Dell's Less-Than-Inspiring Laptop


By Cliff Edwards

(Readers' Reviews

below)

Editor's Review

ENLARGED VIEW >

The Good

Eye-pleasing design turns heads

The Bad Included

software is skimpy

The Bottom Line

Affordable, but lacks much of the entertainment software consumers

love

First off, Dell's (DELL) revamped Inspiron 6000 notebook PCs are great-looking machines. Taking a page from Apple (AAPL), the Inspiron sports a metallic gray finish, with white accents that drew admiring glances when I took it on test runs at a couple of coffee shops.

But I was disappointed to find that the $1,200 configuration, a 6.6-pound test machine, suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. While designed for such multimedia chores as photo editing, music downloading, and TV watching, the Inspiron 6000 offered none of the software most commonly used to make such tasks enjoyable. The most glaring omissions: a TV tuner and Windows Media Center edition software from Microsoft (MSFT). And for word processing, Dell's productivity pack included only Corel's WordPerfect.

GRAPHIC DIFFERENCE. In terms of performance, the two configurations I reviewed told very different stories. Dell moved to the new design to coincide with the February launch of Intel's (INTC) updated Centrino chip package. Code-named Sonoma, the new chipset was designed specifically for entertainment on-the-go. Intel moved to the slightly higher speeds of the Pentium M and Celeron M processors and upgraded the front-side bus, an interface that helps speed the processor's access to memory.

It also added a relatively new technology called PCI Express to laptops. PCI Express helps boost performance by using two channels -- instead of one -- to transfer data between the processor and other PC components.

Sonoma also promises improved graphics and surround-sound audio. Therein lies the difference between the two configurations, the Inspiron 6000 and Inspiron 6000d. The former includes a lower-end chipset that handles graphics with the built-in Intel Graphics Media Accelerator that borrows up to 256 megabytes of main memory for video use. The latter employs a chipset that leaves room for adding a PCI Express-enabled graphics chip, in this case ATI's (ATI) Mobility Radeon X300.

WI-FI "CONKED OUT." The base configuration, the Inspiron 6000 with a 1.6 Pentium M processor, disappointed me a bit on all fronts. Dell includes its Media Experience software with all Inspirons, but even simple functions like watching a movie involved several clumsy steps that other laptops, including Dell's own, don't require. I put the processor through its paces by downloading TiVo-To-Go (TIVO) software and transferring video wirelessly and with cables -- but found the performance improvement negligible compared to an older Pentium M version in my Dell D600 Latitude notebook.

To test the graphics, I installed a couple of older video games that I expected to moderately tax the built-in graphics, but not overwhelm it the way Unreal Tournament or other newer games would. Even so, the machine slowed to a crawl when it tried to render images for Star Trek Armada, and the choppy sound made the game unplayable.

Inexplicably, the Wi-Fi connection (Intel's PRO Wireless chip that includes all the most popular flavors of 802.11a, b, and g) also conked out after about a week of use. I couldn't establish a connection on either of two home wireless routers, one from Linksys, the other from Belkin, and had the same problem when attempting to connect to a Linksys router at work.

ANNOYING ENERGY SAVER. After I spent more than an hour on the phone with Dell technical experts, the system still refused to connect or "talk" to other computers through a peer-to-peer network the tech folks suggested I establish to check whether the radio was working. (When I sent the unit back, a Dell spokesman said it connected just fine in a lab.)

The Inspiron 6000d proved more to my liking, although it, too, lacked a good complement of software. The addition of the ATI Mobility Radeon X300 chip greatly improved graphics, and the wireless, 802.11b, and 802.11g flavors worked just fine.

Like its cousin, the wide-screen 15.4-inch LCD screen looked great for playing games and watching movies. But one caveat: The energy-saving software that kicks in when you unplug from an electrical outlet is a bit annoying. The screen immediately darkens, making viewing more difficult. The roomy mid-level 60-GB hard drive seemed more than enough for the average user, and the 8 times-normal burning speed CD/DVD combo drive supports most of the formats for use in other players.

Anyone looking at the 6000 lineup should step up to the higher-performing 6000d. It's a good machine for occasional users, but power users and those looking for lots of entertainment might prefer Dell's XPS notebook lineup. Even if you don't, be prepared to shell out a few hundred dollars more for the extra software needed to make the Inspiron 6000 truly usable.

Editor's note: The power-consumption settings of both computers can be adjusted in a couple of steps through the display settings in the control panel.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau


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