Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: Dell Vostro 3500 laptop

UPDATE: This laptop HAS BEEN STOLEN. Please click that link to read more (including the service tag # to check if you have this laptop), and if you have any information, please email me. There is a reward.

Meet my new computer. Hi, new computer! I'll start this review by saying this computer's main advantage over my previous computer is that it actually works. So, plus one for the Vostro!

The Vostro line is Dell's mid-range line for small business users - which I technically am, but that's not why I bought it. I bought it because it was a good deal in a well built laptop that I thought would last me more than six months. Here's my config:
  • Intel Core i5-430 CPU
  • NVidia GeForce 310M discrete graphics w/ 512MB
  • 3GB RAM (upgradable to 8GB)
  • 500GB 7200RPM hard drive w/ accelerometer
  • Fingerprint reader
  • Bluetooth
  • Wireless N
  • Dual layer DVD burner
  • 15.6" WLED screen (1366x768)
  • Integrated 2MP webcam and dual microphones
  • Lucerne red chassis
The total came to $740. There aren't many better deals than that around, with graphics at the level of the GeForce 310M and a Core i5.

The Vostro 3000 line comes with an aluminum lid. I've decided that it's unfortunately mostly for looks. Press down lightly with your finger in the middle and the entire lid will flex. The metal they're using is about the thickness of two pieces of tin foil pressed together.

It looks nice, though!

The left side of the laptop. Two USB ports, HDMI, eSATA, VGA, and the power connector. The power connector is of the type that's broken on every laptop I've had that uses it, so I'm a bit concerned about that. Dell actually uses a more robust connector on their consumer-level Inspirons.

Right side. Express Card slot, "8-in-1" card reader (SD/MMC/MS, though I don't know what the other five formats are), DVD drive, one more USB port (three total), and the ethernet port. The cover on the DVD drive is unfortunately plastic painted to look like the surrounding metal. Not really a big deal. Slightly more annoying to me is that the eject button is located exactly where I happen to place my right hand to pick this thing up all the time. I'll adjust.

The front is spare but for the wireless on/off switch, power and battery indicators and the headphone/microphone ports. The switch has a pretty good quality feel to it, unlike my ThinkPad that had a gritty switch that felt like it was going to break off the first time I used it.

And finally, the belly of the beast. Battery at top (I got the 6 cell; a 9 cell is also available though it makes for an odd lap feel), then one large panel covering the RAM, hard drive, wireless card (yes, it's upgradable) and some kind of large-ish CR2032-looking battery. As you can see in this and the two side shots above, the chassis is well vented and rarely even gets warm to the touch. Moreover, none of the internal components seem to touch the chassis - I've owned other laptops that used the chassis itself as a heat sink, which then of course transfers all that heat to your lap. This is a well designed machine, and no doubt the efficient Core i5 helps.

Now that I've run down some of the features, I'll tell you how I really feel.

I type a lot, so this is important to me. I still use an IBM Model M on my desktop, I type 96 words per minute and I hammer at the keys when I type. I am a serious typist.

The keyboard on the Vostro 3500 is not a chiclet keyboard, but it sort of feels like one. The key travel is very shallow. I don't necessarily mind this, although there's kind of a "hollow" feel at the bottom of the keystroke; it's not a smooth stop, more of a gritty "clang". I find this is common to most laptop keyboards these days; I think it's an improvement over the old mushy keyboards Dell used to use, though.  There is a bit of flex on the right-hand side, though it's not nearly as bad as my ridiculous old Lenovo ThinkPad. (My original IBM ThinkPad had the best keyboard of any laptop I've ever tried, and I wish I had taken it out and kept it just to show people what a laptop keyboard can feel like.) This keyboard is clearly meant to be typed on lightly. It's pretty comfortable if that's your style, however it is not really mine. I feel like I have to restrain myself.

The layout is good, however. It's very standard, and all the keys are where I'd naturally expect them to be. Key spacing and size is right. Nothing is half-size, or half-height (except the function keys, but that's ok), or squished, or anything like that.

Not sure where else to mention this, but you see the fingerprint reader below the keyboard in the photo above - I'm loving that, logging into Windows and web sites just with a swipe. It doesn't really increase security because your passwords can still be used instead, but it's very convenient.

The screen is bright and vibrant, with nice colors that really pop and very even LED lighting. I'm sure the LED lighting also helps with power consumption, and possibly reliability (as you may know, the backlight died on my Lenovo ThinkPad).

The Vostro line also comes with anti-glare (matte) screens, which is a rarity nowadays and was a big reason why I wanted this laptop. My goal in life is to eradicate glossy laptop screens - it's my cause celebre. I hate them with an unnatural passion. The matte screen of the Vostro is not totally matte, though; it's still a teeny tiny bit glossy and reflective:

My ThinkPad's screen was 100% matte, like the screens of old. This one is sort of in between.

On the downside, there is a somewhat annoying screen door effect that isn't really noticeable most of the time, but I actually do edit photos as part of my job, and it's easily noticeable during critical work like that. It's difficult to find serious comparisons of laptop screens from a professional perspective anywhere, so I had no way of knowing about this ahead of time. It's not really something most people would even notice, though, and you can always hook up an external monitor for really serious photographic work. (Or just buy a Mac... but I have lots of software that the Mac doesn't support, so that wasn't an option for me.)

Some people think a 1366x768 resolution is too low these days, but I think it's actually about right. Stuff just gets too small at higher resolutions than that on a 15" screen. My eyes are already bad enough - if I still wore glasses instead of contacts, they'd be Coke bottle glasses. (Though I guess it's possible that the screen door effect would be minimized at higher resolutions.)

I don't like the 16:9 aspect ratio, which is too wide for most tasks. 16:10 is actually a good compromise between different types of computing tasks, but 16:9 goes just a little too far. Not enough viewing space for web pages, and the extra width of the laptop means it doesn't fit comfortably in my laptop bag. (Between two laptops with 15.6" screens - one at 16:10 and one at 16:9 - the 16:9 laptop will be slightly wider.)

This laptop comes with a multi-touch enabled touchpad, which is a feature I will never use. I think multi-touch is a gimmick, and I guarantee most people don't even know what it is. The touchpad itself is actually very smooth, though, and this coming from a guy who's both used to and prefers the IBM TrackPoint (ie. a pointing stick). The buttons are just right - not too stiff, which I hate in a touchpad, but not flopping around all over the place like on my ThinkPad either.

My one criticism is that the touchpad is covered in that spray-on "matte" stuff that I know will wear off quickly. Actually so is the entire main body of the laptop, including the keyboard and wrist rest. Can you say "wrist marks"?  (I'm noticing that after less than a week, my space bar is already developing a shiny spot.)

Build Quality
For $740 ($700 if you subtract the vanity red color), I really wasn't expecting an M1 tank. Even at that price, any laptop is going to have corners cut in various ways. I think Dell mostly cut the right corners in the construction of this machine, though. It has a solid heft, nothing's loose or shaky, the hinges are nice and tight, and fit & finish is good.  I'm a little disappointed that the aluminum lid actually seems weaker than most plastic lids I've owned, but that's really the one area of the build that I'm not totally satisfied with. Oh, and the power connector, but that could just be paranoia on my part.

One area where I definitely have no complaints is in performance. It takes about 15 seconds to cold-boot into Windows 7 and everything feels really snappy. The one game I've tried playing myself is Flight Simulator X with a bunch of add-ons installed, and it ran great. This is a game that can still bring the most powerful system available to its knees at the highest settings - probably the most demanding game ever created, even four years on. I found a YouTube video of a Polish web site playing various other games on their Vostro 3500 - check it out:

Keep in mind, this is on a business laptop that I paid $740 for, and that you could configure for even less than that with the same graphics and CPU!

Two things I need to mention. First, the fan is always on. It's usually on a low speed that's barely audible, but it can get pretty loud under load - and it takes a really long time to quiet itself again once the computer's back to idle. I thought this was actually a bug at first and that the fan was stuck, but it does eventually go back to low speed.

Second, for anyone who's looking to record music or do other real-time tasks on this machine, there is a clockwork-like latency spike once every 30 seconds, as measured by DPC Latency Checker. It's a wayward driver of some kind; we'll see if that gets fixed at some point. (This is not something most people will ever need to worry about, and many computers have latency spikes. The Vostro just has that one, though, which is maddening if you need to do real-time tasks like analog-to-digital audio recording. It's so close to perfect!)

Battery Life
I don't expect to be going a full day on battery power from a high-spec, full size laptop that costs under $1,000, but I was pleased to reach 4 hours on "power saver" mode the first time I removed the power plug.

The software it comes with is great: there isn't any! No, seriously, there is, but not much. That's actually a good thing, because it's missing all of the crapware that subsidizes the cost of most cheap consumer laptops. This is a very, very clean system even out of the box.  Preinstalled it comes with the fingerprint reader software, PowerDVD DX, Roxio Creator and Dell's Webcam software. That's it! And all of those are programs you actually want, because otherwise you can't use all of the laptop's features. (Unless you replace them with something else.)

Being the tinfoil hat nut that I am, I still did something you can't even do on most laptops these days: I reinstalled Windows. Yes, the Vostro comes with a real Windows 7 disc. Not a restore disc. (You can make those yourself if you want; it doesn't come with one.) It's obviously an OEM disc that will only work with this laptop, but that's good enough for me, and a huge rarity these days. When I lost all my thumbnails and various other weird things started happening on my ThinkPad, I wanted nothing more than just to reinstall Windows - but I couldn't. No Windows disc came with that system. I would have had to wipe the machine and restore to factory settings.

This is really a major selling point for the Vostro.

Wrapping Up
If the question is "what is the best laptop you can get for $700?" then I still have no doubt the answer is "this one". It's not perfect, but then nothing is these days. Computers have just gotten too complex, with too many different tasks required of them, to please everybody in every way. But the Vostro 3500 is a reasonably well built and very well designed high performance laptop that substitutes a real Windows disc for the crapware software package that most systems ship with, and does it at a very good price.

You can pay more and get a Latitude or a Toughbook and have a tougher laptop. You can pay more for an Alienware and get even faster gaming performance. On the other hand, you can pay less for a consumer-level laptop from a big box store and sacrifice build quality, performance, and various other things. But I bought this laptop because it was at least "good" in all areas that mattered to me and it didn't cost an arm and a leg, which is actually pretty hard to find these days. It was actually the cheapest laptop I could find with a decent discrete graphics card (meaning no shared memory), and it had the brand new Core i5 as part of the bargain.

Highly recommended.

Monday, May 03, 2010

My new laptop: Dell Vostro 3500

I just ordered one of these:

The red makes it faster!

My current ThinkPad, which I purchased specifically because my last one was built like a tank and lasted seven full years, broke in at least three different ways after just 18 months. Lenovo has completely destroyed everything that's good about the ThinkPad line - except maybe Trackpoint, which I'll miss. But I'll never buy another Lenovo. My screen bezel cracked, my power connector came unglued (it's just flopping around right now), and the final straw: my screen backlight no longer turns on if the screen is beyond 90 degrees. Yes, I'm typing this with my screen tilted forward.

 What's wrong with this picture?  Oh yeah - the backlight isn't on!

Actually, every single laptop either I or my wife has owned has broken. Every one. (Well, not my wife's current Compaq - yet.) Even my original ThinkPad, though after seven years of abuse, I can't really fault it for that. Most of our laptops, though, break within two years of purchase. Fujitsu: hinges lost all tension (screen would just flop around). Compaq: power connector broke. Acer: hinge cracked, power connector broke. Dell (Inspiron): hinge cracked. IBM ThinkPad: hard drive died (not its fault, it was EOL'd). Lenovo ThinkPad: screen bezel cracked, power connector broke, backlight broke.  Oh, and that's after it had already been in the shop for a keyboard that hadn't laid flat since the day I got it.

Are we just really hard on our machines?

I don't think so - personally, I use mine on a coffee table, and I do take it to work every day, where it's then placed on a counter all day long. So, sure, there's daily transport, but nothing these things weren't made to handle. I'm not going on lengthy business trips with my laptop in one of those dumb rolling suitcases, giving presentations in faraway, unfamiliar lands, or taking my computer into a war zone. I'm fairly careful with all of my stuff, and I lead a mostly boring life.  Oh, and I use a pretty good laptop case that cost 1/4 of the price of the computer that's usually packed in it.

So lately I always try to buy tough. That's why I got this ThinkPad, which turned out to be a massive piece of shit. Worst computer I've ever owned. If you take one lesson from this, it's: do not buy a Lenovo ThinkPad. I'm serious. I hate this computer, with a passion.

I went with the business-oriented Dell Vostro not because I'm just that professional, but because it's made of aluminum, has "zinc-strengthened" hinges, a non-glossy, anti-glare screen, the latest Intel i-series CPU's, and oddly enough comes with an Nvidia GeForce 310M dedicated graphics card - a good gaming card, and one you won't even find in most consumer laptops. All for under $700, which was a better deal than even any consumer-level laptop I found.

If this thing doesn't last, I guess next time I'll have to move up to a Panasonic Toughbook or more likely a Dell Lattitude or something (the Lattitudes have actual steel hinges, and are made to be abused).

It's being built right now. I'll post again when I get it.

By the way, this is my favorite line on the production order:

1    421-2283    No Security,Winery, Vostro

I have no security software, but on the plus side it looks like I do get a winery.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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