The Dell Inspiron M501R is a 15.6in AMD Phenom II quad-core laptop that's suitable as an everyday work machine, or even as a budget gaming rig. It has loads of CPU power, an above-average amount of RAM and a reasonably fast graphics cards.
The design of the Dell Inspiron M501R looks good and is comfortable to use, but we wish it was a little less glossy.
Dell Inspiron M501R: Specifications and performance
The notebook runs AMD's VISION Ultimate platform, which comprises a 1.6GHz AMD Phenom II quad-core P920 mobile CPU and an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 550v graphics adaptor. You also get a 500GB hard drive, 6GB of DDR3 SDRAM and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium. This is a configuration that can be used not only for everyday internet tasks and running office applications but also ripping DVDs, encoding videos, editing videos, mixing music and even playing games. And it will easily perform a bunch of those tasks simultaneously. For example, we were still able to browse the web and write this review while simultaneously ripping a DVD, encoding a video and listening to iTunes.
What makes the Dell Inspiron M501R so good at multitasking is its large RAM capacity, quad-core CPU, and a fast, 7200rpm hard drive. In our tests, this drive recorded an average transfer speed of almost 40 megabytes per second, which is a quick time for any type of computer with a single hard drive, let alone a 15.6in laptop.
In the Blender 3D and iTunes MP3 encoding tests, the Dell Inspiron M501R recorded slightly faster times than the other AMD quad-core laptop we've seen, HP's Pavilion dv6-3010AX. The Radeon HD 550v graphics adaptor supports DirectX 10.1 and has 1GB of dedicated graphics memory and a clock frequency of 450MHz; it recorded a score of 5874 in 3DMark06. This isn't as good as the HP's Pavilion dv6-3010AX, which has a faster DirectX 11-capable Radeon HD 5650 graphics adaptor that recorded a score of 6762 in the same benchmark. That said, the Inspiron M501R will happily run many games smoothly at mid-range quality settings and at a resolution of 1024x768 (the native resolution of the 15.6in screen is 1366x768).
In our video encoding test, in which we encode a DVD to a 1.5GB Xvid file, the notebook recorded a time of 1hr 33min. This is 23min slower than what the Intel Core i5-430–based Dell Inspiron 15R N5010 achieved in the same test. The Core i5-430 is a dual-core CPU with Hyper-Threading and a clock speed of 2.26GHz. Considering the Phenom II P920 runs at only 1.6GHz, the M501R's result is a good one; it's 3min faster than the HP Pavilion dv6-3010AX. If you want the faster speed of the Intel-based Inspiron 15R N5010, you'll have to pay more.
Dell Inspiron M501R: Battery life
In our battery tests, the Dell Inspiron M501R didn't last a very long time; we only got 1hr 32min out of it after disabling power management, maximising brightness, enabling Wi-Fi and looping an Xvid-encoded video. It has a 48 Watt-hour battery rating, which is slightly lower than the 55 Watt-hour battery of the Pavilion dv6-3010AX — that laptop lasted 1hr 47min in the same test. The HP features switchable graphics, which can give it about 20min more life, while the Dell only has one graphics adaptor. The M501R isn't the type of laptop you'll want to use while on the road anyway, so its short battery life shouldn't be too concerning; it will only be a pain if you want to watch a movie while sitting in your backyard or somewhere else not close to a power outlet.
Dell Inspiron M501R: Build quality and design
Despite being a large laptop, the Dell Inspiron M501R doesn't feel overly heavy — it weighs just over 2.6kg on its own. Around its edges you'll find a DVD burner, an SD card slot, 10/100 Ethernet, eSATA (shared with a USB 2.0 port), three dedicated USB 2.0 ports, D-sub (VGA), HDMI and microphone and headphone ports.
The style of the Dell Inspiron M501R is basically the same as the 15R N5010 (although the M501R's body was not as creaky as the 15R N5010 during our tests), and it's a comfortable notebook to use. It does get a little warm when the CPU and graphics card are heavily utilised, so you won't want to use it on your lap when you undertake complex tasks. Its palm rest has plenty of room, but it also has a smooth and shiny finish that can get a little sticky after you've been typing for a while — especially when it gets warm. We'd prefer something with less shine and more texture; this would also help distinguish it from the Intel-based laptop. The screen is very glossy and if you use it outdoors or near a bright window, you'll end up seeing a lot of reflections — primarily your own.
We wish there was a digital TV tuner card either built-in or supplied as a USB stick, and we'd also like to see an ExpressCard slot — there's definitely space in the Dell Inspiron M501R base for these components. It could also use Gigabit Ethernet. The keyboard feels good to type on and the touchpad is comfortable. There is a number pad included in the keyboard, but it's slightly squished. If you're thick-fingered you might end up hitting the wrong numbers.
See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?
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