Let me introduce my first laptop of the month—Dell's stunning Inspiron 4000. The impetus for this series is my admittedly depressing experience last year buying a laptop, and although I can't say that things have worked out yet, the silver lining is that several PC makers contacted me about their systems. I decided to expand my look at laptops to include a wider variety of machines. And the Dell Inspiron 4000 is a great way to start.

Dell currently sells two lines of business laptops, the performance-oriented Inspirons and the network-optimized Latitudes. The Inspiron line includes the budget-minded 3800 series, the 4000 and 5000 mobile performers, and the no-compromises 8000, which is truly a desktop replacement. The even headier Latitude choices include the value-oriented CPt series; the thin and light C600, LS, and CS series; and the desktop alternative C800. In general, the differences between the two product lines are pretty vague, although Inspiron systems tend to get the latest technology first. I chose an Inspiron 4000 because it's the perfect middle ground between the super-small Latitude LS and the Inspiron 8000 behemoth.

I wasn't disappointed: The Inspiron 4000 features a wonderful keyboard, a bright 14" screen, and a dual-pointing capability that lets you choose between a standard trackpad and an IBM ThinkPad-style pointing stick. It also includes two PC-card slots, built-in modem (and optional built-in Ethernet), and a standard complement of ports (the Inspiron 4000 is no legacy-free device). The system I received was configured with Windows 2000, an 800MHz Pentium III with SpeedStep, and 128MB of RAM. I might not be the typical user, but 128MB of RAM never seemed enough for me, and I've always recommended more for Win2K. The system included one battery and a DVD drive; the media bay can also hold a second battery, 3.5" disk drive, CD-ROM, CD-Rewritable (CD-RW), or ZIP 100 drive. The disk drive can plug into the parallel port if you must use it with one of the optical options; I needed to use this feature, and it worked fine.

Aesthetically, the Inspiron is stunning, with nice touches, such as a small nub on the power cord that makes the cord easy to plug in. The system ships with QuickSnap color inserts that you can use to personalize the system: Dell provides golden yellow, Tahoe blue, storm gray, and royal purple inserts. I thought I'd enjoy changing the look of the system, but I'm a little unsure about the ease with which the screen panel can be removed and wonder whether the insert compromises the integrity of the LCD underneath. However, the Inspiron's screen exhibited none of the annoying "waterfall" effects I saw on my last laptop, and the picture is sharp and clear: Indeed, two people who passed me while I was using the Inspiron on a plane remarked about how beautiful it looked.

On the road, the Inspiron was a joy. With DVD and battery in place, the unit weighs about 6 1/2 pounds, and the battery lasted for almost an entire 4-hour plane flight. Performance was astonishing, and the system boots into Windows faster than my desktop system. And unlike many high-speed machines, the Inspiron 4000 never got too hot, even after hours of use. I've tried for some time to find the perfect balance between performance and portability, and the Dell might be it: This laptop is light enough to cart around a tradeshow—but features a full-sized keyboard and enough power to make me forget my desktop system.

Complaints include weaker-than-usual speakers and the QuickSnap color inserts. I'd like to see Dell offer an Inspiron 4000 without the inserts (it would be better if the default inserts weren't there and the shell was "solid" instead). And—like many laptops—the Inspiron 4000 offers only one USB port, which is one too few in my opinion. The dual-pointing device sometimes caused me to initiate mouse clicks when I didn't intend to. But these are just quibbles: The Dell Inspiron 4000 is an impressive machine, and one that I recommend strongly. Prices start at about $1500, and a system configured identically to my previous laptop is about $3000, an $800 savings.

Next month, I'll look at the Gateway Solo 3350, an ultra-thin, ultra-light notebook designed for maximum portability.