Dell Inspiron 9100 Review

Comparison between laptop and desktop – Eddie Bauer

PC

As a gamer, I had not given laptops much of any thought. After all, why spend $2,500-$3,000 for a gaming-worthy laptop when you can custom build a desktop with better performance for around $1,000. That changed last October, when Dell had a one-day, $750 instant off any purchase over $1,500 sale. I quickly researched Dell’s mobile lineup and decided the Inspiron 9100 was my best choice.

The 9100 is a DTR (desktop replacement) that promises to give excellent performance in both gaming and multimedia – areas where laptops have always trailed desktops. It actually shares the same chassis as the Inspiron XPS, meaning you get the same package minus the gigabit Ethernet and silver XPS accents, at a few hundred dollars less.

It was configured as followed:

  • Pentium 4 3.2 GHz (Prescott), 800 FSB, HT – Intel 865 Chipset
  • 512 MB DDR3200 – 256 MB x 2 running in dual channel
  • ATI Radeon Mobility 9700, 128 MB
  • 15.4″ WXGA LCD, 1280 x 800 Native Resolution
  • 80 GB 5400 RPM 8 MB Cache Hard Drive
  • Dual Layer / Dual Format DVD Burner

The price was a cool $1,054.55 after tax and shipping. My primary reason for choosing the 9100 was to have a portable system that can do anything – take to LAN parties, encode videos, watch movies, etc (and hopefully, a productive thing or two). Features such as weight and battery life were of less importance.

Construction / Features

Overall, I am very pleased with the construction of the laptop. With a weight of nine pounds, it might scare off a few people, but I have yet to find it burdensome. Compared to lugging around my monitor and tower, bringing this laptop to LAN parties is a breeze.

PC

If the blue accents around the touchpad/keyboard are not your style, you have the option of ordering the silver accents from the XPS – Dell part #’s T4461 and X1501.

My only gripe with the construction came when I noticed that there was no locking screw for the optical drive bay, which is typically found on other Dell laptops such as the 8600 or 600m. Within two seconds, the drive can be effortlessly removed, making it easy for someone to steal.

PC

The 9100 has a wealthy collection of features:

  • Four USB 2.0 ports (one that doubles as a powered USB port)
  • One firewire port
  • DVI, S-Video, VGA
  • SPDIF out, subwoofer integrated into battery
  • 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11g WI-FI, v.92 56k Modem
  • Mic/headset jacks, built in microphone
  • Dual pointing devices (touchpad and pointing stick)

The four USB ports are especially welcomed, since I tend to use at least three while gaming (mouse, USB headset, and game pad).

The subwoofer makes a noticeable difference – watching movies or playing music has never sounded this good on a laptop. The audio chipset is a no-thrills SigmaTel C-Major Audio that, for the most part, does its job. So far the only issue I ran into with it was in the NASCAR Racing 2002/2003 games by Papyrus. All car sound effects are distorted, making the 800hp v8 engines sound like rice burners. Apparently, this is a known problem with any SigmaTel chipset, with no foreseeable fix.

The 15.4″ LG Phillips LCD gets high marks. Brightness and color are a good deal above average from what I have seen in laptops. Being a 25ms display, I was a bit worried at first as to how it would hold up in gaming. To my surprise, ghosting never got close to being a distraction or annoying in various first-person shooters such as UT2004, Quake3, and Far Cry.

The native resolution has an unusual aspect ratio of 16:10, so you are bound to run into a few games without the proper native support. I recommend checking out the Widescreen Gaming Forum for help on getting virtually any game to work at a non-standard resolution.

No problems were noticed with the system after the obligatory format/reinstall of Windows to get rid of all the excess software Dell puts in. Since everything was working beautifully, it was time to tweak/upgrade. My next two upgrades came literally less than a week since I had received the system: a Radeon Mobility 9800 and 1 GB of RAM.
{mospagebreak}

Upgrades/Tweaks

Even though the name implies a R300 based GPU, the Mobility 9700 architecturally is R360 based; meaning performance is along the line of a desktop 9600 Pro. Running Far Cry at 1280 x 800, highest detail, proved all but unplayable (I will note that the 9700 held up on medium detail perfectly). This was solved by upgrading to the R420 based Mobility Radeon 9800. The cost was $260 after canceling the optional $90 Dell at-home installation.

PC

Taking apart the 9100 for the first time proved to be a quick and pain-free process, thanks to Dell’s Online Documentation which provides a step by step visual walk through for replacing virtually any component in the system. Fourteen screws and 15 minutes later, the MR9800 was installed and working.

With its 8 pixel pipelines and 6 vertex shaders, the MR9800 handled Far Cry with ease. Even more amazing was the overclocking success that was achieved with the card. From the default 350/300 clocks, it went up to 470/450 artifact free. For everyday use, I keep the card at 420/420 so it holds up in the long run.

Temperatures were monitored by a free utility called I8kfangui. Not only can you monitor the temperature of the GPU, CPU, memory, and hard drive, but you can manually control the system fans or set custom profiles for when they come on.

Downside To This Behemoth?

There are three clear downsides to the 9100:

  • Battery life
  • Noise
  • Heat

Running normal desktop tasks, I averaged roughly an hour and thirty minutes of battery life with the 3.2 GHz Prescott – abysmal by today’s standards when you have Pentium-Ms reaching up to four hours.

PC

If you thought keeping the Prescott cool in a desktop was a daunting task, just think about it confined in a laptop. Less than a minute into a game and you’ll hear all three of the system fans jump up to their maximum speed of 4500 RPM – or the sound of a blow dryer (remember the Geforce 5800 anyone?) Monitoring the temperature showed 53ºC idle with a peak of 68ºC running two instances of Prime95.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution to these problems:

Since the 9100 is a socket 478 platform, it can accept any Northwood P4. In went a P4 3.0C with satisfying results. Battery life increased roughly 35%, or two hours and twenty minutes under normal desktop tasks. Temperatures dropped down to 40ºC idle / 55ºC load. Under gaming, the fans stay at medium and rarely run at full speed. Despite the 200 MHz clock speed disadvantage, there were no apparent differences between the two CPUs outside of benchmarking. {mospagebreak}

Gaming Benchmarks

Usually comparing a desktop to a laptop is an “apples to oranges” comparison. The CPU, memory, and chipset are usually entirely different architectures and speeds.

Since the 9100 uses a desktop CPU, desktop chipset and dual channel memory, I was able to have a comparable platform; the only difference being the graphics cards, with the MR9800 having two more vertex pipelines compared to the desktop’s 9800 Pro.

Test Setup for Inspiron 9100

  • Intel Pentium 4 3.0C, 800FSB, HT Enabled, 865PE chipset
  • 1024 MB DDR3200, 2.5-4-4-8 timings
  • Mobility Radeon 9800 clocked at 380/340, Omega 2.5.97a drivers

Test Setup for Desktop

  • Intel Pentium 4 3.0C, 800FSB, HT Enabled, 865PE chipset
  • 1024 MB DDR3200, 2.5-4-4-8 timings
  • ATI Radeon 9800 Pro clocked at 380/340, Omega 2.5.97a drivers

Test Results

3DMark 2001
1024×768, no AA/AF
Desktop

9100

% Difference

Car Low
237.3

238.7

+1%

Car High
79.7

77.0

-3%

Dragothic Low
317.9

308.0

-3%

Dragothic High
173.9

159.7

-8%

Lobby Low
216.8

216.6

0%

Lobby High
94.5

94.2

0%

Nature
123.9

115.7

-7%

The differences are subtle in 3dmark 2001.

RTCW 1.4
Checkpoint Demo
Desktop

9100

% Difference

Checkpoint Timedemo
118.7

118.5

0%

Performance between the desktop and laptop in RTCW is virtually identical.

3DMark 2003
1024×768, no AA/AF
Desktop

9100

% Difference

Wings of Fury
201.0

197.6

-2%

Battle of Proxycon
37.8

43.9

+14%

Troll’s Lair
34.1

38.1

+10%

Mother Nature
37.9

49.0

+23%

Final Score
5938

6755

+12%

With the help of the vertex pipes, the 9100′s MR9800 pulls ahead in 3dMark 2003.

HardwareOC
Far Cry Bench
1280×1024, no AA/AF
Desktop

9100

% Difference

HardwareOC Volcano
34.27

45.54

+25%

HardwareOC Archive
37.18

53.94

+31%

HardwareOC River
39.09

41.69

+6%

HardwareOC Steam
38.85

40.12

+3%

Once again the mobile counterpart fares well, this time in Far Cry.

Doom3
Ultra Quality, 1024×768
No AA/AF
Desktop

9100

% Difference

Timedemo 1
36.8

41.3

11%

Ultra Quality playable on a laptop? Definitely.

{mospagebreak}

Benchmarks With Max Video Overclock

3DMark 2003
1024×768, no AA/AF
MR9800 at
350/300

MR9800 at
460/450

% Increase

Wings of Fury
185.8

218.0

15%

Battle of Proxycon
39.4

54.2

27%

Troll’s Lair
34.9

45.6

23%

Mother Nature
44.9

58.4

23%

Final Score
6197

8000

23%

HardwareOC
Far Cry Bench
1280×1024, no AA/AF
MR9800 at
350/300

MR9800 at
460/450

% Increase

HardwareOC Volcano
44.66

62.11

28%

HardwareOC Archive
40.56

54.43

25%

HardwareOC River
35.93

40.40

11%

HardwareOC Steam
39.91

44.50

10%

The system is probably CPU limited in the River and Steam benchmarks, explaining the relatively small increase with the video overclocked.

HardwareOC Far Cry Bench
1280×1024, 4xAA/8xAF
MR9800 at
350/300

MR9800 at
460/450

% Increase

HardwareOC Volcano
30.14

43.06

30%

HardwareOC Archive
27.72

38.90

29%

HardwareOC River
22.80

31.96

29%

HardwareOC Steam
26.43

36.11

27%

Turning up the eye candy obtained at least a 27% increase in performance across the board when overclocked.

Doom3
Ultra Quality, 1024×768
No AA/AF
MR9800 at
350/300

MR9800 at
460/450

% Increase

Timedemo 1
34.2

49.5

31%

31% free performance – not too shabby.

CONCLUSIONS

With its long list of features and high performance, the Dell Inspiron 9100 is highly recommended for anyone looking at a mobile gaming system without spending their life savings. It may not have the fancy looks of a VoodooPC or Alienware, but in my book performance and value come first.

While Dell officially dropped the Inspiron 9100 from its lineup last October, you can still purchase it from the Dell Outlet as a refurbished unit. Another alternative is eBay, where a number of 9100s will be listed at any given time.

Pros

  • Cheaper than other similarly equipped laptops
  • Excellent performance and high overclockability in MR9800
  • Stable, no reliability issues
  • Speakers well above average for a laptop
  • 4 USB ports, DVI out
  • Extremely easy to disassemble, thanks to Dell’s Documentation

Cons

  • Heat, battery life, noise (all of which can be improved by going to a Northwood based P4)
  • Audio chipset is basic, no additional features such as EAX; sound effects do not work in the NASCAR Racing 2002/2003 games
  • 55 Processes running on stock configuration from factory
  • People saying “Dude, you got a Dell”

Eddie Bauer

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