Dell Inspiron 9300 Review (pics, specs)

by gilo Reads (421,591)

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The Inspiron 9300 is Dell’s 17″ widescreen notebook for the home and small office market , competitively priced it offers the most value (and maybe plastic) for your dollar than any other desktop replacement.

Inspiron 9300 Specs as Purchased:

  • Intel Pentium M Dothan 730 (1.6GHz, 533MHz FSB)
  • 512MB (256MBx2) DDR2 ram at 533MHz
  • Nvidia Go 6800 256MB
  • 40GB hard drive 5400RPM -> Upgraded to 60GB 7200 7K60
  • WXGA+ (1440×900) Ultrasharp 17″ widescreen LCD (non-glossy, non TrueLife)
  • Intel 2200 802.11 b/g wireless card
  • DVD-ROM/CD-RWx24
  • Windows XP Home
  • 6-cell 53 watt/hour battery
  • 2 X 90W ac power supply

Reasons for Buying

I’ve been looking for a new widescreen multimedia notebook for a long time, in my buying decision I noted how and for what I use my old Toshiba Satellite 1410 and composed a big list of demands and desired specs accordingly .

A Big part in deciding on any specific brand and model is the competition which at the time of purchase was :

  • HP ZD8000 – P4 widescreen notebook design based on the successful but now outdated ZD7000 with only X600 GPU.
  • Fujitsu N6010 – Another P4 with amazing screen and looks yet proved to be noisy with a weak gpu Raden 9700.
  • Toshiba Satellite P30 – Once a favorite brand now with below average P4 design and the same old Radeon 9700 GPU.
  • Gateway MX680 – The only real close competitor to the i9300 with wsxga screen and a X700 gpu yet costs 500$ more.

Besides the screen quality, no other brand or even Dell’s other models (a 15.4″ widescreen was an option) came close to what the i9300 had to offer in terms of specs, gpu power and price .

Buying Experience

When looking at Dell store ratings at pricegrabber could think there are two different Dell companies, most are either 5 star or 1 star. The reason for this is that it takes only one small detail out of order or an unexpected deviation from the normal process of orders to get the Dell machine to grind to a halt . Then you’ll get caught in Dells maze of automatic emails replies and good willing, yet sometimes clueless reps, which will drain your patience .

My $800 off coupon order for an i9300 was on hold for 2 weeks in which I was promised 3 times everything is OK before it was cancelled by Dell for no good reason . Luckily knowing Dell from previous experience I went ahead and ordered another Inspiron 9300 at Dell Small Business with a $750 off coupon which came to an even lesser total than the original at $1017 before taxes with free shipping .

Packing and contents

big box

Even though the sparse packed box travelled around the world , the notebook arrived in a perfect condition, aside one minor scratch on the lid not worth bothering anyone about. Inside were the notebook in its own internal box, 2 AC power supplies, 2 software CDs, 1 quick start sheet and nothing much else.

is that all?

While not expecting much I was a bit surprised to find no handy owners manual, it comes as a PDF file yet I wonder how you are supposed to read this when your notebook is out of order.

This is the place to mention I was pleasantly surprised by the manual content itself, unlike certain other companies that like to fill half the manual with various warnings and disclaimers with little real helpful information, Dell’s manual looked very helpful including detailed instructions on how to replace/upgrade almost every part in your notebook (see upgrading).

In order to get your OWN Windows XP CD Dell require you to buy your OWN blank CD. In only 5 minutes a Dell special utility allows you to burn a Windows XP CD, it was so easy and painless there’s no reason anyone would spend their time & money arguing with Dell to send them an original CD. (see software)

Design & Build Quality

Much has been said about the i9300 design, it seems as if the Dell designers thought “Let’s make it out of plastic and make sure everyone will know…”. What bothers me most are the chunky white plastic rims, a simpler more elegant design of black and some accenting silver would have been a blessing, if you’ve got plastic, don’t flail it.

front : are those white bumpers you got on ? (view larger image)


The Notebook itself is quite thin and light (4 Kg) for a such a powerful 17″ notebook, you can’t expect it to have considerably less width or depth simply because of the screen size. The thickness is acceptable too as you can see by the picture. The effort to save is apparent in every part, yet there are no creaks or loose parts (though it’s new), it’s a desktop replacement and as such isn’t supposed to be carried often if any and one should consider the price factor as well . Overall Dell seems to have done a good job which I’ll go over in detail for each part .

right : pcmcia card , HD cover , SD card slot , firewire 1394 , headphone & min , only AA battery thick (view larger image)

Input and Output Ports

The Notebook has all the basic ports that should be in a home consumer notebook, of course the more the better is true, particularly in notebooks where adding new ports is an expensive and sometimes an impossibility. So pay notice to the lack of an Express Card slot, at this time it shouldn’t be a problem because you probably don’t have an Express Card device but it could be in the future. More current issues are the lack of any serial or parallel ports, you can add them by using various extensions but those are pricey and always have some disadvantage compared to an original port .

Left : 1 Kensington lock , 2 USB , 1 light beverage tray (view larger image)

While there are overall 6 USB ports, none are on the right side, not a big issue but it’s customary to put at least one for a right hand mouse so the wire won’t tangle with other wires at the back .



Back : S-video , 10/100 , modem , 4 USB , DVI , RGB , power supply  (view larger image)

While there are overall 6 USB ports, none are on the right side, which is not a big issue but it’s customary to put at least one there for a right hand mouse so the wire won’t tangle with other wires at the back.


power, hard disk and battery status

 
keyboard , wifi and bluetooth lights

The status lights are smartly located on the hinge allowing you to see them even when the lid is closed, believe it or not this was an important factor to me as I keep the notebook on 24/7 and like to see if everything is okay at a glance. The indicators quality is below par, sometimes flashing when an adjacent indicator lights up. More indicators would have been welcomed too. Another set of status lights is available next to a big round button.

Display

The Dell 17.2″ LG-Phillips WXGA+ resolution is enough for any common user . There is simply no need for a higher resolution like WUXGA for browsing or office applications unless you are into visual editing or like squinting . Movies downloaded from www.emule.org will not look better (they are of even lower resolution VGA) and DVDs will not gain much. Another reason is that WXGA panels are supposed to be lighter, consume less power, less likely statistically to have “bad” pixels and most importantly will do anything in NATIVE resolution including playing the latest games due to the powerful GPU

With 8 brightness levels and specs claiming 200 nits, I found the screen still on the dark side with its brightest setting just bright enough with no room to spare, in comparison my Toshiba with a 2 year old 14″ screen is set at the lowest brightness otherwise it hurts my eyes.

Equally as important, contrast is better yet nothing to brag about, the black is deep but not “black hole” black and the colors aren’t as vivid as I’d like to see, as a matter of fact there is a distinctive ruling blue tint to the screen. Anyone used to Toshibas “warm” LCDs will notice it right away.

Another drawback is the viewing angle, while one could claim a 170-degree viewing angle arc, I would say anything over 90-degrees is pushing it as the colors and contrast begin to wash out and fade. To be more specific, the screen has a sweet spot of about a 10-degree viewing angle arc where you get the brightest image.

screen lack of uniformity and light “leakage” from below enhanced by the digital camera

Viewing static solid blocks of colors reveals lack of screen uniformity, yet it isn’t noticeable in day to day activities of watching movies and playing games . More noticeable is minor light leakage from top and bottom, in particular over dark color such as when watching DVD movies with black bars. In addition there are small darker areas at the two lower corners.

Regarding the dreaded “sparkle” effect on an LCD, I haven’t seen it yet and I’m not sure what it is anyway, the screen does have an inconvenience effect when staring at large areas of bright color but I think that is simply like watching a light bulb directly – too much brightness for the eye.

 

see the white lines running from the corner to the left ? it’s the backlight showing through

The display hinge allows for 180-degree tilting of the screen yet it’s too stiff, while this gives the feeling you won’t have any problems, such as a loose hinge, a quality notebook screen should glide effortlessly.  The latch mechanism itself, while doing its work properly, feels cheap. In addition there is a gap between the bezel and and the panel at the top section of the screen showing the backlight.

A useful little detail is that the screen will instantly turn off when the lid is closed without having to configure it or select a power scheme.

The screen is one of the most important and most expensive to replace parts in any notebook and as such got extra attention, it is the only major drawback of this notebook being not as good as I hoped but useable and acceptable for the price range. I for one would have gladly paid Dell 100$ more ( 10%+ the notebook price ) to get not a WUXGA but a better WXGA screen.

Speakers

The speakers are positioned superbly allowing you to hear audio clearly even when the lid is closed, they are aided by a “Subwoofer”, a stretch term for the small 1″ speaker at the bottom center of the notebook. Yet do not underestimate its contribution to the sound quality, turning it off shows how tinny the speakers are without it.



Media buttons : mute , volume up , volume down , play/pause , previous track , next track , and a square ?!

Controlling the volume and media play are 7 sturdy media buttons on the front, they even light up in blue when pressed for ease of use in dark rooms and visual effect, a volume dial would have been better as it allows finer and faster control, it’s impossible to set the sound for quiet listening as the sound level above mute is too loud. Not to be dismissed, those buttons are very handy (and a must for lid down situations), are overlooked by some “multimedia” notebooks which require you to use FN+keyboard.

I would have liked to get more bass and “oomf” from the speakers.  But there are space, power and vibration limitats to overcome before we’ll see better speakers in notebooks. Overall the sound quality is adequate and certainly above average thanks to the “Subwoofer”.

CPU and Performance

Like many others I opted for the lowest CPU option (Pentium M 730, 1.6GHz), unless you constantly run CPU intensive applications there is no reason to opt for a higher CPU and to pay $100 or more for each step up (less then 10% clock speed increase) didn’t make sense to me.  Furthermore, higher CPU speed doesn’t guarantee a faster notebook as bottlenecks occur in other places such as the HD and well .. YOU, ever wondered how much time the computer spends waiting for you at about 10% cpu usage to finally issue a command?

Besides for 3D gaming a powerful GPU is much more important then CPU power (see gaming) and a lower CPU can help you produce a cooler quieter laptop (see heat and noise).

Although silly I measured boot time of about 60 seconds from pressing the power button to a wireless connection. It’s silly to measure as it depends on the startup programs, how “fresh” is the OS and dozens of other factors. It is also unimportant because how many times do you turn it on and off in one day?  If it’s more than once or twice then why?

The “Pi” test seems to give people on this website some sort of pleasure, so I ran it too:

 Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
Dell Inspiron 9300 (1.6GHz Alviso Pentium M) 2m 04s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 45s
IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 23s
Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz) 3m 3s
Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 2m 10s
Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 28s

GPU and Gaming

The strongest part of this notebook and deal closer, is the Nvidia GO 6800 256MB Graphics Card, unparalleled power by anything on the market now (now, because try and get a reasonable price notebook with Radeon mobile X800) and not to be found at any other major brand manufacture. This GPU is only surpassed by the GO 6800 ULTRA in the XPS2 yet for Value for money it beats that one too.

Running 3DMark05 on a clean install with Dell drivers will get you about 2850 points, but that’s due to the low clock speeds of 125MHZ core and 318MHZ memory, installing more powerful drivers will allow you to easily raise them (with the automatic driver interface) to 290/590 MHZ and will get you 3360 points, raise not overclock because the stock speeds for this desktop gpu in mobile form are 300/600 MHZ to start with, if you’re willing to bear the heat and risk you can push it even further, but what for?

3D benchmarking tests give only the general direction of things, real benchmarks are to be done with real games to see how the notebook handles the load. Using fraps I ran several high end games at maximum settings and resolution supported, newer games will probably allow you choosing native resolution but older ones will require some sort of way around solution or simply going with a lower res , they will look great all the same :

Prince of persia: sands of time – 1200×768 60 FPS limited only by gpu , it was actually too fast to play and I had to underclock the GPU .

Medal of honor: pacific assault – 1200×800 30 FPS limited by an improper game install , it only stuttered when encountered program errors and reached 60 FPS on some areas .

Brothers in arms demo – 1400×900 40 FPS, one of the latest games to date , supported the native resolution and looked amazing.

Those are all DirectX games, Nvidia is traditionally even better at OpenGL games so if you like that over hyped game where you need bring your own flashlight you can expect even better results .

Those benchmarks were done with an active internet connection, firewall, antivirus and some other apps working in the background demonstrating online multiplayer gaming is not a problem as well as switching from light applications for a quick gaming session. The nVidia Go 6800 should prove more than enough to run even the latest games at maximum detail and native resolution for an extra of $199.

Upgrade Options

Usually big notebooks are easy to upgrade since the underside provides a lot of access cover space, Dell goes a little further and actually portraits in detail how to replace/upgrade many parts in your notebook. The underside has access cover to the memory, HD, mini pci, modem, bluetooth module, optical drive and even CPU, where the main part are all clearly marked and require the use of a simple screwdriver to gain access, more importantly this also means you won’t void your warranty by doing minor upgrades.

Memory – ordering more then 512MB in 2 dimm is very expensive , you’ll get a much better deal if you’ll order your memory from an online retailer and install it yourself , it’s probably the simplest , fastest and most fool proof upgrade out there.

HD – hard disk wise, Dell upgrade options are very reasonable and recommended, I opted for the 40GB HD because it was supposed to be a 5400 RPM drive, when it turned out to be a 4200RPM I installed an unopened 7K60 I had on reserve (ordered from Dell too) in a matter of minutes.

CPU – too expensive in terms of performance gain, especially considering each step up is at least $100, it could be done later when prices drop but honestly I’m not sure a Dothan 1.8 will cost less then 200$ soon so if you must , get a better CPU when ordering ( 1.6 + 100$ =1.7 + 100$ =1.8 ).

Dell deserves a good remark for their upgrade policy, especially compared to the other brands attitudes.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard is not much to write about or for the matter type on, It feels solid with only little flex on the right side but the keys are too stiff , “slow” and unpleasant to click on compared with the Toshibas crisp keyboard (again to make them last longer).

Most keys are full size and are maybe even too big as the “Space” and some others could have been made smaller in order to allow the “Del” “Ins” “Home” “End” “PgUp” and “PgDn” a more accessible place other then sticking them at the top right, but that a matter of getting used to the new layout. At least the “Windows” key is at the right place as anyone with a Toshiba keyboard knows you need two hands to press “Windows + X” or have really long flexible fingers . There could be more usage of FN + F hotkeys for things such as power management control or a full numbers pad to the right but that would offset the keyboard .

Wireless

The basic wireless option is the Intel 2200 802.11 b/g and it works just fine, I was able to get excellent reception of 54 Mbps from a range of 12 meters. What’s so hot about that? There were also 3 thick brick and mortar walls in between. It’s interesting to note the Intel wireless pro has no less then 5 processes (compared to Netgears 1).

If you get a new cellphone it’s probably a good idea to choose the Bluetooth option as a way to exchange data, other Bluetooth devices are pricey, limited in selection and are not guaranteed to work with the built-in module. There is no IR port, if you choose the IR remote option you’ll get a dongle to go along it .

Battery

I picked the basic battery is 6-cell 53 watt/hour because its cheaper and lighter to put on your lap , it comes with a nice power meter allowing you to know how much juice is left in your spare battery .

Battery power meter leds , next to the “subwoofer” 

This notebook is a desktop replacement and as such will be most of the time on AC. It’s not intended to be carried around and the large screen and powerful GPU take their toll on the battery, so don’t expect much more then 2 hours. Sure Dell and others will tell you can turn off the wireless, set the screen brightness to 1 and put an aluminum foil over your head, but it’s not really worth the hassle. The truth is constant internet connection nowadays is almost a must, the screen is too dark even at level 7 ( see display ) and that aluminum only enhances the mind control rays the government broadcasts to your living room.

The battery should be considered more of as a UPS allowing you to keep on working/watching movies/playing uninterrupted while the power is out .

Power supply

I was under the impression the original power supply is of 60W ( a good thing ) yet got only 90W versions, their design is somewhat awkward with both wires pointing to the same direction, and being very short, prepare a place next to a power socket or get an extension cord.

Heat & Noise

Top priority in my (note)book, this one is actually quite cool compared to its power. Instead of putting the fans in the middle of the case, Dell has devised a clever solution of using 2 large fans at the back corners with 4 vents for each fan. This allows the cooling devices to dissipate heat more efficiently to the outside since they have more surface and air to work with.

The underside is only slightly warm even after 24/7 operation and it’s quite comfortable to put on your lap while sitting on the sofa, however the down side to this setup is that the memory Dimms at the center (close to the surface of the underside) get little cooling if any and reach temperatures of 45 and more, making it a little too hot for a really long periods of time.

I8kfangui (http://www.liutilities.com/products/wintaskspro/processlibrary/i8kfangui/) reported idle temperatures of CPU 38 , GPU 47 and HD 37 . Underload the CPU gets to 47 and the GPU can go to 57 and even further depends how much you push it ( see GPU & Gaming ) . The fans themselves are very quiet at slow speeds, in fact the right one is so quiet you can’t hear if it’s on or off, the left one is whisper quite when it’s on and only make real noise at high speed. Fear not because your notebook will stay on slow quiet mode and will be unheard even in a quiet room.

I have yet to hear the fans kick into high by themselves even in heavy 3D gaming but then the sound usually hash any fan noise . The brave ( or stupid if you don’t have an extra coverage ) could turn them off completely using I8Kfangui and have a silent notebook, yet it’s not recommended .

Thumbs up to Dell on making this notebook cool and quiet, I’d love to see some improvements by Dell or self made modifications to the underside memory temperature though.

I was able to undervolt the CPU using right marks clock utility and a tutorial I can’t take credit for. Its quite simple to do, won’t hinder performance ( its not underclocking ) and the lower the clock speed the better the results . I was able to lower the idle temp of the CPU down to 32 idle & 38 underload , adding about 20-30 minutes battery time ( and could push it even further down ) .

Software

Upon ordering I’ve specifically chosen not to have any kind of extra software, even the “free” ones, that didn’t stop Dell from loading it up with loads of unwanted applications. I counted up no less then 55 processes ( well not actually counted, I pressed ctrl+alt+del but it’s the thought that counts).

The only Dell software you might need is Dells “quickset” allowing you to see volume status, screen status and adjust power schemes . Compared to the Toshibas sleek control its kinda childish and I have yet to find how to change power scheme with a Hot-key . I did not bother with any other Dell software, if you used a computer before you probably have your own set of basic applications, I found the free ones often are the best or at least do what you need them to.

The best option is to do a clean install from the windows XP CD you burned and start fresh, just make sure you download the proper drivers from Dells website first . Although mine worked fine without them, at least get the nacassery drivers to connect to the net. I now have a 24 processes configuration that does everything the Dell 55 process configuration did and more.

Customer Support

I got the basic warranty, like others I try to avoid long phone calls to Dell’s customer service, I tried the chat support several times and it was buggy and didn’t help much as they asked me to call in.

I asked Dell about calibrating the screen and getting the proper 5400RPM HD, and have yet to receive an answer. Will keep you updated about it as to how it turns out, but in general it takes lots a patience to solve issues.

Cons

  • Screen , the one and only major issue with this notebook
  • Little details such as design , software , hardware interface all could be more elegant and project quality too enhance user experience for only little more $$.

Pros

  • Gpu , will run everything you throw at it
  • Heat & Noise , remarkable for such a powerful notebook
  • Value , unmatched by anything on todays market

Conclusion

The Inspiron 9300 has every reason to be as popular as it is, while not perfect it’s a well balanced multimedia notebook that will do anything you ask of it. Its high point is the Nvidia GO 6800 graphics card, which offers exceptional performance for gamers. It is rare to find a notebook that has unbeatable value for money, power & is actually cheaper than any of its competitors.  Even its shortcomings are to be dismissed in light of its price.

Only further weeks and months will tell the reliability of the Inspiron 9300 and if it was a good investment , but for now it looks like the best option for a 17″ notebook out there.

Other NotebookReview.com Inspiron 9300 Reviews

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