Dell's Inspiron M501R has a grab bag of design ideas, but most of them look like the cheap cousin of a more inspired design. The wrist rest is finished in what's meant to look metallic but instead looks just like cheap plastic, because that's exactly what it is. Our review sample had a red lid that gave it a slight touch of the style of Samsung's better TV lines, but only just. The flat keyboard includes a number pad. Unlike far too many notebooks this isn't at the expense of the cursor keys, which are a reasonable size, but instead the space bar, which has been shrunk slightly to accommodate the extra keys. If you routinely hit the outside edges of the space bar when typing this could be a problem, but we didn't find it too irksome.
As with most things Dell, there's a modicum of customisation available with the Inspiron M501R. Our review sample was actually something of an anomaly, as it features a configuration Dell doesn't sell any more. On-board our system was an AMD Phenom II N830 2.1GHz triple-core processor, but the system (at the time of writing) ships with an AMD Phenom II P920 1.6GHz quad-core mobile processor. Our model had only 4GB of RAM, but the current specification provides for 6GB. Storage comes via a 500GB 7200rpm hard drive with display handled by an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 550v graphics card with 1GB of on-board RAM. Screen resolution tops out at 1366x768. The M501R has four USB ports, one of which is a combination USB/eSATA port, and they're all rather oddly spaced at the back and rear of the sides. That's presumably a motherboard limitation, but it's an annoying one, as there's a lot of space at the front of the sides where they could have been more comfortably accommodated. The M501R ships with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit edition.
The M501R gave us solid performance with a PCMark05 score of 5909. Its 1GB of dedicated graphics memory also pushed it up the 3D performance stakes with a respectable 3DMark06 score of 5438. That doesn't push it into the frame of the best dedicated gaming notebooks, but it's well ahead of much of the rest of the pack at this kind of price point. It's worth bearing in mind here that the currently selling unit should (in theory) be a little faster than the unit we were able to test.
Desktop replacement notebooks typically don't come with great batteries, but we were surprised at how poor the M501R fared in our battery tests. They're designed to give a worst-case scenario picture, rather than the glowing "up to" figures that vendors typically tout. With all power-saving measures disabled, screen brightness cranked up to full and a looping XviD file playing, the M501R conked out after a frankly awful one hour and 25 minutes. Use this as your in-flight video player, and you'd be lucky to get through even the lightest of romantic comedies before it cut out. With careful battery management you'd get more, but probably not a lot more.
From a processing power perspective, the M501R delivers nicely, and if you were looking for a desktop replacement notebook and happened to like the style (which we didn't), it would suit perfectly. More so than many other desktop replacement notebooks we've tested recently, however, it drops power at a rather alarming rate when not connected directly to the AC.