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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dell Inspiron 9300


A lot of laptop gaming enthusiasts are familiar with the high performance machines from Alienware, Voodoo, and other 'boutique' laptop companies. Dell, in an attempt to enter the boutique laptop market, released their XPS Gen 2 laptop. This machine combines the powerful GeForce Go 6800 Ultra graphics card with the popular Pentium M CPU in a relatively lightweight 17" widescreen frame. The XPS is faster, lighter, and even cooler with a longer battery life than its Pentium 4 based competitors. The only catch here is that the starting price of the XPS Gen 2 is an astounding $2,749. For those who can't afford the XPS yet still desire similar performance, Dell also offers the Inspiron 9300. Using a similar chassis and offering 'lower performance' options, the Inspiron 9300 is an incredible value. The best part is that users still have the option to select many powerful components, including the TrueLife WUXGA 17" LCD and the powerful 256MB NVIDIA GeForce Go 6800 graphics card, which only lacks some clock speed from the Go 6800 Ultra available in the XPS Gen 2.

After upgrades, the Inspiron 9300 offers a lot of features for the money. The base model includes a Pentium M 730 (1.6 GHz), 256MB DDR2 533 RAM, 17' WXGA screen, 40GB hard drive, 64MB ATI MOBILITY RADEON X300 graphics, and CD-RW/DVD-ROM for $1499 before any discounts. However, after a few upgrades, the Inspiron 9300 really starts to shine. For a mere $150, you can exchange the low performance X300 graphics for the high-end NVIDIA Go 6800. For another $125, you can upgrade the midrange WXGA+ LCD to an amazing WUXGA TrueLife display. Combined with an integrated TV tuner upgrade for $160, the Dell Inspiron 9300 suddenly becomes a powerful and versatile desktop replacement laptop at an amazing price. Our particular configuration cost just over $2000 before any Dell discounts and you can see the full configuration on the next page. However, users on a budget should be aware that Dell frequently offers promotions that can truly make the Dell 9300 even more affordable.


Classified as a DTR laptop with a 17" widescreen and weighing in a bit over 8 lbs, the Dell 9300 is not intended to be carried around. Although it is lighter than most 17" laptops, the sheer size of its chassis renders transportation a hassle. The 9300 is far from petite, measuring 15.5-inches wide x 11.3-inches long and 1.6-inches thick. With the 6-cell battery in our machine, the weight came to about 7.8 lbs with the optical drive. As a side note, most laptop bags do not support 17" models, so be sure to check before purchasing a case. Some companies have special "XL" case models designed specifically for 17" laptops. Of course, those weigh more than their standard counterparts, and are often considerably more expensive.

Case and Design
The Dell 9300 laptop casing is constructed out of sturdy magnesium alloy and reinforced plastic. It has a matte finish, covered with a shiny silver paint. The hinges are made of the same material, which definitely makes it solid enough for long term use. When the laptop is closed, there is a slight gap between the lid and the body of the laptop.

The status lights next to the power button denote Num Lock, Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, Wi-Fi on/off, and Bluetooth on/off. The lights glow green when the corresponding function is on. Note that the base model does not include Bluetooth, which requires a $49 upgrade.

The multimedia function keys are built into the front side of the laptop, and are very convenient for watching movies or listening to music. They include volume control, play, pause, fast forward, reverse, and stop. As shown in the picture, the buttons glow light blue when depressed.

Play, Pause, Fast Forward, Reverse & Stop.

There are also status lights located on the hinge, which displays whether your laptop is on/off, hard drive activity, and if your laptop battery is currently being charged. These lights glow green when active.

This placement for this indicator can be seen even when the lid is closed.

The Dell 9300 has the standard laptop keyboard with no keys missing, except for the separate numeric pad. Instead, a "virtual" numeric pad can be accessed by pressing certain keys while holding down the Function key. Considering that this is a 17" laptop, having a numeric pad is very important, which is a major negative in its design. Of course, you can always just purchase a separate USB numeric pad to offset this inconvenience. The keys are a bit small for a 17" laptop, but depress a satisfying amount. They produce a clicking noise when depressed, which can become annoying. The Function key is between the Left Control and Windows key, which could take some getting used to.

There is plenty of space to rest your arms when typing. You will also find a lot of empty space surrounding the keyboard, which could have been used either for enlarging the laptop keys, or to integrate a numeric pad. The function keys are impressively plentiful: standby, hibernate, wireless/bluetooth enable, Dell QuickSet Battery Meter display, Task Manager window open, CD/DVD tray eject, increase/decrease screen brightness, power management mode activation, volume control, and speaker enable/disable.

The touchpad feels annoyingly coarse and is too small, especially given the size of the laptop. Even most 12" laptops have larger touchpads than the one on the 9300! This especially becomes a nuisance when doing photo editing and other related tasks. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the touchpad is amazingly unresponsive, which makes even simple mouse movements a chore. Thankfully, since the Dell 9300 is not an on-the-go laptop, you can just use a normal USB mouse most of the time instead of the touchpad.

There is also a horizontal and vertical touch scroll built in. Strangely, they do not function without being specifically enabled by the user.

Design Continued

Connectivity Options
As a 17" DTR laptop marketed directly towards the multimedia segment, the Dell Inspiron 9300 has an incredible array of connectivity options, including 6 USB 2.0 ports, DVI, S-Video, Firewire, and more. There are a few complaints, though. The Inspiron 9300 is missing a few legacy ports, such as the printer port and a serial port. This is acceptable, because they are called legacy ports for a reason, but it never hurts to have them available. People who still have older hardware need to keep this in mind. In addition, for a laptop of this size, I wish Dell added an additional FireWire port for a total of two. Another noticeable complaint is that there is no Compact Flash reader: the laptop only supports SD cards. Other than that, the Dell Inspiron 9300 has a good array of connectivity options with proper placement.

The left side of the laptop houses the CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, as well as 2 of the 6 total USB 2.0 ports and a ventilation opening. Many laptops have the CD drive on the right side, which could interfere with the mouse, so this is a terrific choice by Dell.

The right side of the laptop contains the PCMCIA card slot, SD slot, Firewire port, headphone jack, and microphone jack. It is disappointing to see a new Sonoma-based laptop without an Express Card slot. Express Cards will use the high bandwidth of the PCI Express bus and eventually replace PC Cards. In all reality, new notebook purchasers today should consider the PC Card a legacy connection and aim to have both of these slots on their machine.

On the front, you will find the stereo speakers and multimedia buttons.

The back of the Dell 9300 is heavily populated, containing 2 exhaust ports, S-Video, LAN, modem, 4 x USB 2.0 ports, VGA, DVI, and the power connector. DVI and S-Video are not typically offered in value laptops, so this again is a great choice by Dell.

Heat and Noise
Surprisingly, the Dell 9300 is a very quiet, especially for a desktop replacement laptop. During normal usage, such as web browsing or word processing, you can't hear the fans unless you put your ear right down by them. Even when playing the latest games, the Dell 9300 remained silent. In 2D mode browsing web pages, the laptop would be warm at most. However, when playing 3D games for long periods of time, the laptop would become fairly hot, requiring you to place it on a desk instead of your lap.

Upgrading and Expansion
Like most laptops, the Dell 9300 only offers a few user upgradeable components: the integrated wireless, RAM, and hard drive. These components are accessed by unscrewing panels on the back. Even though the graphics card is PCI-E, which is touted to be upgradeable, the Dell 9300 does not offer an easy way to do it! Unfortunately, the same also is true for the CPU. A nice feature is that both of the RAM slots are on the bottom of the machine. A lot of laptops today come with one slot under the keyboard, making RAM upgrades painstaking at times.


The Dell 9300 supports all Pentium M CPUs up to 2 GHz. Our Dell 9300 configuration uses the Pentium M 730 1.6 GHz ( Dothan) with 2MB L2 cache. Following the standard rule of thumb, the 1.6 GHz processor is roughly equal to a (1.6 x 1.6) 2.6 GHz Pentium 4, or an AMD 64 2700+ (1.6 GHz). Therefore, we can expect performance is about equal to a modern low end desktop machine. However, this is compensated by a longer battery life, due to the low power consumption (27W TDP) inherent in the Pentium M 'Dothan' processor.

This is a newer Sonoma-based Pentium M CPU, meaning it supports newer features like dual-channel DDR2 533 RAM. However, don't expect performance to increase by much, due to the lackluster latency timings of the DDR2 RAM with our model. Unfortunately, with the new features comes an increase in power consumption: the Sonoma Pentium M CPUs have a 27W TDP, up from 21W. Since it is a mobile CPU, the Pentium M has a special feature to further save power: Enhanced Intel SpeedStep. This technology clocks the CPU down to 800 MHz when idle, saving considerable battery life when performing mundane tasks like browsing the web or reading e-mail.

Since the Dell 9300 uses the latest Sonoma chipset, it can support dual channel DDR2 RAM. Even though it's running at 266 MHz (266MHz x 2 = 533MHz effective), with higher latencies comes less performance. In fact, DDR2 533 performance is still at or below that of high quality DDR 400. Fortunately, the RAM is upgradeable up to 2GB.

Dell offers its customers to select the powerful NVIDIA GeForce Go 6800 graphics card with the 9300 model. However, in an effort to minimize heat and power consumption, Dell underclocked (lowered) the speeds from the recommended 375 MHz core speeds to 290 MHz. The video RAM clock speed was also underclocked from 300 MHz to 295 MHz. Even with this seemingly drastic reduction in speed, we can still expect the Dell 9300 to dominate in all 3D areas. The Go 6800 GPU is a derivative of NVIDIA's desktop 6800 product, inheriting its 256bit memory bus, 12 pixel pipelines, and 5 vertex shaders. Unlike the desktop NVIDIA 6800 graphics card, it is made on a 110nm process instead of 130nm to lower heat and power consumption, and is (unfortunately) not unlockable to 16 pipes and 6 vertex shaders like some of the desktop cards. The NVIDIA Go 6800 also features battery saving technology that turns off parts of the GPU when they are not in use. In 2D mode, the graphics card lowers its own voltage and clock speeds to further save power.

NVIDIA's approach on its Go 6800 product is that it favors high core frequencies over pipeline count. The result is a GPU that excels mainly at lower resolutions (1280x1024 or below), with low AA and AF filtering. Therefore, the combination of this GPU with the ultra high UXGA resolution screen makes little sense. However, a 12 pipeline card is still the second most a laptop graphics card has at the moment: the ATI MOBILITY RADEON X800XT with 16 pipelines has just come out, available only in the super high end gaming machines. Games like Half Life 2 easily run on max graphics settings, with 4xAA and 8xAF, at a screen resolution of 1440x900. However, running at the native UXGA resolution in Half Life 2 resulted in a drastic reduction in FPS to around 20-40fps, making gameplay difficult. Doom 3 at High image quality and 1280x1024 resolution looked amazing and it produced bearable FPS, although it may still be a bit slow for the hardcore gamers. For most users, the NVIDIA Go 6800 will run most current games seamlessly, even at above average game settings.

Our Dell 9300 laptop uses the high resolution transflective (Dell calls this feature TrueLife) WUXGA screen. In both 2D and 3D mode, the picture is amazingly sharp and the color is vibrant, especially at its full resolution of 1920x1200! Screen quality is completely satisfactory no matter what the task. Brightness and contrast are excellent. The maximum brightness is too bright to be used indoors, and should be used outdoors for amazing results. Movies are reproduced in brilliant colors, and gaming is a delight with no image ghosting. Even text at the maximum resolution was easily readable, due to the sharpness of the display. Many people have complained about the quality of Dell's UXGA screens, such a sparkling effect, but we did not encounter this problem with our screen.

Both the viewing angle, brightness, and the response rate are excellent. There is a "sweet spot" in the viewing angle, but the LCD is very forgiving so the image looks relatively sharp and bright even from the side.

Features Continued

Aside from the standard integrated stereo speakers on the side of the keyboard, there is a subwoofer on the bottom of the laptop, which improves bass considerably. The result is a great stereo sound experience with above average bass. Still, nothing still beats a good pair of headphones. Although Sonoma platform supports Intel's High Definition Audio, the Dell Inspiron 9300 does not.

The Dell 9300 uses the standard Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG (802.11b/g) card, which should be suitable for most needs. The card can be turned off when not needed to save power by simply pressing a function button. Wireless speed and strength, like mody laptops with this card, was never an issue. Dell uses the standard Windows wireless connection software to manage connections, which works well overall.

Optical Drive
The Dell 9300 uses a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, suitable for watching movies and listening to music. Although there are no DVD burning capabilities in the standard model, the base model does offer CD-RW support. Although DVD playback speed is a bit lacking, the drive still performs adequately. Dell allows you to upgrade to a DVD +/- RW/R Combo drive if you are in need of DVD writing and faster DVD reading capabilities.

The disk drive speeds are as follows:

  • CD Read 24x
  • CD Write 24x
  • DVD Read 8

Hard Drive
Dell offers a limited range of hard drives in terms of performance. Although the customer can choose between hard drives with 40GB, 60GB, 80GB, and even 100GB capacities, there is little to no choice with the hard drive RPM. Dell doesn't even display the RPM, merely describing them based on their capacity. The sole exception is the 60GB 7200RPM model, which will improve load times considerably, but you can expect all other drives to be the slowest hard drives available: 4200RPM hard drives. Note: It appears that a number of 9300 owners have received 5400RPM drives in lieu of 4200RPM models. It appears that Dell substitutes what model is readily available in a given instance, but the actual spindle speed of the 40GB drive that is supposed to ship with the 9300 is 4200RPM. If you want to see real world numbers on the differences in drive performance, check out our RPM Guide.

Our model included a Toshiba 80GB with a slow 4200RPM. The noise from the hard drive was not noticeable unless I put my ear right next to the laptop. The area around the hard drive did not get noticeably hot.

Even though the Dell Inspiron 9300 utilizes the low power Pentium M CPU, battery life is still low due to the large LCD and the powerful graphics card. The supplied battery is a 53 WHr 4400 mAh standard 6 cell laptop battery, which is barely enough for a short movie, or for an hour or two of simple web browsing, word editing, and other simple tasks. However, it will only last an hour or less of intense gaming. Our tests showed that even when performing simple tasks such as word processing or web surfing, battery life will not go over a mere 2 hours. Obviously, the Dell Inspiron is meant to be constantly plugged in. If you need additional battery life, try our Advanced Battery Optimization Guide, or you can purchase a spare battery from Dell's website.


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