Editors' note: This review is part of our 2010 retail laptop and desktop back-to-school roundup, covering specific fixed configurations of popular systems that can be found in retail stores.
The Dell Inspiron iM501R-1212PBL offers a pleasing design, a multitouch touch pad, and a useful selection of ports, but it can't quite keep pace with competing Intel-based models.
Worse than its yielding application performance to rival Intel, the AMD-based Inspiron iM501R offers below-average battery life and its keyboard squeaks. Perhaps the grating, high-pitched squeak is unique to our review unit; you can check one out for yourself on the shelves at Best Buy, where you'll find the Dell Inspiron iM501R listed for $549. We would instead recommend the $529 Asus K501J-BBZ5, which offers better application performance, excellent build quality, but no HDMI port.
|Processor||2.1GHz AMD Athlon II P320|
|Memory||3GB DDR2 SDRAM 1333MHz|
|Hard drive||320GB at 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4250|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium|
|Dimensions (WDH)||14.8 x 10.3 x 1.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.8 / 6.6 pounds|
You'll likely see a rainbow of Inspiron iM501R models on retail store shelves. Our review model, the iM501R-1212PBL, features a bright blue lid (Dell calls it peacock blue, hence the PBL suffix); other color choices include black, red, green, and pink. Open up the laptop and you'll find a brushed-aluminum finish on the keyboard deck and a glossy black bezel framing the display. The keyboard is matte-black and the touch pad is a matte-charcoal gray. The overall design looks clean and simple. It's a hair thinner than other 15.6-inch laptops we've recently reviewed, such as the Asus K501J and the HP G62-225DX. It weighs 5.8 pounds, however, which is average for its size.
The keyboard is roomy and easy to type on. A narrow number pad is squeezed into its right side, but no keys are shortened to accommodate its inclusion. The four arrow keys are half height, however, but you may not find yourself using them all that much, because the touch pad features multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling. We initially liked the keyboard, but only for a minute or two before we began to notice a squeaking noise. We tracked it down to the space bar; with every space entered it would emit a high-pitched squeak--highly annoying. It may be unique to our review model, but it makes us question the build quality of the keyboard on this budget laptop. Be sure to test it out in the store before you decide on a purchase. Unlike the space bar, the mouse buttons below the touch pad are silent when pressed. They offer a soft feel, with almost too much travel. We still prefer them to the stiff mouse button on the HP G62-225DX.
The 15.6-inch display features a 1,366x768-pixel resolution and LED backlights. The screen is hard to differentiate from other 15.6-inch laptops, which is to say it delivers images that look bright and crisp. Like any other 1,366x768-pixel display, it qualifies as HD--its 768 vertical lines support 720p video but fall short of 1080p.
Helping differentiate the Dell Inspiron iM501R from the Asus K501J and the HP G62-225DX is its audio, which we'd describe as slightly above average. Its speakers won't rattle the wall--we've yet to hear laptop audio that can do that--but they do offer relatively full sound that stays clear at max volume, making movie dialogue discernible even when you're not hunched over the laptop. Helping the audio punch is the speakers' position; they aren't located in the standard spot above the keyboard but instead project out from the front edge.
As opposed to the lower-end Webcams on the Asus K501J, the HP G62-225DX, and nearly all other budget laptops, the Dell Inspiron iM501R features a Webcam not with a 1.3-megapixel resolution that lets you snap pictures or record video at 1280x1024 pixels. We also like Dell's Webcam Central app, which loads quickly, appears like it was designed within the past 10 years (we're looking at you, CyberLink YouCam app), and includes buttons for uploading to YouTube or Photobucket.
|Dell Inspiron iM501R-1212PBL||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/ microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||4 USB 2.0, eSATA, multiformat media card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
Connectivity and expansion on the Dell Inspiron iM501R is generous and conveniently located. There are four USB 2.0 ports, one of which doubles as an eSATA port. You'll find one USB port on the left edge, another on the right edge, and two on the back edge. The power connection is also located on the back edge, making it convenient no matter if the nearest outlet is to your left or to your right. The VGA port is also on the back edge, and an HDMI port is on the left edge. Networking comes by way of 802.11n Wi-Fi and 100/100 Ethernet.
The Dell Inspiron iM501R-1212PBL features the 2.1GHz AMD Athlon II P320, a fairly low-end dual-core processor, and 3GB of fast 1333MHz DDR2 memory. Competing systems in the budget group at Best Buy (the Asus K501J and the HP G62-225DX) feature the dual-core Intel Pentium T4500 processor and performed far better in labs testing.
On CNET Labs' multitasking test, the Inspiron iM501R was a whopping 78 percent slower than the Asus K501J and 59 percent slower than the HP G62-225DX. The Dell closed the gap somewhat on our Photoshop and iTunes tests, but still trailed the Asus and HP by considerable margins. It was 32 and 27 percent slower than the Asus and the HP on our Photoshop benchmark, and 36 and 42 percent slower than the Asus and the HP on our iTunes test, respectively. In real-world terms, the Dell took 1 minute 15 seconds longer than the HP to convert 19 MP3s to ACC format, which reinforces our standing advice to stick with low-end Intel dual-core CPUs in the lowest-priced midsize laptops.
You do get a boost from the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4250 graphics, which gave us 21.8 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III at 1,280x768-pixel resolution. That's not exactly playable, but simpler non-shooter games should work fine, if expectations are kept modest.