Can you really get a good big-screen multimedia laptop for under a grand? Yes, and the Dell Inspiron 17R is exhibit A. This 17-inch notebook combines a vibrant 1600 x 900 screen with a second-generation Intel Core i5-2410M CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GT525M graphics card, and a Blu-ray player--all for $899. Not only that, but users can swap out the lid for a color or design of their choosing.
Though not as elegant as the Dell XPS 17, the Inspiron 17R is an attractive and well-built laptop with an interesting twist. Our system featured a glossy black plastic lid with a brushed-metal motif and a chrome Dell logo in the center. Don't like the color? A small button near the hinge allows users to detach the lid and switch it out with another of Dell's new SWITCH by Design Studio lids.
Currently, only three solid colors are available for the 17R (Fire Red, Lotus Pink, and Peacock Blue) for $34 each, but we expect that there will soon be a greater variety of patterns and designs. While the lids are bright and eye-catching, their glossiness makes them fingerprint magnets.
The 16.5 x 11.3 x 1.2-inch laptop weighs in at 7.2 pounds (7.6 pounds with a nine-cell battery). We found it easy to transport the Inspiron 17R from room to room.
The black plastic deck has a brushed-metal motif, but with a more smudge-proof presentation. Chrome accents surround the matte island-style keyboard and the integrated webcam. As with the last generation of Inspiron notebooks, the rear of the laptop sticks out approximately 0.3 inches past the lid, allowing users to bend the display back further.
The 17R has a spacious island-style keyboard with a full number pad. The large keys provided solid tactile feedback. Three buttons located in the top right corner above the keyboard gave us quick access to Dell Support Center, projection mode, and Windows Mobility.
The 4 x 2.2-inch touchpad is smooth and supports multitouch gestures. Pinch-to-zoom and two-finger and circular scrolling gestures were easy to use. The mouse keys felt sturdy and responsive.
Display and Audio
The 17.3-inch glossy TrueLife LCD display on the 17R has a native resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels. Whether we were watching a Blu-ray movie or video on YouTube, images were crisp and clear with bold color. The 1080p trailer for X-Men: First Class was crystal clear, as was the Blu-ray edition of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Viewing angles are nice and wide, with colors washing out around 120 degrees.
Because the Inspiron 17R has Intel's second-gen Core processor, it's equipped with Intel Wireless Display 2.0. That means users can stream 1080p video wirelessly--including DVDs and Blu-rays--to their HDTV. However, consumers will need to purchase the $79 Netgear Push2TV Adapter.
It may not have the large JBL speakers found on the XPS 17, but the 17R delivered rich, clear sound via the two speakers located under the laptop's front lip. Using SRS Premium audio to bolster the audio experience, we enjoyed robust while playing videos and games and listening to music. While listening to Lupe Fiasco's "Words I Never Said," we heard clear vocals and rich bass.
Ports and Webcam
The rear of the Inspiron 17R features a VGA port, Ethernet, and a Kensington lock slot. The right side houses a USB 2.0 port, two USB 3.0 ports, and a tray-loading Blu-ray player. Remaining ports on the left include a USB/eSATA combo, an 8-in-1 card reader, a microphone jack, and a headphone jack.
An integrated 1-megapixel widescreen HD webcam sits above the display and can capture still shots and video at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. Video quality was clear, even under fluorescent light. Face-tracking software was responsive, quickly panning to match our movements. The microphone performed well during our Skype tests. While our callers did complain of initial background noise, it was easily fixed by adjusting the noise suppression and echo cancellation presets located in Dell Webcam Central.
After 15 minutes of playing video on Hulu at full screen, the Inspiron 17R's touchpad remained relatively cool at 86 degrees. However, the underside of the laptop and the keyboard registered a relatively hot 99 and 98 degrees, a few degrees above the threshold of what we consider uncomfortable (95).
Featuring a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5-2410M CPU with 6GB of RAM, the Inspiron 17R scored 5,990 on PCMark Vantage, 871 points below the desktop replacement notebook category average. However, it should be noted that this category contains a number of far more powerful gaming machines. The Sony VAIO EC, a $749 laptop with a 2.53-GHz Intel Core i3-380M processor, scored 5,453. The only time we noticed lag on the 17R was when we were watching Spider Man 3 while web-surfing and playing Bejeweled 2 at the same time.
Our biggest issue with the Inspiron 17R is its sluggish boot time. The 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive booted Windows 7 Home Premium in a slow 1 minute and 40 seconds, about 35 seconds longer than the category average and the VAIO EC. The drive was also slow at duplicating a 4.97GB folder of mixed-media files, taking 4 minutes and 7 seconds, a rate of 20.6 MBps. The VAIO EC produced a faster rate of 28MBps, but both laptops were well below the category average of 34.6 MBps.
The 17R fared better when it came video editing. It took the machine 51 seconds to transcode a 114MB MPEG-4 clip to AVI in Oxelon Media Encoder, faster than both the VAIO EC (1:05) and the category average (1:01).
Thanks to an Nvidia GeForce GT525M graphics card and 1GB of video memory, the Inspiron 17R produced a solid score of 7,993 on 3DMark06, blowing past the VAIO EC's ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 GPU by 3,881 points. However, the laptop failed to beat the category average of 8,855
The Inspiron 17R is certainly powerful enough to play the latest games. The machine notched 60 frames per second when playing World of Warcraft on Good at a resolution of 1600 x 900. While this is well below the category average (169 fps), the VAIO EC series could only post 37 fps at the same resolution. When we cranked the effects up to Ultra, the Inspiron 17R's frame rates dropped to 41 fps, which is still more than playable.
Users will able to get some enjoyment out of more demanding games as well. On Far Cry 2, the Inspiron 17R was able to notch 33 fps at native resolution and effects on Very High. That's twice as high as the VAIO EC (15 fps), and on a par with the category average, but about half that of a dedicated gaming rig such as the ASUS G73SW (57 fps).
Battery Life and Wireless
Powered by a six-cell lithium-ion battery, the Inspiron 17R lasted an impressive (for a desktop replacement) 4 hours and 4 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test. That's more than 1 hour and 15 minutes than the category average (2:48) and 1:10 longer than the VAIO EC series (2:54). The 17R's optional nine-cell battery gave us an additional three hours, lasting 7 hours and 15 minutes. Since this notebook is not likely to spend much time away from an outlet, the larger battery is not a necessity.
The Inspiron 17R has an Intel Centrino Wireless-N 1030 wireless radio, as well as Bluetooth 2.1. The 17R posted a transfer rate of 31.7 Mbps at 15 feet from our router, slightly below the 33.7 Mbps category average. At 50 feet, the number slipped further, with the 17R managing 15.8 Mbps, 4.4 Mbps below the average.
Our review unit of the Inspiron 17R is priced at $899 and comes equipped with a second-generation 2.3-GHz Core i5-2410M processor, 6GB of RAM, a Nvidia GeForce GT525M graphics card, 1GB of video memory, a 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit).
The $549 entry-level model has a 2.10-GHz Core i3-2310M processor, 3GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, a DVD burner, and a smaller 320GB 5400-rpm hard drive. The next configuration ($599) has 4GB of RAM and a larger 500GB hard drive; the $699 configuration gets you a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5-2410M processor, and the $799 model increases the RAM to 6GB and the hard drive size to 640GB.
Software and Warranty
The Inspiron 17R comes pre-loaded with a fair amount of software, including Dell Datasafe Local Backup, which allows users to create backup discs of their hard drive. The first year of the service is free with a 2GB limit. Users can subscribe to the service starting at $29 for 10GB with a maximum of 100GB for $59. Dell has also included its Data Support Center to assist with scheduling hardware scans and a number of tests to diagnose PC health.
Dell Stage gives users quick access to apps, games, music, and photos via a number of shortcuts located on the top of the desktop. Stage can take up a large portion of real estate, but we were able to minimize it and continue working unimpeded. Users can also add their own shortcuts to the Stage navigation bar by dragging shortcuts onto it.
Dell also packages Microsoft Office Starter and Cozi Family Calendar and two free years of McAfee Security Center.
Dell backs the Inspiron 17R with a two-year basic service plan, which includes in-home service after remote diagnosis and 24/7 tech support via phone. Check out how Dell fared in our annual Tech Support Showdown and Best & Worst Brands report.
For $899, the Dell Inspiron 17R offers a great display and audio with plenty of performance for multimedia mavens and even gamers. Its impressive battery life, while not necessary on a desktop replacement, is a bonus. Our only major complaint is the 17R's slow boot time. Those looking for even better sound and style should check out the Dell XPS 17, which, for the same price, gets you a more elegant design, the same processor, an Nvidia GT550M GPU, 4GB of RAM, but no Blu-ray and a 500GB hard drive. But it's hard to beat the Inspiron 17R's winning combination of specs, performance, and value.