Dell Inspiron B120 Review

by Rohiniranjan Reads (90,485)

Buy Direct From Manufacturer


I recently acquired a Dell Inspiron B120 notebook. Essentially the B120 is a starter machine, at the very bottom of the Dell totem pole. The configuration that I got had the Celeron M360 (1.4Ghz) processor with 400 MHz FSB, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB hard drive, 14.1″ wide screen, a CD-R/RW/DVD ROM, 4 cell Li ion battery, power supply, bundled Windows XP home (SP2) and other software. Along with the B120 a Targus CTM300 case (since the one made by Dell was out of stock) and MS-Office for students were also purchased. I paid Cdn$599 (for the computer only plus taxes), the shipping was free. I went with Dell since I had heard good things about their quality and service. I used to own a Compaq notebook (386SL) nearly 13 years ago.  That machine had a 386 MHz processor, 10″ monochrome screen, 4 MB memory, 60 MB hard drive with windows 3.1 operating system and had set me back by nearly $1,200 bucks — and the Canadian dollar was stronger back then! The Dell sounded like a really good deal and it is amazing how much power comes for a fraction of the price these days compared to a decade ago.


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Where Purchased

I bought this Dell notebook from a student who decided to sell the laptop because it did not have a wireless card built-in, and it was too much of a hassle for them to carry a USB adaptor with its trailing tail.  I decided to make a clean start when I took over the notebook and got to test out the PC restore software in the process. It turned out to be really easy.  Boot the machine, hit CTRL-F11 and the machine is restored to factory-fresh’ state in a few minutes with the operating system and bundled software. This was way faster than reinstalling windows from XP CDs and all the service packs and software that were included, some of which were freebie junk, but others weren’t. The cost of this convenience is of course that the restore’ utility claims a little over 3 GB of the 40 GB hard drive and one has to be careful to not get rid of the 2 hidden partitions (easy to do if you are poking around and do not know what you are doing). I have had the opportunity to repeat the restore a couple of times after that and am happy to report that it worked perfectly each time. The reasons for the restores were software-related and had nothing to do with the system supplied by Dell or any defects therein. What else have I done with my chance acquisition — well I did try out both Linksys and D-Link USB adaptors and both worked well but the software with the D-Link turned out to be a bit quirky. Wireless access, once established worked well. The modem and network cable also work fine, as do the 3 USB 2.0 ports and the CD writer. Some of the supplied software, such as MacAfee (with messages that remind me of the irritating MS office paperclip pop-up’) got a bit on my nerves and I chose to replace it with another time-tested antivirus software.  I also removed the jukebox and AOL and a few other unwanted goodies that Dell so kindly’ provided.

Performance

As more software got added to the computer, I noticed a noticeable slowing down particularly during booting and screen refreshes and in the page file activity (disk activity during boot and slow screen-refreshes as the virtual memory got used actively). The proverbial handwriting was on the wall! It was time to add more memory, obviously, particularly given that the video took up 64 MB of the 256 MB (shared RAM). Having heard about the pros and cons and hypes around dual channel memory and its latency etc., I first tried to add a 1 GB module made by Kingston. Unfortunately, the Kingston SODIMM would work only by itself but not with the DELL supplied Nynya 256 MB module (probably some density conflicts). So I next tried an Infineon 256 MB module purchased from Dell to pair with the original 256 MB. This worked very nicely even though it was more expensive than buying from other sources. With 512 MB on-board, the computer works quite fast and the hard drive gets a lot of rest, as does the battery since hard drives are power hogs!
Overall, my needs are very simple: email, web-surfing, word processing, spreadsheets, access-based databases, a bit of web design, some digital photo-retouching (Nikon software), an occasional movie and some music and web-access, as well as speech recognition for dictation (Dragon) and an astronomy type calculating program. What I have works very well now and unless something breaks I hope to be happy with my system for some time to come. Oh, and I added a USB Fantom Titanium external hard drive for backup. It is a 80GB drive and works like a charm right out of the box. I returned the Maxtor One Touch II external because there were problems with its touted restore operations and software reinstallations (hence the 3rd PC restore on my B120 — that story, some other time … sigh!).

At one point I got a bit concerned by the fact that the computer was not shutting down unless I hit the shutdown or restart options twice. This turned out to not be computer specific but due to some application hogging the resources and not shutting down in the first go. The first shutdown or restart terminates the application and the second one actually turns the computer off. In my case it was the Dragon speech recognition software. Once I deselected its quick-launch mode, the problem was history. The standby and hibernation functions, worked flawlessly even when the quick launch mode of Dragon software was selected. I generally prefer to use the hibernation mode to shutdown the computer since it is faster and I haven’t experienced  any problems or flaws even when I had programs running at the time of invoking the hibernation. Indeed that is the bonus of using this mode because the programs are already launched when you reboot the system from hibernation. It saves time.
I ran the super pi benchmark which tests the CPU (math processing) and memory as well as disk function, since some amount of writing to disk is associated in this test and this is what I got:

Overall, let us not lose sight of the fact that the Dell Inspiron B120 is an inexpensive notebook, and an extremely good value, and not just for students but their parents as well!  For many of us, who are not all that much into computer games, we often do not realize how much we are oversold in the electronic warehouses and E-mags and E-reviews on the power and capacities of our computers that we really need and actually utilize.

Build and Construction

I suppose if your needs are modest, like mine, and games and video performance are not a big issue, then the Inspiron B120 will serve you well for quite some time. Construction is moderately sturdy with a reasonably bright screen, good power management options, though it would have been useful to have the option to drop the CPU speed when on battery just as Acer notebooks allow. My screen does not have dead pixels and though a bit of twisting of the notebook lid is possible (after all it is made out of plastic), the image held steady.  I did poke at the screen a bit and found it to be firm. My ancient Compaq, on the other hand, had a squishy screen and even with slight pressure showed a dimple’!

Speakers

The speakers are quite tinny, with audible distortion and do not play very loud. On the other hand, when I plugged in my Bang & Olufsen earphones, they proved to be a bit too loud even at the lowest volume setting, but the sound quality was extremely good, much better than what I got from the built-in speakers, so the sound card is not going to disappoint you entirely. I tried my plantronics earphone/microphone combination that I use with my Dragon speech recognition software and they were quite decent, audibly. If you want to watch DVD movies and music, perhaps relying on the earphone/headphone would be more fruitful than the built-in speakers, particularly since the included software allows an audio experience that goes a bit beyond plain stereo imaging that is better experienced through earphones / headphones.

The Keyboard

Well it is actually quite nice. It does take a bit of getting used to, as is true for any notebook. The touchpad (which replaces a mouse) is a joy to use, in my experience, and it is interesting how I reach for it at work, where I have a conventional keyboard and mouse!  One must not shy away from utilizing the additional features and functions of the touchpad, such as tapping at the corners to carry out customizable functions, such as accessing the menu, scrolling or maximizing/minimizing the application window, and the scroll’ feature is simply too addictive. One caution though: be prepared to customize and fiddle with the adjustments (pressure, speed etc) of the selections and scrolling — it is great that customization is possible and allowed!

Optical Drive

The CD-ROM (CD, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-read) is quite speedy, and somewhat sensitive to CD imperfections (it chattered audibly when playing slightly off-centered CDs which ran relatively quieter on other units, though there were no functional problems; music played well, and programs loaded flawlessly). The CD tray (all notebooks, not just this one) was a bit flimsy, though it is holding out fine and unless you are all thumbs and have 600 pound fingers, you are not likely to bend and break it when placing CDs or smudging the oh so exposed laser diode. The supplied Sonic CD writing software works well, but shows the backup function as a teaser that you get only if you upgrade to the rather pricey full edition.

Software

The notebook comes with a wordperfect 12 office suite, with the trial versions of the spreadsheet and presentation software, with option to upgrade after 60 days, or you may simply choose to keep the wordperfect wordprocessor. You have to live with the nag’ screen though. I generally use the wordperfect/corel office 10 with service upgrades and found the wordperfect 12 quite friendly with older files as well as ms-office components. It is more so the case with the corel presentation files which are now more tolerant of MS Powerpoint files.

Battery

The battery is a 4-cell unit and lasts a bit under 2 hours. A heavier 6-cell unit is available for those who need more mobile power. I haven’t had the notebook long enough to gauge the true battery longevity which is claimed to last about 300 charge cycles (about a year if you use your notebook daily on battery power). Lithium ion batteries might charge faster, may not suffer from memory problems but we still need something with a longer lifespan. Work is in progress, from what I hear!

Heat

With any modern computer, heat is always a problem. I am happy to report that this notebook only runs warm and not hot (I have used it for several hours at a stretch, days after days) and I did not observe any use-related errors or sluggishness or worse. If you are concerned about heat, though, USB powered cooling platforms are available, though given that the notebook is not really slim, you might find the raise’ a bit troublesome. I tried a thin cardboard wrapped in several layers or aluminum foil and it was quite effective in dissipating the little heat that the notebook produces. It is really a minor point. Incidentally, I have found the best posture to use a notebook to keep it on a table with the notebook set farther away at the back so that the elbows can rest on the table and the wrists on the notebook. This is somewhat different from what is recommended when using a conventional desktop keyboard. To each his own, as they say.

Benchmarks

I ran the super pi benchmark which tests the CPU (math processing) and memory as well as disk function, since some amount of writing to disk is associated in this test and this is what I got:

Pi value upto ## digits

HITACHI FLORA3010(Pentium 90MHz, Memory 40MB, Available disk storage 340MB)

Dell B120, 1.4Ghz Celeron M360 340 MB free memory 15 GHz disk

 

H:MM:SS

H:MM:SS

16K

0:00:12

0:00:03

512K

0:15:18

0:00:25

4M

3:02:35

0:04:51

32M

not done

0:51:19

As you can see, we have come a long ways from the 90 MHz Pentium! However, when the test was run on a 1.7 MHz Pentium 4 desktop and a slightly faster ACER (370M Celeron, 1.5 GHz) the times were nearly identical with the B120. It is no poor cousin when comes time to perform.

Another test that I ran was the HD utility and the graphs for the results follow:


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Comment: Note a bit of decline in performance over time. Access times were a tad slower than the 9-10 msec access generally claimed for harddrives. Transfer rates overall were quite decent.


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Comments: Just for comparison, I am including above the performance of an external USB 2.0 Fantom Titanium drive, which happens to be my backup drive.


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Comment: Note the two non-standard’ partitions which hold the backups for the system files should you need to restore. This may seem like a waste of 3 GB space to some, on an already smallish harddisk, until you stand in my shoes and have had to restore the system a few times (read the review!). The loss of hard drive real estate is peanuts compared to the time saved during restore operations.


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Comment: So far so good, I suppose!


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Conclusion

I did not set out looking for a notebook or acquiring one. Finding one would have been nice, as I did need to move to the next step in terms of mobility and slightly better performance (from the 800 MHz desktop I was using!) before this Dell essentially landed in my lap!  Once communications were established (network and internet) and the fiddly early adjustments (software re-installed) were behind us, and we found a home with enough room to work without cramming each other’s space (after memory was added), it looks like it is going to be a happy, loving relationship — until one of us dies (worst case) but even after that, I am sure, the memories shall linger — both modules to boot (pun unintended)!


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