Dell is billing the Inspiron 9400 as a 'multimedia powerhouse', and it's difficult to disagree with this description, given the machine's ripsnorting specification. It sports a large, 17-inch widescreen display, uses the latest iteration of the Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system, and has enough input/output ports to put many desktop PCs to shame. It's available from Dell's Web site in a number of different configurations.
The new Inspiron 9400 will look very familiar to existing Inspiron owners, as it uses the same silver and white chassis as many of its recent predecessors. It doesn't have a particularly ambitious design, but the overall effect is aesthetically very pleasant.
Despite the 9400's considerable girth, it's surprisingly easy to handle. Its 3.6kg frame means it isn't as portable as a dedicated thin-and-light laptop, but you won't have any problems moving the unit between rooms, or taking it with you on short trips, provided you don't have to walk very far.
The laptop is opened via a single sliding lock at the front edge of the screen. The screen hinge offers a good deal of resistance to being opened and closed, which can come in handy when using the laptop on the road. Some laptop screens can wobble violently in time to the motion of a car or train, making the screen virtually unreadable, but that isn't the case here.
Below the screen, the Inspiron 9400 has a standard-sized laptop keyboard. Like most desktop replacement models, this appears rather small in the vastness of the chassis, and the space could have been better used had Dell installed a full-size keyboard with a dedicated numeric pad.
Despite the wasteful use of space, Dell has sensibly grouped the F1-F12 keys in groups of four, making them easier to find in a hurry. These are smaller than the main Qwerty keys, but we were impressed with the inclusion of full-size cursor keys -- which tend to be fiddly on most laptops.
Desktop replacement laptops are usually littered with shortcut keys above or below the keyboard, but disappointingly this isn't the case with the Inspiron 9400. It has just a single shortcut key, which is labelled 'MediaDirect'. This doubles as a second power button -- launching the Media Center portion of Windows XP directly.
There's no one-touch access to any other applications. Instead, you get seven audio control buttons at the front edge of the laptop. These let you adjust the volume and playback of various media files -- although sadly it isn't possible to do this outside of Windows.
The left side of the 9400 hosts a tray-loading DVD rewriter drive, behind which are two USB ports, stacked one on top of the other. It's often physically impossible to simultaneously connect two USB devices to a laptop because their ports are side by side and too close together to accommodate both cables. However, by stacking the 9400's ports, Dell has avoided this familiar pitfall.
We were happy to see four additional USB ports at the rear of the laptop. These are also stacked in pairs, and there is ample space between each pair so you're unlikely to have a USB device obstructing adjacent ports.