Going compact – and in the laptop world, that means anything below a 15.6in screen – usually means ditching performance and features, but Dell’s Vostro 3350 promises to change all that. Borrowing a few design features from its rivals, it’s a 13.3in laptop with some serious grunt under the hood – but is it all it’s cracked up to be?
While it’s true that the Vostro 3350 features a 13.3in 1366×768 display, it’s a bit bulkier than you might expect. As well as an impressive thickness – which helps hold all the advanced hardware that Dell has opted to cram into the chassis – it includes a frankly gigantic bezel around the display. It’s not distracting during general use, but it certainly adds a couple of inches to the laptop’s footprint, and gives it a somewhat old-fashioned feel.
That’s a shame, because the remainder of the specifications are bang up to date: an island-style keyboard features a three-mode – off, dim, bright – backlight which shines up through the keys for night-time typing, and a fingerprint sensor located at the right-hand side of the base locks the system against unauthorised intrusion.
Internally, the Vostro 3350 is pretty capable: our test model came equipped with Intel’s quad-core Core i7-2620M processor running at an impressive 2.7GHz, 4GB of DDR3 system memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics card with 1.5GB of memory. An Intel Centrino 1030 chipset takes care of wireless networking, while Bluetooth and gigabit wired Ethernet are also included. A tray-loading multi-format DVD writer is a welcome bonus on the left-hand side – a rarity in a 13.3in laptop.
Dell has certainly pushed the boat out on the Vostro 3350. As well as the aforementioned hardware, the chassis includes more ports than you can shake a stick at: the right-hand side of the laptop packs an analogue VGA port, a digital HDMI port, a combined USB 2.0 and eSATA port, and sockets for headphones and a microphone. The left-hand side adds two USB 3.0 SuperSpeed ports – handily picked out in blue – and the gigabit Ethernet port, while a multi-format card reader can be found at the front.
The oversized bezel around the display also plays home to the webcam, which – if you’re anything like us – will probably get used for the occasional Skype call and little else. To the rear of the laptop is the power socket, plus the high-capacity battery – which, sadly, makes the laptop feel a bit unwieldy in use. Sticking out from the base, it provides a comfortable tilt for easy typing when you have the Vostro on a desk, but we found it uncomfortable to use for extended periods of time.
The graphics subsystem of the Vostro 3350 is worth an explanation: both the on-processor graphics and the dedicated graphics are available to the user, with the laptop switching between the low power draw of the Intel HD graphics and the high peformance of the Radeon HD 6490M as required.
Unlike earlier switchable graphics systems, the software loaded onto the Vostro 3350 allows the user to do it on a per-application basis. Simply load up the configuration tool, browse to the software’s executable, and choose from ‘High Performance’ or ‘Low Power’ modes.
Sadly, in practice, it didn’t work out quite that easy. When a full-screen application is launched for the first time, you’ll see the dialogue asking for which graphics card to use for a fraction of a second before it disappears. If you minimise the app, you’ll get it back – but it’s a pain for newcomers to per-app switchable graphics.
Worse still, we found some apps that refused to pay any attention at all to the settings specified in the software. A run through of 2007 system-stressing shooter Crysis during our benchmarking, for example, used the dedicated graphics no matter what it was set too, while 3D rendering test CineBench refused to use anything other than the low-performance on-processor Intel HD graphics engine.
Compounding this was the fact that our review model was supplied with the wrong power adapter, offering a mere 65W to the Vostro’s recommended intake of 90W. When a replacement 90W unit was procured, things worked a little more reliably. Thankfully, we’re assured by Dell that this was a one-off mistake, and that any units sold with the add-in graphics cards – the hardware that demands the extra oomph from the PSU – are shipped with the 90W model.
Unfortunately, that brings us on to another point: if you’re going to be using to Vostro as a true laptop, you’re likely to be disappointed. Little of the headline-grabbing high-performance hardware can be used in battery mode – for the simple reason that even the high-capacity battery wouldn’t be able to keep things going for long under those kinds of power draws.
In the standard battery-friendly operating mode and using the sticking-out high-capacity battery, you can expect to get between six and eight hours of usable life – not too shabby for the specifications, but a far cry from the ten-hour lifespan of other laptops in this price bracket.
That leaves the Vostro 3350 in an awkward position: if you’re a true road-warrior, you’ll want something with a longer lifespan, and the fact that you won’t be able to use the Vostro to its full potential unless you’re tethered to a power socket will likely be a major turn-off.
Business or pleasure?
It’s fair to say that the Vostro is a little confused. Officially, it forms part of Dell’s business line – separate to the Inspirons it sells to the common man, and available only through its business channel.
The Vostro’s specifications belie that claim, however: it’s available with a coat of three colours to its metal parts, and features a powerful graphics card which is unlikely to find much use in a business machine.
As a home user system, the Vostro makes a little more sense: its powerful graphics card means it can be used for gaming, while its relatively small size compared to true gaming laptops allows it to be carried to school or college for work.
It’s the pricing that lets the Vostro down, though: with the model on test hitting almost £1,200 including VAT, it’s not good enough at either task to make it a truly tempting purchase.
During our testing, we found plenty to like about the Vostro – but, sadly, plenty to hate. The keyboard was comfortable even during extended periods of typing, but lacks some of the keys of a full-size model. The touchpad, on the other hand, was a disaster: despite offering multi-touch functionality, we found it sluggish and awkward with an off-centre alignment making it uncomfortable to use with the right hand – although keeping it nicely out of the way of the palms while typing.
The case also felt worrying flimsy. Despite its metal lid, the bulk of the Vostro 3350 is constructed from plastic, and when carrying the laptop with its lid open from place to place there was a concerning amount of ‘flex’ in the body. While we didn’t test it to destruction – on the grounds that we’d quite like Dell to keep sending us things to review – it’s something to consider if you’re incautious with your hardware.
The main complaint we had was with the screen: at 1366×768, it’s too low a resolution for the price. What is an acceptable resolution on a £600 laptop becomes a serious issue on one costing twice as much, and we found ourselves wishing for an upgraded display option soon into using the device. The thick bezel doesn’t help, leaving anyone opening the lid feeling disappointed at the lack of 14in or larger display behind the bulky casing.
That said, the powerful graphics card – when it decides to work – means that it can run pretty much any game with reasonable settings, even managing a playable 25 frames per second running notorious system-sapper Crysis during our testing. It’s worth turning on V-synch in the game options, however, as we encountered severe tearing in both Crysis and the more modern HAWX 2.
The high-capacity battery – while giving us a runtime that allowed light usage throughout most of a working day – also proved an issue, making the laptop awkward to get in and out of bags and rucksacks. There’s also the issue that in order to get the near-eight-hour runtime promised, we had to turn off most of the laptop’s advanced features – including the high-performance graphics card.
Specs (as tested):
CPU: Intel Core i7-2620M (Quad Core, 2.7GHz)
Memory: 4GB DDR3
Graphics: Intel HD/AMD Radeon 6780M 1.5GB
Storage: 500GB hard drive
Display: 13.3-inch 1366×768
Optical Drive: TSST Corporation multi-format DVD writer
Sound: Intel Display Audio
Networking: Realtek PCIe GBE Family/Intel Centrino Wireless-N 1030
Ports: 2x USB 3.0, 1x USB/eSATA, 1x HDMI, 1x VGA, 1x headphones, 1x microphone, 1x Ethernet
Extras: Bluetooth, fingerprint reader, three colour choices
CineBench 11.5 OpenGL: 8.55 FPS
CineBench 11.5 CPU: 3.08 FPS
HAWX 2: 80 FPS (average)
Crysis: 24.52 FPS (average)
- The high-performance graphics card makes for a respectable gaming laptop.
- The Vostro 3350 is extremely expensive, and compares poorly to similarly-priced models.
It’s possible to customise the Vostro 3350 on Dell’s small business site, and we’d recommend that you do: by dropping the processor down to a Core i3 or i5, it’s possible to drop the price considerably. We’d also advise that you get rid of the Radeon graphics card, unless you’re going to be doing lots of 3D work while tethered to a power socket - in which case we’d suggest spending your money on a far cheaper and more powerful desktop machine anyway.
At the specification provided, it’s simply not possible to recommend the Vostro 3350: much of its cash-grabbing hardware can’t be used while on battery power, and it’s not an impressive enough design for the money. At a similar price point, it’s possible to get a MacBook Pro with better battery life or a MacBook Air with better portability - and when a PC marker starts getting unfavourable value comparisons against Apple, there’s something gone badly awry.
It’s not that the Vostro 3350 is a bad laptop, per se - it’s just a badly mispriced laptop.