Dell Inspiron 9200 Review (pics, specs)

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by Neal Colonius

The Dell Inspiron 9200 is the first 17″ widescreen notebook PC offered by the world’s leading manufacturer of desktop and notebook PC’s, and its clearly designed to get the attention of multimedia and entertainment enthusiasts.   Like most Dell products, the 9200 notebook offers lots of options to suit any pocketbook, but even the base model makes for a pretty powerful notebook.

Dell Inspiron 9200 Specs (parentheses show the selections I made)

  • Pentium M processor, 1.6-2.1Ghz (1.8Ghz Pentium M 745)
  • 17″ widescreen display, WXGA or UXGA (17″ wxga, 1440 x 900 resolution)
  • 256mb-2gb 333mhz ram (512mb)
  • 8X DVD Rom;or 24X CDRW/DVDRom; or 8x CD/DVD /-RW dual layer (24X CDRW/DVDRom)
  • 40-100 gb hard drive (60gb)
  • 53 whr 6 cell or 80whr 9 cell Li-ion battery (53whr)
  • Optional Intel or Dell wireless adapters b and/or g, and/or a (Intel Pro 2200 wifi b/g adapter)
  • Lots of I/O, including a firewire port, 4 USB 2.0 ports, sd card reader, 15 pin vga, DVI, and S video connectors, audio and microphone jacks, 10/100 Ethernet and v.92 56K modem connectors, and PC card slot

Taking advantage of a Dell pre Christmas 25% off coupon, I purchased this laptop for $1460, before $40 rebate, which I chose over a free low end Dell printer. My order only included Windows XP Home and the minimum in software applications, Power DVD, Wordperfect, and trial/lite versions of McAfee antivirus, Sonic RecordNow, Dell Picture Studio, and Musicmatch.

In the Box and Setup

“In the box” is an Inspiron 9200 notebook, a 110v power adapter,  large color quickstart guide, Windows reinstallation and application cd’s, and a warranty/safety manual. A hard copy of the system manual was not included. The only cable included was the power cable.

There’s not much to getting this notebook going,  plug it in, turn it on, and step through the short windows setup wizard and registration screens. You’ll also need to register the McAfee AV and other trial software. The wireless card immediately recognized the wireless b network in my home. Once I entered my wireless security key and ran the Windows Network setup wizard, I was able to access the interet and other computers on my home network via a Linksys Wireless Access Point (WAP11).  The wireless card, a “free” add-in”, works well.  I can walk outside my house and 20′ into my backyard and still get a good connection, even though I am about 75′ away from the access point (and separated by 3 walls).

Appearances and Controls

The 9200 is 1.6 inches thick, 15.5 inches wide, and 11.3 inches deep. The weight is just under 8 lbs, pretty reasonalbe for a laptop with a 17″ display. The laptop is silver with glossy white trim (oficially, its Arctic Silver with Alpine White trim).  The construction feels solid, but not extravagent, giving the impression that getting fair value for your money.

Dell Inspiron 9200 Keyboard view (view larger image)

The I/O ports and controls are intuitively placed in “usable” spots. The keyboard is a typical laptop keyboard, that is, the keys located a bit too closely together, and a couple keys are located in locations that are just enough different from a normal desktop keyboard to be annoying.   That’s unfortunate, because this notebook is big enough to allow a  keyboard layout approaching a conventional keyboard.  The touchpad is better than most others I’ve used. While its located below the space bar, its far enough away that I don’t often tap it with my thumb accidentally while typing. The touchpad also has horizontal and vertical scroll bars, easing the transition from a mouse to the touch pad. The scroll bars work just like the wheel on a mouse, gliding your finger up and down or across a  scroll bar moves a page up/down or left/right without moving the mouse pointer. I still find simulating “drag and drop” on a touch pad to be “touch and go”, double tapping on a item is supposed to be like holding the left mouse button down on an item so I can drag it somewhere, but I usually have to try more than once to get it to work. Still, this is the most workable  touchpad I’ve ever tried, thanks to the scroll bars, and I don’t miss a mouse nearly so much as I expected to.

Other nice touches include the row of multimedia keys on the front edge of the bottom half of the laptop. The first three mute, raise and lower volume. These are followed by play/pause, next track, previous track and stop buttons. These buttons are backlit in with “dell blue” lighting. Each time you touch a button, all the buttons light up for a few seconds. Most of the commonly used connectors are conveniently located on the left or right side of the laptop for easy access. On the left are two usb ports and the optical drive. On the right are the audio jacks, firewire port, sd card slot, PC card slot, and access to the hard drive bay. All of the rest of the I/O, including two more usb ports, are on the back of the laptop.

Side views of Dell Inspiron 9200 (view larger image)

The battery, wireless card, and memory slots can all be accessed easily from the bottom of the Inspiron 9200.    Covers for the wireless card and memory slots are held securely in place by two screws.   The battery is locked in placed with a spring loaded latch.



Under side of Dell Inspiron 9200 (view larger image)

The Inspiron 9200 in Action…………

Playing Music and DVD’s

The Inspiron is great to look at and listen to. DVD’s look great, sharp images, accurate colors and smooth playback all appear to be easy for the Inspiron 9200. The speakers are by far the best I’ve heard in a laptop, and can fill a small room with sound, with only slight  distortion at maximum volume.    There’s even a small subwoofer on the bottom of the notebook.     It won’t replace your stereo, but the fidelity is good enough to “wow” any friends with other notebook models or portable DVD players.

Top view of Dell Inspiron 9200 (view larger image)

The included Cyberlink DVD and Dell Multimedia Experience software is formatted for viewing at a some distance. If you purchase a remote to control this laptop (like the ATI Remote Wonder or the optional Dell remote), and connect the laptop to your television screen via the S video output , you’ll be able to read the menu’s easily from 10 feet or more away. Dell’s Multimedia Experience software provides a “formatted for a TV screen” interface for playing music, video’s and viewing image files, while PowerDVD does the same for DVD’s.

Battery Life

Dell forecasts that the 53whr battery will provide 3.4 hours of power with routine usage. Routine usage can mean different things, but this number is believable, based on my experience with the 9200. In a more “reproducable” test, I charged the battery fully and set the laptop to play DVD’s (Disks 2 and 3 from the Season 3 set of Farscape), with the volume at 20% (a comfortable volume in a quiet room). Under these conditions, battery life was a very respectable 2 hours and 42 minutes. Battery life with the optional 80whr battery would be 50% greater than this.   The 80whr battery weighs 0.88 lbs (0.3 lbs heavier than the standard battery), and is sold separately for $130.  Dell says each battery is rated for 500 cycles.

Recharging is quick, charging the battery from 0% to a full charge takes under 2 hours. The powerblock/cables are extremely well designed. The powerblock is 1″ thich, 2″ wide, and 6″ long, and concave on each end. Two cords are attached to the power block, a 3″ cord which runs to the wall receptacle, and a 5′ cord which runs to the laptop. When not in use, the cords can be looped around the concave ends of the powerblock, and held in place with an elastic strap permanently attached to the powerblock. This helps keep cords from tangling in your laptop case, a small, but much appreciated feature. The battery is easy swapped out, a springloaded locking mechanism holds it in place in the bottom of the laptop.

When the system is powered externally, the screen is set at full brightness, the cpu at max, and the wifi adapter is on. When powered by battery, several changes are made to conserve battery power while still providing adequate performance. Dell also provides a system tray utility (QuickSet) to configure these options, or switch between user defined power savings options. The predifined options include maximum battery life, maximum performance, a “presentations” configuration, and a “network” off configuration.

 QuickSet Opening Screen

Performance


The ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 Pro 3d graphics chip with 128mb of dedicated memory, 512mb system memory and 1.8ghz Pentium M745 cpu should make this laptop a passable gaming machine. I ran a few gaming benchmarks on this laptop, and compared those to my desktop PC (Pentium IV 2.66ghz cpu with 128 Radeon 9800 pro graphics card), as well as a few other published benchmarks. I ran all of these benchmarks with the laptop plugged into external power.

Aquamark3 and 3DMark2003 are two popular benchmark utilities that use game graphics to estimate benchmark ratings for video cards. Sisoftware Sandra is a wide ranging all-around benchmark utility.   I got the following results with Aquamark 2003,  3DMark 2003, and Sissoftware Sandra 2005 Lite using the default video settings (1024X768) on this laptop the desktop described above:

Aquamark3 Scores

 

Dell Inspiron 9200

Dell 4550 desktop w/ATI 9800 Pro

Overall

26689

37230

CPU

8889

6363

GFX

3138

5262

Average FPS

26.7

37.23

 

3DMark2003

 

Dell Inspiron 9200

Dell 4550 desktop w/ATI 9800 Pro

3DMark Score

3422

5665

CPU Mark

715

461

Wings of Fury

125fps

174.4

Battly Proxycon

19.9fps

37.4

Troll’s Lair

18.5fps

33.1

Mother Nature

23.2fps

37.4

 

Sisoftware Sandra 2005 Lite

 

Dell Inspiron 9200

Dell 4550 desktop w/ATI 9800 Pro

Multimedia benchmarks

 

 

Integer x8 iSSE2

17099 integer it/s

16110

Float x4 iSSE2

18832 it/s floating point

20761

Arithmetic CPU benchmarks

 

 

Dhrystone ALU

7732 MIPS

7085 MIPS

Whetstone FPU

2495 MFLOPS

1958 MFLOPS

Whetstone iSSE2

3191 MFLOPS

3575 MFLOPS

Though  these numbers won’t mean much alone, but when comparing the cpu numbers to other measurements in the Sisoft database, they indicate this system is about on par with Athlon XP2400 or 2600 systems or Pentium 4 systems in the 2.4ghz to 2.66 ghz range, ie near state of the art desktops 18 months ago.   This makes it one of the fastest centrino laptops available (especially if you opt for the fastest 2.1ghz Pentium M765 cpu). The graphics numbers, while excellent for a laptop, are a couple steps below “state of the art for desktops today, “adequate” for most gaming, but would probably require some tradeoffs when running the newest 3d games.

Display

Dell publishes very few specifications on this notebook’s display, which appears, to be a very fine display screen. Viewing angles on the Inspiron 9200 are quite good.  Left and right viewing angles are very good, 60 degrees or more. However, viewing angles from below vertical (if the screen is tilted back) are not as good, if your screen is tilted back more that 10 or 20 degrees, you lose some of the ability to distinguish between subtle shades of dark black or bright whites (contrast becomes poor). Viewing angles from above are much better, and I find viewing from angle about 5 or 10 degrees above vertical to be a bit better than looking right at the screen.

Screen Inspiron 9200 Viewing Angles (view larger image)

Dell Inspiron 9200 View Angles (view larger image)

Pixel response time is very good. Again, Dell doesn’t specify response times, but I’ve compared the response time of the Inspiron 9200’s display with a Planar PX191 (25ms, 15ms rise and 10ms fall)LCD display, a Dell 1901fp display (25ms),  and a Sceptre X9G Komodo II* (25ms, 10ms rise, 15ms fall) display, and the 9200 screen’s response time “looks” slightly better than both of those.

Pixel response time is often defined as the time required for a pixel to change from 10% of full white (almost black) to 90% of full white (the rise time), plus the time to “fall” back down from 90% to 10% again (the fall time).   In the real world, pixel response time will varies with brightness and contrast settings, and color changes you are tracking, and this variation may be different on different monitors. While a good LCD monitor will have a pixel response time of 20-25ms (20 to 25 milliseconds), which is still noticeable, a CRT’s response is not a factor, typically being 3ms or less. The higher the response time, the more items will blur as they move across your screen. If the fall time is high, you’ll see a longer trail, if the rise time is high, the front edge of moving items will be blurry. I find fall time to be a bit more noticeable than rise time, but both make fast moving images blurry.

To “look” at pixel response time I downloaded and ran a freeware utility called Pixel Persistence Analyzer, a small, but extremely “neat” utility that helps users evaluate response times several ways. One tool moves text across the screen at different speeds. For each speed you type in the text you can see, with faster moving text being hard to identify. Another tool moves two blocks across this screen at a constant, fairly quick speed, starting at 1″ apart. You move the two blocks together until the (blurry) front edge of one touches the trailing edge of another. The computer uses this distance to give an indication of response time. Using these tests, the program gives you a fairly good indication of the true response time of a display, which I judge to be about 25ms. The rise time and fall time appear to be about equal, which also helps minimize the amount of blurriness you actually see. Transitions between some colors, like blue to white, seem to be handled better than the black to white transition.

I also ran Displaymate, an excellent monitor tuning and evaluation software program, to check a few other features. Contrast in not a strength of the 9200’s display, its not as good as it is on my Planar PX191 (a monitor which is noted for distinguishing between the very dark blacks and whitest whites), but it was about on par with other monitors I use often (a Scepter X9G and Dell 1901fp). On this laptop there is no contrast adjustment, only brightness. When the laptop is powered externally brightness is set at maximum. When under battery power, brightness is lowered to about 60% (a value you can set), which makes it a bit more difficult to distinguish levels of black. The ability of this screen to contrast between very dark levels of and bright white is on par with a good entry level desktop LCD monitor, meaning if you are watching a DVD or playing a game where the displayed images are at night or in darkness, you might notice less detail than you would with a high end display, but its not a serious problem.

Otherwise I found the display quality to be excellent. Colors are displayed brightly, accurately and evenly across the screen. No dead pixels were noted (and I checked closely for all colors). Moire or pincushion effects were not a problem. Text is very readable even with 6 point fonts, and there is no distortion at the edges or elsewhere on the screen.

Storage

I purchased the less expensive of two 60 GB hard drive options with the Inspiron 9200 (a 60 GB 7200 rpm drive was available for $72 more).  Fortunately, the drive installed in my unit was still acceptably fast (for a laptop drive), being a 2.5″ Fujitsu MHT2060A 5400 rpm ATA 100 drive with an 8mb buffer and an average read seek time of 12 seconds. The drive also seems to run very quiet. Sisoft Sandra’s FileSystem Benchmark for this drive was 26mb/sec; on par with 3 ” 5400 rpm desktop drives (a 100 GB 5400 rpm Deskstar rates 29mb/sec, for example). Sisoft Sandra also reported an average access time of 11ms, vs. the mfrs’ rating of 12ms.

The onboard SD card reader is pretty quick. Using SiSoft’s Sandra Flash Benchmark utility with a 128mb Sandisk SD card, I got file transfer rates (read speeds) a few percent higher than the benchmark data for other SD cards in the Sisoft database. Writes were a good bit slower. Like most flash readers, data transfer rates with small files were much less than large files, with read speeds ranging from 141kb/sec for 512b files (small text files), to 4700kb/sec for 256kb files (small to medium word documents, spreadsheets) to 7300 kb/sec for 2mb files (digital images, mp3 files, etc). Write speeds were much slower, typically about 20% of the read speeds for large files, with a maximum of about 1.5mb/sec.

The 24X CDRW/DVD combo drive included with my Inspiron 9200 is a Sony CRX830E, rated for 24X CD read, write and rewrite speeds, and 8X DVD read speeds (see the Nero Infotool report below for more details). Though it supports packet writing (drag and drop burning), it does not support Mt. Rainier packet writing, which would allow for much faster formatting of cd’s. (And…..I wish the Inspiron included a slot loading drive instead of the conventional tray design.)

Using the freeware Digital audio extraction program CDDAE, I was able to extract 19 wav files from a music cd (Best of Martina Mcbride) containing 69 minutes of music (692mb) in 4 minutes and one second (for comparison, a good 48X or 52X cd writer would extract these files in about 2 minutes and 45 seconds). The average read speed was 17.3X, and the final read speed was 24X, confirming to the drive’s nameplate speed. Average cpu utilization was a low 5%. CDDAE verified that the tracks were extracted with 0% errors.

Additional tests with the Nero CD-DVD Speed benchmark program (also available at www.cdspeed2000.com) confirmed that this drives read and write performance were equal to its nameplate speeds. The drive is a CAV drive (Constant Angular Velocity), and at maximum, it runs at a constant 5000 rpm, with read speeds near the inside of a cd starting at 10X, increasing to 24X at the outer edge of the cd. CD-DVD Speed rated digital audio extraction quality as 10/10, confirming CDDAE’s errorless extraction measurements. DVD performance tests similarly confirmed the drive’s nameplate ratings. Most commercial DVD’s are dual layer, and this Sony drive will read them with an average read speed of about 4.5X, typical results for read tests on a dual layer disk. When reading a single layer DVD-R disk containing 4.3gb of data that I burned, read speeds started at 3.4X at the inside edge of the disk, increasing to 8.3X at the outside edge, for an average read speed of 6.2X. I’ve only burned a few cd, but this drive appears to handle burning well, requiring about 4 minutes to burn a full cdr.

Optical Drive info

Support, Documentation

The warranty included in the base price is for 1 year. Longer terms are optional.. I was disappointed that a hard copy manual was not included.

I own a lot of Dell hardware, three PC’s in our home, two monitors, a Pocket PC and Pocket DJ.   Whenever I’ve called Dell, I’ve been able to eventually get the help I need.    Sometimes its been amazingly quick.  When a Dell monitor I owned started to fail, it was replaced quickly (over a single weekend), and Dell paid to ship the old one back. The user forums on the Dell site are very active, and are a great source of information. I usually look here for help first, its a lot faster than trying to call Dell for help.

But I had a lot of problems with this particular notebook order.  The initial shipment was lost by UPS. Dell didn’t make a second shipment for a little over two weeks after the first was lost, and by that time the rebate was no longer valid, and Dell’s automated rebate system thought my order date was the date of the second shipment.   I also changed the shipment destination for the second shipment from the address I was visiting (it was to be a Christmas gift for my son while we were visiting), where sales tax was to be charged, to the address of my home, where sales tax was not applicable. I ended up spending at least 6 hours on the phone getting the replacement shipped, the rebate authorized, and the tax issue settled, but at least with Dell I was able to get the problems resolved.   At the end of the day, though, we are very pleased with how this notebook handles everything we’ve thrown at it, which helps us forget the delayed delivery and hours lost on the phone.    Its a great laptop for working (and playing) around the home, taking trips to the local internet/coffee house or across the country, or relaxing and watching a DVD in bed.

Pricing and Availability



Links

Dell Inspiron 9200

Aquamark3

3dMark2003

Sisoft Sandra

DisplayMate

CDDAE, CD-DVD Speed, Nero Infotool

Portions of this review first appeared in a review on this same subject at Epinions.com.


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