The Dell Inspiron 1420 is the latest 14.1" consumer notebook designed to offer performance, durability and a touch of style for an affordable price. With Intel Core 2 Duo (Santa Rosa) processors, available Blu-ray disc drive, available nVidia dedicated graphics, a reasonably tough build, and eight available colors, is the affordable 1420 the best 14.1" notebook available? Let's take a closer look.
The Dell Inspiron 1420 is available with a full range of Core 2 Duo processors (from the Intel T5250 1.5GHz Core 2 Duo up to the T7500 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo). There are two 14.1" screen offerings, a 1280x800 WXGA and 1440x900 WXGA+ display. The notebook can take up to 4GB of RAM but Dell only offers 32-bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista ... so don't expect to be able to use all 4GB. Built-in wireless is standard and the system is priced starting at $769 with integrated Intel X3100 graphics.
Build and Design
The 1420 caries forward what can only be described as "traditional dell design" with simplified lines. In short, the new Inspiron notebooks look very similar to the previous generation of Dell notebooks ... but Dell engineers have stripped the white bumpers and added a nice coat of paint. While the design isn't as innovative as what we saw in the new Dell XPS M1330, the simple lines and solid construction look quite nice for a budget notebook. Students certainly shouldn't be ashamed of how the 1420 looks when they carry this notebook to class. From the matte black and silver-metalic plastics to the painted lid the Inspiron 1420 is a design that lacks the flash but isn't short on style.
The Inspiron 1420 lid does not have a latch to hold it closed, but the hinge mechanism works well and firmly holds the lid in place. There is almost no flex to the screen. The lid of the 1420, like all the new Inspiron notebooks comes in your choice of eight colors for an extra level of customization. Our review unit came with an "Espresso Brown" paint job. The paint looks quite nice and durable at first glance. However, upon closer examination we discovered one small scratch/chip in the paint that revealed an ugly white undercoat. Our review unit was brand new from the Dell assembly line and this damage occured before we even opened the box. Bottom line, we don't have overwhelming faith in the durability of this finish.
After opening the lid and seeing the silver plastic interior and rounded surface of the 1420 you'll notice how solid the notebook feels ... at the expense of some added thickness. The entire case is sturdy with relatively thick plastic and magnesium alloy reinforcement in just the right places. There are no creaks or signs of case flex anywhere to be found.
Performance and Benchmarks
The Core 2 Duo processors that come with the Inspiron 1420 provide more than enough performance, even at the 1.5GHz low-end of the T5250. The 2.2GHz T7500 processor in our review unit packs an impressive punch and the included optional nVidia 8400M GS dedicated graphics card provides enough power for HD video and serious gaming. While the 3DMark benchmarks below look reasonably impressive, it is important to keep in mind that the standard Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 (Intel 965 chipset) will perform much worse. The available nVidia GeForce 8400M GS dedicated graphics card is a "must have" option if you want to play current games at higher resolutions on this notebook.
The 14.1" glossy screen in our review unit is a gorgeous WXGA+ 1440 x 900 display with excellent contrast and rich colors. Several Inspiron 1420 owners in our discussion forums claim that the standard WXGA 1280 x 800 display suffers from "graininess" but our higher resolution screen suffered from no such problems. The display features fairly bright and even backlighting but the screen appeared a little dim under the strong lights in our office. Horizontal and vertical viewing angles were good enough for two or three people to watch a DVD on the screen.
Dell Inspiron 1420 Keyboard, Touchpad and Other Input Buttons
The full-sized keyboard on the 1420 is solid with almost no flex. The keys have minimal travel with excellent cushion and response, and there are dedicated keys for home, end, page up, and page down.
The touchpad is nice and large with a very usable and responsive surface. Both the vertical and horizontal scroll sections are accurate and responsive. The touchpad buttons have deep feedback and produce quiet clicks.
The 1420 also features dedicated media buttons above the keyboard and beneath the speakers. The media buttons make watching DVDs or listening to music files as easy as using a DVD or CD player. Like most media buttons on notebooks from other manufacturers these media buttons have blue LED backlights. However, unlike most other media buttons we've seen the blue LED lights automatically turn off a few seconds after you press them. While this might sound like a useless feature it's nice not to have bright blue LEDs lit up all the time.
Input and Output Ports
Let's take a quick tour around the port offerings of the Inspiron 1420:
Front side: LED status lights, media card reader, wireless on/off switch, headphone and microphone ports.
Back side: Modem port, battery, and Ethernet port.
Bottom view: Here you'll find access to memory slots, some well-placed vents, and the battery release/lock switches.
Left side: Kingston lock slot, DC power jack, heat vent, Firewire port, two USB ports, and an ExpressCard slot.
Right side: Optical drive, S-video out, two USB ports, and VGA out.
Since it's not uncommon for 15.4" notebooks from other manufacturers to only have three USB ports we were glad to see that Dell included four USB ports on the 1420. Since a Blu-ray optical drive is an available upgrade we would have liked to see an HDMI port rather than just an S-video port for connecting the notebook to an HDTV.
The 1420 has stereo sound via speakers located above the keyboard. With the speakers located on the top of the interior in this way they tend to direct the sound at you and make for a reasonably enjoyable listening experience. While the built-in speakers aren’t the worst that I’ve heard in a notebook of this size, the sound they produce has a "tin can" quality with only average clarity and loudness and almost no bass. The headphone jack is located on the front side ... a less than ideal location for people who like to plug in external speakers but is a great location for using earbuds.
Heat and Noise
The 1420 runs extremely quiet even with the 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor. The fan remained whisper quiet yet kept heat under control. The areas near both the memory and hard drive (left palm rest) did feel warm during benchmarking, but temperatures remained comfortable enough to keep the 1420 on the lap. Temperatures are likely kept within acceptable limits thanks to a rather large heatsink visible through the vent on the left side of the 1420.
Dell Inspiron 1420 Battery
Battery life on the 1420 with the standard 6-cell battery was only average at best. Even with the screen brightness set to less than half, wireless on, and Vista power settings set to maximize battery life, the 1420 powered down in just above 2 hours (2 hours and 3 minutes). Using the same settings the 9-cell battery provided 3 hours and 51 minutes of battery life. Unless size and travel weight are your primary concerns I highly recommend purchasing the 9-cell battery for the 1420.
The Dell Inspiron 1420 is a solid notebook with an impressive set of features at a value price. As students are getting ready to return to class this notebook will certainly be a strong candidate for a school notebook. The choice of eight available colors is a nice addition, though we aren't quite sure how Dell's paint job will hold up to abuse. While the entry-level version of the 1420 with integrated Intel graphics lacks the power for serious gaming, the dedicated nVidia graphics card makes for a capable value gaming machine and mobile multimedia center. Of course, once you add all of the available options to make the 1420 a real powerhouse the cost begins to eat away at the "value" benefit of this notebook.
Bottom line, although it's certainly not perfect the 1420 is a strong, capable notebook that will make a great back-to-school system.