Dell Inspiron M101z preview

This good-looking 11.6-inch ultraportable delivers a comfy keyboard, snappy performance, and strong sound quality for the money.The Inspiron M101z looks like a shrunken version of the 14-inch Inspiron 14R, which is a good thing. It has the same hinge design and a relatively svelte profile that tapers from 1 inch in the front to 1.4 inches in the back…..

This is usually the part of the review where I spell out the specs of a new laptop and explain how it fits in with other recent machines from the PC vendor. But I want to get something out of the way first: The Inspiron Mini M101z is the best budget thin and light laptop from Dell that I’ve tested over the last few years.

Dell has done a really nice job revamping the 11-inch member of its Inspiron family, banishing the lackluster touchpad with integrated buttons and slightly cramped keyboard in favor of a design that’s much easier to use. And the Inspiron M101z is easier on the eyes, too, featuring bold color options and a sleek forward hinge design.

We’ve been having a hard time figuring out what to call the recent influx of 11.6-inch laptops you know, the ones which are slightly larger and more expensive than netbooks, yet pack more than double the graphics and performance power. But regardless of what we call them we’re thinking notbooks the new category certainly has been building steam by the day, and we can’t help but think Dell’s new Inspiron M101z could be our favorite yet. Yes, unfortunately, our review unit was adorned in that bright pink color above that’s most likely causing your eyes to tear, but don’t let its sissy exterior fool you it’s powered by AMD’s new dual-core Athlon Neo II processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive. Yep, she’s a heartbreaker on paper, but hit break to find out if the $579 M101z is in fact a worthy companion.

The wedge-like or doorstop chassis design of the M101z is very similar to that of the new Inspiron 14R and the Mini 10. It’s thicker than most laptops, but that’s because Dell has integrated the battery into the design so it doesn’t bulge from the back. It’s an interesting move, but it does result in making the rear of the system measure 1.5 inches thick; the 11.6-inch Acer Aspire 721 and Lenovo IdeaPad U160 are .4 inches thinner. Still, at 3.4 pounds it’s not too large of a burden, and it was easy enough to pop into a purse (that’s where a pink laptop belongs, right?). One of the first things we did notice about the M101z was its solid build quality. While it’s made of plastic, it feels noticeably stronger and more durable than the aforementioned Acer Aspire 721. Surrounding the machine are three USB ports, an SD card reader, HDMI, Ethernet, VGA, microphone and headphone jacks. There’s a port for a TV tuner, but Dell actually tells us the unit won’t be sold with this option.

On the inside, the M101z has a black glossy bezel surrounding the 11.6-inch display. The lower part of the notebook combines a gunmetal gray plastic deck with a black chiclet-style keyboard. Weighing 3.4 pounds, this ultraportable fit easily our backpack as we carried it around New York City. However, this isn’t the lightest laptop in its class. The Acer Aspire One 721 weighs 2.8 pounds, and the Lenovo ThinkPad X100e weighs 3.2 pounds.

The model featured in this review has a red lid with the Dell logo in the center, and what Dell calls a “Jax pattern.” The oattom of the laptop is black, as are the keyboard and the bezel around the screen, while the palm rest, touchpad, and area around the keyboard have an attractive smudge-resistant brushed metal look (although I believe the case is actually made of plastic.

While the Inspiron 11z was somewhat of an ergonomic disaster, the M101z is one of the more comfortable 11-inch notebooks we’ve used. It starts with a chiclet-style keyboard with nicely separated keys that provide springy feedback. The layout is miles better than the 11z’s cramped keyboard. The arrow keys are smaller than we’re accustomed to, but were still easy to find by feel.

In the past we’ve knocked Dell’s keyboard and touchpad designs, but the M101z changes that tradition. Like every other laptop manufacturer, Dell shifted over to a chiclet style keyboard, and the rounded, black matte keys provided a very comfortable home for our fingers. There’s no flex to the panel and the deck was incredibly roomy for a machine of this size.

We’re thinking of treating the Dell employee responsible for the touchpad on the M101z to a steak dinner since it doesn’t have the very uncomfortable and flaky integrated mouse button setup like the Mini 10. The smooth, silver pad is flush with the palmrest, but the material isn’t too slippery and navigating was a pleasant experience. The right and left mouse buttons are ever so mushy, but still comfortable. Also, two-finger scrolling was extremely responsive in Firefox, but pinch-to-zoom was disabled out of the box we can’t say we were all that tempted to enable it.

As per usual for Dell, the top row inverts the function keys so that you can directly access things such as brightness and volume controls. You can also quickly toggle the Wi-Fi radio, control music playback, check battery life, and output the display when you want to output the picture to a TV or projector.

Dell’s placed the 11.6-inch display on top of the keyboard, and claims the hinge design brings the screen “closer to you.” It’s nice to have the screen propped up a bit, but it means not being able to tilt the screen beyond a 120 degree angle. The glossy, 1,366 x 768-resolution screen itself is bright, and vertical viewing angles were decent when sharing the screen with a friend. On the other hand, horizontal angles weren’t as good, and standing back from the screen caused a bit of color distortion. Firing up La Roux’s “Bulletproof” in iTunes had us surprisingly impressed with the two speakers located on the bottom of the laptop. We could hear the song from across a large room with volume at 50 percent. Dell said it had made some enhancements to the audio, so whatever the company did, it paid off.

The laptop is a little thicker in the back than the front, thanks to the 6 cell battery which sticks out below the base of the laptop (but doesn’t just out behind the machine as some Dell laptop batteries do). Dell will also offer a 9 cell battery which will stick out behind the laptop, but it should also offer a few hours of extra battery life.

For the first time in a long time Dell’s using AMD parts, and the performance is impressive. Though Dell will offer a $449 version of the M101z with a single-core AMD Althon II Neo K125 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 250GB, 5,400rpm hard drive, we were sent the higher-end $579 model that boasts a dual-core Athon II K325 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive. Sure, for $579 you can get faster and larger mainstream laptops, but the M101z is a fast little laptop. The dual-core processor obviously bested the single core version on the benchmarks, but it also felt snappier in everyday use. It kept up with our heavy Firefox use, writing in Microsoft Word, and chatting in Digsby. It also managed to stream a 1080p video amidst that all even after days of rest, no Atom processor can attempt such a feat.

Around the sides of the laptop you’ll find 3 USB ports, an Ethernet jack, HDMI port, mic, headphone, and power jacks and an SD card slot.Because the battery doesn’t take up any space on the back of the unit, Dell was able to place a VGA port and a lock port on the back of the laptop — something you don’t see often on thin and light machines with 12 inch or smaller displays.

The lovely 1080p video playback also has ATI’s Mobility Radeon 4225 graphics to thank. The integrated solution not only performs better than the Lenovo IdeaPad U160’s Core i7 / Intel GMA 950 graphics, but also tops some with NVIDIA’s last generation Ion platform. Along with those loud speakers, watching Katie Perry and Snoop’s “California Gurls” music video was eye-pleasing. It played just as well when we hooked up the laptop to a 40-inch HDTV via HDMI. Even when streaming that HD YouTube video, the chassis remained relatively cool the left fan was working pretty hard, but at no point did our lap get overly hot.

The 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display features a glossy finish, and I found that the colors looked a little washed out when I tilted the screen too far back or too far forward. But if you hit the sweet spot, colors are bright and vivid.

The 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display features a glossy finish, and I found that the colors looked a little washed out when I tilted the screen too far back or too far forward. But if you hit the sweet spot, colors are bright and vivid.While AMD’s improved the thermals, we still can’t say we’re thrilled with the battery life of the new platform. The 56Wh six-cell battery lasted for 3 hours and 35 minutes on our video rundown test, which loops the same standard definition movie with brightness adjusted to 65 percent. In normal usage – surfing the web and listening to music – we got close to four hours and 15 minutes of endurance. That’s longer than Lenovo’s Core i7-powered U160 and in line with what we saw from the Aspire One 721, but it’s still not great for any ultraportable laptop. We’re still waiting on a mobile platform that provides an all around great blend of graphics, performance and endurance.

The stereo speakers are located on the bottom of the laptop, near the front. You’ll also notice a couple of vents on the bottom of the laptop as well as a vent on the left side. The AMD chipset seems to generate a bit of heat, causing the fans inside the laptop to kick into high gear every now and again.

The HP Mini 311 has a significantly less powerful CPU than any of the other laptops in this test, but the NVIDIA ION graphics card helps it hold its own in the 3DMark06 benchmark. But I was still surprised to see that the HP Mini 311 scored higher than the Dell Inspiron M101z in this test, because the Acer Aspire One 521 with similar specifications achieved a much higher score.

In terms of everyday performance, the Dell Inspiron M101z is a pleasure to use. While I don’t think Dell is positioning this machine as a desktop replacement, it really can do most of the things you would expect a laptop to. I had no problem surfing the web with multiple browser tabs open while listening to music and chatting in an instant messenger window. The computer could easily handle 720p and 1080p HD video playback. And HD YouTube video looked fine at 720p resolution (although 1080p Flash videos looked a little jerky).

This is a huge improvement over earlier Dell ultraportables which had buttons integrated into the surface of the touchpad. While this certainly made the touch area larger, it also made it much more difficult to click accurately. A Dell official told me that the new touchpad is definitely a response to user feedback.

The M101z boots a completely barren Windows 7 Home Premium desktop. However, a few seconds later it loads Dell’s dock loads with shortcuts to Internet Explorer and other preloaded Microsoft and third-party applications. Other than that, the preloaded software is really limited to Skype, Cozio and Syncables.

Quick Specs:

1.CPU: 1.3-GHz AMD Athon II Neo K235.

2.Operating System: MS Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit).

3.RAM: 4GB.

4.RAM Upgradable to: 4GB.

5.Hard Drive Size: 320GB.

6.Hard Drive Speed: 5,400rpm.

7.Hard Drive Type: SATA Hard Drive.

8.Display Size: 11.6.

9.Native Resolution: 1366×768.

10.Optical Drive: Optical Drive Speed.

11.Graphics Card: ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225,Video Memory.

12.Wi-Fi: 802.11b/g/n.

13.Wi-Fi Model: Broadcom WirelessN Half-Mini.

14.Bluetooth: Bluetooth 3.0 + EDR.

15.Ports (excluding USB): Ethernet; HDMI; Headphone; Kensington Lock; Microphone; VGA.

16.USB Ports: 3.

17.Card Slots: 3-1 card reader.

18.Size: 11.5 x 8.1 x 1-1.4 inches.

19.Weight: 3.4 pounds.

Dell wisely ditched the touchpad with integrated buttons found on the 11z in favor of two discrete mouse buttons on the M101z. While they’re a bit small and mushy, we found it much easier to make selections without making errors. The smooth touchpad (3.3 x 1.5 inches) made it easy to navigate the desktop. Pinch-to-zoom gestures worked fine, but due to the touchpad’s short height you’ll have better luck if you use one finger from each hand.

It took us a while to look beyond the M101z’s pink shell, but when we did we came to really like the little guy. Er, girl. Of all the 11.6-inch machines we’ve reviewed lately, it provides the best combination of build quality, performance and graphics capabilities for the price. (We should note, a similarly configured HP Pavilion dm1 costs about $100 less, but we haven’t reviewed it yet). Sure, it’s a bit thicker than the others (and we still can’t help but be disappointed by AMD’s power-thirsty platforms), but if you can deal with only four or so hours of juice, then the M101z won’t disappoint those looking for a… well, we still don’t know what to call the category.


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