Dell Inspiron 8600 Review

By Eric Grevstad | Posted September 02, 2003

We've finished running FutureMark's 3DMark03 test — including all four game simulations, including the DirectX 9 features — and now we're watching the Codecreatures DirectX 8.1 benchmark running at a spectacular 1,920 by 1,200 resolution with 4X antialiasing enabled. It's not the fastest gaming-PC performance we've ever seen, but we're looking at a 7.3-pound notebook.

The Dell Inspiron 8600 introduced today is the direct vendor's new desktop-replacement flagship, and gives a couple of Dell's suppliers a chance to show off their latest and greatest as well. Specifically, it replaces the Pentium 4-M processor found in the outwardly identical Inspiron 8500 with Intel's energy-efficient 1.7GHz Pentium M, and offers Nvidia's GeForce FX Go5650 AGP 4X graphics controller with 128MB of DDR memory.

Add 512MB of DDR333 system memory; a 60GB Hitachi Travelstar 7K60 hard disk with 8MB buffer and 7,200-rpm speed; and a Philips DVD+RW drive that can be swapped for a second battery or a floppy drive; and you've got one serious laptop.

And oh yes, there's the 1,920 by 1,200 resolution we mentioned. That's the top of three choices for the Inspiron's wide-aspect-ratio (16:10), 15.4-inch-diagonal display; Dell calls the super-deluxe screen UltraSharp WUXGA, with WSXGA+ (1,680 by 1,050) and WXGA (1,280 by 800) models also available.

The wide format makes the Inspiron 8600 a bit of a chore to stuff into a briefcase, but also a sensational letterboxed-DVD-watching showpiece. It's an investment at $2,820 (at this writing, $2,570 after one of Dell's ever-changing rebate offers), but the 8600 is a stellar example of a desktop replacement that's a pound or two lighter and has better battery life than most of its competitors.

Lighter Than It Looks
The Inspiron measures 10.8 by 14.1 by 1.5 inches, which is undeniably bulky, but its 7.3 pounds are more comfortable in your lap than many of the 9-pound-plus leviathans now calling themselves portables. (Its AC adapter is a bit chunky at 1.1 pounds.)

Handsome blue accents surround the silver-gray system's keyboard, which is distinguished by having both a touchpad and an IBM ThinkPad-style keyboard stick by way of mouse alternatives. Both work smoothly, though the two mouse buttons for the pointing stick feel a little soft while those for the touchpad feel a trifle hard.

Along the right edge of the keyboard, where some notebooks stack their Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys, the Dell offers handy play/pause, stop, and previous/next track buttons for CD and DVD enjoyment; volume and mute buttons are above the function keys. Happily, the keyboard does offer Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys in addition to the cursor arrows, although their placement at the top right takes a bit of getting used to (we found ourselves stabbing at the top right corner for the Delete key, which is actually a couple of places inward).

Along the system's left edge, you'll find microphone and headphone jacks, one IEEE 1394 port, and one PC Card slot. Parallel, serial, VGA, S-Video out, 56Kbps modem, 10/100Mbps Ethernet, and two USB 2.0 ports are at the rear.

The Philips SDVD6004 2X DVD+RW drive, which also serves as an 8X DVD-ROM player and 16/8/24X CD-RW drive, is at the right — and, we were happy to notice, did a smoother and quicker job reading several of our well-worn benchmark CDs than the DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drives in the last few laptops we've tested. Pushing a button lets you remove the DVD burner and insert an optional floppy drive ($59) or extend battery life by another two-thirds with a second lithium-ion pack ($129). The Inspiron 8500 configuration page offers a second, 40GB hard disk for the modular bay ($249), but we don't see it listed for the 8600.

Even with just the standard battery, cordless life isn't half bad for such a high-powered PC: Whether writing letters or watching DVDs, we regularly got two hours and 20 minutes of unplugged operation, keeping the optical and hard drives fairly busy and sticking to the top two of the eight screen brightness levels (the others are pretty dark).

High Speed, Wide Screen
While the Inspiron 8500 uses Intel's Pentium 4-M at up to 2.6GHz, the 8600's Pentium M peaks at 1.7GHz with the same 400MHz front-side bus (you can save $250 or $450 by settling for a 1.6GHz or 1.4GHz chip, respectively). But its Intel 855PM chipset and DDR333 memory help the system deliver performance that belies its lower clock speed: With a BAPco SysMark 2002 score of 184 (202 in Internet Content Creation, 168 in Office Productivity), the new notebook keeps pace with 2.2GHz and 2.4GHz Pentium 4 systems we've sampled.

And the faster RAM and 7,200-rpm hard disk contribute to FutureMark PCMark 2002 scores of 5,588 (CPU), 5,324 (memory), and 927 (hard disk), which rank with some of the best business desktops around. Stepping up from the 60GB to an 80GB hard disk would add $70, though upgrading the DDR333 memory gets pricey — doubling our test unit's 512MB would cost $725.

Few if any business desktops can match the Dell's 3D-game-optimized GeForce FX Go5650 graphics accelerator, even if the latter seems to be more of a portable power or cooling challenge than the Pentium M processor — we noticed that when the Inspiron's cooling fan kicked in (sounding uncannily as if the notebook was heaving a sigh of exasperation), it was usually when running 3D games or benchmarks rather than merely loading programs or crunching spreadsheets.

To be sure, the Inspiron doesn't match the benchmark numbers of desktop PCs with ultra-high-end PCI cards such as ATI's Radeon 9800 Pro — it crawled through the DirectX 9 Game 4 portion of 3DMark03 en route to an overall score of 2,700, and the abovementioned 1,920 by 1,200-resolution Codecreatures benchmark with 4X antialiasing was at barely 5 frames per second.

But the FX Go5650 completes video tests that most notebook graphics solutions flunk altogether, and when set to slightly lower resolutions it's a genuine game blazer — 124 frames per second in an Unreal Tournament 2003 flyby at 1,024 by 768 (even a respectable 56 fps at 1,600 by 1,200); 230 fps in the classic Quake III Arena 1,024 by 768 High Quality benchmark. Even if you're not into action gaming, it's a first-rate image- or video-editing platform.

Too Much Resolution?
Serious image editors or computer-aided designers will also love the 1,920 by 1,200-pixel display, as we did for DVD viewing. That said, the titanic screen struck us as really too much for everyday office applications, unless you arrange two application windows side by side (your e-mail program, for instance, to fill the vast realms of empty space that appear to the right of most Web-browser pages). For our middle-aged eyes, menu text and toolbar icons were too tiny to see comfortably at Windows' standard settings.

Dell anticipates this complaint with a handy QuickSet software utility, which combines detailed adjustment of power-saving options with a couple of slightly larger settings for desktop icons and program title bars and menus, and you can use Windows' display settings to change fonts and toolbar icons from 96 to 120 dpi for bigger viewing. But we'd still be tempted to save $100 and settle for the 1,680 by 1,050 — or even save $150 with the 1,280 by 800 — version of Dell's 15.4-inch LCD.

For the sake, we suspect, of those co-op advertising dollars that Intel is throwing around like confetti, Dell offers the Inspiron 8600 as a Centrino system, combining the Pentium M and 855PM chipset with the chip giant's Pro/Wireless 2100 networking adapter. But only $29 more, as in our test unit, gets Dell's TrueMobile 1300 Mini PCI wireless adapter, which combines the Centrino-level 802.11b (11Mbps) with newer 802.11g (54Mbps) protocol. Another $30 buys a dual-band 802.11a/b/g solution, though the Inspiron doesn't have a convenient, physical on/off switch for the wireless radio for times you don't need its minor battery drain.

Apart from a few minor grumbles like that, we're impressed with the Inspiron 8600 — it's far from the only superpowered, bells-and-whistles, desktop-replacement portable on the market, but it actually performs better as a portable than almost all of the desktop-processor-based, 16- or 17-inch-screened, sumo-sized bruisers that populate the category. Dell, Intel, Nvidia, Hitachi, and Philips can all take a bow.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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