Dell launched the new line of Inspiron laptops and desktops with much fanfare on June 26th, 2007 at a Macy's department store in New York. The flagship laptop, the XPS M1330, garnered a lot of press coverage. The launch coincided with a revamping of Dell's marketing efforts in an attempt to lose the 'beige-box' manufacturer cachet and move more upstream by making the brand more appealing to a wider demographic.
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Aside from the redesigns to the notebook line-up, Dell was also touting the multitude of colored lids that the new laptops would ship with, allowing a bit of personalization by customers. In addition, the XPS M1330 was touted as the thinnest 13.3" notebook and boasted a radically new design for Dell, challenging manufacturers such as Sony and Apple, who were traditionally viewed as more 'stylish' companies, known for their design. There was substantial press coverage for the launch as well as for the new product line, something that hasn't been terribly common for Dell in recent memory. After years of building my own computers, I decided to give Dell a try and ordered the XPS M1330.
The XPS M1330 with its 13.3" widescreen display falls somewhere between the thin-and-light and ultra-portable categories. Its weight, at just under 4 lbs with the 4-cell battery and LED backlit display, puts it squarely in ultra-portable space, but its relatively large footprint means it's not an ultra-portable in the strictest sense of the word. Nevertheless, at under 0.9 inches thick at its thinnest point, with the LED backlit display, it's a very stylish and small laptop, convenient for carrying around and using in all but the tightest of spaces.
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My system was purchased with the following configuration.
Total price: $1,831CAD after taxes
Reason for buying
I entered university two years ago with a pretty powerful 15.4" notebook, the ASUS Z71V. At the time, I wanted something powerful enough to satisfy my gaming itch that was 'luggable'. For a dorm, a laptop is quite useful as there isn't much desk space. I envisioned myself bringing the laptop to class to take notes on.
Unfortunately, that idea fell through. In addition to my books and notepads, I found carrying the almost 7lb notebook to be excessive in my day to day travels around the campus. Plus, I eventually noticed that even with a semi-powerful graphics card, newer games were starting to bog down. Short of an 8lb+ desktop replacement system, I wasn't going to find something that would give me the gaming performance I wanted. After my first year was completed and I moved out of residence, I purchased parts for a new desktop system. As a result, the notebook just sat there, unused.
Now going into my third year of studies, I find myself playing games far less frequently, if at all. As a result the need for something small and light to take to class greatly overshadowed any need for gaming performance. In addition, I found myself babying my previous laptop too much, so I wanted something well built, perhaps a business-grade laptop, which I could throw around without worry. Initially, I strongly considered the MacBook. With its relatively small size and good battery life, not to mention fair price, it was popular at my school. However, build quality wasn't its strong suit. I also considered the Lenovo Thinkpad T61, Dell's Latitude D630 and various 14.1" HP business laptops. However, when Dell launched the XPS M1330 at a decent price, I knew it would be my next laptop. It is lighter than the MacBook and I couldn't deal with the awkward bezel of the T61, not to mention its less than spectacular battery life. HP's business laptops are limited in their configurations in Canada and I couldn't find something I was completely happy with for my budget.
Where and how purchased
There have traditionally been a few ways of purchasing Dell laptops, such as online, by phone or through their kiosks, (even more now, since moving into the retail space) but I ordered mine through their website, taking advantage of a 15% Mystery Coupon that was available through Dell Canada. I ordered the system on July 4th, a little more than a week from the launch of the system. Having spoken with a sales representative prior to purchase, I was ensured that it wouldn't take more than 10 to 15 days from purchase to delivery, but I was less pleased when I was instead given an August 22nd ship date estimate in my order confirmation.
However, I'd heard that Dell is oftentimes very conservative with their estimated ship dates, typically getting them to the customer well before them. I paid a decent price, $1,831CAD including taxes, less than what a comparable Sony SZ would cost, certainly. I held out hope that what the sales rep told me, 10 to 15 days, would be more accurate. Needless to say, he was quite wrong.
A popular trend these days is to take pictures of the unboxing process, so who am I to disagree. Here they are.
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Along with the XPS M1330 itself, Dell provides a few goodies for proud owners. The most substantial inclusion is the Dell XPS branded laptop sleeve. As well, Creative EP630 earbuds and an IR remote that fits into the ExpressCard slot are included. The earbuds are quite good, and retail for around $40CAD, adding to the value of the laptop.
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Reinstall discs are provided for most of the software pre-installed by Dell. That includes:
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A decent-sized owner's manual is included as are product information and contacting Dell guides. A very basic 'Getting Started' pamphlet is also included, although if you don't know how to plug in your laptop ... well, you may have other, more pressing concerns.
Just spectacular. If anyone could say it better, it would be the friends that were over when I opened up the box. Words like, 'wow', 'sleek', and 'awesome' were uttered by them and in my mind, they were right on the money. I was also told by a few people that the M1330 is the best looking laptop they've seen, bar none. Those are pretty strong words for a laptop from a company that is more typically known as the ultimate 'beige-box' provider. Congratulations, Dell, for designing something eye-catching for all the right reasons!
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It goes without saying that the M1330 bears a striking resemblance to the Sony SZ series, from its wedge-shaped design to the 13.3" form factor to its use of an LED panel. Nonetheless, it's a good design that Dell has implemented well. Let's take a virtual tour of some of the more interesting design features.
Using the 13.3" widescreen display popularized by companies such as Sony and Apple, Dell mated the chassis with an optional LED backlit display to achieve what they say is the world's thinnest 13.3" laptop. It sneaks in just under the thickness of the Sony SZ at the front, but slopes up towards the back, until it is thicker than the Apple MacBook, which is of uniform thickness from front to back. It is on par with the SZ in terms of weight and around a pound lighter than the MacBook, with the 6-cell battery.
The LED backlit display is about 2.5mm thinner than the CCFL. (view large image)
I opted for the color that Dell calls 'Tuxedo Black'. The finish of the lid is matte and, unfortunately, picks up a lot of fingerprints, which are difficult to remove. I chose the black color as I wanted it to look professional - something I wouldn't be embarrassed to bring to a business meeting at one of my co-op jobs. The chrome effect on the Dell and XPS logos add a bit of flair, but the overall statement is muted. Don't worry; this laptop doesn't need flashy colors or lots of lights to get noticed.
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Open up the screen and you'll notice a very harmonious design. The silver of the keyboard and palm rest complements the black region up the center, bordering the display. At a glance, the keyboard looks like it might be made of aluminum as well, but upon closer inspection, this is not the case. A few people who saw the laptop were definitely fooled initially.
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There is no mechanical latch to keep the lid closed. Instead a hinge spring snaps it shut and keeps it closed securely. Even though a larger portion of the weight is distributed towards the rear of the laptop, opening the lid can still be a one-handed task. There's no need to hold the base down while opening the lid; the laptop doesn't tip backwards. Dell even provides a little protrusion at the front of the lid to give you a finger grip to open the display more easily. The VGA (0.3MP, 640x480) webcam is by Creative and is mounted above the screen, between two microphone pick-ups.
Dell made an interesting design choice for the display module. The hinge design is quite aesthetically pleasing, but the implementation leaves a bit to be desired. The hinge is of the 'bamboo' type, which rotates around a central pillar. In most cases, this type of hinge reduces the height of the screen when opened, since part of the bottom bezel may be swivelled behind the back of the laptop. However, Dell has decided to keep the screen at a higher level, by increasing the thickness of the bottom bezel, negating one of the advantages of the bamboo hinge. In addition, due to the added thickness of the bezel, the laptop itself has become deeper in dimension, measuring in at 9.4" compared to 8.92" of the MacBook, which is of similar form factor. In fact, at 9.4" deep, the M1330 rivals the Vostro 1400/Inspiron 1420 in terms of depth. On the other hand, Dell may have decided that the design of the MacBook's (and the Pro for that matter) hinge leaves the display too close to the keyboard and isn't as comfortable for viewing. Another possible reason is that Dell wanted their logo to be visible on the bottom bezel. As well, due to the hinge design, the display cannot be opened up to 180 degrees, instead, stopping at around 140 degrees.
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The 4-cell and 6-cell batteries bit flush with the system. The 9-cell protrudes from the bottom of the laptop, providing an incline for the keyboard and helping airflow, but makes it a bit awkward to use on one's lap.
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Overall, there is little I can fault the XPS M1330 for, in terms of design. The hinge design is terribly nitpicky on my part and to be honest, I rather prefer the proportionality of the screen bezel, aesthetically speaking. It doesn't affect the way I use the laptop at all, but does mean there's an extra centimetre or so that could be shaved off.
Here's where I can't give Dell full marks. Whether it's due to the more complex manufacturing processes required for the M1330 or because Dell has been rushing systems in an effort clear out the backlog, fit and finish is decidedly weak for what is a flagship system. Many customers have received systems with physical abnormalities from a gap at the top of the LCD panel to hard drive bays that stick out slightly. My system came with an uneven base, which results in a slight wobble with the 6-cell. In addition, the 9-cell battery feet don't contact the desk surface properly, exacerbating the wobble when that battery is used. Finally, the brushed aluminum palm rest in the bottom right corner is starting to separate from the base of the chassis. I have since contacted Dell and an exchange system is being built for me.
Despite these issues, in terms of materials and solidness, this laptop rates very highly. Picking up the M1330 from a corner, even with it open, does not produce any bending, creaking or groaning from the system. The materials used are fantastic. A big contributor to the structural rigidity of the M1330 is the magnesium alloy base. Additionally, the brushed aluminum palm rest not only looks great, but it also ensures that there is absolutely no flex.
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The lid of the LCD is also well constructed, even though it is fairly thin. It seems to be made of a strong plastic that doesn't cave at all when pressed. Instead, if enough pressure is applied the entire display will flex, due to the thin design. Little to no ripples show through, except possibly due to extreme force, forces which I am not willing to test or plan to subject the laptop to during regular use.
Fit and finish has been an issue, but are related to manufacturing, not the design and materials used. In fact, overlooking the manufacturing problems, this laptop absolutely feels like a premium piece of equipment, with very sturdy and appealing materials. Nonetheless, it's rather disappointing to receive a system with problems. Luckily Dell has been very prompt at setting up a replacement, while I continue to use this system in the meantime.
Given the limited space available, the number of I/O ports is relatively limited on the XPS M1330. The back of the laptop is completely devoid of ports, with the space taken up by a fan vent and the battery.
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The front of the laptop has a mic input, two headphone outputs, and an 8-in-1 card reader for various types of SD cards, MMC, xD and Memory Stick.
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The right side is home to the slot-load DVD burner, an attachment for a computer lock, as well as a single USB port.
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The left side is busier, with a 4-pin Firewire, HDMI, another USB port, 10/100mb Ethernet, a HD-15 VGA output and the power jack.
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That there are only two USB ports is the most troubling part. However, chances are with a near ultra-portable on the go, you won't have too many things hanging out of the ports anyways. It's a fair compromise for the size.
One of the main features of the XPS M1330 is the optional LED backlit display, which touts better color reproduction, higher brightness, lower power consumption and a thinner panel. In Canada, the LED backlit display is a $150 option, and in my opinion, well worth it. I received the Chi Mei Optoelectronics panel while Toshiba-Matsushita LED backlit panels are also used. The panel is of WXGA resolution (1280x800) and is the only resolution available for 13.3" notebook displays. Coming from a 15.4" WSXGA+ laptop, and using a 20.1" WSXGA+ desktop panel, the resolution is rather low, but suffices for the purpose.
I've never used a glossy LCD panel before, so I wasn't certain what to expect. When turned off, it can easily serve a dual purpose as a mirror, but when turned on, it makes colors pop.
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Brightness is also impressive. At the highest brightness setting, the LED backlit display of the M1330 easily beats out my desktop's LG L204WT at 80% brightness, which I'm used to using. The display of the M1330 is very bright.
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Viewing angles, at least horizontal, are easily among the best I've seen on a laptop. Even at extreme angles, the colors and brightness are still quite good, although the practicality of actually using the screen at such angles is another story altogether. The glossy finish of the screen also starts to reflect more and more as you move off the centerline. Vertical viewing angles are decidedly mediocre, very indicative of the TN panel that is used.
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The display continues its almost flawless performance through the areas of dead pixels (none), stuck pixels (none) and backlight bleeding (so little, I'm apt to just say none). You may noticed a slight unevenness of the backlighting at the bottom - I believe this is due to the discrete nature of the LED backlight, with many spaced out around the display. Overall, brightness is extremely uniform.
Games such as UT2004, which are very sensitive to panel response time, and fast-paced movies showed no signs of ghosting with this panel. This is somewhat surprising given the 25ms response times of the panel, according to Chi Mei's specifications.
Overall, the M1330 is outfitted with a pleasant display to work with. Color, brightness, and viewing angles are all well above average. I only wish that the display brightness controls were divided into finer increments. I find there is too big of a difference between adjacent brightness levels. (Dell allows 8.)
Processor and Performance
I chose the T7100 processor as it was an additional $120 to upgrade to the T7300 at Dell Canada. Since this laptop was intended to be a complement system to a much more powerful desktop, I decided to save the money. I did strongly consider the T7300 if only for the larger L2 cache (2MB to 4MB); however tests showed that the biggest performance increases were in multimedia encoding applications and some games. I do not plan on doing any multimedia work on the go and gaming will be limited by the 8400M GS card long before the CPU. Performance of the 4MB processors is typically 2-4% faster than the 2MB processors in other applications, which wasn't necessary for me.
Intel added an additional feature to its Santa Rosa platform - Intel Dynamic Acceleration. While software is beginning to take advantage of parallelization, many applications are still capable of using only a single core. As a result, the potential of multi-core processors is lost. Intel has come up with an innovative way to boost performance in single-threaded applications, while staying within the same power and thermal envelope, by overclocking the core being stressed. In this manner, single threaded applications can take advantage of the higher frequency, without compromising thermals. With the T7100, the FSB can be overclocked by 15MHz, or 7.5%, to give a final CPU frequency of around 1.93GHz.
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Here are the obligatory synthetic benchmarks. There isn't anything out of the ordinary here.
SuperPI 2M - 1 min 8 seconds
3DMark 2006 - 1336 at 1280x800
PCMark05 - 4300
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Cinebench - Single CPU - 1900, Multi-CPU - 3391
HDTune - Avg transfer rate: 35.9MB/s
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WEI - 4.1
I'd like to focus a little more on graphics performance. Aside from the XPS M140, which I never considered part of the XPS family (rebranded Inspiron 630m), the XPS M1330 is the first XPS not to focus on gaming performance. Outfitted with a relatively weak NVIDIA 8400M GS, Dell had to compromise on performance to keep size and thermals under control. The similar Sony SZ6 series is also outfitted with the 8400M GS, although that laptop has a toggle for switching between the 8400M and the integrated Intel X3100.
So, with the 8400M GS clocked at 400MHz/600MHz and using the 162.22 drivers, what games can you expect to play and at what sort of image quality? I set to find out with some games I've enjoyed in the past.
Oblivion - 848x480 with bloom or 960x600 without bloom
When Oblivion was released, it brought just about every system to its knees. The lush landscapes and awesome HDR effects stressed even the most powerful systems. The 8400M GS provides playable frame rates at 848x480 with detail sliders around the 1/3 mark, except viewing distance which was set to max with Distant Lands enabled, and with bloom enabled. If you can make do without bloom, 960x600 is also playable. Turning down the Item Fade distance would increase performance significantly at the loss of some detail.
Rainbow Six: Vegas - 800x600 or 960x600 (slightly slower)
Rainbow Six: Vegas is one of the most strenuous games out there, with a desktop 8800GTS 640MB barely able to pull off 30FPS average at 1600x1200. It's not surprising that the 8400M GS struggles, with the maximum playable resolution being 800x600 or 960x600, if you want to stretch it (both in terms of performance and to a widescreen resolution) a bit. Settings had to be turned to low, with HDR off. Frame rates averaged around 25FPS, with dips occasionally down to a bit less than 20, which made aiming accurately a challenge at times.
Company of Heroes - 1280x800
Company of Heroes was widely considered one of the best games of 2006, in part due to the level of graphics, which was rare for the RTS genre. Luckily, the detail settings are very customizable and at medium-low settings, the game plays very smoothly at the native resolution of the M1330.
Unreal Tournament 2004 - 1280x800
Unreal Tournament 2004 is an older game, but still looks good with image quality settings turned up. The 8400M GS can power this game at native resolution with all the advanced image quality settings enabled and maintain 40FPS+, which is essential for the twitch shooter game.
Speakers and Sound
The speakers are located at the top of the laptop, above the media controls and are what you'd expect for a small laptop. They can get pretty loud, but there's minimal bass response and mids and highs can become quite shrill at high volume.
There are two headphone ports on the XPS M1330, both situated at the front of the laptop. While this is useful for headphones where two people could listen in on a movie, it presents a problem for speakers, which would require the cord to wrap around a significant portion of the laptop, possibly becoming a nuisance when typing.
The left jack does have a little bit of the oft-talked about static while the middle one is completely devoid of it. Hooking up speakers or the included earbuds gives much, much better sound quality. I'm no audiophile, but music and games sound great.
The keyboard is fairly firm, with the slightest bit of flex if keys are pressed firmly. In terms of keystroke, it definitely has a 'different' feel from a Thinkpad keyboard. It has less travel and feels a little less crisp. Whether you like it or not will be of personal preference. The flex on could use some work, but I'm happy overall with the keys' feel. The keys are slightly loud, especially when typing quickly.
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The keyboard layout is standard for a laptop, and makes good use of the entire width of the M1330. The left Control key is situated in its normal desktop position, outboard of the Function key. Most keys are full-sized, aside from the right Shift, which is shortened to make room for the up arrow key. The Delete key is located in the top right corner, which I'm used to and the navigation keys (Home, Pg Up, Pg Dn, and End) are located in a column at the far right of the keyboard.
The touchpad is responsive, albeit a little bit small for my liking. The pad has some texture to it, but isn't 'grippy' so your finger moves smoothly over the surface. The touchpad buttons feel very nice, with a good amount of travel and no loud click, which is to my liking. Unfortunately, there is no dedicated switch for turning on and off the touchpad.
The media keys are touch-sensitive as opposed to mechanical buttons found on the rest of Dell's notebook range. Luckily, they are very accurate and I haven't had any problems getting touches to register. The eject key for the slot-load disc drive is also touch sensitive. Feedback is provided by a nice blue rectangle light that fades in and out around the pressed key.
I never use a webcam, but since there wasn't a webcam-less option from Dell Canada, came with the laptop. The Creative webcam can take video at up to 640x480 resolution while still pictures can be taken at up to 1280x1024 (I presume this is using digital upscaling as the webcam is 0.3MP, or 640x480). A quick test showed that video quality was quite satisfactory while images were decent as well. It's nothing special, but gets the job done if you're interested in video conferencing or taking vanity photos.
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I also ordered the UPEK Biometric upgrade. While there is plenty of discussion about the security merit of fingerprint readers, I purchased it exclusively for the convenience factor. Swiping a finger is much quicker and more convenient than typing in a password and provides a level of security that will prevent random people from accessing my computer in class, short of stealing it to retrieve the password.
The Intel Pro/Wireless 3945 device supports 802.11a, b, and g. Initially, I had planned on getting the 4965agn card for draft-N support; however Dell Canada did not and, as of right now, still does not offer that card with the XPS M1330. The other option was the Dell 1505n card, but after reading of compatibility issues between multimode G and N wireless signals with many routers, I decided to play it safe and go with the 3945.
The card and antenna implementation are good, with no dropped connections and is able to connect properly to even weak signals. The Wifi-Catcher is also a useful little tool for checking whether there hotspots in the vicinity without requiring the laptop to be turned on. You can even specify the minimum signal strength to look for.
Battery Life and Power Consumption
For me, the ideal battery combination is a 6-cell for situations that might include tight, cramped locations, such as on a plane or bus, as well as a 9-cell for lots of battery life, such as during my endless university classes. However, Dell did not offer this combination, only a 4-cell and 9-cell combo. Justifying the fact that I could probably get away with 2 to 2.5 hours of battery life in cramped conditions, I decided on the 4-cell and 9-cell.
However, a few weeks into my order, Dell stopped offering the 4-cell battery with the dedicated NVIDIA graphics solution, citing incompatibilities. I'm not certain how they could be incompatible, but I'd venture to guess that the 4-cell wasn't providing reasonable battery life with the dedicated graphics. My 4-cell and 9-cell was bumped up to a 6-cell and 9-cell, free of charge, which is what I wanted in the first place. It seems like I lucked out.
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Perhaps it's the highly touted LED backlit display, or perhaps it's the Santa Rosa platform's new power saving techniques, but whatever the contributing factor, the M1330 has great battery life.
With Wi-Fi enabled and the screen at 6/8 brightness, the 6-cell battery lasts for 3:30 while browsing the internet and word processing, give or take 10 minutes, depending on how heavy the web content is. Browsing around here at Notebook Review, doing some comparative shopping at Future Shop's website and reading the news at CBC.ca and CNN.com netted 3 hours 35 minutes at the above settings. With the 9-cell, that number jumps up to 5 hours 27 minutes.
The following is a compilation of the power consumption under different load types. To measure these values, the system was used in the indicated fashion for 10 minutes. The average power consumption was measured by subtracting the battery capacity at the end of the test from the battery capacity at the start of the test and multiplied by 6 (for power consumed per hour). Battery life is given assuming a 6-cell, 56WHr battery with the webcam disabled. The 9-cell battery provides 51% more power than the 6-cell, so you can safely multiply the battery life by 1.5 to get the time for the extended battery.
Wifi enabled, display brightness 6/8, idle - 12.6W (4:27)
Wifi enabled, display brightness 6/8, web browsing - 15.6W (3:35)
Wifi enabled, display brightness 6/8, watching DVD - 23.8W (2:21)
Wifi enabled, display brightness 6/8, video from hard drive - 21.4W (2:37)
Wifi enabled, display brightness 6/8, video from USB drive - 21.6W (2:36)
The T7100 in my configuration can downclock to 1.2GHz (200MHz FSB x 6 multiplier) at 0.938V. For even further power savings, it can clock down to 800MHz (100MHz FSB x 8 multiplier) at 0.850V. This is significant and shows one of Santa Rosa's power management enhancements over Intel's previous mobile platforms. Instead of lowering the multiplier only for reducing clock frequency, the FSB can also change dynamically. This provides a one-two punch for power savings. The FSB contributes to power consumption as well and lowering the frequency in low power modes helps save even more power than only lowering the CPU's frequency.
Battery Life Optimization
Windows Vista's Aero user interface takes advantage of the graphics capabilities of the system to deliver effects such as window animations, window transparencies and Windows Flip. Unfortunately, the by-product of these effects is increased reliance on the graphics card and CPU. Previously, with Windows XP, where the higher graphics performance levels were only needed in applications such as 3D rendering or gaming, the desktop in Vista can, and does call on the power of the GPU. This will invariably lead to lower battery life, but I wanted to take a look at just how big that effect is and what techniques can be used to maximize battery life.
Throughout my testing of desktop use, I found the biggest power hogs to be transparencies and the sidebar. Without either of these two enabled (I typically do not use the sidebar and transparencies are automatically disabled when on battery power under Vista's Power Saver mode) power consumption was on par with disabling Aero altogether. Since there is no measureable difference by disabling Aero altogether, I allowed Vista to take care of managing the visual theme for me.
The NVIDIA 8400M GS also has built-in power management features. PowerMizer is no longer seen in the NVIDIA control panel in the Vista drivers as the graphics card clocks are now directly controlled by Vista's power management system. Using nTune, one can see that there are three power levels for the 8400M GS.
3D Clocks: 400MHz/600MHz
PowerMizer level 1: 275MHz/300MHz
PowerMizer level 2: 168MHz/100MHz
There is an approximately 6-7W delta at idle between the lowest power setting and the 3D clockspeed. I found that, in general, the graphics card clock speeds were too sensitive to increases and not sensitive enough to reduced graphics usage. There seems to be a 5 minute wait before the video card drops down a power level; however if even a window is dragged around the screen, the video card will immediately jump up to the 3D clocks. As a result, more power is wasted than is necessary when performing desktop activities. While it's nice that Vista has integrated all the power management features of the laptop hardware, it also takes away much of the control we previously had through the NVIDIA control panel.
Notebook Hardware Control was not able to correctly read the processor speed, CPU multiplier or voltages. As a result, it is impossible to undervolt the processor through that application. Perhaps the author of that tool will update it to support this laptop.
Display brightness obviously plays a role in power consumption as well. The power consumption delta between lowest brightness and highest brightness is 2.6W. The webcam also increases power consumption by approximately 0.5W, even if it is not being used. Disabling it through Device Manager will prevent it from using battery power.
The laptop is extremely quiet at idle or under light load. The fan is barely audible with a very hushed tone. There are no shrill sounds, which sometimes occurs with small fans. Under heavy load however, noise starts to pick up. In an especially taxing game, such as Oblivion, the fan and airflow noises become loud. Compromises had to be made to cool the small laptop, so expect it to be rather noisy when you game. Luckily the sound is still relatively smooth, a whoosh as opposed to a whine, so it is more easily drowned out by game sounds.
The slot-loading DVD burner is also quite noisy. The mechanism of inserting and ejecting discs causes a loud sound that is reminiscent of poorly maintained hydraulics. Booting the system or waking from sleep causes the drive to emit this noise, which will be irritating in quiet environments, such as a lecture hall, in which I plan on using the laptop. Reading a disc produces a smooth and fairly low-volume sound, nothing close to the actual insertion or ejection of a disc.
Thankfully, there is a way to save you from embarrassment. Because the intrusive noise is not associated with reading a disc, but rather inserting or ejecting one, you can place a dummy disc in the drive at all times. This way, at bootup or resume from suspend, the drive will just attempt to read the disc as opposed to trying to suck a disc in. No more noise!
For light use, the XPS M1330 barely heats up and is comfortable to use on one's lap.
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Here is a concoction of temperatures I measured through various workloads.
CPU idle at 800MHz - 42C, dropping to 39C when elevated by the 9-cell battery.
Under full load using Orthos, the two cores' temperatures levelled off at 82C and 83C respectively. The bottom of the laptop stayed mildly warm, except for around the air intake vent at the top left corner of the laptop. The much higher temperature is, fortunately, isolated to that area as the heat gets quickly exhausted out the air vent at the back of the laptop. Using the 9-cell battery to elevate the laptop lowers the core temperatures to 78C.
GPU idle on AC at 400/600MHz - 73C
GPU idle on AC at 275/300MHz - 67C
GPU idle on AC at 168/100MHz - 65C
GPU 30 minutes load Rainbow Six: Vegas on AC at 400/600 - 95C
While these temperatures are quite high, Intel's thermal specification for the CPU is 100C, so it's within reason. Core temperature was measured with CoreTemp, SpeedFan as well as Intel Thermal Analysis Tool. CoreTemp and the Intel TAT correctly assume TJunction to be 100C. SpeedFan on the other hand assumes a TJunction of 85C. To get the accurate temperature from Speedfan, 15C was added to its readings. CPU temperature (measured at the midpoint of the two cores) was 59C under full load with Orthos, but this temperature isn't indicative of the hottest sections of the CPU.
Operating System and Software
Dell ships the XPS M1330 standard with Windows Vista Home Premium. Dell does not offer Linux or Windows XP configurations at this time. While there are numerous detractors, I've personally become a fan of Windows Vista. I transitioned several months ago from Windows XP to Vista on my desktop PC where I find it to be much faster than XP for desktop use. The few games I do play work well in Vista and I have not noticed any issues that have detracted from my typical usage. Memory usage is definitely higher than with XP, but with 2GB or more of memory, there isn't much to worry about, except in very special circumstances. I have not yet installed Windows XP on this M1330, but I imagine when and if I do, I will reach the same conclusion as I have for my desktop.
After hearing of the software bloat some pre-built systems from the likes of Dell, HP, and Acer come with, I was certain I'd be performing a format and a reinstallation of Vista. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there wasn't a great deal bogging down the system at all. I went through the Remove Programs list and ended up uninstalling the following programs:
The system shipped started off with 67 processes, but after uninstalling the above applications and streamlining the processes that start with Vista, I was able to get that number down to 46. I do not see the need to perform a reformat for the M1330, which is very surprising.
I won't go into much detail about my experience with Dell customer support, but needless to say, it was a rather frustrating experience, to wait so long for a laptop. The frustration was mostly mitigated by two extremely helpful contacts I worked with at Dell. I was contacted a couple times regarding my order through my personal website, which was a bit surprising in of itself.
The sales rep I spoke to before placing my order on July 4th told me it would take 10 to 15 days, but my order confirmation showed an August 22nd ship date. Customer Care told me the actual estimated delivery date was August 3rd. In the end, my laptop shipped on August 9th and I received the laptop on August 14th.
Throughout the wait and delays, my contact at Dell Round Rock went above and beyond his call of duty to make certain that I was satisfied and answered all my questions and assuaged my concerns. He showed genuine care and interest in my situation and that meant a great deal to me. He has helped turn the entire problem surrounding the M1330 into one of my most satisfying customer service experiences with any company.
I bet I know the big question you're asking - was the Dell XPS M1330 worth the wait? I'd like to answer that with a resounding YES. While it's unacceptable that there has been a relatively high proportion of build faults with the laptop, Dell is dedicated to correcting these issues. It's far from an ideal situation, but I get to use this system while a new one is built and shipped to me.
Everything else just screams quality. The design is absolutely fantastic and rivals the most aesthetically pleasing designs out there. The materials used are premium and the price is lower than a comparable system. And despite all the things that have been said about Dell customer service, I truly believe that most of the employees are dedicated to making the customer happy, within reason. I know my experience has not given me any reason to doubt that.
Before purchasing this laptop, I was looking for something that was small, light and well built so I wouldn't cringe at the thought of bringing it to classes and business meetings daily. The Dell XPS M1330 serves that purpose admirably. If you're looking for a dedicated gaming machine or a budget laptop, look elsewhere, but if you're like me and want something portable for a fair price, the M1330 should be on your short list.
One Year Later Review Update (10/20/2008)
Product reviews are always a double edged sword. They are mostly written after a short amount of time (relative to the useful life) with the product, in order to inform interested early adopters. On the other hand, the short time also means there are things that can’t be thoroughly tested, like reliability. After over a year with the Dell XPS M1330, loving the laptop, blundering through a GPU failure, and having people tell me that my review should be updated with the developments of the NVIDIA GPU defect, it’s time to provide the entire ownership experience.
The M1330 was one of the most talked about Dell laptops pre-launch and even today, it remains quite popular. However, many discussions of the M1330 of late labour over the NVIDIA GPU die-packaging defect and its effect on the M1330. While Dell and NVIDIA are adamant that the defect is contained and relatively rare, my experience has indicated otherwise. Two friends own M1330’s with the 8400M GS and two friends own M1530’s with the 8600M GT. Over the past year, those two M1330’s, along with mine, have all had their mainboards replaced due to dead GPUs. The two M1530’s haven’t run into any problems thus far. I certainly don’t mean to imply that there is a 100% defect rate for 8400M GS equipped M1330’s. It simply points to some bad luck and coincidence, but also indicates a wider-ranging problem than Dell is letting on with the laptop. Statistics demands it.
When Dell first acknowledged the GPU defect via the Direct2Dell blog, it was towards the end of my summer university semester. Hoping to avoid any problems associated with the GPU, I preemptively called Dell support to see if I could purchase a warranty extension. After my explanation of the NVIDIA defect, and hoping I could get a cheap extension as a result, perhaps around $100 for a year, I was quoted $300 for a single year or a ‘promotional’ price of slightly over $550 for two years of standard coverage. Unable to control my laughter, I asked how much an out-of-warranty repair was: $250. I decided to take my chances.
My next step was to attempt a replacement of the possibly defective GPU with a defect-free one. Citing standard warranty procedures, technical support informed me that the GPU would only be replaced if it could be diagnosed as defective within the warranty period. No amount of explanation (or Direct2Dell references) was able to change their mind.
Now, fast forward to the middle of final exams, and literally two days after my warranty had expired. Poof. My M1330 boots to a screen filled with colorful vertical lines. Dell technical support forwarded me onto out of warranty repairs, despite pleas to make an exception, both due to the defect as well as being so close to the warranty window. But seeing as I was up the creek without a paddle, I decided to tough it out. I was in the middle of exams and I wouldn’t have the repair completed before they ended in any case. In the meantime, I found myself in a seriously awkward position. Being a computer engineering student, well, my computer was a priceless tool for my studies. I was fortunate enough that a friend had a laptop he could loan me, allowing me to continue studying. Clearly frustrated with Dell, I posted a stinging but professional comment at Direct2Dell, stating my displeasure.
As a result of the comment, I was contacted by a community liaison, who informed me that he would set me up with someone who could help me with my issue, despite being out of warranty. I was pleased by the turn of events and thanked him profusely.
That is, until a week passed and I had heard nothing back from anyone at Dell.
Shortly afterwards, Direct2Dell posted some information about a 1 year warranty extension for systems affected by the NVIDIA defect. I was absolutely relieved that I hadn’t purchased the exorbitantly priced warranty extension and would soon have my laptop repaired through normal channels.
With warranty extension information in hand, I called technical support, and despite pointing out the Direct2Dell post, I was again denied warranty service. Technical support knew nothing about the warranty extension and would not repair the laptop under warranty. Some more emails to the community liaison turned up the fact that he’d been on vacation and hadn’t realized that nobody had contacted me yet. He assured me he’d ‘track down’ who was responsible. Then more silence.
I was seriously stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was nearly three weeks without a working laptop and I still had no indication that anyone was even willing to help, despite two potential solutions. It was at this point that I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t.
Since purchasing my M1330, I had been in contact with a product manager at Dell, who took interest in some things I’d written about the laptop. We built up a friendly relationship over the past year, which I valued. It was based on mutual respect and I didn’t want to jeopardize it by using him as a backdoor resource. Yet, given the situation, I saw little alternative. I contacted him in his official capacity as a Dell employee, voicing my displeasure.
Not expecting any less from a person of his character, I received a timely response. He had personally contacted some resources to see what was happening. Not long afterwards, both the community liaison and an executive support representative contacted me regarding repairs.
There was still one more obstacle. Even several weeks after the acknowledgement of the GPU defect, it still wasn’t clear if the defective NVIDIA chips had worked their way out of Dell’s supply chain. Questions to that effect to Lionel Menchaca of Direct2Dell fame were either curiously sidestepped or simply brushed aside, with an explanation that the warranty extension would cover any issues with the GPU. The non-denial certainly sounded like the replacements would still be with possibly defective parts.
I attempted to ascertain from the support representative whether the replacement parts were defect free. All I got in response was some nonsensical explanation that GPU errata were common and that this one had been fixed. As a note, an erratum is a logic error within a computational device, something that is indeed fairly common, but causes only computational errors (which can lead to system instability and corruption). The weak die and substrate packaging material was a hardware defect that could cause physical, hardware failure, not an erratum. I was disappointed that even an executive support representative was either misinformed or thought they could slip one by the customer. Not having much choice regardless (I couldn’t even downgrade to the integrated Intel video if I wanted to), I went ahead with the repair.
Really the only bright spot of the experience was the surprisingly quick turnaround time for the return to depot repair service, which took less than a week, round trip, with both to and from shipping paid for by Dell. I’m now using the still functioning system to write this update. It’s held up okay so far and I’m crossing my fingers for the next year or so that I’ll use this laptop.
When everything is said and done, the main point here is that Dell is treating the situation as if everything were business as usual. Unfortunately with the defect, that’s simply not the case. I’d like to hear a confirmation that parts being used in new systems are defect-free. Otherwise, even with the warranty extension, the 8400M GS could still be a ticking time bomb in the M1330. I also would have liked to avoid the 4+ weeks without a laptop. I asked for a reasonably priced warranty extension due to the defect and was rejected. I asked for an in-warranty replacement of the stated defective GPU and was denied on the basis that it hadn’t yet showed symptoms. This would be acceptable under normal circumstances, but not when there’s an acknowledged manufacturing defect. Those 4 weeks without a working M1330 worked out to 8% of the ownership time of the laptop at that point. If a new car had to spend 8% of its first year with a mechanic, I’d be livid.
I’d like to see better communication between the different branches of Dell. While communications can be difficult in a large company, the disconnect between Direct2Dell, which is supposed to be an official voice of Dell, and technical support was simply unacceptable.
Finally, it’s time for Dell to stop hiding behind the problem. While there were numerous frantic bouts of finger pointing in NVIDIA’s general direction, the customer purchased the finished product from Dell. Dell needs to be responsible for the ups and downs of the product life cycle. I don’t go knocking on Synaptic’s door if the touch wheel on my iPod dies. I go to an Apple store. It’s the same thing here. One of the advantages of ordering a pre-built computer is that there’s a central point of contact for any problems. I expect that support system to be there when issues occur. Of course, it’s important to note that Dell isn’t the only manufacturer affected. HP and Apple have both acknowledged the issue as well.
The Dell XPS M1330 is a great laptop, unfortunately affected by the NVIDIA GPU defect. While I’d like to believe that the defective GPUs have worked their way out of inventory, there’s been no official confirmation either way. With the warranty extension well established at this point, you can be pretty certain that any issues will be resolved; however it doesn’t eliminate the fact that you could still run into hardware issues in the first place.
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