You Grade The Brands: Dell Notebooks

Grade The Brands - DellFrom now until the end of the year we’re taking a holistic look at notebook brands and how vendors fare when we aggregate data from our reviews, research, and third-party data. Generally, we focus on individual systems, but over time we’ve been able to identify trends based on the vendor. One company might always offer great design and excellent keyboards, another can be counted on to produce notebooks that get too hot. Each vendor has its strengths and its Achilles heel.

Until a few months ago, Dell held the number 2 position in notebook sales worldwide. Though recently passed by Acer, the company shipped over 10 million units in the third quarter of this year alone. Check out the brand’s strengths and weaknesses, its 2009 review scorecard, and overall rating. Then sound off in the comments and tell us what you think of the brand and about your own experience. Without your input, our report card will be incomplete.


  • Performance – Dell’s notebooks consistently impressed us in 2009 on overall performance and sometimes brought the graphics muscle. The XPS Studio 16 multimedia machine blew away the averages on our benchmarks, then later in the year the Studio 17 with Core i7 blazed through them again. We were pleased to see several notebooks offer solid state drives as an option. The Latitude E4300‘s SSD gave it a performance edge over systems with traditional hard drives.
  • Displays – We also often praised Dell’s displays for offering bright, popping colors, true blacks, and excellent viewing angles. Dell took a leadership position in offering LED-baclkit panels and in experimenting with new technologies like RGB, which offer a wider color gamut.
  • Personalization – Dell does a good job with its consumer notebooks when it comes to customization, both in terms of allowing customers to build their systems with the specs they desire but with a wide range of color options. Dell Studio gives shoppers an opportunity to pick artist-inspired lids, as well as MLB teams, for about $65 a pop.


  • Battery Life - Over the past year the major weakness of Dell’s notebook line was poor battery life. This issue cropped up across every category of system from ULV ultraportables like the Inspiron 11z to the Latitude XT2 business tablet to the multimedia-driven Studio XPS 13 and 16. However, there were some welcome exceptions, like the Studio 14z.
  • Touchpads – Though not as severe an issue as HP’s touchpad dilemma, we often dinged Dell for finicky or undersized touchpads and mushy, hard to use mouse buttons. This was a particular problem on the Inspiron 11z and the Mini 10 series.

Best Rated Notebooks

Worst Rated Notebooks

Review Report Card

So far we’ve reviewed 13 Dell notebooks this year. Of those, 38.5% earned a rating of 3.5 and 4 stars (5 systems each). Only one earned the low rating of 2.5 (Inspiron 11z) and two systems received 3 stars. Out of the 13, we awarded two systems the LAPTOP Editor’s Choice.

dell review ratings chart

Tech Support and Reliability

Unfortunately, Dell earned a grade of C- in our Tech Support Showdown. According to a study by SquareTrade, Dell laptops have a failure rate of about 18 percent over a 3 year lifespan, which is about average.

Overall, the Dell brand can be counted on for good design and performance, though it isn’t often that the company turns out a notebook that we truly get excited about. (The Adamo XPS and Latitude Z both look very cool, but we have yet to review either system.) We’re also looking forward to testing the Vostro V12, Dell’s ultrathin but affordable small business laptop. We’re hoping that more future notebooks will couple the high-end ideals showcased in the Adamo line with the solid performance and value the brand has become known for.

Now It’s Your Turn

Do you own a Dell laptop? Owned one in the recent past? What does Dell get right and where does it need improvement? Tell us how you’d rate Dell notebooks and why.

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  1. akatoys Says:

    I’ve always loved Dell’s design, but their customer service has left something to be desired lately.

  2. Fanfoot Says:

    A good brand that’s been going downhill lately. The designs of their netbooks and thin ‘n light laptops exemplifies the problems. Lousy keyboards. Bad trackpads. Thicker than they should be. Cheap materials. Not competitive–other netbooks have 802.11n now, Dell sticks with 802.11g. Other netbooks have HDMI or eSata. Dell does not. Other vendors have 6 cell batteries. Dell sticks with 4 cells. Etc all the way through the spec sheet.

    I’m looking at other vendors these days. Have been impressed with both HP (mini 5101 and the new EliteBook 5xxx series for example), and Acer (AS1810 got my money recently) in the last year. In the past I would have just bought Dell.

  3. troy Says:

    Dell all the way when it comes to laptop computers.
    The reason ?
    3 year on site support.
    if your somebody who cannot be with out their laptop or hates buying a laptop every 2 to 3 years then a dell with the 3 year on site warranty will save you a lot downtime and headaches.

    dealing with their tech support can be a pain but unfortuneatly that is true of all comapnies these days but when you and the tech get on the same page and your notebook is determined to be broken almost always within 24 hours a dell technician or part is at your door to fix your notebook.

    their may be other companies out their who claim to have this service but dell has always trumped them in dependability.

    also if you take the time when you order a dell laptop off their web page you have countless options that allow you to configure the notebook to your needs . need a 6 or a 9 cell battery , blue tooth or wireless n ? there it is in the options . just add it in . if not find one that does .

    If your serious about a new laptop computer then the dell website will have an answer for you.

    i know this sounds like a sales pitch but every statement is true.

    the only negative i can come up with is that a custom with the 3 year on site warranty is more expensive . but that 179 – 200+ dollars extra in cost has saved me and those who have followed my recommendations at least that much in future repairs. and extended their note books life well beyond 3 years.

  4. Cooper Says:

    My family is pretty much Dell all the way. Besides Dell I’ve had two Gateway, and one Thinkpad. Both were much older than the Dell I finally got. (The first Gateway was designed to run 95, the second 97, and same with the Thinkpad. The Dell was designed to run Vista.)

    Yet, the Dell broke down first. I am extremely happy with its internal design, never had a problem with it, but the mouse buttons broke extremely easily, to the point where I bought an external mouse just so it wouldn’t break any further. The casing also breaks very easily.

    I’ll admit, I’m quite hard on my computers. However, my Gateways and Thinkpad never broke externally, (gateway and thinkpad died of hardware failure, the second gateway had a problem with the charger from the beginning.)

  5. Richard Says:

    I’m not very happy with my Dell Studio 17 with Core i3. The first one I received ran fine at first. Then after a couple of months it wouldn’t boot past the initial bios boot when the adapter was plugged into the computer. If you started on the battery the computer would boot properly. A call to Dell resulted in a tech coming to my house and replacing the motherboard and power supply. The computer started fine for 1 day. The next day it wouldn’t boot again when plugged in. I called Dell again and they offered a new computer or to replace the MB and PS again. I opted for a new computer. I’ve had this one for 2 days and it won’t boot up with the PS attached too. I’m going to call them again today. I checked the power coming out of the power supplies (I now have 2 as I haven’t even finished cleaning the out computer out to send it back yet) and both of them are reading 19.6 volts DC to the computer. The PS sticker specs 19.5 volts so it’s not an issue with my electricity.

  6. IGBC Says:

    I own a Dell 1747 (2 yrs old)
    It’s a great setup, with one major drawback:


    This machine has serious overheating issues, due to a cost cutting exercise.

    The machine also has dell’s stupid CPU throttling to stop it blowing up.

    The case is swanky, but flimsy.

    The hardware choices make this a stable machine overall, with a blistering performance from a laptop (for about 30 mins)

    2.5 stars (if this where a test that would be a FAIL)

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