by Alexander Britvin
02/27/2007 | 12:06 PM
The life of a truly modern man is like a train that is steadily speeding up from its station towards an unknown destination. It is getting faster and faster every moment, and there’s no stopping or even pausing this process. Living at a high speed, the modern man regards time as a great value. Some people are even dreaming about extra hours in the day that would sum up into extra days monthly. To avoid floundering in such unreal dreaming, you can put to good use those hours that you’d just waste otherwise. You only need a portable digital companion, a notebook computer.
There is, however, a list of minimum requirements this digital companion must comply with to satisfy its owner. The notebook must be light and small, yet easy to work with. It must have high-performance but economical components so that it could last long on the battery. A large selection of wireless interfaces would also be welcome in a traveling notebook. A good graphics subsystem might also come in handy so that the user could relax a little at some game.
You think it’s impossible? Not at all! The Dell Inspiron XPS M1201 is a vivid example of that. Depending on the configuration, this 12” cutie (it easily fits within the dimensions of the A4 paper format and thus into any briefcase or bag) can satisfy any person who is spending much of his life traveling. Appearances are often misleading, and a cursory glance over the Inspiron XPS M1210 won’t disclose to you the fact that this notebook has one of the most advanced of today’s mobile CPUs coupled with a rather powerful graphics subsystem. Not all notebooks marked as XPS M1210 have a discrete graphics solution on board, though. There is a version that has a tremendous computing power but is weak in 3D and gaming applications because it uses the integrated graphics core Graphics Media Accelerator 950.
It’s the latter version of the notebook that we’ve got for our tests. The Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 is based on a Merom-core CPU with the Core micro-architecture. The Merom differs from the previous core Yonah in a few respects. First, the Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 has a 4MB L2 cache. The execution pipeline is almost the same length in all CPUs with the Core architecture, yet it is longer by two stages in the Core 2 Duo. The most notable improvement is the support of Intel’s 64-bit extensions to the x86 architecture and the so-called Intel Wide Dynamic Execution that means that the CPU core now has more decoders and execution units. The processing of SSE and floating-point instructions has been accelerated. With all these innovations, the Merom core has a typical heat dissipation of 34W as opposed to the Yonah’s 31W. The rest of the components of the Napa platform are left unchanged and the CPU socket will remain the same until the upcoming transition to the Santa Rosa platform.
Refreshed Napa platform
The stickers they put on the notebook case are the same too, except that the Intel Core 2 Duo Inside sticker now has the number 2 that stands for Merom. The Centrino Duo logo doesn’t allow telling which exactly CPU resides inside the notebook.
Our tests will show how such crucial parameters of notebooks as battery life and performance have been affected by the technical innovations. But first we’ll examine the Dell Inspiron XPS X1210 carefully from all the sides. We’ll also take an ASUS W5F notebook as an opponent to the Inspiron. The notebook from ASUS has a similar hardware configuration, but a different CPU with a different clock rate. The Inspiron XPS M1210 is based on a Merom-core processor with a frequency of 2.33GHz while the ASUS W5F has a Yonah-core 2.0GHz CPU (it is the highest CPU frequency among all the Intel Core Duo processors we’ve ever tested in our labs).
The computer we actually tested was an engineering sample rather than an off-the-shelf product. The accessories described are those of our sample. The notebook’s package is painted a glossy black color and the letters XPS are cut out in one side of the box so that you could see the notebook’s case through them. This looks dangerous to us as the notebook is protected only by the packet it is wrapped into.
The intriguing appearance of the packaging raised our curiosity as to what might be contained within besides the Inspiron XPS M1210. Here is what we found in there: a 5200mAh battery (its capacity was not marked on itself, but this value was reported by Battery Eater Pro 2.60); a power adapter with a LED indicator and a strap to fasten the power cable (as you can see in the photograph below); a Quick Start Guide; a user manual with a list of authorized service centers around the world; a pouch with an unclear purpose (the name of the XPS series is marked on it, but the notebook won’t fit in – perhaps the pouch is intended for carrying some papers); an informational guide on the product; a CD case with the XPS logo for 10 discs; and a set of discs that included:
It’s quite possible that the actual set of accessories will differ from that, and we are sure about one thing at least – it will include a modem cable!
The first thing you become aware of in the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 is its smooth outline. The front part is rounded off a little, giving the notebook a very neat appearance. The lid is coated with black plastic and has a silvery band with the name of the series near the display hinges. On the front panel there is a small chromium-plated ledge to make it easier for you to lift the lid up. The sides of the lid are by half painted silver to match the top part of the notebook’s body. The rest of the body is painted black.
The manufacturer put its logotype into the center of the lid.
Before opening the notebook, you can take note of the three connectors in its front part. One is a microphone input and the other two are identical headphones outputs. Not a very common solution, this allows enjoying the multimedia capabilities of the Inspiron XPS M1210 together with your friend while on a plane, for example.
Above those connectors there is a block of multimedia buttons highlighted in blue when the notebook is turned on. These buttons include (from left to right):
We don’t think these buttons are really necessary for an ultra-compact model unless you are going to use it as a player. Due to the small size of the notebook, you will almost surely touch the multimedia buttons unintentionally with your wrists while you’re using the touchpad.
The display lacks a lock as is typical of notebooks of that form-factor. Mechanisms built into the hinges press the lid down to the notebook’s body, and you have to exert some strength to lift it up. The color scheme is all silvery inside, including the magnesium case, keyboard, touchpad, and the screen bezel. There are rubber pads on that bezel for softer contact between the display and the notebook’s body. Centered beneath the display is the Dell logotype.
The Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 may come with an optional 1.3-megapixel web-camera that can turn around by 180 degrees. It resembles the one installed on the ASUS W5F. Our notebook didn’t have that camera, though.
Besides the manufacturer’s logo, there are two sonorous stereo speakers on the bezel, below the display. They are covered with grids and are directed right at the user. This placement is good because the speakers won’t get obstructed with anything.
The display hinges stick out of the notebook’s body, allowing you to unfold it by even more than 180 degrees as is shown in the following photograph:
The Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 is equipped with a widescreen 12.1” display with a max resolution of 1280x800 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA). The horizontal viewing angle seems to be large, but the vertical one is narrow even visually. The glassy coating of the display makes colors more saturated (Dell TrueLife technology), but also produces flares under improper lighting and reflects every well-lit object behind your back.
We measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. We selected the highest possible brightness setting before this test but it would become much lower when the notebook switched to its battery, automatically enabling power-saving measures. The measured values of brightness are high, but the contrast ratio isn’t:
AC power source:
DC power source:
The notebook’s keyboard consists of 84 silvery-colored keys with a soft movement and a somewhat rough surface. The Arrow keys are lowered below the keyboard’s baseline to reduce the risk of your pressing them unintentionally. The Fn button is located at the bottom left of the keyboard, next to the Ctrl key, which is in the corner. This is convenient for people who are used to shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V. Numeric buttons and two Windows keys are available: the Context Menu key is over one key on the left of the spacebar and the Windows Logo is on the right of the spacebar. The functional buttons are smaller than others. PgUp and PgDn are placed under the Enter. Home, End, Insert and Delete are in the same row with the functional buttons (you should press them along with Fn to access their additional functions). The letters are painted in black; the functional keys are blue.
The touchpad is painted the same color as the entire interior. The touch-sensitive panel is sunken down a little, so it’s not a problem to find it by touch. It has special scrolling zones on the right and at the bottom. The touchpad’s buttons move down softly with a perceptible click. The touchpad, including the separator between the touch-sensitive panel and the buttons, is encircled with a narrow chromium-plated edging.
Status indicators are divided into two groups. You’ll find them on the right display hinge and under it. One group of indicators, located above the keyboard’s right corner, includes the following (from left to right):
The second group of indicators is placed on the right hinge so that it could be visible irrespective of the position of the notebook’s lid:
There are two buttons in the middle of the narrow band between the keyboard and the display. One of them turns the notebook on and the other starts up Dell MediaDirect, which is a kind of Windows Media Center developed by CyberLink especially for Dell’s notebooks. If the notebook is equipped with a web-camera, there is a third button here to launch the appropriate program.
The left panel of the Inspiron XPS M1210 offers the following (from left to right):
On the notebook’s right panel you will find:
The paired USB ports are placed too close to each other and there’s almost no gap left if you plug in standard-sized connectors. A thick flash drive plugged into one USB port is very likely to block the other one.
On the notebook’s rear panel there is a battery module, a LAN port (RJ-45), a power connector, and a Kensington lock.
The Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 comes with a 6-cell 5200mAh battery. You can also purchase a 9-cell battery for a longer battery life, but you should be aware that such a battery will spoil the notebook’s appearance somewhat as it is going to stick out of the notebook’s case.
Like Samsung with its Q30 Plus, Dell’s engineers installed a battery charge indicator at the back. This helps you know the battery charge level without turning the computer on. It’s convenient and saves your time.
On the notebook’s bottom there are memory and communication module compartments, a screw that secures the hard disk drive (which is taken out from the notebook’s left side), a battery module with one spring-loaded lock, and stickers with model information and the OS serial number.
There is a socket for a SIM card in the battery module. This expands the wireless capabilities of the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 even more.
There is only one slot in the memory compartment. It is occupied by a 512MB module and you can replace it with a larger module to have more system memory. The second slot is presumably located on the mainboard and cannot be accessed by the user.
Like we said at the beginning of the review, the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 is based on an Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 processor with a clock rate of 2.33GHz (a 65nm Merom core with a shared 4MB L2 cache).
Besides Intel’s Enhanced SpeedStep technology that gives the notebook’s software and BIOS control over the CPU frequency multiplier (to reduce it under low loads), this CPU supports Dynamic Power Coordination (the power consumption of the cores can be independently adjusted depending on the current load; one core may even slip into Deep Sleep mode with the lowest power consumption possible) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused cache segments can be turned off to reduce power consumption). For more information about Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors refer to our article called Intel Core 2 Duo in Notebooks: Centrino Duo Platform Refreshed.
The refresh version of the Napa platform also incorporates an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG adapter and an Intel Calistoga 945GM chipset. This chipset supports DDR2 SO-DIMMs, thus offering more memory bandwidth at lower power consumption, and a PCI Express x16 interface for an external graphics card. The South Bridge (ICH7-M) is connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface and supports one Parallel ATA port, two Serial ATA ports, eight USB 2.0 ports and Intel High Definition Audio. It also offers six PCI Express x1 lanes to connect external devices. For more information about the Napa platform, visit the manufacturer’s website.
The i945GM chipset incorporates Intel’s Graphics Media Accelerator 950. As opposed to GMA 900, this integrated graphics core supports higher core frequencies (up to 400MHz) and a larger amount of dynamically allotted memory (up to 224MB). GMA 950 has four pixel pipelines and can map four textures per clock cycle. Like GMA 900, it supports DirectX 9 and Pixel Shader 2.0 on the GPU and Vertex Shader 3.0 and T&L on the CPU. GMA 950 is a fully DirectX 9-compliant, though. The detailed specification of the GMA 950 can be found at the manufacturer’s website.
There also exists a version of the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 with a discrete graphics core Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 that supports TurboCache technology.
The notebook comes with a Hitachi HTS721060G9SA00 hard disk drive (2.5” form-factor, 7200rpm, 60GB) and a TSST TS-L462D DVD-burner with the following speed formula:
The Inspiron XPS M1210 is equipped with DDR2-533 SDRAM. The only accessible slot is occupied with a 512MB module. The memory works in dual-channel mode as the following screenshot shows:
We measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebook’s surfaces with an infrared thermometer after it had worked for half an hour in the Classic test mode of Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 22°C during this test) and got the following numbers:
The table below lists the technical specs of the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 and compares them with those of the ASUS W5F, which is going to be its opponent in our tests:
The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then we installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (from the included disc), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0. We also installed Windows Media Player 10.0 for such tests as PCMark 2005 and SYSMark 2004 SE.
The following settings were used for the tests:
There were two exceptions: we returned to the Windows XP desktop theme for PCMark 2005 since the program required that. And for SYSMark 2004 SE to work normally, we had to roll each parameter back to its default (as they are set right after you install Windows).
Two power modes were used. First, we selected the Always On power mode for maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then we switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.
There are three test modes in Battery Eater:
We used the first two modes as they are in Battery Eater, but in the Idle mode (when the test utility doesn’t put any load of its own on the notebook) we played a DVD movie.
As usual, we will first run synthetic benchmarks.
The SiSoftware 2007 suite features an updated enhanced-functionality interface, runs on three platforms (Win32 x86, Win64 x64, WinCE ARM), contains 13 tests, 34 informational modules, and supports a large range of devices thanks to the developer’s collaboration with Intel, AMD, ATI, SiS and VIA. The program is supported in six languages and has a free Lite version for personal and educational purposes.
PCMark 2005 carries on the tradition of complex benchmarks of the series and uses fragments of real-life applications as tests. This makes it somewhat more relevant for end-users as opposed to fully synthetic benchmarks. After running a series of 11 tests on the different components of the system, the program calculates an overall performance score in units called PCMarks. PCMark 2005 can check out a computer at processing HD video and encoding audio, and offers enhanced tests of the CPU and hard disk under multi-threaded load. The overall score is calculated by the formula: PCMark Score = 87 x (the geometric mean of the basic tests), where the geometric mean is calculated as (Result 1 x Result 2 x…)/the number of results.
SiSoftware Sandra measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark benchmarks the computer performance in office and office-related applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).
Let’s first discuss the numbers we’ve got in the good old SiSoftware Sandra 2005 and PCMark 2004. The superiority of the Merom CPU over the Yonah is not to be doubted here. The Core 2 Duo is ahead even when the two CPUs work at the same frequency of 1GHz in the battery-saving mode. That’s the result of changes in the micro-architecture.
We couldn’t complete the CPU test when the notebooks were powered from the mains. PCMark 2004 is not a new application and Futuremark has ceased to support it with patches. Perhaps this is why the Merom couldn’t pass the obligatory Grammar Check as is indicated in the next screenshot:
Note also that the memory and graphics subsystems have got higher scores, too, thanks to the new CPU core. The good result of the HDD test is due to the high spindle rotation speed of the HDD installed in the Inspiron XPS M1210.
SiSoftware Sandra 2007 and PCMark 2005 agree with the previous versions of the same benchmarks in general, but you can note that the result of SiSoftware Sandra’s multimedia test is much higher in comparison with an average Core Duo. It’s because the Merom has got 128-bit SSE subunits.
The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time to simulate multi-tasking: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint, FrontPage, WinZip, and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition.
The Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 test evaluates performance of a computer in the following multimedia applications: Windows Media Encoder, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Micromedia Dreamweaver MX, and Micromedia Director MX.
The following table and diagrams show the outcome of these tests:
It is the CPU that is loaded most of all components in this test from PC Magazine. And you can note that the ASUS W5F with its Yonah-core CPU is everywhere behind, irrespective of the CPU clock rate. There is a difference in Business Winstone 2004, yet it is even bigger in Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 in both power modes. Considering the similar configurations of the notebooks, except for the CPUs, it’s clear that the Inspiron wins this test thanks to the faster execution of SSE instructions, higher clock rate and larger L2 cache of its newer CPU.
SYSMark 2004 SE is intended to reveal a system’s performance under different types of load. It simulates a user who is solving practical tasks in a few popular applications. Multi-threading is taken into account. The benchmark issues a few ratings that are indicative of the system performance under different loads. SYSMark 2004 SE is mainly positioned as a tool for testing desktop systems and includes applications that are not often run on mobile computers. That’s why the results for each test load are shown separately:
The 3D Creation script simulates a user who is rendering an image into a BMP-file in 3ds max 5.1 and is also working on web-pages in Dreamweaver MX. After these operations are done, a 3D animation is created in a vector graphics format.
SYSMark 2004 SE loads the system with heavy tasks here, which can make good use of all the computing resources the CPU can provide. The impressive result in this test is only due to the Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 processor installed in the notebook. When the notebook switched to its battery, its results became almost two times lower since the CPU frequency was reduced to 1GHz in that mode. You will see the notebook behave like that in the different power modes in many other SYSMark tests, too.
The 2D Creation script simulates a user creating a video out of a few RAW-format fragments and audio tracks in Premier 6.5. Waiting for the operation to complete, the user is also modifying an image in Photoshop 7.01 and then saves it to the hard disk. When the video clip is ready, the user edits it and adds special effects in After Effects 5.5.
The applications employed in this script are all optimized for multi-core processors. The results of the Merom core are higher than you can have with a Yonah, but not by too much.
The next test simulates the work routines of a professional web-master. The user unzips the content of a website while using Flash MX to open an exported 3D vector graphics clip. Then the user modifies it by including more pictures and optimizes it for faster animation. The resulting clip with special effects is compressed with Windows Media Encoder 9 to be broadcast via the Internet. Next, the website is compiled in Dreamweaver MX while the system is being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0 in the background.
The high frequency and new features implemented in the new generation of Core processors result in the notebook’s getting good scores in this test.
The next script simulates an ordinary user who’s receiving a letter with a .zip attachment in Outlook 2002. While the received files are being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0, the user looks through his e-mail, enters some comments into the Outlook calendar, and then opens a corporate website and some documents with Internet Explorer 6.0.
The notebook’s performance doesn’t degenerate by half as in the previous tests because the CPU frequency is not a crucial factor here. The scores are high, by the way.
In the Document Creation script the user is editing text in Word 2002 and is also using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to convert an audio file into a text document. This text document is then converted into PDF format with Acrobat 5.0.5. And finally, the document is employed in a PowerPower 2002 presentation.
The notebook delivers high performance when powered from the mains, but the CPU frequency drop affects its performance when it works on the battery.
The final script from SYSMark 2004 SE includes the following: the user opens a database in Access 2002 and creates a few queries. Documents are archived with WinZip 8.1. The results of the queries are exported into Excel 2002 and are used to construct a diagram.
We’ve got a similar picture and a similar result as in the previous test.
The notebooks are both equipped with the integrated graphics core Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 and we tested them in all versions of 3DMark: 3DMark 2001SE Pro, 3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0 and 3DMark 2006 1.0.2.
Compared with the previous version, 3DMark 2005 uses Shader Model 2.0x/3.0 instead of Shader Model 1.x, provides full compatibility with Shader Model 2.0, includes more complex tests (over a million polygons per each frame), and employs normal maps. 3DMark 2006 brings support for HDR, Uniform Shadow Maps, and multi-core CPUs. It is overall oriented at Shader Model 3.0, but two out of its four graphics tests work within the Shader Model 2.0 framework.
3DMark uses a set of 3D scenes rendered by its own graphics engine to load the graphics subsystem in various ways.
The system with the more advanced processor and a fast HDD is far ahead of its opponent although we thought we had found the limit of GMA 950!
The notebooks perform poorly in 3DMark 2005 and 3DMark 2006. We didn’t round off the results of the Batch Size Tests in the 2006 version as they were near zero and the notebook seemed to have just hung up while passing through this test. GMA 950 doesn’t support SM3.0, so there are no numbers against Shader Model 3.0-using tests like Shader Particle Test (SM3.0) and Perlin Noise (SM3.0).
Next, we tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3:
And in one mode in Quake 4:
There was no standard demo record in Quake 4, so we had to create it by ourselves and will use it in every following review of notebooks on our site so that different notebooks could be compared under identical conditions.
The more advanced hardware configuration beats the weaker one again. The Inspiron XPS M1210 wins due to the changes in the micro-architecture of its CPU in both power modes. The speed of Quake 4 is rather low, though; GMA 950 cannot run today’s games at an acceptable speed – it was more like a slideshow.
The final test agrees with the previous ones: with this configuration the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 cannot be regarded as a gaming notebook. Its integrated graphics is just not fast enough.
The notebook’s battery life was measured with Battery Eater Pro 2.60. The program acted up a little, reporting overstated battery charge levels:
The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:
When the CPU is not used to the full, the battery can last for quite a long time. But as soon as the CPU begins to work in earnest, its charge is consumed almost in a moment. Well, the two hours of autonomous work in the Classic mode is not actually “a moment”, yet we might expect better results from an ultra-compact model intended for field conditions. The notebook almost delivers the declared 4.5 hours in the Reader’s mode, though.
Here are the battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes.
Michael Dell’s team has done a good job again, coming up with an exciting ultra-compact portable computer optimized for today’s life and travels. The only significant drawback in the configuration of the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210 that we tested is the lack of a discrete graphics card that would certainly make it even more appealing. Well, the model we actually tested is quite ready for the nomadic way of life many of us have to lead. We called the ASUS W5F with its Yonah-core CPU a mobile intellectual in our earlier review, but the Dell Inspiron XPS M1210, even with its integrated graphics, is much smarter without a doubt!
This year will show us the Merom from other aspects, too. This CPU core is going to have higher frequencies and to work within the framework of the Santa Rosa platform together with an improved integrated graphics core. This sounds to us like yet another performance leap!