A struggling Dell has decided to take itself private at a time its PC shipments have dropped nearly 13 percent over the past year. There have been some bright spots, including the very nifty XPS 12 convertible. However, Dell’s tech support was absolutely horrible during our last survey, with one rep pushing a sweepstakes on us. The result is a seventh place finish out of nine brands.
Buoyed by Alienware, which picked up three Editors’ Choice awards in the last year and an even-rarer 5-star review (the M18x R2), Dell came in third for Reviews. The company managed a tie with HP, in part because of the 4-star XPS 12, which remains one of our favorite Windows 8 convertibles. Dell, Apple and HP were the only companies not to receive a rating of less than 3 stars.
[More: See most recent Dell laptop reviews.]
Dell’s designs have had mixed success in the past year. For instance, the Inspiron 17R SE 7720 was on the bulky side (even for a multimedia laptop), as was the Latitude E5530. Dell managed to break the business mold with the sleek and sexy Latitude 6430u. And the XPS 12’s rotating, magnetic display is a sleek take on the growing hybrid notebook trend. However, both the XPS 15 and XPS 14 draw a little too heavily from the MacBook Pro school of design.
Dell’s laptops have consistently featured keyboards that offer excellent key spacing, travel and response as well as bright backlighting. Large wrist rests, such as the one found on the XPS 14, helped make the overall typing experience comfortable. Some models, such as the XPS 14z and 13z, however, suffered some from flex. Dell’s touchpads got high marks for their smooth operation and solid dedicated mouse buttons. The Latitude series’ sunken and concave pointing sticks didn’t impress. Alienware’s touchpads were generally nice and large, but the M14x R2 had trouble reading multitouch gestures and had spongy mouse buttons.
Dismal phone service caused Dell’s tech support score to plummet this year to a last-place finish. Support.dell.com answered most of our questions, the live chat feature was successful and social networks gave us helpful responses. Phone reps, on the other hand, repeatedly gave us pushy and unnecessary sales pitches, even going so far as to fake a sweepstakes. It can only get better from here.
Overall, Dell’s notebook displays performed well, with a few standout notebooks, such as the Dell XPS 12’s beautiful and vivid Gorilla Glass screen. Unfortunately, the company’s score went down because the company swapped out JBL audio hardware for lower quality SkullCandy speakers like those found in the Dell Inspiron 13Z. Alienware continued to impress with outstanding video and audio, although we wished the Alienware M14X R2 featured a slightly higher-resolution screen.
Dell laptops can be purchased at Dell.com and other online marketplaces such as Tigerdirect, not to mention retailers such as Best Buy and even Walmart. The Inspiron brand targets multimedia users (the R Special Edition series), students (Z series) and anyone looking for touch (the 15z Ultrabook), while the Latitude line caters to the business crowd with durability and security. Dell lets shoppers configure many notebooks to order on its site, but we noticed some laptops are either missing key upgrade options or are priced too high relative to the competition.
Should Dell get credit in the Innovation category for reintroducing an idea? Yes, because the company nailed the execution with its XPS 12. The flip-hinge design Dell introduced with the Inspiron Duo makes a lot more sense now that Windows 8 is here. We found it delightfully simple to transform from laptop to tablet mode. Dell also deserves credit for being among the first to introduce the Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered XPS 10 hybrid, though there hasn’t been much of an appetite thus far for Windows RT devices.
Dell usually keeps the preinstalled software load pretty light on its systems. Among Dell’s included programs are Dell Stage, a quick-launch dock and Dell Backup & Recovery. Systems that ship with fingerprint readers can be configured via Dell Access, but that won’t let you turn the system on with one swipe like Lenovo’s ThinkPads. The Latitude 6430u included Dell Smart
Settings, which tuned the display to match the environment in which the notebook sits, and Dell Battery Life, which can be used to adjust battery usage.
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