The Dell Vostro 3400 combines the latest Intel Core i3 and Core i5 processors, good battery life and range of security options for business, in an affordable 14-inch laptop. Is this the next best thing for small business owners? How does the Vostro 3400 compare to other business laptops? We answer these questions and more in our in-depth review of this notebook.
Build and Design
The Vostro 3400 is an evolutionary design change for Dell's line of small-business laptops. The first Vostro notebooks were nothing more than black-painted Inspiron laptops with some extra software, better warranty and return coverage, and a lower price. The Vostro 3400 is 14-inch business notebook with a unique design and an impressive array of features and available options. Although the Vostro line is designed for the "small and medium business" market this series of PCs has generated far more than "small" revenue numbers for Dell. The most recent financial statements from Dell show mobile PC revenue is up 18 percent and Dell specifically mentioned the Vostro line as a key factor in that success.
The Vostro 3400 itself is a mixture of plastic and metal construction that tries to strike the difficult balance between business-grade durability and small-business affordability. The metal side panels provide exceptional ruggedness and no doubt protect the delicate internals of the 3400 from accidental impacts. The rest of the exterior chassis is made of plastics of varying thickness. The matte black plastics of the palmrests and keyboard surround is pretty firm with just a hint of plastic creaking around the edge of the keyboard where the plastic meets the metal side panels. This frequently used area of the laptop feels durable enough to handle the average use and abuse from a typical user.
When closed, the plastic screen lid gives the Vostro 3400 a clean modern look with black accents and the Dell logo in the center. The 3400 is currently offered in two available colors, "Aberdeen Silver" or "Lucerne Red." Just be aware that Dell charges a hefty $40.00 for the priviledge of sticking a red piece of plastic on your laptop. The Aberdeen Silver finish on our review unit looks quite nice with solid coverage and no obvious imperfections. The plastics used in the screen lid and the surrounding black screen bezel are much thinner than the rest of the notebook (more on that later in the screen section of the review).
The bottom of the notebook features the battery and single access plate for the RAM, hard drive and wireless card. I appreciate the fact that you can make all of the standard internal upgrades simply by removing two screws. The matte black plastic used on the bottom of the 3400 is textured and provides a good grip surface if you're holding your laptop while you run to catch a meeting. Again, the metal sides of the chassis provide extra durability and should help protect the notebook in the event that you drop it on the side or corner.
Screen and Speakers
The 14-inch high-definition (1366 x 768) panel on the Dell Vostro 3400 provides reasonably vibrant colors that are just a little cool (blue) at the default settings. The LED backlighting in our review unit is pretty even and offers a range of brightness settings with just a hint of backlight bleed in the top left corner of the screen. Again, since all 11-inch notebooks/netbooks now come with 1366 x 768 resolution displays we'd like to see 1600 x 900 as the "minimum" resolution of 14-inch notebooks. Still, for the base price of $550 this is a nice display. Horizontal viewing angles are extremely good, so you won't have any trouble sharing a movie with the person sitting next to you on a plane or in a meeting room. Vertical viewing angles are average or below average with colors quickly washing out when viewed from above and colors beginning to distort and invert as you move the screen back.
The single biggest complaint our editors have with the Vostro 3400 is the significant level of flex in the screen lid. Dell uses fairly thin and weak plastics in the lid and even light pressure on the back of the screen causes it to "bend" in toward the notebook. If you happen to store your laptop in a bag with other items pressing against the lid you may risk damaging your screen. Likewise, if someone on your next flight jams a heavy item into the overhead compartment next to your laptop it could result in a bad scene. In the images below you can see how the screen lid flexes with light pressure from two of my fingers. The plastic screen bezel also starts to pop off from this modest amount of pressure.
It's important to note that the screen on the Vostro 3400 never failed to function during our stress tests. Still, this degree of flexibility may have a negative impact on the longevity of any LCD panel.
In terms of audio performance, the built-in speakers on the Vostro 3400 are adequate for listening to a webcast or system alert sounds, but this clearly isn't a multimedia entertainment notebook. Music sounds tinny with limited range and you will notice significant audio distortion if you increase the speaker volume to the maximum setting. Once again, the speakers are probably fine for the intended market of small business owners. Still, you'll probably want to use a good set of headphones with this notebook if you plan to listen to music while you work.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on our review unit has full-sized keys with acceptable key spacing and an excellent depth to the key throw. Each key has a textured black finish and a relatively flat surface. The keyboard is firmer than the keyboard on the Dell Inspiron 14 that I recently reviewed and doesn't suffer from any flex under heavy typing pressure. I was a little sad that our review unit didn't come equipped with a LED backlit keyboard, but I'm happy to see it is an available option on the Dell website. The backlit keyboard is an essential upgrade if you're typing onboard an evening flight or inside a dark meeting room during a presentation.
The multi-touch, gesture-based touchpad is pretty average for a 14-inch notebook and the dual touchpad buttons have deep feedback with quiet clicks. The touchpad itself is a Synaptics model that uses Dell proprietary touchpad drivers. The touchpad was reasonably responsive with good sensitivity and very little lag. Touchpad accuracy was a bit off at times, but that may be correctable by tweaking the drivers. Since it is a Synaptics touchpad you can probably switch to the standard Synaptics drivers if you don't like the settings under the Dell drivers. My only issue with this touchpad is the size. It's not particularly small but we're starting to see some 11-inch and 13-inch notebooks with larger touchpads and it makes the touchpad on the Vostro 3400 look and feel inadequate.
Ports and Features
The port selection on the Vostro 3400 is quite exceptional for a budget 14-inch notebook. Dell included three USB 2.0 ports (four if you count the combo USB/eSATA port), VGA and HDMI video out ports, Ethernet, a multi-format memory card reader, and even an ExpressCard slot for expansion. In short, I'm pretty impressed since most budget business laptops don't provide a combo USB/eSATA port for high-speed external storage or an ExpressCard slot for broadband wireless cards or future upgrades. About the only ports that are missing are FireWire and USB 3.0 ... and a modem jack for those few people still using dial-up.
Our review unit of the Vostro 3400 performs extremely well for a business notebook thanks to the optional Intel Core i5 430M (2.26GHz, 1066MHz, 3MB) processor and Nvidia GeForce 310M discrete graphics. Not only is this the fastest small business notebook we've reviewed but it also offers the most capable video and gaming performance of any SMB laptop we've seen. Sure, it's nice to have a fast CPU for crunching numbers in Excel or running multiple programs at the same time, but rarely do we see a small business notebook with discrete graphics ... particularly in the 14-inch form factor.
Even if you don't care about playing games on your business laptop, the CUDA-capable Nvidia graphics card helps to dramatically decrease the amount of time you have to spend editing video. This makes the optional discrete graphics a fantastic feature for web-based businesses that need to process videos for their website or blog.
The entry-level Vostro 3400 comes equipped with a less powerful Intel Core i3 processor and Intel integrated graphics, but for a modest price increase you can configure a much more powerful notebook that is slightly more "future proof" for your business needs.
The 6-cell 56WHr battery does a pretty good job overall. With the screen brightness set to 70%, wireless active and refreshing a text-heavy website every 60 seconds, and the Windows 7 power profile set to "Balanced" the Vostro 3400 14 stayed on for 3 hours and 41 minutes. For use on a cross-country flight or in back-to-back office meetings this amount of battery life should get the job done. Still, if you plan to be away from an outlet for extended periods of time I would recommend buying the optional 9-cell extended life battery. It's worth mentioning that Dell claims the 6-cell battery can deliver "up to 4 hours and 40 minutes" of battery life based on the MobileMark synthetic benchmark, but this involves lower screen brightness and an unspecified system configuration (possibly with the Intel integrated graphics).
Heat and Noise
The cooling system does a reasonably impressive job keeping the external temperatures down. After extended periods of use the areas on the bottom of the notebook next to the RAM and hard drive get warm, but temperatures remain just below 100 degrees Fahrenheit at all times in out 72-degree test lab. The temperature readings below were taken after stressing the system with performance benchmarks and web browsing for 60 minutes.
Noise levels are fairly quiet when running on battery as the fan produces a constant weak "purr" as hot air is pushed out. The 7200rpm Seagate hard drive in our review unit suffered from an audible "hum" when the drive was active and we also noticed higher than usual vibration coming from the drive. That said, we suspect this isn't a common problem since we haven't seen this type of noise and vibration in other systems with the same model of Seagate hard drive.
The Dell Vostro 3400 is an affordable 14-inch laptop designed to meet the needs of small business owners and it succeeds in most ways. The overall build quality is pretty solid with one glaring exception: a weak screen lid. If you're a frequent traveler then the Vostro 3400 may not be your best choice based simply on the fact that the screen doesn't feel as durable as other business notebooks we've reviewed.
If you're buying the Vostro 3400 as a desktop replacement or take care not to damage the flexible screen lid then you won't have much to worry about. At the end of the day this Dell offers good performance, great customization options and year-round 24/7 support at a reasonable price.