By Jon Deragon, Visca Consulting
Wednesday June 30, 2004; 1:00pm EST
Today it is easy for a small business owner or employee to justify buying a notebook. Being restricted to the desktop simply doesn't meet the dynamic needs of a small business operator. From doing presentations on the road, to tapping out documents during travel, to the simplicity of having the same machine at both home and work - notebooks are a must. Luckily for small businesses on a lean budget, the price to get yourself mobile has plummeted over the past year. Not only can you get a notebook for around the $1000 mark, but it's also well equipped and will generally do everything a typical business user would want - and competently. The selection of brands and models now available at this price point, is nothing short of amazing. Although most of them offer somewhat similar core specifications, the hard part is deciding which notebooks offer the best blend of overall quality, reliability, refinement and manufacturer customer service.
One notebook that stands out in this market segment is the new Dell Inspiron 1150 notebook. With a base price of a staggeringly low $899USD, and a wide range of options, it can scale to pretty much any budget and hardware / software combination you could possibly need.
Upon first inspection of the Dell Inspiron 1150, it utilizes a familiar form factor for its casing, with a typical footprint for its class. It is generally an attractive notebook, light grey in color, featuring a brushed metal and white Dell emblem on the top of the casing, and a simple, logical layout of the working area when open. Operating the notebook's sliding lock and lifting of the screen feels sturdy and well constructed with very little flexing. The hinges for the screen are well suited for the application and have a positive feeling in their level of resistance and ability to set exact viewing positions for the screen. Overall it could be classified as well constructed, particularly for its price point.
Once powered up, load times are fast with its pre-loaded Microsoft Windows XP Home or Professional edition. Everything worked pretty much immediately out of the box required no configuring or installing, only the usual software license activations and registrations. Best of all is that it is cleanly installed, and not overrun with a plethora of garbage "lite and trial" software and services offers. Overall it was impressive (and a relief) to just start working with a notebook right away, rather than spending hours unconfiguring a workstation that was poorly installed at the factory. The 1150 offers a range of productivity software options ranging from the Corel WordPerfect Office 11 Suite all the way up to the Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Edition. Other installed software titles include Real Player; Sonic RecordNow! CD burning software; Paint Shop Pro 8 (evaluation version) image editor and a range of Dell utilities such as a picture viewer, DVD player, wireless LAN tools, and software specific to the notebook. The Inspiron 1150 includes a collection of software install disks, manuals, quick start guide and AC adaptor. Many other accessories and peripherals can be purchased for the 1150 during or after the time of sale.
The notebook is literally silent in normal operation, which is a joy to work with. Even under "strenuous" conditions there is only an occasional whirring of a small fan from the rear of the case to flush out the hot air and then it resumes back to "is it even on?" level of silence. Ahhh, blissful silence! The keyboard generally offers sufficient feedback, with the keys themselves being a bit on the "lite and plasticy" side. Keys were well laid out, taking only a short period of time to get accustomed to. The accuracy of the touch pad unfortunately left much to be desired - often "jumping" the cursor and responding incorrectly to what we wanted to do. The two buttons accompanying the touch pad performed great, with solid feedback from a quality click mechanism. Status lights along the front of the case for power, drive access and battery charging are clear and up to the task. The num lock, alpha lock and scroll lock lights were adequate, if not a bit small for day time use. General use of the keyboard / touch pad area was comfortable for extended use. The case accommodates a CD/DVD drive, single PCMCIA slot and headphone / microphone jacks on its left side. A swappable battery compartment and 56k v.92 fax / modem jack on its right side. The back includes the integrated 10/100 Ethernet jack, VGA port, 2 USB 2.0 ports, power point and fan vent. Two speakers are integrated into the front of the case. All ports and jacks are well labeled with icons and easy to use. Due to the lack of keyboard, mouse, serial and parallel ports it would have been nice to have 4 USB ports instead of 2, however a USB hub easily handles this short coming.
Under the hood, the Inspiron 1150 can be equipped with either a 2.40 or 2.60 Intel Celeron processor, or a 2.66 or 2.80 Intel Pentium processor. For the reasonable amount asked extra, we would highly recommend the Pentium option over the Celeron. The base memory included is 256MB of shared DDR SDRAM, and is upgradeable to 1GB. Due to the fact that the memory is shared between the system and the graphics card, if you can muster up another $100 it is advisable to get it bumped up to 512MB of memory. All Inspiron 1150's come standard with an Intel Extreme integrated graphics chip set. The hard drive ranges from 20 to 60GB in capacity utilizing an Ultra ATA interface, most will only need between 30 and 40GB for general business usage. The included battery is a 65Whr, and an optional 96Whr version is available for extended power use. The CD drive can be anything from an 8x DVD-ROM to a full 8x CD and (DVD+RW/+R) DVD burner with double layer write capability. An optional (and highly recommended) Dell 1350 wireless card (802.11b/g compatible) is available. The base XGA screen size is 14.1" and an optional 15" screen is available.
Our test Inspiron 1150 was configured with an Intel Pentium 2.66 processor, 256MB memory, 15" screen, 40GB drive and wireless card. We found general operation of the workstation to be more than sufficient for general business use. Initial application load times were not stunning by any means, but were certainly more than acceptable, especially in light of the notebook's price point. Once applications were running, they responded swiftly and without any problems. There were no signs of lag or delay at any time during regular application use. The sound quality from the integrated speakers was as expected, tinny and severely lacking in any level of fidelity or musical reproduction range, but are acceptable for the typical "ding and dong" alert sounds of business applications. The video card produced graphics that are in-line with business requirements for such things as power point presentations, but is not geared towards entertainment related graphics such as first person 3D gaming.
The screen is well suited to the size of the case, crisp and colorful. Its horizontal viewing range is excellent, however its vertical viewing angle is limited often causing either the bottom or top of the screen to appear darker unless you are in a median "sweet spot". After angling the display you can generally find a comfortable viewing position that allows the full screen to be sufficiently legible and easy to work with for prolonged periods of time. We were impressed by the refresh rate of the responsive TFT active-matrix screen, great for full screen DVD movie viewing. We did not experience any glare related problems with the screen, which performed well in a range of lighting conditions. The CD / DVD drive worked quietly and efficiently, but was a tad bit awkward to add and remove discs due to a slight overhang of the case above the disc tray. The wireless card worked flawlessly and offered exceptional ease of use and great wireless internet performance that was consistent - even with access points that were not located within the general vicinity of the notebook.
The notebook comes standard with a 1 year on-site limited warranty, expandable up to 3 years with optional CompleteCare which acts like insurance for your notebook in the event of accidental damage. When purchasing the notebook, shipping rates range between $49USD for 3-5 days to $89USD for next business day. Shipping with Dell has in our experience been outstanding, and live tracking of your delivery is available on their web site.
Overall, the Dell Inspiron 1150 proved to be a "power it up and you have everything you need" experience. Its clean design, components featuring quality usually reserved for notebooks in a higher price points and mind boggling prices set it apart from the herd. Even more enticing is the continual stream of free or reduced price shipping offers; discounted pricing; free components; free upgrades and increased warranty period (and much of the time a combination of those items) that bring the price down and the value up even further for what is already an excellent deal. The numerous positive aspects of this notebook far outweigh the small handful of items we wanted improved - allowing us to enthusiastically recommend the Dell Inspiron 1150 notebook to small business users on a budget.
PROS - Well constructed, durable case; crisp and responsive screen; whisper silent operation; comfortable keyboard; swift performance in business applications; super wireless performance and ease of use; great pre-loaded hard drive image; well equipped at an outstanding price.
CONS - Limited vertical viewing range for screen; more USB2.0 ports would be nice; tinny speakers; lackluster integrated touch pad precision.
About The Author
Jon Deragon is president and founder of Visca Consulting, a firm specializing in web site design, development and usability for businesses of all sizes. His many years in the technology industry has enabled him to write quality, in-depth product reviews to assist businesses make more informed technology purchases. He welcomes any questions or comments you may have regarding his company's services, this review or interest in having your company's products reviewed.
http://www. viscaconsulting. com/