Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dell Inspiron 14z Laptop for Photography

Saw this deal posted at TigerDirect good only for today (9/4/12):
Dell Inspiron 17R
  • Intel i7-2670QM processor
  • 6GB RAM
  • 500GB HDD
  • 17.3-inch display
  • Windows 7 64-bit
  • 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0 / eSATA, 1 x USB 2.0
  • Gigabit ethernet LAN
  • $599
I don't have that particular laptop but I recently got a Dell Inspiron 14z (n411z) that I'm pleased with:
  • Intel i5-2450M processor
  • 8GB RAM / 750GB HDD
  • 14" screen
  • Windows 7 64-bit
  • 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0
  • Doesn't have gigabit ethernet. Just 10/100.
I got the 14z a few months ago for $529 refurbed at eCost.com (which seems to be a partner of TigerDirect). Like I said I don't have the 17R, but the 17R has much better specs than the 14z for not much more cost, so the 17R looks ilke a pretty good deal to me.

Before I got the 14z I had been using an HP laptop with these specs: 2.10 GHz AMD Sempron SI-42 Processor, 3GB RAM, 160GB HDD, DVDRW, 15.6" screen, windows vista basic 32-bit, 10/100 lan. Without having tried newer computers, my HP laptop performed adequately. I didn't feel like I was missing anything when using it with Lightroom 4. The only hint I had about its lack of performance was that when I convert my DVDs into mp4 for my phone, it took forever (several hours). In the back of my mind I thought about getting a new computer if I found one with the right features and the right price.

I was looking for a laptop that would be good for editing photos and would also be capable of editing HD videos. I got a Canon HG10 many years ago but gave up editing the videos from it because editing them on my computers was very slow and tedious. I also take videos on my phone and the LX5, but again, I didn't even think about editing the videos. If I were to buy a new laptop I wanted it to be good enough to edit videos in addition to editing photos.

My PC-savvy brother advised me that the most important component for photo and video editing is a fast processor. For laptops, he suggested to avoid AMD because they are power-hungry and run too hot (for desktops he doesn't mind using them). Among Intel processors, I should pay attention to the generation. I should avoid the older generation (Nehalem) because they are about 20% slower for processors with the same clock speeds. The newer generations are Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge. Ivy Bridge is of course cutting edge but costs more and is just starting to become available.

To identify the Intel processor generation, look at the model number of the processor. Nehalems use 3 digits, e.g.. i7-xxx and i5-xxx (there are no i3 nehalems). All sandy bridge have a 2xxx model number such as i5-2xxx or i3-2xxx. Ivy bridge processors have a 3xxx model number such as i5-3xxx or i3-3xxx.

I saw the Dell Inspiron 14z being advertised and I found out it had a sandy bridge processor. The other specs seemed pretty good as well, particularly the ample 8GB RAM and the two USB 3.0 ports (USB 3.0 is much faster than USB 2.0, and I was considering getting a USB 3.0 external hard drive). So I went ahead and ordered one.

I tried the Inspiron 14z with Lightroom 4 and it performed better than I expected. I could truly see changes in real time. It was fast enough at processing that I didn't really need to render 1:1 previews for all photos beforehand. It could render 1:1 previews from Nikon D90 and Fuji S5 raw files within just a couple of seconds (from minimal previews). Even if I chose to render 1:1 previews, importing photos into Lightroom took just a couple of minutes.

I started being 'brave' enough to edit my photos in Photoshop Elements. Previously, I did almost all of my editing in Lightroom only because I didn't want to spend the time to edit in Photoshop Elements. Even exporting from LR4 to PSE9 took several minutes on my old laptop. By contrast, the Inspiron 14z was fast enough that editing in Photoshop Elements 9 was a painless process. Exporting to PSE only takes a few seconds (including the time to launch PSE). Editing the photos was also fast.

Recently, I finally got Photoshop CS6. Again, exporting to PS and editing the photos was quick and painless. So much so that I now process almost all keepers in Photoshop as part of my regular workflow. I never imagined doing that before. In fact, with the large 8GB RAM I don't feel any deterioration in performance by keeping both LR4 and PS running.

Finally, last week I started trying to edit videos. I took videos with the Lumix LX5 (720p MOV format) and the Nikon D90 (720p AVI format) and tried to edit them using Lightroom 4, Picasa and Windows Live Movie Editor. It was quick and easy. The 14z never complained. The processing was fast enough that I didn't hesitate to go back and frequently change settings. Editing videos was as painless as I wanted it to be.

(As for converting DVDs, it's not bad at all. It takes me about 15 minutes to convert a 1-hour DVD.)

BTW I should also mention that the 14z has a stronger WiFi signal than my old laptop.  I get 4 or sometimes 5 bars from my desk whereas with my old laptop I only got 2 or 3 bars.

The Inspiron 14z isn't perfect. First of all, the 14-inch screen is small. I personally don't mind that size but my co-author Mshafik and my brother have both been encouraging me to get a larger LCD. The screen colors are also very inaccurate. When I used Spyder Express 3 to calibrate my old laptop display there was only a very slight change in brightness with the calibration. On the 14z, the calibrated color is very different, which showed me that the default screen setting is too bluish/purplish. Even with calibration, the colors look weird -- kind of greenish. I would have liked a more accurate screen but I can live with it. And I just might heed the advice given to me and buy a larger and better screen.
Second, although the Inspiron 14z is fast enough for me, I've seen reviews saying it's actually below average compared to other laptops in the same class. On the other hand, I don't know if those other laptops are in the $500 price range.
Finally, I don't like the USB ports in the 14z. They have covers that are hard to remove, and somehow it's hard for me to plug devices by feel. I usually have to turn on the lights to find where exactly to insert the USB cable.
One more nitpick. When I attach my external drive to the 14z and reboot, sometimes it will attempt to boot from the external drive and will get stuck. I have to disconnect the external hard drive before it will boot normally.
I'm pleased with the 14z and I'm very happy with the upgrade. I absolutely think the upgrade was worth the cost. If I had to do it over again now I might buy the 17R instead because of the even faster processor and the small price difference, but of course that's always true when buying computers. As for the 14z, it is quite capable of editing photos, even with Photoshop. The 14z also seems to be good enough at least for simple video editing, though I haven't tried editing AVCHD yet. I'll post about that when I have more experience with it.