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Dell Inspiron 9100

There was a time when notebooks described as 'desktop replacement' systems simply featured the most powerful mobile technology of the day, along with a big screen, a built-in optical drive, perhaps a floppy drive too, and plenty of I/O ports. Nowadays, though, manufacturers really mean it when they talk about desktop replacement, using desktop-class CPUs and graphics accelerators to deliver uncompromising performance and functionality. Dell's Inspiron 9100 is a case in point: a very sturdy 15.4in.-screened behemoth weighing over 4kg, this system delivers the goods, and at an attractive price too: the base model comes in at just £869 (ex. VAT), although our top-of-the-range review configuration will set you back around £400 more than this.
Written by Charles McLellan, Contributor on

Dell Inspiron 9100 Notebook

8.1 / 5
Excellent

pros and cons

Pros
  • Excellent application and 3D performance
  • DVD burner
  • 802.11a/b/g and Bluetooth wireless
  • built-in subwoofer helps deliver high-quality sound
Cons
  • Bulky and heavy
  • standard warranty is only one year
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

There was a time when notebooks described as 'desktop replacement' systems simply featured the most powerful mobile technology of the day, along with a big screen, a built-in optical drive, perhaps a floppy drive too, and plenty of I/O ports. Nowadays, though, manufacturers really mean it when they talk about desktop replacement, using desktop-class CPUs and graphics accelerators to deliver uncompromising performance and functionality. Dell's Inspiron 9100 is a case in point: a very sturdy 15.4in.-screened behemoth weighing over 4kg, this system delivers the goods, and at an attractive price too: the base model comes in at just £869 (ex. VAT), although our top-of-the-range review configuration will set you back around £400 more than this.

Design
The Inspiron 9100 has the familiar grey plastic cladding with blue accents characteristic of the current Inspiron range, but everything is bigger. It measures 35.9cm wide by 27.4cm deep by 5.08cm high and, with a DVD+RW drive and 12-cell battery, weighs 4.11kg. If you do carry this beast on your travels (and we don't advise it), you'll know about it. Apart from its general bulk, one of the first things you notice about the Inspiron 9100 is the presence of stumpy 'feet' built into the casing. These lift the base off the surface, allowing air to flow into the intakes located there (given that this chassis is designed to accommodate the distinctly warm-running 3.2GHz Prescott Pentium 4 processor, the cooling system is particularly important). At 15.4in., the screen isn't the biggest you'll find on a desktop replacement notebook, but our wide-screen UXGA (1,920 by 1,200 resolution) review unit delivered a sharp, defect-free image. If you find icons and text too small at this native resolution, you can specify a WSXGA (1,680 by 1,050) or WXGA (1,280 by 800) screen instead. Alternatively you can use Dell's QuickSet utility to change the size of icons and toolbars. We have no complaints about the 88-key keyboard, or the dual pointing devices (touchpad and pointing stick). As for the audio subsystem, the presence of a subwoofer that complements the standard pair of stereo speakers helps to deliver the best sound we've heard from a notebook to date. The subwoofer is located within the battery compartment on the bottom of the unit, providing another reason for raising the base off the surface.

Features
Our review sample of the Inspiron 9100 was powered by a 3.2GHz Prescott Pentium 4, featuring HyperThreading, 1MB of Level 2 cache and an 800MHz system bus. Dell says that that this CPU is currently in short supply, so for the moment you'll have to make do with a 3.2GHz Northwood Pentium 4, which has 512KB of L2 cache but runs significantly cooler than the Prescott part. If you don't need the very fastest CPU, there are 3GHz and 2.8GHz options available for £55 and £80 less respectively. The chipset is another desktop-class component, Intel's 865PE, which supports dual-channel 400MHz memory. Our review unit came with 1GB of RAM, and the system's two memory slots support a maximum of 2GB. The right-hand side of the system is devoid of drive bays and ports, which is useful for right-handers who plug in a USB mouse, as nothing gets in the way. The system's 12-cell Li-ion battery slots into the bottom of the right-hand side, though. On the left-hand side you'll find the optical drive – a DVD+RW drive in our case, although you can fit a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive into the modular bay for £70 less if you want. The modular bay also accepts a second 40GB hard drive (£95). The single Type II PC Card slot is also on the left-hand side, along with the audio connectors, the 4-pin FireWire port and the cover for the hard drive compartment. Our review sample came with a 60GB Ultra-ATA/100 drive, which sits between the 40GB (£45 less) and 80GB (£75 more) options. If you're designing a desktop replacement notebook that can handle 3D games and graphically demanding business applications, you need a capable graphics accelerator, and the Inspiron 9100 certainly delivers that: ATI's Mobility Radeon 9700 is a state-of-the-art GPU supporting DirectX 9.0 and clock speeds up to 450MHz. We had 128MB of DDR video RAM, but you can save £60 by specifying the standard 64MB. Apart from the front-mounted infrared port, the remaining I/O action is at the back, where you'll find three regular USB 2.0 ports and a D/Bay (powered USB) port, VGA (analogue) and DVI (digital) monitor ports, an S-Video TV-out port plus RJ-11 (modem) and RJ-45 (Ethernet) connectors. Our review system was well stocked with wireless options, featuring a dual-band TrueMobile 1400 802.11a/b/g Mini-PCI card and a built-in Bluetooth module.

Performance
Because the Inspiron 9100's specification shouts 'desktop' rather than 'notebook', we decided to run FutureMark's desktop benchmark suite, SYSmark 2002, rather than our normal MobileMark 2002 notebook test. SYSmark2002 uses a set of 14 applications covering a range of Internet Content Creation and Office Productivity categories. The benchmark's workload emulates business usage patterns, and includes the concurrent execution of multiple applications. When running SYSmark 2002's Office Productivity test (Word 2002, Excel 2002, PowerPoint 2002, Outlook 2002, Access 2002, Netscape Communicator 6.0, Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred v.5, WinZip 8.0, McAfee VirusScan 5.13), the Inspiron 9100 scored 178. This is a good result, although it's still some way behind the 3.2GHz Prescott Pentium 4 desktops recently tested by our US colleagues at CNET.com, which scored around 250 on this test. The Inspiron 9100 can certainly handle the high-end applications in SYSmark 2002's Internet Content Creation test (Photoshop 6.01, Premiere 6.0, Windows Media Encoder 7.1, Dreamweaver 4, Flash 5) too. But unfortunately, a persistent glitch during this benchmark prevented us from recording a score. We also expected excellent performance from the Inspiron 9100's state-of-the-art 128MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 graphics accelerator, and we weren't disappointed. FutureMark's latest 3DMark03 test reported a score of 3,373 at 1,024 by 768 resolution in 32-bit colour with image enhancements turned off. This is not up to the level of a high-end desktop like the 3.2GHz Prescott Pentium 4 with an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card recently tested by ZDNet Germany, which scored 5,852, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Service & support
Dell offers a standard one-year European collect and return warranty. There is a plethora of extended warranty options at various prices, all selectable along with your chosen configuration on Dell's Web site. Dell's Solution Center software provides links to electronic documentation, Web-based tutorials and live chat links to Dell technical support staff, and there are plenty of other online areas for discussing and resolving problems.

NOTE: Dell's E-Value code for this review configuration is 200 I09REV

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