Dude! I got a Dell!

Filed: Sun, Mar 30 2008 under Technology|| Tags: dell review laptop notebook 1530m XPS


Image Copyright © Dell
…a Dell m1530 XPS laptop to be exact. What follows is my review of the system and really it’s just an overview of the nits and annoyances with the system. Truly, it’s safe to assume that if it’s not mentioned in the review then it’s perfect. It’s also safe to assume that none of the “issues” in this review are deal breakers. At the risk of giving away the ending, I’ll give away the ending: I love this system, I would buy it again and I would recommend it. If you’re considering buying this laptop then hopefully this review will clue you into a few of the pitfalls.

The perfect laptop hasn’t been invented yet, but the XPS M1530 series comes awfully close.

Price

The Dell XPS m1530 is the 15” version of the highly successful 13” 1330m laptops. The performance and price of these machines falls between the lower-end Inspiron series and the higher end gaming laptops. The result is a near-perfect balance of price and performance that will still let you play all of today’s games (even if you won’t be able to brag about your dual monitor frame-rates) and still have enough money left over to actually buy some software.

The system I purchased topped out at $2700.00 thanks mostly to my decision to invest in the blu-ray drive. But a very bare-bones system can be configured for $999.00.

Keyboard

While the 1330 laptops are easy to transport but cramped when you reach your destination the 1530’s are the opposite. They’re heavier to transport and bulkier but roomier and more comfortable once you reach your destination and start working. This is a personal preference but anything larger would seem far too unwieldy, at least to me. The nice thing about the 15” model is that they sport a full-sized, very comfortable keyboard that’s surprisingly fun to use. The keys are quick and responsive, though since it’s not a full 101-key, lacking a number-pad and the edit/cursor key rows; it will take some time to learn how to use the edit and navigation keys by touch.

Fingerprint Reader

There’s also a fingerprint reader below the keyboard. Sometimes it takes a few tries to recognize you but usually it’s pretty good at what it does. Once your swipe has been accepted the fingerprint reader will log you into windows. It will even log you into your account if the machine was already logged in as someone else. It can even remember your browser accounts and passwords. I’m so used to swiping my finger now that I don’t even notice username/password authentication requests anymore -- the authentication page appears, I waggle my finger and like something out of a Harry Potter movie something magical happens and I’m suddenly where I want to be. And for those who don’t like the reader as a reader you can turn it into a mouse scroll wheel if you want.

Touchpad

Most of the complaints about the system on Dell’s review threads have centered around the touchpad and its tendency to stop working, work sluggishly, randomly start dragging or move actions, or seemingly become possessed and just start moving the mouse of its own accord. While these annoyances are always brief lasting no more than 1-2 seconds they are rather infuriating especially in the middle of a game which doesn’t require a mouse or trackball to play well (desktop tower-defense cough).

The good news is that at the end of March, Dell released a bios upgrade (flagged urgent) which addressed many of the issues with the touchpad and I’m happy to say that I am indeed finding it much tamer since the upgrade.

Screen

The screen is bright and beautiful. It has a glossy finish so if you're in sunlight or bright lights there can be a distracting glare but even without the glossy finish it would be hard to work on ANY screen in bright lights.

You won’t regret spending the extra cash to upgrade to the higher resolution, though – regrettably – the highest resolution the 1530 supports is still less than the 1900ish pixels of 1080p, so if you opt for the blu-ray you’re going to have some black bars on the top and bottom of the screen as it down-converts a little. However, if you can afford a blu-ray player you can most certainly afford a 1080p monitor and the 1530 does indeed have an HDMI port. All of which leads to the rather giddy thought of jacking into your hotel’s HDTV and relaxing to a nice HD movie.

Left-side Ports

Aside from a HDMI port, you’ll find on the left side of the machine, a power jack, 2 usb-2.0 slots, a D-SUB (VGA) connector, a HDMI port, a 100mbps Ethernet jack, and a fire-wire port. For some reason the D-SUB (VGA) connector seems to draw a lot of flak from the reviewers. The criticism seems to be that in this day and age VGA is an anachronism and the port would be better served by a DVI interface. However HDMI *IS* DVI or close enough for there to be a plethora of very cheap converter cables. After having to do a few presentations on a projector with only an analog D-SUB connector, I was grateful for Dell’s port selection.

The firewire-port is IEEE-1394a which transfers at ~400 megabits per second, 1394b (which apple calls firewire-800) can do ~800 megabits per second. So you’re not getting the bleeding edge here. Additionally, most people will want to disable this port in bios as firewire has a rather severe security hole. While the firewire downgrade might be forgivable, not having a gigabit Ethernet jack is not. The internal Ethernet jack tops out at 100megabits per second which means that in some cases you may transfer files quicker over wi-fi N than a shielded wire.

Right-side Ports

The two USB ports are painfully close to the power connector, to the extent that you will have great difficulty connecting most USB devices while you are charging your machine. Fortunately there’s a third USB port on the right-hand side of the machine which also sports a cable-lock jack (for tethering your laptop), a super-video (or s-video) out port, a slot-loaded dvd or blu-ray, pc-card port, and something Dell cryptically calls a “wi-fi catcher”.

I really can’t imagine anyone ever wanting or needing the s-video port but if you need it, it’s there. I would have much rather seen the space used for speaker and microphone jacks (more on those in a moment). I purchased my machine shortly after Warner went blu-ray and even a dunce like me could see who was going to win the format war. In an attempt to future-proof my machine as much as possible I closed my eyes and grudgingly shelled out the extra 500.00 for the blu-ray option. So far I have not regretted that decision.

Slot Load Drive

The Dell plays blu-ray flawlessly both to the laptop screen and to any HDTV I want to connect to it. It’s also a burner, able to burn CD, DVD, and yes, blu-ray disks although at ~$10.00 a disk it will be a while before I’m merrily burning 25gig platters

Some of the reviewers on Dells site have complained about the drive being noisy. Mostly I chalk this up to people being prompted for a Con: and not being able to think of anything else. However it is true that a blu-ray movie when it’s first inserted and going through it’s DRM-Gymnastics the drive can be quite noisy. Once everything enters into normal operations the drive is very discrete and yes slot-load is very cool.

As for overall noise concerns, the CD is the loudest component and even at its loudest it's no louder than someone talking softly nearby. When the fan is running there's a quiet hum and other than that the system is ghostly silent.

Remote Control

The PC-Card slot was a pleasant surprise. The Dell shipped with a plastic blank but inside the XPS care package (a little box of goodies that comes with the Dell) was an honest-to-goodness remote control, well two of them to be exact. I tucked the spare safely away in my desk and the other fit nice and snug in the pc-card slot. As long as you don’t need the card-slot for anything like a sound card or a cell-phone modem you’ll be able to always have a remote that controls not only your media player but power-point.

Below the PC-Card slot is what Dell calls a “Wi-Fi Catcher”. The documentation on this thing is pretty sparse but basically it's an external switch which can power down your bluetooth, wifi, and mobile broadband radios which is pretty nice when you're on an airplane. There's also a little button that will flash if you're in range of wifi so you can decide if it's worth powering up your laptop or not. So I guess we can chalk this down to “mostly harmless”.

…If only the jacks on the front of the laptop could be labeled thus.

Sound and Fury

Before I discuss the jacks on the front let me tell you about the speakers in the XPS. Now I didn’t buy a laptop to be a boom-box but the XPS will drive an audiophile insane. They have an almost unimaginable ability to render the most heavenly and blessed strands of Mozart only marginally better than a terrified, howling cat sliding down a chalkboard. The speakers are also the only physical defect in the machine as the left speaker stopped working a few weeks after I got it. I actually consider this a blessing and have not bothered to invoke my two year, in-home warranty service agreement.

Dell seems to have realized this and in the XPS care package they do provide a very nice set of Creative noise isolating earbuds which I now use in place of my ipod set. One can almost imagine the conversations with Dell…

Customer: I just bought a XPS laptop and the speakers suck!

Dell: Yes but we provided you with a very nice set of earphones!

Customer: Well, yea.

Dell: Well there you go Sir! Have a nice day!

So now that we’ve established that the Dell’s internal speakers should never be used by mortal men we come to the ports on the front of the machine which are stereo rear speaker jack, stereo front speaker jack, and a microphone jack. Now these jacks do exactly what they’re supposed to do and if you plug in powered speakers then you’ll have a beautiful sound-system. If you plug in a headset or earphones you will still have a beautiful sound system. And if you’re working at a desk none of this will bother you.

But when you have the sheer, unmitigated gall to use the laptop IN YOUR BLOODY LAP, those speaker plugs and microphone plug becomes tiny spears impaling your stomach, which admittedly is probably too large for its own good but that’s beside the point, or is it the target of the point? Ah well. The point is that if you use these jacks while the laptop is in your lap you will be uncomfortable and you will, most likely, end up breaking the plugs.

The good, if expensive news, is that you can get your XPS outfitted with Bluetooth and not just any Bluetooth but the latest and greatest version of it, the version which supports cordless stereo headsets. I got a nice $90.00 pair from Sony and have never looked back. The wireless computer and wireless headset goes together like Peas and Carrots as Mr. Gump would say. Even if the audio jacks were situated sanely I’m sure I would have gravitated to the Bluetooth solution anyway.

Which takes us on another tangent. Dell’s sound options are the default audio (which is nice and has drivers for all the nice Dolby and HD audio drivers you’ll need for your blu-ray stuff), $25.00 for some EAX software from Creative, or something like $75.00 for their plug-in hardware sound pc-card. If you opt for the pc-card your jacks will be on the right-side of the machine and should be lap-safe. I’m not sure exactly what other benefits the hardware sound-card might offer but moving the audio ports is probably worth the cost if you’re determined to stay wired.

The Creative Sound Software offers some audio effects like “make this screeching cat sliding down a chalkboard sound as if it’s doing it in an opera house, or a theater, or a jazz club”. It also provides some 3-d sound-positioning for games. Now to be perfectly honest, I always considered Creative’s software to be nothing more than huge-inefficient bloat-crapware that I always tried to pare down to an absolute minimum so as not to infringe on my FPS when I sat down to game for a bit. So spending the money for the EAX software was exactly like getting all the bloat-crapware without the cool hardware which otherwise redeemed the company.

Happily, once I pruned down all the unnecessary and unwanted stuff like players and sound editors I had my EAX and my system and when I was using the audio-jacks it was even worth the $25.00. Sadly though, the EAX doesn’t work with the Bluetooth so now that I’m exclusively using the headset I consider the software a waste of money. But I’ll have this machine a long time and so things may change yet again.

Flash Card Reader Formats

Returning to the ports on the front of the machine, you’ll also find a x-in-one card reader. For some reason computer manufacturers like to brag that their computer has an x-in-one card reader and then don’t bother to actually mention which cards they support. The formats supported by this reader are :

  • Secure Digital (SD)
  • Secure Digital Input/Output (SDIO)
  • MultiMedia Card (MMC)
  • Memory Stick
  • Memory Stick Pro
  • xD-Picture Card
  • Hi Speed-SD
  • Hi Density-SD

Mostly what this means is that you won’t be able to use your mini or micro sd card in your Dell without a converter jacket, however it does mean that you’re able to use both high-capacity SD cards and high-speed SD cards. It also means that you can buy a fast SD card and use it as a readyboost device. While this is something I wish Dell had actually built into the laptop (I mean with flash-prices in freefall how hard is it to include a built-in readyboost module?), having the readyboost on a sd card instead of a usb key is nice.

Finally there is a disk and power-indicator light on the front. Unfortunately you will probably never see the disk-indicator light because it is on the front of the machine instead of above the keyboard.

Heat issues

There are no ports on the back of the machine, just the fan exhaust which is probably the nicest placement I’ve ever seen on a laptop. No matter where you use this machine the hot air is (mostly) being moved away from you and not all over you.

The rear is also where the battery pack resides. The XPS has two trim factors depending on which battery you select (the 6 cell or the 9 cell). The 6 cell sits flush with the machine so the Dell will sit flat on a flat surface. The 9 cell protrudes down about a quarter of an inch and gives the machine a slight tilt. I recommend that you buy BOTH batteries a 9 cell and a 6 cell. This will give you a nice tilt when you’re working at the desk and extra battery life when you need it. The 6 cell will sit comfortably in your lap and provide backup power when you’ve exhausted your 9. You can always buy another battery after you purchase your Dell, but it’s cheaper to buy the extra battery when you make your purchase.

While power-demands can vary widely my 9 cell has around three and a half hours of life doing email, connecting to the wireless network, surfing and word-processing. I have successfully used the 9 cell to watch two ninety minute movies (with about 15% left on the battery). Blu-ray movies consume more resources and a two hour movie is about the edge of what the battery can provide although different Blu-Ray movies have different demands. I should note that I have fairly aggressive battery policies which, among other things, scales back the speed of my CPU amongst other things when I go off the grid. So your mileage will definitely vary.

All of this power builds up a lot of heat and that heat has to go somewhere right? Well as mentioned above, most of the heat is harmlessly vented out the rear of the machine. However if you’re playing a game and the machine starts working the CPU AND the graphics chip then you’ll notice the left side ports start to bleed very hot air to the point where it does become uncomfortable to play a game with the machine in your lap. This isn’t really a huge problem since most gamers will opt to have the machine plugged into their big-screen and be at a desk where they have a mouse and a gaming keyboard.

The disk is another story. It sits right under where your left palm sits on the keyboard. Now it’s a simple matter of physics that if you take something and spin it at 7800rpm it’s going to build up some heat and when the machine is using the disk for an extended period of time the left side can get hot even to the point of being uncomfortable. So here’s a choice you must make. If you can live with slower boot times, application loading and overall system performance then get the 5400 rpm drive if they’re still available. If you’re loaded and can live with lower storage space then go for a solid-state drive. In the future we’ll all be cool (if only because we use solid-state drives with no moving parts) but for the present there’s a big tradeoff between comfort, performance and capacity.

The heat from the hard drive isn’t a deal breaker and it doesn’t make me regret my decision to buy this laptop but it definitely detracts from the overall quality of the ownership experience.

Graphics

In the perks department, the NVidia 8600m card has handled everything I’ve thrown at it from Orange Box to Crysis to Wow and all with 30fps or better (mostly better, Crysis tended to drag down the average). Every game has been eminently playable. There’s also a built in webcam and microphone.

Media Player, DVDs & Blu-Ray

Dell ships its XPS computers with something they call “media direct”. While it works, and I use it (mostly because I have to if I want to use blu-ray) it works quite outside the framework of codecs which would allow you to use the media player of your choice. So you can’t use Windows Media Player or Media Center or Media Player Classic or WinAmp or anything else to play your dvd or blu-ray movies, you must use Dell’s software. And the cost of this software is a partition on your machine just for media direct.

Yes, media center has its own 2gig disk partition. I think some of that is some DRM voodoo required by the paranoid blu-ray people but some of it is because there’s actually a button to quick-start into media direct from a power-up. So the Dell has two power buttons, one that will boot you into your OS and one that will boot you into media direct. However if you use bit-locker (and I do), if you try to boot into media direct it will tell you it can’t work if you’re using bit-locker then you will spend the next two hours trying to figure out how to boot into your regular OS again (I’m still not exactly sure how I do it) all I know is that my official name for the media direct button is “the ‘DOH’ button”.

Like I said, media direct works and it works well but if you’re planning on using media center or another home video solution then you’ll need to be investing in some additional dvd/blu-ray software solutions.

Intangibles

Beyond the pure joy and functionality of the machine there are also the social aspects. Strangers always seem to be casting furtive glances or actually coming over to ask about it. Even the apple guys weren’t quite as smug once I’d showed it off a bit. It’s just a beautiful machine with great lines, a great profile, great performance, capability and functionality. In short it does everything you ask of it, uncomplainingly, with power to spare, and it looks good doing it. You can’t really ask for more than that (save maybe a lower price, but you do indeed get what you pay for).

Hindsight

So knowing what I know now there are a few things I would have done differently. First I would have selected the 9 and 6 cell battery option at purchase instead of just the 9 cell. It’s MUCH cheaper to buy the extra battery during the initial purchase and having the extra power and the two trim-profiles is an important quality of ownership issue.

Likewise it’s much cheaper to buy an additional AC adapter. Having one at work and home means there’s one less thing to carry and it’s great (and cheap) insurance if something goes wrong. It’s not so cheap when you buy it after you purchase your laptop.

I regret passing up the internal cell-phone cards. You can purchase them from Dell afterwards without a markup but as much as I find myself using my laptop and finding myself in places without net access I’m beginning to see the (very tiny) price increase over my (mostly unreliable) cable service to be a worthwhile investment. If you’re not comfortable ripping apart your machine to install an internal card consider the cellular internet cards carefully, they may actually be worth it.

Knowing what I know now I would have just gone with the default sound system (no software EAX and no hardware PC card).

The $20.00 I spent for the Bluetooth capability was the best $20.00 I ever spent. It singlehandedly made the audio on my system a worthwhile and enjoyable system.

I’m not missing the wireless USB as I don’t find it particularly onerous to set the laptop on the desk and then plug in a single USB cable which leads to my USB hub with mouse/keyboard and an external hard drive.

I opted for the 2nd highest performance processor (2.4ghz and the highest was 2.6ghz). I am not regretting that. The price difference for the last 200mhz just wasn’t worth it.

I bought a 7200rpm hard drive with 200gigs which is the fastest and most capacity I could get and although the heat sometimes makes me question that decision I have not yet come to regret it. As solid-state drives continue to fall in price I will most definitely be looking to upgrade this in the future.

Dell has heard the cries of pain from their customers and lowered the price for memory. Vista is a memory hog and will only run decently if it has lots of ram to wallow in so absolutely do not skimp here. Get at least 3 gigs and even that last jump to 4 will probably be worth it near the end of the laptop’s lifetime. I absolutely do not regret loading my system up with 4 gigs (even though neither xp nor vista 32 bit will use more than 3.5gig).

Vista Ready-Boost and the 1530

There's a lot of conflicting information out there about the benefits of using vista's ready-boost feature. However it is generally accepted that ready-boost will use a flash-device to store a cache file to speed up loading of applications and disk-writes. The problem is that flash speed varies WIDELY from the painfully slow to the pleasingly fast. If you buy a $5.00 stick of memory you're going to be the ones blogging about how ready-boost doesn't help your system. If you take the time and care to buy a stick of fast memory then you will notice a SLIGHT to MODERATE boost to your vista system performance. And if you're spending this much money on a fast XSP machine then you can afford the $30.00 to eek that last bit of speed out of your system.

Initially, since I use vista’s bitlocker drive encryption and I need to have a USB drive with my encryption key installed to boot up my computer I considered using a USB key for the ready-boost drive. However ready-boost isn’t just for starting up the computer, if I wanted to benefit from the cache I’d have to leave the key installed while I used the computer. Finally, I opted to use the SD card slot because the memory tends to sit fairly flush with the computer. That is, I don’t have anything noticeably protruding from the system. Occasionally, when working with the laptop in my lap, the SD card will pop free but in normal use it’s never in danger of becoming disconnected.

After studying the issue as best I could, I finally settled on a San Disk Extreme III 2g flash module. Since I had 4gigs of regular memory, Microsoft actually recommended 4gigs of flash memory for readyboost. However there simply weren’t any fast flash cards greater than 2g. There were flash cards with 4g, 8g even 16g available but they were all MUCH, MUCH slower than the San Disk. So even though the memory size isn’t optimal, I did go for the speed and I’ve been pretty satisfied with that decision. The system IS noticeably snappier when ready-disk is active.

The reason the XPS can use flash cards as ready-boost is that it sits on the firewire port. This allows for fast transfer speeds, fast enough for ready-boost when a lot of flash-card readers aren’t allowed. The downside however is that if you disable firewire to work around the fire-wire security hole you also disable your card readers.

Ubuntu And The XPS M1530

As a final perk, Ubuntu’s partnership with Dell has paid off in spades. If you want a great Linux laptop then this machine will work FLAWLESSLY with Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) which is in beta release. By that I mean it will find your graphics card and has a driver for it, it will find your wireless network and has drivers for it. Ubuntu also has no trouble using the touchpad. Unfortunately I haven't had the chance to see if media-direct will still work at least in boot-up mode. The current non-beta relase (7.10) has trouble with the intel wireless card.

Conclusion

To conclude: I absolutely, positively, wholeheartedly, without reservations would buy this system again and offer it my strongest recommendation. No system is perfect (as I’ve illustrated above), but the Dell comes very, very close. And as I close this review I’ll leave you with the vista experience scores for my system.

Vista Experience Score for the m1530

Base Score: 4.8

Processor: Calculations per second 5.3
Memory: Operations per second 4.8
Graphics: Desktop performance 5.9
Gaming: 3d graphics performance 5.5
Disk: Disk Transfer Rate 5.2

Additional Video Reviews

Some of the better print reviews:

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