Budget notebooks have never been better! Low-end notebooks were always priced at $800 or more, and never really packed the "oomph" of higher-spec expensive notebooks. This may have changed. The Dell Inspiron 1300 starts at $599, and the model we reviewed is just $800 (Although you can get one for less with upgrades thanks to Dell's generous coupon offers) and can handle most if not all day-to-day tasks.
So what's inside it?
The 1300 is a customizable notebook that's built to order, so the price and features will depend on what you pick when you buy. The mode we used for this review has an Intel Celeron M360 processor running at 1.5GHz, a 60GB hard disk at 5400RPM, 512mb of RAM, a nice 15.4" Widescreen display, and to top it all off, 802.11a/b/g WiFi.
Design and Ergonomics
I asked some of my friends what they think of the 1300, and the verdict was that this notebook is "ugly". You can make up your own mind from the pictures. Personally, I disagree. The silver accent around the keyboard contrasts greatly with the black plastic casing, and although I would have preferred a metal case, it does the job.
If you pick up the notebook and wave it around (I don't recommend it) you will find that the screen hinge does not wobble or bend, and the display stays firmly where it should - open. This is great for such an inexpensive notebook, when I remember an old Dell Latitude l400 (a much higher priced notebook) would fold flat if you even moved it on your lap. The notebook is 14" x 10.5" x 1.41" in size and weighs 6.7 pounds. Now I wont pretend that this is a subnotebook. In fact, this is more of a mid-sized model that's much more portable than a desktop replacement. The DVD+RW drive is on the right of the notebook, towards the front. The left side houses the three USB 2.0 ports, a VGA port, microphone and headphone jacks (3.5mm), ExpressCard (supporting 34mm and 54mm cards) slot, RJ-45 Ethernet jack, and a modem jack. The back of the notebook is empty apart from the power socket, and the front of the machine houses the two speakers and four LEDs.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard is simply a pleasure to use. The keys have a really nice feel to them, and are big with generous spacing. Pressing the function key will enable you to access the numpad (1 is j, 4 is U, and etc.), and the hardware functions like volume, standby, etc. The delete key takes a little bit of getting used to, but otherwise, you wont need any adjustment from desktop keyboards.
The Touchpad is the normal Synaptics pad found on most Dells. It's speedy and responsive, and you can customize the way the cursor moves to suit your needs. But in the end, it's just the same touchpad as most other notebooks.
Horsepower and Performance
As mentioned, the Inspiron 1300 is a customizable notebook, with processors ranging from a 1.4GHz Celeron M to the 1.73GHz Pentium M, all with a 400MHz front side bus. Mine came with a 1.5GHz Celeron M360 processor, 512mb of RAM in a 2x 256mb configuration, so if you want to upgrade you'll have to throw one away(1gb RAM maximum), a reasonably fast 60 gig 5400 rpm hard disk, and WiFi 802.11a/b/g. I wont deny that I was expecting to be disappointed by this notebook. Although I cant really class myself as a gamer, I do play on some intensive games (Rome: Total War and Sniper Elite to name a few) and was expecting them not to run well. Well, I now take it all back. I have migrated from a PC desktop running a 2.4GHz Celeron and 512mb of RAM with no dedicated graphics and an XGA screen, and I'm getting better frame rates on the notebook! Okay, Sniper Elite just isn't the same with a touch pad, but hey, it works! You wouldn't want to run serious CAD apps or Half Life 2, however. The built-in DVD+-RW is a bonus for mobile DVD burning, and a steal for $780! I'm not really strongly opinionated about the Express Card slot. I think it's good that Dell is thinking forwardly, and since WiFi is built in, I cant really think of a use for a PCMCIA slot. Unless you really want to use an EVDO card, then this isn't really a drawback. You decide whether this is a benefit or drawback.
Display, Graphics, and Multimedia
The Inspiron 1300 can house either a 14" XGA screen or a 15.4" WXGA (800 x 1280) screen. I went for the 15.4" option. Although not as bright or shiny as some other notebooks on the market, it does the job and is certainly an improvement over an XGA monitor. The backlight is sufficient for everyday use. If you're in a dark room, then it can actually be painful to set it to full brightness, but about 75% should be good enough. This screen is not driven by a dedicated graphics card, but, as mentioned, it is good enough for reasonably demanding games. The Inspiron 1300 has Intel's integrated Media Accelerator 900 Graphics and you can set up to 128mb of RAM as video RAM.
The audio package provided is reasonable. While you're not getting an amazing, mind-blowing audio experience, your not disappointed either. The two speakers on the front are adequate, but if you want to listen to some serious music, plug in some headphones or better speakers. The lack of a microphone is rather annoying, especially when using Skype.
DVDs play well on this laptop, although the mentioned speakers can be pretty dismal sometimes. Battery life can be an issue if you want to watch a two and a half hour film at full screen brightness with WiFi turned on, but because 50% brightness is acceptable and the lack of need for WiFi when watching films, most will find it usable.
Ports, Expandability and WiFi
The 1300 has an array of ports that should suit most users. A trio of USB 2.0 slots sit on the left side (although a little bit cramped) along with the VGA out, RJ-45 Ethernet jack and the modem. The ExpressCard slot is on this side as well. The power socket is on the back below the hinge. I can’t think of any other ports you would need on a notebook, unless you need PCMCIA.
The left side ports
You can expand via the ExpressCard slot on the left of the notebook. At time of writing, there are almost no cards and peripherals on the market to fit into this slot, but, again, with WiFi built in, there isn’t a lot to add other than EVDO or FireWire.
WiFi is very good on this notebook. It's 802.11a/b/g integrated Dell 1470 wireless card, so it will connect to pretty much everything. The connection strength isn’t bad either: I was able to pick up an 11b network up one floor and though two walls with a "Very strong" signal status, whereas my PDA with a Senao WiFi card will usually drop out.
I decided to pay $20 more and get the 6-cell battery option. I suggest that, if you have the money, you get it. It's a small price to pay for 1.5 times the normal battery power.
The 6-cell is a 5045mAh battery, which isn’t bad for a 1.5GHz notebook. I got about 3 hours of use with mainly Skype over WiFi, and about 3 hours with no WiFi playing mp3s. Overall, I think the battery is acceptable. If you need WiFi, full screen brightness, and full CPU speed, then you may only get a few hours out of it, but otherwise its a pretty impressive battery. The standard battery is a 4 cell, 29 WHr Lithium Ion battery that Dell estimates lasting 2 hours.
The Inspiron 1300 has set the benchmark for budget notebooks for a while yet, with it's solid performance and even better price. Although the speakers are rather dire and the lack of microphone is irritating, what do you really expect for an $800 notebook?
Pros: Good performance, spacious hard disk, DVD±R/W drive, great screen, excellent WiFi signal, solid construction, quality keyboard.
Cons: lack of microphone, speakers aren't great, almost no ExpressCard peripherals available.
Price: starting approx. $599, varies depending on options selected and current coupon offers