Dell XPS M1530 Notebook PC - Review

Dell XPS M1530 Notebook PC - Review

Core 2 Duo T7500 Processor 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM

The XPS M1730 was a monster both in gaming performance and size, while the XPS M1330 was one of the more portable 13.3-inchers in the market. So what happens if one wants a powerful machine but yet is unwilling to dislocate a shoulder while moving it? Well, the new XPS M1530 may be the answer. Though its footprint is slightly larger than the iconic MacBook Pro, it is almost as slim and light as its Apple rival. The design is also a departure from the US maker's previous offerings and exudes class while presenting a clean look.

Barring a few quirks, the M1530 offers almost all the common features expected of midsized portables and has one of the most powerful graphics performances in its class.

Design of the Dell XPS M1530 Laptop

The XPS M1530 comes in a choice of two colors: Tuxedo black or Alpine white. However, the color scheme extends only to the front plastic bezel, with both models sporting silver borders. When we first opened the 2.62kg machine, we were surprised to see a brushed aluminum palm rest staring back at us. Though for some it may look a little rough around the edges, we like the feel of the metal which, surprisingly, did not heat up significantly even when the system was pushed to the limits. It is also quite a bit slimmer than we expected, with dimensions closely resembling those of the MacBook Pro.

To minimize clutter on the keyboard area, physical buttons are restricted to the MediaDirect and power controls. Touch-sensitive keys are given to the CD eject (for the slot-in optical drive), multimedia playback and volume control functions. During our testing these buttons performed flawlessly and, due to the position, rarely caused unintended key presses. The LCD is mounted on a latchless drop-hinge design that reduces the height of the machine when opened. Though it does look more elegant than the traditional hinge, we felt that this causes the screen to be slightly lower than desired for taller users.

Almost all the connectivity ports are located along the flanks, with only the audio jacks and memory card reader fronting the machine. Though this allows for easy access, those who have an external display and audio system setup may be a little unhappy seeing all the wires messing up the desk space. One feature we like that tends to turn up mainly on business portables is the battery indicator located on the cell. Using a series of LEDs it shows the charge level without having to start up the system.

Features of the Dell XPS M1530 Laptop

With its strong graphics performance and multimedia features, the XPS M1530 is clearly trying to straddle both roles as a gaming and entertainment device. Though we can say it succeeds very well in the former, there are still a few features which we would have liked to see in the latter. The XPS M1530 also offers a generous trio of connectivity options for external displays, which allow it to hook up to anything from an old CRT TV to the latest high-definition LCD panels.

We'll talk about gaming performance a little later in the review. But for now, know that the 15.4-inch transflective widescreen is powered by the high-end Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT coupled with 256MB of dedicated video memory, and is capable of 1,280 x 800-pixel resolution. The speaker bar above the keyboard produces acceptable audio quality. However, it did not have a subwoofer which would have added more bass. Suffice to say the sound is good enough if you are not picky and we suggest a good set of headphones if you want to enjoy movies and music on this XPS (which may also be the reason Dell put in dual earphone jacks for this machine).

There is a nice array of entertainment and work-related features available for this machine. It has a mini-remote control which can be stored in the ExpressCard slot as well as a Webcam for those who love personal snapshots or video-conferencing. The slot-in DVD writer, which can backup files to almost any DVD and CD format in the market, is available with a next-generation Blu-ray option for an additional S$895.59 (US$589.20). The design is also such that it cannot be upgraded in the future. The XPS ships with Dell's proprietary MediaDirect application which allows multimedia content and CDs to be played without having to enter the operating system. This is a boon for those who just want to check out a picture or MP3 without having to wait for Vista to boot up.

Besides fun, the MediaDirect software also includes Instant Office which can look up contacts as well as calendar appointments on your Microsoft Outlook account (for now, it does not work with other email or calendar applications). There is also a fingerprint sensor. However, since it is not coupled with a TPM security chip which stores sensitive passwords and encryption keys on the hardware, the fingerprint reader is best used as a tool for quick logins rather than for data protection.

The XPS M1530 has all the network connectivity features expected of a contemporary portable. Bluetooth, 802.11a/b/g/n and Gigabit Ethernet are present and accounted for. There is even a Wi-Fi catcher button which can detect if there are any available wireless signals in the area. This will save you the hassle of turning on the machine for a little cafe surfing only to find the router down. The only missing network feature is the modem which, unless you intend to use the XPS M1530 for fax or Internet dialup, won't be missed. External peripherals can be hooked up via the miserly three USB 2.0 ports, mini-FireWire or ExpressCard/54 slot. A memory card reader is also available for those with multiple flash cards.

Removing the battery, we were surprised to find a 3G HSDPA SIM card slot even though this feature is showcased only on US models. We checked with Dell Singapore and the response was that though the SIM card slot is present, the HSDPA module is not added as there are no tie-ups with local telcos. However, should that situation change in the future, the unit can easily be upgraded with the HSDPA component at the service center for a fee.

Where this XPS shines is in its trio of external display connectivity. Need to hook up to a monitor? Use the VGA-out. Using a projector for a presentation? An S-video port is ready and waiting. Want to kick virtual butt on a large LCD TV? Plug into the HDMI connector and blast away. However, we do suggest using an external keyboard if you are into serious gaming. Though the keypad is full-sized and quite comfortable to type on, Dell, for some reason, has decided that the right-most row is the best place to put the Home, Page Up, Page Dn and End buttons. Hence, it is very disconcerting to bring your fingers up from the directional keypad, and instead of pressing Enter like you wanted you end up scrolling down. Annoying if you are doing word-processing, hair-ripping suicide if you are in the midst of a game. On the other hand. the touchpad is reasonably sized, while the buttons are soft and comfortable to click on.

Performance And Battery Life of the Dell XPS M1530 Laptop

Our S$3,047.36 (US$2,004.84) review unit held a Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz processor, 2GB RAM and 200GB of storage space (10GB of which is reserved for the recovery partition). The system sits on the Windows Vista Ultimate Edition which has all the features and powers that Microsoft can put in its latest operating system. The basic configuration starts at S$2,398.94 (US$1,578.25) and offers a 2GHz chip, 2GB RAM and 160GB hardisk. At this price, it compares very well with the S$2,398 (US$1,577.63) Acer Aspire 5920G which possesses a weaker Nvidia GeForce 8600M GS graphics chipset. Our spruced-up review unit is even cheaper than the S$3,452 (US$2,271.05) MacBook Pro, though the latter has only a 128GB Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT card. The Apple system, however, does have a backlit LED screen with a higher 1,440 x 900-pixel resolution.

Though MobileMark refused to install properly on the XPS M1530 despite our best efforts, we can safely say that short of running hundreds of spreadsheets or gigabytes worth of RAW image files this system eat most productivity tools for lunch and still has room for dessert.

Fortunately, we were able to run the gaming benchmark. The 3DMark06 test, which stresses the graphics chipset like no other, reported an exceptionally high score of 4,290. This was bested only by the XPS M1730 with its dual video card and was much higher than the Acer Aspire 5920G which used to sit in the number two spot. Though running Crysis on full details and resolution is still a pipe dream for any notebook, the XPS M1530 should be more than competent for most of today's gaming titles.

On our DVD battery life test using The Incredibles movie, the XPS managed to play 1 hour 28 minutes of the show before running out of gas. If you intend to use this XPS as a portable DVD player, best bring the charger along. However, if your needs are restricted to simple word-processing or brief Wi-Fi surfing, you can expect the machine to go unplugged for longer periods. If you really need longer battery life, there is a nine-cell option which will increase the price by S$46.01 (US$30.27).

After-Sales Service And Support for the Dell XPS M1530 Laptop

Dell XPS machines come with one-year XPS Premier Service and one-year CompleteCover. The former offers 24-hour telephone and online service by technicians specializing in XPS machines. Unlike most warranties, CompleteCover replaces or fixes the machine even if it's due to accidental damage like spills or drops. Only fire, theft and wear-and-tear issues are not eligible for replacement. The coverage period can be bumped up to three years for an additional fee.