High-end components and performance are generally restricted to midsize and larger laptops, so it's always nice to see a smaller system aimed at power users. The $2,329 Dell XPS M1210 (configurations start at $1,299) makes the move to Windows Vista, combining power and portability in a package that lives on the outskirts of the ultraportable category. While it's not for hard-core gamers, those who need above-average performance in a compact system won't mind paying a premium for this unique road-worthy hybrid.
The 12.1-inch wide-screen display leads us to call the M1210 an ultraportable laptop, but its 4.9-pound weight (5.2 pounds with the AC adapter) is closer to a laptop in the thin-and-light category, such as the Sony VAIO C150. Measuring 11.7 inches wide by 8.7 inches deep by 1.2 inches high, it's slightly bulkier than your average ultraportable, but still well suited for a daily commute.
The XPS M1210 features a bright 12.1-inch display that's fine for surfing the Web and watching media files, although a slightly larger 13.3-inch screen as found on the Asus W7J is the smallest display we'd want to use on an everyday basis. The crisp 1,280x800 native resolution strikes a fine balance between legible text and icons and screen real estate. Sitting above the display is a 1.3-megapixel Webcam; the camera rotates 180 degrees, as if on a rotisserie spit, so you can grab images from both the front and rear of the laptop.
The full-size keyboard on the XPS M1210 makes typing comfortable for even extended periods. The touch pad and mouse buttons are small but functional, with both horizontal and vertical scroll zones. A set of illuminated buttons sit along the front edge, including volume and media transport controls. They're handy when watching DVDs or listening to music, but they're far too easy to accidentally hit when typing, especially if the laptop is actually sitting on your lap.
The M1210 includes a decent set of ports and connections for such a small system. You get four USB 2.0 ports, four-pin FireWire, VGA, and S-Video-out ports, two headphone jacks (a welcome extra) and a mic jack; there's also an ExpressCard slot and a media card reader. Networking options include modem, Ethernet, and 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and WWAN.
Typical for Dell systems, the XPS M1210 is highly configurable to suit a wide range of budgets and needs. Our review unit arrived fairly tricked out, including a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, a 120GB hard drive running at 5,400rpm, a Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 GPU, and Windows Vista Ultimate Edition. Compared to the XP version of the M1210 we looked back in June 2006, this model costs about the same trades up to a Core 2 Duo CPU from a Core Dup and doubles the RAM.
To cut the $3,000 price by more than half, you could go with the default configuration, which trades down to a 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5600 CPU, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, integrated graphics, and Windows Vista Home Premium. That's still a decent set of specs, if you're more interested in the M1210's size and features than in pure performance.
With the upgrades on our review unit, the Dell XPS M1210 is one of the fastest Windows Vista laptops we've seen so far, easily beating two laptops with 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5500 CPUs, the Toshiba Satellite U205-S5057 and the Asus W7J (a Windows XP system we upgraded to Vista) in CNET Labs' Multitasking test. It was also slightly faster than another T7200-based Dell, the Inspiron E1505. The M1210's gaming prowess, however, was disappointing, even with the graphics upgrade. In Quake IV, at 1,024x768 resolution, we only got 16.2 frames per second (fps), although not-yet-perfected Windows Vista drivers may be partly to blame. Turning off some high-end geometry and physics options, we were able to get more than 60fps at the same resolution out of FEAR, another popular first-person shooter.
One area where the M1210 excelled was in battery life. In our DVD battery drain test, we got 3 hours, 49 minutes out of the included nine-cell battery. That's excellent, especially for an ultraportable system, even though the nine-cell battery extends from the back of the system slightly. A smaller six-cell battery is also available. Vista laptops have a very flexible set of battery and power management options available via the operating system, but we haven't seen an overall improvement in battery life when compared to XP systems and in some cases, we've seen declines.