- Top-class all-round performance, including excellent 3D graphics
- well supplied with drives and I/O connections
- dual pointing devices.
- Bulky and heavy
- screen protection could be more robust.
Whenever Intel releases a new processor, you can be sure that Dell will be among the first, if not the first, to showcase it in a shipping product. True to form, the first notebook featuring Intel's new Mobile Pentium III Processor-M (formerly codenamed Tualatin) to darken ZDNet UK's doors is Dell's Inspiron 8100 -- and it's a very fast, well-featured system.
New processors are often simply incremental clock speed upgrades, but the Mobile Pentium III Processor-M is more significant than that. It's Intel's first mobile chip to be fabricated using a 0.13 micron (130 nanometre) process with copper interconnects, resulting in a CPU that's physically smaller, faster and less power hungry for a given clock speed than the previous generation of 0.18 micron chips. The Mobile Pentium III Processor-M is available at clock speeds up to 1.13GHz -- as seen in our review system -- and operates at 1.4 volts in Maximum Performance mode. When Intel's SpeedStep technology kicks in to save power in Battery Optimized mode, the processor clocks down to 733MHz and operates at 1.15 volts.
Other architectural enhancements in the Mobile Pentium III Processor-M include 512KB of Level 2 cache -- twice the amount in the previous generation -- and a 133MHz system bus, both of which contribute to significantly improved performance. In the Dell Inspiron 8100, the new CPU is supported by Intel's 815EP chipset, which supports the 133MHz bus, 4X AGP graphics and ATA/100 hard disk transfers. Our review system came with a massive 256MB of PC133 SDRAM, expandable to a maximum of 512MB.
The Inspiron 8100 looks identical to Dell's existing Mobile Pentium III-based 8000 range -- which is to say, it's a well-featured and hefty (3.6kg) system that can truly be described as a 'desktop replacement' notebook. In large measure, this is thanks to the graphics subsystem, which is based around nVidia's class-leading GeForce2 Go chipset. Supported in our review model by 32MB of DDR memory, the GeForce2 Go delivers unprecedented 3D graphics acceleration for a notebook system, as well as supporting dual monitors via the useful TwinView feature. The internal display is a 15in. TFT screen with a native resolution of 1,600 by 1,200 pixels -- the highest currently available on a notebook.
Considering its 33.1cm by 27.6cm by 4.45cm bulk, it's no surprise that the Inspiron 8100 is well stocked with drives and I/O connections. The system features a modular Media Bay and a battery bay at the front, plus a factory-configurable fixed optical drive on the left-hand side. The Media Bay comes with a floppy drive as standard, but can be filled with a 250MB Zip drive, a CD-RW, DVD-ROM or DVD-ROM/CR-RW combo drive, a second (20GB) hard disk or a second Li-ion battery. The fixed optical drive in our review system was a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, but you can specify a cheaper CD-ROM or a DVD-ROM drive if you wish. The internal hard disk is a massive 48GB ATA/100 IBM drive with a rotational speed of 5,400rpm compared to the more common 4,800rpm.
As well as the standard serial, parallel, VGA, PS/2 and dual USB ports, there's an IEEE 1394 port and an S-video out port that comes with a cable providing composite video and digital audio (S/PDIF) out connections. The system's miniPCI slot is occupied by a 56Kbit/s modem and 10/100Mbit/s Ethernet combo card. That leaves no room for integrated wireless connectivity, which is handled in our review system by a Dell TrueMobile 802.11b PC Card. There are two CardBus-compliant PC Card slots on the right-hand side, the lower one supporting Zoom Video.
The 86-key keyboard is large and sensibly laid out, featuring 19mm keys with 3mm travel and separate cursor keys in an 'inverted-T' arrangement. There are dual pointing devices -- a touchpad and a trackpoint -- that can be used either individually or both at once. Between the keyboard and the screen are four DirectAccess buttons for launching favourite Web sites or programs, two of which are user-programmable. These buttons also double up as controls for the CD or DVD player, and are complemented by a hardware volume control.
We mentioned earlier that the Mobile Pentium III Processor-M is more than an incremental CPU upgrade, and that is clearly reflected in our review system's benchmark results. The Inspiron 8100's 1GHz Mobile Pentium III-based predecessor, the Inspiron 8000 1000UT, scored 27.9 on the Business Winstone 2001 test, which is based on mainstream productivity applications. Even taking into account the 8100's extra 128MB of RAM, its Business Winstone 2001 score of 44.2 is remarkable -- a 58 per cent improvement over the 1GHz 8000 model. Under the high-end Content Creation Winstone 2001, the 8100 scored 53.3, a startling 69.2 per cent improvement over the 8000. Both the 8100 and its predecessor use nVidia's GeForce2 Go graphics chip with 32MB of video RAM, and their 3D WinMark 2000 scores are virtually identical at just over 67; 2D performance from the 8100 is the best we've recorded -- a Graphics WinMark 99 score of 521 compared to the next best of 389. Finally, we measured battery life at just under two and a half hours using the BatteryMark 4.01 test -- a gain of 13 minutes over the Inspiron 8000.
So, it's fast and well-featured, but what are the Inspiron 8100's drawbacks? When reviewing previous Inspirons we've often felt that the casing could be more robust. However, in the absence of long-term on-the-road experience or expensive drop-tests, we couldn't pronounce on this aspect of the design with any confidence. During this review, however, the Inspiron 8100 suffered an accident: it fell about 65cm (just over 2 feet) from an office desk onto a carpeted floor -- closed up and inside a canvas briefcase containing a fair amount of paper and other loose material. The outcome? A smashed LCD screen and an internal DVD/CD-RW drive that now works only intermittently. While we can't make any comparative comments concerning the Inspiron 8100 and other manufacturers' heavyweight desktop replacement notebooks, the moral is clear: don't drop this 3.6kg notebook -- or if you do, make sure you've purchased a proper padded carry case.
On the plus side, despite hitting the ground with a heavy thud, the 8100 still boots up and works fine using an external monitor -- a tribute to Dell's protection of the hard disk and internal components (apart from the DVD/CD-RW drive anyway).
Robustness concerns aside, this is a seriously impressive notebook. Performance-wise it's a significant step forward -- a Business Winstone 2001 score of 44.2 is not far short of a desktop PC powered by a 1.2GHz Athlon or a 1.4GHz Pentium 4. If you need a desktop-class system that you can transport if necessary -- and you take care not to drop it -- the Inspiron 8100 is an excellent choice at £1,999 (ex. VAT).