EXCLUSIVE: Dell XPS M1340 — ultimate ultraportable notebook gaming?

Apart from its aesthetic makeover what you’re most likely to have heard about the Dell Studio XPS M1340 is that it offers “Hybrid SLI” graphics. But even with its hybrid graphics and newly added DDR3 RAM does this 13in poster-boy live up to the XPS reputation? In a word yes but it’s far from being a gaming beast. 
Although its predecessor the XPS M1330 was regularly updated with the latest hardware options it took until Q1 2009 to bring about a real change and the introduction of the Studio XPS M1340. The model we looked at was worth $2682.10. In many ways it’s a notable update to the aging M1330 but it also holds on to some of the core values while also suffering some of the same basic flaws.

The model we tested offers a 2.53GHz P9500 Intel Core 2 Duo (Montevina 45nm 1066MHz FSB 6MB L2 Cache) CPU with 4GB of DDR3 RAM (1067MHz) a 500GB 5400RPM hard drive and what has been termed as an NVIDIA GeForce 9500M GE (256MB GDDR3) graphics card — more about this rather misleading piece of hardware later.

This particular model has been installed with Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit edition so it was able to recognise all 4GB of RAM during our tests.

This hardware profile allows plenty of power to run anything from Office applications and browsers to more taxing programs like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. We had no issues running any of these applications and the system achieved a score of 3676 in PCMark Vantage. Although this score is up with some of the better we expect a higher score might have been achieved with better graphics performance a subject we’ll look at shortly.
Physically it’s a beautiful machine. 13in is the new black and at a starting weight of 2.2kg it’s easy to cart around. It’s not as clunky as a 15 or 14in model but not as tiny or awkward as a 12in notebook either.  Dell’s move to give this footprint some guts some style and a solid chassis is a recipe for fun. Its smooth lines slim design and edgeless display all look great and the aluminium-highlighted magnesium-alloy chassis feels solid particularly in the hinges.  The silver on ‘obsidian black’ looks pretty sharp especially with the white backlit keyboard and touchpad but it does attract a lot of fingerprints.

Above the keyboard are a series of backlit touch-sensitive media controls a wireless on/off button for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and an eject button for the 8x DVD ± RW slot-drive. A Blu-ray option would have been nice but is as yet missing from the selection at Dell.com.au (at the time of writing).

The screen is quite sharp though the resolution maxes-out at 1280×800. It has great viewing angle though with good contrast and brightness levels to match. The sound on the other hand is pretty poor. Although the Studio XPS M1340 does offer 5.1 Dolby output the internal speakers are fairly weak with no bass and scratchy high-end performance.

Other features include the 1.3 megapixel camera built into the screen which allows facial recognition to login as well as being put to use for video chat along with the dual-array microphones. Disappointingly there’s no biometric fingerprint scanner. Touchpad gestures are possible but aren’t very extensive. Some simple moves such as resizing and circular scrolling are available but that’s about it.

About that misleading graphics hardware…

What’s most deceiving about this machine however is the NVIDIA GeForce 9500M GE with its “Hybrid SLI” technology. This sounds far more impressive than it really is. Hybrid SLI does as it says offer the ability to boost performance or reduce power consumption where needed. However it’s not a gamer’s card even if it will run games.

What the 9500M GE really is is a dedicated 9200m GS plus an integrated 9400m which ultimately offer a mere 24 shaders with a 64-bit memory bus. Some games that offer multi-GPU benefits may garner a performance boost but overall it’s only going to be good for DirectX 9 games in medium to low settings.

We weren’t able to run 3DMark Vantage as it requires a minimum resolution of 1280×1024 but our 3DMark 2006 score of 3586 isn’t particularly impressive. We were able to get Left 4 Dead which is built using the Half-Life 2 (Episode 2) engine running at medium settings but still didn’t get particularly great frame rates even if it was playable.

As far back as XPS antiquity will allow an XPS PC offered bright coloured lights above-average build quality sharp high definition displays graphical prowess and a notable CPU selection all of which separated them from the mainstream Inspiron heap.  And while the Studio XPS M1340 offers many of these features its graphical prowess is rather limp. If you’re looking for a gaming machine you may need to look at a larger model with a beefier graphics card.
On the other hand it does allow the system to switch to a low power state when the dedicated card is not needed for HD media or games and the notebook runs considerably cooler because of it. At the time of writing the only way to switch between power saving mode and the performance boost mode was to switch Vista power states but this may be rectified by later updates from NVIDIA. Hybrid SLI will only work in Vista so bear this in mind if you plan to set up XP on this machine.

Dell has made sure there are plenty of connectivity options including everything from HDMI and Display port to e-SATA and FireWire. There are only two USB ports (one of which is shared with the e-SATA) which is a little limiting. There is a VGA-out port but those with older TV’s may have issues with the lack of S-Video.
On the networking front there’s a Gigabit Ethernet port and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n. As NVIDIA’s MCP79MX Chipset has been used rather than an Intel selection Dell has installed its own 1515 Wireless N mini-card. 
In our DVD rundown battery test the notebook lasted two hours and 10 minutes a good result especially considering we ran the test in the same BoostPerformance mode as we ran our performance test. Subsequently we expect you’d get more out of the 6-cell battery if you cut back the performance to Save power mode.
There’s no question this is a great notebook choice especially if you need both power and portability but don’t look at this as a portable gaming option. While it will play some games in lower settings it’s going to be a bitter disappointment for desktop gamers looking for a notebook alternative.