Written on: 29/09/2006 by derred (5 reviews written)
Core Duo/Core 2 Duo processor
Back-lit multimedia buttons
Exceptional sound quality (both speakers and soundcard are above average)
Weight (2.85 kg)
No high end video cards available from Dell for this model
Some minor software trouble
A tiny bit of junkware in some models (but not in my case :D)
Noisy DVD+-RW drive
First off, since Dell has started it's laptop customisation program, the most important thing when reviewing the laptops of the same model is the exact specifications. In my case these are (in the order they appear on their site):
A T2300 Core Duo Processor at 1.66 MHz with 2Mb of level two cache (this processor has since been replaced by the more powerful Core 2 Duo processors as standard) powering the Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2 and Dell Media Experience (or Media Direct) operating systems preinstalled on the device. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the laptop is, if not Linux friendly, at least compatible, and Ubuntu Linux, as well as other distributions are known to run well on the 6400, so there are a couple of good tutorials on the web available to enable all the features in the "Other OS". The fact that you get a free office suite (Microsoft Works), antivirus, firewall, Dell utilities, support and multimedia center options and so on, should keep most users in Windows. (For a stability test I kept it running without a reboot for a week and had NO crashes).
I went with the second screen option that includes TrueLife, and that gave me the best 15.4 inches I've seen in a while, in a wide format and with a native resolution of 1280 x 800. Though you can get an SXGA for an extra $100, I've heard that the quality of that option is not exactly great (whites are yellowish, and the video card doesn't handle fonts well on that resolution).
From a memory standpoint, the device has some great options also, since it supports 4Gb of DDR 2 RAM at 667, and you can get up to an 160Gb 5400 SATA hard disk. And honestly, for a laptop that is a lot! I personally felt that speed was more important, so I went with the 80Gb 7200 SATA disk, of which 65Gb are free straight out of the box (10Gb are occupied by the backup partition and Media Direct OS, and that leaves a 70Gb partition, on which Windows is installed taking up another 5bB). You can free up some of that space by removing some of the preinstalled software, and even by deleting the backup partition, but I strongly recommend you don't do the latter, since a full system restore takes under 10 minutes, including registration! I was also impressed by the performance of the RAM/Processor combo, since in benchmarks the machine scored as well as a T2500 with 2Gb of RAM, even with the 1Gb that I bought (I must mention that Dell only offers a maximum of 2Gb of 533 memory, which is surprising and stupid to be honest).
One of the few qualms I have with the device is the DVD RW drive that produces some strange, if not scary noises, especially on insert and eject. The noises are actually loud enough to be annoying, but they do not appear when viewing a DVD or other similar operations. Then again, blank disk recognition is very well implemented (unlike some laptops), and the included burning suite (Sonic Digital Media LE v7) is well thought out and easy to use, while providing all the features you would expect from a modern burning solution, so the noise is something I am willing to live with. It's a shame though, since the rest of the system is extremely quiet. For example, the cooler started "during" a benchmark... that is 30 minutes after the benchmark had already started :D
The video card options are on-board (I don't care, so I won't go into it). ATI X1300 (it's OK, but don't think about a lot of gaming with 128Mb of split memory). ATI X1400 (still not the greatest mobile video card, but you do get 256Mb of memory, of which 128Mb are discreet DDR3, and the other 128Mb is hyper-memory). There is also a nVidia 7300 version available, but it is being pulled from production since it costs more than the X1400, and it has the performance of the x1300. If you are a die-hard nVidia fan then hurry :D. Both the ATI cards are built, not for extreme performance, but for long term use, so they incorporate Shader Model 3.0, and the X1400 that I chose got an above average (for a laptop that is) 1,178 marks in 3Dmark06. I must mention that this is after some tweaking, factory settings having scored 931 marks. Another issue comes up here. You can't install vanilla ATI mobility drivers! You must use the hack to install that desktop driver instead. Since Dell isn't one of the few notebook manufacturers ATI supports, and since ATI is now part of AMD ,and Dell doesn't do AMD laptops (except by way of Alienware), that won't change very soon. On the other hand, even with Dell drivers you get decent gaming performance (aka, maximum quality) in games like: Flatout, Crashday, Street Racing Syndicate, Hard Truck Apocalypse, F.E.A.R.(FPS drops do happen once an hour or so), Unreal Tournament 2004, Fable, WOW and others I don't own, and thus could not try (YET). Also worth a mention is the fact that you can upgrade the video outside legal channels (up to nVidia 7900), but you are voiding the warranty and have to do a lot of searching. Keep in mind that if you want to upgrade the video you must get the x1300 or x1400 version (or else the motherboard won't have the PCI Express x16 slot), battery life will drop (70% of initial values) and the temperature will rise (52C for the system).
Default integrated Wi-Fi (Centrino version but no bluetooth is what I got) is OK, but I regret not getting the 100mbps version, and bluetooth might be useful, since that would allow the addition of a remote control that fits in the Express Card slot. Yes I did say that, no more PCMCIA, but hello, PCI Express speeds for notebook expansion cards (HD Tuners, SATA Adapters...).
Moving on, I couldn't help stopping by to say a bit about the sound. IT WILL BLOW YOU AWAY. The SigmaTel HD soundcard is simply amazing, and if you upgrade to Soundblaster Audigy HD you won't want to listen to anything else. The speakers are also staggering. And I can say, that without adding a subwoofer there is nothing you can do to improve sound quality on a laptop to this level, and even laptops that do have integrated woofers don't always sound this good, or as loud for that matter. They are clearly designed for the entire family (and some close friends) to watch a movie together, and the sound to fill a room. (I think up to 5 people could watch a movie on the laptop without comfort issues, even on the on-board screen, and if you connect it to your TV then you will get the best media experience in a while.)
The 9 cell battery is also a must (and Dell has since removed the 6 cell version from its options). That gives you roughly 2 to 5 hours of autonomy, depending on what you're doing. For example, in a demanding 3D game with Wi-Fi on, maximum screen brightness, speakers on the level where my eardrums don't burst; it lasts about an hour and a half. On the other hand, surfing the web while listening to music lasted closer to six hours (not exactly sure because I got sick of it after the first four).
Design is, in the case of this laptop, a major consideration. I think the people who built it must see it as an integral part of your home entertainment system, as it fits like a dream in your media rack, especially when you look at the front multimedia buttons and the wonderful way they look when they light up (a blue neon tint). It's a silver, almost Apple'esque design, with an extra white rim. I like it, as it reminds me a bit of racing stripes, but some people actually hate the rim, so look well before you buy. Also, part of the design (or at least loosely associated with it :D) is the overall build quality. It is made of plastic, but because of the metallic finish coupled with the "piano white" (the reverse of a piano black, in other words "ooooo...shiny!!!") rim, it doesn't scream plastic, and when you're using it, the feeling is strong and well built. The only thing that you could find wrong with that is a screen latch design that let's the screen wobble a bit when closed.
Last but not least comes size. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. THIS LAPTOP IS BIG. It's not something you want to lug around all day, nor will you be able to comfortably hold it in one hand, or at least not for long periods of time. It must be 2 inches in height also, and that gives off the impression that the laptop is older or even cheaper than it really is. BUT, and that's a big but, this isn't a true laptop. It's designed from the ground up to be a desktop replacement, and for that class, its 2.85kg are almost a bit on the light side. I'd like to mention the fact that I plan on taking it with me to school, and if you stick it in a backpack you won't be extremely bothered by the weight.
In the end, regardless of configuration, design, size and battery, the most important thing this laptop has is personality. While it's true you can find better configurations in the same price range, the quality and design are incredible. And though it might not be for everyone (the fact alone that you need to hack your own video drivers took care of that), it's perfect for my needs.
So, to conclude the conclusion, while I don't recommend this machine to all people between 1 and 100, since hard core gamers and business class users might be let down by the 6400's features (or lack thereof), I do recommend it to those who want a laptop to call their own, to replace their desktop machine permanently, who don't want a dull looking box, who want their own mobile media center or mobile music studio, casual gamers on the go (also people who think neon and stripes look good on their machine... so that IS just about everybody huh? Ah well.