So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Dell Vostro 3560 notebook
The Vostro 3560 is a good all-rounder that's great for home office use
- Good performance
- Full HD resolution
- Four USB 3.0 ports
- No dual-band Wi-Fi
- Screen angles limited
The Dell Vostro 3560 is a 15.6in notebook that can capably replace a desktop computer for office and multimedia tasks. It's aimed at business users, but there's no reason why it shouldn't also be considered if you want something sturdy and speedy for the home.
Price$ 1,599.00 (AUD)
With Ultrabooks taking all the glory in the notebook market these days, a 15.6in model like the Dell Vostro 3560 isn't something that will capture the imagination. In its standard form, it's a utilitarian beast with a thick base, a big screen and a strong build, and it's designed primarily for business users who want something fast, well featured, yet mobile. It's a good alternative to a desktop PC and will allow you to easily churn through office and multimedia tasks. It can even be used for a little gaming when you want to let your hair down after a long day buried in spreadsheets.
Design and usability
Indeed, it's a notebook that's aimed at business users, but there's no reason why you shouldn't consider it if you are a home user. It has a good keyboard and touchpad, its screen is Full HD and suitable for displaying photos and videos, and it has a full complement of ports for attaching it to a TV or monitor, to external storage devices, input peripherals, and much more.
While it's not meant to be pretty, the style of the notebook is attractive as far as grey business models are concerned and it has a little flash in the form of a chrome trim around the keyboard. There are some curves and a couple of angled corners, a latch-less lid and white (instead of blue or green) status lights, but mostly, the overall aesthetic is still business-like. However, Dell does offer some different colours if you want to leave grey behind: you can pick from red or bronze paint jobs.
What's most interesting about the notebook's layout is the lack of a numpad. Without one, the keyboard has plenty of space on either side and it feels rather luxurious to use. It helps that the keys themselves feel soft and possess good travel, and they can also be backlit (in two levels) for when you want to work in a dark environment.
The touchpad is spacious (100x56mm), it has left and right buttons that are very soft and inviting to hit, and the pad itself was smooth and responsive to use during our test period. Multi-finger gestures are supported, too, such as two-finger scrolling and three-finger flicking. Basically, the input devices on this model are good ones and won't tire you out after long periods of usage.
Because it's a business model, the Vostro's screen has a matte, rather than glossy finish, so reflections from office lights and other sources won't be a problem. The screen's viewing angles aren't what we would call great though, and there were times when we had to adjust the tilt of the screen to correct contrast issues due to the limited angles. That said, it's not too bad. It's actually one of the better non-IPS (in-plane switching) screens we've seen in a while. It's resolution is 1920x1080, which means there is plenty of space for organising windows side by side as you work. And most videos will fit the screen quite well, too.
Specifications and performance
On the inside, the Vostro 3560 can have either an Intel Core i3 or a Core i7 third generation processor. Our model comes with the Core i7, and a Core i7-3612QM to be exact. It has four cores and Hyper-Threading, and runs at 2.1GHz. It's joined by 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM, an AMD Radeon HD 7670M discrete graphics adapter, and a 500GB, 7200rpm hard drive (though the model for sale ships with a larger 750GB drive). This configuration allowed the Vostro to record 22sec in our Blender 3D rendering test, 49sec in our iTunes MP3 encoding test and 40min in our AutoGordianKnot DVD-to-Xvid conversion test. All of these results are as good or slightly better than what we've seen from other systems that use the same CPU, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E530, for example.
The AMD Radeon HD 7670M graphics put up a good showing in 3DMark06, where a score of 8291 was recorded. The Vostro won't have any problems crunching the graphics in everyday work, design programs and photo editing suites, and it will even be good enough to run a few games. Not all games will run smoothly at the Full HD resolution of the screen though, so some compromises will need to be made.
An unimpressive set of rates was recorded by the 7200rpm hard drive, which is a Western Digital Scorpio Black model. A rate of 35.93 megabytes per second (MBps) was recorded in our file duplication test, while in CrystalDiskMark it attained a read rate of 118MBps and a write rate of 97MBps. However, Dell has given the storage aspect of this notebook a boost by installing a 32GB solid state drive in the available micro SATA slot. This drive is designed to speed up booting and application load times. During our tests, we noticed that the notebook booted very quickly from a cold start: it took only 24sec before we could take control of the system. In regular day-to-day usage, the system seemed zippy overall, too, with programs such as Firefox launching almost as soon as their icon was pressed.
While this is a big unit that weighs a hefty 2.7kg, is over 30mm thick, over 370mm wide and 260mm deep, there are still times when you might want to run it on batteries. In our rundown test, where we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video until the unit stops, the Vostro 3560's 48 Watt-hour battery lasted 2hr 17min. You could get a little more out of it by implementing a power saving scheme, a low brightness and by not running too many CPU-intensive tasks. The unit has switchable graphics, and uses the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics when not plugged in.
Ports, slots and other features
The battery sits along the spine of the chassis, and it lifts up out of it rather than sliding towards the back of the unit. There is an access panel on the chassis that can be removed with a small Phillips-head screwdriver (there are only two screws), and this exposes the hard drive and the memory slots. You'll need to set aside more time for further dismantling if you need to work on other areas of the system on your own.
Air intakes are present on the access panel, just near the CPU, and there is a large exhaust vent on the left side of the unit. Because the chassis is so large, heat should not be an issue — especially since it's the type of laptop you are unlikely to actually use on your lap for any prolonged period of time. We also didn't get annoyed by the system's fan.
Along the sides of the Vostro, you get a DVD burner, an HDMI port, separate headphone and microphone ports, a VGA port, Gigabit Ethernet and four USB 3.0 ports (two on either side, which is very convenient). You also get an SD card slot, and unlike most laptops on the market, there is an ExpressCard/34 slot on the right side, which can be used for aftermarket devices such as mobile broadband, solid state storage, or even a digital TV tuner. The system comes with a webcam, a fingerprint reader (this can work with the supplied data encryption software), Bluetooth, and you also get single-band, 802.11n wireless networking (via an Intel Centrino Wireless-N 2230 module). We would have preferred a dual-band module in this notebook, and we couldn't find a way to configure it with one on Dell's site.
Speakers are located on the bottom of the unit and can be easily muffled unless you are resting the notebook on a hard, flat surface. The quality of the output is enjoyable for casual listening of music and YouTube clips.
Overall, the Vostro 3560 offers good performance and is a solidly build unit with useful features. We like its Full HD screen, responsive performance and its input devices. It could use a dual-band Wi-Fi module though, and the speakers probably aren't in the best position, but apart from those quibbles, there is little to dislike about this basic business model.
The Vostro 3560 runs Windows 7, but Windows 8 is offered, too.
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