You can find plenty of decent Chromebooks below $400, but relatively few inspiring Windows laptops priced that low. One exception is Dell’s Inspiron 3000 series, which comes in three screen and chassis sizes. The Inspiron 15 3000 configuration reviewed here has a 15-inch screen, starts at just $293, and rings up at $369 as tested. It boasts all of the physical characteristics of a solid low-cost laptop, but this version suffers a bit from lackluster performance and, especially, ho-hum display quality in its lower price ranks. If your budget is strict, you can abide by these deficiencies. If, instead, you can afford an extra $30 or so, you can pick up an AMD Ryzen or Intel Core version with a full HD screen that would improve your computing experience immensely.
Pedestrian Specs, Impulse-Buy Prices
Shopping for a satisfactory budget Windows laptop is hard not only because there are relatively few models available, but also because the specs of the models that do exist change so frequently. The Inspiron 15 3000 (model 3505) configuration we tested comes with 4GB of RAM, a 128GB solid-state storage drive, and an AMD Athlon Silver processor. This is the first rung of the entry-level laptop ladder; you wouldn’t want to go lower than these specs and still expect a Windows-based PC that’s usable for modern web browsing and other simple tasks.
Between the time we tested the unit and published this review, Dell mostly stopped selling Athlon-equipped Inspiron 15 3000 models in favor of Intel Pentium- and Celeron-based ones. Performance from the latter ones should be quite similar to our model, though, since the memory and storage amounts remain the same. The good news is that the Celeron model is even cheaper, with a current list price of $294. Meanwhile, upgraded AMD Ryzen 3 and Intel Core i3 versions start at $392.
For these impulse-buy prices, you get a surprisingly robust laptop, at least as far as styling and physical features are concerned. The Inspiron 15 3000 is the middle child of the Inspiron 3000-series family, situated in between the largest Inspiron 17 3000 model, with a 17-inch display, and the baby 14-inch Inspiron 14 3000. As such, it’s rather hefty, but not necessarily bulky for a laptop that didn’t have “slimming down” as a primary aim in its design or cost structure.
The chassis measures 0.78 by 14.3 by 9.8 inches (HWD) and weighs 3.91 pounds, which makes the Inspiron 15 3000 an average-size big-screen laptop. Sure, there are plenty of premium models that are a bit slimmer, including Dell’s flagship XPS 15. But precious few of these can beat the sub-4-pound weight. The XPS 15 is 4.5 pounds, and even the svelte laptop-tablet hybrid Microsoft Surface Book 3 is 4.2 pounds.
The Inspiron 15 3000’s weight savings come from an obvious place: an enclosure made almost entirely of plastic, instead of fancy metal alloys. Yes, this means the laptop’s budget roots are laid bare for all to see. No, it doesn’t mean an ugly machine. The black plastic has a pleasing textured finish, and a slight divot separates the keyboard from the wrist rest, rather than just having an endless expanse of smooth plastic. There’s a bit of give in the middle of the keyboard deck, but it’s not concerning. There are no squeaks or creaks, and the display hinge feels impressively sturdy, which can’t always be said of laptops in this price range.
No Full HD Display in Sight
The key drawback on our Inspiron 15 3000 review unit is the display resolution. The panel, which measures 15.6 inches on the diagonal, offers noticeably washed-out colors and slightly fuzzy text because of its 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution. This is lower than full HD, a resolution that typically measures 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. If you sit back about four feet from the screen and squint, the contents of the display look crisp enough, but you need to increase the text size using the Windows Settings app to make smaller onscreen elements readable. This negates the point of buying a large-screen laptop to begin with, which is to fit more things on the screen.
A better approach would be to upgrade to a full HD resolution, which comes standard on the Ryzen 3 configuration. None of the configurations offers a touch screen, but touch capability isn’t something we expect to see at these prices. As it stands, I find viewing angles and maximum brightness to be perfectly adequate in a brightly lit room even on the 1,366-by-768-pixel display, although I did not use the laptop in direct sunlight. The matte finish helps in this regard—there’s no glossiness to reflect glare from ambient light.
Above the display is an oversize cutout for the 720p camera lens. Video quality is workable, about the same as most other mainstream laptops, which also shoot in 720p video. Don’t bother taking still images with this webcam, though, as the sensor is limited to a paltry 0.9 megapixels.
Conversely, audio output from the Inspiron 15 3000’s speakers is above average for its class. Turning up the volume to the maximum level offered a startling amount of sound while watching a few movie clips. The stereo speakers are rated for a maximum of 5 watts of output, 20% more than the 4 watts that is common even on many premium laptops. The audio quality, though, is decidedly less impressive, with plainly audible distortion and even some chassis vibration at maximum volume.
A Simple, Comfortable Keyboard
The Inspiron 15 3000 offers a simple but comfortable keyboard. There is no key backlighting, but the key labels have an easy-to-read font. Travel distance is short, resulting in a slightly stiff typing experience, but the key switches feel plenty sturdy. Spreadsheet jockeys take note: There is even a dedicated number pad with a Calculator shortcut key on the right-hand side of the board.
The Inspiron 15 3000’s power button is at the top right of the keyboard. Some of the higher-end configurations replace the base-level button with a fingerprint reader/power combination button, though this is absent on our review unit. You’ll need to use a pin or password when logging into your Windows 10 account.
Below the keyboard is a generously sized, buttonless touchpad. Tracking the pointer on it is an exercise in patience, as it’s not terribly responsive even when the settings are adjusted. I do appreciate that the in-pad click mechanism or hinge feels sturdy enough that it doesn’t flap around at the bottom. Such an oversight is all too common on Windows machines at all prices. It would actually be excusable on a large, inexpensive laptop like the Inspiron 15 3000 that might spend most of its time on your desk connected to a mouse.
The port selection on the Inspiron 15 3000 is nearly excellent, save for one important omission: no USB Type-C connectors of any kind. We expect laptops at all prices to come with at least one USB-C port, since it’s the future of the USB standards. As it stands, you’ll need an adapter to use USB-C peripherals with the Inspiron 15 3000, but at least you do get three USB Type-A ports to choose among. Two are USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports (the ones on the left), while the one on the right is limited to USB 2.0 speeds and best reserved for connecting an external keyboard or mouse.
The Inspiron 15 3000 includes a dedicated HDMI video output and even a full-size Ethernet jack, both of which are far from a given on mainstream laptops these days. If you’re within cable range of your router, you’ll appreciate the Ethernet connectivity instead of relying on the 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The Inspiron 15 3000 lacks Wi-Fi 6 support, but it does have Bluetooth. There’s even an SD card reader, which can serve as an easy, inexpensive means of adding more storage space if the 128GB SSD gets too cramped.
Dell supports the Inspiron 15 300 with a one-year warranty and mail-in service. Multiple additional support options are available for purchase, with coverage ranging as long as four years and including plans that factor in accidental damage.
Relatively few unwanted apps come pre-installed on the Inspiron 15 3000. The only bloatware I noticed is a free trial of a McAfee security suite, which did prompt a few irksome pop-ups during my testing. I did have to deactivate Windows 10 S Mode, which is turned on by default in the test configuration, to run most apps. This is quite easy to do, but this mode is really only useful for people who need to limit their laptops to Windows Store-only apps, and we wish manufacturers wouldn’t enable it by default on so many budget PCs.
Testing the Inspiron 15 3000: An Athlon Creeping Along
No matter whether you equip the Inspiron 15 3000 with an Athlon, Pentium, or Celeron processor, performance is going to be relatively lackluster. But that’s what you should expect of a Windows laptop at this price, especially one that has just 4GB of memory. Many complex apps these days require at least 8GB of memory and an Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor to run smoothly. Still, if you know your computing needs are of the most basic variety—we’re talking browsing a single web page at a time, or typing text-only emails—the Athlon-equipped Inspiron 15 3000 should suffice. (See more about how we test laptops.)
Let’s look at how its performance stacks up against a few key alternative laptops. We don’t see a ton of $400-and-under Windows 10 laptops; the Asus VivoBook 11 is one of the few we’ve tested recently. You can find a lot of $400-and-under Chromebooks, but those aren’t directly comparable, so instead I’ll use two $600-to-$700 models instead: the even-bigger-screen Inspiron 17 3000, and the Gateway Creator. You can frequently find the latter (a 15-inch laptop) on sale for around $599, making it an especially relevant alternative in the budget space. It was a ho-hum choice at its $799 launch price, but a nice buy at $599, with dedicated Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 graphics for light gaming and a much more powerful Ryzen 5 CPU. I’ve also included the Microsoft Surface Go 2, which isn’t a classic clamshell laptop but a Windows 10 tablet with a keyboard add-on; it starts at $400.
On the PCMark 10 test, the Inspiron 15 3000 falls well short of the 4,000 mark that indicates excellent everyday performance. It’s better than the exceptionally poor result from the VivoBook 11, however. The pricier Inspiron 17 3000 and Gateway Creator obviously perform better here, equipped with more capable processors and double the memory amount.
On the other hand, the Inspiron 15 3000 does manage excellent performance on the PCMark 8 Storage test, which measures the capability of a laptop’s boot drive. It’s all or nothing here: SSDs perform uniformly well, while many flash-memory-based drives on the cheapest laptops can’t even complete the test. That’s the case with the VivoBook 11.
The Inspiron 15 3000 should not be used for much in the way of multimedia content creation or manipulation. Its performance is quite poor when it comes to 3D image rendering using Cinebench and video conversion using the Handbrake app. This is to be expected of a laptop in this price range, however, and the Surface Go 2 posts similar results on our Handbrake and Cinebench tests.
With less than the 8GB of RAM required to fully run Adobe Photoshop, the Inspiron 15 3000 isn’t much good for snappy photo editing, either. It couldn’t finish our Photoshop benchmark. And its integrated AMD Radeon graphics processor offers woeful gaming performance compared with the more capable chips in the Gateway and the larger Inspiron. Again, this level of performance is entirely expected in this price range, and not a mark against the Inspiron 15 3000. Our Superposition and 3DMark gaming tests show the difference. The vast advantage of discrete graphics in the Gateway Creator is clear.
The laptop actually performed well on our battery rundown test, playing a locally stored 720p video for nearly 11 hours before its battery died. The long battery life is somewhat moot, however, as the Inspiron 15 3000 doesn’t offer enough performance to serve as your main laptop for all-day work away from a power outlet.
One observation also worth noting is that having a low-resolution, rather dim display tends to help a laptop on this test; fewer pixels to push. We didn’t have the opportunity to test the upticked Ryzen version with a 1080p screen, but we suspect powering that panel would push down the battery life somewhat.
If You Simply Must Stay Below $400…
We can think of a few reasons to be in the market for a Windows laptop that costs less than $400. For those who are especially budget-constrained, or who already know they don’t need mainstream computing performance, the Inspiron 15 3000 represents an acceptable option, as long as you’re willing to settle for a lackluster screen. On a midrange or premium laptop, these deficiencies would be significant drawbacks. On the Inspiron 15 3000, however, they’re acceptable compromises if you simply must stay below $400.
If, on the other hand, you can add $30 or so to your budget, the Inspiron 15 3000 becomes substantially more attractive when configured with 8GB of memory and an Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor, as well as the higher-resolution version of the screen. These are the configurations that most shoppers should aim for.