro series is designed to cater to the needs of small businesses and other users on a budget, and the Vostro 1310, a 13-incher launched last year, is one of the more interesting models in the series.
Envisioned as a budget business series, most Vostros are fairly affordable, and the 1310 is one of the cheapest 13-inch units on the market. Recently, 13-inch notebook have started to make a comeback of sorts. Still, compared to 13-inchers, the choice of 12-inch and 14-inch notebooks is vast, but recently consumers and manufacturers started showing much more interest for 13-inch products. Currently there are a lot of very desirable 13-inch notebooks on the market, such as the Air or Lenovo's X300/301, and some of that appeal seems to be rubbing off on entry level models, such as Lenovo's SL300, Toshiba's U400 and, of course, Dell's 13-inch Vostro.
Apart from the screen size, these entry level products don't have much in common with the likes of Lenovo's X300 or Apple's Air, but they are still a very tempting alternative to 12-inch or 14-inch notebooks. Basically, they weigh just a bit more than 12-inchers, and their footprint is almost the same. A few years back 13-inch notebooks were rather pricey, and most still sell north of the €1000 mark. However, many vendors have focused their efforts on launching more affordable units, and the market seems to be reacting well to them.
The Vostro 1310 measures 317x243x23-37mm and weighs 2kg, which is just a bit more than your average 12-inch notebook. As you can see, it looks rather chubby, mainly due to its sharp edged, faceted design. Still, it's no thicker than other notebooks in this price range, but most of them are designed with curved, gently sloping edges, which make them look a bit slimmer. The Vostro's design is rather conservative, classic, which is no surprise considering it's designed with business users in mind.
Based on Intel's GM965 chipset with X3100 integrated graphics, the Vostro 1310 is available in numerous configurations, with CPUs up to 2.6GHz. We went for the entry level version, with a 2GHz Core 2 Duo T5870, 2GB of memory and 160GB hard drive. Frankly, getting a high end SKU of a value series notebook doesn't make much sense. You are supposed to be buying a value product to save money, so why not get the base model while you're at it. However, a 160GB drive sounds a bit too cramped these days. After all, even netbooks feature 160GB drives, but this thing isn't meant to be used as a multimedia center for storing your flicks, photos and music.
A total of four USBs, WLAN, LAN, Bluetooth, ExpressCard slot and Firewire assure connectivity and upgradeability won't be an issue. One thing is missing though. There is no video out, only VGA. HDMI or at least S-video would have been a nice addition. All connectors are well placed, nothing is on the front side, and the USBs on the right hand side are placed far back, which is also a nice thing. LAN and VGA are at the back, and as you probably won't use them often, if ever, this was also a good call. The slot-in 8X DVD writer is on the right, and it looks quite nice. Mind you, we're not huge fans of slot-in drives. It's also a bit on the loud side, but you probably won't use it much anyway.
Dell has a habit of offering a choice of glare or non-glare screens on its notebooks, and our Vostro comes with a matte screen. We said it many times in the past, and we'll say it again, on small notebooks or netbooks, non-glare screens are a much better choice than glare panels. The image quality on the 13.3-inch WXGA CCFL backlit screen is good, although the viewing angle is rather limited, but this is a small price to pay for better performance in daylight. After all, you probably won't play movies for your buddies on it, as it's a compact, business notebook for people who are slightly more serious than us.
Design and build quality
Dell opted for a glossy black finish on the magnesium alloy screen lid, and the sides of the chassis. Obviously the black gloss tends to pick up fingerprints like sailors STDs, but luckily the designers didn't push it too far. If you want a 13-inch notebook with more glossy black bits, you can pick up Toshiba's U400, which features glossy black palmrests, chrome touchpad buttons, and even a glossy keyboard, so you'll probably spend more time cleaning it than using it.
The paint has some metal flakes in it, but it's not too tacky. The base of the lid is matte, as well as the palmrests and keyboard. The matte bit of the lid is quite a nice touch, as this is the part of the lid that tends to gather the most dirt and fingerprints. Unfortunately, the gap between the matte plastic and glossy finish is a bit to big, and gathers dust. The same goes for the Dell logo on the lid.
This SKU ships with a 4-cell battery and there's no battery hump sticking out of the back. This makes using the Vostro 1310 in your lap quite comfortable, and it doesn't heat up much either. The battery lock is good, and once you've secured it, it won't budge.
The only glossy part you'll touch while using it is the bit housing the multimedia and power buttons. It too feels a tad flimsy. As we said in our preview, the plastic on the palmrests is a bit too thin for our liking, but most other parts feels quite sturdy, including the screen hinges.
Unlike some Dell models, this series doesn't feature many color options. In fact, Dell seems to have gone with Henry Ford's "You can choose any color you want, as long as it's black" philosophy. This isn't a bad thing, mainly because the target group is business users, and because we doubt it would look good in any other color.
The slot in drive is also a nice touch, however, the wireless button, placed next to the drive, feels flimsy and creates a rather annoying sound when you touch it. Note the sharp edges.
The Vostro looks discrete, perhaps even too discrete, so don't count on it to turn heads, but there's also nothing to dislike about its looks. It looks a lot better than Dell notebooks of yesteryear, but there's still much room for improvement. The build quality is good, although there are a few annoying details, such as the plastic palmrests.
Now for our gratuitous keyboard closeup.
The layout is straightforward, and we always like to see a big enter key placed where it should be, on the edge of the keyboard. It feels good, although there's a fair bit of flex in the center, and the matte finish on the keys also feels and looks durable. We liked the touch-sensitive multimedia keys as well, although the plastic used on them could have been a bit thicker.
The touchpad is netbook sized, just 62x38 mm across. Although it works just fine, it's just too small, and it's not easy to get used to. The touchpad keys have too much travel, and feel soft, much like keyboard keys. There's no clear click and far too little resistance for our taste.
Although the touchpad is tiny, for some reason it's placed on the edge of the chassis, which, coupled with the recessed touchpad keys with too much travel, can be quite annoying.
Ergonomics, everyday use
There's not much to complain about when it comes to ergonomics and user friendliness. Almost perfect, but bear in mind, almost. Although it offers a plethora of connectors, there's no video out, no HDMI or S-video.
The Vostro 1310 features fours USBs, which is quite impressive for such a compact device. Three are placed on the right hand side, while one is on the left. Also on the right hand side, the slot in optical drive, power connector, and flimsy wireless button.
On the left side you can see the fourth USB, audio connectors, FireWire, card reader (SD,MMC,MS), and the ExpressCard slot.
At the back you'll find the VGA out, Ethernet and security lock.
And on the front, there's nothing, apart from the puny mono speaker and LED status indicator. The mono speaker just doesn't cut it, especially not in a time when even smaller notebooks and even netbooks feature stereo speakers. What's worse, if you use it in your lap, you probably won't even hear the faint sound it produces, as your clothes will get in the way.
Although this is a business laptop, and a relatively cheap one, this is a major oversight. Not that we expect a pair of HiFi speakers or a woofer on such a machine, but this is cost cutting at its worse, and the little Vostro surely deserved better.
In case you have any doubts about cooling after seeing the tiny grills on the bottom and the right side, we're happy to report that there's nothing to worry about. Even under load, the chassis rarely heats up to over 30°C. As we couldn't find a volunteer to run some benchmarks while holding the Vostro in his lap, we placed it on a soft surface, to impair airflow, and let loose a few benches. The Vostro's fan wasn't amused, but still we could only measure 35-37°C. Impressive, considering it uses a 65nm CPU and 90nm chipset. The tiny fan was surprisingly quiet during the test.
Another thing we were worried about was the 4-cell battery, as we were quite skeptical about its performance. However, we managed to squeeze out just over 2 and a half hours out of it, which was rather good. Dell also offers 6-cell and 9-cell units for the Vostro 1310.
In the single CPU rendering test, the Vostro scores 2050 and renders the frame in 7 minutes and 14 seconds. In xCPU mode, the score is 3850, and rendering time is 3 minutes, 43 seconds. No surprises here. Multiprocessor speedup is rated at 1.88, slightly above average.
In Futuremark's 3Dmark 06, the Vostro 1310 scores 405, thanks to Intel's IGP. The CPU score, however, is what matters, and at 1700 it isn't bad at all.
CPU scores in Sandra are average, as well as memory latency.
But at 3.8GB/s, memory bandwidth is a bit disappointing.
HD Tune results are quite good. The Hitachi drive offers a burst rate of 89.3MB/s, but more importantly CPU utilization is just 1.4 percent. Access and transfer times are average.
Looking at the Vostro 1310 as an all round laptop, you're bound to find a few things to complain about, but as a business machine, it's fairs rather well. Anyway, let's start with the shortcomings.
The most annoying flaw is its tiny touchpad. Measuring just 62x38mm, it can be quite unpleasant to use, and the touchpad buttons are far from perfect, too. The mono speaker is too weak, there's no video out, and some plastic bits feel a bit flimsy and cheap, but the touchpad dwarfs all of these issues. Although we think the design is suitable for this product class, we think Dell should have done a bit more to make it look slimmer, some curved edges would have gone a long way to making the Vostro look a bit better.
Now for the good stuff. The non-glare screen is quite good, and so is the keyboard. Apart from video out, it packs all ports you could ever ask for, and they are very well placed. On the wireless side of things you get n-draft WiFi and Bluetooth. Performance is more than adequate, especially considering we're talking about one of the cheapest SKUs. Although we'd like to see a bit more storage, the HDD is quite fast, and the T5870 at 2.0GHz packs more than enough muscle for business users. It has 2GB of memory, which is enough, but it's a bit on the slow side. Battery life is good, and it doesn't heat up much.
Nothing spectacular you might say, and we'd agree, if it weren't for the price. In the US you can get a similarly spec'd SKU for just $599, while in Europe it will cost you €539. What's more, you gen get a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo for €499, and if you think a Celeron 550 at 2.0GHz with 1GB of memory will suffice, it will cost you just €419. Basically, this makes the Vostro 1310 the cheapest 13-incher around, prices for similar products in the EU start at about €600, and that's with Pentium dual-core CPUs. There is no Core 2 Duo 13-incher for under €650, while Dell has one for just €499.
Although it has some shortcomings, and it's not a stylish, thin machine, it's a very sensible choice and truly offers unbeatable value for money. It's a nice piece of kit, it costs about 20 percent less than its competitors, and it deserves our Top Value award.
Supplied by Disti Sarajevo