Dell SmartPC 250N

  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Good price
  • fast at running both mainstream and content-creation-type applications.

Cons

  • Bulky and heavy
  • moderate 3D graphics performance.

The first thing you notice about Dell’s SmartPC 250N is that it is silver - or rather, the plastic casing has a silver-effect finish. But the differences between the new SmartPC range and Dell’s dark-grey mainstream Latitude and Inspiron notebooks are more than skin-deep: like most manufacturers, Dell has now succumbed to the temptation to build notebooks around desktop rather than mobile processors -- in this case, a 2.2GHz Pentium 4.

The reason for using desktop chips in notebooks is clear enough: a 2GHz mobile Pentium 4 costs $637, whereas a 2GHz desktop Pentium 4 costs just $193. Plenty of users are happy to put up with a bulkier, heavier and potentially noisier notebook (the result of the more substantial cooling system that’s required) in return for the smaller price tag for such a system. Intel’s initial warnings of overheating and clock-throttling do not seem to have been borne out, and the chip giant seems to have accepted that this market segment is here to stay. Which is why Dell, one of Intel’s most loyal customers, has somewhat belatedly joined the desktop CPU-based notebook party.

The SmartPC 250N is also notable for being a fixed configuration -– go to the ‘Configure and buy’ section on Dell’s Web site, and you can tinker with the warranty, buy a carry case and the odd peripheral, but that’s it. So what do you get for your £1,191 (ex. VAT; £1,399 inc. VAT)?

The SmartPC 250N's 2.2GHz Pentium 4 processor is accompanied by Intel’s 845DT chipset and 256MB of DDR RAM, the latter being expandable to 768MB by adding a 512MB module in the second SODIMM slot. Like all desktop CPU-based notebooks we’ve seen, the SmartPC 250N is a three-spindle desktop replacement system: the hard disk is a 40GB, 5,400rpm IBM drive; the optical drive is a Toshiba DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo unit; and there’s a floppy drive located on the left-hand side, above the audio ports. The optical drive actually occupies a modular bay and is removable, but Dell currently offers no alternative options for the bay.

Design-wise, the SmartPC 250N is a typical example of its kind. It is relatively bulky (32.6 x 27.5 x 4.59cm) and heavy (3.6kg without the AC adapter), and has plenty of cooling vents scattered around the silver-effect casing. It didn’t seem unduly noisy in use, though – certainly not compared to Hi-Grade’s 2GHz Ultinote M6500, which we recently reviewed. When you open up the lid, you’re faced by a 15in. TFT display, whose native resolution of 1,400 by 1,050 pixels is well suited to these dimensions. The video subsystem is underpinned by ATI’s Mobility Radeon M6 chipset, with 32MB of DDR memory in support.

A desktop replacement system needs plenty of I/O ports and expansion options – particularly if, as in this case, there’s no connector for a docking station or port replicator. On top of the usual serial, parallel, VGA and PS/2 ports, you get a pair of USB ports and a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, plus a TV-out (S-Video) connector. On the right-hand side, there’s a pair of stacked Type II PC Card slots, which are fitted with (easily lost) blank inserts rather than the more desirable protective flaps.

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The 85-key keyboard has a reasonable feel, but the layout is marred by the fact that the PgUp and PgDn keys are doubled up with the Home and End keys, toggled via the Ctrl key. With the space on offer, the designers should have been able to arrange things better. Four Easy Launch keys between screen and keyboard provide quick access to your email client, Web browser and favourite applications.

With a 2.2GHz desktop chip in your notebook, you expect excellent performance – and that’s what the SmartPC 250N delivers, by and large. Application performance is particularly impressive, its Business Winstone 2001 and Content Creation Winstone 2002 scores being the second highest we’ve recorded in each case. If you’re into 3D games, you might be slightly disappointed with this system’s 3DMark 2001 score of 2,653 – leading systems these days are scoring well over 4,000. The Mobility Radeon M6 isn’t ATI’s top-performing mobile graphics chip, but heat management issues probably precluded the use of the faster Mobility Radeon 7500.

Battery life is a potential issue with this class of notebook, as the desktop CPU lacks Intel's SpeedStep power management functionality. Manufacturers usually get around this by fitting a heavy-duty battery, and Dell is no exception: the 5,880mAh unit in the SmartPC 250N powers the system for a creditable two hours 25 minutes under BatteryMark 4.0. If you want to lug this 3.6kg beast somehere out of reach of main power, you should be able to get some work done when you get there.

Dell provides a one-year collect and return warranty as standard, but if you’re nervous about the long-term reliability of desktop-CPU notebooks, you can extend this to two and three years for £131 and £173 (ex. VAT) respectively.

Desktop-CPU notebooks exist to provide a compelling combination of price and performance, and you certainly get that with the £1,191 (ex. VAT) SmartPC 250N. You’ll have to forego design elegance, easy portability and top-class 3D performance, but if you want a compact and transportable alternative to a desktop PC, this is as good a candidate as any.

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