Buying a Laptop for School: OMG A DELL XPS M1330.

After high school, the trend, among my possé at least, seemed to be the receiving of laptop computers. Nowadays a laptop can be the single most effective purchase for a college-bound student, and is in fact becoming a requirement at an increasing number of institutions. A friend of mine who plans on going into engineering has some hefty minimum system specs to fill for his required laptop.

So naturally, I had to get myself one. And it had to be cool. As we’ll find out, however, that although I got some good use out of my XPS, it was a story with an unhappy ending. This notebook’s attractiveness is only skin deep, and with all the problems I had down the line – not worth the premium paid.

Although Southern Oregon University doesn’t require a laptop, I still felt that one was necessary. The first choice I had to make was whether or not I’d be using this as my main computer – to which the answer was no. I’ve got my home built desktop that is still chugging along very efficiently, even after a good year or two. I could continue doing the more iffy, underground, taxing stuff on my desktop equipped with good old XP. This laptop, therefore, would be used mostly for word processing, Internet-cruising and other casual tasks. Ergo, having Vista wouldn’t be that big of a drawback. I really viewed it as a hub with which to connect to the Internet comfortably. With the incredible and diverse number of Internet applications and services, this is really all you need for most tasks, and the inevitable installation of a still-young OS won’t interfere with this.

With the fundamentals out of the way, my next concern became the size and form factor of the laptop. Oddly enough, this became the most important consideration in purchasing my notebook. The polar opposite from choosing a desktop PC, which could be as big and ugly as it possibly wanted to be, my laptop had to be small and portable with a decent battery life. This was practically the whole point. Lugging around a 17″ notebook wouldn’t be practical or sensible for my purpose.

Apparently, what I was looking for was an “ultraportable”. You’d think an ultraportable would be the size of a credit card, but I think it just means that you can use it in a tight space without killing anyone or breaking the straps off of your backpack. They say that if you go smaller than 15″ (We’re talking screen size here), things can get claustrophobic. I didn’t think I’d mind smaller n’ that. After all, my dad does a lot of his web-dealings on his eePC’s 7-inch screen. That’s about the size of an apple fritter. I looked at my choices – 13.3 inches is huge compared to 7. The Dell XPS M1330 seemed to fit the bill. It looks sexy too. As we’ll find out later on, however, looks can be deceiving.

Dell XPS M1330 vs Asus eePC

The elusive sticker-clad Dell XPS M1330 asserts its dominance over an Asus eePC with a playful nip in it’s natural habitat.

It’s generally agreed that Dell’s XPS line runs a bit pricey – this is not the most economic of notebooks. I did not tell my parents this prior to the purchasing of said computer.

However, the M1330 is undoubtedly one of the premium players in the high end ultraportable market, with superb performance and cutting-edge options for customization.

Here are the specs ~ this configuration dugg deep at about $1600.

  • Core 2 Duo T7250 @ 2GHz 800MHz FSB 2ML2Cache The lowest tier CPU choice, but with a off-board video card I couldn’t think of any situations that would require raw Pi computing power.
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM With Vista, 4 Gigs of RAM just isn’t what it used to be, but this is a solid number.
  • 13.3″ Wide WXGA LED Backlit Screen (w/0.3 MP VGA webcam+mic) The LED screen was a big upgrade. Dell claims it’s lighter, brighter, thinner, and uses less battery than a traditional LCD display. However, a thinner screen dissalows a higher quality webcam such as the 2.0 megapixel alternative with the LCD. But 2 MP for a webcam is overkill in the first place.
  • 128MB GeForce 8400M GS It’s not common to see a dedicated GPU in a laptop. This will eat through a battery, but it has good power saving features when not in use. Having this card installed means Dell will disable the onboard graphics capabilities of your motherboard.
  • 320GB 5400RPM HDD I could have paid $500 extra and gotten a solid state drive that was 10 times smaller. But I figured… nah. Even though for laptopping purposes I feel 30 gigs of storage space would be enough, solid state SSD technology is currently too pricey for a student, let alone 99% of the earth’s population.
  • 8X DVD+/-RW With it’s slim form factor, the M1330 uses a slot loader drive. This means you miss out on some perks a lot of bigger laptops’ drives come with standard, like Lightscribe or dual-layer burning. No biggie.
  • Vista Home Premium Want to pick your nose while using Vista? Be prepared to click through dozens of confirmation boxes. Premium is comparable to the half way point between XP Home and XP Pro. It’s a “higher-end” consumer option. A good way to go, with all the perks and support for media center and tablet PCs.
  • Wireless N Mini Card Wireless G is so 7 months ago. Apparently, N is the newest, fastest, and most likely to get you laid. It’s compatible with older signals, like our D-Link Wireless-G router.
  • 9-Cell Li-Ion Battery This upgrade from the default increases the already impressive battery life, but adds weight and a little raised lip to the form factor of the notebook. It also raises it up in a comfortable position and allows for better airflow underneath. The battery itself includes a built in pushbutton life indicator.
  • Bluetooth The ability to transfer low quality samples of hip-hop songs to your Razr. All the cool kids are doing it.

The package included a branded sleeve for the notebook – thanks for telling me Dell, I just bought a $25 Belkin one in the same order. D’Oh!
A nifty little IR remote control that fits in the expansion card slot (unfortunately doesn’t work with most web-based apps).
A non-abrasive cleaning cloth.
A very nice box, with a cool design on it, and… are you ready for this? A faux-leather binder… for the instruction manual. Yes, the instruction manual for my laptop is dressed nicer than Bill Gates giving a keynote.
I’ve heard rumors of the package including earbuds, but none here.

Of course, I know all you really want to hear about is the instruction manual, but we’ve got to diverge shortly from that path and take a look at the notebook itself.

Dell XPS M1330

Layout gripes are exclusively limited to the small touchpad (2.75″) and it’s raised corners that feel like they’re slicing your finger open when running down the edge in order to scroll. The biometric finger print reader is a great way to log in, as well as enter passwords in most text fields. You can scan in up to 21 fingers using the included software. This means that when you want to log on while eating Cheetos, you can look through all ten of your fingers, find the one without food on it, and swipe clean!

Dell XPS M1330

Take note, Dell offers this notebook in conjunction with PRODUCT(RED). I went for the tuxedo black finish, which looks nice and modest. But the red is really where it’s at. This is a modest enough notebook that a flashy color doesn’t put it over the top, it just makes it uber stylish. On top of that, you will have contributed to support programs in Africa. The initial customization options didn’t give me this choice, although I found out later that I could have had the same setup through (RED).

After receiving the computer and happily unpacking it in the living room, the first boot-up ended in my gaze falling upon a desktop plagued with what the world calls “bloatware” and “craplets”. This shouldn’t come as a shock, it’s inevitable. Dell, and all the other computer manufacturers get paid to install trial software, etc. onto your machine. You can read into the whole “Fresh Start” fiasco on engadget. Sony has since offered the service for free. Dell, unfortunately, had no such option.

When you turn on a computer for the first time, the desktop should look like this.

Dell XPS M1330 Desktop

But nooo. Instead, this is what my desktop looked like after a 4-day intensive junkware detox program. I’m quite proud of it.

Time should always be taken to clean up your system prior to its use. That being said, extremists prefer to reformat the entire hard drive and reinstall the operating system fresh. This isn’t a bad idea, as long as you have the ability to deal with the problems that may arise.

Performance is great. Even running Vista “Aero” (which can be turned off under the personalization menu), everything feels streamlined. Boot up is fast and awaking from sleep takes about 4 seconds. Firefox 3 couldn’t have a better home. It is, however, noticeably hot after extended use. Pants most definitely required. The heat radiates up through the area around the touch pad.

So far my gaming has been limited to Redlynx Trials 2 SE, which runs beautifully on low graphics, but has frame rate issues when the graphics are cranked up. Then again, this game may not be optimized very well. I have a feeling Call of Duty 4 would run like a charm. Minesweeper on Vista is also a quaint upgrade. Yeah, I said quaint.

I wouldn’t call this laptop “ultraportable”, especially up against a netbook. But considering the fact that this truly is a full featured computer, it is most definitely veryportable. Dell marketers just must have thought “ultra” sounded cooler I take it everywhere and have yet to run into a situation where I would want more battery life. The 9-Cell upgrade may not have been necessary. It seems as though nothing comes second rate, save for the speakers, which have issues at midrange volumes and simply won’t put out what I would call “loud”. Keeping it low or using headphones, however, nullifies this problem. I’m not a fan of touch sensitive buttons and their lack of tactile feedback, which the M1330 features for the media and volume controls. They are, however, pretty. And more fun to play with than the dating simulations in GTA IV.

Update:

So Windows 7 finally comes out and I install it. Most things work with Vista drivers without a hitch, but some features, notably the bluetooth, are no longer functioning. Apparently, this computer is not fully “Windows 7 compatible” wtf, Dell? This isn’t 1970, and my hardware shouldn’t be tied to a specific OS. Dell offers no solution to getting my bluetooth hardware working again after installing Windows 7. Meh.

Update: April, 2010

After a year and a half of heavy use, and plenty of Netflix streaming, I suffer a fatal video crash. Screen’s dead. Apparently, the Nvidia GPU in these have been suffering frequent, fatal crashes. Although I’m not happy  about this, I was lucky enough to still be under warranty and I am happy with Dell’s prompt service. Within a few days a dude shows up at my house and replaces the motherboard, good as new.

Update: June, 2011

After trying to install the Adobe Suite, the notebook freezes and will not reboot. Attempting to start windows winds up an endless cycle of the boot sequence. Running Dell’s diagnostic utility reveals Error Code 0142 – Drive Self Test Failed. The hard drive is toast! Oh my. I’ll replace it with a $50 SATA drive just to get it working again, and maybe sell it off.

In retrospect, I can say that although I like the fit and finish of this design, both the hardware, software, and support coming from Dell is lacking. Considering the price paid, there are simply too many alternatives out there offering fewer gripes and less problems to recommend this line. Better luck next time!

0 thoughts on “Buying a Laptop for School: OMG A DELL XPS M1330.

  1. An XPS? You must have AWESOME parental humans!

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