I don’t buy budget laptops very often.
I mainly try to stick with mid-range to high end models since I haven’t had very good experiences with cheap laptops in the past. There’s always been something that sways me away from them, be it the trackpad, poor screen or lack of key features.
That said, I was tasked with finding a decent budget laptop for my mother-in-law and I came across a sale on the Dell Inspiron 15 3543. I only got to spend a couple days with it while I was setting it up, but it was enough time to put it through the tests.
Read on to see my thoughts on how well it holds up against the competition.
The specs sheet
|Dell Inspiron 15 i3543-2501BLK|
|Screen||15.6 inch, 1366 x 720 px resolution, 10-finger multi-touch with Truelife, TN|
|Processor||Intel Broadwell Core i3-5005U CPU, dual-core 2.0 GHz|
|Video||Integrated Intel HD 5500 HD|
|Memory||4 GB DDR3L 1600Mhz|
|Storage||1 TB HDD 5400rpm|
|Connectivity||Wireless AC Intel 7260 , Qualcomm/Atheros Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Ports||1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, HDMI, RJ45, mic/earphone combo, SD card reader, security lock|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1|
|Size||381 mm or 15.00” (w) x 254 mm or 10.00” (d) x 25.4 mm or 1.00” (h)|
|Weight||2.38 kg or 5.25 lb|
|Extras||non-backlit keyboard, webcam, 3 in 1 card reader|
Design and exterior
First, let’s be clear: this is not an ultrabook. It’s an inch thick and is as about as plain as it gets compared to other laptops made these days.
The entire casing is made of plastic, but it surprisingly feels very well constructed. The top has a pretty nice texture on it, which is good for gripping but can also be an oil trap and difficult to clean. The front edges are well rounded so they won’t cut into your wrists while typing. The sides are made of a shiny glossy plastic, which is about the only feature of this laptops that makes it stick out a little.
On the underbelly is your typical plastic casing with a removable battery and a compartment that gives you access to replace the RAM, Wifi card and hard drive.
For its size, the Inspiron 15 is not overly heavy, weighing in at a little over 5 pounds. Given that the dimensions are rounded to the nearest inch exactly, I suspect there’s a lot of void space inside the casing, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to open the back to find out. I’m guessing Dell was aiming at cost cutting, with this model, and not minimization.
The size does allow for things like the removable battery and the optical drive, which are hardly seen in laptops anymore. Those two features are some of the reasons why I chose this model over others.
Carrying the Inspiron 15 around was relatively easy to do with one hand, but opening it with only one hand was a different story. It takes an awful lot of effort to open the lid and is definitely a two handed operation. I guess you could look on the bright side and feel confident it will never drift open while carrying it around. It’s weird that they made a hinge that takes so much force to open but still manages to wobble when touching the touchscreen. I feel like this laptop can take a few drops though, which I can hardly say for many other laptops. Maybe that is what they were aiming for over the user experience.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard is pretty decent. The key travel is good, the keys are well spaced apart and everything is pretty much located where it should be.
From my experience, this is a typical Dell keyboard. It’s not backlit, unfortunately, but that’s hardly expected at laptops of this cost. Same with the keys – they feel a little cheap but I sure wasn’t expecting a high quality keyboard on this model.
Touch typists shouldn’t have too many problems adapting to this keyboard. There was a minor amount of flex in my model, but it was nowhere near of concern. Overall I was pretty satisfied with the keyboard and I’ve certainly seen worse.
Decent keyboard and small trackpad
The trackpad on this laptop was not the greatest but it’s certainly useable. It’s a clickpad, with the right and left clicks integrated into the bottom corners. From what I experienced, it tracked just fine, with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity. I did notice some jumpiness once, which I couldn’t recreate or explain.
Touch gestures worked as they should for the most part. There were maybe two instances where I had to repeat the gesture but it could have been due to the size of the trackpad. Really, the size is what keeps the trackpad from being good. It’s plenty wide but it’s not as tall as it should be. I constantly found myself running out of room on the top and bottom edges. This made closing Windows 8 apps on the trackpad extremely difficult. Good thing there’s a touchscreen.
This model is equipped with a 1366 x 720 pixel resolution 15.6-inch touchscreen. As you would expect with laptops of this price, the screen gets a twisted nematic (TN) LCD panel. Despite that, the viewing angles are quite better than I was expecting. The side to side angles only had minor color distortion, with the text still being perfectly legible.
On the other hand, the vertical viewing angles were horrible, with the colors completely changing and the text starting to fade or blur. Still, it’s better than some of the other TN panels I’ve been seeing lately, particularly on last year’s Lenovo Y50 and some of the budget Chromebooks (one of which I swear had a 10° viewing angle).
Since it’s a touchscreen, the panel is made of glass and is, of course, glossy. So if you’re an outdoor laptop user, you’re going to struggle with reflections. To make matters worse, the maximum brightness is a mere 166 nits. There’s no way that backlight is going to overpower bright ambient lights or sunlight.
As for the other panel specs, the color accuracy of the panel is about average for being a TN panel. The sRGB coverage is 62%, NTSC is 44% and Adobe RGB is 46%. The contrast ratio was pretty poor at 70:1. The black level at full brightness measured 2.23 nits, which is more like a dark grey. White point was measured to be 7100K.
The screen in bright light, with the matte plastic bezel around it
As I said before, the lid hinge is a little flimsy for handling a touchscreen. It will wobble when doing taps and swipes but it’s certainly useable and I could get used to it.
One thing that stuck out big time with the screen is the plastic bezel. I have honestly never seen a touchscreen laptop that isn’t edge to edge glass. It’s not a deal breaker but it just looks weird – mainly because in order to have space for edge swipes, they had to oversize the digitizer in relation to the LCD panel. So when looking at the screen, you’ll see a glossy black border surrounding your display and matte plastic bezel surrounding that. At first glance, I actually thought it was an error in my screen resolution or something. Two of my colleagues also noticed it right away and commented how strange it looked. I’m certain anyone would get used to, so it really not a deal breaker for most.
Hardware and performance
Powered by an i3-5005U Broadwell CPU, this laptop can handle light tasks with ease, including Microsoft Office and typical Internet usage. It’s nowhere near as fast as the i5 and i7 processors, but it’s a much better than the Atom and Core M processors.
Actually, what makes it different from the i5 is the lack of turbo-boost clock speed, so the clock speed is stuck at 2.0Ghz. In power saving mode, you’ll experience a 50% break in TDP to save on battery life but the clock speed drops to a mere 600Mhz. I found the power saving mode to be slow and only barely tolerable. It’s fine for watching movies though.
I didn’t spend too long with this laptop so I only got to use the Internet lightly, download new drivers and run some benchmarks. The Wifi performance was pretty good and I was able to max out my internet connection (50Mbps) at close proximities to my router. I didn’t notice any terrible slowdowns while surfing the web, but some of the programs I installed took some more time than I would expect. I suspect the slow hard drive they put in this machine is a major bottleneck for most tasks. If this were my machine, I would invest another $70-80 and swap out the hard drive for a SSD. I suspect the user experience would be nearly twice as good.
Below are some of the benchmarks I ran. As expected, it performed better than the Core M processors but not as good as the i5 models. There were really no surprises, but I wish I had more time to repeat these tests with a proper SSD.
- 3DMark 11:P891;
- 3DMark 13: Ice Storm – 39215, Cloud Gate – 3985, Sky Diver – 2264, Fire Strike – 551;
- PCMark 08:Home Conventional – 2124, Accelerated – 2621
- CineBench 11.5:OpenGL 17.06 fps, CPU 2.27 pts, CPU Single Core 0.94 pts;
- CineBench R15:OpenGL 22.61 fps, CPU 209 pts, CPU Single Core 82 pts.
- x264 Benchmark 4.0:Pass 1 – 69.86 fps, Pass 2 – 13.1 fps.
Noise, Heat, speakers and others
Unfortunately, since I had to turn this around in only a couple days, I didn’t have the time to do a proper test on heat and noise.
I can tell you that all the programs I installed and all the Internet use I did, didn’t make a dent in me noticing any excessive heat being generated. It gets a little warm, but nowhere near as warm as an i7 ultrabook.
The fan cools this unit adequately and I didn’t really notice the fan noise all that much. In fact, I recall hearing the spinning hard drive more often, if that says anything. The fan noise is there though, and my house isn’t exactly the quietest place all the time, so your mileage may vary.
There’s nothing special about the speakers – they are plenty loud for normal use but certainly aren’t loud enough to replace your music player. They also lack bass and sound pretty tinny when the volume is turned all the way up. It might be the drivers I had, but I also noticed an excessive delay with the sound kicking in when I would trigger an event with sound. In other words, when a notification appeared, I would only hear the second half of the sound due to the delay.
My battery test consists of using the stock “Power Saver” power profile, 30% brightness(60 nits), wifi off, Bluetooth off, and running a standard definition movie in a continuous loop at full screen with the volume muted. I start the clock when it’s unplugged and stop it when the unit performs a self- shutdown. The Inspiron 15 lasted 7 hours and 11 minutes before shutting down, which is really great if you ask me considering the battery is only 40Wh.
Using Batterymon, I was able to test the discharge rate at certain conditions and estimate how long the laptop would last under those conditions. Wifi and Bluetooth were on for all situations and the volume was set at 50%. Here are my results:
- Power saver mode, full brightness, idle – 7.0W – 5.7 hours
- Power saver mode, 20% brightness, idle – 5.7W – 7 hours
- Balanced mode, 20% brightness, surfing the web on chrome – 10.5W – 3.8 hours
- Balanced 20% brightness, surfing the web on IE – 9.5W – 4.2 hours
- Balanced 20% watching a 720p movie in WMP – 9.2W – 4.4 hours
- Balanced 20% watching 720p on Youtube in IE – 7W – 5.7 hours
Other notable things
As I mentioned before, if you want to get the most out of this machine, you should really consider installing a SSD in place of the HDD. As you can see from my benchmarks, the HDD is incredibly slow and cripples the Broadwell i3 from doing its job. Luckily, Dell made it simple for everyone to do so by giving us an access door. Simply shrinking the partition and cloning all the active partitions to the new drive would do the trick. Speaking of the access door, if you want to also upgrade the RAM to 8GB, you can easily do so.
The included webcam is not the highest quality. They have it listed as 1MP, which means it will take pictures at about the resolution of the screen. If your lighting isn’t perfect, the shots get grainy pretty easily. This also goes for the video feed, as it was pretty noisy in a dimly lit room. In a well-lit environment, the pictures and video look fine though,
The amount of bloatware on this machine is a lot less than I expected. There were only a few programs that were on mine and they were all somewhat useful. Maybe Dell is turning over a new leaf because my past experiences with Dell have told me that they love to load their machines with bloatware. It could also be because of where I got it from.
Price and availability
The i3 model in this review can be purchased at many different retailers, such as Amazon and Newegg. Prices currently range between $350 and $400, but you’d better check out the links for updated figures at the time you’re reading this post.
The i5 model is also available through those links and is roughly $100 more. If you need the speed, go for the i5, but I think most on a budget will be perfectly fine with the i3 model.
I have mixed opinions on this laptop, but it’s mainly because I have high expectations from using high end laptops for so long.
For the price, I think it’s a great laptop though. From what I’ve been seeing, $350 usually gets you a laptop with and Atom or Celeron processor, 2GB of ram, a horrible screen and cheap design issues. In this package, you’re getting an i3, 4GB of RAM, a semi-decent screen(with touch!) and a durable build quality.
It’s not enough horsepower for my liking but for the average user who just surfs the web and uses light office programs, this is a good laptop to have. As an added bonus over many budget laptops, you get a touchscreen and a DVD burner as well. For some of you out there, DVD burners are still a requirement and the amount of choices are slim pickings. If that’s you, this may be a good one for you to try.
That about wraps it up. Please leave me a comment below if you liked my review or if you have any questions about this Dell Inspiron 15 3543. I don’t have the laptop with me anymore but I’ll do my best to answer them to the best of my knowledge.