Saturday, November 01, 2014

Dell Inspiron 13 7347 Review

UPDATE 21 June 2015:

The problem has not been resolved, but I have managed to prevent the ghost touches from flaring up by being very careful with the notebook.  Do not change the screen angle by grabbing the screen with one hand - use two hands, and ensure that the screen doesn't bend. Do not carry the notebook by its screen! (this works fine with Macs and Toshiba Z30's). Do not apply pressure to the back of the screen. In other words, treat the laptop like the fragile flower (of lemony-ness) that it is.

In restrospect, the same-priced entry-level Macbook Pro Retina is a far better choice, even with less RAM and a small SSD. The build quality is really up there; the fact that used Macs hold their value over the years really tells you something about Mac build quality.

UPDATE 21 November:

Sadly, I can no longer recommend this particular model.  It has a severe design flaw in the touch screen that causes "ghost touches" - and based on my research and the reports of others on the Dell support forums, this is not an isolated issue.  Unit replacement most often does not address the issue, hence my unit is not a lemon unit.  Since Dell makes refunds very difficult and my feeling is repair or replacement won't help, I am keeping the notebook (but disable the touch screen when it acts up).

I recently found myself in need of a notebook.  I haven't bought any such thing in over five years (the employer-supplied notebooks - a variety of Dell Latitudes and Toshiba Porteges - have proved more than useful).  However my office notebook isn't due for refresh yet, and I was getting tired of hauling its magnesium-skinned bulk around.

As my wife had recently gotten a Toshiba Portege Z30, which weighs an amazing 2.65 pounds - I decided that weight would be my major selection criterion.  But I also wanted a full HD (or higher) IPS screen, and a backlit keyboard.  And the notebook would also need to be cheap.

The above set of criteria are very, very hard to meet (even the Portege Z30 and ThinkPad X240 do not meet all of them, and these laptops cost a lot more money than I was willing to pay).

In the $1000 range, the notebooks which meet most or all of the above criteria are the Lenovo Flex 2 13 (which weighs about 4 lb), the Asus ZenBook UX303LN and recently-discontinued ZenBook UX32LN (the UX32LA and UX303LA don't have IPS screens), the Dell Inspiron 13 7000, and of course the Macbook Pro Retina 13.

I am no Apple fanboy (I have a lot of Android devices) but let's get this clear - the Macbook Pro Retina 13 is overall the best choice. It has the highest-resolution display (although not the highest-contrast); the fastest SSD (that isn't field-upgradable); the fastest processor (a special model i5 that only Apple gets); the best build quality; and by far the longest battery life. However, the 128GB SSD model (the lowest-end one) was at the high end of what I was willing to pay, and the 128GB SSD is small.

On paper, the ASUS UX303LN comes very, very close to the MacBook Pro Retina 13 in terms of specifications, and the ASUS has an Nvidia discrete graphics solution.  However it costs more than the 128GB SSD MacBook Pro Retina 13 (and a bit less than the 256GB SSD model) and doesn't come with an SSD.

The recently-discontinued UX32LN costs less than the base MacBook Pro Retina 13, also has discrete graphics, but no SSD.  Both ASUS devices weigh about 3.2 lb, slightly less than the Apple, but when you heft them in your hand, the difference in build quality is obvious (even though the ASUS notebooks also have aluminium chassis). The ASUS notebooks have decent battery life as well, but they can't match the Apple.

The Lenovo Flex 2 14 is probably the cheapest option you can get at this time (October - November 2014) with a full HD IPS screen.  It is a pentile screen and not as good as the other FHD screens. The large downside with the Lenovo is its 4 lb weight.  Battery life is acceptable.

My fourth option was the Dell Inspiron 13 7000.  It is available in two models, a 1366x768 IPS, and a full HD IPS. The latter model costs more (about the same as the ASUS UX32LN) and has the downside of not having a discrete graphics solution (it uses the Intel 4400).

I made a handy comparison guide of these notebook candidates:

The last parameter is how long (in hours:minutes) each notebook could loop the "Big Buck Bunny" movie before running out of charge.  It is obvious from this comparison that the MacBook Pro Retina 13 is the best overall choice, but also the most expensive, and this is the base model only with a 128GB SSD. Prices are in SGD, but the other ratings are from

Note that the usual suspect high-end notebooks (Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Lenovo ThinkPad X240, Lenovo Yoga 2, Toshiba Portege Z30) are not on this list, for the simple reason that they cost far more than I am willing to pay.  It was quite a shock to learn that high-end notebooks actually cost more than their Apple competition.

What the above spreadsheet does not show is the level of build quality of these notebooks, something you can't see unless you physically handle them.  As I have already mentioned, the MacBook Pro has the best build quality, the best trackpad, and the best keyboard.  It's the most solidly put-together.  The Lenovo Flex 2 14 is also pretty solid, but its weight goes against it.

From the spreadsheet, it looks like if you can't or don't want to spend money on the Apple, the ASUS is the next best choice, and on paper it is.  However, it doesn't feel as well put-together.  The reason I ended up with the Dell is because the Dell simply feels more solid in the hand, for the same price, in spite of the weak integrated Intel Graphics.

I used to have an ASUS with Radeon graphics, and - it's not all it's cracked up to be.  Certainly you can play most modern games, but the battery life with the discrete graphics enabled is a dismal one hour or so.

Now that I've put a reasonable amount of time into the Dell, these are the conclusions I can make:
  • The screen is very good; certainly the Retina is better, but having used 1366x768 matte TN panels for almost a decade, this screen is an eye-opener.
  • The build quality is above average; as the notebookcheck review points out, the build quality is more Latitude-level than Inspiron-level and is the main reason I chose this model over the ASUS UX32LN which has a better spec and significantly longer battery life.
  • The Yoga-like 360 degree rotation (that turns it into a huge ungainly tablet) is actually a useful gimmick.
  • However, Windows 8.1 on this device doesn't quite cut it as a tablet OS. In spite of the vastly more powerful processor, my Nexus 7 2 works better and is more responsive as a tablet than the Inspiron. However the Nexus 7 2 can't run Microsoft Word, so there is that.
  • The touch screen is less responsive than that on the Nexus 7 2 (which also is a Full HD IPS touch screen). It is sometimes necessary to press harder or multiple times (particularly with the included passive stylus) to get click registration.
  • The track pad on the Inspiron 13 7000 is of mediocre quality, particularly the click-over feel is rough and the actual feel as you move your finger over the trackpad is also rough. The track pad on my employer-issued Dell Latitude E6320 is far, far better, and the glass pad on the MacBook Pro is beyond comparison that it's not even funny.
  • The keyboard is also only acceptable, my employer-issued Latitude E6320 is also better. However the Inspiron keyboard is illuminated (only two illumination levels however). The notebookcheck review noted the excessively-small backspace key.  Another niggle is the absence of Page Up and Page Down keys; you need to press Fn-Up Arrow and Fn-Down Arrow. I can still type at a reasonable speed on this keyboard, so it's acceptable. It is important to point out that the Dell Latitudes are a higher grade of notebook and generally cost much more.
  • Of all my candidate notebooks, the Dell has the worst battery life (four hours on Big Buck Bunny).
  • However the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 is reasonably light, practically the same as the MacBook Pro Retina 13.
In conclusion, the selection of (approximately) 3 lb notebooks is rather thin, particularly if your budget is limited to around $1000.  You can't get perfection in this price class, unless you're willing to pay a bit more and live with a small SSD in the MacBook Pro Retina.

Another conclusion I've come to - if you are spending $1500 and up on a flagship notebook, forget the so-called premium notebooks from Lenovo, ASUS, HP, etc.  Just get an Apple device, they actually provide better bang for the buck and unsurpassed battery life and build quality. That's assuming your applications run on MacOS X.

So the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 is a good compromise, but a ways off from perfect.  It was the least compromised choice for myself, but someone who wanted longer battery life and a discrete graphics solution would probably find the ASUS UX303LN or UX32LN to be a better choice overall.

UltraBookReview has a good review comparing the ASUS UX303LN to the MacBook Pro Retina 13. The mere fact that the ASUS is favorably compared to the Apple device is already quite a big vote in favor of the ASUS. The UX303LN simply was a bit too much money (about $300 more than the Inspiron 13 7000) for me, and the UX303LA while about $300 less than the Dell, didn't come with an FHD IPS screen.

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