The Studio is a good choice but bulky for its role. (July 20th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Dell
Price: $1,344 (2.5GHz, LED screen, Radeon HD 3450)
- Build and looks a step up from the Inspiron.
- Good minimum specs; moderately fast at the high end without spending much more.
- Excellent 1440x900 LED-lit display option.
- Ample expansion.
- Very customizable.
- Good battery life compared to earlier Dell systems and some rivals.
- Dell Dock and Dell Video Chat help out newcomers.
- Bulky for a designer notebook.
- Options somewhat hobbled for the sake of preserving XPS sales.
- Radeon HD 3450 only a mild help to 3D performance over earlier systems.
- Coming out just before Centrino 2 systems; may be best to wait before buying.
Dell has often enforced a hard split between its entry-level (Inspiron) and high-end (XPS) home notebooks, but that distinction is blurred with the Studio series: the new line should in theory be the best of the breed with the more upscale design and performance of the XPS but the customization normally reserved for Inspirons. The Studio 15 achieves many of these goals, though whether it can lead its class or simply fair well among fellow Dell PCs is its true challenge.
design and ergonomics
To say the Studio 15 is a spiritual cousin of the XPS M1530 would be a mild understatement. While there are numerous cosmetic changes that prevent it from being a direct clone, the influence in the layout is clear and might dissuade buyers who were hoping for something genuinely new from the Texas PC maker.
In most cases, however, these changes are steps forward for the home line rather than steps sideways. The one-piece hinge is much sturdier and produces less of the wobble that often occurs when typing on a two-hinge design like the Inspiron series. As a whole, the system also feels better-built than an Inspiron, although there is still a mild amount of chassis flex and creaking sounds -- evidence Dell is still at times valuing budget over build. It's certainly cooler-running and doesn't feel hot on the lap even after running demanding 3D software, which couldn't be said for the older system.
And there are welcome changes that aren't present in either the bottom- or top-end lines, as well. The Studio largely looks more refined than either of the company's either designs, with a subtler outer lid and a textured, imprinted palm rest that is arguably an improvement over the pure aluminum look of the M1530.
This extends to the keyboard, too, which feels slightly better than that for the XPS system tested just months ago. The keys are shallower on the Studio and seem to cut back on the amount of travel that artificially reduces typing speed. Since they're optionally backlit, they're also much better-suited to typing in dark lecture halls or late-night gaming sessions, although the software on the test unit would only allow manual activation and adjustments. The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro both light up the keyboard dynamically and also happen to have a shorter key travel that at least feels more effective than what Dell offers here.
The display is the Studio's crowning hardware achievement: while a basic 1280x800 screen is still default, the Studio is the first non-XPS home notebook from Dell to have an LED-backlit display as an option. The review model came with this illumination, and the difference is immediately apparent: the lighting is consistent across the entire screen, gives off an impression of greater color accuracy, and contributes to a fairly thin display lid. The 1440x900 resolution is also a major improvement and makes the system much more usable for serious tasks; it's such a help that it should be considered the practical minimum for anyone custom-ordering a system.
This inheritance from the XPS is appreciated, but along with it also comes an unwelcome design flaw: the bulk. Although the system technically measures a reasonable one inch at its thinnest point, the system quickly gets much thicker and is a full third thicker at the back. Combined with the roughly 6.1-pound weight, the Studio 15 is manageable but is definitely not part of the thin-and-light class. That's especially unfortunate as it's clear there's a fair amount of wasted space on the sides: a few ports appear to float by themselves in blank seas of plastic that could have been filled or eliminated.
Still, the design is at least customizable, and it's here that many other computer builders could take a few lessons. While the test model is a safe black color, there are no less than seven solid colors to choose from and four gray versions with different-colored side trim. Some colors will likely be ignored, but the personalization is nonetheless a minor advantage for Dell.