The predecessor to Dell's Vostro V131 received short shrift from us. The Vostro V130 was, we felt, lacking in horsepower and delivered particularly disappointing battery life. The new Vostro V131 looks very similar to its predecessor, but offers improved specifications. With a starting price of £359 (ex. VAT) it looks appealing — but, as ever with Dell, the devil is in the detail of system customisation.
Neither especially small nor particularly light, the Vostro V131 relies on an striking — if not particularly elegant — chassis and neat keyboard design to attract attention. The mainly silver outside has the look of metal, even though it's actually made from plastic; the large overhanging lip behind the lid hinges is distinctive, even if it performs no real function.
The 13.3in. Vostro V131 has a distinctive look, although it's not the most portable notebook in its sub-2kg class
The 1.8kg Vostro V131 is not the lightest notebook in its class, and its dimensions of 32.93cm wide by 23.76cm deep by 1.6-2.1cm thick are not particularly svelte — especially given the lack of an integrated optical drive.
Open up the clamshell and the keyboard immediately draws the eye. It's slightly recessed, surrounded by a band of silver, with isolated grey keys. The whole area looks a little busy to us.
In use, however, the keyboard is superb, with good tactile feedback and a light action. The keys bounce back up nicely against the fingers and light-fingered touch-typists should find it particularly comfortable to work with.
The Vostro V131's backlit keyboard is very comfortable to type on
The extra large Enter key is easy to hit, although those who automatically make for the far right of the keyboard may hit the PgUp or PgDn keys, which sit in the center of a column that also includes Delete, Home and End. The cursor keys are large, but don't have any secondary functions — media playback, screen brightness and volume control are all accessed via the half-height Fn key row.
The spill-resistant keyboard is backlit, and if you're sitting or lounging at an acute angle to the keyboard, the light shines through rather brightly and can be distracting.
Beneath the keyboard is a responsive touchpad with two large button. You can disable the touchpad with a Fn key combination to avoid accidental cursor movement when you're typing. There is a fingerprint sensor on the wrist rest — a tiny, almost invisible sliver in the upper right quadrant.
The on/off switch sits above the keyboard, to the left. On the right are three tiny shortcut buttons: one takes you to the Windows Mobility Centre, one accesses the Dell Support Centre, which provides system updates and other services, and one is a user-configurable quick-launch button.
The screen is a relatively clear and bright 1,366-by-768-pixel 13.3in. LED-backlit panel. Viewing angles are fine on the horizontal plane, but not so good on the vertical. Then again, the lid doesn't tip back anywhere near 180 degrees thanks to that overhanging lip. The matte screen is easy to work with in a wide range of lighting conditions.
There are five preconfigured Vostro V131 models at Dell's UK web site, ranging from £359 to £799 (ex. VAT) — our review sample was the top-of-the-range model. You can customise any of these systems, and the changes you can make vary depending on which model you have chosen as your base system.
On our review sample, you can boost the RAM from 4GB to 8GB, change the 500GB hard drive to a 128GB SSD and opt for a red rather than silver chassis, as well as change some of the bundled software options. Lower down the range you can alter other things such as the processor and version of Windows offered.
This degree of flexibility means you will need to do some careful comparisons to get the configuration that suits you best. Note, though, that the £359 entry-level model comes with Windows 7 Home Premium running on a 1.1GHz Intel Celeron 847 ULV processor — hardly an ideal choice for a business system.
Our review sample has a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M processor and 4GB of RAM and runs Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. Graphics are handled by Intel's CPU-integrated HD Graphics 3000 graphics processor — there's no discrete GPU option on any Vostro V131 model.
As well as Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi (with Intel Wireless Display capability) and Bluetooth 3.0, our review model had integrated mobile broadband; the SIM slot is underneath the battery. Only the two most expensive preconfigured models have this feature, and it can't be added to the other models.
For storage, our review sample has a 500GB hard drive spinning at 7,200rpm. The other preconfigured models have 320GB drives, and as noted above there's a 128GB SSD option if you fancy spending an extra £170 (ex. VAT). An HD webcam is a feature on all models.
Dell has not integrated an optical drive into the Vostro V131, which is a great shame as the chassis looks as though it could accommodate one. Toshiba's similarly sized Portégé R830 manages to accommodate one, for example.
There are plenty of ports and connectors, though. The left edge houses an HDMI port and a USB 2.0 port, as well as a card reader for SD- and Memory Stick-compatible media.
The right edge has an Ethernet (RJ-45) port, a VGA port, a headphone/speaker combo jack and two USB 3.0 ports. It's a shame that the latter are side by side, as one port can easily become obscured if a bulky USB peripheral is plugged into the other one. The front has a pair speakers and the system status LEDs.
Performance & battery life
The Vostro V131's Windows Experience Index (WEI) is a middling 4.7 (out of 7.9). The WEI corresponds to the lowest component score, which in this case is for Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero).
The remaining scores are far more respectable: 5.9 for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate) and RAM (Memory operations per second); 6.2 for Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) and an impressive 6.9 for Processor (calculations per second). Unless you need to run graphically demanding software, the Vostro V131 should perform very well.
The battery on this system's predecessor, the Vostro V130, was not removable, and the back of the chassis was peppered with ports and connectors. Poor battery life was one of its main shortcomings, and Dell has learned from that. The 6-cell battery in the V131 is removable.
Dell claims you'll get between 9 and 12 hours of battery life, depending on the workloads involved. To test that claim, we set the system to play movie footage continuously from a USB stick, and got 5 hours 3 minutes from a full battery charge. This is a demanding task, so it's quite likely you'll be able to do a full day's worth of everyday business tasks on battery power if necessary.
The Dell Vostro V131 doesn't quite deliver for us. It looks striking, the keyboard action is superb, and it's nice to see two USB 3.0 ports instead of one, and also to get HDMI and VGA connections.
But the lack of an optical drive is annoying, and the battery life, although respectable, doesn't match Dell's claim. If you want the best from this system, a suitable configuration won't come cheap.