Dell Inspiron 9300 Review (pics, specs)

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by Andrew Johnson, Alaska USA

The Inspiron 9300 is Dells flagship desktop replacement notebook computer.  Sporting a choice of two 17″ widescreen displays, it is aimed at buyers who desire power and value over ultimate mobility.  Dell took a very different approach with this desktop replacement, however.  With an Intel Pentium M instead of the hot running, power hogging Pentium 4, this laptop is perhaps the smallest, lightest, and longest running 17″ PC notebook available.

Dell Inspiron 9300 (view larger image)

Dell Inspiron 9300 specs as reviewed:

  • Intel Pentium M Dothan 730 (1.6GHz, 533MHz FSB)
  • 1GB (512MBx2) DDR2 ram at 533MHz
  • 40GB hard drive
  • WXGA+ (1440×900) Ultrasharp 17″ widescreen LCD (non-glossy, non TrueLife)
  • Intel 2200 802.11 b/g wireless card
  • 8x DVD DL Burner
  • Windows XP Home
  • 6-cell 53 watt/hour battery

Reasons for Buying

This laptop is part of a natural progression for me.  I’ve grown tired of large computers and excess cables, but still desire a large screen and moderate computing power.  I rarely have a need to travel with the computer, but mobility is certainly a bonus.

I have never been a big fan of Dell, but price and feature shopping brought me back over and over again.  My second choice was the very reasonably priced HP ZD8000.  The sheer brute-force approach of the Pentium-4 with hyper threading is attractive.  It has very real performance benefits, but only under heavy multi-tasking.  Also, it is a poor notebook processor.  The heat and noise associated with removing that heat steered me away from the ZD8000.  Not to mention the awful battery life.  I also considered the Dell i6000, but configured identically it is only about $100 cheaper, and as a professional photographer, 17″ is almost considered a minimum.

Buying Experience

I purchased this laptop online from Dell a day before it appeared publicly on their site.  I was able to use a $750 off coupon which expired before the new laptop appeared, so I thought I was getting an amazing deal.  It turns out Dell extended the offer, but at least I got my machine early.  The total came to $1277 after the rebate.  Unfortunately Dell will only ship Priority overnight to Alaska, so shipping added $89 to that.  My ship date was projected at 21 days, but the laptop shipped after just 8 days.  Kudos to Dell.

Design & Build Quality

This laptop is big.  For its size, however, it feels quite light.  At about 8 pounds, it’s actually lighter than some 15″ notebooks.

Before my purchase, I tried to find something common with identical dimensions to set on my desk and hold to get an idea of its size.  It turns out a small FedEx box with one side closed is almost the exact same size. 

The Dell Inspiron 9300 is about the same size as a small FedEx box (view larger image)

The large width is nice for sitting on your lap without having to hold you your legs together.

The finish is painted silver color, with painted white trim.  It could even be called elegant.  It is kept simple with no excessive labels, lights, buttons, etc.  I prefer the durability of unpainted plastic, but there is nothing to indicate that this finish is low quality.

The Inspiron 9300 feels very sturdy, especially for such a large laptop.  It is stiff and there is almost no give anywhere.  However, one thing I noticed right away was a gap near the bottom of the LCD, right at the “DELL” label.  This is a small issue, but something I wouldn’t expect to see on a really well-made notebook.

Dell Inspiron 9300 “Gap” near screen issue (view larger image)

Display

This is amazing for a laptop.  I am a professional photographer and use an HP 23″ LCD in the office, which has the same panel as the newer Apple cinema displays.  The Dell screen is actually as bright as the HP when viewed straight on.

Dell Inspiron 9300 and HP 23″ LCD head on comparison (view larger image)

However, the Dell screen has an interesting characteristic.  While even extreme viewing angles are very acceptable, there is a rather small “sweet spot” for optimal brightness.  Moving slightly off center results in a small but noticeable decrease in brightness.  Moving farther off center makes little difference, and the screen can be read even from an 80 degree angle off center.  The high end desktop screen, in comparison, exhibits almost no change from any viewing angle.  Notice how even the 17″ laptop is somewhat dwarfed by the 23″ display.

Dell Inspiron 9300 and HP 23″ LCD angle view comparison (view larger image)

The finish is an anti-glare matte finish comparable to any desktop screen.  I prefer this finish as it is comfortable to view and does not strain the eyes.

There are 8 brightness levels.  The lowest level is acceptable for very dark environments and would probably be ideal for an airplane.  As you will see later, the brightness level has a significant impact on battery life.

Also of note, the laptop is driving the 23″ in the photo display through its DVI port.  I was not aware it supported 1920×1200 external resolution, and I was very pleased to see it played DVD’s at this size without any jitter.  The laptop also has a regular VGA port, but does not support three monitors, just two.

Speakers

There are three speakers.  Two aim forward and slightly up.  They direct the sound well to a single user or a couch full of movie-watchers.  One “subwoofer” directs deeper notes downwards.  I’m not sure how they consider a 1″ speaker a subwoofer, but either way the sound quality is top notch for a laptop.  The subwoofer volume can be adjusted independently.  With it off, the sound is still above average for a notebook, and will play notes down to about 200Hz.  The subwoofer adds at least another octave, extending the output to below 100Hz.  This is not deep at all by home theater standards, but fills in a tremendously important octave that covers common vocal ranges.  Movie dialog comes alive thanks to the subwoofer.

Processor and Performance

I ordered the lowest processor option (Pentium M 730, 1.6GHz) because I know I have little need for anything more.  Subjectively, general usage performance is very snappy.  Multi-tasking is much better than I expected from a single CPU without hyper threading.  The large amount of RAM no doubt helps.

I am not a gamer, so I can’t attest to the 3D graphics performance.  I imagine with the X300 it is unremarkable but should play all current games acceptably well.  I wanted something with enough memory to drive multiple high resolution, high color depth monitors, and perhaps play a Directx9 game at some point.

Boot time is 42 seconds from pressing the power button to opening a text document.  This is mostly due to the slow 4200 RPM hard drive, which I will soon be replacing with a larger faster drive.  Unfortunately Dell does not offer 100GB drives in 5400 RPM speed.  I also have done no optimizations on the notebook, so this represents the time as configured by Dell.

Below are some numbers on how long it took the Dell Inspiron 9300 to calculate Pi to 2 Million digits of precision, in the NotebookReview.com forums we have a thread in which everyone is invited to download the program “Super Pi” that enables you to run this calculation and benchmark how well your processor performs relative to others.

Dell Inspiron 9300 with 1.6Ghz Pentium M:   1:56
Another reviewers ZD8000 Pentium 4 2.8GHz:  1:50
My 2.8GHz Pentium 4 workstation:    2:04

Keyboard and Touchpad

Dell Inspiron keyboard view (view larger image)

I actually like how laptop keyboards feel.  The important keys on this Dell are full sized.  There is no flex to the keyboard.  However, with so much extra space Dell could have added a number pad or used a traditional layout for the arrow keys and del/end/home etc. section.  The F-keys are also reduced size.

There are some minor problems with this keyboard.  It is possible to hook underneath a key with your fingers when typing.  Also, the keys are ever so slightly loose so that if you tap one without pressing it down, it will click as the tiny gap is closed.  I prefer a silent keyboard, but many would like this click sound.  It is subtle, and much quieter than a desktop keyboard.

Dell Inspiron 9300 touchpad (view larger image)

The touchpad works well, but is recessed approximately 1/8 inch which takes some getting used to.  One advantage is it is harder to accidentally bump while typing.

Input and Output Ports

Side views of Dell Inspiron 9300 and ports (view larger image)

Dell has completely done away with legacy ports, omitting the serial, parallel, and PS/2 mouse and keyboard.  Instead, Dell has included six USB 2.0 ports to satisfy even the most peripherally endowed.  Four USB ports appear on the back, and two are on the left side.  I prefer to plug a USB mouse into the back so the cord and plug are not in the way when space is low.

The USB ports have no problem powering an external USB 2.5″ hard drive from a single cable.  However, doing so cuts the battery life by approximately 25%.

This is one of the only laptops to include a DVI port, which works wonderfully.  I ran my 23″ HP 2335 display without problems.  This can be run simultaneously with the built in LCD, offering a pretty large workspace.  The driver allows up to 2048×1536 resolution setting, but I have no means to test that.

A single 4-pin 1394 (FireWire, iLink, etc.) port is included on the right side, along with the single headphone and microphone jack.  An SD card reader is included here as well, as is the traditional PCMCIA type II slot.  I would have liked to see a multi-card reader, since I shoot my photos onto Compact flash cards.

Under side view of Dell Inspiron 9300 (view larger image)

Wireless

I opted for the Intel branded wireless solution to get the complete Centrino package.  It is the 2200 802.11 b/g.  It connected to my wireless network instantly with no configuration required.

Bluetooth is an option, and there is no IR port.

Battery

Since I will mostly operate plugged in, I opted for the smaller of the two available batteries.  It is a 6-cell 53 watt/hour type.  The larger 9-cell 80 watt-hour battery is heavier but the same size.

Battery life varies greatly depending on a number of factors.  Dell states 3 hours and 40 minutes, which is very achievable, and remarkable considering the screen size.  I would imagine a higher end graphics card would negatively impact battery life.

My tests have shown that wireless has a minimal impact on battery life.  In a best case scenario, over 4 hours of battery life is possible.  This is with wireless off, the hard drive spinning, power management on (including the power management for the video card) and typing in a word document.

Screen brightness level has a huge impact on battery life.  These are approximate operating times with wireless on, the hard drive spinning, and doing minimal low-intensity work:

Brightness level 1:  4 hours
Brightness level 4:  3:30
Brightness level 8:  2:45

I consider this very reasonable, and well within Dells estimates.  At a brightness of 4, the laptop is only drawing around 15 watts of power.  This is much less than a smaller 15″ desktop LCD alone!

Dell includes its own power schemes that integrate with Windows power management.  They don’t appear to offer any benefit.  In fact, the Dell locks the CPU speed at 800MHz, while windows “portable/laptop” allows it to jump to full speed as necessary.

DVD playback time:  With the screen at a very bright 6 out of 8 and the sound level almost all the way up, there is just enough power to boot up, watch a 2 hour DVD, and shut back down.  Headphone use and lowered screen brightness could extend this to at least 2 hours and 30 minutes.   The larger battery will add approximately 50% run time.  CPU usage during DVD playback fluctuates between 20-50%, and the CPU clock speed never changes from 800MHz.

The low power usage shows in the temperature of the laptop.  In fact, it literally runs TOO cool.  The two system fans never turn off, even though at idle they are blowing very cool air out the back.  Perhaps a bios upgrade will fix this problem, which could possibly further extend battery life.  The fans are very quiet though and almost inaudible.

The only parts that get warm to the touch are the bottom of the laptop where the hard drive is, and also the bottom where the RAM is.  The palm rest, touchpad, battery area and keyboard are always cool to the touch.

Dell lists 2 hours to a full charge for the battery.  This is fairly accurate, but the battery actually charges a little faster than 1% per minute up to about 80%.  This means a short layover could be used to quickly juice up to nearly full capacity if needed

Operating System and Software

What operating system does it come with, what disks are provided by the manufacturer and what software is included with the computer…is the free software included good or bad?

View of Dell Media Experience buttons on front of 9300 (view larger image)

I ordered windows XP Home to save money.  Dell includes a “Dell Media Experience” software package.  If you press one of the media buttons on the front while the laptop is powered off, it will boot up to windows and load this software.  There are some misconceptions that this laptop can play DVDs and CD’s without booting into windows.  This is not the case.  For playing DVD’s, Dells software just includes a simplified version of Cyberlink powerDVD, which is also included separately.

Dell deserves praise for preloading a relatively small amount of extraneous software, including easy to remove AOL and EarthLink, McAfee antivirus, Quickbooks simplestart and Dell Media Experience.  Also included is Microsoft Works.

Customer Support

I try to avoid telephone technical support.  I tried out Dells online chat format tech support to inquire about my shipping charges.  It is a great format for tech support, but only works if you have a working computer online.

Complaints

I am very satisfied with the Inspiron 9300.  If the screen had a true wide viewing angle and the fit and finish were perfected, I would have no complaints.

Praises

This is a very sturdy, well made laptop that offers all the performance I need for a very good value.  Battery life exceeded my expectations, and I find it is more portable than I initially expected.

Conclusion

This is the right laptop for someone who needs the best multimedia performance and biggest screen while still retaining some portability.

Pros:

  • Large, bright, sharp, saturated screen.
  • Fans never become loud
  • Exceptional battery life for such a large laptop (5+ hours possible with 9-cell battery)
  • DVI port that supports ultra high resolution displays
  • Sturdy with no flex

Cons:

  • Fans don’t turn off
  • Fit and finish not perfect
  • Room for a much larger keyboard

Pricing and Availability


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