Dell finished in the middle of the pack this year–fifth out of nine brands–but it jumped up two spots compared to 2013. The biggest reason was improved tech support, but the company also turned in a better score in the reviews category. Dell continues to trail some of its competitors in the innovation and software categories, but overall the results were positive.
Dell had a very strong showing this year, as three of the 18 notebooks we reviewed received Editor’s Choice awards. Its XPS line, from the 12-inch hybrid to the 18-inch mega-tablet, impressed us greatly in terms of design and performance. The only thing holding Dell back was the keyboard on its 11-inch XPS, which resulted in a rating of 2.5 stars. This one system dropped the brand by a point from last year’s reviews score.
MORE: Best Dell Laptops 2014
Dell’s showing last year was our worst tech support score ever, but the company has rebounded by ending predatory practices. Dell’s website layout is unintuitive, and Dell does not offer email or Facebook tech support. On the phone, Dell’s technicians wanted us to download DellConnect software each time, allowing agents to take remote control of our computer rather than explain how to fix something. However, we were glad to see that we could disconnect their control at any moment with just a click.
Dell’s design is a mixed bag of flamboyant redesigns and practical mainstays. From the 14-inch to the massive 18-inch, Alienware updated its popular gaming notebooks with a look that falls somewhere between a disco ball and an intergalactic space cruiser. At the other end of the spectrum are designs like the XPS 13, with attractive but unexciting carbon fiber designs. Dell also retooled its Inspiron line (Dell Inspiron 14 7000 and Dell Inspiron 15 7000) to look more modern.
Dell laptops usually offer a high-quality typing experience, but this year there were some notable exceptions. The Latitude 7440‘s keyboard, for example, was mushy and exhibited noticeable flex, a huge problem on an $1,800 business laptop. The Dell XPS 11 hybrid could win a “bad idea award” for its completely flat keyboard, which offers no tactile feedback at all.
However, most Dell systems offered springy feedback while their large touchpads provided smooth navigation and strong gesture support. Some of their laptops continue to offer touchpads with dedicated mouse buttons, which are usually more comfortable and accurate than clickpads.
The company’s Alienware gaming laptops continued to impress with their customizable, light-up keyboards and their large touchpads, which all have dedicated buttons.
Dell’s roster of Alienware laptops and push into QHD helped the company boost its score by a point in this category versus last year. The Alienware 14, 17 and 18 all boast eye-popping visuals with their 1080p displays, although the 14-inch model could have been brighter. Overall, Dell’s displays were brighter than the average laptop (242 lux) with a light meter reading of 267 lux. Even the sub-$500 Dell Inspiron 17-3721 rocks an attractive 1600 x 900-pixel resolution display. The Dell XPS 15 claims the highest resolution display of its size at 3200 x 1800 pixels.
Audio quality across high-end and budget Dells was loud and clear overall. We did notice that the bass was lacking in some models, but the Dell Audio control panel can help improve the sound. Dell’s notebooks typically reached 84 decibels during the LAPTOP Audio Test, which is just one decibel below the laptop category average.
The most innovative laptop to come out of Dell was its XPS 11 hybrid, which sports a QHD display that opens 360 degrees for use as a tablet. However, we took issue with its flat keyboard, which was uncomfortable to use. Beyond that, the innovative pickings get slim fast. The flip-screen XPS 13 got a spec bump but retained the same design.
Dell upped the ante this year by expanding its Inspiron, Precision and Latitude lines. From the super-affordable Inspiron 15 ($299) with Intel Celeron to the long-lasting Inspiron 15 7000 ($699), this year’s lineup offers solid performance without busting budgets. Dell’s Alienware line of gaming notebooks, redesigned this year, continue to offer superior performance that are worth the premium price tag. You can customize your notebook with your preferred specs, including a Windows 7 option for many laptops, via Dell.com to get your ideal rig.
Dell’s laptops keep things fairly clean — almost spartan — with basic apps such as My Dell for tech support and Dell Digital Delivery for buying software online. Dell Audio provides a few basic equalization options for movies and music. Dell’s Power Manager tweaks battery settings, but really just duplicates what Windows already lets you do. Newer Dell laptops, such as the XPS 15, come loaded with PocketCloud for cloud storage and remote access.