Dell Inspiron 6400 review
If you need a dual-core notebook on a budget the Inspiron 6400 is the best choice we've seen yet, although we'd be tempted to upgrade the optical drive and hard disk
We test a huge selection of Centrino Duo notebooks costing £850 and above in this month's Labs, but the Dell Inspiron 6400 sneaks well under the radar: at £629, it's the cheapest Centrino Duo notebook we've seen. And that's despite a 2GHz T2500 Core processor and a 16:10 widescreen with a 1,680 x 1,050 resolution.
It's not a bad-looking machine either. With a silver body edged with iBook-esque white, it's clearly aimed at the sort of home that's been finished with burnished oak floors. It's well built too, but it does feel every gram of its 2.85kg weight and, despite a 39mm height, it's also bulky: this isn't a notebook we'd choose to take on our travels every day.
However, you'll be able to use it away from the mains without worrying about battery life. Under light use, with the backlight set to a low but readable level, it survived for more than five hours. When the processor was pushed to the limit, it managed one hour, 41 minutes, so you'll get somewhere between the two depending on what you're doing.
Playing DVDs is a good example: it kept going for two-and-a-half hours before the battery gave up. That's excellent news, as one of the 6400's biggest strengths is when playing movies: the speakers are loud enough to fill a small room, while the screen looks fantastic thanks to its glossy finish. We were also impressed by its wide viewing angles, allowing several people to watch the screen at once.
The screen does have some minor failings, though. It has a slight grain, so whites don't look pure white but slightly murky, and on our review sample the backlighting wasn't quite strong enough at the right-hand side. However, neither is a damning criticism, and we didn't find its glossy finish distracting either; if we compare this Dell's screen to the majority of those in the group test, it comes out strongly.
We were also won over by its terrific resolution. If you like working with several windows open at once, you'll start to wonder how you ever coped without 1,680 x 1,050 pixels, and it's also ideal when working with spreadsheets. Dell even includes scroll buttons built into the touchpad: slide your finger down the far right-hand side, for instance, and the page will scroll down.
The only disappointment was the mouse buttons, which have a damp and unresponsive feel; they seem cheap compared to the rest of the machine. The keyboard is respectable rather than great, with slightly spongey keys compensated for by its excellent layout - for instance, there are separate keys for operations such as page up and page down.
Dell intends the Inspiron 6400 as an all-round entertainment machine. There's a wide selection of playback controls on the front and the OS is Windows XP Media Center Edition, although its usefulness is rather hampered by the lack of a TV tuner or remote control.
You can add a USB TV tuner easily enough, but a more pressing upgrade is for a DVD writer (add £40 exc VAT to the price) rather than the supplied combo drive. The hard disk is another contender for an upgrade. The nominal 60GB capacity reduces to just 52.8GB under Windows; as anyone who's ripped their music library will confirm, that soon disappears.
Dell also sacrifices games-playing ability in an effort to make the price right, so choose a notebook such as the Evesham Voyager C550 RD if this is a priority. You certainly won't be disappointed by the Inspiron's speed in general use, though: those two cores mean you'll hardly ever see the hourglass, and it races through tasks like applying photo filters. Its score of 0.99 in our benchmarks - just 1 per cent slower than a 3.2GHz Pentium D desktop machine - would have been even higher with 1GB of memory instead of 512MB (which is supplied via two 256MB modules, so no slots are free).