Dell’s XPS M1210 laptop PC

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 (1280×800) 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).

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 buttons—mute, volume up and down, play/pause, skip back and forward, and stop—that 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 warming—and 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 chores—a 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, This laptop is reat, except for one thin. The key isn’t workin since it came detached from the keyboard.

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 service—using another computer—without drama. 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 jacks—that 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.

The underbelly of the beast
Here’s a look at the underside of the M1210 with a couple of expansion panels and the battery removed.

The battery compartment is the long, recessed area at the bottom of the picture above. Inside of it, you can see the space for a SIMM card for mobile broadband/EVDO service (on the left) and the slot for the Bluetooth module (on the right). The SO-DIMM trapdoor is in the middle of the bottom panel, and the two communications slots reside under another cover to its right. As you can see, our review unit has a Wi-Fi card installed, but it lacks a WWAN card. Adding mobile broadband should be as simple as installing a WWAN card in the slot and putting in a SIMM card underneath the battery (and installing drivers and provisioning service and….)

The M1210 versus the Sharp M4000 WideNote
My own laptop, the trusty Sharp M4000 WideNote, has been our designated victim in a couple of these reviews now. It’s an older system based on the Pentium M-era Centrino platform, but it’s still a very nice near-ultraportable system. The Sharp’s larger 13.3″ wide-aspect display dictates a wider profile than the XPS M1210, but the dimensions are otherwise similar, as the pictures below illustrate.

There’s no getting around the fact that the M1210 is smaller than the Sharp, even though the Dell is a little bit thicker overall. In fact, the M1210 feels very compact in the hands, and its 4.3-pound curb weight is not noticeably burdensome compared to the 3.7-pound Sharp.

I bring up the comparison to the Sharp for several reasons. One is the obvious size point of reference. Display size goes an awful long way toward determining a laptop’s overall dimensions, and I consider the current crop of 13.3″ wide-aspect laptops to be just about ideal. This size LCD maps almost exactly to the width of a “full-sized” laptop keyboard. With the M1210, Dell has had to pull the same trick as many makers of 12.1″ ultraportables and put an unnecessarily large bezel around the screen, because a smaller chassis wouldn’t leave room for a full-sized keyboard. Dell puts this space to some use by offering an optional webcam that fits into the top edge of the bezel, but there’s no denying the screen is smaller than it has to be.

So, yes, I’m dissing 12.1″ ultraportables. I hold out hope for a smaller, more ideal synthesis of screen and keyboard size than 13.3″ systems like the M4000 WideNote, but for now, they look to be the best compromise.

The other relevant comparison to the WideNote involves not screen size but display quality. When used by itself, the M1210’s display appears to be bright, sharp, and colorful. I’m a convert to glossy transreflective LCD coatings, and the so-called TrueLife variant from Dell seems to be as good as any. Put this system side by side with the Sharp, however, and the comparison reveals a large, unmistakable gulf in color contrast and accuracy between the two displays. The M1210 looks washed out next to the Sharp, and even slightly off-angle viewing—head-on, but with a little too much screen tilt in either direction—makes the situation worse. I may be especially sensitive to this since I happen to run a website with a funky blue background, but the blues look too bright and washed out on the M1210.

This is admittedly a very tricky photographic task, but I’ve attempted to get a picture of the M1210 and the Sharp side by side, so you can see the difference in color quality. I believe this picture is a fairly decent representation of how the two look in person.

The XPS M1210 (left) versus the M4000 WideNote (right). Click for a larger version.

The desktop backgrounds differ, but look at the browser windows. The backdrop on the Dell looks almost neon blue, and the picture of the servers has a bluish cast to it. I’ve shown these two laptops to various friends and family side by side, and they have all been able to see a clear difference in quality between the displays.

The simple explanation for what’s going on here is that Dell probably used an LCD panel with 6-bit color precision in the M1210. 6-bit displays tend to have quicker refresh times, which can allow for watching video or gaming without any visible ghosting. But I’ve never noticed ghosting problems on the Sharp, and its color reproduction is markedly superior.

It may be a little unfair to compare this Dell to a Sharp, since Sharp makes some of the best LCDs in the world, but I’m sure Sharp would be willing to sell some of those displays to Dell for use in its laptops. The XPS M1210 is a premium product, and it delivers on almost every other front, but the display leaves something to be desired.

Now, let’s watch the M1210 brutally crush the Sharp in some benchmarks.

How we tested
Most of the testing we do around here involves systems we’ve built ourselves out of parts. Since the XPS M1210 comes from Dell as a complete product with pre-configured software, we decided to test it more or less as it shipped. Fortunately, the M1210 wasn’t entirely loaded up with shovelware, as is too often the case these days. We did decide to do like we would if we’d purchased the system and make a few changes. We uninstalled Google Desktop, turned off the Trend Micro security suite, and grabbed a video driver update from Dell, which took us up to the revision of Intel’s GMA 950 drivers.

We’re comparing the M1210 to a couple of older generations of Centrino technology using the results from our review of the Lenovo ThinkPad T60. The Sharp M4000 WideNote was tested with a 1.73GHz Pentium M processor, Intel 915GM chipset, 1GB of DDR2 533MHz memory, and a Hitachi Travelstar 5K100 hard drive. The ThinkPad T60 had a Core Duo T2400 processor, an Intel 945GM chipset, 1GB of DDR2 667MHz memory, and a Hitachi Travelstar 5K100. Both of these systems used the revision of Intel’s graphics drivers.

All of the systems had Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 2 installed.

WorldBench performance
WorldBench’s overall score is a pretty good indication of general-use performance for desktop computers. This benchmark uses scripting to step through a series of tasks in common Windows applications and then produces an overall score for comparison. WorldBench also records individual results for its component application tests, allowing us to compare performance in each.

The XPS M1210’s beefy hardware specs translate into a solid gain over the older Centrino systems in WorldBench—and into a score of nearly 100. To put that score into further context, the M1210 is faster than many high-end desktop configs we tested just two years ago, including one based on the Pentium Extreme Edition 3.4GHz.

The XPS M1210’s strength is broad and deep; it leads in all tests, sometimes finishing the task well before the other two laptops. Notice, in particular, two tests: Microsoft Office and Mozilla plus Windows Media Encoder. Both of these tests involve multitasking, and the dual-core ThinkPad T60 and XPS M1210 outperform the Pentium M-based Sharp M4000 WideNote substantially. The M1210, in turn, easily outruns the T60 in media-intensive tasks like Photoshop and Windows Media Encoder, where the Core 2 Duo processor’s four-issue-wide execution engine and ability to execute 128-bit SSE instructions in a single cycle can really make a difference.

3D graphics performance
We’ve hopped into the wayback machine and fired up 3DMark03 to test the M1210’s Intel GMA 950 graphics. Newer versions of 3DMark don’t run well on this hardware. Note that the XPS M1210 and the ThinkPad T60 share the same GMA 950 graphics, but the ThinkPad has faster DDR2 667MHz memory. Does that put the M1210 at a disadvantage?

To the contrary, the M1210 is faster in 3DMark overall and in each one of the game tests. 3DMark’s synthetic tests give us a sense of why that is.

In terms of putting pixels on the screen, the ThinkPad T60 and M1210 are a near-exact match. Our M1210 review unit’s 533MHz memory doesn’t seem to be a hindrance. However, the M1210’s Core 2 Duo processor makes for a big leap in vertex shader performance over the ThinkPad. Such a gain might seem counterintuitive if you’re used to ATI and Nvidia graphics, but since Intel relies on the CPU to handle vertex shader duties, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the graphics subsystem with a faster processor. Higher vertex throughput is most likely the primary reason for the M1210’s dominance over the ThinkPad in 3DMark’s game tests, as well.

Now for some Guild Wars, a great game that Intel’s integrated graphics can handle reasonably well. I used FRAPS to record frame rates over a series of five 60-second gameplay sessions in which my ranger character was running around outside of Ascalon, kicking some tail. The game’s terrain quality was set to high, reflections to default, texture quality to high, and shadow quality to medium. Post-process effects were enabled.

The M1210 turns in some very nice real-world performance improvements in Guild Wars. For games like this with relatively modest graphics requirements, the M1210 with Intel integrated graphics can be quite good. Its 1280×800 native screen resolution doesn’t require a tremendous amount of fill rate, so a high-end graphics solution isn’t really necessary.

I also tried the M1210 with Half-Life 2. I turned off a host of image quality options in order to get it running at a reasonable speed, including anisotropic filtering, edge antialiasing, and high-quality reflections. The game also relied on its DirectX 8.1 code path, rather than DX9, once it detected the GMA 950. At those settings, the M1210 played the game quite fluidly, but it had a tendency to crash. I figured the best fix would be to download the latest GMA 950 driver straight from Intel, since the ones on the Dell website were behind the current release. Sadly, though, those drivers refused to install on the M1210, because the installer threw up a message about the drivers not being validated for this hardware. It appears Dell has chosen to limit the M1210 to the graphics drivers available on its own website, and Intel seems to be playing along. Dell’s unfortunate policy on this front hampers the M1210’s usability as a gaming machine.

Like I’ve said, though, you’ll probably want to go with the Nvidia graphics option if you want use the M1210 as a gaming system.

Battery life
Battery testing can be a complex beast, because laptops offer so many different power-saving options, including more and less aggressive methods of CPU performance throttling, screen brightness, hard-drive spin-down times, and the like. We tried to pick out a few fairly typical settings and test them in a couple of scenarios using MobileMark 2005. MobileMark itself offers several different tests that attempt to simulate certain types of laptop use. Before we began testing, we attempted to condition the batteries in the laptops by running them completely out of power, to the point where the system had to shut itself off and wouldn’t start again. We then charged the batteries fully and kicked off our tests.

First up is MobileMark’s Productivity test. This one produces both a battery life time and a performance score, because the two tend to be interrelated. For this test, the two older laptops were set to their default mid-grade mobile power-saving modes—in between the max performance setting for AC power and the max battery setting for optimum longevity. The ThinkPad’s display brightness was set to five out of a possible seven steps, and the Sharp’s display was set to a similar share of its maximum brightness.

Dell’s power management software comes with two default profiles, “max performance” and “max battery.” Dell’s software doesn’t appear to mess around with more aggressive CPU clock speed throttling than the default SpeedStep behavior defined by Intel. In fact, Dell’s software doesn’t seem to change anything more than screen brightness and the settings accessible via Windows’ power management control panel. So I set the M1210 to its “max performance” scheme, turned the brightness to five out of seven levels, and ran the test.

Before we get to the results, I should mention that we have an obvious mismatch here since the ThinkPad T60 we tested came with a massive nine-cell battery sticking out of its back. As a result, the T60 was able to run quite a bit longer on a single battery charge than the other two systems.

The M1210 achieves a nice balance of performance and endurance in MobileMark’s productivity test, lasting for about four and a half hours and outperforming both of the other systems at the same time.

Next, we have a DVD playback test. MobileMark comes with a DVD made for this test, so the video is read from the optical drive. For this one, we used the systems’ max battery modes, with display brightness on the ThinkPad set to one out of seven steps and the Sharp and Dell adjusted similarly. Sound was sent to a pair of headphones rather than playing on the systems’ built-in speakers.

The M1210 can’t quite match the M4000 WideNote in the DVD playback test, though it does play for well over three hours. That should be sufficient for watching almost any full-length feature film.

This result comes with a caveat. Sharp uses much more aggressive CPU throttling in its max battery mode, and that fact can impact performance from time to time. The M4000 does play DVDs smoothly enough, though, so its score here is probably fair game.

Finally, we tried what may be the most typical scenario of all for laptop use: wireless web browsing. We used our less aggressive “mobile” settings from the Productivity test for one run, and then we tried the “max battery” config from the DVD playback test after that.

The M1210 hits the four-and-a-half hour mark with its screen brightness turned up, and it manages to run for five and a quarter hours in its max battery mode. All in all, pretty impressive for the stock battery. Dell does offer a larger, heavier nine-cell battery for those who want more run time, but I’d probably just opt for a second six-cell to carry with me when necessary, instead.

The XPS M1210 is a fast, flexible machine that lives up to the size, weight, and battery life requirements of a true ultraportable laptop computer. It’s also stylish, well built, and has the best keyboard and touchpad combination of any laptop I’ve ever used. It’s a premium product, and as you might expect, it comes at a premium price. I configured an M1210 at Dell’s website more or less as we tested it, and the total rang up to a dizzying $2,238—and ours is missing options like Bluetooth, Nvidia graphics, and a mobile broadband card! Once you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor, realize that much of that price tag is CPU. The top two speed grades of the mobile Core 2 Duo command a healthy markup. I was able to drop the price by $425 simply by moving down to a Core 2 Duo T7200 with a 2GHz clock speed and 4MB of L2 cache. That alone takes the total down to $1,813. If you’re willing to compromise more on features and performance, you can drive the price down even further. Dell offers XPS M1210 configurations for as little as $1299 via our price search engine, and even those should result in a relatively fast laptop. In fact, I’m likely to start recommending the more modest configurations of the XPS M1210 to folks who ask me which laptop to buy.

Compared to the older laptops we tested, the M1210 offers better performance, with similar battery life, in a smaller package. Partial credit for that accomplishment goes to the latest version of the Centrino Duo platform and the CPU code-named “Merom,” whose offshoots have already propelled Intel back into the performance lead in the desktop and server CPU markets, as we’ve cataloged here and here. The M1210 easily outperformed the Core Duo-based ThinkPad T60 across the board in our tests, despite having the exact same Intel 945GM chipset and slower memory than the T60. Its 7200-RPM hard drive deserves some of the glory, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the Core 2 Duo. Even the Intel integrated graphics core’s performance was enhanced thanks to the Core 2 Duo’s vertex shading prowess.

The one big drawback of the M1210 is its LCD’s limited color contrast. Like I’ve said, you may not notice it in everyday use, but if you do a lot of photo editing or graphic design work on your PC—or if you’re just picky and inordinately visually oriented like me—you may want to look elsewhere. Many laptop displays have similar limitations, though, so shop around.

Comments closed
    • discountbattery
    • 12 years ago

    i buy a dell xps m1210 laptop last year, all is nice but the battery life i can’t stand , last i buy a replacement battery in ยง[<<]ยง , it can last 6 hours long , now my laptop is perfact .

    • the_wharf_rat
    • 12 years ago

    Greatest laptop ever; I was an AVID T Series user until this machine killed any chance of using another Thinkpad.

    • Priam
    • 12 years ago

    I am curious about what type motherboard they use in there pc, laptops.

    Does anyone know who manufactures there boards??.


    • ScorLibran
    • 12 years ago

    My m1210 has the nVidia GeForce Go 7400 (currently running the stock drivers from Dell), and using the nVidia Control Panel I adjusted the baseline brightness & contrast, image sharpening, gamma and “digital vibrance” to greatly improve the screen’s contrast, color balance, etc. It took me about two minutes to achieve an exceptionally high-quality picture on this LCD – significantly better than it is with its stock settings, and placing it now among the best laptop screens in the world (well, at least among the seventy-or-so models I’ve used).

    I also ran some tests at work (business apps, load testing, multitasking, 2D and 3D high-count graphics) with a loaded m1210 and a loaded T60, and the m1210 won every category (which was not completely surprising to me). Although it most often ran a very close second, that the Thinkpad T60 is not even an “ultra-portable” makes these results even more impressive than they are at first glance.

    Anyway – thank you, Scott, for writing this great article.

    • caje
    • 13 years ago

    Is the picture of the remote on the first page the one that ships with the M1210? There’s an option for a remote when you go to order the laptop, but no picture of what the thing looks like.

    • Miguel M
    • 13 years ago

    This thing looks like a great package. The price is over inflated in this review becuase of the processor.

    Dell Canada currently has a deal for a free upgrade to the Nvidia 7400go.
    I think a 1.83Ghz Core2, with an Nvidia 7400go in a 12.1″ package is a great idea. especially when the price adds up to just over 1500 (CDN).

    to buy or not to buy, that is the question.

    • Ardrid
    • 13 years ago

    Damage, quick question, is the black taskbar standard on the Sharp or did happen to download it? If it’s the latter, where can I find it? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Haggis!
    • 13 years ago

    I’ve had the M1210 for about 6 weeks now. It’s a great laptop.

    It replaced a Fujitsu Lifebook 5020P that was getting very long in the tooth, but I loved the Fujitsu’s small form factor, so I held onto it much longer than I should have. The M1210 has a larger footprint (and a bigger screen) but still not as large as a typical notebook.

    My quibbles- I wish the DVD drive was a swapable bay, so I could drop in a secondary battery. And I am concerned about the venting. If I use it on my lap, the fan intake on the underside sits right down on the thigh, but so far it hasn’t been an issue.

    • replay
    • 13 years ago

    I’ve owned a M1210 since August, and it’s been nothing but a charm to work with. Yes, reformat the HD before you use it for the first time. The Dell reinstall CD gives you a clean install. As for bulkiness, that’s a compromise for all the goods that come in this laptop. You get a high quality keyboard, (4) USB ports. If you wanted ultra-portable slim, you go for the Dell D420.

    I like the small screen. I have full-sized desktops at home and work, I need something more portable than a 14.1 or 15.6 to carry around. A 13.3 would probably be the largest laptop screen I would go with to be truly portable.

    • steelcity_ballin
    • 13 years ago

    edit: Wrong topic.

    • eitje
    • 13 years ago

    during the DVD playback battery life testing, were you able to test the XPS using the MediaDirect mode? I’d be interested to see if the battery life is impacted when running in this mode.

    • indeego
    • 13 years ago

    The single greatest aspect of a laptop is it’s support, not it’s features or performanceg{<.<}g

    • DrDillyBar
    • 13 years ago

    Well done well done. This reminded me of the time you were looking for a new portable Damage. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • derFunkenstein
    • 13 years ago

    I actually don’t mind that machine…it comes with adequate RAM, Aero-capable graphics, and it’s pretty light. It’s not terribly thin, but it’s just the right size of laptop.

    But for $1299 (the base price of this machine with a 1.83GHz C2D, 1GB RAM, 80GB hard drive, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW) I could get a slot-loading DVD-RW, bluetooth already in the bundle (needed for my headset), and a faster CPU from Apple. The trade-off being that the Macbook is heavier and wider.

    I know people use Lenovo as the standard-bearer for build quality in laptops, but I have issues with the R51 I’ve been using for work – well, it’s something of a mixed bag. The keyboard regularly drops keystrokes, and no Windows key to boot – I actually use shortcuts off that thing when it’s on a real keyboard. Wireless range sucks. I’m pretty sure I could drop it down the stairs and it’d still work, though, so it does have that going for it – it’s an ugly, heavy, tank-like piece of equipment that would probably survive Armageddon.

      • leor
      • 13 years ago

      in the laptop world you can always get more power for more weight.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 13 years ago

        i suppose, but for the same money, i was surprised.

      • jobodaho
      • 13 years ago

      The macbook doesn’t have dedicated graphics though.

      My girlfriend is thinking about getting a new laptop for around $1000-$1300 and I was leaning towards recommending the macbook with the option of dual booting vista later, but without dedicated graphics I don’t think you can have the aero interface on. Am I correct in assuming that?

        • derFunkenstein
        • 13 years ago

        Neither does this. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        And in Vista RC2, you could have Aero with the GMA950. I doubt it’s any different now.

        • Beomagi
        • 13 years ago

        You can get a great thinkpad R series with x1300 for a reasonable price. The service from lenovo was also rated pretty well.

        asus makes some good notebooks too, but less support. the a8jp carries an x1700 (think x1600 4 pipe, NOT x1650xt which is 8 pipes) for $1300, 14″ screen. newegg has it in stock.

        • adisor19
        • 13 years ago

        GMA950 supports Aero just fine since it’s DX9 compliant. Just don’t expect awesome gaming performance out of it.


          • jobodaho
          • 13 years ago

          Thanks for the reply guys, and no she will not be gaming ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Chrispy_
    • 13 years ago

    Been using one of these as an office pool laptop now since about August IIRC.

    Agree that the keyboard and trackpad are the best examples I’ve ever used on a laptop, almost good enough to truly replace a mouse.

    One problem I have with it though is the stupid camera in the lid – it mean’s there’s no lid catch which is a GLARING ommision in an ultraportable. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sworn at it because I picked it up in a hurry and the thing opened up in one hand.

    Also, if you buy one of these, do as I did and format the drive before using it. Dell installed so much crap on mine that it was a constant frustration to use, out of the box.

      • Delphis
      • 13 years ago

      I agree on formatting and reinstalling upon getting a laptop. I did the same thing with the T60 so I only had want I wanted. Oh, the T60 hard drive shock protection is nifty. The thing has a motion sensor inside it ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Beomagi
        • 13 years ago

        Guess that goes without saying no matter who you buy it from. Got an s271 from avadirect, whith an xp install, that sucked royally. Totally unstable till i reformatted it myself.

      • eitje
      • 13 years ago

      you also end up losing a lot of the built-in tools if you wipe out the diagnostic partition.

        • Chrispy_
        • 13 years ago

        Should have said “format the c: drive” more specifically. The diagnostic partition isn’t the C drive, I have nothing against it.

        In fact, that little 32MB Linux utility partition is the best thing about a Dell. It’s great for servers and useful for diagnosing all sorts of minor crap that can (and will) occur with laptops.

    • Delphis
    • 13 years ago

    A colleague just bought one of these Dell M1210s, and it’s nice. I however just bought a Thinkpad T60 with a 2.0Ghz Core2Duo processor (T7200, 4MB cache), 1.5GB RAM, 7200 rpm 100GB HD and I think it’s made SO much better than the flimsy Dell (which is actually a bit ‘taller’ than the T60 when the lids are closed)

    I much prefer the screen (1400×1050, 14.1″) on the T60, plus the battery life is outstanding.

    As for 3D, the T60 I have has ATI X1400 graphics (128MB dedicated mem), not the crappy Intel 950 job that both of TR’s review units have. Maybe I should run some numbers TR-style on the T60 I have at home.

    My colleague and I compared prices on our purchases and both spent about the same, I saved about $300 on a sale that Lenovo ran through mid december. Still.. my colleague tells me she only wanted the Dell it because it was smaller…yea, okay.. keep saying that ๐Ÿ˜‰ The T60 weighs 2lbs more at just under 6lbs with a 9-cell battery, which for me isn’t bad at all.

    I should say the T60 was just under $1800 including $100 sales tax, free shipping and a 3yr warranty including screen protection.

    • elmopuddy
    • 13 years ago

    Looks cool, but I’ll stick to my Macbook ๐Ÿ˜›

    • Beomagi
    • 13 years ago

    it’s the beefiest 12″ around – capable video, great cpu, and up to 4GB. you can compare it to a lot of other notebooks, but no other 12″ comes packing discrete video. it’s fat and heavy for a 12″, but the formfactor is still decent for those looking at the do all power portable.

    • IntelMole
    • 13 years ago

    Great review.

    Unfortunately the 6-bit LCD kills it for me, I’m going to be needing a new laptop before too long (this one is three years old, and the fans are starting to really rattle, and the screen is terrible… and I want a new one :-).

    But I’ve used some downright terrible 6-bit displays before – I’m thinking of a housemate’s desktop PC’s monitor specifically. I’m not spending over a ยฃ1,000 to chance that I won’t notice the 6-bit display.

    Other than that, this laptop is definitly food for thought…

      • willyolio
      • 13 years ago

      i’d have to agree. i’ve been looking at 12-13″ laptops for my next one. i think that 13.3″ is a pretty good size/weight/ergonomics ratio, but they seem to be pretty rare. 12″ are more common, and often have better battery life, but the better-designed ones always come with a slow ULV processor and such- and pretty much never have core 2 duos in them.

      or ridiculously expensive, like sony laptops. damn they look nice though.

      this would be on my list of potential buys.

    • poulpy
    • 13 years ago

    Reply to #9

    Not sure it’s going to be a fair comparison, the GMA 950 got his ass handed over by the x200 and completely destroyed by the x300 IIRC

    • matnath1
    • 13 years ago

    Thanks for a great review as always. For the “heck of it” how about throwing in a comparison to an AMD based system which comes with ATI (now AMD) on board graphics. I am wondering which system would be a better “gamer” a core 2 duo 2 gig with Intel GMA 950 graphics or and AMD X2 2 gig with ATI Xpress 1150???? My money is on the AMD/ATI system but what do you think?

      • pluscard
      • 13 years ago

      Actually, AMD just announced the R690 mobile chipset, which includes x700 graphics, and a full compliment of features.

      It’s supposed to be the centrino killer.

        • matnath1
        • 13 years ago

        That is awesome. Do you know the specs or have a link?

    • SNM
    • 13 years ago

    It’s so fat! It’s fatter than my 2-year-old Powerbook G4 that cost $1500 when I bought it!
    Though, yeah, it does have a /[

    • zurich
    • 13 years ago

    It’s like someone beat the poor XPS M1210 with an ugly stick AND a fat stick. Ouch.

    • crazybus
    • 13 years ago

    nice review. It’s good to see Dell putting a little effort into making a decent portable, especially with the option of discrete video. I have to agree that it’s a little thick and a 13.3″ screen would be more fitting. Just thinking about it, if one were to go with the GMA950 I’d still prefer a black Macbook to this: cheaper, thinner, larger screen, dvi output, and just lacking the option of a 7200rpm hard disk, expresscard and a little under a pound heavier. Now if Lenovo’s Thinkpad Z series didn’t carry such a premium that could be a nice option as well.

    • crazybus
    • 13 years ago


      • Voldenuit
      • 13 years ago

      Exactly my thoughts. It felt as though Scott was comparing one cheap (looking) piece of plastic with another cheap piece of plastic.

      From what I gleaned in the review, the XPS is overpriced, under-spec* (a version with discrete nv/amd gpu coupled with a slower CPU would have been a no-brainer) and somewhat heavy for a 12″ ultraportable. The screen is poor and the look is Middle America suburbia.

      I’ll definitely pass on this one…

      EDIT: ‘Under-spec’ is definitely the wrong term here, since the CPU is so beefy. I think ‘unbalanced’ would probably convey what I wanted to say better.

        • jobodaho
        • 13 years ago

        Um it’s a portable laptop, not a desktop replacement. There aren’t many (maybe no others) 12.1″ laptops with descrete graphics.

    • lordT
    • 13 years ago

    Can we expect a review for the M1710?

    • SpotTheCat
    • 13 years ago

    was that a stab at dissonance on the front page? doesn’t he normally cover these topics?

      • Damage
      • 13 years ago

      Nope. Nope.

    • adisor19
    • 13 years ago

    You know, i saw the first picture of it (the one on the couch with the remote control in front) and thought to myself, hey this looks pretty good ! I actually thought it had potential. But then i pressed the Next button and up came the page with the side pictures LOL this thing is fatter then my gf’s cat ! hahah

    i would love a shot of this next to my macbook pro ๐Ÿ™‚


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