Off to school we go! Yes, it's that time of year again for many. But fear not! All is not lost, for it's also notebook hunting season. Of course, even if you enjoy going back to school, it's still a rare treat. After all, you are choosing a companion to help you stave off hours of boredom, and at the same time choosing an hombre to make your life a little easier. Mind you, this is one partner you will likely be stuck with for more than a year or two, so as always, choose carefully.
For the majority of those in "back to school" mode, shopping for a notebook will be limited to ultraportables or traditional form factor notebooks (14.1" or 15.0" displays). Why, you ask? Well frankly, these days the core of the Centrino platform, the Pentium-M, is able to match most of the performance characteristics we would expect to find in a desktop. Ergo, we don't really need to look at desktop replacements for the "average" student or computer user. Besides which, something in the 8 pound department has, at minimum, a 15.4" display. That, honestly, isn't a friendly notebook profile to carry around anywhere except between offices or on a trip down the hall. In our opinion, you'd probably want to limit such a notebook to a maximum daily trip count of one or two.
At the opposite end of the spectrum though, are notebooks like the Dell Inspiron 700m, which has been on the market for some time now. All things considered, it is a very good notebook for this time of year. It is Dell's consumer class ultraportable and is sought after by many. Now, let's see why.
Measuring in at 11.7" x 8.5" x 1.5" and weighing in at about 4.1 pounds (our sample weighed exactly 4.12 pounds), the Dell 700m falls in the center or maybe slightly on the heavy side of the current crop of ultraportables. It's getting harder and harder to categorize ultraportables, since many notebook manufacturers have made the switch from the 12.1" XGA to the 12.1" WXGA display. Non-wide screen ultraportables were certainly lighter, but they usually lacked an optical drive. Of course, the WXGA ultraportables have enough real estate width-wise to avoid these design issues. Still, with the heavier ultraportables just tipping the scales at 4 pounds, they are much easier to carry around than their 14.1" or 15.0" brethren. Where 12.1" XGA ultraportables can be extremely mobile, the 12.1" WXGA ultraportables are slightly less so. They work well for those who are on the go between 50% and 90% of the time. We define this wide range due to the different needs of highly mobile users. Some need more performance, some longer battery life, some conformability, some accessibility, and so forth.
|Construction: Build, Appearance, Size|
The 700m uses a myriad of construction materials similar to the scheme of the Inspiron 6000. The white borders seem to be made of a hard acrylic plastic, while the black bottom consists of the exposed aluminum chassis spray coated with black epoxy paint. The silver portions of the casing are made of the typical Dell polycarbonate. Note that the silver hue is a noticeably brighter shade than that of older Inspiron (e.g., the 8600) and Latitude notebooks, and it is polished up like the white plastic borders. As far as scratching goes, it is about as resistant as previous Dell notebooks we have seen. The aluminum bottom is extremely resistant to scratching, but it is going to have less give if the notebook is dropped. Usually there is an inverse relationship between the hardness of a construction material and its ability to withstand high impact forces by flexing for internal components.
The notebook uses a simple sliding mechanism located on the display lid to retract two security hooks that secure the display lid to the base.
Front (left to right):
Left (left to right):
Back (left to right):
Right (left to right):
Top and Bottom:
|Construction: Field Testing|
Charger - For the past couple of years, Dell has stuck with the same power brick (PA-12, 65W). It continues to be one of the better charger designs on the market, particularly with the strap design that allows you to tie up extra cabling and the straight power plug that has thus far always plugged into the back of the notebook.
Display – Dell's 700m has only one display configuration: a 12.1" WXGA crystal clear TFT LCD (native 1280 x 800).
In the past, Dell has referred to glare type displays as "with TrueLife." We are not sure why this is absent from the 700m's description, as it also uses a glare type display. However, it is likely either that Dell chose not to advertise it or that there are different degrees in the quality of glare type displays for which they reserve the name. At the moment, we aren't really sure. However, we need to clear up the glare type issue, as this has been discussed by many people but few really understand its benefits and disadvantages. First, the glare type display does make just about any multimedia experience related to video and viewing better, provided a top notch display panel is used. However, it is not due to the better specs of the LCD display panel. Instead, the glare coating gives us the ability to perceive more vivid colors, sharper text, and crisper background images via an increased contrast ratio, which the glare coating provides.
The down side is that even under normal lighting conditions, there is going to be some glare from lighting 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, say, a person's skin. Under normal lighting conditions, like in an office or library, the advantage of glare type LCDs is still visible, but you are going to have to get used to glare from nearby light sources. As you move to the outdoors, glare type displays are out of their element, as the screen looks duller.
As we have 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 is to have a top notch display paired with the glare coating in order to avoid these problems. After using the 700m for a couple of weeks, we have a few remarks. As far as the quality of the display goes, it is definitely one of the better glare type display LCD panels we have seen on an ultraportable. It has very sharp text and is bright enough to watch dark or bright movie scenes without losing sections of the video to darkness or incorrect color perception.
All of the 8 brightness settings seem to be spaced the same number of lumens apart (the battery and AC levels are the same). If at all possible, you should stick with the highest setting, which makes the images on the display downright excellent. At its lowest setting, the display is still bright enough to use in a dark room without it becoming a strain on the eyes after an hour or two of use.
As it stands, every ultraportable seems to stick with the 12.1" XGA or WXGA display specification. For the most part, the XGA and WXGA resolutions on a 12.1" display feel natural on an ultraportable. 12.1" is a good size to work with, since a larger display panel would probably put the notebook outside of the ultraportable category. The display on our 700m sample had a crisp feel to it and was easy on the eyes. There was no unnatural feel for our eyes to contend with.
Fan - The fan was on about a quarter of the time we had the notebook running. This was while we were doing things like emailing, browsing, word processing, etc. The volume of the lone CPU fan is fairly quiet overall, though it seems to have gradient speed levels.
At a CPU utilization of about 35% (the average while playing a 4 minute 128kbps MP3 file [actual values ranged from 20% to 50%]), we could listen to an entire 4 minute MP3 track without any fan activity. When we got into more demanding applications like playing back a 1080i HDTV file (80% to 90% CPU usage), we experienced about 2 minutes of mid speed fan activity alternating with about 4 minutes of no fan activity. It actually seemed that the fan would first go to max speed quickly than slow down within 10 seconds or less to mid speed (max speed is about 25% louder than mid speed). At mid speed, you should just barely be able to make out the soft whirling noise at a distance of 2 to 3 feet in a quiet room. It's actually about as loud as the hum of the hard drive. At max speed, you should be able to distinctly make out the sound, though neither speeds have a volume level that would be considered annoying. We can say with confidence that, on a flight, you would not bother the person next to you.
Heat – After about five plus hours of straight use, the notebook was still relatively cool overall. The only places that got warm were the bottom of the notebook where the memory access panel and CPU intake vent are situated. The temperature level could be described as somewhere between warm and flinching hot. It's a tolerable temperature, but it is hotter than just warm. If the system is idle, it will simply be a comfortably warm temperature. This laptop should be comfortable in your lap without any need for cooling off periods.
|Construction: Field Testing (cont.)|
Keyboard – This is one of the better ultraportable keyboard layout designs out there, as the function and home/end/insert/delete keys are all located in a 1 x 4 array in the upper right hand corner. Meanwhile, the page up/page down keys are reassigned as secondary keys via FN + left/right arrow. Consequently, Dell avoids the all too common vertical page up/page down/home/end strip usually found on the right side. There really is no "perfect" way to design an ultraportable keyboard at this point. Some may recommend that Dell create an arrow peninsula like on their other keyboards so that the home/end/page up/page down/insert/delete keys can all be located in the upper right hand corner, but this would really force the user to have absolutely no hand rest when using the arrow keys. This is the down side of having an ultraportable notebook, though some overcome the problem by canning the touchpad in favor of a pointing device. On spacing, Dell has set the keyboard as far up as possible to give as much palm rest space as possible, which is definitely good.
We should additionally note that the 700m does not use a full-sized keyboard, which is defined as having full-size alphanumeric keys. The keys are noticeably smaller than those you would see on a larger Inspiron or Latitude notebook. Our only caution is that those with large fingers may find it frustrating to type fast, due to the clustering and size of the keys.
LEDs – There are two LED strips: one on the front of the display and one on the back. The front LED strip contains LEDs for (left to right): WiFi status (green when enabled), power status (flashing when in standby, green when on), charging status (green when charging), hard drive activity (blinking green when active), num lock (green), caps lock (green), and scroll lock (green). The LED strip on the back of the display lid contains LEDs for (left to right): charging status (green when charging), power status (flashing when in standby, green when on), and WiFi status (green when enabled).
Touchpad & Buttons – Like the keyboard, the touchpad is spaced appropriately enough. Switching between the two is about the same as on any other average notebook. Like the Inspiron 6000, the touchpad for the 700m feels like it has a smooth/fine grain texture to it. It is very similar to the silver polycarbonate casing material.
The touchpad buttons are like the touchpad in the sense that they have a similar texture to the rest of the silver part of the chassis. The only thing we should note is that there is a slightly impressed horizontal channel in each of the touchpad buttons which is there to give you a better feel. Our only wish was that Dell took this one step further and placed a smooth rubber strip there, like on the X300.
Speakers & Microphone – Unfortunately, there is no integrated microphone on the Dell 700m, which is too bad for those who like such things as audio messaging. The only way to get a microphone running is to hook one up via the microphone port.
The speakers on the 700m at max volume are loud enough so that someone in the next room could easily hear what you are listening to. It isn't going to be on the same level as the max volume of the XPS Gen 2, but the 700m could probably cause someone a sleepless night if you wanted to (the 700m at 100% is roughly equal to the XPS G2 at 70%). While we wouldn't consider these multimedia speakers (they don't amplify certain ranges), they are very good speakers considering their size. For example, we could start to hear distortion in Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know" once we hit the 70% to 75% volume level. They work well for movies, audio tracks, etc. For the average computer user, these are spectacular speakers for any ultraportable of any size. For the audio enthusiast, they will be acceptable, though such users will probably end up connecting the notebook to their surround sound system anyway.
|Construction: Upgrading & Maintenance|
The display's range of motion is about 5 degrees below completely parallel.
Removing the bottom access panels gives way to reveal the hard drive, second SODIMM memory slot, WiFi card, and modem card.
Like previous Dell designs, you can easily access the keyboard by first removing the top bezel. After that you just unscrew the two screws holding the keyboard down and then lift it up and out. When that's done, all you need to do is unscrew two more screws in order to remove the shielding protecting the first SODIMM memory slot.
|Features: Software & Hardware|
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... 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, with user fixable solutions, etc...
Our 700m didn't have the Dell QuickSet application pre-installed, which provides all of the indicators for brightness, volume, etc. However, it's a free download for any Dell notebook owner off of Dell's support site.
Of the various software enhancements that Dell includes, we want to particularly note:
Reinstallation of Drivers - This will require that you either use the driver/application CD that shipped with your system or go to the 700m download section of Dell's driver support site.
|Test Systems and General Performance|
In order to keep the list of notebooks from getting exceedingly long and turning this page into a scrolling race, we are going to archive past notebook specs in a spreadsheet file (XML format, just open with any spreadsheet program) which will be updated with every notebook review. If you have any questions, please feel free to email us.
Business Winstone 2004 from Veritest uses scripts to test the performance level of a computer in business related applications:
Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 from Veritest uses scripts to test the performance level of a computer in multimedia rich environments:
Higher scores here indicate better performance. You can read more about Business Winstone 2004 on Veritest's FAQ page. You can also read more about Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 on Veritest's FAQ page.
While the 700m uses the older 855GME chipset, the performance benefits of the newer chipsets are minimal in regard to the needs of the average user. Overall, it falls in line with what we expected from a 1.8GHz Dothan Pentium-M system.
|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 the 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.
With the standard 4 cell battery, the 700m clocks in at 2 hours and 31 minutes. We didn't have the opportunity to test the Dell 700m with its 8 cell battery, but based on our personal experience, you are looking at over 5 hours of computer usage.
Charge time for the battery 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.
A while back, we got hold of a 700m when it was first introduced and we were impressed with its small size and evolutionary design. It was one of the first ultraportables to have a wide aspect ratio display and a built-in optical drive, all while maintaining an overall profile that kept it easily mobile. Revisiting the notebook many months later is like visiting an old friend. It is still as we remember it: a fully equipped notebook for those frequently on the move.
Many people who are highly mobile prefer the docking bay design, where the optical drive is left out of the notebook itself. Because of the space requirements of an optical drive, those ultraportables without one usually take on a 12.1" XGA display. The ones with a drive are usually equipped with a 12.1" WXGA display. Generally speaking, we are looking at a one pound difference between the two designs. This is a difference that those who are highly mobile treasure. Those who prefer to have an extremely light ultraportable are better off going with another notebook, such as Dell's X1 or HP's NC4010. Generally speaking, extremely light ultraportables are the choice of traveling businessmen. For the typical student or computer user who needs high mobility, however, the 700m fits the bill perfectly. It works well as a notebook to take to class or on a long flight, outclassing its heavier 14.1"/15.0" notebook brethren. Yet, it's easily a notebook that you can use while you're walking around or when you don't have access to a desk.
Aside from their contrasting appearances, the main difference between the Latitude X1 and the Inspiron 700m is in their intended markets, which translates into different specs. With the Latitude line specifically catering to businessmen, the X1 doesn't contain an optical drive, uses a non-glare type display, and has an ultra-light weight specification of 2.5 pounds (versus the 700m's 4.1 pounds). (Latitude notebooks also differ in that they are Gigabit LAN capable.) Obviously, the 700m is geared towards multimedia users, which is why it contains an optical drive. Along with its glare type display, the 700m's overall feel and form follow this multimedia theme, whereas the X1 is strictly business.
On a technology level, this ultraportable is one of the few that can be equipped with a 2.0GHz Pentium-M (755). Since it uses the 855GME chipset while the majority of the Inspiron line uses the newer 915XM chipsets, one might suspect an upcoming motherboard revision to the 700m. At this stage in the technology timeline, it's more economical for Dell to make any changes to the 700m (or its successor) during Intel's Yonah introduction. So, if you're already eyeing this notebook, we don't recommend holding off your purchase, especially if you need to buy it sooner rather than later.
Our sample was priced at $1799 (XP Pro, 1.8GHz Dothan Pentium-M 745, 8x DVD+-RW DL, 60GB, 2 x 256MB, 2200b/g WiFi, 1 year warranty), which ended up being $1439 after the current 20% discount. As far as configurations go, we recommend a minimum 1.8GHz Pentium-M and 512MB of system memory if you plan on watching Divx encoded movies or are anywhere close to being a multimedia user. Occasional movie watchers can go the 1.6GHz route, though with the demands of applications today we still recommend a minimum 512MB of system memory. For the long run notebook owner, a 1.8GHz Pentium-M is probably going to get you the best bang for your buck considering the performance demands of upcoming applications and Microsoft's new OS.
At the current price point, Dell is putting up an aggressive selling front. Of course, the majority of the notebooks in their Inspiron line offer reasonably large discounts. It's the back to school buying cycle, after all. You need a notebook, and Dell and others are dropping prices to get you buying. In the end, we are giving the Dell Inspiron 700m a rating of 9.0 on the HotHardware Heat Meter.