A spin around the XPS M1210
The M1210 asks very few compromises in order to fit into its ultraportable profile. Unlike many systems in this class, it has a built-in optical drive, and it has practically an overabundance of I/O ports and buttons. The only real compromise it demands is a slight bit more thickness than the average 12.1" laptop. Let's take a spin around the chassis to see what's where.
The M1210's front end speaks to its potential as a portable DVD and media player. Right up front is a row of long, silver media control buttonsmute, volume up and down, play/pause, skip back and forward, and stopthat work in media player apps and the like. In this system's one real nod to XPS-style bling, the shiny silver media buttons are backlit by blue LEDs. I'm not a huge fan of the bling, but the blue glowy stuff does grab attention, which is kind of fun.
Below the light show is a trio of audio ports, one mic in and two headphone jacks, so the M1210 can serve up a movie to two people at once without the aid of a splitter cable. That's especially helpful because the M1210's speakers produce tinny sound with very little bass, as is usually the case with ultraportables.
Above the media player buttons, you can see the silver handle used to lift the laptop's lid. Happily, the M1210's lid doesn't latch closed, which is how I prefer it. Latches just get in the way.
Ports and slots cover the left side of the box, starting with an RJ11 port for the required V.92 modem. Next to it is a pair USB ports, and beyond them, the S-Video out connector. Dell provides an adapter cable that splits the S-Video out into composite video and S/PDIF audio outputs, too.
The vents in the middle of the side panel expose what appears to be the M1210's sole exhaust port, with the cooler's fins and blower behind them. In everyday use, the M1210's heat output is surprisingly tame, and the cooler is nearly inaudible. When running a game or similarly compute-intensive app, the cooler kicks up into a higher gear, making its own little contribution to global warmingand to, er, global noising, I suppose. But even when gaming, the M1210 won't burn your hands or assault your eardrums. The hiss of the cooler is audible, but reasonable.
Below the vents is a sliding switch with three positions. This switch can disable some or all of the wireless connectivity devices in the system at once; which services it controls are configurable via Dell's QuickSet software. Slide this same switch forward, and you'll activate the M1210's Wi-Fi Catcher function. Even when the system is powered off, this function allows for a quick check for local Wi-Fi networks. If one is present, the LED next to the switch turns solid green. When the system is powered on, the same button invokes a dialog showing any available networks.
Toward the front of the side panel is a single ExpressCard/54 PCIe expansion slot, and below it is the cover for the system's slide-out hard drive tray.
The M1210's other side panel may be even busier. The madness starts with a VGA port, followed by two more USB ports, for a total of four in this little box. I especially like having the option of USB ports on either side of the case, so that it's possible to plug in a mouse without having its USB dongle protrude into prime mousing space. Next to the USB ports is a single IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port, which could prove handy for connecting to camcorders for on-the-go video editing choresa task for which this little system is very well equipped.
The additional thickness of the M1210 chassis obviously comes into play here. Not only does the M1210 have an optical drive, but Dell actually packs in a five-in-one flash memory card reader beneath it, as well. My only gripe here is the presence of a slide-out tray for the optical drive. Like so many other laptop makers, Dell fails to follow the One True Path of the slot-loading optical drive. Apple's MacBooks have won design plaudits for many reasons, but to me, their slot-loading DVD drives are the clincher.
Flip open the M1210's magnesium alloy-clad lid, and you'll find an essentially "full-sized" keyboard. Laptop keyboard layouts tend to vary in strange ways in order to fit the keys into the allotted space, and the various quirks can be annoying. The best thing I can say for the M1210's key layout is that I had little trouble adapting to it. The page up and page down keys do lend themselves to the occasional stray keypress, but they're conveniently placed once you get your bearings. I also found this keyboard's placement of the screen brightness controls on the up and down arrows to be addictive; when I moved to other laptops, I wound up hitting the same key combo when I wanted to change the screen brightness, with unexpected results.
Layout quirks pale in comparision to tactile issues, and here, the M1210 delights. The keycaps are coated with a fine-grained texture that grips the fingertips. Key travel is characteristically short like in most laptops, but keystrokes involve a soft-yet-consistent keypress threshold, resulting in a crystal-clear positive feedback to the fingertips. I found my typing error rate on the M1210 to be substantially lower than on my Sharp M4000 WideNote. This is no clickety-clack ThinkPad keyboard, but it's still outstanding.
Our M1210 review unit did hit one quality-control snag when the G key came loose from the keyboard, prompting me to write this letter:
Dear Dell,Ok, not really, but fixing the loose key did require replacement of the entire keyboard. I arranged for the fix via Dell's online chat support serviceusing another computerwithout drama.
This laptop is reat, except for one thin. The key isn't workin since it came detached from the keyboard.
The M1210's excellent keyboard lives just north of the laptop's TouchPad, and here, I think Dell must have summoned some kind of deep, dark Synaptics magic. I suppose there are different grades of TouchPads available, which only makes sense. But whatever Dell put into the XPS M1210 is the Bugatti EB110 of TouchPads. The thing is exceptionally sensitive, yet it rarely picks up errant movements. The precision is uncanny, and like the keycaps, the TouchPad is covered with a finely textured surface. Between the keyboard and TouchPad, the M1210 makes laptop input and control about as painless as it can be.
Just above the keyboard, dead center, are the power and MediaDirect buttons. When the laptop is booted up and running Windows, the MediaDirect button calls up something called the Dell Media Experience, which looks to be a rebadged version of Sonic Cineplayer with a simplified 10-foot interface. Using this interface, the user can play DVDs, browse through photos, watch videos, and play music.
More interestingly, pressing the MediaDirect button when the laptop is turned off causes the system to boot straight into this same player and interface, without booting into Windows proper. I believe what's happening here is that the MediaDirect boot partition has an image of a stripped down version of Windows XP in hibernate mode, and it pulls that OS image off of the disk for a quick boot. At first, I thought this feature was a kind of goofy gimmick, but I have to admit that it comes up quicker than a regular hibernated session of WinXP. And this quick-boot player mode does fulfill the promise made by the M1210's row of media keys and dual headphone jacksthat is, that the system can function essentially as a DVD player appliance. Granted, it's the world's most expensive DVD player appliance, but the capability could come in handy if you wanted to loan it to a less-than-tech-savvy friend or relation for use on a trip.