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Dell Inspiron XPS Gen 2 - Multimedia Performance Profile
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Date: Jul 21, 2005
Section:Mobile
Author: Andrew Ku
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Introduction

Our previous coverage of the Inspiron XPS Gen 2 was mainly intended for prospective gaming and performance sensitive buyers. However, this perspective doesn't completely explore the multimedia possibilities of the XPS Gen 2, which can be configured with Microsoft's MCE 2005. So of course, we had an Inspiron XPS Gen 2 from Dell configured with that OS and all the necessary multimedia add-ons for those curious about its full audio/video possibities.

Dell Inspiron XPS Gen 2
Specifications
Processor
_Designed for Intel 90nm Dothan Pentium-M with 2MB On-Die L2 Cache
_Supports 533MHz FSB

Chipset
_Intel 915PM/ICH6-M
_Supports maximum memory capacity up to 2GB

Memory
_Two 200-pin SODIMM sockets
_Supports DDR2 400/533 Unbuffered Non-ECC memory
_Supports maximum memory capacity up to 2GB

Graphic
_256MB NVIDIA GeForce Go 6800 Ultra PCI Express x16

ATA
Intel ICH6-M South Bridge:
- 1 x ATA 100/66
- 2 x SATA 100/66
- 60GB/80GB/100GB Ultra ATA HDD (all 5400RPM or 7200RPM)
- Optical device (CD-RW/DVD-ROM, DVD+-RW/CD-RW)


Communications
_Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet
_Intel Wireless 2200BG (802.11 b/g) or Broadcom 802.11/b/g WiFi card
_Bluetooth (optional)
_56K v.92 Fax/modem

Display
_17.0" WUXGA UltraSharp TFT LCD (native 1920 x 1200) with TrueLife

Audio
_Compatible with AC'97 2.3
_Built in dual speakers

Dimension and Weight
_~ 15.5" x 11.3" x 1.67" (our sample)
_Starts at 8.6 lbs.

External I/O Connectors
_1 x Power port
_1 x Lock jack
_1 x PCMCIA slot (Type I or Type II)
_1 x Modem jack
_1 x Ethernet jack
_1 x microphone jack
_1 x headphone jack
_1 x VGA-out port
_1 x DVI-out port
_1 x S-video port
_1 x 4-pin mini1394 Firewire port
_1 x SD Card Reader
_6 x USB 2.0/1.1

Included Software - preloaded
_Norton Internet Security 2005 trial
_WordPerfect
_Adobe Acrobat Reader 6.0
_Dell Media Experience
_Dell Jukebox

 

 


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 all 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. Additionally, the option that Dell allows for this notebook to come with Microsoft's MCE 2005 OS may raise the eyebrows of a few looking for such a multimedia capable yet portable machine.

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Construction: Building, Appearance, Size
Construction: Building, Appearance, Size
The new XPS Gen 2...

Dell seems to use two materials in the design of the XPS Gen 2. 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 aluminum smooth surface. The "XPS" letters on the back side of the display are just clear plastic inserts. The bottom half of the notebook is 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):

  • Mute/Unmute
  • Volume up
  • Volume down
  • Pause/Play
  • Previous
  • Next
  • Stop

Left (left to right):

  • lock port
  • Intake Vent
  • 2 x USB 2.0/1.1
  • NEC DVD+-RW ND-6500A (8x +- R/4x +- RW/24x CD-R/16x CD-RW)

Back (left to right):

  • Exhaust vent
  • S-Video out port
  • Ethernet jack
  • Modem jack
  • 4 x USB 2.0/1.1
  • DVI-out port
  • VGA-out port
  • power port
  • Exhuast Vent

Right (left to right):

  • 1 x PCMCIA slot (Type I or Type II)
  • 4-pin mini1394 Firewire port
  • SD Card Reader
  • headphone port
  • microphone port
  • Intake Vent

 

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Multimedia Interaction: Locally/Near
Multimedia Interaction: Locally/Near (in front of the notebook)
So, What Do I need to know?

Display –The horizontal viewing angle has a fairly wide range. If there are three people watching a movie side by side, there shouldn't be any problems. Each person will see a bright crisp image from the screen. Once you add a fourth person (unless they are sitting behind), the fourth person (sitting on the end of the line) will not be able to see the movie clearly.

  

Left to Right: Harry Met Sally Divx movie via network, The Patriot via DVD, Harry Met Sally Divx movie via network

Audio Setup for Movies - At a 90% volume level, you get a good theatrical volume. This is the volume setting we watched Matrix Reloaded and other movies/TV at. There was no distortion that we were able to detect.

The audio experience ranks as one of the best for a notebook. Watching movies and or TV offers a superb experience. While, it isn't the best, it is ranks as on of the better ones. The harmonics, tremble, and bass ranges are clear and crisp.

On the possiblity that one or two people are watching movies with you, and you want to use headphones, you will need a headphone line splitter. Using headphones cuts output from the built in speakers. In a three person horizontal arrangement (the person sitting directly in front of the notebook should be about 2 to 3 feet from the screen), there are no audio weak spots if you chose to listen to the built in speakers.

Dedicated Multimedia Buttons – Notice that the front buttons light up in an 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 the LEDs turn off.

Dell should have 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 those on the Dell DJ MP3 players.

LEDs - Note that the audio lights do not turn off once you plug in headphones. All of the LEDs, minus those for the buttons, are constantly on. There is no way to turn of the lights, less going into the BIOS and changing the settings. Its good to see that Dell had the tack to give the option to the user. The multimedia fan will probably be more grateful than the gamer.

 

We did not feel that the LEDs took away from the visual experience in a totally dark room. Actually the LEDs were the only light sources faintly illuminating the keyboard. Its too bad that the multimedia buttons aren't visible in the dark. In a well lit room, the LEDs were somewhat of a distraction. This is going to be a matter of preference, though.

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Multimedia Interaction: Remotely
Multimedia Interaction: Remotely (from the couch)
So, What Do I need to know?

Port Orientation for External Display Device –This is one of a few notebooks that includes an external DVI port. This opens up the the opportunity to connect displays that have DVI input ports.

In all likelihood, you are going to set the notebook next to or near the display device to connect via VGA or DVI out. Since the ports are on the backside, you don't have to worry about left or right side orientation. We tried to use a standard component to VGA converter, but that work around didn't work for our projector.

External Display - Thanks to Winbook we have access to a 32" widescreen LCD display. Using VGA and DVI, we ran at a max wide aspect ratio resolution of 1366 x 768.

Notebook Display - While this notebook can go into clone mode, you probably just want to have the notebook export the video to the external display. It really makes no sense for you to be looking at the notebook while sitting on the couch.

Even though this uses a 17" wide aspect ratio display, it still isn't big enough for you to watch from a distance. Having the display on while watching movies only gets distracting anyways because of the light (only one display should be actually "drawing" the video).

Remote Base –The remote base is the same used previously for MCE 2004. It is a small box like device that is plugged in to a USB port. Ideally, any remote base should be built into the notebook or have an extremely low profile.

At the moment, any notebook equipped with Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition will not have the luxury of integrated design like the industry mature television set. Hopefully this will change in time and new solutions to the problem will come about. This is not a problem of Dell but rather of the notebook industry.

Remote –The layout and tactile feedback of the remote is very well thought out and comfortable. (I believe this is made by Philips.)

  

The only thing we wish is that the power and record buttons were raised a little higher. Other than that it feels very much like a TV remote.

We should note that the white portion of buttons glow in the dark.

Audio Setup for Movies –In all likelihood, you are going to want to hook this notebook up to your surround sound system. Since the headphone port is on the right side of the notebook, you need to leave about two inches free on the right side (most speaker plugs are straight plugs).

On one of our "movie nights," we forgot to route the audio from the laptop to our flat panel speakers. Even for the casual movie night, we actually found the speakers on the XPS G2 to be loud and clear enough to use for watching a movie or TV. The only problem was that beyond a 45 to 135 degree audio window directly projected from the speakers, people not sitting in that line of sight will not get the full audio effect.

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Multimedia Interacting: TV Viewing
Multimedia Interacting: TV Viewing
How does TV fit into the picture?

TV Tuner – We just happen to have one of Dell's newly minted "Dell" tuners. This is similar to other USB tuners of the past: RF input, S-video input, RCA port (video in, L and R audio), and USB output. You can read more here.

 

TV Hookup – The same design problem that the remote base faces also looms over the TV hookup design. Ideally, an external TV tuner would not be necessary. However for the moment, there are no other practical alternatives. Some people will not want this component, while some will. Additionally, creation of a high quality small TV tuner that can easily be plugged in is limited by the current technology.

Watching & Recording TV - Regardless of what quality setting used in recording video, we were looking at about 40% to 70% CPU usage (this also goes for watching TV). This is due to the encoding needs of MCE. Remember that our XPS G2 system came with a 2.13GHz Pentium-M.

Cables - With TV hookup, at minimum you are going to have 4 cables running near your notebook: RF cable for TV Tuner, USB cable from TV Tuner to notebook, USB cable from remote base to notebook, and power cable. We would recommend using the USB ports on the back of the notebook, because this prevents the cables from getting in your way if you swap out discs, DVD or otherwise. Make that 5 if you are hooking up an external display.

Multiple DVD Discs - Archiving of TV shows can be done, but if you are trying to archive shows recorded from MCE 2005, you can use the remote to control archiving. You won't have to get up, minus swapping in and out DVD+-R (s) or CD-R(s).

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Multimedia Interacting: Battery Life
Multimedia Interacting: Battery Life
How Long Does It Last?

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:

  • Microsoft Word 2002
  • Microsoft Excel 2002
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2002
  • Microsoft Outlook 2002
  • Netscape Communicator6.0
  • McAfee VirusScan 5.13
  • Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1
  • Macromedia Flash 5
  • WinZip 8.0

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.

Based on the scores from our XPS Gen 2 - Gaming and Performance review, we know this notebook can go little over two hours if you are using it for a combination of gaming, email, web browsing, etc...

When it comes to playing DVDs, this notebook lasts about 2 hours give and take a few minutes. Of course with the built in alarms that Windows XP has, this notebook will probably only last one hour and 40~50 minutes, if they aren't turned off. This is also our experience with Divx movies. Though, we should note that we tend to find that highly compressed Divx or Xvid movies have a noticeable effect on battery life, since they take up more CPU/memory/and other hardware resources. Our testing was done with the Matrix Reloaded DVD and an its matched Divx encoded file that took up about 35% of CPU usage. With the LEDs turned off (reflected in the score above), you can squeeze about another 10 minutes or so out of the system.

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Final Words

The addition of Windows XP MCE OS, a TV Tuner, and Remote adds a total of $199 to the base price tag of the Dell XPS Gen2 (MCE alone only adds $39). In the multimedia arena, the MCE OS is a good match for the XPS Gen2. It has one of the brightest displays all around, 17.0" size notwithstanding.

If you are more of a multimedia user than a gamer, stick with lower end configuration options, like the 2GHz Pentium-M instead of the 2.13GHz. It will save you a wad of cash, since you don't need that extra horsepower. Playing DVDs, after all, doesn't tax the system in the same way Doom 3 will. For a combination of half gaming and half multimedia use, we would still recommend that configuration

While the system is an excellent choice for the gamer and performance user, which we noted in our previous review, XPS Gen2 has a bit of a ways to go before becomes top dog in an all around multimedia environment. Granted, the improvements we want to see are really only going to be remedied by time, as better remote/TV hookup designs come about. However, we would also like to see a price drop, an improvement in the dedicated multimedia button design for this to be a completely well honed multimedia notebook, and improved battery life - at least enough to watch a full 2 hour movie.

For the moment, we see this type of notebook as a blessing for those with the cash that live in small, cramped living quarters. The extra dough you fork over will give you the ability to forgo the need for a TV set. This becomes a particular blessing if you are student in the dorm or an apartment.

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