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Dell Inspiron M101z review

Dell’s latest netbook cum sub-notebook boasts the latest AMD technology and dual boots with Ubuntu. We’re still in shock, but have pulled ourselves together long enough to bring you a full review...

Dell Inspiron M101z

This article is due to appear in issue 98 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Specs:
OS: Windows7 & Ubuntu Light
Processor: AMD Athlon II X2 Neo K345 (1.3GHz)
Memory: 4GB DDR3 RAM
Storage: 320GB SATA II HDD
Weight: 1.56kg
Dimensions: 205 x 292 x 24.3~35mm
Other: 7-in-1 card reader, 3x USB 2.0, VGA & HDMI, Ethernet, 6-cell battery
Price: £499.99

Pros: Great hardware for the money, amazing keyboard and speakers, generally excellent build quality. Comes bundled with Ubuntu Light
Cons: Comes bundled with Windows, brightness and contrast aren’t the strongest, screen tilt hampered slightly by the chassis design

The Dell Inspiron M101z straddles the line between notebook and netbook classes, creating a solid, all-round system that takes the best of both words and weeds out most of the chaff.

From the netbook market it utilises a small, light chassis and very similar connectivity options – including three USB 2.0 ports, VGA and HDMI connectivity – and it lacks a DVD drive (something that proves less of a problem with each passing year). There are two key factors that separate the M101z from the rest of the netbook market and place it in the ultra-slim category: its size and the processor it utilises.

While the boundaries between notebook and netbook are relatively grey (there aren’t actually any hard and fast rules and the line is being muddied all the time by new hardware such as this), generally netbooks are considered to be 10” or smaller with dedicated processors, most notably Intel’s Atom. Dell’s latest sub-notebook clocks in at 11.6”, just beyond the netbook realm, and uses a much faster processor architecture than Intel’s – the AMD Athlon II X2 Neo K345 (AMD really should work on its nomenclature).

While it’s hard to place AMD’s new sub-notebook-class K345 dual-core processor and Neo architecture into a particular performance category, we’ve found it to be on a par with an Intel Core 2 Duo of approximately the same clock speed (1.3GHz). While hardly on the bleeding edge, it’s still streets ahead of the lowly Atom you’d usually find in similar systems.

AMD’s platform focuses its attention on low power through advanced processor and GPU throttling techniques, which is a massive bonus for battery life and one that really pays off with the M101z. We managed just shy of six hours from the 6‑cell 56W-hr lithium-ion battery provided (sadly not with Ububuntu Light), though we did notice that a 9-cell option is available directly through Dell for an extra £40, so it’s well worth considering if you want a full day’s charge.

Put to task, its ATI HD Mobility Radeon HD4200 GPU chomped through intensive 3D for work and pleasure (not to mention HD video), and its processor can juggle compression and computation with ease – there was nothing we threw at it during testing it couldn’t handle. In fact, it was one of the smoothest experiences we’ve had with a computer in this class – weeks after first receiving the M101z, we’re still bowled over by its performance and battery capacity.

From its first use, it’s apparent the chassis is strong and well constructed, with a sound finish (if somewhat prone to smudging). Though it’s neither the thinnest or lightest machine you’ll find, it retains a feel of slightness with clever contouring from the rear of the device to the front lip, slimming down some 10mm between the two.

Perhaps in an effort to protect the screen tilt mechanism, the bottom half of the chassis has a lip that curls up around the back of the base of the screen. While this looks great (and probably lends extra sturdiness), the tilt of the screen itself is annoyingly limited as a result. We had no problem using the M101z at a desk, but with it on our lap we couldn’t always quite get the viewing angle we would have wanted.

This was a particular shame since the viewing angles (and the hampering of brightness and contrast this brings) are easily evident away from the sweet spot. That said, this is far from the worst offender we’ve encountered and the definition and colour reproduction is otherwise second to none. Elsewhere, stand-out mentions must go to the chiclet keyboard and the remarkable speakers hiding under the front lip – both a joy to use and well above the usual experience you’d expect in this (or any other) notebook class.

Verdict: 4/5
We had to double-check that the M101z was definitely a Dell – its use of non-Intel hardware and the inclusion of Canonical’s dual-boot-specific Ubuntu Light (a full review coming soon) puts it well outside Dell’s usual ‘Wintel’ comfort zone. Long may it continue, though, since this particular Inspiron is by far our favourite Dell system to date. Excellent build quality, outstanding performance and impressive battery performance make it very nearly the perfect sub-notebook (or should that be pro-netbook?).

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