Can’t decide you want a Windows laptop or a tablet… but certain you don’t want to spend a lot of money? A number of PC makers including Acer, Asus, HP, and Dell offer low-cost 2-in-1 devices that you can use either as a notebook or as a tablet. Some have detachable screens, while others have hinges that let you fold the screen back 360 degrees until it’s back-to-back with the keyboard.
The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series falls into the latter category.
The model Dell loaned me to review is a laptop with a 360 degree hinge, an 11.6 inch touchscreen display, and an Intel Pentium Bay Trail processor (although a more powerful version with a Core i3 Haswell chip is also available). But possibly the most interesting thing about this convertible is its price: Dell launched the notebook this summer for $450, but you can often find it on sale for under $400.
The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 notebook is a nice-looking machine, with a grey plastic case, a slim and light design, and a decent keyboard. It’s also reasonably fast for a computer with a Bay Trail processor: it works well for web browsing, document editing, and streaming HD videos over the internet.
But there’s no mistaking this machine for a high-end machine. It can’t handle serious gaming, lacks a high-resolution display, and you can literally feel the plastic case give a little bit as you press your hands against the palm rest. If you pinch the computer, you can actually feel the case squeezing between your fingers.
You also might need to uninstall some bloatware to get the most out of the laptop, and while it’s nice to have the large amount of storage space offered by a hard drive, the system is slower to boot or resume from sleep than a computer with solid state storage.
Still, for $400 there’s a lot to like about this little convertible.
Dell sent me an Inspiron 11 3000 Series laptop to test. This model features an Intel Pentium 3530 quad-core processor, an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel IPS display, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB, 5400 RPM hard drive.
It features 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and a 43 Wh battery.
The system has stereo speakers, 2 USB 2.0 ports, 1 USB 3.0 port, HDMI output, and an SD card reader.
Those sound like laptop specs… and you can use the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series as a laptop. In fact, for the most part, that is how I’ve used it while testing the computer. But what makes this computer special (if not entirely unusual), is the fact that you can also use it as a tablet.
Dell includes a hinge that lets you adjust the screen to just about any angle imaginable. Push the screen back 360 degrees until it’s back-to-back with the keyboard, and you can pick up the computer and hold it like a tablet.
Don’t worry about swiping the keyboard or touchpad with your fingers in this mode, because key press and touchpad taps won’t do anything once the screen opens to about 170 degrees or so.
You can also set the screen at a 270 degree angle so the keyboard becomes a sort of kickstand for propping up the screen so you can use it like an all-in-one, desktop-style computer.
Or you can twist a little further and prop up the system in tent mode for watching videos… or whatever else it is you’d do with a computer in this position.
Measuring 11.8″ x 7.9″ x 0.74″ and weighing 3.1 pounds, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series is pretty small for a notebook. But it’s a bit on the heavy side for a tablet.
The system is also a little funny looking as a tablet, since there’s a useless keyboard hanging out behind the screen.
There’s also a rather large black bezel around the screen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it gives you something to hold onto without accidentally touching the display and the bezel helps make the laptop wide enough to fit a full-sized QWERTY keyboard. But if you’re a bezel-hater, those black bars around the screen might seem like wasted space.
Still, it’s nice to have the option of using the Inspiron 11 3000 Series in tablet mode if you’re sitting on the couch with the computer on your lap. It can be easier to watch videos, read eBooks, or even surf the web in this mode.
You can also just use the system like a laptop with a touchscreen display — but like most cheap laptops, the screen wobbles a bit if you reach up and tap it, which can be a little disconcerting.
I still prefer to use Windows for desktop-style tasks such as document editing or writing blog posts (or in-depth reviews like this one — which I’m typing on the Inspiron 11 3000 Series), but you can also download touch-friendly apps such as Netflix, Amazon Kindle, or TuneIn Radio from the Windows Store if you want to use the computer in tablet mode.
There are a larger number of touch/tablet apps available for Android or iOS than there are for Windows which is why I still prefer my Google Nexus 7 tablet to a small Windows tablet like the Dell Venue 8 Pro. But a 2-in-1 tablet like the Inspiron 11 3000 Series offers a bit of the best of both worlds. It’s a full-fledged Windows laptop that also happens to offer some tablet functionality. It might not be a replacement for an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab. But it’s an interesting option for folks who don’t want to buy two completely separate devices.
The Intel Pentium processor that powers this computer is based on the same Bay Trail architecture as the chips that power smaller machines like Asus MeMO Pad 8 Android and Acer Aspire 10 Windows tablet.
But the 7.5 watt Pentium N3530 is a more powerful Bay Trail chip, aimed at notebooks like the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series, and it offers better performance at CPU-heavy tasks such as compressing files or transcoding video.
In other words, don’t expect the same kind of performance you’d get from a Haswell or Broadwell chip… but this $400 laptop is fast enough for most basic computing tasks.
Not surprisingly, when I ran a few audio an video transcoding tests, the Inspiron 11 3000 Series took almost exactly the same amount of time to complete the tests as the Acer Apire V11 notebook and HP Pavilion x360 2-in-1 laptop. Both of those computers have similar Pentium Bay Trail processors.
But all three systems came out ahead of the Acer Aspire Switch 10, which has a less powerful Intel Atom Z3745 Bay Trail chip.
On the other hand, the Switch 10 came out way ahead in my folder zip test, which involves creating a ZIP archive with more than 2100 files. You can probably thank that tablet’s solid state storage for the difference: both the Acer Aspire V11 and the Dell Inspiron 11 have slower hard drives. I have no idea why the HP Pavilion x360, which also has a hard drive, was the fastest of these four systems in that test though.
While these tests look at performance for some very specific, CPU-intensive tasks, here are a few more objective thoughts about day-to-day performance:
- I’ve had no problems playing HD video or streaming video from YouTube, Netflix, or Hulu.
- I’ve been able to surf the web with about a dozen browser tabs open while listening to music and composing blog posts in WordPress.
- The system boots and resumes from sleep more slowly than some recent Windows laptops and tablets I’ve tested. The hard drive is probably to blame — but we’re living in an age where a system that takes 10 or 15 seconds to resume from sleep or hibernation feels slow. I would have been happy with that a few years ago.
- Another thing that can slow down real-world performance is bloatware.
That last issue can be solved by uninstalling some of the apps Dell preloads on the system. Don’t need McAfee LiveSafe security, Dropbox, or Dell Wyse PocketCloud? Uninstalling those apps will help prevent pop-up messages from nagging you and prevent some apps from loading every time you turn on the computer.
Other apps you might not need include Amazon 1Button, Dell Backup and Recovery, some other Dell utilities, and Microsoft Office: the computer comes with Office pre-loaded, but this isn’t a system that includes a free Office license. You’ll need to pay for Office if you plan to use it. If not, you might as well remove it.
Another difference between this laptop and some inexpensive, Bay Trail-powered machines is that the Inspiron 11 3000 Series is not a fanless computer. The system generates enough heat to justify the inclusion of a small fan which blows hot air out a vent in the back of the system.
The fan makes a bit of noise, and from time to time you can also hear the hard drive clicking, so if you want a silent computer you’re going to want a machine with a fanless design and a solid state drive.
Dell says the Inspiron 11 3000 offers long battery life… and that’s true if you consider about 6 hours of run time to be a long time.
In my tests, the notebook didn’t have enough juice to last through an 8 hour work day. But it certainly has enough power for a trip to a coffee shop for a few hours of work.
By way of comparison, the Acer Aspire V11 lasted about an hour longer, while the HP Pavilion x360 topped out at just 4 hours of run time. Some ther systems with Bay Trail chips such as the Asus Transformer Book T100 run for up to 9 hours… so the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series is a middle-of-the-pack system in terms of battery life.
If you need more run time, you can always pack the power cable: the Dell laptop has a typical laptop-style power brick. One thing you can’t easily do is carry around a spare battery. The built-in battery isn’t easily to replace, so you’d need a third-party, external battery pack if you wanted extra power. Those solutions can be big, heavy, and expensive.
Upgrades and Operating Systems
Part of the appeal of this 2-in-1 laptop is that it’s a portable convertible which offers decent performance given its low price. But what if you want to soup things up with more RAM, a bigger or faster hard drive, or a solid state drive?
Sure, you can do that.
There are 9 screws on the bottom of the laptop. Take them off… and not much happens. You still need to pry the cover away from the rest of the case. This isn’t particularly easy to do without scratching the notebook or breaking the clips holding the cover in place unless you have the right tools.
Once the case is open, though, you’ll note that the hard drive can be removed and that there’s a single memory slot for RAM, but it’s easy to pop out the 4GB SODIMM and replace it with up to 8GB of memory. That’s the most the Pentium N3530 chip will recognize.
You can also pop out the wireless card to replace it. So all told, the system is actually relatively easy to upgrade — at least compared to some other recent notebooks and tablets that have the memory and/or storage soldered to the motherboard.
As with most laptops, there’s no easy way to upgrade the processor So if you want a more powerful chip, just buy the Inspiron 11 3000 model that comes with a Core i3 chip for about $550… or get a different computer altogether.
Of course, upgrading the hardware isn’t the only way to alter a laptop. You can also install an alternate operating system. Fortunately that’s quite easy to do with the Inspiron 11 3000 Series.
The notebook has a 64-bit processor supports UEFI Secure Boot, but in addition to Windows it can boot any operating system that supports Secure Boot including Ubuntu Linux. You can also disable Secure Boot, enable legacy boot, and muck about in other ways.
When I tried loading Ubuntu on the Zotac ZBOX PI320 pico mini-desktop PC with an Intel Atom Bay Trail processor, I was stymied by the firmware which only supported 32-bit software while the versions of Ubuntu and other Linux distributions that support Secure Boot are only available in 64-bit builds. So I had to use a 32-bit bootloader with the 64-bit version of Ubuntu.
I didn’t have that problem at all with the Dell laptop. I just loaded Ubuntu 14.10 on a USB flash drive, plugged it in, and turned on the computer. Everything seemed to work out of the box, including WiFi and the touchscreen.
Dell’s Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1 notebooks aren’t exactly unique. Lenovo, HP, Asus, and several other companies offer convertible notebook/tablet hybrids with similar designs. But Dell’s entry into this space is a model which offers decent performance, decent battery life, and a decent price.
It’s about the same price as the HP Envy x360 11 inch convertible, but Dell’s model offers longer battery life and a slightly slimmer design. On the other hand, while I think the Inspiron 11 3000 Series is a better looking convertible, HP’s model feels a bit sturdier (thanks to a case that doesn’t feel like something you could squash with your hands).
They’re both decent options if you’re looking for a low-cost 2-in-1, but as someone who values battery life and upgradeability, if I had to choose one or the other, I’d probably go with the Dell Inspiron 11 3000.