Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dell Inspiron 1545 Review

Review: First-look at the Dell Inspiron 1545 Laptop.

My daughter needed a laptop for school and it was time to retire her old 512mb machine. With an eye towards an inexpensive computer, we bought a Dell Inspiron 15 (Inspiron 1545). This is article is a cursory review of the computer.

A capable, low-end machine, with a low-end video card, suitable for a student. I have no serious complaints about the machine itself, but hate the shiny-plastic cover.

I justified spending about $100 more than originally intended (total $520). But with this, I got an upgraded Intel processor, larger cache and 3G of RAM. Cheaper computers will come with Celeron or low-end AMD chips and 2G Ram.

If this were my personal machine, I would have upgraded the Video and I would have bought the Intel-branded Wireless Network card, but because my daughter would never know the difference, we kept the cost down. But in the same breath, many features on this computer are better than my high-end 2-year old XPS laptop and this computer is more capable than my then-expensive desktop.

The Good:
  • Dual Core Intel T4300 2.1ghz, 800mhz chip (upgraded)
  • 1M L2 Cache
  • 15" Glossy Screen 1366x768 (but narrow viewing angles)
  • 3G DDR2, 800MHz; 2 Dimms
  • 7-in-one Media Card; Express Card Slot
  • 3 USB ports
  • WebCam 1.3mpx
  • External VGA port
  • Small power supply (physical size)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium x64 (nice) with physical media
The Unremarkable:
  • Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD (onboard Video)
  • 250GB 5400RPM HD;
  • Standard Dell-branded Wireless and Wired NIC
  • Standard Laptop Keyboard, black
The Bad:
  • High-glossy cheapo-plastic palm rest; always looks bad; greasy
  • Default lid-color is black; other colors cost an amazing $40.
  • No HDD light
  • Moderate amount of "crapware"; easily removed
  • Unable to build Recovery Disks
  • No separate FKeys; you must press an option-number
  • Viewing angles on the LCD screen are narrow

In the Box

The machine ships in a box that is slightly bigger than the laptop and surprisingly survived shipment. It was delivered ground and arrived 6 days after placing the order. The computer comes with itself, a power-brick, and the following external DVD media, which was a pleasant surprise:
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit Re-installation DVD
  • Device Driver and Diagnostic DVD
  • Application DVD: Cyberlink, PowerDVD
  • Microsoft Works 9.0
  • (Other software, downloadable from Dell)

Glaring Problems

The most glaring problem with the computer is the cheap-plastic surrounding the keyboard and the display. This is a high-gloss, shiny-black plastic that looks horrible after touching it. There is no way on God's green Earth to keep fingerprints off this and it perpetually looks dirty. I am not a clean-freak, but this will keep me from buying this machine again. It is unbelievably annoying.

el'Cheap'o Issues:

It is hard to complain when you purposely bought a low-end machine, but 5400RPM hard drives? That is so 2007. And yet, this is what it shipped with. I suppose this will help with the battery life.

The onboard Intel Video card is ho-hum. Which is again, okay for a student computer. With another $50, I could have upgraded to a better video. Why care? The Video brought down the 'Windows Experience Index' (speed test) to a fairly low "3.8". Almost all other indexes were in the upper 4.8's and 5.5 ranges -- meaning this machine isn't half-bad, except for one component. Non-game-players would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

At the risk of griping about the trivial: The computer comes in Model-T black. For an amazing $40, I could have upgraded to Blue or Red -- percentage-wise, this makes for an expensive premium that is unaffordable. Imagine if Dell offered the same color choices for $10. I'm sure people would be happier with their new computer and it wouldn't be such a thorn in the purchasing decision.

Software Crapware

As usual, there are things to un-install on almost every new computer. Here is a list of the software that was immediately removed:
  • McAfee 30-day trial
  • Microsoft Office trial
  • WildTangent Games
  • Windows Live (along with a half-dozen related programs)
  • Cozi Family Calendar
  • Microsoft SQL Server Express
  • Tablet PC Components

Dell's DataSafe Backup: You can do better

I did have problems with Dell's DataSafe backup. It claimed to make "Rescue Media," but after several failed attempts, I gave up; it refused to write to the DVD. I suspect the Roxio CD Burning software was running interference. The other features (full-disk data-backup, emergency backup, etc), required a paid upgrade. Because of this, I de-installed the software and decided to rely on an Acronis backup (not included).

McAfee Virus Scanning: Yikes
When I saw a 30-day McAfee virus scanner was installed, I immediately thought of all my clients in the past few years who have had either McAfee, Symantec, or AVG. In each case, I found this class of software to cause more problems than the viruses they were supposed to prevent. In particular, Mcafee is downright abusive when it comes to renewing their software and many of my clients have gone so far as to cancel their credit-cards to avoid charges.

As much as I would like a full suite of virus protection for my college-bound student, the overhead and hassles are not worth it. Instead, I opted to install Microsoft's free MSE virus scanner and will rely on backups. Yes, I know this is not ideal, but I want the machine to run.

Microsoft Office 30-day trial: Yea, right
A 30-day trial version of Microsoft Office is also installed. Because we had no intention on buying it, it was immediately un-installed. If you kept the software, can you imagine what it would be like if you needed to re-install without the installation media? This is simply too risky for such expensive software. (Here is a secret: Our family uses WordPerfect for word processing and we love it. Admittedly, Excel is a glorious program.)

The computer comes with a copy of Microsoft Works, which is okay for light-weight work and as much as people laugh about it, it is adequate for grade-school and high school use. You can do better with WordPerfect.

Windows Live: Designed by a committee
The computer also came with Windows-Live. I'm not exactly sure what this software does, but I know that neither myself nor my daughter use it. It was an adventure to un-install. Take a look at this list -- each had to be individually un-installed and each seemed to require a reboot: Windows Live Essential, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Toolbar, Windows Live Signon Assistant, Windows Live Sync, and Windows Live Upload tool. This software must have been written by a committee. What a pain.

SQL Server? No fear
Remarkably, I found Microsoft SQL Server Express installed. I believe this was part of the Windows Live software (and the video-editing software that also came on the machine may use the same database). This was de-installed; I'm sure nobody will notice and the machine will be a lot faster without it.

WildTangentGames: A chance to shine, muffed
A free copy of WildTangentGames was installed and I was actually interested in keeping it. But when I launched the first game, the main menu was essentially a permanent nag, suggesting I upgrade to their premium content. I so wished I could start playing a game -- but there it was, right in my face, "click here to upgrade." Can't this be simple and unobtrusive? I didn't need the hassle and it was un-installed.

Too Busy System Tray
Finally, with steps too numerous to document here, the System Tray had a half-dozen unneeded processes. Things like the Intel Graphics HotKey program, Touchpad icons, Datasafe and RecoveryCD's -- all are not needed. Everything is visible in the Start Menu or the Control Panel. It took almost an hour to clean them up and I am still struggling to remove the last of them.

WebCam Software: Fun
On the plus-side, the computer comes with webcam software that has been fun to use. We are looking forward to playing with this.

Final Conclusions:

The machine is decent and I'm confident it will do what it was designed to do. It is hard to fault Dell for some of the pre-installed software, but it took a long evening of work to clean the computer. Sadly, you still have to be a geek to do it right. But the end result is a smooth-running, happy computer.

You may be interested in these geeky, yet wonderful Windows 7 cleanup steps:

Streamlining the Start Menu
Recommended Windows Explorer Changes
Optimizing the Windows Swap File
Cleaning Startup Programs
Exposing the Start Run command
Acronis 2010 Step-by-Step

Of course, as soon as I had the computer spiffed, I made an image-backup (the "Golden backup"). This will become the emergency recovery disk.

Some of my friends will be curious. Recent laptop names in the Wolf's household: "Electra", "Fortran", "Gerbil", "Hamster". This new computer is named "Ishmel". Electra was re-formatted and donated to a needy family that I know.

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