Dell XPS 17

Dell’s latest iteration of the XPS 17 brings an understated look and discrete graphics to the premium XPS lineup.

Dell's latest version of its long-running premium XPS 17 notebook features a revamped look, a quad-core CPU, and discrete Nvidia mobile graphics. The net result is a system that offers average performance in WorldBench 6, but surprisingly good gaming performance.

The new model (L701X) features an understated, dark-gray chassis with a minimal number of glowing LEDs. While it has no dedicated transport buttons, media transport functionality is the default mode for function keys F7-F12. The keyboard itself is outstanding, with sculpted keys and an excellent feel when touch-typing. On the other hand, the trackpad's default settings are extremely sensitive, and sometimes a hovering palm will cause your cursor to jump across the screen.

The newest XPS 17 now supports USB 3.0 (two ports), plus a USB 2.0 port and another USB 2.0/eSATA combo port. These connections are spread throughout the system, which should improve their overall utility. Two are on the back, the eSATA combo port is on the right, and the stand-alone USB 2.0 port is on the left. Dell also includes an SD/MMC card slot that supports the latest SDXC memory card standard.

Dell takes advantage of the slightly thicker rear of the chassis to house other ports, too. The gigabit ethernet port lives here, as do two digital video outputs: one HDMI and one mini-DisplayPort connector. You'll find no VGA port, I'm happy to note.

Our test unit included a quad-core Intel Core i7-740QM processor, with an clock speed of 1.73GHz and a turboboost maximum clocking of 2.93GHz, plus 6GB of RAM. An Nvidia GeForce GT 445M discrete graphics chip is also built into the XPS 17, along with 3GB of graphics memory and support for Optimus autoswitching technology. The net result is impressive gaming performance for a laptop. The XPS 17 manages to run FutureMark's latest DirectX 11 benchmark, posting a performance score of 1286.

Actual game performance is also decent--certainly sufficient to give you a good gaming experience. Far Cry 2 fell just shy of 60 frames per second in DX10 mode at optimal settings. The demanding DX11 test built into Metro 2033 runs at 27 fps, while the hot new racing game, F1 2010, attains 21 fps. Just Cause 2's Concrete Jungle benchmark, which is quite demanding, also hits 21 fps, but that's better than most laptops in this price range that we've tested. Overall, with a little tweaking, you should be able to keep consistently north of 30 fps at the default 1600 by 900 resolution, though you'll have to give up antialiasing to do it.

Speaking of price, our unit costs $1579 as configured--not too bad for a premium unit equipped with goodies like discrete graphics and two 500GB hard drives. Also part of the storage mix is a Blu-ray ROM DVD/RW combo drive, enabling high-definition playback of Blu-ray movies with the included PowerDVD 9.6 software.

Video playback looks sharp on the 1600 by 900 display, but the lack of true 1080p resolution is an odd oversight in an otherwise premium product. The viewing angles are predictably poor, with noticeable color shifting and brightness falloff away from the sweet spot, but it's still better than many similar panels. Some motion smearing can be seen in fast-action video and games. Colors look properly saturated, and photographs look correct when viewed from the sweet spot.

The audio quality is impressive. Music playback is quite listenable, sounding fairly accurate and transparent, even when audio enhancements were disabled. Stereo imaging seems a little vague, but the JBL-designed speakers even deliver reasonable midbass content, though real bass was still absent.

Note that this XPS isn't exactly svelte. It's fairly bulky, though the industrial design makes it seem thinner than it is. Weight is maybe a bit better than the average for a desktop replacement, at 8 pounds, 2 ounces without the power brick (it's 9.5 pounds with the charger).

Overall, the Dell XPS 17's newest progeny is a chip off the old block. None of the individual components stand out, and, on the surface, performance isn't something to write home about either, compared with other systems in this class. But the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts, so if you have a need for a desktop replacement that offers pretty decent gaming performance and Blu-ray playback, the XPS 17 is worth a close look. Still, we do wish it had 1080p.

This story, "Dell XPS 17" was originally published by PCWorld.

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