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Dell's XPS M1210 laptop PC

Ultrapowerful ultraportable

LIKE MANY THINGS IN the PC industry these days, laptop computers are a fairly mature sort of product. We all know about the basic types and sizes, and how the inevitable tradeoffs in display performance, size, weight, battery life and display real estate tend to work. If you're a road warrior, you can get a svelte, compact machine with understated design cues and six hours of battery life; you'll just have to sacrifice performance for that mobility. If you're a gamer, you can get a graphics and processing powerhouse with Pontiac-style ribbed body cladding and a display large enough to double as the main sail on a small yacht; you'll just have to accept the additional weight, heat, and battery drain that comes with it. For most of us, buying a laptop means deciding what set of tradeoffs we're willing to make and then looking into the various choices in our preferred weight class.

The Dell XPS M1210, however, embodies an uncommon concept in portable computers. Like its bigger brothers in the XPS line, it looks to bring near-desktop-class performance into a mobile form factor. Unlike its sibilings, though, it targets the true ultraportable form factor, the featherweight class of laptops with 12.1" wide-aspect displays. Combining these two goals may sound like a recipe for dissonance, but Dell has managed to pull off the feat with surprising style. The result is a laptop PC that packs more computing power per pound and per square inch than any other solution I can think of—you know, casually, while sitting here, not really Googling for it or anything.

The point is that the M1210 is both refreshing and really quite good, and we've worked up a full review of it for your reading pleasure. We've also taken the opportunity to compare the M1210 to a couple of older laptops in way that gives us a look at three generations of Centrino mobile technology.

The M1210 in a nutshell
Before we dive into this review of a blazing-fast laptop, I should confess up front that, for me, laptop computers are mainly about things other than raw performance. I'm interested in some other very practical considerations, including design, build quality, size and weight, battery life, and display size and quality. I build my own desktop PCs, so I can take care of some of these things myself. Others, like weight and battery life, are purely mobile considerations. Still, most of these things are inescapable, intrinsic qualities of a laptop computer, not open to substantial modification after the fact. You buy it, and you're stuck with it.

If you're with me on that point, you will appreciate what I have to say next. Yes, the M1210 is fast. But on nearly all other practical fronts, this little system is excellent. The M1210's design is a revelation coming from Dell; they've managed to collect the best elements of the XPS line's design cues into a much smaller box while dropping the gaudy excesses. The build quality is also more than I expected from Dell; the M1210's solidity evokes echoes of a ThinkPad, and its outer shell's combination of magnesium alloys and high-quality plastics gives it a feel more akin to that of a Canon Rebel XT camera than of your typical laptop. The system's ultraportable size is evident in the photos above, and at just over four pounds, its weight is in the same neighborhood. Concomitant with those dimensions, the M1210's endurance on battery power ranges beyond the four hour mark with its stock six-cell battery, well into road-warrior territory.

So the M1210 is more than just a killer spec sheet. But it's that, too. Have a look:

Dell XPS MX1210 specifications

CPU Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 (2.33GHz)
FSB speed 667MHz
Memory 1GB of Samsung DDR2 PC4300 533MHz SDRAM (2 DIMMs)
North bridge Intel 945GM
South bridge Intel ICH7-M DH
Graphics Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 (integrated)
Display 12.1" TFT with WXGA (1280x800) resolution and TrueLife (transreflective coating)
Storage Hitachi Travelstar 7K100 100GB 7200-RPM SATA hard drive
24X CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive
Audio HD Audio via SigmaTel HDA codec
Ports 4 USB 2.0
1 IEEE 1394 (FireWire)
1 RJ11 for V.92 modem via Conexant HDA D100 MDC
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Broadcom 440x
analog audio headphone out
1 analog mic in
1 VGA out
1 S-Video out (w/component out/S/PDIF out adapter cable)
1 5-in-1 memory card reader (SD/MMC/Memory Stick/PRO/xD)
Expansion slots 1 Express Card/54
1 Bluetooth adapter slot
1 WLAN adapter slot (populated)
1 WWAN adapter slot
1 WWAN SIMM card slot
1 200-pin SO-DIMM DDR2 memory slot (populated)
Communications 802.11a/b/g via Intel PRO/Wireless 3945AGB
Input devices Synaptics TouchPad
Dimensions 11.7" W x 8.7" D x 1.2" H
Weight 4.37 lbs

As configured, our review system packs the fastest mobile version of the Core 2 Duo processor, the 2.33GHz T7600, which has a 4MB L2 cache and rides on a 667MHz front-side bus. By contrast, the top desktop Core 2 processor runs at 2.93GHz, and all desktop parts get a 1066MHz bus. Still, the T7600 isn't far off the pace. The other heavy hitter in the M1210's specs list is in the hard drive department. The Travelstar 7K100 from Hitachi GST spins its platters at a brisk 7200 RPM, just like most desktop drives. Laptops with 7200-RPM drives are still quite rare, despite the fact that we found little power consumption penalty associated with 7200-RPM mobile drives. Hard drive performance often seems to be the major bottleneck in laptop performance, so I'm pleased to see Dell mating the M1210's fast processor with a hard drive that is its spiritual peer.

Our XPS M1210 came to us from Intel as an example of the Centrino Duo platform, which probably explains the choice of integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics rather than the available GeForce Go 7400 GPU. The Go 7400 is a $129 upgrade option at Dell, a pittance in the context of the M1210's total cost. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to play games on one of these machines. There may be a slight battery life cost that comes with using the more powerful discrete graphics chip, but it's likely worth it in order to get more graphics capability, better performance, and broader game compatibility thanks to Nvidia's superior graphics drivers.

Another slight downer on our review unit's spec sheet is the 533MHz memory frequency. We've had this unit in house for testing for some time, and nowadays, Dell is selling the M1210 mainly with 667MHz memory. That's no big deal, though, since general system memory bandwidth will be constrained by the 667MHz front-side bus, not by the dual channels of 533MHz memory. The subsystem that might benefit most from faster RAM would be the GMA 950 graphics, but I don't think the GMA 950 is exactly starved for bandwidth in the M1210. You'll see why I say that when we look at the performance results.

I look at the spec sheet above and think our M1210 is fairly well appointed, but like many high-end ultraportables, a fully-loaded M1210 offers a whole range of communications gizmos and mobility widgets that our review unit lacks. Those include a Bluetooth module, a webcam with integrated microphone, a DVD burner rather than a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo, and a WWAN card for mobile broadband connectivity via cell phone networks. You could also pick a slower 5400-RPM hard drive (blech) or a slower CPU (which might be a sensible money-saving choice).