After several years with a no-frill Pentium II 266 and a Pentium II 400 laptop, I finally decided it was time to bite the bullet and invest in a decent new laptop. The decision was mostly spurred by my recent job change, resulting in me spending a total of 100 minutes on a train every day commuting to and from work.
When I started my research by visiting manufacturer’s site and reading reviews, I quickly found out that most laptops fall into one of three categories:
I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with this machine in order to find the right specs. I also didn’t want to make the same mistake I made when I bought my first laptop, sacrificing features to save some money. In the end I realized that I wanted a versatile machine that could do it all. Armed with a very specific list of specs I compared models in the powerhouse category from several manufacturers, and the model that came out victoriously in the end was the Dell Inspiron 8500.
Here are the specs of the model I ended up ordering:
By waiting for the right time, I managed to bring the price down to about $2400 between rebates and free upgrades. Not cheap, but worth it.
Shipping and Delivery
I ordered the unit online on May 15, and was initially given a ship date of June 6. The confirmation email I received shortly thereafter said “On or before May 30” The unit arrived on May 21. Not bad, I didn’t complain.
Ain’t she a beauty?
Dell shipped it via Airborne Express. The box was in excellent condition, and so were the contents, safely and professionally packaged. A review of the spec list comparing to the actual item showed that everything was configured exactly as ordered. The package included XP restore disks, various software and driver disks, manuals, installation guides, and a few additional hardware pieces, all nicely packed and labeled.
The chassis is made out of plastic, no fancy aluminum or titanium here, even though the silver-gray color might give that impression to the untrained eye. It is surprisingly sturdy with very little flexing. The frame does not feel quite as solid as a Thinkpad, but is a hell of a lot better than some of the Vaios I laid hands on. Due to the massive screen size and number of built-in features the laptop is pretty hefty with the dimensions of 14″ x 10.5″ x 1.5″ and an approximate weight of 7.5 lbs. While it elicits a “Wow, it’s big!” response from most people on first glance, it actually handles pretty nicely, I wouldn’t call it a brick. It is definitely lighter than the old Inspiron 8200.
Instead of two latches at the corners, the Inspiron has only one latch on the front in the middle that closes tightly. The design is very user-friendly because as you push the release button below the latch, the screen pops up about a quarter of an inch with your thumb positioned right beneath it, ready to lift the screen up. Simple, but effective.
The CPU in this laptop is derived from Intel’s Pentium 4 processor, with a 400MHz bus, 512K of L2 cache, and 0.13 micron die size, running at 2.20 GHz, a very respectable speed for a mobile computer. It includes speed-step technology allowing it to switch on the fly between different modes of operation, varying from maximum speed and performance to lower speed and power preservation. It offers a healthy middle ground between laptops that run the desktop version of the Pentium 4 resulting in high heat production, high power consumption and low battery life, and low power mobile processors that are optimized for maximum battery life but offer noticeable less performance.
What sets this 15.4″ Ultrasharp TFT LCD screen apart from the few other laptops that offer a similar resolution is the wide-screen format. Instead of 1600×1200 resolution with an 4:3 aspect ratio, it supports 1900×1200 resolution with an 16:9 aspect ratio, providing almost 20% extra width and the ability to have multiple windows open side by side, or a nice big work surface for programming applications, or even tiling four browser windows as shown below.
The image quality is a sight to behold. It displays an amazingly crisp and clear picture even at such a high resolution. Granted, while the resolution might not be everybody’s cup of tea, users who are willing to spend the extra money for this screen will very much appreciate it. For users that prefer a lower resolution but still want the aspect ratio, Dell also offers various other screen options with lower resolutions and lower price.
GeForce4 4200 Go
I decided to pay a little extra for the GeForce4 4200 mobile video chipset to have the option for an occasional round of Command & Conquer: Generals or Unreal Tournament 2003. I ran a few UT benchmarks and recorded a score of 125.94 for the flyby-antalus benchmark and 51.75 for the botmatch-suntemple benchmark. Pretty decent for a laptop. I played several games of C&C and UT, and was extremely impressed with the performance. The graphics and gameplay were very smooth. This is definitely a great mobile gaming video chipset.
The keyboard is very decently sized and comfortable to work on (though I am still hoping somebody will somehow make a natural keyboard for laptops one of these days). One minor observation I made is that the keyboard is somewhat flexible, which means after pushing a key all the way down, the keyboard itself has additional play of maybe 2-3 millimeters. It is most obvious towards the bottom right of the keyboard, and least pronounced around the top left corner. While it does not interfere with my typing, it does not quite feel as solid as one would expect. This seems to be a common issue though, and Dell has finally released an updated version of the keyboard and palm assembly that can be replaced under warranty by a Dell technician to correct the issue. Newer models are already shipping with the updated keyboard and assembly.
In general, Keyboards are definitely a matter of very subjective taste. I have used Dell laptop keyboards plenty of times before and am comfortable with them. Other people don’t like the feel and prefer other brands. If you are picky, I suggest you find a way to test drive the keyboard before purchasing.
At the top of the keyboard are volume buttons (increase/decrease and Mute), at the right are DVD/CD-RW control buttons (Play/Pause, Stop, Forward, Backward). A simple nicety that can come in handy occasionally.
Touchpad and Pointing Stick
Another subject to taste and preference are touchpad vs. pointing stick. The Inspiron offers both, and they both work well, even at the same time. The buttons for the pointing stick travel a tad far for my taste and feel a little bit soft. I usually use the touchpad which is very comfortable. It supports various tap and drag functions. When working on a work surface, I usually use a Notebook Optical USB Mouse which is completely plug and play, and works in conjunction with both the touchpad and the pointing stick. It is definitely nice to have this many choices.
Due to the performance oriented CPU I opted for a second battery. It is modular and fits into the only bay. This disallows using the DVD/CD-RW drive while operating with the second battery, a minor shortcoming and something to be aware of depending on ones needs. While I have not run any exact benchmarks, the system claims to be running about 4 hours (of course depending on and varying with usage) with both batteries installed, and from what I’ve observed so far, that sounds about right.
Module Locking Mechanism
This Inspiron uses a new locking mechanism for its modules that I had not seen before. On most laptops, switching batteries and drives usually requires the user to flip the laptop around or lift it up in order to find the appropriate release latch, then figure out what finger to use to disengage the latch and what hand to use to pull out the module. This new mechanism involves a very simple push button latch that can be operated with one hand without lifting the laptop. Pushing the latch causes it to pop out, offering a handle to pull out the module with. Pushing the latch once again locks it back in place. To install the module, simply push it into the bay until it snaps into place. Very simple and elegant. The picture below demonstrates how it works. On top the DVD/CD-RW drive with the latch closed, on the bottom the second battery with the latch released.
The Inspiron has a multitude of built-in connectors. From left to right as pictured below on the back are:
On the left side are:
Due to the number of built-in devices there aren’t too many devices left to plug into the PCMCIA slot, but one should be aware of the fact that there is only one PCMCIA Type II slot, preventing the use of two Type II cards simultaneously or the use of a Type III card.
On the bottom are from top clockwise:
The cooling vents shown here have a counterpart at the top of the chassis, as well as at the side with a fan mounted inside. This allows for good airflow and cooling.
On the bottom are also 5 thick rubber feet. When sat on a flat surface, there are several millimeter of air between the work surface and the underside of the laptop as seen in the photo below, enhancing airflow and cooling. The unit gets nice and toasty underneath towards the center, very nice for cold winter nights, but at no point uncomfortable. The cooling fan doesn’t kick in very often unless the system is pushed by playing 3D games for example. While audible, fan noise is very tolerable and far from annoying like some laptop fans I’ve heard.
What looks like cooling vents on the front in this picture are actually hiding the speakers. While SigmaTel Audio might not be exactly be in the same ballpark as a Creative Audigy chipset, it is actually producing pretty decent sound for a mobile computer. I listen regularly to MP3’s via headphones, and the sound quality was definitely acceptable.
Internal TrueMobile 802.11b/g Wireless Mini-PCI Card
While I currently only have an 802.11b access point in my house, setup of the wireless network was effortless in XP. Wireless range was very good throughout my two-story townhouse with the access point being located in the top back part of the house. Network traffic was reliable, exactly as expected from a wireless connection.
I really love it when I see that somebody put some thought into something. The power adapter is a great example. For how long have users wrapped their power cords around the power adapter? Dell did it right this time and really thought it through. The power adapter has rounded corners for wrapping the cables tightly without stressing them. The main power cable comes with a angular plug, preventing it from being stressed when wrapped tight. And to top it off, there is a nice rubber strip that wraps around the cable to hold it in place. Beautiful.
One peculiarity about the power adapter: It feeps. Whenever it is in use, it randomly emits a high-pitched feeping sound, almost like a tiny chick inside is trying to come out. It does not impact functionality of the power, but it is aggravating to my ears after a while. I have brought this issue to Dell’s attention and after one failed attempt they eventually replaced it with a newer revision (L03) that fixed the problem.
40 GB 5400 RPM Hard Drive
Yes, it would have been nice to get the 60GB drive, but the reason I opted for the 40GB drive is because the platters rotate at 5400 RPM instead of the 4200 RPM that have been the norm for laptops so far. This makes for much better disk performance, definitely a point worth considering.
Internal Bluetooth Adapter
Bluetooth is still struggling to gain popularity. The main use I have for Bluetooth in a laptop is because I have a Sony Ericsson T68i mobile phone that has Bluetooth and a built-in modem, allowing me to go online from the train during my commute. More details about that project at howto/wlrwex_1.html. By having a built-in Bluetooth adapter I don’t have to worry about an external USB adapter that can break off or get lost. Plus, now I have a pretty blue light on the laptop.
DVD/CD-RW Optical Drive
The DVD/CD-RW is a must for being able to watch DVDs and burn CDs. The drive works very well and I love being able to occasionally watch a DVD on my commute. Playback is very smooth with the provided InterVideo WinDVD. For CD burning Dell preinstalled Roxio’s Easy CD Violator 5, which I promptly replaced with Nero 5.5. The drive is a LG/HLDS/Goldstar GCC-4240N and unfortunately region-locked with no hacked firmware available online. However, DVD Regionfree available at http://www.dvdidle.com/dvd-region-free.htm gets around that problem very nicely and allows uninhibited viewing of DVDs of any region.
There is an upgrade available for a DVD burner combo drive, but I couldn’t see me burning enough DVDs from the laptop to justify the additional $200. I personally prefer to wait until there is a clear standard, and DVD burner speeds have increased to something more tolerable like at least 12x or 16x, and then I’d rather get one for my desktop system.
Dell lets you pick exactly what type of warranty you want, ranging from a basic limited 1 year warranty to a 4 year complete care warranty that covers it all – at an appropriate additional charge of course. Even though general wisdom has it that you just don’t buy extended warranties, I spent the extra bucks to get the 3 year complete care warranty. Maybe I have a crayon up my nose, too, but knowing how much it costs to replace a busted motherboard or LCD on a laptop, I rather be safe than sorry.
I have also experienced mind-boggling warranty service from Dell on an old laptop that was only weeks away from an expired warranty. They sent Airborne Express to pick it up with a special box on a Wednesday afternoon, shipped it overnight to Memphis, had it fixed and tested on Thursday (replaced the motherboard), and shipped it overnight back to me by Friday morning.
In case you haven’t caught my drift yet: I love this puppy. It is a great machine, loaded with tons of features, powerful, does everything I want it to do, and then some. I expect it to last me a long time. In my opinion it is definitely worth the money, and I highly recommend it to anybody who is considering purchasing a desktop replacement powerhouse of a laptop.
Submitted by: Alex “crazygerman” Byron