Review Dell Vostro 1520 Notebook
Reasonably priced and customizable
If you’re searching for a reasonably priced office notebook, Dell’s Vostro range is certainly worth a look. With a starting price of €319 (plus tax and shipping), the 15.4 inch Vostro 1520 is designed for small businesses and is extremely customizable – though this can rapidly push the price up to dizzying heights.
Dell’s Vostro range offers relatively cheap laptops with 12.1 to 17 inch screens for small to mid-sized businesses. At 15 inches, the Vostro 1520 is still fairly portable but also offers quite a pleasant screen size. Typically for Dell, it is available with a great variety of different hardware set ups; therefore, some comments in this review (for example the performance and emissions sections) are only valid for models similarly equipped to our review model.
We tested a model with an Intel Core 2 Duo T6570 processor, Intel GMA 4500M HD graphics, 3GB of RAM, a 160GB, 5400 rpm hard drive and a DVD drive. With its anti-glare screen, integrated communications features and emphasis on office performance, the Vostro 1520 does seem to be ideally suited for its intended use as part of a small business network with occasional travel. Whether this translates into practice, you can read in the following review.
Weighing around 2.5 kg and with dimensions of 357 x 258mm x 38mm (closed), the Vostro 1520 is easy to carry but still has an attractive screen size. The slightly tapered shape of the notebook, with an downward-sloping base, makes for comfortable typing.
Defying the current trend for producing laptops in 16:9 format, the 15.4 inch Vostro 1520 has a 16:10 aspect ratio. While performing office tasks such as word processing or using spreadsheets, you will be grateful for the somewhat taller format. The matt surfaces, the anti-glare screen (though a glossy ‘True Life’ screen is also available) and its businesslike black appearance also match well with its intended use. With an ‘Obsidian Black’ model, the only glossy surfaces are the lid and the strip above the keyboard; they are liable to pick up fingerprints and other marks. If black seems too plain, you can also acquire the Vostro 1520 in ‘Deep Cherry Red’.
The plastic casing is fundamentally sound. The base unit is solid and only gives way very slightly under strong pressure in individual places. Happily this is also true of the area above the disk drive. The underside of the base is furnished with two generous access panels, so that a system upgrade or maintenance work can be carried out relatively easily. However, the perforated covers providing airflow to major system components are a little more sensitive to pressure.
The lid also shows good resistance against pressure and torque. The notebook can be lifted up by one corner of the lid without much twisting or even creaking. However the screen edging is not quite so stable; applying pressure will sometimes cause distortions on the screen.
The hinges are well proportioned, but cannot quite prevent some wobbling of the screen when adjusting the viewing angle. However, the screen is steady at every angle, and the laptop can be opened to almost 180 degrees. When the lid passes below a certain minimum angle it closes automatically. Since there is no locking mechanism, when transporting the notebook you might want to take extra measures to ensure that no objects find their way into the space between the keyboard and the screen.
A quick glance around the case shows the ports on offer. The Vostro 1520 has a good basic set up with four USB ports, a VGA connector and a LAN port. Additionally there is an ExpressCard/54 slot on the left-hand side, allowing you to add functionality.
Some models also include an integrated Dell Wireless 5530 Mini-card for mobile broadband (tri-band HSDPA 7.2/ HSUPA 2.0), but this was not present on our test model.
The test model did include an internal DVD burner. If you happen to be a fan of Blu-ray, you can add it to the Vostro 1520 for the hefty additional price of €320.
The layout of the ports is fine. Those that tend to be permanently filled, like VGA and LAN, are positioned at the back. Pairs of USB 2.0 ports can be found in the middle of the left-hand edge and at the front of the right-hand edge, so both right- and left-handed people are equally well served depending on how they choose to organize things. However, more interesting ports like eSATA, DVI or a docking port are absent.
In terms of networking, Dell has used an integrated Realtek ethernet adaptor, a RTL8168D/8111D Family PCI-E GBE NIC (10MBit) to be exact. The laptop is available with various different WLAN modules; for example, our review model had the Intel WiFi Link 5100 (b/g/n). Bluetooth is also available, but costs an additional €25.
The Vostro 1520 can also be equipped with a webcam, TPM module and fingerprint reader, though these options were not included in our test model.
Dell also offers several options with regards to the operating system. Windows Vista Home Premium 32-Bit was pre-installed on our test model, but you can have other Windows Vista variants or Windows XP; if you want to downgrade to XP yourself, then the necessary XP drivers are included on a DVD supplied with the notebook. You can also download drivers and tools from Dell’s website.
Dell’s online support deserves a particular mention here. On the one hand you can try to resolve problems by contacting Dell’s experts through their online chat service, but sometimes there is no one available, even after several attempts. Alternatively you can contact their support services via email; we found that Dell responded within 24 hours, as promised. The competent and friendly support team met all our expectations and were outstanding.
All configurations come with a basic one year warranty, but while customizing your laptop during online purchase, Dell will try to tempt you to upgrade to up to 3 years on-site service (an additional €130 or so, depending on various special offers).
The Vostro 1520 has a standard keyboard layout with no room for a separate number pad. Some of the space that would theoretically have been available for the keyboard is taken up by 34mm loudspeaker strips on either side of it. The size of the keys themselves is pretty generous, and nothing is surprisingly laid out.
Touch typing is wholly without problems. Noticeably the keys have a relatively long stroke length and feel firm when pressed, giving good tactile feedback.
Above the keyboard there are touch sensitive multimedia controls, and to the side there is a slider for switching the WLAN on and off. For all other special functions (brightness, switching to an external monitor) you can use combinations involving the Fn key.
The touchpad fits simply into the overall design and offers a very smooth matt surface. The size of the pad is perfectly adequate. The two touchpad keys are responsive and, as is typical with Dell laptops, have a greater stroke length than most on most laptops.
The Vostro 1520 is currently available with three varieties of screen: two matt versions, one WXGA with LED backlighting and one WXGA+, and also a glossy Premium WXGA+ widescreen display with a True Life surface. Because our test model is destined for long-term use as an office notebook, a matt version with 1440 x 900 pixel resolution and 16:10 aspect ratio was chosen. This way you get a larger usable desktop area compared with the WXGA version with a maximum screen resolution of 1280 x 800.
In the following report on the screen quality we’re dependent on subjective impressions, as there was no measurement apparatus at the test site. The white seems brighter and the black stronger when compared with the Acer Extensa 5220 which was also on hand (average: 197.9 cd/m², black value: 1.0 cd/m²). The uniformity of brightness also seems fairly even, with only the two lower corners seeming somewhat darker with the naked eye.
The Dell Vostro 1520 is generally suitable for outdoor use, as long as you avoid direct sunlight falling on the display. The basic level of brightness is sufficient, only struggling under particularly difficult lighting conditions. Thanks to the matt surfaces there are hardly any disruptive reflections.
The range of viewing angles is good though not outstanding. In the horizontal direction, the usable viewing angles are relatively generous; vertically, even small deviations from the ideal 90 degree viewing angle can lead to over-brightening or darkening of the screen.
The Dell Vostro 1520’s performance covers straightforward office and light multimedia use. The base model with Intel Celeron 900 processor (2.20 GHz, 800MHz FSB, 1MB L2 cache) and GMA 4500M HD can only be recommended for less demanding users, since the single core architecture of the CPU quickly reaches the limits of its processing power when multitasking.
Also available are the Intel Core 2 Duo processors, which offer considerably more processing power; the T9550 CPU is the fastest currently available through Dell’s online store. But this incurs an additional cost of €120 compared to a model with a P8700 processor.
For the test model an Intel Core 2 Duo T6570 CPU was chosen, meaning the Vostro 1520 is very well equipped for its future workplace.
Most models (including our test model) rely on Intel’s integrated GMA 4500M HD graphics chipset, which is sufficient for simple office and multimedia uses, in line with the target market.
For those who prefer a dedicated graphics card, Dell offers the Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS graphics card with 256MB video memory. However, this is only a starting point in terms of multimedia graphics hardware, and great processing feats should not be expected from it, though it can handle older 3D games with low to mid-range graphics. Fans of computer gaming will be far better served by Dell’s XPS range, or even the Alienware brand, now owned by Dell.
The Intel GMA 4500M HD supports DirectX 10.0. Current games such as The Sims 3 can run with the graphics on the lowest setting. World of Warcraft or the classic first-person shooter Counter-Strike can also be played with less attractive graphics. An upgrade of the CPU as well as the graphics card would make sense in some circumstances, to get better looking graphics and also improve the picture refresh rate. For further details see our list of which games run smoothly on which graphics cards.
The business-orientated market is well served by the combination in our test model of Intel Dual Core T6570 CPU with 2.10 GHz (800 MHz FSB, 2 MB L2 cache) and the integrated Intel GMA 4500M HD. Simple office uses like word processing, spreadsheets and web surfing present no problem, and even simple image manipulation programs run without difficulties on the machine.
The 3GB of RAM is also sufficient for this. DDR2 memory is used and the Vostro 1520 can in theory be upgraded up to 8GB (2 x 4GB) of RAM. Dell offers this option in the online shop, but the extra cost of €490 is very steep. You would also want to upgrade to a 64-Bit operating system if upgrading beyond 4GB. 32-Bit operating systems can cope with up to 4GB of memory, but even then peculiarities of the hardware architecture can lead to inefficient memory usage.
You are also spoilt for choice between different speeds and capacities of hard drive. In the test model we have a 160GB Fujitsu hard drive, model MHZ2160BH with 5400rpm. The HDTune benchmark results for this lie as you would expect in the average range. It is also entirely possible to install a different hard drive in the Vostro 1520, as this can be done without any particular technical knowledge using the access panel on the left-hand side of the base. The same goes for the RAM, which is easily accessible through its own access panel on the underside of the machine.
|PCMark 05 Standard||4634 points|
|PCMark Vantage Result||3106 points|
|3DMark 2001SE Standard||4652 points|
|3DMark 03 Standard||2025 points|
|3DMark 05 Standard||1200 points|
|3DMark 06 Standard||738 points|
Here, we are again dependent on our subjective impressions since there were no measuring instruments available during testing. In idle mode and with a low system load the Vostro 1520 remained pleasantly quiet and unremarkable. Some users have complained online about an irritating rise and fall in system noise due to a cooling fan, but we did not observe this.
With a heavy system load the fan remains on continuously, but is not unpleasantly loud and does not become an annoyance, partly because of its low-frequency sound.
The palm rest area becomes noticeably warm during a heavy system load, with the right side staying cooler than the left, because of the fan on the right-hand side. The surfaces tend to grow warmer in the middle and front areas, and the touchpad too becomes noticeably warm.
Corresponding problem areas can be found on the underside. While the back area stays cool, the laptop seems to warm up most underneath the touchpad.
Left and right of the keyboard, the two loudspeakers hold a very prominent position. The sound they produce is admittedly a little lacking in bass, but they are completely usable for undemanding background music or internet phone calls. However, a higher maximum volume would be an improvement.
The signal via the 3.5mm headphone jack is fine, so nothing stands in the way of you enjoying DVDs and Blu-ray discs (should you have chosen that drive option) after connecting up external speakers or headphones.
Our test model was equipped with a 56Wh battery (6 cells). According to Dell, the Vostro can also be supplied with a 46Wh 6-cell battery as well as a larger 9-cell battery with a 85Wh capacity.
The Vostro 1520 achieved a maximum possible battery run time of 362 minutes (just over 6 hours) in the BatteryEater Readers Test, with minimum screen brightness, energy saving mode, and WLAN off. In contrast, its minimum expected battery life during heavy use (BatteryEater Classic test, maximum screen brightness, high performance mode, WLAN on) was only 89 minutes, about an hour and a half.
However, the user will be more interested in the realistic battery run time of 233 minutes, almost four hours, with WLAN on and an adjusted screen brightness and energy profile. With DVD playback and the ‘balanced’ energy profile and adjusted brightness, the battery life dropped to a still acceptable 167 minutes (by which time most films would be finished).
The Dell Vostro 1520 is aimed at users with no exceptional demands of a notebook, who first and foremost need basic functions like e-mail, internet, word processing and image manipulation. Models with the matt screen are sensible for long-term office use and for travelling. Its low starting price is also an important factor.
The machine may not offer any highlights in terms of its case, design or connectivity, but it does consistently meet the demands of a basic model for small to mid-size firms. This is also true of the keyboard and touchpad.
The screen is available in glossy as well as matt varieties, and the maximum screen resolution is 1440 x 900 pixels in 16:10 format.
The processing power is enough to cover basic office activities as well as light multimedia use. You can equip the notebook with a faster processor and the fairly basic Nvidia graphics card, but this brings the price up to the level of the Studio range, which would be more suitable overall.
A further positive feature is the respectable battery life of up to 6 hours (longer with the optional 9-cell battery), meaning the Vostro 1520 can be used for a reasonably long time away from a power source.
Our thanks go to Obstbau Fam. Leeb (Alles Apfel), who kindly lent us the notebook for testing.