- Very good performance with content-creation-type applications
- great 3D graphics performance.
- no compelling performance advantage with mainstream applications.
The Inspiron 8200 from Dell is the first notebook we've seen that's powered by Intel's latest mobile CPU -- the Mobile Intel Pentium 4 Processor-M is its full name. We'll call it the MP4-M from here on. The MP4-M is the first 'official' Pentium 4 processor for notebooks, although several manufacturers, including Hi-Grade, have recently released portable systems using the desktop version of the Pentium 4.
Combining the benefits of the Pentium 4 architecture -- 0.13-micron process technology, 400MHz frontside bus, 512KB of Level 2 cache, support for DDR RAM and SSE2 instructions -- with enhanced power-saving technologies should, says Intel, deliver top-class performance, especially with content-creation-type applications, plus long battery life. The Inspiron 8200 -- albeit an early sample that won't be on sale until the end of March -- provides our first chance to test these claims.
The MP4-M chip in our review sample runs at 1.7GHz and 1.3 volts in Maximum Performance Mode, and 1.2GHz and 1.2v in Battery Optimized Mode, consuming under 2 watts of average power. The chipset is also new -- a mobile version of the 845 chipset called the 845MP. Key features of the 845MP are its support for a 400MHz frontside bus and DDR SDRAM up to 1GB, as well as Enhanced SpeedStep plus Deep Sleep and Deeper Sleep alert states. Our review sample came with 256MB of DDR SDRAM fitted in one of its two memory slots.
The Inspiron 8200 looks identical to its brethren in the range, save for the 'Intel Inside' sticker with its 'Pentium 4 m' logo. It's a big three-spindle desktop replacement system, measuring 33.1cm wide by 27.6cm deep by 4.45cm high and weighing a hefty 3.7kg (4.4kg with the AC adapter). The hard disk is a capacious 40GB, 4,200rpm Hitachi unit, the (fixed) optical drive is a Sony DVD/CD-RW combo drive, while the front-mounted modular bay contains a 1.44MB floppy drive that can be replaced by a number of alternatives -- second battery, second hard drive, second optical drive, 250MB Zip drive.
Apart from its MP4-M processor, the Inspiron 8200 is noteworthy for its graphics subsystem, which is driven by nVidia's new GeForce4 440 Go chip -- billed, justifiably as it turns out, as 'the world's fastest mobile GPU' (Graphics Processing Unit). The GeForce4 440 Go, which is supported by a massive 64MB of DDR memory, drives a high-quality 15in. TFT screen with a native resolution of 1,600 by 1,200 pixels (UXGA).
As far as I/O ports and connectivity options go, the Inspiron 8200 provides enough for the majority of users -- and you can add a port replicator if you need more. There's a mixture of legacy and more modern ports: serial, parallel, VGA, PS/2, infrared, USB (x2), IEEE 1394 and S-Video out. The latter can also handle composite video and S/PDIF audio out with the appropriate adapter. The system's 56Kbit/s modem and Ethernet connection are both integrated on the motherboard, leaving the system's mini-PCI slot free to accommodate a TrueMobile 1150 802.11b wireless LAN card. This in turn frees up the two Type II PC Card slots for other duties.
With leading-edge CPU and GPU chips inside, we expected pretty startling performance from the Inspiron 8200 -- and we got it, although we didn't see improvements across the board. Looking at Business Winstone 2001, which is based on mainstream productivity applications (including those within Microsoft Office 2000), the 1.7GHz Inspiron 8200's score of 38.4 is actually behind its that of its 1.13GHz MPIII-M-based predecessor, the Inspiron 8100, which scored 44.2. It also lags behind Hi-Grade's desktop P4-based Ultinote M6400, which scored 42.7, albeit with the benefit of 512MB rather than 256MB of RAM.
Where the Pentium 4 is supposed to excel is with demanding applications, such as those that underpin Content Creation Winstone 2002 (Adobe's Photoshop and Premiere, Macromedia's Director and Dreamweaver, Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge), and here the Inspiron 8200's score of 24.5 does beat the 8100's 21.5 -- but only by 14 per cent. The best Content Creation Winstone 2002 result we've recorded to date is from Hi-Grade's aforementioned desktop P4-based system, which scored 26.8.
Summarising the application-based tests, it's clear that the MP4-M delivers very good performance, especially with demanding content-creation-type programs. But the advantages over the previous MPIII-M don't appear to be compelling -- at least on this evidence. Having said that, there is little or no Pentium 4 optimisation in the applications within the Winstone tests: as more applications and operating systems exploit the P4's SSE2 instructions, bigger performance gaps over previous processors will open up.
There are no caveats required when it comes to the Inspiron 8200's graphics performance, courtesy of the new nVidia GeForce4 440 Go chip. The benchmarks speak for themselves: a 3D WinMark 2000 score of 162 compared to a previous best of 67.4 (Inspiron 8100, with 32MB GeForce2 Go), and a 3DMark 2001 score of 4,975 compared to a previous best of 2,068 (Dell Precision M40 with 32MB nVidia Quadro2 Go). Performance like that allows you to turn on anti-aliasing to get improved image quality, while still achieving excellent frame rates. For best gaming results, though, you'll want to use an external CRT monitor.
The final performance metric is battery life, which could be a worry given the number of high-performance components built into the Inspiron 8200. The power-saving features built into the MP4-M processor, 845MP chipset and GeForce4 440 Go all play their part, but a large 15in. TFT display, in particular, can impose a big drain on the battery. So a BatteryMark 4.01 result of 2 hours and 31 minutes is more than acceptable for this class of notebook. Of course, at 3.7kg, the Inspiron 8200 is no ultraportable, but a single battery charge will get you through an off-site meeting, for example, and you can fit a second battery if you need more juice.
So what do we make of the Mobile Intel Pentium 4 Processor-M in general and Dell's Inspiron 8200 in particular? We've only seen one system, so conclusions about the MP4-M must be tentative. However, it's clear that relative performance becomes better as applications become more demanding. Pentium 4 optimisation -- in both standalone applications and within operating systems -- can only improve the outlook for the MP4-M. The star of the Inspiron 8200 show, however, has to be the GeForce 4 440 Go chip, which redefines the graphics performance landscape for notebooks. If you want to do serious gaming on a notebook, get one with this GPU inside.
Inevitably, all this new technology comes at a price. Only the most determined early adopters are going to pay around £2,000 (ex. VAT) for a notebook.