Dell Inspiron XPS2 Review (pics, specs)

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At the start of 2005 I started experiencing problems with my Sony VAIO GRZ630. It wasn’t performing the way I needed it to and found it useless for anything other than word processing and net surfing. I had had it for nearly two years and wanted to step up to a more capable machine that could provide for my office productivity things while also giving me the ability to game on the go at college.
 
After the failure of a stick of RAM in my Sony VAIO, I decided to purchase a new system. I considered many high-end notebooks geared towards gaming. Alienware was the first stop, but I wasn’t happy with the number of negative opinions I was finding regarding this company. Next was Fujitsu, whose style I loved, but specs I found fell short of my gaming needs. I found an image of the Dell Inspiron 9300 here at NotebookReview.com before it was released and instantly was impressed with the specs, but the Dell laptops I used while in college had a cheaper plastic build quality that I didn’t like and which made me think Dell produced low-quality machines. So then I looked at Sager’s 9860 and 7620 notebooks as options, but I didn’t like the bulkiness of the 9860 or noted fan pitch of the 7620. Then, on February 24th the Dell Inspiron XPS2 appeared online when I was expecting to see the rumored 9300.  The XPS2 met all of my requirements and specs I was looking for, and so I bought it.

Like pretty colored lights?  You’ll like the Dell Inspiron XPS2…

(view larger image)

Dell Inspiron XPS2 Specs:

– 2.0 GHz Intel Pentium M 760 (Sonoma), 533MHz FSB and PCIe x16 chipset
– 17-inch True Life WUXGA (LPL0000 screen)
– 1GB DDR 533MHz dual channel ram (2 x 512)
– 60GB Ultra ATA 7200rpm hard drive
– 256MB NVidia GeForce Go 6800 Ultra
– Microsoft Windows XP Home
– 24x CD-RW/DVD
– Intel ProWireless 2915 802.11a/b/g
– 9-cell lithium ion battery
– 6 USB ports
– 1 IEEE 1394 FireWire port
– Secure Digital I/O card slot
– 1 PCMCIA card slot
– 2 speakers and 1 subwoofer
– VGA, DVI-D, and S-Video outputs
– Audio-out and Mic-in
– Gigabit LAN
– Internal 56k modem

Why buy Dell?

Like I said earlier I initially started off disliking Dell and their products. But after seeing what the XPS2 is capable of in reviews, I quickly changed my mind. My current desktop system scores around 1,000 in 3dMark05 and the thought of owning a system 5 times as powerful amazed me. So after a little bit of last minute comparing between systems I decided on the XPS2 on release day. Why? Because it was and is currently (at the time of this review) the only major gaming laptop available with the NVIDIA Go 6800 Ultra. Also, I liked the idea of a 4 year on site warranty since I’ll be moving away in a few months to a new college campus and really don’t want to be mailing a system via UPS like I had to when my Sony VAIO malfunctioned. The warranty was far cheaper than any competitor and also it was only $80 more for 4 years instead of 1 (after a mail-in rebate) which is cheaper than a replacement stick of RAM.

The biggest factor, however, was the size of this machine. Most gamer systems use Pentium 4 based systems. Ideally I wanted something that had an AMD in it but according to information I read about the Pentium M they appeared to outperform Pentium 4’s when it comes to gaming and be one step behind AMD’s. The Pentium M also doesn’t have the nasty battery life hogging effects and high heat emissions of rival systems while also enjoying a smaller form factor. So far I have found this to be very true and had absolutely no problem watching a full length DVD (I, Robot) on battery only. The only thing that made me hesitate with this purchase was the lack of 64-bit processor compatibility that you can get with things such as an AMD64 processor, but I set aside this concern by realizing it’ll be 3-5 years before that becomes standard/required and by then this system will be heavily outdated and I’ll be buying a new one anyway!

Where to buy?

I personally bought the Inspiron XPS2 via my college’s link to Dell University. I would advise anyone that happens to be in college and wants a long term warranty to use this method. If you’re not concerned with the warranty then you can find better deals on the Dell Home site using coupons that sometimes appear.

What’s in the box?

My XPS2 included the user’s manual, quick start poster, system information guide, Screen Kleen wipes for the LCD, the S-Video/Composite/Digital Coax connector, a Windows XP Home Dell CD, a drivers and utilities CD, and two application recovery CD’s. There was of course some cardboard, foam and the laptop too! Unfortunately there were none of those little peanut packing things that the dog likes to get into and litter around the basement carpet — oh wait, that’s a good thing! Basically, everything you need is in a booklet or on a CD. I was happy to find this because one of the other Sony systems I thought about requires you to make the recovery disks upon first starting up the machine. That’s excessive corner cutting.

In the box (view larger image)

Form, Design, and Heat Management:

Upon taking this system out of the box I immediately was impressed by the build and material construction.  At my college we sometimes used Dell Latitude D600 systems and I hated the plastic look and feel they had. But the XPS2 is a delight to the eyes and a real attention getter. It simply looks like no other system on the market at the moment. The silver metallic finish with black outlines makes for one solid and sleek look. I initially thought the lid would be horrible but that ribbed metal is actually completely flat. It catches the light and reflects it in interesting ways. You really have to see the XPS2 in person; pictures only do so much justice. The entire system itself is much bigger than my old 15-inch Sony but about the same weight (just above 8 lbs). It’s easy to carry and there’s plenty of space to rest your hands or set it atop your lap. It seems like there is some wasted space around the keyboard though. I was hoping for a number-pad but there is none. If you need to be extremely portable or use this system on small desks or an airplane then this notebook will be too wide for your needs.

The entire system feels solid and runs quietly. I noticed my left rear fan on constantly at a low speed when I had the system on my lap. Upon placing it on a floor there was little indication of fan activity under normal load. Some heat does build up in the center rear of the laptop where the graphics card is located, but no heat comes up from the keyboard or the open spaces around the touchpad. When running 3D intense programs additional heat does build along the rear of the system (primarily on the right side) but it is handled well by the XPS2’s cooling system. Good news is that the fans do not run at full speed together. During graphics intensive items your right rear fan will spin up. During CPU intensive items your left rear fan will spin more. My old Sony GRZ630 would overheat and crash when I got into rebuilding complex UT2004 maps in UnrealEd. The XPS2 handles them with ease compared to my Athlon 2700+ desktop.

Another selling point on this system is the customizable LED’s. No other company has this right now and I really like the idea of lighting up my system. You can choose from several different colors, including white. In all I think I counted 16 color variations. You have to access this control through the Dell Quickset by a single left click. Then select the XPS2 gaming options from the menu that appears. I found that rather unusual at first. The LED’s also really catch the attention of people around you and light up dark rooms well. You can make them bright, dim, in the middle, or turn them off completely. Each individual zone (lid, sides, and front) can be customized. I really liked this but one effect Dell should add to their LED program would be the ability to rotate colors in a programmable sequence like you’d see on the lift hill supports of the Millennium Force rollercoaster at Cedar Point (Sandusky, OH) as well as on several other Intamin (http://www.intaminworldwide.com/i_products.htm) rollercoasters and consumer goods. While I personally would not find this useful (unless at a gaming event) some people might and it’s an idea for Dell to look into.

Dell Inspiron XPS2 Screen (view larger image)

Display:

I evaluate LCD’s on a series of 4 points. As an electronics salesman I come into contact with many types of displays ranging from old tube TV’s to newer HD plasma displays. I’m rather critical of how an image looks on something I own.

Point 1 — Antiglare or Glossy

The XPS2 uses a glossy screen that you can see your reflection in. I’ve noticed that it does have fair horizontal and vertical viewing angles that are better than I expected. I experienced no vignette effects and the images did not get washed out from side to side too much. Vertical viewing angles were also good but keep in mind that getting too far on any angle on the screen causes colors or brightness to decrease. Overall I think any user will be happy with the viewing angles. Glare can be an issue as well and you’d get that with any glossy screen. In a sunroom I experienced mild reflections during the middle of the day but nothing major. The screen was still very visible.

Point 2 — Dead Pixels

My screen featured no dead pixels! I was very happy to find this out. I checked all colors with Dead Pixel Buddy (http://laptopshowcase.co.uk/downloads.php?id=1) and found no problems.

Point 3 — Light Leakage and Color

This subject I particularly hate. Very few things bother me more than walking down a dark corridor in Doom 3, Far Cry, or Half Life 2 and having surfaces that are supposed to be black appearing with the backlight of the LCD. Thankfully my XPS2 screen has no light leakage anywhere and does not feature the problem with it that I experience on my Princeton Senergy 714 monitor. There is too much leakage on my Princeton.
 
Additionally the color rendering of my screen is very bright and vibrant. I have better color accuracy than what my Sony had (especially on yellow) and the brightness is more than acceptable. It’s not quite as bright as my Sony or Princeton, but it is plenty bright enough for my needs. Unless you have a properly color balanced Sharp LCD sitting next to your system you shouldn’t notice any color differences.

Point 4 — Unusual Surface Anomalies

Here’s where the XPS2 falls flat on its face. I have the LPL0000 LG manufactured LCD screen and I see sparkles on it everywhere! It’s a very noticeable problem at this resolution. My current Princeton also sparkles but it’s a 1280 screen. It’s harder to notice the sparkling at that resolution, but at 1900 it jumps right out at you. I’m not happy with the dirty white colors this produces on the screen. I’m irritated that Dell put a cheap quality screen on an expensive laptop. This is the same screen people have complained about on the 9200 and the 9300 Inspiron models. Dell needs to do something about this and do something quick. If you plan to use your computer a lot like I will be doing this will annoy you. I work in Dev-C++, UnrealEd, and Photoshop a lot as well as type reports in Word. If you don’t use the computer much you’ll easily get used to it. I personally plan to call Dell and see what they offer me or say to me because I’m upset about the sparkling screen given the price I paid for my system. If you want a vibrant true display without sparkling to my knowledge Sony and Fujitsu are the only way to go.

Overall the XPS2 screen rates 3 points out of 4 possible. This passes, but like I said earlier, people who are bothered by sparkles should look elsewhere. I’d be happier with the screen if I hadn’t paid nearly $3,000 for the system. That’s way too much money to spend on a system with an underperforming part when competitors such as Sager offer better quality screens on their systems at the same price point. Do note, however, that during gaming and movie watching you will not notice the sparkling as much. It’s tolerable but very annoying, I can live with sparkles but I can’t live with a slow system and that I do not have.

Brightness controls for the screen can be found by holding the FN key and pressing up or down on the keyboard. You’ll see an image on the screen and may even get a green TV-like text informing you of the brightness level at the top right of your screen (I noticed this while playing a DVD).

Sound:

This was the biggest weakness on my Sony VAIO system. It had horrible sound coming from two tiny little speakers near the screen. Thankfully the XPS2 does not disappoint here and delivers rich quality sound featuring both high range and midrange sounds. You’re not going to feel the booming base of a 5.1 surround system, but you will be impressed. Voice and sound effects are very clear. I tested the sound of this system with my I, Robot DVD and the Disney Epcot Reflections of Earth musical score. Both sounded exceptional for a laptop! You won’t feel stupid playing music or DVDs with sound in public on this laptop and you will also be impressed with the volume. The XPS2 also includes a connector that provides digital audio output (orange connector). I would have preferred optical over the orange for better connection to my home theater systems but orange will do ok as well. Also, you can control the volume of sound by using the front buttons on the XPS2. On the left side there is an option to mute, decrease volume, and increase volume.

Keyboard, Touchpad, and Front Panel buttons:

I’ve found the keys on my XPS2 to be very responsive and sturdy. They’re like my Sony keyboard and I had no problem typing on that either. I wish they would have added a num-pad however. The touchpad is sunk into the bottom center of this system and is of decent size. It’ll take some getting used to, I waiver on half-liking it and half-thinking it’s too small. After I get completely used to it I’m sure I’ll be fine with this touchpad. One negative on this area of the system is the touchpad buttons. They’re large but feel somewhat loose and I find they’re taking a bit of getting used to.

All of the standard keyboard functions you’ll find on this keyboard. There are dedicated keys for Pause, Page Up, and Page Down, this is very useful. There are also FN hotkeys for ejecting the CD/DVD drive, wireless, brightness, volume, standby, hibernate, and others.

The front panel on the XPS2 features media controls for your CD’s and DVD’s. There’s stop, play/pause, next track, and previous track. You’ll also find the buttons to control volume and muting here. Each button is backlit so you can easily see what it does. Unfortunately the backlighting on these buttons will not match up with the LED lights on the rest of the system. This would have been a nice touch but it’s not a big deal. Upon hitting one of the media buttons the XPS2 will boot into Windows and start up Dell Media Experience. It’s a quick boot and dives into the program. You may experience a bit of lag as the rest of your windows startup items catch up while you go to play your DVD or CD.

XPS Front area media controls (view larger image)

XPS2 Keyboard and Touchpad (view larger image)

Ports, Connectivity, and Power:

There are 6 USB 2.0 ports, 1 IEEE 1394 FireWire port, 1 audio/headphone out, 1 mic in, 1 Secure Digital I/O card slot, 1 PCMCIA card slot, 1 VGA out, 1 DVI-D (minus sign, not plus with 4 prongs like competitors, which gives an advantage to the XPS2 when connecting to some TV equipment), 1 gigabit LAN port, 1 56k phone line connection, and a connecter leading to an S-Video out, composite video out, and digital coaxial (orange) output. There’s very little this system can’t connect to. I have noticed that the USB ports seem stiff but I’m sure that will change over time and with use.

XPS2 Bottom (view larger image)

XPS2 Left Side (view larger image)

XPS2 Back Side (view larger image)

XPS2 Right side (view larger image)

For power the battery rests at the bottom of the XPS2. You’ll notice it’s not exactly easy to get in or out because of the way the switch is designed. It’ll stop about half way and you’ll have to put some effort into releasing it fully to insert or remove the battery. I do not find this a problem but I did find it unusual given how easily my Sony’s battery was removed. You’ll also find an AC power connection on the back of this laptop. It is a grounded 3 prong connection with a normal sized AC adaptor. It’s not really the power brick other large 17 inch systems can have since it is lighter and smaller than others. When traveling with the power adaptor you won’t notice it because it’s fairly light. One final note is that there is a battery charge indicator button right on the battery. You don’t need to boot windows to check your charge. Just push the button and the indicator will tell you your battery charge. A green charging light on the right side LCD hinge will also indicate charging status or nothing if charging is complete.

Wireless:

So far my experience with the wireless has been pleasant. I use an 802.11b 2.4 GHz router. I had good range all throughout my house and also outside. The range is comparable to my old Netgear 802.11b card that I used in my Sony laptop. I haven’t noticed any random disconnects so far yet with Windows automatically controlling the wireless. In order to turn the wireless on and off you’ll need to hit the FN key and then the wireless button on the top left of the keyboard. There is a green indicator light near the power button to identify this. I do not have Bluetooth installed although there is also a light for that as well.

Windows, Software, and Bloatware:

Despite my not requesting a MacAfee subscription I somehow got it anyway. I’m not particularly thrilled with the bloatware on this system but it’s the same as what other big name manufacturers (HP, Gateway, Sony, etc.) do. I have a copy of XP Home on my system but will soon format and install my university provided XP Pro copy. Do note that Dell has the DPI set higher than normal on my machine. It appears to be at 120 instead of 96. This will make some Internet Exploder pages look unusual and make many graphics ugly. This is documented to be normal by Microsoft and will be addressed in Longhorn.

For performance tests I disabled most of the services I could that run in the background. There are A LOT of services running in the background and sapping performance from your Dell. I’m particularly annoyed with MacAfee and all the resources it hogs. I’m a minimalist and I don’t like to pay for these kinds of services so I will be removing them. AVG antivirus, my router, my university’s network firewalls, or Windows firewall will suffice for my needs. If you’re not particularly software knowledgeable you should stick with the MacAfee though.

Performance, Benchmarks, and Battery Life:

Like the LCD I evaluate system performance on a series of 4 points based on both personal experiences with the system and benchmarks.

Point 1 — DVD Playback on batteries

My DVD battery playback test was conducted using I, Robot and the screen set to brightness level 6 out of 8 possible. I left all of the bloatware services running for this test. The system easily played the entire DVD but left minimal time for doing anything else. I got about 2 hours and 25 minutes maximum from it. This is plenty of time to boot, watch, and then shut down. Users doing office productivity will experience even longer battery life that could hit or exceed 3 hours depending on your LCD brightness and the operations you try to perform. The lower your LCD brightness the more time you’ll get. I personally was stunned to see my system performing in this manner for such a long period of time. You won’t be able to fit a Lord of the Rings DVD into one battery session but any 2 hour movie such as I, Robot will work as long as you dim the screen and don’t do anything other than watch the movie.

Point 2 — Game Performance (view larger image)

While I don’t have any FPS counts to report I can say that at higher resolutions and detail levels games such as Half Life 2, Far Cry, UT2004, and Doom 3 all together perform well. You will notice stuttering when in the 1680 resolution range with every graphical option set to the max when in large environments or when special effects jump in (like when Imps spawn in particular I’ve found). It didn’t bother me much in most cases and I was very impressed with the performance of this system. Counter Strike Source performed particularly well with no system-induced lag at all in the 1680 resolution (there was server lag at a few points on Office). I’d like to say that all resolutions and detail levels are playable on this system but I experienced severe unplayable lag at the full 1920 resolution. You’ll want to stay away from it until the system drivers improve or reduce other detail settings to compensate for a higher resolution. I’ll provide an update after I reformat. Still, at 1680 everything looked great. My current Princeton LCD hates going out of its native resolution and I didn’t notice that on the XPS2.

Another important thing to note while gaming is that you won’t notice the sparkling effect much. Yes it’s there but only if you’re looking for it. Game colors are bright, vibrant, and clear. It’s a joy to game on this system and you’ll want to do it in public because it looks and plays well!

Point 3 — Graphics Benchmark Results

I have to admit that at stock settings I feel mislead and disappointed here. With the drivers provided by Dell I get a 3DMark05 score of 4915 when I turn off some of the bloatware services. Subtract about 100 from that to get the score with bloatware on. This is a disappointment to me since I’ve read about XPS2’s getting scores in the 5200’s range. I’m not sure what is causing the problem but perhaps it’ll go away after a reformat and driver updates I have yet to perform.

Point 4 — CPU Benchmark Results

 I ran Super Pi and did the following calculations:

 – 14 seconds at 512k
 – 38 seconds at 1 million
 – 1 minute 30 seconds at 2 million
 – 3 minutes 25 seconds at 4 million
 – 7 minutes 42 seconds at 8 million

View our thread in the forums in which people have posted their various notebook processor speeds to see how the Inspiron XPS2 compares: http://www.notebookreview.com/forums/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=2657 (I can tell you right now the XPS2 is far better than most!)

Considering my Athlon XP 2700+ (overclocked) gets Pi to 2 million in 2 minutes flat I’m quite impressed with the calculating ability of the Pentium M 2.0 GHz. It’s just a bit quicker when rebuilding all on UT2004 maps as well.

Overall the system performance rates a 3 out of possible 4 points. Battery life is great, gaming performance is exceptional, and the CPU runs quick for calculating 2 million digits of Pi accuracy using Super Pi and competitively in UnrealEd development. The letdown is a low 3DMark05 score that still kills most systems out on the market today. I’m hoping I’m able to improve this score after a hard drive reformat. Also, I’m sure that as drivers continue to be updated we’ll see higher and higher scores.

Pros:

– Fast CPU and Graphics Card
– Unbelievable Game Performance
– Unmatched battery performance (as compared to the Clevo D900)
– Great Audio
– Good Sturdy Build Quality
– CD’s and Documentation Included
– Good heat management

Cons:

– LCD Sparkles
– Bloatware Hinders Performance
– Lower Than Expected 3DMark05 Score

Final Comments:

I’m keeping the XPS2!  Excellent machine, worth the money, and a few draw backs are made up for via it’s performance, style, battery life and good build quality. The LCD could of course be better and the 3DMark05 score is lower than I hoped. But despite a few faults the XPS2 is one very impressive machine. Is it worth the extra expense? I think not, but if you can get a good deal or coupon on it then go for it. I did and this machine meets and exceeds all my needs. I recommend it!

Pricing and Availability



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