web analytics

Dell Inspiron 13 5000

Dell sent a sample computer with a non-working trackpad. This meant we couldn’t do a full review. Here’s what we learned about the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 before Dell took it back for repair.

At a glance

For: Laptop, can work as a tablet. Keyboard.
Against: Heavy for a tablet. Some missing drivers. Touchpad on review model didn’t work.
Maybe: Performance. Display.
Verdict: Versatile, affordable compromise between tablet and laptop.
Price: From NZ$1200

Dell describes the Inspiron 13 5000 as a 2-in–1. That means it is a convertible touch-screen laptop with a dual hinge that lets you flip the screen over so it becomes like a tablet. The emphasis in that last sentence is on the word like.

In practice it is too heavy to use as a tablet except for short bursts. Buy an Inspiron 13 5000 if you want a touch-screen laptop that can do occasional tablet duty.

An old format

Inspiron’s 2-in–1 flip position echoes the first so-called Tablet PCs Microsoft introduced in the early 2000s.

Most users ignored them at the time. Today’s 2-in–1 models are better in every respect, but still imperfect. There’s a reason the early models never took off.

The best thing about modern 2-in–1s is they cost about 30 percent less than devices with similar specifications and detachable keyboards. Prices are not that different from standard laptops.

So you can save about NZ$300 if you’re prepared to put up with the shortcomings.

Because you can’t remove the Inspiron keyboard, you’re stuck with all the weight and bulk of a laptop when using it as a tablet.

Heavy tablet

The Inspiron 13 5000 is 20 mm deep and weighs 1.7 kg. That makes it heavy and thick even by laptop standards, let alone tablets.

In comparison the HP Elitebook Folio G1 is a shade under 1 kg. Apple’s MacBook Air weighs 1.35 kg. Keep in mind those computers cost twice as much.

The Inspiron is more than twice as thick as most tablets and three times as thick as an iPad Air.

Used as a handheld tablet it gets uncomfortable fast.

Unwieldy tablet

You need to be strong to hold it in one hand. The weight and the thickness combine to make the device unwieldy. Even if you had the strength to carry it in your hand, there’s too much heft to balance it.

It is more comfortable when you use it as a tablet on your lap. But still, it doesn’t compare with lighter, thinner alternatives.

Yet the Inspiron 13 5000 works fine as a tablet when resting on a flat surface. And the dual hinge arrangement means you can twist it to other useful positions. In a tent-like shape you can use it for desktop presentations.

Built to a price

If you’re in the market for a Inspiron 13 5000, it will be because you’re on a budget.

Dell gives you a lot of computer for the money. Inspiron 13 5000 models start at NZ$1200 for a computer with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of memory and a hard drive.

At the top of the range is a NZ$2000 model with an Core i7 processor, 8 GB memory and 256 GB of solid state drive. The review machine has an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB memory and a 256 GB solid state drive. It sells at $1700.

Inspiron is Dell’s consumer laptop brand. There are three levels. Low-end models are no frills laptops. Computer makers hate the word cheap but it’s appropriate. High-end Inspirons have top specifications and a metal finish.

Mid-range consumer laptop

The Inspiron 13 5000 sits between the two extremes. For the most part, the finish is matt grey plastic. It’s not ugly, but nor is it a work of art. Get rid of the sticker on the palm rest and it might look OK.

The plastic case is tough. In practice it can take a battering. There are screws underneath so you can upgrade components yourself if necessary.

Ports are going out of fashion with some laptop makers. Dell isn’t going there. The Inspiron 13 5000 has two USB 3.0 ports on the left along with a power inlet and a HDMI port. There’s a USB 2.0 on the right along with a SD card reader.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000 in use

The 13.3-inch touch screen is responsive and accurate enough. It has a 1920 x 1080 pixel display and a high gloss finish. Resign yourself to smudges. The blacks are solid and images are sharp. Text is easy to read.

Movies look fine, but the sound gets tinny if you crank up the volume. The speakers are under the case and don’t distort until you push them. There’s a good chance you will push them because they are not loud.

Dell’s chiclet style keyboard is OK. Not brilliant, not bad. It isn’t backlit. You’ll find better laptop keyboards, but maybe not at this price. It’s fine for everyday typists and touch typists.

Touch and go

As mentioned at the top of the page, the touchpad on the review machine didn’t work. This maybe be a driver problem or it could be a hardware fault. The system didn’t detect a touchpad.

It’s hard to know if we just had a bad machine or if there’s a wider problem. We heard of other Dell users experiencing trackpad problems, but that’s not a scientific sample.

When you fold the screen back, the device switches from laptop mode to tablet mode and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard appears. During the reverse process, the physical keyboard snaps back into action.

Otherwise the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 performance was solid. The Intel Core i5 Running at 2.8 GHz and 8 GB memory are plenty for most applications. Everyday office apps run fine. There’s enough power for the 1920 by 1080 display, but you might hit the machines limits driving higher resolution graphics, especially if you are a gamer.

Push the computer hard and a fan starts with air passing though vents in the case. This is normal for laptops, but seems strange when the device is in tablet mode. It’s not a loud fan noise, but tablets are usually silent.

Dell says the battery is good for up to nine hours. Battery claims are often ambitious, this one is more than most. In practice the computer lasted less than seven hours on a single charge.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000 verdict

Putting the non-working trackpad to one side, the Inspiron 13 5000 is a good value laptop for someone on a budget. We recommend it for high school or university students.

You get a lot of computer for your money, performance is good and the 2-in–1 versatility can be handy at times. Just remind yourself it’s not a lightweight as a detachable.

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

There has never been a better time to buy an ultraportable computer. PC makers may face falling sales, but they haven’t stopped building great laptops.

For years the laptop market was stagnant, with lacklustre me-too designs and unappetising performance. That’s changed.

The challenge from phones and tablets has spurred a new wave of innovation. In some cases, laptop makers pulled technologies from phones and used them to build better laptops.

We’re seeing a laptop renaissance. Here are six of 2016’s best choices. Four are traditional laptops, albeit slimmed down and stripped back for mobile productivity. One is a hybrid, the other is a tablet moonlighting as a hybrid.

You can find fuller reviews of all the models mentioned here elsewhere on this site. They are expensive but remember this is a round-up of today’s best models.

The list is not in any particular order. Each one is worth considering. We’d be happy to live with any one of these computers, they are all worthy of your attention.

HP Spectre

HP Spectre rear ports

The Spectre marks a return to form for HP. It is slimmer than the 2016 Apple MacBook, with a great keyboard and three USB-C ports. HP didn’t skimp on the power either, inside is a full Intel Core i processor.

This is the best Windows laptop so far this year. It will take some beating. What you don’t get for the NZ$2500 and up asking price is a touch screen. If you think you’ll miss that, look at the Surface Pro or the Elitebook.

Dell XPS 13 Touch

Dell XPS 13 TouchIf you like a touch screen on a Windows laptop, Dell’s XPS 13 Touch should be on your list. Prices start at NZ$2800. For that money you get a dazzling 13.3-inch quad HD+ display along with a Core i7–5500U running at 2.5 GHz. That’s a lot of power in a small package.

The remarkable thing about the screen is despite being 13.3 inches, the computer is the same size as other 12-inch models. Dell does this by almost doing away with the bezels. Also worth noting, the XPS has great battery life. It beats everything here except the Apple models.

2016 Apple MacBook

MacbookNot everyone wants a Windows ultraportable. Apple may be about to retire the MacBook Air that started the ultraportable trend. So if you want a non-Windows machine it’s this or the iPad Pro.

The 2016 MacBook is thin and so light you may forget you’re carrying one in your bag. It has a great keyboard and a wonderful Retina display. Apple built a new keyboard for the MacBook. It isn’t everyone’s taste, but in practice, this is a wonderful machine to work with. Prices start at $2400.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

f4202834-00cb-4717-a652-3bc5b6cb8f1c

Microsoft had a few goes at getting its laptop-PC hybrid right. This fourth-generation device got there in the end after a few firmware teething troubles. The result is well worth the wait. For Windows fans it is close to a dream machine being as coupled to its software as an Apple computer. A Microsoft operating system never felt this good.

Prices start at NZ$1600 plus another $240 for the type cover. Most people would be better off skipping the underpowered Core m3 entry-level model and getting a Core i model. Prices go all the way to a nosebleed NZ$4900 for a 1TB Surface Pro 4 with a Core i7 processor and 16GB Ram.

HP Elitebook Folio G1

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat
HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

HP’s made-for-business ultrabook is a touch more conservative looking and thicker than the Spectre. Yet it is still a powerhouse on the inside. The Elitebook has corporate features like Intel vPro support. It also folds back to a 180 degree position for laptop work.

There’s still the minimal aesthetic and only two USB-C ports. It comes in four configurations with an NZ$2600 non-touch screen model under-pinning the range. Spend $3700 and you get a the top of the line model. It has an ultra-high definition (UHD) touch screen with 3840 by 2160 pixels, an Intel Core m7 processor, 8GB of Ram and a 512GB solid state drive.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro isn’t a true 2016 model, it appeared late last year. It also differs from the rest of the pack because it isn’t a laptop. It’s less of a laptop than the Surface Pro; a tablet with an optional keyboard.

While not for everyone, it does most of the work the other devices here can do and does many of them well, some better. Fans swear it replaces traditional computers, although it’s not good at dealing with complex file system problems.

Prices start at NZ$1400 and go all the way to $2180 for  a Sim card version with 256 GB of memory. You’ll need to find another $320 for the keyboard and, maybe, $190 for the Apple Pencil.

Dell XPS 13 TouchNot everyone wants to move on from Windows laptops. Dell makes a case for staying with the touch-screen XPS 13 Touch.

The XPS 13 Touch is a business class Ultrabook at a business class price. The review model costs NZ$2800.

A dazzling 13.3-inch quad HD+ display sets the XPS 13 Touch apart from the Ultrabook pack.

To infinity… and beyond

Dell calls this an infinity edge display. There is almost no bezel — that’s the frame around the screen. So the pixels go almost to the edge of the laptop lid.

Which means, in effect, Dell crams a 13-inch display into an 11-inch case. The XPS 13 Touch is smaller than a MacBook Air 13, but with a similar screen size.

And what a screen it is. While most premium computers have impressive displays, I don’t think I’ve seen one this good on any laptop.

Beats Retina

It has 3200 by 1800 pixels. That’s more than a Retina MacBook Pro. It makes for a high pixel density. That means crisper, easier to read text along with more image detail.

Although it also means tiny barely readable text when Windows fails to adjust to the resolution — something that happened a few times during testing.

Bright

Another notable feature of the display is its brightness. When compared to other similar size screens, the XPS 13 Touch seems far brighter. The white spots seem whiter, without that yellowish tinge. There’s also better contrast.

You can get the same effect from other displays by tinkering with the settings. The XPS 13 Touch does all that for you. It has adaptive brightness. This feature automatically optimises depending on external light conditions and the content on the display.

While this may be troublesome for, say, professional image work, it makes life easier for those of us who use computers to browse, handle mail and run business productivity apps like Microsoft Office.

All day battery life and then some

The other impressive feature is the XPS 13 Touch’s battery life. These days I’m used to getting eight hours from a computer even if there’s almost nothing in the tank at the end of the working day.

I found the XPS 13 Touch worked for ten hours before it ran out. That’s more than twice the working time I managed with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. It’s the same that I got from my 13-inch MacBook Air when it was new — these days I get perhaps eight and a half, maybe nine hours.

Dell’s battery does a better job than many alternatives when it comes retaining power. I left a fully charged XPS 13 Touch on my desk through the long Auckland Anniversary weekend. When I returned on Tuesday morning, it still had about 90 percent power and was good for more than eight hours work. In contrast, the Surface Pro 4 would lose almost all of its charge over the same period.

Another plus point: the charger works fast by laptop standards. It can recharge an empty battery in less than two hours.

Give my regards to Broadwell…

Processor chips are rarely worth mentioning in laptop reviews any more. Away from the bargain basement, everything runs faster than most of us need for everyday computing.

That’s not the case here.

The review model has a Core i7–5500U running at 2.5 GHz. That’s powerful by any standard and provides far more grunt than I’ve seen in any Ultrabook-class device. It is also responsible for that long, long battery life. Overall the XPS 13 Touch is noticably faster than any direct rival.

Dell uses Intel’s latest 14 nm Broadwell chip technology. It’s fast by any standards and tiny. It is also responsible for the excellent battery performance. There’s a graphics chip which means the XPS 13 Touch can handle games at high resolution.

What’s not so good?

A few aspects of the XPS 13 Touch are less impressive. While the backlit keyboard is solid and serviceable, it feels cramped. It’s a loser in the trade-off between size and comfort. I found the key action is more like I see on hybrids than on laptops with not enough travel for my taste. I’m an old school touch-typist, so this may not bother you.

During the review I ran into a couple of freezes. I saw something similar with the Surface Pro 4. I’m beginning to think this is a Windows 10 problem and nothing to do with hardware. If you can shed light on this please do so in the comments.

You may also not be bothered by the crapware Dell loads on the computer. I am. My first few days with the machine were marred by constant nagging messages trying to extract more money from me.

While it may be understandable for laptop makers to load up sub-$500 computers with third-party software in an attempt to recover costs, it’s not appropriate on a business machine costing the thick end of three grand.

Touching pain

Dell offers three versions of the XPS 13, only one has touch. There are touchless models selling for NZ$2000 and $2200. Both have i5 processors instead of i7.

I’m not convinced of the value of touch on a Windows laptop. Yes, Windows 10 is designed for touchscreen computing, but I found I barely touched the screen at all during my first days with the review computer. The TouchPad is better than I’ve seen on other Windows laptop and does a great job.

Touch works great on tablets, but lifting your hand from the keyboard to the screen is unnatural. You may disagree.

When I made a conscious effort to touch the screen — and it never felt anything other than forced — I quickly ran into problems with muscle pain in my shoulder and at the top of my right arm. It seems there’s a whole new world of occupational overuse syndrome opening up right there.

Dell XPS 13 Touch – verdict

If you want a premium touch-screen Windows laptop for business, Dell’s XPS 13 Touch is the best option at the moment. It’s powerful, small and light with a great screen.

While the power of an i7 processor is tempting, if I was spending my own money I’d save myself $600 and choose the touchless i5 version.

Re/code interviewed Michael Dell in Michael Dell Explains His $67 Billion Bet on EMC. He talks about his plan to pull off the biggest technology merger in history, one that will create a business with an annual turnover of US$80 billion.

The story leads with the point I made last week: big technology mergers rarely succeed. There’s little here to convince me that Dell has something special that the earlier companies attempting large takeovers didn’t have.

And as the story points out, Dell is moving in the opposite direction to HP which is separating its PC business from its enterprise computing operation. HP has more experience than any other company with large scale technology take-overs, none of them were a resounding success. If HP couldn’t get it right by the third try (and a huge takeover) then it’s unlikely Dell can.

If Dell was still a public company, shareholders would be furious at this move. Presumably Michael Dell took the business private so he could make a big play without worrying about keeping investors happy. But I can’t help thinking that at bottom this deal, like so many tech industry mega-mergers, it more about egos than unlocking business value.

Twilight of the gods

At heart, Dell and EMC are hardware companies. They face a serious problem: customers have lost interest in hardware.

On October 12 Dell said it will pay US$67 billion for EMC. It’s the biggest technology deal ever and the latest in a never-ending wave of mergers.

Dell may pay too much for EMC’s business. The offer is more than twice the total equity and about 50 percent higher than the value of EMC’s assets. Acquiring companies often overbid to see off rivals.[1]

Most observers expect Dell to sell unwanted parts of EMC when the deal completes. This will lower the final cost of the acquisition.

The elusive benefits of tech consolidation

Big technology company mergers rarely succeed. I can’t think of any that have been a resounding success.

Expect managers to prattle on about synergy as if they know what they are talking about. They rarely do. In most cases the movers behind takeovers are lucky if the new organisation is worth as much as the sum of the parts. Often big tech mergers destroy value.

There is a long list of disappointments. Oracle’s Sun Microsystems acquisition saw a huge destruction of value. At the time there was a lot of talk of synergy.

Then there is HP. It binged on Compaq, EDS and Autonomy — all, allegedly, bringing synergy. There’s little evidence of that.

Maybe that experience prompted HP boss, Meg Whitman, to point out the integration challenges Dell face.. She should know, her predecessors left her a mess.

Dell’s debt risk

Dell faces another risk. It needs to take on a huge debt for the acquisition. The good news is Dell has a track record of paying-down debt. It has already paid back the cost of its 2013 buy-out.

EMC’s shareholders get a profitable exit just as the future starts to look uncertain.

Its operating income last year was US$4 billion, net income was US$2.7 billion. Although debt is cheap at the moment, paying the interest will still be a challenge.

Cisco shareholders must be praying someone else with deep pockets is thinking of a similar move.

Cloudy forecast

Dell’s EMC buy underlines how cloud computing has hurt enterprise technology companies.

Cloud is the biggest change since networks of small computers replaced mainframes in the early 1990s. Unlike the earlier waves of creative destruction this isn’t about replacing a hardware generation. It’s about the move from hardware to services.

EMC has a toehold in the data centre business. It sells storage hardware and virtualisation software to help spread loads between servers. This is a company that until recently had double-digit growth. Today EMC is growing at a slower pace.

Dell diversifies with EMC

Dell has moved into corporate computing. It has made big strides with storage and servers. Yet it still depends on PCs for most of its income. That market is in free-fall.

The server business is no better. Only IBM and SAP have much in the way of mainframe business. Players like Unisys are now consigned to mainframe niches. And that sector is unlikely to grow.

The smaller servers that have dominated business computing for the last twenty years are also on the way out.

While the shift to cloud computing threatens Dell and EMC, it also threatens all the other business technology giants of the last 25 years.

Microsoft is an exception. It got into the cloud ahead of the trend and is now the main competitor to AWS which came from nowhere to dominate enterprise computing.

Commodity

Away from the cloud, hardware makers are now churning out basic, commodity computers which can be programmed to act as servers, routers or storage devices. Hence Software-defined networking, software-defined storage and even software-defined data centres.

This trend also reduces the once valuable integration revenue — everything plays together better now.

Dell’s strength lies in building low-cost, undifferentiated hardware. But even its commodity computers are too expensive for the big cloud companies who build their own kit or outsource the job to white-box contractors.

Now Dell is banking on selling low-cost hardware to enterprises so they can build thier own private clouds. It may also hope to juggle the economics of building commodity hardware to win back business from the cloud companies.

Götterdämmerung

Many commentators view the deal as a sign of the triumph of new cloud players over old enterprise technology companies.

There is something in this, but it’s not straightforward. All the old companies have made huge investments in cloud technology. They just haven’t moved fast enough, or confidently enough towards the new way of running technology.

Unlike AWS, they face a problem, if they race too fast to the cloud they’ll replace their existing high margin business with a low margin alternative. Only Microsoft has avoided this fate.

Which brings us back to Dell buying EMC. It isn’t a triumph or a new beginning, the deal is a step in the death throes of an era. What we are seeing is the twilight of the technology gods.


  1. Once a takeover is in play, it can often be just as important, maybe more important, to keep the target out of rival’s hands. Much of this is just something that goes on inside manager’s heads. I can’t remember many large scale acquisitions which ended up causing serious damage to rivals.  ↩

The image at the top of the story is Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods by Arthur Rackham.