- ✓Fast (especially 3D graphics)
- ✓wide-aspect display
- ✓dual-band wireless antennae.
- ✕Flimsy keyboard
- ✕erratic mouse buttons
- ✕relatively hefty, with a large footprint.
Dell should bundle a big supply of popcorn with its new Inspiron 8500 series, because the laptop's awesome 15.4in. wide-aspect display will have you watching DVD movies all night. This completely redesigned desktop replacement system has plenty more in store as well, including the fastest Mobile Pentium 4-M processors, integrated dual-band antennae for 802.11b and 802.11g wireless and excellent performance. All of these features are wrapped in a silver case that you can customise with QuickSnap lid covers in a variety of colours. For all that it offers, the Inspiron 8500 range's £1,256 (ex. VAT) starting price is reasonable. Any way you look at it, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a cooler, faster desktop replacement notebook than the Inspiron 8500 series, which is why it's an Editors' Choice in this category.
With the advent of the Apple iBook a few years back, coloured plastics briefly became all the notebook rage. Dell attempts to rekindle that enthusiasm with the Inspiron 8500 series. Naked, the case exterior is completely silver; snap on one of the £15 (ex. VAT) optional lid covers, and the 8500 assumes a whole new look. You can get Bamboo, Burlwood, Graphite and Venice Blue (the latter was fitted on our review sample, which made it look a lot like another new Inspiron, the mainstream 5100 model). The Inspiron 8500 series's 36.1cm by 27.6cm by 3.9cm case is especially broad due to its wide-aspect, 15.4in. display. The bright, crisp display comes in two different resolutions: WSXGA+ (1,680 by 1,050 pixels) or -- as in our review sample -- WUXGA (1,920 by 1,200 pixels). Either one is great for watching DVD movies, many of which are optimised for wide-aspect viewing. And when it's time to get back to work, the wide-aspect screen lets you view two windows side by side. Despite its girth, the system stays fairly trim by including just one swappable bay for secondary storage drives and other modules. Our review system included a DVD/CD-RW combo drive, but you can also order CD, DVD, CD-RW and floppy drives, plus a second battery to fill the bay. The whole package weighs 3.53kg (4.09kg with the AC adapter). That's a bit lighter than most full-sized, three-spindle desktop replacements (including Dell's own Inspiron 8200 series), but significantly heavier than similar two-spindle, wide-screen designs that blur the lines between a desktop replacement and a thin-and-light system, such as Apple's PowerBook G4. The extra-wide case leaves lots of room for a spacious keyboard with a familiar desktop-like layout, but the keyboard felt flimsy to us. We also found the four mouse buttons to be a little erratic: the two under the spacebar (you're supposed to use them with the pointing stick) depress too far, while the other two beneath the touchpad barely move. However, we appreciated the CD controls to the right of the keyboard and buttons for volume up, down and mute located above the keyboard. The two speakers on the front edge emit clear, although not booming, sound. The Inspiron 8500 series includes the ports and slots you'd expect in a desktop replacement. On the left edge, you'll find one Type II PC Card slot, headphone and microphone jacks, FireWire and infrared. The back edge features S-Video out, RJ-45, RJ-11, parallel, VGA, serial and two USB 2.0 ports.
A consumer desktop replacement should be packed to the rafters with the very latest parts -- and the Inspiron 8500 series doesn't disappoint. You can load up the system with the fastest Mobile Pentium 4-M processors at speeds from 2GHz to 2.4GHz. Main memory comes in increments of 128MB up to a whopping 2GB. You can choose hard drives ranging from 30GB to 60GB at two different rotational speeds. The system's one internal, swappable bay can be outfitted with a CD, DVD, CD-RW, DVD/CD-RW or floppy drive, a second hard drive, or a second battery. And two graphics chips are available: a 32MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 or a 64MB Nvidia GeForce 4 4200 Go. The configuration we tested included a 2.4GHz Intel Pentium 4-M, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, a 60GB 4,200rpm hard drive and an Nvidia GeForce4 4200 Go graphics card with 64MB of video memory. The Inspiron 8500 series's innovations extend to wireless. As with the new Inspiron 5100, the 8500 includes two integrated antennae with dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) capabilities. This setup will support the current norm in the wireless world -- 11Mbps 802.11b -- as well as the faster 54Mbps 802.11g. You can add wireless to the system through a convenient, internal Mini-PCI slot, or if you already have a wireless PC Card, the Inspiron 8500 series will support it as well. Our review sample had the 802.11b TrueMobile 1180 Mini-PCI card fitted, but Dell will shortly offer the dual-standard 802.11b/g TrueMobile 1300 card. Dell also provides the option to build Bluetooth into the system. The software options are typical of most Dell models. You can choose either Windows XP Home or Windows XP Professional, as well as one of three different office suites.
Performance & battery life
As you'd expect from its specification, the 2.4GHz/512MB Inspiron 8500 is a very good performer, delivering scores of 52.3 under Business Winstone 2001 and 30.5 under Content Creation Winstone 2002. However, neither of these scores are good enough to threaten the fastest notebooks we've tested -- namely Dell's 2.8GHz desktop Pentium 4-based Inspiron 5100 and Acer's 1.6GHz Pentium M-based TravelMate 800. Where the Inspiron 8500 clearly excels is in 3D graphics, thanks to its 64MB Nvidia GeForce4 4200 Go GPU. This is the first time we've tested the GeForce4 4200 Go, and its 3DMark 2001 score of 9,346 is easily the fastest we've recorded. The previous 3DMark 2001 title holder, Acer's TravelMate 800 (which uses a 64MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9000), scored 7,285 on this test. The Inspiron 8500's 28 per cent advantage over the previous fastest 3D performer is remarkable, and means that it can truly claim to deliver 3D acceleration to rival a desktop PC. The Inspiron 8500 is a powerful and hefty 3kg desktop replacement, and delivers the sort of battery life you'd expect for a system of this type: 2 hours 46 minutes under Batterymark 4.01, and 2 hours 45 minutes under MobileMark 2002's battery test. However, this result requires the use of a bulky and heavy 11.1V, 6,486mAh Li-ion battery -- testament to the power requirements not only of the fast 2.4GHz processor, but also the large, high-resolution 1,900 by 1,200 display. Note that the considerably thinner and lighter Pentium M-based Acer TravelMate 800 delivers similar application performance, along with 2 hours' more battery life.
Service & support
A one-year, parts-and-labour plan with return-to-depot service is the standard warranty for the Inspiron 8500 series. The company also offers a laundry list of extended warranty options that provide everything from on-site fixes by Dell's technical representatives and extra-fast express service to a long three years of free service and protection against accidental damage to your system. Free, around-the-clock telephone support is also included with the Inspiron 8500 series. If you're the type to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, Dell's extensive, preloaded Solution Center software is where you'd start. The program provides several self-help avenues, including electronic copies of the informative user's guide and plenty of how-to tips. The application also contains direct links to Dell's support Web site, where you can seek further assistance in the user forums and FAQ database.