Over the past year, it has been interesting to see the emphasis that the big names are willing to put on the "enthusiast" crowd, in regards to notebooks. In the past, notebooks have been targeted towards businessmen and the like. These days, however, the variety is so wide that there is a notebook targeted to just about every niche and need. Consider this: a few years ago there were a handful of names making true blue notebook gaming rigs, i.e. Alienware, albeit in small quantities. But as the gaming generation grows, so does the interest in these powerful systems. So, it really comes as no surprised to us to see Dell and HP joining the fray. The difference is that Dell has really gone after the "enthusiast" gamer, rather than the casual "once in a while" type gamer. This is really seen once you get into the design of their gaming notebook: the Inspiron XPS. Now in its second generation, let's take a more in depth look at this already popular notebook.
Measuring in at 15.5" x 11.3" x 1.67" and with a weight starting at 8.6 pounds (our XPS Gen 2 sample weighed in at about 8.8 lbs.), the XPS Gen 2 is currently the largest and heaviest notebook to come from the design team at Dell and exceeds historical size specifications for past Dell notebooks. Obviously, this is not the mainstream notebook you should be buying if you are just looking to do some word processing or emailing. This notebook has been explicitly designed for the hardcore gamer and multimedia enthusiast looking for a notebook. The reason that Dell is making a big statement with this notebook is...well...because they are Dell. That name alone carries a lot of weight and bursting onto a scene that Voodoo, Alienware, Hypersonic, and others normally occupy is a huge deal when it comes to serious gamers looking to avoid a huge price tag.
|Construction: Building, Appearance, Size|
Dell seems to use two materials in the design of the XPS Gen 2, which will just be referred to as the XPS G2 from hereon out. The black casing for the monitor, hinges, upper half of black trim of the system, and the silver inlay of the notebook all are polycarbonate. The plate on the backside of the display is just a solid piece of aluminum. It has been buffed so that it looks like it has ridges, but it has a simple smooth surface. The "XPS" letters on the back side of the display are just clear plastic inserts. The bottom half of the notebook is just exposed aluminum sprayed with an enamel black coat of paint.
The XPS G2 uses a simple sliding clip on the front side to unsecure the display lid.
Front (left to right):
Left (left to right):
Back (left to right):
Right (left to right):
|Construction: Field Tested|
Charger –The charger for the XPS G2 (130W) is the largest that is currently offered by Dell. Similar systems that I have used from Voodoo, Alienware, and Hypersonic usually take on the same large profile. Unlike others, however, it is good to see that Dell used the same straight plug format, instead of switching to a multi-pin plug format. Disappointingly, Dell did not design the charger for the XPS G2 in the same way as the others. There is no angled AC plug from the charger to the wall jack, which makes it harder to bunch up extra cabling. Likewise, there is no rubber strip to tie extra cabling down.
Display –The XPS Gen 2 only comes with one display configuration option; a 17.0" WUXGA UltraSharp TFT (native 1920 x 1200) with TrueLife.
Dell clearly is focusing on the gaming and overall viewing experience by making such a high end display the standard for this notebook. There are no compromises, and its is for the best, as lower end displays would only take away from the experience that Dell is offering with their 17.0" display. Especially with the way support is progressing on the gaming end, a wide aspect ratio display is the way to go. You can always force the panel not to stretch a 4:3 image via drivers.
TrueLife is simply Dell's way to refer to the glare type LCD display. We need to clear up the glare type issue, as this has been discussed by many but few people really understand the benefit and disadvantages. First, the glare type display does make just about any multimedia experience relating to video viewing better, provided a top notch display panel is used. However, it is not due to the better specs of the LCD panel. Instead, the glare coating helps produce more vivid colors, text, and backgrounds via an increase in contrast.
The down side is that even under normal lighting conditions, there is going to be some glare from light sources if you focus your eyes on the reflective spots on the screen. The advantage is pretty visible once you switch to a dark theater like setting, where a side by side comparison is noticeable in the tone of a person's skin. Under normal lighting conditions, like an office or library, the advantage of glare type LCDs is still visible, but you are going to have to get use to glare from near by light sources. As you move to the outdoors, glare type displays are out of their element, as the screen looks more dull.
As we mentioned in the past, a glare type display can and will make the viewing experience worse when it comes to significantly light or dark scenes. What you really need to have is a top notch display to pair the glare coating with in order to avoid these problems. After using the XPS G2 for a couple of weeks, we are pleased to say that this is one of the best brightest displays we have seen on a notebook, size and glare effect not withstanding. The problems we have seen in the past with other glare displays are not present in the XPS G2, though you still will have to contend with the glare effect from light sources. Obviously, a glare type notebook in the outdoors is out of its element. This is a notebook to be used inside, so don't say we didn't warn you.
With 8 display settings, the display has a fairly wide range from bright to dim. At its brightest setting (8), it is one of the brighter displays we have seen, size and glare not withstanding. The dimmest setting (1) is a bit too dark for us to be comfortable to use in a dark room, as the dim scene will get to be a strain on your eyes after a while. If you need to dial down the brightness setting, we recommend setting level 2. The battery and AC settings share the same brightness levels.
Fan - The fan was on the majority of the time we had the notebook running. The volume of the CPU and GPU fans is pretty close to some of the more quiet desktop towers.
At max speed, in a reasonably quiet work environment, say a cubicle with a desktop system on, you should be able to barely make out the noise. In a dead quiet library or room, you will hear the fan perfectly fine and so will the person next to you. Actually, the volume may disturb the person next to you.
We rarely found situations where the notebook was dead quiet. Such scenarios only presented themselves in the form of using the computer after being idle for sometime or after boot up. Generally, the notebook's fans only went to max speed once we were getting into CPU intensive loads. If you are just milling through your "run of the day" computer routine: email, word processing, browsing, etc.. the fan will spin at a speed close to max. When the notebook goes to max fan speed, you should be able to hear the difference, though.
If you are gaming, you are probably going to be playing at 25% volume. Anything less should allow you to distinguish the whirling noise from the fans. There is no reason you are going to be playing at mute or whisper-like volume levels, anyway. If you at a LAN party, I find it unlikely that the fans will pose a volume problem. Most people tend to tack on headphones in such scenarios.
Heat – After about five plus hours of straight use, the notebook was relatively toasty. The areas of the notebook that got fairly hot were the bottom of the notebook, where you'll find the two access panels, the space between the two panels, and the space to the right of the right access panels. The area where the hard drive is positioned only got warm, not too hot. When we say this, what me mean is that you should be able to keep your hands on the areas, but its right at the cusp of being too hot to keep your hands on or put on your lap. Obviously, this machine isn't designed to be placed on your lap, so heat shouldn't be too much of an issue. After all, its size and weight doesn't make it easy.
If you leave the system idle for 20~30 minutes, the whole notebook is relatively cool to the touch; no hotspots. Though, the fans will still be on.
|Construction: Field Tested (cont.)|
Keyboard –This is one of the better keyboard layout designs out there, as the function and page up/page down/home/end are all located in a logical and ergonomically sound places. Of course, we should note that while the home/end/page up/page down keys are situated well, like using a desktop keyboard you will have to stretch your fingers to use them. This has nothing to do with spacing the keyboard, which Dell has done just right; rather this is something you even need to do on desktop keyboards for the most part. Either way, this is technically the correct placement, and better/more intuitive than the aligning these keys on the right side in a single column.
The large profile of the XPS G2 can take the keyboard design two different ways: larger/more desktop like or the same typical notebook keyboard size. Dell has chosen to go with the latter. These two design approaches are for the most part mutually exclusive. So the feel of the keyboard will be natural for those used to notebooks, but if you are making the transition from a desktop, you will probably feel that Dell can take advantage of the large notebook size to increase the keyboard size and or spread out the keys.
LEDs –There are two LED strips: one above the keyboard and one on the right hinge for the display. The LED strip above the keyboard includes LEDs for (left to right): num lock (green when active), caps lock (green when active), scroll lock (green when active), wireless connectivity (green when active), and Bluetooth status (blue when active). The LED strip on the right hinge of the notebook include LEDs for (left to right): power status (green when active), hard drive activity (blinking green when active), and battery charge status (solid green when charging, blinking green when charging- roughly when battery is equal to or above 90%, blinking orange when low - roughly when battery is equal to or less than 8%, solid orange when very low - roughly when battery is equal to or less than 1%).
Notice that the front buttons light up in aesthetically appealing neon blue hue, which are very reminiscent of the LEDs for the buttons on Dell's Digital Jukebox MP3 players. In all likelihood, Dell just migrated the idea over. The LEDs themselves are fairly bright (as bright as those on the Dell DJ MP3 players) and do make it easier to find that right button when you are watching a movie in the dark. The only problem is that these buttons only turn on once you press them, and then they have a three second delay until they turn off. Dell should have left a BIOS setting available to leave these LEDs on all the time, as that makes more sense. Having the LEDs light up after you press them in order to identify them somewhat defeats the purpose. Of course, we also want to see the same BIOS function give the ability to turn off the LEDs to conserve more power and a few other preset delay settings, i.e. 5, 7, etc... Other than that the buttons themselves feel natural and are similar to that of those on the Dell DJ MP3 players.
The other LEDs; those for speakers, intake vents, and backpanel are all user configurable via the system BIOS. You have a choice of independently selecting between 16 colors. Via the system BIOS, you have the option of choosing LED colors such as Ruby, Citrine, Amber, Peridot, Emerald, Jade, Topaz, Tanzanite, Aquamarine, Sapphire, Iolite, Amethyst, Kunzite, Rhodolite, Coral, and Diamond. For the gamer, these may prove to be distractions after all, which thankfully Dell has considered by offering an "Off" option as well.
TouchPad & Buttons –The keyboard is spaced appropriately, but we feel like the touchpad should be moved north roughly 1 cm. If feels like switching between the keyboard and the touchpad was slightly less than natural because of the spacing. However, it wasn't to the point that we feel like it took away from the experience. Even though gamers will rely on an external mouse, we feel that Dell should change the spacing component to make the experience better.
The touchpad's texture is what we have come to expect from Dell: a micro-fine grain texture. This texture has a good mix between a grain and smooth texture, which gives cursor tracking a natural feel.
Note that a portion of the touchpad is reserved for horizontal or vertical scrolling. This space can be used like a normal touchpad once the scroll function is disabled via the touchpad software suite. Personally, we prefer a scroll space on the touchpad over a scroll toggle, so long as there is still plenty of space on the touchpad allotted to "normal" touchpad use. This preference is mainly because there are so many ways to design a scroll toggle wrong.
The touchpad is like the rest of the notebook in the sense that it has a similar texture as the rest of the silver part of the chassis. The only note we should make is that there is a slight impressed horizontal channel in each of the touchpad buttons that are there to give you a better feel. We wished Dell took this one step further and placed a smooth rubber strip in the depression, like the X300.
Microphone –Unfortunately, there is no integrated microphone on the XPS G2, which is too bad for those that like audio messaging and the like. The only way to get a microphone up and running is to hook up one via the microphone port.
Speakers - The stereo speakers (2 watts per channel) on the XPS Gen2 are some of the best around considering their use for multimedia and or gaming. The inclusion of a subwoofer (5 watt, class D) is definitely one of the key points in making or breaking the audio experience.
At max the speakers are loud enough to keep the person in the next room wide awake a night. The person down the hall will probably be able to hear what is piping through the speakers too. When we listened to Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know," the audio clarity was above average for what we see in many of the high end notebooks, i.e. the instrumentals and voice inflections get slightly less than crystal clear above roughly 70%. Above 70% we could start to make out the less than crystal clear quality of audio. The sound doesn't become distorted if that is what you are worried about, but you want get that same audio clarity. When it comes to movies, you probably won't have to strain to distinguish the quality threshold, unless there is an audio track also playing during a segment of video.
|Construction: Upgrading and Maintenance|
The display can swivel on a complete 180 degree plane. It actually goes approximately 5 degrees below being completely parallel.
Like the previous Dell Latitude designs, you can easily access the keyboard by first popping out the bezel above the keyboard from the right divot and unscrewing the two keyboard screws. After that all you need to do is slide the keyboard up and out.
While you can see portions of the CPU cooler atop the CPU (left side) and the larger GPU cooler atop the GPU module (right side), you cannot access them. You won't be able to remove the CPU cooler for cleaning unless you disassemble the entire top casing of the notebook. This also goes for the GPU module. In both scenarios, you will have to disassemble the display from the rest of the notebook.
Removing the bottom access panels gives way to reveal two SODIMM memory banks, miniPCI slot (populated by WiFi card), hard drive, and modem module. The sample we have here came populated with 2 x Hynix 512MB DDR2 PC4200.
The hard drive can be removed by unscrewing the two screws securing the hard drive enclosure. The screws are short screws and probably will need to be removed by a magnetically charged screwdriver, by turning over the notebook so that they fall out, and or by using your fingernails to pull them out.
|The Gaming Experience|
There are a few things to consider when gaming other than performance. So we are going to depart from the tradition and not benchmark a plethora of games. If you'd like to see how this notebook performs in a variety of gaming scenarios, we suggest taking a look at this article. Marco tested the GeForce 6800 Go GPU found in the Gen 2 a few months back. Instead, we will focus on the other important things here. After all, you only need a few graphs to get a feel for how well a game runs on a particular system. There are other things that cannot be expressed in graphs, but they are just as important, like:
Orientation of external mouse (left side for lefties and right side for righties) - For left handed people, an external mouse will come in conflict with popping CD/DVDs in and out. It will also partially come in conflict with any USB device or the cable you plug in on the 2 x USB 2.0/1.1 on the left side of the notebook.
Left to Right: Left handed, Right handed
For right handed people, an external mouse will partially come in conflict with the Firewire cable should you use a Firewire device. Additionally, if you are popping a PCMCIA device in or out, you probably will have to move the mouse a little more to the right for spacing purposes. A SD card is small enough that it won't cause any problems should you be right handed and need to use the SD card reader.
Orientation of headphones - Whether you are left or right handed, the choice of using headphones will require you to deal with a trailing cable from the right side. Make sure you get headphones where the cable comes from the right earphone or earbud. Otherwise, you will deal with the cross over from a trailing audio cable from the right side of the notebook to your left earphone or earbud. Once this happens, the only way to avoid the problem is to wear your headphones backwards, which generally is uncomfortable.
Visual Experience: The Display(brightness, viewing angle, contrast, vividness) and the rest - At its highest setting (8), which is the setting you should be gaming at, the display has a pretty wide viewing angle. Its wide enough so that the person next to you will be able to see what is going on perfectly fine.
Left to Right: Doom 3, Republic Commando
For gaming, the colors are bright and crisp. Darker games were less visually appealing than those using brighter colors. Our example is that you will feel much more integrated with games like Star Wars Republic Commando over Doom 3.
The only problem we had was with the LEDs from the speakers. Because they tilt up, the light can be somewhat annoying after a while. This becomes a possible problem when you are gaming in dark titles like Doom 3 in a dark room. What happens is that the dramatic effect of any dark scene is minimalized because of the bright LED light (colors can be changed in the BIOS). The heatsink LEDs don't pose that much of a problem as they are out of the way and harder to view directly. Fortunately, you can turn these LEDs off in the system BIOS.
Audio quality and Experience - The audio experience is great. As we mentioned the highest we can go without too much distortion is about 65%. You can probably jump to 80% if you are gaming because your hands irrevocably cover and muffle the speakers. This lessens your ability to distinguish the quality difference.
If you are using an external mouse, a left handed person will hear audio louder on the left side, as you will need one hand away from normal keyboard posture to be poised to track and click the external mouse. A right handed person, thus, will hear audio louder on the right side. Either way, you probably won't need to surpass the 35% volume barrier, even if you are using a external mouse.
Combination of an External Mouse and Keyboard - Far too many people don't consider the feel that you will need for gaming. For the enthusiast and hardcore gamer, an unnatural feel can lead to those few lost seconds needed to cap the enemy rounding that corner; leaving you dead with a lower kill score.
For the right handed person, there is a overall nature feel between working between your external mouse and A, W, S, and D keys, which are the critical keys for most games. You will have a tendency to use the external mouse close to the right side of the notebook if you want to view the display dead center. Otherwise, you will be slightly off center to the right.
For the left handed person, using the A, W, S, and D keys generally gives a cramped feel, because of the proximately of both hands. Additionally, it will leave you viewing the display off center to the left. If you reassign the keys to something like I, J, K, and L, you will get a much better feel for gaming. You will also have a tendency to use the external mouse close to the right side of the notebook if you want to view the display dead center, due to the large display size.
The height of the notebook isn't too high, which definitely helps gamers. Any higher and I believe the feel for having one hand raised high for striking keys and one lower for mouse tracking/clicking would be unnatural.
We are going to be adding a new section as needed, which will focus on proprietary software from the notebook vendors. Whether you buy from Dell, HP, Compaq, IBM, etc.. etc.. each company usually has software that is branded in their name to make the notebook experience just that much sweeter. By that we mean easier, simpler, more feature laden, enabling user fixable solutions, etc...
Dell's OS indicators for brightness (meter increase/decrease) and volume (meter increase/decrease, mute):
Dell's battery monitor (Fn + F3):
Dell's WiFi status (includes Bluetooth: Fn + F2):
|Systems Tested and General Performance|
In order to keep the list of notebook from getting exceedingly long and turning this page into a scrolling race, we are going to archive past notebook specs in a Excel file (XLS format), which will be updated with every notebook review (click here). If you have questions, please feel free to email me.
Business Winstone 2004 from Veritest uses scripts to tests the performance level of a computer in business related applications:
Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 from Veritest uses scripts to tests the performance level of a computer in multimedia rich environment:
Higher scores here indicate better performance. You can read more about Business Winstone 2004 on Veritest's FAQ page. And you can read more about Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 on Veritest's FAQ page.
Our system came with the fastest CPU configuration and 1GB of DDR2 RAM, so the results fall expectedly close to the similarly configured Latitude D810. This is, after all, a high end performance notebook.
|Battery Info & Performance|
We are using the standard benchmark settings from Bapco, along with a few other minor system tweaks. The screensaver was disabled and volume was set at approximately 20%.
MobileMark 2002 utilizes the following applications:
The white papers for MobileMark are available on Bapco's website should you want to read up on how this benchmark works. In the graph above, higher scores equal better performance.
Considering that this is a notebook that is supposed to be mainly running on AC, we were pleased with the results. The 9 cell battery Dell equipped the XPS G2 with gives you the ability to run a little over 2 hours absent the hassle of a big power brick. The D810 actually shares the same battery format, though the XPS G2 battery is cased in black to match its dark casing scheme.
Battery life increases about 10 minutes if the LEDs are turned off.
Charge time for the batteries from 0% to 100% is as follows (real world numbers, not estimates):
The times listed below reflect the time it took for the system to power up until the cursor appeared with no busy indicator on the desktop background.
In Doom3, we had some problems with earlier versions of ATI's drivers, used on the Mobility Radeon equipped notebooks, because at a specific point, the game would simply crash. With the newer drivers from ATI, every time a monster hit us, the screen would just blank for a second, as opposed to shake and tremble.
NVIDIA's newer driver, which were used on the XP2 G2, didn't have this problem. We should note that with Doom 3, this was the only game that made the GPUs run really hot, especially on Alienware's 51-M. On the Z80K, Doom 3 is relatively slow, but the GPU wasn't clocked very high and ran relatively warm, not hot. With the XPS G2, the spot above the keyboard where the GPU is situated just got warm. As for performance, the score speaks for itself.
With out AA enabled, frame rates were in the sub 20 fps range in Doom 3, except for the XPS Gen 2 which ran in the low 80 fps range.
Overall, the gaming scores we have here are pretty much what we continued to see following the trend from Doom 3. After all, this is Dell's flagship performance consumer notebook. Without AF enabled, we were looking at the XPS Gen 2 running at about plus 5 fps.
The GeForce Go5700 makes a strong stand in Jedi Academy, but there was definite loss in quality. The lightsaber glow wasn't as fine and there were examples where lightning isn't as smooth or as detailed as it was on the ATI powered notebooks. We saw no specific issues with this when it came to the Go 6800 Ultra on the XPS Gen 2.
X2 is thrown in as an indicator of DX8 performance. Even with the range of new games out there, people still play many popular old DX8 based titles. Keep in mind these are 4xAA and 8xAF scores. With either disabled, we were hitting frame rates in the low 40's fps range, except for the XPS G2 which was just under 90 fps.
Obviously, performance in the XPS G2 isn't lacking, even when it comes to games that demand the highest measure of performance. NVIDIA's GeForce Go 6800 Ultra is blazing new trails here. To see more game benchmarks using the Dell XPS Gen 2, check out this article.
For quite a while, the "enthusiast desktop replacement notebook" market has been dominated by the likes of Alienware, Voodoo, Hypersonic, and Sager. But it's good to see a big name like Dell keep the others on their toes with a viable alternative. That doesn't mean these companies offer bad notebooks. It is just that these enthusiast specific companies usually have high prices, which make them a lot less affordable for those on a budget. Even though these high powered notebooks are expected to be rather expensive, we still want to see smaller price tags. And more competition should do just that. The price for notebooks has been dropping over the past two to three years, and there is no reason for the "enthusiast DTR notebook" not to follow suit.
Priced at $2,997 (3,526 without current 15% discount), our system and other XPS G2 models (starting at $2,337 with current 15% discount, $2,749 w/o) tend to be more expensive than comparable models from Alienware. And you can easily tack on another $600 by configuring a notebook with a 2.13GHz Pentium M 770 and 1GB of DDR2 (2 DIMMs), instead of a system with a 2.0GHz Pentium M 760 and 512MB of DDR2 (2 DIMMs). But remember the difference here is that the Dell Inspiron XPS G2 can actually be called a Centrino system. Other DTR systems may be cheaper, but they are usually powered by desktop components, which are all power hogs. They make the notebook run hotter. They need fatter heatsinks and bigger and louder fans. And of course since they use desktop components, they require the manufacturer to use bigger power bricks, which means they will add just that much more to your power bill. All of this aside, you still are left with a notebook that isn't a road warrior. Sure the XPS G2 is somewhat limited in performance compared to notebooks that use desktop parts, but the XPS G2 can run a little over 2 hours on its 9 cell battery. Whereas most other DTRs struggle to hit 1 hour. There are benefits and limitations to either type of notebook.
If you are in the market to buy a powerful notebook, don't get bogged down by the ads that tell you "X" notebook is better all across the board. Don't just look at feature comparison charts or performance graphs. There are minor things that will ultimately make or break your experience with the notebook. Remember, that loud fans are particularly a nuisance when it comes to gaming, which is something they usually leave out of the product page. Regardless, if you are a student needing a notebook to take to class, this is not the notebook you should be looking at. We mentioned this because a lot of students seem to think otherwise these days; making rationalizations about weight or something else. At best, this is the type of notebook to stay in your room or venture out with for only the occasional LAN party. The XPS Gen2 is will be extremely difficult to carry around to day to day classes. Definitely, look toward the more mobile options if you're going to carry your notebook around constantly (like the IBM T43 or D610, 14.1" displays).
While the Dell Inspiron XPS G2 doesn't necessarily offer the best of the enthusiast notebook community, that is ok. Dell is offering something increasingly hard to find in its competition: a powerful notebook that still has enough battery life to be a road warrior; a notebook that you can bring to a LAN party with the option of leaving the big power brick unplugged for a couple of hours. Even though it isn't completely up to par with notebooks using desktop components in pure performance, it still is one of the best in the true blue notebook sense, as it actually uses mobile parts. This isn't to say that it can't breeze through games. Far from it, NVIDIA has handed Dell a mobile GPU that offers the ability to exceed the needs of most in the gaming department. Past mobile GPUs have performed well, but NVIDIA is taking things to the next level with the GeForce 6800 Go Ultra found in the XPS Gen 2.
With a slick look, customization options, and a wicked fast GPU, the XPS Gen 2 is a notebook to be reckoned with when companies like Alienware are considered. So in that manner, we are giving Dell's Inspiron XPS Gen 2 a 9.0 on the HotHardware Heat Meter. For gamers and performance users, the XPS Gen 2 is a winner.