Dell 320N. (notebook computer) (evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes
Given a notebook computer's design constraints, Dell has done a superb job with the 320N. As with any laptop, this machine certainly makes compromises, but each one is well thought out and carefully engineered. In almost every area, Dell has done a little more and gone a little farther to make this machine smaller, faster, and easier to use than the competition.
If you look at the dimensions and weight of this computer, for example, you'll notice that it's just a bit smaller and a bit lighter than most of the other laptops reviewed here. And if you place the 320N beside almost any other notebook, this machine's sleek black body and carefully sculpted features will make the other machine look clunky. But the 320N is much more than just small size and high style.
The standard VGA screen (640 x 480) is exceptionally bright. When you're looking at LCD VGA displays, one of the most important features to consider is the finesse with which the video controller maps colors to gray levels. In this respect the Dell is exceptional. In Windows' Solitaire, for example, you can tell the red cards from the black ones by their shading.
As far as video speed goes, this machine's scrolling and refresh rate are quite fast. One of the best ways to judge video speed is to use a mouse in graphics mode. Most LCD displays simply can't keep up with the mouse cursor, but the 320N does a very good job.
My only complaint with the screen is that it's compressed when DOS programs run. This happens because the video's vertical resolution in DOS is actually 400 pixels of vertical resolution instead of the VGA's possible 480, a common compromise in notebooks. Laptop UltraVision from Personics fixed this problem and allowed DOS to use the full 480 pixels for a much improved display, but I'd prefer that the machine's video controller do this itself.
The 320N's keyboard is certainly a compromise compared with most desktop keyboards, but its 85-key layout is very well thought out and offers a 3-mm key travel (most notebooks have a shorter 2-mm key travel). The cursor keys assume an inverted T formation and the Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End keys line up along the right side of the keyboard. None require you to press a special Fn key to access them.
There are also 12 function keys, which are smaller than the other keys. But you don't have to press the dreaded Fn key to use them.
The Dell sports a 20-MHz 386SX CPU that provided more than enough power for everything I wanted to do on the road, including running Microsoft Windows in 386-enhanced mode.
As for memory, the 320N comes with 1MB, expandable to 5MB. The unit I reviewed was maxed out with the full 5MB, which I certainly recommend, if you can afford it.
The machine comes with either a 30- or 60MB 19-ms IDE hard disk. The unit I reviewed was equipped with a 60, and it sizzled. I never felt I was waiting for the hard disk, even when using virtual memory (using the disk as if it were RAM) in Windows.
The 320N's ni-cad battery gave me a bit of a scare. It's supposed to last for three hours, but the low battery light came on after about ten minutes of use. The machine continued to chug along happily, however, for nearly three hours. The warning light kept me worried, however.
To help conserve the battery, you can employ several power-saving features built into the 320N. You can set timeout values for the hard disk, the display, and the system. In addition, there's a convenient standby button that places the machine in a special battery-saving mode.
When it comes to talking to the outside world, the Dell 320N has a full complement of ports. There is one serial and one parallel port, an external VGA port, and PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports. An internal modem is available as an option.
You've probably gathered that I'm enthusiastic about this machine. It's beautifully designed and exceptionally fast and powerful. But is it worth the price? At $3,399 for the standard configuration, it's not cheap, but if you look at similarly equipped competition, it's almost a bargain.
If you're thinking about buying a notebook, the next question to ask about the 320N is whether you need this much power. If you're primarily doing word processing, for example, then a notebook in the 320N's class is overkill. But you need a powerhouse like the 320N if it's your primary machine. And for running Windows, a computer in the 320N's league is a must. For state-of-the-art computing in a very small package, the 320N is a world-class performer that goes the extra mile.