Dell Inspiron 9400

I needed a laptop with a dual core processor, but also a decent graphics card. The Inspiron 9400 was one of the only laptops available that had both, and at £1950, it’s not a bad price either. Thanks to UPS, I received the laptop within two days of placing my order with Dell.

9400

Specification

  • Intel Core Duo Processor T2600 (2.16GHz, 2MB Cache, 667MHz FSB)
  • 2GB DDR2 667Mhz
  • 256Mb PCI-Expressx16 NVIDIA GeForce Go 7800
  • 17″ WUXGA Display (1920 x 1200)
  • 100Gb 5400RPM SATA hard drive
  • 8x DVD+/-RW drive
  • Intel PRO Set 3945 (802.11 a,b,g)
  • Internal Bluetooth 2.0
  • Internal 56k v92 modem
  • Internal 10/100Mbps ethernet
  • IEEE 1394a Firewire 400 port
  • 6 x USB 2.0 ports
  • 5-in-1 card reader (SD,MMC,MS(Pro),XD)
  • VGA, DVI and S-Video out
  • 3.5mm audio in and out
  • Expresscard slot

Also in the box

  • 2 x 9 cell 80mWh Li-ion batteries
  • AC adaptor
  • Snap-on LCD cover (Carbon fibre design)

Features

The laptop came shipped with the usual bloat. Dell’s utilities, free trials and a copy of XP MCE 2005. MCE is fine, but I needed domain support and other stuff included with XP Pro, so the first thing I did was format and install XP Professional. MCE isn’t needed anyway because Dell’s MediaDirect utility, which is just a customized version of windows on a hidden partition is included. It’s accessed by pressing a button on the keyboard. The laptop itself is a great piece of kit, but Dells sloppy programmers set a bad impression.

The laptop has media controls on the front, which let you control the volume and move through tracks while the lid is down. There are also four inbuilt speakers and a subwoofer, delivering high quality audio not normally possible from inbuilt speakers. They left out gigabit ethernet which was a big disappointment. 100Mbps isn’t that fast anymore, especially when you’re moving uncompressed DV files around.

Battery life isn’t bad either. I bought two 9-cell 80mWh batteries, which provide about 2 hours of battery life each. The batteries take about an hour to charge from 10% to 100%, and there are inbuilt power saving features. The network card can be configured to turn itself off when on battery power and if no network cable is connected. The screen brightness can also be lowered to preserve battery life.

The touchpad is ok when you’re on the move. The buttons feel expensive, and the accuracy and sensitivity of the touchpad is good. The only thing lacking is a numeric keypad, the numpad is overlaid onto the keyboard, meaning you have to hold function and a letter to get a number, or use the main number above the keyboard. Once you get Dell’s drivers installed, lots of functions can be controlled through hotkeys. The radio can be toggled, screen brightness adjusted, DVD drive ejected, and the external video output and volume can be controlled.

The LCD was the most impressive thing when I opened the box. Being used to a 1280×1024 CRT monitor, a 1920×1200 widescreen LCD really impressed me. Everything looks so small! Having a high res panel is a good thing though, there’s more room to fit everything on and you don’t have to maximize windows.

WiFi comes as standard, and the range on the included Intel 3945 card is very impressive. I have no problems connecting from 70m or so away from the router.

Dell included an ExpressCard slot, dropping the aging PCMCIA format. There are only a few Expresscards available at present. No external WiFi for wardriving, no TV tuners, and no 3G CDMA cards. In a few months time, when manufacturers start to make Expresscards, this situation should improve.

Dell have apparently stopped shipping recovery CDs. Instead, they use a hidden partition on your hard drive which contains an image of the OS as it left the factory. The partition’s about 5gb in size, so the best thing to do is delete it. If you email Dell support a few times, you can persuade them to mail you the recovery CDs.

Benchmarks

The 7800 Go is rated by NVIDIA as 400Mhz clock speed and 1.1Ghz memory bus, but Dell underclock it to 250/688. The main problem is heat dissipation. Even so, I managed to get the frequencies to 330/830 which peaks at a tempareture of 75º. The frequencies can easily be changed with third party drivers such as the XTreme-G MobileForce driver set.

Click the graphs for full size.

PCMark04 - Click for full size

PC Mark 04 rates all aspects of a PCs performance. The other benchmarks focus mainly on graphics, meaning the 9400 usually loses to the XPS due to only having a 7800 Go whereas the XPS has a 7800 Go GTX, with more pixel pipelines.

FarCry - Click for full size
Doom 3 - Click for full size

The 9400 isn’t far behind the XPS in FarCry and Doom 3, despite having 8 pixel pipelines less. The Dual Core makes up for the difference.

3DMark03 - Click for full size
3DMark05 - Click for full size

Again, there isn’t much of a gap between the 9400 and the XPS, even though the XPS has a much more powerful graphics card the the 9400.

Pictures

Click any of these pictures for full size versions. Sorry for the crap scattered around the desk ;)

Inspiron 9400 Inspiron 9400 Inspiron 9400 Inspiron 9400 Inspiron 9400 Inspiron 9400

Accessories

The carbon fibre case which came with the laptop is nice, but nowhere near worth the £35 Dell charge for it. I fell like they’ve taken advantage a bit, trying to get peoples’ money when they’re caught up spending £2000 for a laptop, what’s another £35.

I bought a Jansport Air Logic bag for my 9400. It’s got plenty of padding on the straps, lots of space inside and doesn’t look like a laptop bag (which is a good thing). I’d advise against buying it if you’re in the UK though, or if you do, find a UK supplier. I bought it from a company in the US, and got stung with the import duty, meaning the shipping cost nearly twice as much as the bag itself.

Low availability of ExpressCards means that wardriving is off for the moment, or atleast until someone makes a linux driver for the IPW 3945. I bought a GPS, which I’m happy with. It’s loads better than my TomTom because you’re not limited by the number of Points of Interest you can add, and the laptop speakers is much louder.

10th June 2006: The IPW3945 driver for Linux has finally been released, so WarDriving under linux is possible.

Links

Notebookforums.com
Extreme Overclocking forums
Notebookreview forums

Conclusion

Overall, the 9400 is a good laptop. It tends to overheat alot when playing graphics intensive games like Oblivion, even though the GPU is underclocked. I think this is probably a problem most notebooks experience due to the small space the components are crammed in to. I wouldn’t buy a performance notebook again, purely for the fact that desktops are clearly better for gaming and upgradability. There are still hardly any ExpressCards available, whereas you can get PCMCIA versions of sound cards, TV cards and WiFi cards with external antenna connections. The IPW3945 WiFi card still isn’t fully supported under linux, and after hours of frustration I was ready to buy an earlier model and swap it with that. The only problem was that Intel decided to change the connection type from all previous IPW generations, meaning the whole concept of MiniPCI cards goes down the pan.

Next time, I’d buy an Ultra portable such as the 123 Alienware Sentia which only weighs 2Kg, just over half the 3.6Kg of the 9400. I was really torn whether to buy an XPS or a 9400, and if I could go back I’d go for the XPS. The lights kick ass, you get a PCMCIA slot and it has gigabit ethernet.

The Inspiron 9400 is a great laptop. The graphics are amazing and battery life is better than I expected. Overall, I’d definately recommend the 9400 as both a desktop replacement and a notebook ideal for people on the go.