A Closer Look at the Vostro V131

Outwardly, there’s a lot to like with the Vostro V131. It may not be as thin as an ultrabook or a MacBook Air, but it’s still very much a thin and light ultraportable. There’s also no optical drive to take up space, and while you can always use an external drive, most businesses (and homes) can transfer any important files from another PC over the network (or via a USB thumb drive). Here’s a gallery of the laptop, equipped with the now-standard 6-cell battery.

Outside of the Vostro name, at first glance it would be very easy to mistake the V131 for some form of Latitude. It comes in a classic Dell matte silver finish with black highlights. Open it up and you get more matte surfaces—why it’s good for businesses to have matte laptops but consumer models are so frequently adorned with glossy finishes is beyond me. Aesthetically, there’s very little I can find fault with in the V131 appearance. It looks nice and has everything most users would need. However, once you start to handle the V131 a bit the differences between Vostro and Latitude become immediately obvious.

The keyboard is an area that deserves investigation; some elements are praiseworthy, but it’s not without flaws. On the good side, you get a layout that I have grown fond of over the years—one which Dell could benefit from using on their XPS z-series in my opinion. All of the important keys are readily available, including dedicated document navigation keys on the right column, a context-sensitive key to the right of the right control key, and Fn shortcuts for various other functions. There’s also keyboard backlighting, which works just as well as on other laptops. On the not-so-good side, there’s some flex in the keyboard—particularly if you press hard (e.g. not necessarily typing, but just pressing hard on a key to see if there’s flex). It’s not enough to really detract from the typing experience, and the keyboard does make full use of the width of the chassis, but it’s definitely not anywhere near the level of the Latitude E6420 for example—it’s not even as durable as the XPS 14z, though the layout as noted is better. I can type fine on the V131 and key travel and spacing are reasonable, but it’s one of the areas where it feels like corners were cut—or at least trimmed.

Another item that you’ll find on the Latitude line which is missing here is the pointer stick and extra buttons. I know there are some people that really love the TrackPoint as a mouse alternative, but with the latest multi-touch and gesture capable touchpads I’m now firmly in the camp of touchpad users. I’ve used an E6410 quite a bit, and one item that always bothers me is the tiny touchpad surface area. It helps you avoid accidental activation while typing, but it also makes using it as a touchpad more like a netbook than a laptop. I’m not sure there’s an optimal solution that can please everyone, frankly, but I like the size of the V131 touchpad and I don’t miss the TrackPoint input or extra buttons in the least. The touchpad hardware comes from Synaptics, with a Dell-customized driver set. I didn’t experience any difficulty with accidental touchpad activation at the default settings, but if you’re experiencing such things you can set the touch sensitivity to maximum (“Heavy Touch”) and do the same for TouchCheck, at which point I had to specifically try to activate the touchpad while typing. YMMV, naturally, and I still use an actual mouse whenever I can, but the touchpad works as well as any others I can recall from recent memory.

The one area where the Vostro V131 fails to impress is in the build quality. At first it seems decent—it may not have a magnesium alloy frame, but it doesn’t feel like a complete joke. The LCD cover is composed of a magnesium alloy and feels quite solid, which at first made me think build quality was pretty close to that of the Latitude E6410. Start to massage the V131 a little more however and you’ll find that the frame and palm rest appear to be almost entirely made of plastic, and it’s not particularly thick plastic either. We mentioned keyboard flex as being present, but there’s flex throughout the chassis. Grab a corner of the laptop and lift it up and you can see a slight distortion in the shape of the casing. Grab the corners of the laptop and apply some pressure and you can also get the chassis to bend and warp quite easily. This isn’t a huge concern if you plan on handling your laptop with care (which we’d always recommend), but long-term the V131 is likely to develop more squeaks and creaks than a higher quality chassis.

One other complaint about the chassis is that the cover on the bottom that provides access to the RAM and storage can be quite difficult to remove—not difficult as in hard, but difficult as in, “Am I going to break this piece prying it off?” It has a single screw but probably six or eight plastic clips, and if you have to open it up more than a few times you’ll probably break a few clips. Opening up the slots on the bottom of a Latitude is child’s play by comparison; Latitudes are meant to be serviced quickly and returned to use, but the Vostro will take a bit more time and finesse. In short, the chassis design and materials are the major trade off in comparison to the Latitude line.

The Vostro line is targeted at smaller homes and businesses that want business class support without necessarily having to spend up for a Latitude. There’s no doubt that the build quality and materials in Dell’s Latitude line are better than the Vostro, but that doesn’t make the Vostro a bad laptop. Given the choice (and without looking at price), most people will prefer the Latitude models, but price almost always comes into play. There are other factors as well that may or may not matter to potential buyers. The Latitude laptops support docking stations and usually have at least one more USB port, and they go through additional validation testing—similar to how Intel and AMD test their Xeon and Opteron processors more rigorously than they do their consumer CPUs. In short, you give up some things by opting for Vostro over Latitude, but for some the tradeoffs will be perfectly acceptable.

Wrapping things up, I’m impressed on one level with how much you can get for a reasonable price. There are plenty of $600-$700 laptops out there, but a lot of them feel very cheap and flimsy and come with a generic 1-year warranty. (If you actually have to send a laptop back for repairs in the first year, let’s be clear: the laptop is a lemon.) The Vostro is thin but still feels reasonably durable, and the hinges are still metal so they’re not as apt to wear out after 18 months. Provided you’re not banging your laptop around, I can easily see the Vostro lasting through a few years of use, and the fact that Dell will sell you a 3-year NBD warranty for $80 extra indicates that they feel it should last at least that long without issues. Yes, it’s clearly a step down from enterprise class laptops in build quality and materials, but it’s also about half the price of a similarly equipped E6420.

To get into the specifics, if you start with the $919 Latitude E6420, you’ll need to bump up to 6GB RAM and a 500GB HDD, add a webcam and Bluetooth module, and the final tally comes to $1150 (with the current $448 rebate—again, prices are subject to fluctuations). The Latitude comes with a 3-year NBD on-site warranty standard, and perhaps more importantly there’s a $79 upgrade to a “Premium Panel” 1600x900 LCD. Such a configuration will weather the years better; however, for the price you can buy two Vostro laptops, or buy one Vostro now and upgrade to a new model Vostro in a couple years. You end up spending about the same amount, but which will be best in the long term is something of a personal/business decision. I know I’d prefer to spend more for a laptop I’m happy using, and I’ve had conversations with quite a few others who have used both Latitude and Vostro and they tend to feel the same, but if you’re looking to save some money for your business, the Vostro line is certainly a viable option.

Dell Vostro V131: What’s in a Name? Vostro V131: Let’s See the Benchmarks
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