Dell Inspiron M101z Review

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$579

Pros: Sleek design with multiple color options; Comfortable keyboard and touchpad; Strong audio quality; Good graphics performance for price

Cons: Battery life shorter than Intel competition; Below-average Wi-Fi performance; Runs a bit warm

Verdict: This good-looking 11.6-inch ultraportable delivers a comfy keyboard, snappy performance, and strong sound quality for the money.

And the award for most improved ultraportable goes to...Seriously, Dell has done a really nice job revamping the 11-inch member of its Inspiron family, banishing the lackluster touchpad with integrated buttons and slightly cramped keyboard in favor of a design that's much easier to use. And the Inspiron M101z (starting at $449; $579 as configured) is easier on the eyes, too, featuring bold color options and a sleek forward hinge design. When you add in powerful speakers and a dual-core AMD processor with ATI graphics, this 3.4-pound machine runs circles around your typical netbook. But is it the best value in its class?

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Design

The Inspiron M101z looks like a shrunken version of the 14-inch Inspiron 14R, which is a good thing. It has the same hinge design and a relatively svelte profile that tapers from 1 inch in the front to 1.4 inches in the back. Our review model sports a cool Peacock Blue lid with a paisley-like pattern (Dell calls it Jax). You can also get this pattern in Tomato Red, standard Clear Black, or a Promise Pink version with a DigiPais pattern.

On the inside, the M101z has a black glossy bezel surrounding the 11.6-inch display. The lower part of the notebook combines a gunmetal gray plastic deck with a black chiclet-style keyboard. Weighing 3.4 pounds, this ultraportable fit easily our backpack as we carried it around New York City. However, this isn't the lightest laptop in its class. The Acer Aspire One 721 weighs 2.8 pounds, and the Lenovo ThinkPad X100e weighs 3.2 pounds.

Keyboard and Touchpad

While the Inspiron 11z was somewhat of an ergonomic disaster, the M101z is one of the more comfortable 11-inch notebooks we've used. It starts with a chiclet-style keyboard with nicely separated keys that provide springy feedback. The layout is miles better than the 11z's cramped keyboard. The arrow keys are smaller than we're accustomed to, but were still easy to find by feel.

As per usual for Dell, the top row inverts the function keys so that you can directly access things such as brightness and volume controls. You can also quickly toggle the Wi-Fi radio, control music playback, check battery life, and output the display when you want to output the picture to a TV or projector.

Dell wisely ditched the touchpad with integrated buttons found on the 11z in favor of two discrete mouse buttons on the M101z. While they're a bit small and mushy, we found it much easier to make selections without making errors. The smooth touchpad (3.3 x 1.5 inches) made it easy to navigate the desktop. Pinch-to-zoom gestures worked fine, but due to the touchpad's short height you'll have better luck if you use one finger from each hand. 

Heat

AMD-powered ultraportables tend to run on the hot side, and the Inspiron M101z is no exception. After playing a Hulu video for 15 minutes, we measured temperatures of 105 and 98 degrees Fahrenheit on the touchpad and between the G and H keys. We consider anything above 95 degrees comfortable. Things got a little toastier on the underside of the laptop, with temperatures reaching 104 degrees near the vent but a more reasonable 97 degrees in the center. Still, we had no issues using this notebook in our lap for extended sessions of basic tasks like word processing, e-mail, and web surfing.

Display and Speakers

The M101z features a glossy 11.6-inch display with 1366 x 768 resolution, which provided bright and colorful images when we viewed some images of the Grand Canyon on Flickr. When we watched a 720p episode of "Glee" on fox.com, details were a bit fuzzy around the edges of characters but the video played smoothly. As we expected, the display kicked back reflections when viewed from the sides. However, we had to tilt the screen back more than we'd like to get the best picture.

To test the speakers on the M101z (located underneath the front flip of the system) we fired up Muse's "Supermassive Black Hole" on Slacker.com. The audio got loud without sounding harsh, thanks to SRS Premium Sound technology. In fact, this is one of the best sounding laptops we've heard with an 11.6-inch display. Dialog in the Glee episode we watched and in an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia was also loud and clear.

Ports and Webcam 

From front to back, the left side of the M101z houses a 3-in-1 memory card reader, USB port, HDMI port, and Ethernet jack. A headphone jack, mic jack, two more USB ports, and the power jack line the right side. The VGA port and Kensington lock slot flank the battery on the back of the notebook. 

Dell guarantees that your video chats will never be boring by bundling its Webcam Central software. The program includes lots of fun scenes and effects, as well as several amusing avatars. You can even create your own using the separate Live Cam Avatar Creator software. Webcam Central also lets you easily record videos and share them via e-mail, Photobucket, or YouTube. A Skype caller said our image looked a little dark and fuzzy around the edges.

Performance

Equipped with a 1.3-GHz AMD Athon II Neo K235 processor and 4GB of RAM, the M101z certainly had plenty of pep for surfing the web, creating documents, and streaming videos. The laptop also did a good job rendering fly-overs in Google Earth and playing back 720p videos, including an HD trailer of Tron: Legacy.

The notebook notched a PCMark Vantage score of 2,431, which, while below the ultraportable average, beat out the Acer Aspire One 721 (1,911). Then again, that cheaper system has a slower, single-core K125 CPU and 2GB of RAM. The M101z also beat the ThinkPad X100e (2,382), which has a 1.6-GHz AMD Turion Neo X2 L625 processor. Still, ultraportables equipped with Intel's Pentium processors, such as the Acer Aspire 1810TZ (2,830), offer even better performance.

It took the M101z 1 minute and 5 seconds to boot Windows 7 Premium, about 4 seconds slower than average. The 5,400-rpm, 320GB hard drive is certainly speedy, though, turning in a transfer rate of 30.3 MBps. That's well above the ultraportable average of 24.7 MBps.

The M101z can handle video editing, but it's not blazing. It took the laptop 2 minutes and 16 seconds to transcode a 114MB clip from MPEG-4 to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder. That showing is nearly twice as fast as the Aspire One 721 (4:12) and slightly quicker than the ThinkPad X100e (2:17), but below the category average of 1:55.

Graphics Performance

While the M101z lacks the processing power of ultraportables with Intel inside, it outperforms many of them in the graphics department. The integrated ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225 card scored 1,309 in 3DMark06, better than the Intel-powered TimelineX 1830t (1,278) and the ThinkPad X100e (1,080) with ATI Radeon HD 3200 graphics.

You can also get away with some gaming on this laptop, so long as your expectations (and the resolution) stay low. In World of Warcraft the system rang up 58 frames per second at 1024 x 768 resolution. However, that number dipped to an unplayable 9 fps at native resolution.

Battery Life and Wireless

The six-cell battery on the M101z lasted a respectable 4 hours and 54 minutes in the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi). That runtime is a little bit better than the AMD-powered ThinkPad X100e (4:47), and much longer than the Aspire One 721 (3:15). Nevertheless, the average ultraportable lasts 5:33; many last 6 hours or longer. You should be able to get through a good portion of the day with this Inspiron, but some may want to wait until Dell makes the nine-cell battery option available this fall.

We were somewhat disappointed in this machine's Wi-Fi strength. The Broadcom WirelessN Half-Mini Card turned in a data rate of 23.4 Mbps at 15 feet from our router, and 14.2 Mbps from 50 feet. Both numbers are below the category averages of 27.3 Mbps and 19.5 Mbps, respectively.

Software and Warranty

Dell bundles the M101z with an array of its own branded software, starting with the Dell Dock. This dock provides large shortcuts to e-mail and music, parental controls, photos, and videos. From this customizable bar you can also access Office Starter 2010. Dell includes DataSafe Online (2GB free for 12 months) and Webcam Central software. We'd ignore the former service because you can get the same amount of free online storage elsewhere without any restrictions.

The Inspiron M101z also comes with Syncables Desktop software, used for syncing photos, music, video, and data with a primary PC. The M101z also comes with Cozi Family Calendar, Skype, and the Windows Live program suite (Mail, Messenger, Movie Maker Photo Gallery, and more). WildTangent Orb is a hub or casual games, though you can find some of the more popular titles already on Facebook.

Dell backs the M101z with a standard one-year warranty and 24/7 tech support.Check out Dell's performance  in our Tech Support Showdown.

Configurations

The M101z starts at an aggressive $449, which includes a single-core Athlon II Neo K125 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 5,400-rpm, 250GB hard drive. Our premium $579 model features a faster Athon II Neo K235 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a zippier 7,200-rpm, 320GB hard drive. Both models include a 11.6-inch display, Bluetooth 3.0, 802.11n wireless, and Windows 7 Home Premium.

Verdict

These days the market certainly isn't lacking AMD-powered ultraportables, but the Dell Inspiron M101z is among the best models we've tested. It has a cooler look than the ThinkPad X100e while offering better performance and slightly longer battery life. We also like this laptop's keyboard and SRS-powered speakers. Still, $579 is a little steep considering that the 11.6-inch Acer Aspire 1810TZ can be had for around the same price (or less), which boasts even more speed and well over 8 hours of battery life. Nevertheless, for those seeking netbook-like portability with more oomph, the M101z combines good looks, impressive sound quality, and a comfy typing experience.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 1.3-GHz AMD Athon II Neo K235
Operating System MS Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 4GB
Hard Drive Size 320GB
Hard Drive Speed 5,400rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Hard Drive
Display Size 11.6
Native Resolution 1366x768
Optical Drive
Optical Drive Speed
Graphics Card ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225
Video Memory
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Broadcom WirelessN Half-Mini
Bluetooth Bluetooth 3.0 + EDR
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Kensington Lock
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
USB Ports 3
Card Slots 3-1 card reader
Warranty/Support
Size 11.5 x 8.1 x 1-1.4 inches
Weight 3.4 pounds
Company Website www.dell.com