The dividing line between Netbooks and laptops has long been a fuzzy one, as Intel's Atom CPUs have migrated into 11-inch and even larger systems, while other 10- and 11-inch models have added alternative CPUs, graphics hardware, and high-resolution displays. Dell's new 11-inch entry, the Inspiron M101z, has one foot solidly over that Netbook line, falling somewhere between what we would call a premium Netbook and an ultraportable laptop.
The key is the dual-core AMD Neo K325 CPU, which offers a much-improved user experience over the single-core Intel Atom found in most 11-inch Netbooks. This $579 configuration of the M101z also includes 4GB of RAM and a 7200rpm hard drive. At the same time, a single-core version, with AMD's Neo K125, is also available for $449--further confusing the Netbook/laptop issue.
The more expensive dual-core version runs like a charm, and is a great experience for anyone beaten down by lumbering Atom-powered Netbooks. Unfortunately, it's also just about as expensive as a standard laptop, and for only a little more you could trade up to an Intel Core i3 system. You're clearly paying a premium for the small size here (whereas the less expensive single-core version is still about $50 too much).
The actual design and build quality are excellent, if bland, and the dual-core version of Dell's M101z is a good fit for anyone who likes the small size and portability of Netbooks, but doesn't mind paying more for near-mainstream performance.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$579 / $449|
|Processor||1.3GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K325 Dual-Core|
|Memory||4GB, 1333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||320GB 7200rpm|
|Chipset||ATI RS880M + SB820M|
|Graphics||ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225 (integrated)|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.5 x 8.1 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.4/4.2 pounds|
A change of pace from Dell's previous Mini line of Netbooks, the M101z feels less rounded and chunky, and more streamlined. The overall look and feel is still dominated by plastic, but the wrist rest and keyboard tray have a silver brushed-metal-looking pattern, and the back of the lid is available in a variety of colors (for a somewhat hefty extra $40).
The biggest physical difference is what Dell calls its "hinge-forward" design, which moves the display hinge slightly toward the user, leaving a tiny lip of the chassis behind it. Dell claims it helps by moving the display physically closer to the viewer, which seems like a stretch, and that it also aids stability of the overall design (the system overall certainly seems very solid and rigid).
The keyboard uses widely spaced, flat-topped keys--similar to what's found on nearly every new laptop, and a departure from. However, the keyboard on the M101z feels especially solid, with absolutely no flex under your fingers even with heavy typing. Important keys, such as the right shift and arrow keys, get full-size treatment, and the function keys are smartly reversed with their alternate media and system control assignments, meaning that you don't have to hold down the Fn key when tapping F7 to mute the speakers.
The touch pad is also greatly improved over Dell's previous Netbook design. Ditching the wide-but-shallow elongated rectangle that clumsily built the left and right mouse buttons right into the pad itself, the M101z instead uses a more traditional touch pad with decent-size separate mouse buttons. It includes basic multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scroll, and it has just the right finger-friendly, friction-free surface (try saying that five times fast).
The 11.6-inch display has a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, which has become the standard for nearly every laptop from 11 to 15 inches. We've seen 11-inch laptops for as little as $399 with the same resolution, and it's fine for both productivity and HD-video viewing (although text can appear tiny on such a small screen). The display itself is glossy, but not overly so, and video playback was acceptably bright and crisp.
|Dell Inspiron M101z||Average for category [netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
The ports and connections included on the M101z are about what you'd expect from a Netbook-size system, including the HDMI port found in most 11-inch models. Bluetooth is helpfully included, an extra that many configurations seem to be cutting lately.
The dual-core AMD Neo K325 processor in the M101z, along with its 4GB of RAM, makes for a powerful combination (relative to the system's size). It's not as fast as a standard Core i-series laptop, but it's significantly better than Intel Atom systems, as well as other 11-inch Netbook-like laptops we've seen recently, such as the Gateway LT3201, which has the single-core AMD Neo K125, and even the Acer Ferrari One, which has a dual-core AMD Athlon X2 L310, and was our previous favorite 11-inch premium Netbook.
The integrated ATI graphics aren't going to do much in terms of gaming--and discrete graphics (or better integrated options such as Nvidia's Ion) are still mostly MIA for laptops of this size, excepting Dell's own Alienware M11X.
On the Inspiron M101x, we got an anemic 13.1 frames per second on our Unreal Tournament 3 test at 1,280x768-pixel resolution. Anecdotally, we tried some current PC games--the action game Kayne and Lynch 2 was too choppy to play, even with all graphics settings at their minimums, but the upcoming RTS game Civilization V worked fine, as long as we dialed down the eye candy.