by Dan Hunke, Canada
The Dell Inspiron 710m is an 'updated' version of the Inspiron 700m, Dell's previous widescreen ultraportable. By updated, I mean that the white styling around the keyboard has been replaced with a pure silver (and in my opinion, better looking) bezel. That's it. That being said, at the time I bought this - April 17, 2006 (early birthday present for myself) - the Inspiron 710m was still my first choice when looking for a thin and light laptop, even though it is running on aging hardware. All in all, it for the price I paid ($1459 CDN + tax, I'll get to that later) I'm sure I picked a real winner. Here's why...
I configured my Inspiron 710m as follows:
Reasons for buying
My reasons for buying this laptop were all over the place, but it all boils down to two things: battery life and portability. With a small 1.5x11.7x8.5 inch form factor (about an inch deeper with the extended battery) and weighing at under 5 pounds with the 8 cell battery, this thing isn't technically an ultraportable but it is miles ahead of my old Thinkpad T30 (14.1"), not to mention the hordes of 15.4" and (groan) 17" notebooks on the market today.
I was looking for something small and portable that I could carry with me at all times (if necessary). Integrated optical drive was a must, long battery life was a must, and I didn't want to sacrifice power for mobility. The 710m offered an integrated dual layer DVD writer, 5+ hour battery life with the extended battery, and a speedy processor (though a generation behind) all for a very nice price.
When and how purchased
I bought the Inspiron 710m online at Dell.ca on April 17, 2006 while a $650 off $1999 coupon was being offered. Packaging and shipping took a quick (for Dell) week and a half and I carried the ugly brown Dell box home from work on April 28, 2006 (2 days before my birthday - nice work, Dell!).
Build and design
Starting with the design, plain pretty much sums up the Inspiron 710m. That being said, it's a big improvement over the white bezel/black keyboard design of the 700m and I rather like the clean, sleek look. It's not as chic as Apple's MacBook, but it doesn't attract fingerprints and after a month's of usage hasn't picked up a single scratch. The back of the LCD has a simple Dell logo, nothing hideous like the big glowing XPS logo.
The casing is all plastic - silver on the front/back of the screen and around the keyboard, black on the bottom. Build quality isn't bad - slight flexing when pressing on the screen from behind, almost none when pushing down on the palm rests. There is absolutely no give when pushing on the bottom of the case, the plastic seems to be thicker here and is very sturdy. One thing that very much impressed me is the hinge - it feels very sturdy, and the range of motion... Well, very impressive.
While it does feel relatively sturdy overall, the Inspiron has nothing on my old IBM ThinkPad T30 or the ThinkPad T41 I use at work. Where I feel that I could use either Thinkpad (especially the T41) as means to defend myself when the zombie horde attacks, I'm pretty sure that a 3 foot drop would do very bad things to my 710m. That being said, the first thing I did was order myself a 12" Zeroshock case - it fits the notebook perfectly with the extended battery on and protects it from anything that may happen to it (within reason, of course).
Finally, the Inspiron 710m fits somewhere between an ultraportable and a thin & light. At 1.5" it is far from the thinnest on the market, but makes up for it with a beautiful high res widescreen display and integrated optical drive. I could easily compare it, even in its case, in size to a textbook - something you can easily slip into a regular bag and take with you to school/work/wherever you may happen to be going.
Glossy screens garner their fair share of criticism, as many people don't like how reflective the screen becomes. I think it's a fair trade off, as the display on the 710m is simply beautiful. The 12.1" screen has a resolution of 1280x800 pixels - this may be too small for some but coming from my T30's 1400x1050 14.1", I think it's pretty much perfect for both everyday use and movie watching. I think the widescreen aspect is great as it cuts down on the depth of the device (good for using on trains, planes and automobiles) while providing plenty of real estate.
The Inspiron 710m offers 8 levels of brightness - from low enough to not hurt your eyes while surfing the web in bed (and more importantly, not wake your girlfriend with a headache) to high enough to see in all but the most direct of sunlight (even with the glossy screen). Unfortunately my camera is terrible at low light pictures, but the screen bleeds light only a little - though from both the top and bottom.
The speakers are, to use the scientific term, meh. Bass is nonexistent and most music (at least the type I listen to) sounds lifeless, but it's good enough to watch a video or a movie in a pinch. The sound distorts at higher levels - you're going to want to connect speakers or headphones (to the oddly placed jack on the front) if you want any sort of decent sound. At the very least they are well placed under the screen instead of at the front pointed towards ones lap.
Processor and performance
With the launch of Intel's Core Duo processor, the Pentium M has suffered a quiet death in the face of superior processing power. However, as the Core Duo seems to be having issues with battery life and heat, I chose to stick with what I knew worked. My Inspiron 710m came with a 1.7GHz Pentium M 735 (strangely, the only option available for configuration) which can be manually upgraded as high as a Pentium M 765 (2.1 GHz). In day to day use, I would say that it easily matches my desktops old Athlon 2400+ in speed and I often find myself waiting less to do the same tasks. For example - I can easily burn a DVD while listening to music, surfing the web and chatting on MSN and still experience no noticeable slowdown.
Stuck with the lowest Pentium M available, I decided to max out the RAM in an effort to thwart possible slowdown. It seems that I made a good choice, as I have yet to run into any sort of slowdowns (that aren't 3D game related) and I have yet to see the notebook swapping into virtual memory. It seems that 512MB is somehow no longer the must for Windows XP - I'd recommend at least 1024MB if you're not going for a full 1.5 or 2GB of RAM.
Finally, if you're at all looking to play any sort of games on this machine, stay away from anything that makes extensive use of a 3D chip. I'm sure not including a dedicated graphics card cut down on heat and saved on battery life, but the Intel Extreme 2 is anything but. If you stick to a lot of older games, such as Rollercoaster Tycoon 2, Locomotion, Homeworld: Cataclysm, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2.. you won't have any issues. A lot of the older games somehow also support 1280x800 resolution, something that makes portable gaming a real treat.
To compare the Inspiron 710m against other notebooks out there, I've run a few benchmarks.
Super Pi, calculated to 2 million digits: 2 minutes, 4 seconds :
|Dell Inspiron 710m (1.7 GHz Pentium M)||2m 04s|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Intel T2500)||1m 12s|
|Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)||1m 53s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)||1m 45s|
|IBM ThinkPad Z60m (2.0 GHz Pentium M)||1m 36s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Pentium M)||1m 52s|
|Dell Inspiron 600M (1.6 GHz Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)||1m 39s|
|Asus V6Va (Pentium M 1.86 GHz)||1m 46s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression||3.201 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption||25.192 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression||21.940 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing||10.028 MPixels/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning||1853.571 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check||2.606 KB/s|
|File Decryption||50.245 MB/s|
|Audio Conversion||2326.410 KB/s|
|Web Page Rendering||4.611 pages/s|
|DivX Video Compression||45.528 fps|
|Physics Calculation and 3D||59.767 fps|
|Graphics Memory - 64 Lines||357.033 fps|
Heat and noise
The Inspiron 710m is miles ahead of both my old IBM T30 and the fat 15.4" HP I owned before that - it always runs quiet and cool. The fan seems to run rarely and only puts out a quiet whirr, and even at it's hottest I would have no qualms with resting the notebook on bare skin. Neither of these could be said about any other notebook I have ever used, many of which that would either burn skin on contact or deafen you with their noisy fans.. or somehow manage to do both. I do notice that the left palm rest warms up noticeable when not using the 710m on an ideal surface (read: why I use it on my lap in bed as opposed to on a nice flat desk) or under any particular duress, but this heat is insufficient to make my palm sweat and even welcome in these frozen Canadian winters of ours.
Keyboard and touchpad
First off, the keyboard. Coming from the definition of perfection that is an IBM Thinkpad keyboard, the 710m's 92% sized keyboard took some real getting used to. Key size is generally acceptable but the keyboard is plagued with some half-sized keys. The worst offenders here are the comma, period and question mark keys, as well as the arrow keys. I have gigantic, basketball-palming hands but am lucky enough to have thin fingers and after a month I've adapted readily to the strange configuration. If you're someone with big meaty paws.. I'd highly suggest you stay away. I am happy to report that the keyboard has no flex whatsoever, even pushing hard with both hands. The keys give good feedback but are a touch noisy when typing at full speed - reducing speed reduces noise accordingly, so the keyboard is certainly usable in no-noise situations.
The touchpad itself is great - size is good, sensitivity is good. For anyone who hasn't used them, Dell's touchpad drivers are a wonderful thing - there are more advanced features but what I find myself using most is the ability to scroll vertically by running a finger down the right side of the touchpad. Simply a blessing while surfing the web, it is. The mouse buttons are surprisingly noisy and clicky, so much to the point that I'm embarrassed to use them if I'm trying to avoid making a lot of noise. The issue of the noisy left button can largely be avoided by simply tapping on the touchpad but there are times when it's unavoidable and using these noisy things is simply a pain. They look and feel somewhat cheap, and I think Dell really dropped The Ball here.
Finally, I would have enjoyed some sort of a lighting option when it came to the keys. I'm a touch-typist, or I was until I ran into this smaller keyboard, but I still would have liked some easy way to tell where the keys are when I have a dumb moment and simply forget. Backlighting would have required some revamps to keyboard design, but I would have liked to see something like the lamp IBM has at the top of the LCD - a simple button press and your keyboard is illuminated!
Input and output ports
On the left side:
Security cable slot, Heat exhaust, VGA out, 2 USB 2.0 ports, PC Card slot, SD/MMC card reader.
On the right:
Optical drive, 56k Modem, 10/100 LAN, AC input, S-Video out.
On the front:
1394 Firewire port, Audio out, Audio in.
In the rear:
On the bottom:
Removable 2.5" Hard Drive, Memory expansion, Wireless Card, Intake and exhaust vents.
All in all, I'd say that the Inspiron 710m is relatively well connected. Obviously it's missing some ports that would be present on a larger notebook, most notably additional USB 2.0 ports, but the Firewire is a nice touch and I honestly don't know where else they would have crammed anything in. Placement of the audio in/out ports on the front are a bit odd, as I am used to seeing them on the left side. The memory card reader, while only SD/MMC, is actually a very handy addition and has come in use many times copying files to my phone's memory card.
Of course, the inclusion of an optical drive is a huge plus in this size of notebook. The fact that it's also a dual layer DVD writer is impressive, as the standard for even most higher end notebooks is still only a CDRW/DVD reader.
I opted for the Intel Pro Wireless 2915 chipset, which offers 802.11a, b and g in one handy chipset. I find reception to be excellent (much better than the PCI D-Link card I have in the HTPC in my living room), speed is good overall, and it plays very nicely with netstumbler. The included Intel Wireless application is clean and straightforward and is one of the nicest I have ever used.
The lack of integrated Bluetooth, even as an extra cost option, really grinds my gears. This notebook is obviously meant to be highly mobile and I would have rather liked to be able to connect to my phone while out and about - the fact that I have to either use a USB dongle (and have something sticking out the side of my notebook) or tie up the PC Card slot with a CF + PCMCIA Bluetooth card is inconvenient at best.
If there's one thing I learned while reading Inspiron 700m reviews, it was to avoid the standard 4 cell battery at all costs. That being said, the 8 cell adds only a few ounces and sticks out an unobtrusive inch from the back of the machine - and easily doubles the battery life. I'm too impatient to run battery benchmarks but find them relatively useless when comparing to everyday use, so I'll share my experiences with it so far.
To sum it up, I constantly and consistently get over 4.5 hours of life using the 710m for everyday tasks. My everyday use includes constant wireless access, listening to MP3s, chatting on AIM/MSN and surfing the web, with a little gaming thrown in when I'm bored. I have never had the battery last less than 4 hours under any normal use and have been pleasantly surprised when it has lasted more than 5 on a number of occasions.
Sure, this isn't the 8-10 hour battery life I've enjoyed with some of the Handheld PCs (HPCs) and PDAs I've previously owned but it's far better than the piddly 2 hour battery life of my Thinkpad T30 or the disgusting 1-1.5 hour battery life of the HP I owned before it. I find that I can leave the AC adapter at home, throw my 710m into its case and leave the house for a few hours or a night without having to worry about it conking out before I return. When I do return, the battery fully recharges in less than 2 hours - not the quickest I've heard of, but enough to get your notebook charged while transferring planes on a flight.
Finally, the AC adapter is decently sized. I find the connector between the cord coming from the outlet and the adapter itself to be a bit odd, but this is made up by the very handy rubber strap that can be used to tie the whole deal together.
Operating System and Software
To be honest, there's not much I can say about the included OS and software. I booted the Inspiron 710m once when it was initially received, grimaced at XP Home and the plentiful amount of bloat, screamed like a little girl and promptly partitioned and formatted the hard drive and installed my own copy of XP on it. From the short look I had it seemed like a bunch of 90 day trials and other sorts of annoying useless software. I honestly wish that Dell would provide the option to buy their machines without an included OS or software, as I can get an educational version of XP (or linux, if you've found a way to live life without MS Outlook) for cheap and I'd rather save myself the time and money.
I've only had to deal with customer support once so far - luckily nothing has gone wrong with the hardware yet (and hopefully nothing will). My one dealing was during a bit of indecision I was having when I heard about the launch of the XPS M1210 and was seriously contemplating return my 710m to wait for its release. The nice lady I talked to seemed to understand where I was coming from then attempted to throw $100 at me to get me to stick with what I had. I saw the opportunity for profit and hung up happy 20 minutes later, after working her up to a $300 credit - effectively bringing the price down from $1750 CDN to $1450. What a steal!
Overall, I'm very pleased with the choice that I've made. To be honest, I almost returned it twice - once when I heard about the launch of Dell's XPS M1210, and again when the MacBook was launched. I'm glad I decided to keep it, as the MacBook seems to be having a number of issues with heat and I wouldn't be surprised if both fall short in terms of battery life.
To sum it up, some pros and cons.
Unfortunately it seems Dell has pulled the 710m from their lineup on the Canadian site, hopefully to be replaced by another ultraportable (though most likely only to be replaced by the XPS M1210). If you can find one new/used on eBay for a good price, it makes an excellent school/work notebook if portability and battery life are your two main concerns. If the small screen size really worries you for home use, the 710m can easily be hooked up to your standard desktop components for more comfortable use.
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