Dell Inspiron M101z review

This is usually the part of the review where I spell out the specs of a new laptop and explain how it fits in with other recent machines from the PC vendor. But I want to get something out of the way first: The Inspiron Mini M101z is the best budget thin and light laptop from Dell that I’ve tested over the last few years.

It’s not a perfect machine, and depending on your needs, it might not be the best laptop for you. But it offers decent performance, a nice price, and a handful of attractive options. I like this laptop a lot.

OK, now on to the specs and other details.

The Inspiron Mini M101z has an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, an island-style keyboard, and an excellent touchpad with two distinct buttons and support for multitouch gestures.

The laptop will replace the Inspiron 11z in Dell’s consumer laptop lineup. It’s about the same size as the older laptop, but the keyboard and touchpad are much nicer, and the new model features an AMD Nile processor and ATI graphics.

There are two base configurations available, with prices starting at $449. The cheapest model has a 1.7GHz single core AMD Athlon II Neo K125 CPU and a $579 version with a 1.3GHz dual core AMD Athlon II Neo K325 processor.

Both models have ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics, but the higher end model has a 320GB, 7200RPM hard drive and 4GB of DDR3 memory, while the single core version has 2GB of RAM and a 250GB, 5400RPM hard drive.

Dell sent me the $449 model to review. It includes 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0, and SRS audio and runs Windows 7 Home Premium.

Design

The Dell Inspiron M101z is available in four colors: Clear Black, Tomato Red, Peacock Blue, and Promise Pink. The black model features a shiny but plain lid, while the other colors have subtle patterns in the cover.

The model featured in this review has a red lid with the Dell logo in the center, and what Dell calls a “Jax pattern.” The oattom of the laptop is black, as are the keyboard and the bezel around the screen, while the palm rest, touchpad, and area around the keyboard have an attractive smudge-resistant brushed metal look (although I believe the case is actually made of plastic.

The laptop is a little thicker in the back than the front, thanks to the 6 cell battery which sticks out below the base of the laptop (but doesn’t just out behind the machine as some Dell laptop batteries do). Dell will also offer a 9 cell battery which will stick out behind the laptop, but it should also offer a few hours of extra battery life.

Around the sides of the laptop you’ll find 3 USB ports, an Ethernet jack, HDMI port, mic, headphone, and power jacks and an SD card slot.

Because the battery doesn’t take up any space on the back of the unit, Dell was able to place a VGA port and a lock port on the back of the laptop — something you don’t see often on thin and light machines with 12 inch or smaller displays.

The 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display features a glossy finish, and I found that the colors looked a little washed out when I tilted the screen too far back or too far forward. But if you hit the sweet spot, colors are bright and vivid.

Dell doesn’t make it easy to replace the hard drive or other internal components on this laptop. There’s only a single access panel on the base of the Inspiron M101z, and it covers the RAM slot. I suppose the good news is that there’s only one screw to remove if you want to remove the panel and upgrade the laptop’s memory.

The stereo speakers are located on the bottom of the laptop, near the front. You’ll also notice a couple of vents on the bottom of the laptop as well as a vent on the left side. The AMD chipset seems to generate a bit of heat, causing the fans inside the laptop to kick into high gear every now and again.

The Dell Inspiron M101z is one of the noisier ultraportable laptops I’ve tested thanks to the fan noise — but the trade-off is that it offers higher performance than most quieter machines.

The laptop measures 11.5″ x 8.1″ x 1.4″ and weighs about 3.4 pounds.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The notebook has a full sized, island-style keyboard with flat keys and a little space between each key. The keyboard is attractive and easy to type on. I managed to get a score of about 100 words per minute in a typing test, which is about average for me.

One thing that differentiates the Inspiron M101z keyboard from many others is that by default, the Fn keys are used for special functions. In other words, pressing the button marked F7 will mute the computer’s volume, while F8 and F9 will increase or lower the volume. If you actually want to register an F11 click, you’ll need to hold down the blue Fn key at the lower left side of the keyboard while pressing F11 (or any other Function key).

This actually makes a lot of sense, since you’ll probably need to adjust the screen brightness, volume, or other settings more often than you’ll need to hit a Fn key unless you use specialized software.

The arrow keys are crammed into the bottom right side of the keyboard, and in order to fit all four keys in a small space, the keys are only half height. But while some PC makers (I’m looking at you, Lenovo and Acer), feel the need to cram 6 keys into that tight space by throwing in dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys, Dell uses just four arrow keys, which also work as Page Up and Down, Home and End buttons when you press the Fn key. This makes it pretty easy to find the correct arrow key by touch.

There’s a little flex in the keyboard, but you have to push down pretty hard on the center to notice it. I found the keyboard to be quite comfortable to use.

The touchpad is also one of the best I’ve used on a thin and light laptop. It’s wide and tall enough to be comfortable, has a decent texture, and has two distinct buttons for left and right clicks. There’s also support for multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling.

This is a huge improvement over earlier Dell ultraportables which had buttons integrated into the surface of the touchpad. While this certainly made the touch area larger, it also made it much more difficult to click accurately. A Dell official told me that the new touchpad is definitely a response to user feedback.

Performance

Dell’s last 11.6 inch laptop had an Intel-based Consumer Ultra Low Voltage chip. And to be honest, I didn’t have any major complaints about the Dell Inspiron 11z’s performance. The Dell Inspiron M101z uses an AMD processor and ATI graphics instead, and the overall CPU performance is pretty close to what I’ve come to expect from Intel CULV-based systems. The graphics performance, on the other hand, is far better.

Bear in mind, my test system had a single core CPU, 2GB of memory, and a 5400RPM hard drive. This laptop is also available with a dual core processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 7200RPM hard drive. All of those things should make that model a bit faster, but I can’t make any promises since I haven’t tested the laptop with those options.

In terms of everyday performance, the Dell Inspiron M101z is a pleasure to use. While I don’t think Dell is positioning this machine as a desktop replacement, it really can do most of the things you would expect a laptop to. I had no problem surfing the web with multiple browser tabs open while listening to music and chatting in an instant messenger window. The computer could easily handle 720p and 1080p HD video playback. And HD YouTube video looked fine at 720p resolution (although 1080p Flash videos looked a little jerky).

But since I like to nitpick, here’s how the computer stacked up against a number of others I’ve tested in a series of benchmarks.

The first set of benchmarks includes four tests:

  1. Transcode a raw video to Xvid
  2. Transcode a WAV audio file to MP3
  3. Copy a large folder containing 2186 files
  4. Create a ZIP archive from that same folder

The chart above shows how four different computers fared in those tests, with the results measured in seconds. Clearly the lower the score, the better.

Here’s a brief description of the computers used in those tests:

  1. Dell Inspiron M101z with single core 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125 CPU and ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics
  2. Dell Inspiron 11z with 1.4GHz Pentium Dual Core SU4100 CPU and Intel GMA 4500MHD graphics
  3. Acer Aspire One 521 with single core 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125 CPU and ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics
  4. Lenovo ThinkPad X100e with 1.6GHz AMD Turion Neo X2 L625 dual core CPU and ATI Radeon HD 3200 graphics

As you’d expect, the Inspiron M101z and Acer laptop notched similar scores overall, although the folder copy test took more than twice as long on the Dell laptop. In fact, the M101z had one of the lowest scores I’ve ever seen on this test — but it’s not exactly a scientific test of hard drive speed and I’ve yet to decide if it really tells me very much. In day to day performance the computer seemed quite zippy, even if it does take a while to copy files and folders.

It’s also interesting that the Inspiron M101z and Inspiron 11z achieved very similar scores — although the model with the older Intel processor was actually faster at the most CPU-intensive task, which was the video transcoding test.

The Lenovo Thinkpad X100e came out ahead in most of these tests, due to its more powerful dual core AMD processor.

But when it comes to graphics performance, we start to see another story. The Dell Inspiron M101z beats most notebooks I’ve tested with integrated Intel graphics — but it’s not quite as powerful as a machine with NVDIA ION graphics or even the similar Acer Aspire One 521 which has the same graphics processor as the Dell laptop.

The Cinebench test looks at how a computer handles three tasks: Rending a 3D image using OpenGL, and how long it takes to render a high quality 2D image using a single CPU core or multiple cores. The Dell Inspiron M101z only has one core, and you can see it scored about the same as the Acer Aspire One 521.

But while the Dell Inspiron 11z scored much lower in the OpenGL test, it blew away most of the other notebooks when it came to the multiple CPU image rending test thanks to its relatively powerful dual core CPU.

Instead of using the Lenovo X100e as a comparison machine in the graphics tests I’m using an HP Mini 311 as the fourth computer. That’s because the HP Mini 311 has a low power Intel Atom N270 CPU, but it has a relatively high performance NVIDIA ION graphics processor.

That didn’t help too much in the Cinebench test, but it made a big difference in the 3DMark06 test which checks to see how a system can handle the kind of 3D graphics often found in modern video games.

The HP Mini 311 has a significantly less powerful CPU than any of the other laptops in this test, but the NVIDIA ION graphics card helps it hold its own in the 3DMark06 benchmark. But I was still surprised to see that the HP Mini 311 scored higher than the Dell Inspiron M101z in this test, because the Acer Aspire One 521 with similar specifications achieved a much higher score.

This may have something to do with the slow file copying performance I noticed earlier — and may be a sign of a slower than average hard drive.

That said, none of the machines featured in this comparison are really designed to play bleeding edge video games. Like the Acer Aspire One 521, I tested the Inspiron M101z with the Street Fighter IV benchmark, and was only able to average about 14.85 frames per second during gameplay with the default graphics settings.

That’s pretty close to the 13.98 frames per second I got on the Acer laptop — and about half of what you’d really want to get in a game like this. You can boost the game performance by lowering the graphics quality settings… or buy purchasing a significantly more powerful computer for playing video games.

To sum things up, the Dell Inspiron M101z with a single core processor is just about a little less powerful as a last-generation Intel CULV-powered laptop in terms of CPU performance. But it’s a far more capable machine when it comes to graphics performance — just not powerful enough to handle hardcore modern games. You probably won’t have any trouble running some older games though, and you certainly won’t have trouble watching HD video.

Battery

OK, so the Dell Inspiron M101z is fairly powerful for a thin and light machine. There must be a tradeoff, right? Sort of.

The laptop ran for about 5 hours, 5 minutes in my battery test. This involved basically turning the computer on and using it for some light web surfing and writing until the computer shut down. During that time I watched a few YouTube videos but didn’t spend a lot of time performing tasks that would tax the CPU or graphics processor.

I also didn’t bother to tweak any settings to prolong battery life, so your results may vary depending on how you use the computer.

Still, 5 hours isn’t bad at all for a machine that’s as capable as this one. Sure, there are plenty of laptops on the market today that offer significantly more run time… but here’s the thing: The Dell Inspiron M101z ships standard with a 6 cell, 56Whr battery.

The company also plans to offer an optional 9 cell, 93Whr battery. I suspect you shouldn’t have any problem getting 7 to 8 hours of run time out of the higher capacity battery.

For what it’s worth, Dell suggests that the 6 cell battery should be good for 6.5 hours, and the 9 cell battery should run for up to 10.5 hours — but I’d be surprised if you came close under real world conditions.

Verdict

I really like the Dell Inspiron M101z a lot. I was surprised to see that it didn’t score as high as the Acer Aspire One 521 in some benchmarks, because it feels very zippy, and unlike the Acer laptop the Dell has a full sized keyboard and a larger 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel HD display.

The $449 starting price is also quite attractive, although if you’re looking for a little more oomph you might want to consider spending some extra cash on the dual core model which starts at $579.

According to Engadget, the dual core model scores slightly higher on the 3DMark06 benchmark than the single core version, but the battery lasted just 4 hours, 15 minutes — although Laptop Magazine got 4 hours, 54 minutes in its battery test of the dual core model.

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  • ToniBorgetto

    Thanks for the review, Brad!
    Just a little errata:
    >>>
    1. Dell Inspiron M101z with dual core 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125 CPU and ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics
    3. Acer Aspire One 521 with dual core 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125 CPU and ATI Radeon HD 4225 graphics
    <<<
    -> The K125 is single core.

  • http://twitter.com/d0cz Bruno Wolff

    Dear Brad! Please, review the new toshiba T215/235 series *–* I would love it since Im about to buy one :) not sure about which processor should I pick: Turion K625 vs. Athlon K325 (13″ vs. 11″ respctv) XD

  • MonkeyKing1969

    It looks sort of fat and dumpy. Sure it is attractivley priced at the lowest level, but the case shape and look appears cheap in the pictures. Also, I can't help but feel disappointed by the lack of a more access panels under the case to get at the HDD or other parts. That sort of design if made so the machine in harder to upgrade and thus you have to buy an new machine or have it sent out to be serviced.

  • Potz804

    Thanks for the info, how about a showdown between the new Dell, the HP dm1z and the Toshiba 215 for fans of the 11.6″ format, all with the Neo dual core chip for fairness?

  • matt b

    Thanks for these reviews. I'm looking at one of these 11.6 inch machines myself. While it is fresh on your mind, which keyboard do you prefer between the m101z and x100e? What about the trackpad on each?
    Thanks!

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  • http://liliputing.com/ Brad Linder

    It's a matter of taste. In terms of touchpad, there's really no way to deny the fact that the Dell has a better one — but that's because the Lenovo makes room for a TrackPoint system, which some people absolutely love.

    As for keyboars, they're both pretty good. I prefer the Dell keyboard ever so slightly,but there's no particularly good reason for that.

  • matt b

    Thank you very much! It's hard to track these down in retail to try. I have not been a Dell keyboard fan over the years but I've never used a Dell chicklet before. Touchpads can be good and bad – even if they are large, so I glad to hear the Dell has a good one. I've played with the x100e and liked the trackpad but it is on the small side. I really liked the x100e keyboard. I've never been a trackpoint user, but I can't see starting to use it now.

    Really appreciate your work.

  • Snabaw

    Would the fan be as noisy or frequent on the 5400rpm hard drive model?

  • nyte_shade

    This same system has been release with a Core i3 330um Processor from Intel and it kicks some serious – well you know. It’s called the Dell Model 1121, or Dell 11z Sprint Model. Memory expands to 8Gb
    and it plays blu-ray. Of course you have to add a DVD player.
    nyteshade!

  • Shishimoh

    can dell inspiron m101z run simulators like modelsim, amtlab

  • Visionaryvince

    Hi,
    I was wondering, have you or anyone out there used the third party software Qwarq that came preloaded on that machine? If so what do you think of it?

  • Penguine86

    Thanks for showing the BOTTOM of the laptop in the pictures. Lots of reviews don’t show that. I always like to see what kind of access panels are available before I buy a laptop. I decided to go with the Toshiba T215D because it has a larger access panel for upgrading the RAM and swapping the hard drive for an SSD.

  • Joseph

    everything looks nice on my m101z core i3 but when it comes to games the laptop sucks the games running really slow i couldnt even play COD 4 which is considered a old game!

  • Dakemesh

    This is a good review and obviously this is an old model now, but I just thought I’d point out that this has been a nice little machine with one fatal flaw- that power port. I bought this for my wife a year and a half ago and the sloppy jack for the power cord has just failed. I feared this would happen from day one but hoped for the best. I thought surely someone wouldn’t make something that really was as flimsy as this feels. I was wrong. My in-law’s Dell with the same jack is also having similar problems. I’m sure Dell has changed this power system by now, but just a heads up if you’re in the market for a used Dell that uses this kind of plug in.