Located right in the middle of the company's line-up, the Dell Inspiron 15 is one of the most versatile and affordable mid-range laptops available, with the cheapest base configuration on Dell's Web site starting at around £300. The 15 line is extremely customisable, so you can make your model as affordable or as expensive as you like.
Covered in glossy black plastic on the inside and matte black plastic on the outside, our review sample looked as if it were headed off to an undercover sting. It's not an unattractive look, but it's not very distinctive. A variety of colours, including red, pink, green and purple, can be chosen instead, for £30 each. A selection of intricate designs is available too, at a price of £70 each.
The interior couldn't be any more minimalist. Above a straightforward keyboard sits a lone silver power button. Below the keyboard is a black touchpad with black buttons. The matte touchpad is of an average size and works fine. The old-fashioned tapered keys on the 15's keyboard have good response and travel, and are well spaced out, making for comfortable typing. The base of the laptop, however, feels rather wide -- Dell could probably have fitted a number pad in. That's it for buttons -- all other controls are operated with the keyboard, but, pleasingly, without you needing to press the function key at the same time.
The 15's 15.6-inch glossy widescreen LED display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is standard for laptops in this price range. While a 1,600x900-pixel option is available, we found the screen to be perfectly adequate for most mainstream applications. Text and icons were easily readable. We found screen glare to be minimal, but the colours and brightness seemed slightly less vibrant than was the case with other screens we've seen recently.
The 15's speakers are unusually loud, and more than adequate for games, music or movies. We almost never had the volume above the halfway mark in the office.
The 15 comes with three USB 2.0, VGA-out and Ethernet/modem jacks -- all fairly standard -- plus an SD card reader and an ExpressCard slot, which is useful for adding a broadband modem or Bluetooth card. Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi can be added for £35 and £15 respectively.
The processor can be upgraded from a netbook-level Intel Celeron 900 all the way up to a Core 2 Duo P8600 (costing an extra £280). There are options for RAM, hard drives and batteries. In short, you can tweak your 15 as much as you like. But the more you trick it out the more you invite the question as to why you're not simply buying a fancier multimedia laptop.
Our configuration included a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400 processor, but Dell's current closest option is the 2GHz T4200, which is nearly the same in terms of performance. This budget version of the Core 2 Duo is a good all-around mainstream laptop processor and will handle most multimedia and office tasks perfectly well.
Our configuration's 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 GPU is a £45 upgrade option, and adds some basic gaming capabilities. Unreal Tournament 3 ran at 33.4 frames per second at a 1,280x768-pixel resolution. That's passable, but not ideal. We tried launching Street Fighter IV and got barely playable results even with the settings turned down. Using this type of configuration for serious gaming will only end in disappointment. You're probably better off saving up for a real gaming laptop or cutting out this GPU upgrade option altogether.
Our configuration's six-cell battery (the basic configuration has a four-cell battery) ran for 2 hours and 34 minutes in our video-playback battery-drain test, which is less than we'd like for a medium-size mainstream laptop. Upgrading to a nine-cell battery (£65) should solve that problem, but it's a much larger battery and will make the system less portable.
The Dell Inspiron 15 is extremely customisable, so you can tweak it until you find the version that suits you best, although adding extras quickly raises the price. What won't change are the solid construction and good keyboard. Our configuration handled everyday tasks well, although it's by no means a gaming machine.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet