Friday, June 25, 2010

New laptop: Dell Inspiron 1545

I purchased a new laptop a couple of weeks ago to replace the trusty Dell XPS M1210 laptop. It served me well for four years, and was still more than adequate for my needs until it suddenly gave up the ghost.

After having spent some time with the Dell Inspiron 1545 – purchased at Best Buy for around $500 with tax – I’ve noted some great features and some shortcomings. Perhaps my experience will help others in their buying decisions.

First, I have no regrets about my purchase. It’s a great system and well worth the money. Let’s get that out of the way first off. This isn’t a trash-job “review” like I’ve read elsewhere over the years, posted by someone who really has a hidden axe to grind. Quite the contrary, I’m happy with the system and have been a long-time satisfied Dell customer. And to clarify that, let me say that if I were honked off at Dell for some reason I’d be just as willing to share that information as well as sharing the viewpoint of a satisfied customer. In this case, I found just a couple of quirks and some very stellar features.

On the plus side:

  • Very easy-to-use keyboard, comfortable for a 40-year speed typist.
  • Color options available were nice, although there are more options available through the Dell website – naturally, since the ones ordered through Dell (except those in the Dell Outlet) are built-to-order. Best Buy carries the most popular, which makes perfect sense. I opted for the sky-blue model, which is blue only on the lid, with the rest being glossy jet black.
  • The resolution on the display is spectacular!
  • It came with a built-in webcam, which I haven’t had occasion to use yet but I like having it, since in the past I’ve had to use external ones which are cumbersome, easy to misplace and just plain ugly.
  • Video processing speed is great, well beyond what I’m used to, even though this particular model doesn’t have the dedicated video memory of the nVidia adapter (it uses the Intel chipset which shares memory with the regular system RAM). As I write this, I’m watching an episode of Caprica on, which is running smoothly despite being a “background” task, and a couple of other apps are also running in the background.
  • The system came with Windows 7 Home Premium, 64-bit, on an AMD64 processor. Nice! 32-bit Windows makes use of almost all the 4Gb of memory, but not quite. Going with 64-bit Windows gives it just that much more usable memory. Originally, my XPS came with 32-bit Vista, but later on when I popped for a Microsoft TechNet Plus subscription, giving me access to all of Microsoft’s non-development software (servers, operating systems, applications, etc.) and I found out that my little XPS could support 64-bit, wow! Performance took a serious boost, even using Vista! OK, I’m not quite a Microsoft “fanboy” but I still like their products. But even Microsoft admits – now – that Vista’s performance could have been better, and Windows 7 proved it. I can’t fault them for waiting to say so, since everyone in the industry with more than a few years’ experience remembers the lessons that Adam Osborne taught us back in the early 80s. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me know and I will enlighten you.

On the minus side of the ledger:

  • The glossy jet black case tends to pick up fingerprints
  • Whatever the material is that they use for the case – or for the coating – the skin oils from the fingerprints are difficult to clean off without using some kind of solvent like Windex, and I’m reluctant to use anything at all for fear of marring the finish.
  • Maybe I’m an old fart, but I miss the little flickering light that indicates hard drive activity. All my previous systems, both desktop and laptop, had indicators that showed when the computer was grinding away at the drive. Without it, if the computer display pauses for some reason and I don’t see the drive activity light, I get concerned that something’s hung up somewhere.
  • They picked an odd memory configuration: 3Gb instead of 2 or 4. The out-of-box configuration is a 2Gb module for DIMM A and a 1Gb module for DIMM B. This pretty much guarantees that I’m going to have to replace the B module to take the system up to the documented maximum of 4Gb. My XPS fairly leaped in performance when I upgraded it from 2Gb to 4Gb a couple of years ago, so as soon as I can spare the $$ I’ll be popping for a 2Gb DIMM.
  • For some wholly-unfathomable reason, the BIOS settings are configured so that the function keys are set not as Windows-type function keys (F1, F2, etc.) but as the Dell-specific keys to toggle wireless, change sound, play media files and so forth. In that mode, if you want to rename a file, you have to hold the blue "Fn" key down while pressing the F2 key, or you'll accidentally turn off the wireless network! It's necessary to go into the BIOS settings (press F2 while the power-on splash screen is showing) and toggle it so that the opposite is true. Then the F2 key actually renames files, while holding the Fn key and pressing F2 toggles the wireless (and so forth). [Added this information after the original blog entry was posted, as I forgot about it. Mea maxima culpa, my bad, etc. Sorry.]

Two items that are neither plus nor minus are the hard drive size and the choice of operating system. It came with a 250Gb drive, plenty adequate for home or small business users but nowhere near enough for me. Hey, I have three Western Digital one-terabyte hard drives hanging off this thing when I’m at my desk, so a little quarter-terabyte is piddly.


First thing I did was to salvage the 500Gb drive from my XPS (which was an upgrade in that system, originally only coming with an 80Gb drive – a sizeable chunk of laptop storage four years ago!) and swap that out in the 1545; the 250Gb drive went straight into an external USB hard drive case for portable storage. I haven’t touched that drive yet, just in case I have to put it back in the laptop for some reason (knock wood).

Second, Windows 7 Home Premium is perfectly fine for most people, but I prefer Windows 7 Ultimate. Thanks again to my Microsoft TechNet Plus subscription, I have the use of up to 10 licenses for each of just about everything Microsoft makes, so it was of no financial impact to go with the upgrade. (And hey, if you had the choice between a Honda and a Harley for the same price, which would you choose?)

I still have some older programs I use, such as QuickVerse 7.0 Deluxe (a costly product to upgrade to the current release), which won’t run under Windows 7 but which runs just fine under Windows XP. Windows 7 Ultimate gives me the Windows XP Mode, basically a Windows XP machine contained within Windows 7 (based on Microsoft’s VirtualPC technology).

Ultimate also lets me join a network domain, which is of little use to most home users but of vital importance to IT professionals like myself. Throw in the BitLocker encryption technology and some extended backup capabilities – both of which should be standard for all versions of Windows 7 in my opinion! – and the decision to go with Ultimate becomes a no-brainer.

(I don’t use HomeGroup – yet – so that’s not an issue. It’s only available in Home Premium or Ultimate, but not in the Windows 7 Professional version. Also, the support for an additional 35 different languages in Ultimate wasn’t a factor, as I have a hard enough time just with English…! A complete comparison of the three different versions is available here.)

So that’s pretty much it. Looking at both sides of the balance sheet, I’m confident that this was a good purchase decision. If you’re considering a similar purchase, it’s worth looking into.

Incidentally, my unit was purchased at the Best Buy store #110 on Tyler St. in Riverside, CA. I can’t say much either way on the purchase experience there, since I knew that this was the unit I wanted. I pretty much just went in, picked out the color and plunked down the cash. One thing of note, though: I had to ask for the basic system – the ones that were on the sales floor were “pre-configured,” meaning they had been bench-checked and equipped with a few extra items like a full-version anti-virus program (and an additional $69 tacked onto the bottom line). I didn’t need any of that, so the salesman had to go into the back-room storage for an un-touched unit. Something to be aware of when shopping anywhere, as this is a common practice at full-service retailers.

Questions and comments welcome, as always.


1 comment:

  1. I've noticed another item that I'd change if I could:

    The connector for the headphones and microphone on the 1545 are located on the =front= of the computer, rather than to the side. This means that the plugs for these devices stick out straight. Often I use my laptop while reclining, knees up, so my "lap" is about 45 degrees. The plug for the headphones sticks right into my stomach as a result, so unless I have headphones or earbuds that have a 90-degree turn on the connector, it's a little uncomfortable.

    I still miss that hard-drive activity light, too.