My First Laptop Computer: The Dell Inspiron 8000 - Part 1
Retro computing, or to be more specific retro gaming, is something of a trend at the moment. Some people are happy using DosBox to emulate old hardware on their modern PC, but some get a kick out of using real retro hardware. Old desktops can be bulky so if you're not fortunate enough to have the space for one the next best choice is a period correct laptop. A scan through YouTube shows a lot of people hunting down old IBM ThinkPads and their prices on the used market have risen accordingly. The thing is... while you do get very nice build quality (at least in terms of the casing, many models in the early 2000's had problems with failing components on their motherboards), contrary to what you may be led to believe by recent displays of ThinkPad fetishizing, they were never lusted after by the younger demographic when they were new, primarily because their specifications were business not gaming focused, not to mention they were what I would generously describe as... not stylish. This becomes apparent when you look at the video cards and ports they shipped with, which lagged behind competitors in their day. Now, you can get around this problem to some extent by simply using a slightly newer model ThinkPad than necessary, but that can bring its own problems in terms of hardware support if you're targeting DOS games, especially with regards to SoundBlaster audio support which was soon dropped. But there is an alternative that is cheaper to buy today (as it doesn't carry the ThinkPad nostalgia tax) while offering better performance and cheap plentiful spare parts. I should know, I was a serious gamer at the time these machines were new and that influenced my choice when it came to buying one in early 2001. In this post I'm going to explain why it was a good buy then and today, describe the hardware and let you know what to look for and pay, including common parts you may need or want to replace.
Why the Dell Inspiron 8000?
Back in early 2001 I was working at a managed hosting provider, my first post-college job, and while the pay wasn't great there was the benefit of being able to jack directly into the backbone of the Internet so browsing the web on the work PC was great, but at home I was stuck using a dial-up account. Technology was moving at a record pace back then, and my home PC, a big home-built tower that was only 2.5 years old, just wasn't as snappy as it used to be so I was looking to upgrade. I decided to save some space at home and take advantage of the company Internet connection in the evenings by investing in a laptop that I could take to work. The colorful clamshell Apple iBook was all the rage at the time, and fairly affordable so I was tempted to make the switch from PC to Mac but they were bulky, heavy, and the specs seemed underwhelming. So even though I thought the design was extremely cool I ultimately decided I wanted something more business-like, professional looking and powerful.
Up to this point laptops had been seriously lagging behind desktops in terms of performance, sometimes a whole generation behind, but things were changing, and fast. A new type of notebook had appeared, the "desktop replacement". These were large, heavy, and expensive but they delivered more than 90% of the performance of similarly clocked desktops (although desktop processors were available that ran at even higher clock speeds) which is right on the limit of what is considered actually noticeable in the real world. At the time I was still something of a gamer so the only thing holding me back from moving to a desktop replacement laptop, beside price, was the simple fact that the their video cards lacked decent 3D acceleration. No-one was was seriously playing Quake III on their notebook.
The fastest laptops at the time were the IBM ThinkPad A21p and the Dell Inspiron 8000. The specifications of both were extremely similar with 850MHz Pentium III processors, respectable 32MB ATI Mobility graphics and around 30 GB hard drives. The IBM casing was much more rigid feeling than the Dell and seemed to use a higher quality plastic, but it's battery life was at best 2h15m vs 2h45m on the Dell. That wasn't its biggest problem though, no that was its price...
So what did you get when you spent ~$3,000 (Around $4,250 today) on the most powerful laptop on the market in early 2001? Let's take a look...
One of the ways notebooks have gotten thinner and lighter is due to dropping legacy technologies that we no longer need, although Apple are a bit too eager in this matter in my opinion. A quick look around this old Dell reveals a mass of ports and expansion options that offer flexibility that is sadly long gone.
Moving on to the right hand side, up front we see the second speaker alongside 10/100 Ethernet and 56K modem jacks which connect to an internal mini PCI card accessible via a door on the underside of the machine.
A parallel port, serial port and two USB 1.1 ports complete the rear connections.
The Advanced Port Replicator is a docking station that provides quick and easy connections to an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, network, speakers and other items. The laptop simply sits on the tray, you slide it back to engage the connector and lock it in with a lever on the left hand side. When you want to un-dock you simply unlock it using the lever, then pull the level down one more stop towards you and the laptop is pushed forward and unplugged.
Buying a Dell Inspiron 8000 in 2018
As I point out above, the exact specifications of an Inspiron 8000 are not fixed. Dell offered a lot of customization options to match the needs and wallet of its customers so you need to pay attention when buying used. The good thing is that every single part is available to buy cheaply today, sometimes even as new old stock, and disassembly is very straightforward. So if you can't find exactly what you want you can build it but try not to get too carried away as that can add up fast.
Try and buy on condition, look closely at any photos for cracks or any other damage to the casing as the build quality was not great. A machine in working condition with no screen problems or physical damage should run you about $50 as of the time of writing.
Although all Inspiron 8000s came with a 15" TFT panel, they were available in two different configurations, the base Super XGA version had a native resolution was 1400 x 1050 but a 1600 x 1200 Ultra XGA model was an extra cost option. You may think you want the higher resolution model but I suggest otherwise for two reasons. Firstly, panels back then did not do screen scaling at all and instead relied on driver support to do so. This means that running the panel at a lower than native resolution will result in a smaller image in the center with unused black borders all around. Even with driver support the scaling will look awful and it puts additional load on the video card. The second reason is related to the first, which is running the panel at its native resolution in Windows. Due to a lack of scaling in the operating systems of the day, icons and small text will be almost unreadable.
The next thing to consider is the motherboard and CPU. The Inspiron 8000 was available with several different CPU options from a 550MHz Pentium III all the way up to a 1GHz version. In my experience the most common model is the 850MHz version and this is plenty. Don't hold out for a 1GHz option or pay a premium to get it as the difference in actual performance is only 4%. The motherboard is common to all models, as is the cooling system, so you can easily replace the CPU in the future, just ensure you flash the BIOS to the latest version first.
Memory is standard PC100 SDRAM and those run about $5 per 256MB stick these days.
As mentioned above the internal hard drive is a standard 2.5" Ultra-ATA/66 model (not SATA!) and so is cheap and easy to replace. Be sure your Inspiron 8000 comes with the hard drive tray AND the necessary adapter that converts the pins on the standard drive to the non-standard format used on the Inspiron. This adapter can be had online for about $3 if necessary. Also note that the fixed optical drive will not show up unless the hard drive is installed.
As I mentioned above, the video card you want is the 32MB Nvidia GeForce2Go which is what made this system fly as a gaming machine back in the day. But this card was an additional cost option so many Inspiron 8000s were shipped with the ATI Rage Mobility M4 with either 16 or 32MB of video RAM. If you can't find a system with the GeForce2Go already in it bear in mind you can buy one from laptop parts sites for about $10 and upgrade the machine yourself.
You'll typically find the combination of fixed DVD reader and modular bay floppy drive to be the most useful these days, just be sure they work. If they don't replacements are easy to find online for under $10 each.
Ports are pretty standard but while the modem is going to be of no interest to most people these days, I'd suggest you do want the Ethernet (or combo) card to be present in the mini PCI slot, however these can be purchased online for under $5 if necessary. You'll get (slightly) more usable Wi-Fi by using a suitable 802.11g PCMCIA card rather than trying to find a model with an ageing internal 802.11a card.
Due to its age you'll need to replace the batteries. I say batteries in the plural as the first one you'll want to replace is the CMOS battery which is in a rather inconvenient spot under the palmrest, inconvenient as getting to it means disassembling virtually the entire machine. This multi cell battery is also quite expensive at around $12 online. You may or may not care about the main battery, the system will run off the AC adapter without one (unlike some other machines), but unbranded far eastern replacements are widely available online for $20. You may experience a problem where even a new battery will not charge. Assuming the new battery isn't faulty out of the factory and that the AC adapter is able to run the machine from the wall, the problem is likely the charging board inside the laptop. This small board handles all charging functions and is less than $5 to replace, thankfully Dell did not build it in to the main motherboard like many other brands.
The final item that may need replacement are the screen hinges. A common problem on many old laptops is that these get weak over time giving some back and forth play in the screen when open. Used replacements in perfect working condition are available online for about $15.
The cost of getting a nice example could be anything from $50 if you're lucky, to $100 if you need to replace parts, or even up to $150 if you're going to get crazy with upgrades for the "ultimate" Inspiron 8000. In all cases you'd still probably need an extra $30-40 for new batteries.
I specced my example pretty high right out of the factory, the only exception being the panel for the reasons given above. Over time I maxxed out the memory, added some expansion cards and even upgraded the hard drive
|15" TFT - 1400 x 1050 max resolution
|Intel Pentium III Coppermine @ 1GHz
|512MB PC100 SDRAM
|Nvidia GeForce2Go 32MB SGRAM
|Lithium-Ion, 3 hours runtime each
|8x DVD-ROM built-in
|Modular Drive Bay
|Floppy, Zip250, CDRW, 2nd HDD, 2nd battery
|PCMCIA Slots (Cards)
|2 (802.11g Wi-Fi, USB 2.0 and Bluetooth 2.0)
|IEEE 1394 firewire, 2x USB 1.1, parallel, serial
|VGA, S-Video and Composite
|Headphone out, microphone, line-in
|13.0" x 11.0" x 1.8" (7.9 lb)
|OS Driver Support
|Windows 2000, Windows ME (98), XP up to SP2
Despite my comments regarding poor construction quality, the only item I had to recently replace was the screen hinges (which weren't particularly bad), all the plastics are in perfect condition even after I pulled everything apart to replace the dead CMOS battery. I have a pair of new reproduction main batteries and can eek out the full 6 hours of life when using them together. I have all the available devices for the modular bay and they all work too. I was so impressed with how well it works in Windows 2000 that I even splashed out $20 on the docking station last month, an accessory I wanted back in the day but couldn't really afford. Just how well this machine works and what you can do with it is something I'll cover in a future post...