Sunday, August 19th, 2007
I’m not a huge laptop fan, I prefer the power of workstations for getting stuff done. But I needed a nice laptop for an onsite last week in California, so I decided to try out the new 13.3 inch Dell XPS 1330 ultraportable. They were backordered on Dells site, so I picked up a black one on eBay right before my trip. All-in-all the 1330 is a really nice laptop, and served me well both on the flights out and back, and for getting work done in between talks and sessions. Some data points:
On the XPS 1330:
– Slick, nice looking laptop. A lot of positive comments from people who came over to look at it or stopped to take a peak on the plane or in the airport. Everyone seemed to have heard of the 1330 and wanted to take a look. Overall people seemed impressed, and everyone was happy to see Dell rolling out laptops with slicker design. (I’m happy I didn’t have to pay through the nose for it.) The external matt black finish with the chrome emblem and silvery sides were just plain cool to look at. The overall fit and finish was excellent. A number of folks at the onsite had comperable MacBooks which to me looked like cheap plastic toys, while my Dell just oozed class.
– Keyboard and keys have a really nice feel to them and the layout was well thought out. The laptop works well sitting in your lap or on a table or on the floor in front of you.
– The little digital scrollbars built into the edges of the touch pad were a very welcome feature. They provide simple, easy to use smooth scrolling of web pages and documents and worked in every application. I never touched the up/down arrow keys, or the page-up/page-down keys. A really nice feature.
– The screen was bright and easy to see with no noticeable pixilation. I didn’t buy a 1330 with the thinner LED backlit display, and I don’t see why I would need it.
– The hidden slide in DVD player was nice, no slide out trays. The mini IR remote control that fits into the extra expansion slot on the side was a nice touch as well. It’s harder to loose a peripheral like this when it’s stored inside the laptop itself.
– HDMI out instead of DVI out was a smart decision on Dell’s part. DVI plugs are big, ornery, and ugly to look at. HDMI on the other hand is small, simple and easy to hook up.
– No latch on the lid was nice – that’s something I’ve alwayed hated about PC laptops in the past. The hinge just sort of snaps closed like a magnet. A very nice design.
– The simple, lightweight carry case that came with the laptop was nice. No more bulky carry-ons, just a nice looking slip cover you store it in before packing it into a backpack or briefcase is the way to go.
– Overall software and hardware performance was excellent, and exceeded my expectations for a 1.5 GHz dual-core.
– The desktop is, without a doubt, the first operating system Microsoft has ever produced that can be described as elegant. The icons are beautiful, Vista Glass is really cool (you can even customize the tint of the glass if you want), the screen savers are nice, and the desktop wallpapers are nice. Microsoft also finally figured out how to do desktop transitions – the dekstop and login screens don’t jar into place, they fade in and fade out. All-in-all, Vista is just beautiful, and it’s about time. As far as apps go, the new Explorer window is well designed, especially the new navigation up top for browsing folders, and the icon previews and sorting. Built-in apps finally all sport a similar theme and the UIs have been revamped. Photo Gallery is particularly exceptional, I’ve been using that a lot, as is Media Player 11.
– Vista’s new wireless connection management is impressive. I’ve complimented Apple in the past on their simplistic handling of wireless connections. Microsoft finally nailed this perfectly in Vista, providing what I’d consider an even better user experience than OSX, with nice visuals to represent public and private networks, instant-on connectivity without user intervention or funny little tray popups, and reliable networking in general. When you flip the lid up, the network is connected and ready to go. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
– Vista’s memory management is exceptional. On my main workstation, the static link of firefox.exe can use up around 3 GB of RAM. I was really worried that a dual-core 1.5 GHz laptop with 2GB RAM would bog down completely during work like this. This totally did not happen, surfing the net, scrolling pages, even opening up memory heavy apps happened smoothly and everything remained very responsive during builds and links. I’m not sure what Vista is doing under the hood but whatever it is Microsoft nailed it.
– Wake and Sleep functionality when opening and closing the lid was quick and worked perfectly. (once I configured it correctly, see below.) Vista’s hibernate mode is also quick to launch, about 30 seconds once you hit the power button. You rarely have to shutdown the computer – the power button will hibernate the laptop when you want to store it, and coming back out of hibernate puts you right back where you left off. I was able to close the lid during Firefox compiles and on resume, the compile continued from where it left off – one of those wonderful surprise moments where you expect it not to work, but it does. So far the only time I’ve had to reboot the pc was for updates, and honestly I’ve never done it, Windows takes care of that at 3 am.
– For some incredibly stupid reason, somebody decided to pre-configured the laptop with something called “Hybrid Sleep” enabled instead of just Sleep. I was really hoping for “instant-on” when opening the laptop cover, but found it took almost a full 30 seconds for the 1330 to startup or shutdown when opening and closing the lid. That really made me mad. I tracked down the cause – the enabled “Hybrid Sleep” option which is basically a worthless combination of Hibernate and Sleep modes. Hibernate writes the entire state out to disk then shuts down completely, and should only be used when the battery is dieing. Sleep on the other hand caches state in RAM and keeps the RAM powered, which should always be used when ample battery juice is available. Hybrid Sleep does both for some reason, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why this would be needed, or why Dell would choose this as the default. You can however disable this through the advanced power options, so that the laptop will act correctly, sleeping and waking in just a few seconds and automatically hibernating from sleep mode when the batteries start to run down. Most users though will probably never figure this out. Dell should fix this ASAP. Other than this odd choice of settings, the system was setup correctly – and I found the overall default power management settings to be perfect.
– I’m not a huge fan of brushed metal, I think it looks “scratchy” and impersonal. Dell used brushed metal on the hand rest area and around the keyboard. I would have preferred the shinny silver surface they used on the edging and hinges, but from the look of it it’s probably more expensive to produce. If the brushed aluminum saved me $100 or so I can live with it, but if it only saved me $20, I’d gladly pay the difference for a nicer material. The seams between the brushed metal surface and the mouse pad aren’t well done either. The metal cover just ends in a ridge. Overall the worst area of the design on this laptop is the mouse pad. They could have made it look “nicer”, more integrated, less punched through. This area was the biggest let down. The graphics for the virtual scroll wheels could also be more elegant.
– Once in a while when waking the laptop from Sleep mode, Vista will reset the resolution of the desktop from a widescreen resolution to something slightly less. I’ve not tracked down the cause but I’m guessing it’s something in Vista, not Dell’s laptop. I’ll bet this will be fixed in time through an update.
– After uninstalling all the the pre-installed Google freeware, Google kept throwing up this annoying “install me!” popup for the Google toolbar which didn’t have a “No Thanks” option, just a Next button. The window was also too big for the laptops screen so I had to drag it around to get at the controls. I finally figured out if you click through using Next, then refuse the EULA, it’ll go away forever. Overall, there wasn’t that much bloatware, Dell kept it to a minimum, just Google junk, and the uninstalls went smoothly.
– In a few places within the control panel Dell tried to make changing options simpler with some built-in management software. The user interface on these applets is incredibly ugly, and clashes horribly with the very clean and easy to navigate Vista control panels. The Dell updates alert software is also not well designed from a grphical design perspective. Dell should consider hiring somebody to do a design makeover, or better yet, just don’t include some of this software, it’s not needed. Vista has the configuration stuff nailed down just fine, and updates should come through Windows Update.
– The built-in webcam was fun to play with for like, 10 seconds. But honestly I’ll probably never use it for anything. If Dell provided the option of not including it and saving me a few bucks in the process, I’d welcome it. (update below)
Someone emailed me about the Vista Sidebar. Note Google Desktop will be installed by default, and Vista’s Sidebar will be disabled. If you uninstall Google Desktop, you’ll need to turn on Sidebar. Just type ‘sidebar’ in the start menu and you’ll find it. I can give you two reasons for uninstalling Google Desktop – 1) You don’t need it, Vista’s built-in search is outstanding. It’s literally everywhere within the OS, no matter where you look. Even the add/remove programs window has inline search! 2) With Vista Search, there’s no need for Google Search, so keeping Google Desktop around will just use up memory and slow down your new laptop.
Battery life – I really haven’t run into any trouble. I’d say without heavy disk use you’re looking at around 3-4 hours before needing a charge. Charging seems pretty quick.
Webcam – Ok, I’ve been using it. It’s actually pretty neat.
Weight – It’s light, you can pick it up with two fingers without any problems. Dell’s site says it’s around 4 pounds / 1.8 kg, that’s a pound less than the comparable Macbook.
Dell Media Direct – I didn’t realize at first this was installed on the 1330, but I’m glad I found it. Media Direct is basically an embedded app that run independent of the operating system, and taps into all the media you have on your system, including whatever you might insert into the slide-in DVD player. The software uses up about 3 GIGs of disk space, and is based, ironically, on an embedded version of Windows XP. Thankfully launching the software doesn’t put you through any of the ugliness of XP’s boot, and boot times are pretty impressive – about 15 seconds once you hit the media button above the keyboard. (There are touch sensitive media player controls in the same area as well.) Once you have Media Direct setup (it has to scan your system for pictures, video, PowerPoint presentations, and the like) you can use it to access all of this without bringing Vista out of hibernate. The software is designed to act more like an appliance rather than a computer, so there are no windows or anything like that, just a simple seamless revolving interface that allows you select the content you want to view. Surprisingly, the aesthetics of the UI are actually quite nice. From what I’ve read, the software is also designed to run at a low power mode, increasing battery life. Parents will probably find this most useful, on trips and the like, when their kids want to watch DVDs or play music and listen to it on headphones. (Which the 1330 comes with.) Overall a pretty slick little piece of software. In the future, I’d like to see Dell migrate this to Vista Sideshow, which I think would work equally well in this space.
Matt black finish – You’ll need wet wipes, and lots of them, to keep the surface clean. It attracts greasy finger prints.
Speaker quality – I think there’s a reason why Dell included a set of headphones (and dual headphone jacks in the front of the base) the built-in speakers are not very good. Very tinny sounding. If you’re going to use this for DVDs or listening to music at home, pick up a pair of external speakers.