Monday, March 08, 2004

Computing reviews

As part of the work in setting up my office's classroom, I purchased a Dell Inspiron 600m to use as a system for doing presentations, taking out to customers, doing desktop work, and so on. It's my first Wintel laptop in several years - at Holyoke Mutual, I used both Dell and Gateway laptops until mid 2002 - when I switched to a Gateway desktop (them a Compaq for my last few months). So my PC laptop experience tops out at a 650 MHz P3-based Gateway that couldn't use more than 512MB of RAM and was huge - it had a 15.4" screen and weighed about 9 pounds.

So just on that basis alone, unboxing the 600m was worth it. I purchased it in a configuration with a 40GB hard drive, DVD/CD-RW combo drive, built-in 802.11b/g and Bluetooth (via a mini-PCI card), 256MB of RAM, and the 14.1" SXGA+ (1400x1050) screen. The system also includes as standard a 10/100/1000 Ethernet port and a V.92 modem, as well as USB 2.0 ports and S-Video output. Thinking I might someday actually have the time to play a game on it, I splurged for the extra $30 to buy the 64MB version of the mobile Radeon 9000 video card. I paid for an XP Pro license (an extra $79), and the system arrived about a week later.

The 600m uses Intel's 855PM chipset running at a 400MHz clock. Mine uses the Pentium M processor at 1.5 GHz - it's available on this model at all the points between 1.4 and 1.7 GHz as well. My wireless card was the Dell TrueMobile 802.11b/g card - otherwise they would have stuck a Centrino label on the laptop (Intel only allows systems with the Intel-supplied 802.11b card to carry the Centrino designation - but their card does b only, so I blew it off). Pentium M has 1MB of L2 cache on-die. An antenna is provided in the chassis that the 802.11 card can use.

As a 2-spindle laptop, there are no provisions for a built-in floppy drive. I don't consider this a problem, as it's been years since I built a system that uses them. Since I'd last used Dell, they now provide a BIOS updater that can run from Windows, which is quite civilized of them. I use a 256MB flash key instead when I need a portable disk, anyway - and the 600m can boot from one.

After I first received the laptop, I tried initially to run through the Dell setup (simple enough), and then strip out all the garbage I didn't want. I have both an MS Open License for Office and separate licenses through the partner program, so I'd ordered it with as little software as possible. Unfortunately, that meant uninstalling the Word Perfect Essentials suite. I also uninstalled the McAfee build that was supplied, and most of the Dell utilities.

Then, I made a mistake. I bought a 256MB SO-DIMM at CompUSA that mathced the specs for this laptop (PC2700, 2.5T), but soon after installing it wound up with random crashes. Thinking that it was probably software cruft, I plunged on with the reconfiguration only to wind up with an unusable system. I couldn't get it back easily after yanking the bad DIMM, so I simply blew it away and started from scratch (what I should have done all along). After returning the faulty DIMM, I ordered one for less money from Crucial, and it's humming away now (the 600m ships with a Micron DIMM anyhow, so one more is good).

After re-installing Windows and Office, the laptop has been rock-solid since. For a quick speed test, I installed VirtualPC on both the 600m and a Celeron 2.4GHz-based desktop system (a Shuttle SFF box), then installed Mandrake Linux on both. Despite the faster clock speed, the Shuttle with its shared video memory and lack of L2 cache was noticeably slower on most operations, and completed the install fully 20 minutes later than the 600m (despite the faster disk drive and ATA-133 support on the Shuttle). I was impressed by that, especially since the Shuttle makes a perfectly adequate server.

The screen is impressive, though the pixels are even tinier than I feared they'd be. Reading glasses may be in my future sooner than I hoped :-( meanwhile the Radeon is an impressive performer. Screen painting is almost imperceptible, and the screen's quality is top-notch. I haven't identified any dead pixels or stuck spots on the LCD, and viewability is good at most realistic angles.

I haven't tried CD burning yet, but the read speeds are fine. Some discs have been kind of noisy and unstable-sounding on access, but so far that hasn't translated into any read errors. The system weight is good - all this function is packed into a little over 5 pounds, and it feels fairly substantial despite the low weight. Traditionally, I've seen PC laptops seem kind of on the flimsy side so it's good to see a model that does it right.

The good? Well, as I mentioned it's pleasantly quick. I'd like to see it with a higher-performance HD in there, but I have better things to do with my company money than find out how much better it would be. Wireless performance is excellent - there's an advantage to a cheapish plastic case, and that's that the antenna has little to block it. I can go a good way down the hall of my office building and still get a signal, and I can get a signal from my home AirPort down in the cellar, when the base station is up on the top floor of the house. The memory and mini-PCI cards are easy to access, and battery life is pretty good for an Intel box. The keyboard is better than I usually see on a laptop. The built-in function keys are well-labeled and intuitive.

The bad? Well, it runs hotter than I expected, given the Pentium M's reputation for stingy power management. It's not painfully hot, but it's hotter than I would like to see on battery power. Battery life so far has been in the 3-3.5 hour range, but I haven't really optimized the power settings like I should. I expect to drive it up over the 4-hour mark ultimately. The 600m ships with a standard 48WH battery, and a second one is available to go into the CD bay (the drive is hot-swappable) for extended run time. I don't have that, though. And the trackpad, though responsive, suffers from buttons that take way too much force to operate. I also don't like the flimsy protection on the docking connector doors. I taped it shut.

All in all, the Dell Inspiron 600m is a solid mid-range laptop - it doesn't have the extreme battery life and portability of the smallest models, and it doesn't have the all-out desktop-esque performance of the big ones, but it does quite nicely in the little niche of "good laptops that do nothing horribly and nothing spectacular". And the price is right - this laptop cost under $1500 fully equipped. It's not the $700 laptop you'll see advertised in places (even from Dell), but it's a good value for the money.

Of course it's not a G5-based PowerBook, but until there is such a thing (and my business is doing well enough to let me buy one on impulse) it'll do fine.

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