Dell XPS 17 3D Review

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Fast overall performance; 1080p display offers wide viewing angles; Great JBL speakers and sub-woofer; Two USB 3.0 ports; Capable 2-MP webcam

The Cons

Gaming frame rates drop with 3D activated; Below-average Wi-Fi throughput; 3D glasses sold separately; Expensive

Verdict

The 3D-enabled version of the Dell XPS 17 is a fully stocked multimedia powerhouse with superb sound.

The adoption rate of 3D TVs may be slow, but that's not discouraging notebook makers; Dell is the latest company to jump on the bandwagon with the XPS 17 3D. But a 17-inch, 1080p 3D display is just the start for this beast of an entertainment system. Dell has updated the XPS 17 with a 2nd-generation Intel Core i7 CPU, dual 750GB hard drives, top-tier Nvidia graphics, JBL speakers (and a subwoofer) an HD webcam, and Blu-ray player. Plus, Nvidia's 3D tech lets you send games and movies to a 3D-enabled TV. Sound like a lot for $2,434? You bet it is.

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Design

Not much has changed on the XPS's design since the previous model: The silvery lid with the Dell logo in the center, gray brushed aluminum deck, and the display that's attached about an inch forward of the rear are all back. The system measures 16.3 x 10.5 x 1.3-1.5 inches, which is slightly more slender than the ASUS G73Jw (16.6 x 12.8 x .8-2.3 inches) and about as thick as the HP Envy 17 3D (16 x 10.8 x 1.3-1.5 inches). However, ASUS' stealth-figher aesthetic and HP's dotted pattern look a little more modern than the XPS 17 3D.

At 6.6 pounds, the XPS 17's starting weight is lighter than the G73Jw and Envy 17 3D--7.5 and 8.8 pounds, respectively. With the 9-cell battery attached, though, the XPS 17's heft grows to 8.9 pounds and its height rises to 2.3 inches in the rear. Chances are you won't be unplugged much, so some may want to do without the 9-cell battery (which adds $40 to the price).

Keyboard and Touchpad

Unlike the previous generation, the current version of the XPS has an island-style keyboard. For such a large system, the chiclet keys felt small, but we adjusted to the generous space between them in a few minutes. Though we noticed some flex beneath the keyboard, tactile response was satisfactory for rapid-fire touch typing.

The keyboard also has a full-size number pad and a helpful backlight that adds a white glow. Dedicated buttons for skipping ahead in music or switching movie scenes would have been a plus on a media system such as this, but we did like the three illuminated touch buttons above the keyboard. These buttons launch Windows Mobility Center (a control panel for display settings, power profiles, and more), Dell Instant Launch Manager (a customizable shortcut button), and MaxxAudio sound controls (more on that later).

The 3.9 x 2.2-inch Synaptics touchpad offered lots of real estate, and we're always happy to see two distinct buttons. However, two-finger scrolling was tough to execute, and even pinch-to-zoom maneuvers were sometimes a challenge.

Display and Sound

The 17.3-inch TrueLife 3D display on the XPS 17 has a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, and it's glorious. From Blu-ray discs to YouTube videos, images were detailed, crisp, and colorful. The 1080p trailer for Thor was crystal clear, and we could make out fine details in costumes and set pieces. Viewing angles are so wide that we didn't notice any darkness in a Blu-ray of Ultraviolet until we hit the 150-degree mark on either side; at least five people could sit side by side without there being a bad seat in the house.

Thanks to two 22-watt JBL speakers (located at the front of the palm rest), a subwoofer on the underside, and digital sound processing from MaxxAudio, the XPS 17 offers superb audio. At 70 percent of max volume, we could easily hear movie dialogue and a range of music tracks at the back of a large conference room; the subwoofer's bass made tunes sound better up close, especially The Bad Plus's bass-and-piano song Physical Cities. The system can support 5.1 surround sound via HDMI output, too.

The MaxxAudio 3 sound suite includes customizable sound profiles, and SoundBlaster X-Fi offers enhancements for boosting effects and music in games. While watching Ultraviolet, activating MaxxDialogue gave Milla Jovovich's hushed narration a much-needed boost.

Ports and Webcam

The XPS 17 3D isn't lacking for ports: The back of the notebook has two USB 3.0 ports, along with Ethernet, a Kensington lock slot, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, and a plug for an optional TV tuner. The right side houses a tray-loading Blu-ray player and a combo eSATA/USB 2.0 port, along with jacks for two sets of headphones and a microphone. Remaining ports include an additional USB 2.0 port on the right side and a 9-in-1 card reader along the front.

A 2-MP Skype HD-certified webcam sits point above the display and can capture still shots at resolutions up to 1600x1200 pixels or record HD H.264 video up to 1280x720 pixels when used with Dell Webcam Central software. During a Skype call with a friend, we enjoyed high-def (1280 x 720) video that was not only much wider than our standard definition 680x420-pixel window, but had much more balanced shadows and highlights. Our caller noticed some slight image noise in the background but we chalk that up to connection quality.

Another bonus is noise cancelation software from Andrea Electronics (accessible from the MaxxAudio 3 control panel). According to our call partner, this tech eliminated background noise almost entirely.

Heat

The XPS 17 stayed quite cool. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad, keyboard, and notebook chassis registered mild readings of 83, 88, and 84 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. All are well below 95 degrees, the threshold of what we consider uncomfortable.

3D Experience

The XPS 17 3D uses Nvidia's active shutter technology in conjunction with its 120Hz display to create 3D images. Sadly, the glasses don't come pre-packaged with the system: Customers can purchase them separately for $149 each through Dell's site, but you can also buy the glasses from Nvidia's site for $119. Nvidia's glasses weigh 1.8 ounces and require you to recharge them via USB. (The ATI glasses that come with the HP Envy 17 3D weigh 2.1 ounces and take a small battery.) An IR emitter sits in the middle of the bottom bezel of the XPS 17; next to the emitter is an LED light that indicates when it's active.

Like other notebooks with Nvidia's 3D technology, the XPS 17's screen flickers briefly when 3D content is launched; this flickering didn't occur with the ATI 3D technology on the HP Envy 17 3D.

3D Games and Movies

We loaded a Blu-ray of IMAX Space Station 3D into the XPS 17, and selected the "Watch in 3D" option; the XPS 17's 3D LED light turned on and, after a few flashes on screen, we watched crisp images of astronauts hovering in space and spaceships lifting off the display. Just like the HP Envy 17 3D, the XPS 17 3D can't convert 2D Blu-rays into 3D. The notebook can convert DVDs into 3D, but the results aren't all that great. When playing a DVD of Bobby, images looked better than when we didn't have 3D conversion activated, but it didn't pop off the screen

Blu-ray 3D content is limited, but slowly increasing. A search on Amazon turned up 32 movies, including titles like Tron: Legacy and Despicable Me.

Nvidia's 3D technology can also be used to make a selection of 500 2D video games playable in 3D (including popular 2D titles such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, Dead Rising 2, and World of Warcraft). As of now, the 3D technology that powers the HP Envy 17 3D's display, TriDef 3D Ignition, works with 383 2D games. We also liked that Nvidia's 3D software recognized the game immediately; on the Envy 17 you have to launch the game using the TriDef software.

We tested 3D gampeplay on the XPS 17 with the first-person shooter Far Cry 2. Though the 3D was not as immersive as the Blu-ray movie, it was fun to duck and hand in tall jungle grass, and watch bad guys run headlong at us. The white cross-hair included in the game was more than enough to mow opponents down. We also sampled 3D pictures at Nvidia's online hub, but the images were only video game promotions, so we don't think it's a good place to take a new 3D notebook for a spin.

The XPS 17 3D supports Nvidia 3DTV Play, so you can output 3D Blu-ray discs, video games, or 3D photos to a 3D-enabled television set or 3D projector via the notebook's HDMI 1.4 connection.

Performance

The XPS 17 3D features a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i7 2820QM CPU, 8GB of RAM, and two 750GB, 7200-rpm hard drives (1.5TB total). The system earned a laudable 8,222 on the PCMark Vantage benchmark. That not only puts the HP Envy 17 3D to shame (5,888), it leaves the desktop replacement category average (6,399) in the dust too. Though the Alienware M17x uses the same processor, it earned a record 17,486 on PCMark Vantage because it packs a faster 256GB solid state drive.

The XPS 17 rivaled the Alienware M17x more closely when it came to transcoding a 114MB MP4 file to AVI format using Oxelon Media Converter. The system completed the task in just 36 seconds, the same as the M17x, and beat the category average (1:04) by 27 seconds. It also took 1:02 to encode a 5-minute 1080p clip to an iPod touch format video using Cyberlink Media Espresso, much faster than the 2:40 category average.

Even with a 7200-rpm hard drive, the XPS 17 3D took a lengthy 1 minute and 13 seconds to boot. The category average is 1:05. The Alienware M17x and HP Envy 17 3D took 29 seconds and 1:04, respectively.

Graphics

The XPS 17's Nvidia GT555M discrete graphics chip and 3GB of video memory provides a ton of muscle, but the demands of a 1080p, 3D-capable screen can impact performance greatly. For example, on the 3DMark06 benchmark, enabling the XPS 17's 3D (a single button in the Nvidia control panel) resulted in a score of 6,009, which falls below the category average of 8,323 and the HP Envy 17 3D and its ATI Radeon HD 5850 graphics (10,482), not to mention the ASUS G73Jw and that system's Nvidia GTX 460 GPU (12,397). However, when we disabled 3D, the XPS 17 notched 11,248.

We saw the same pattern on other tests: With 3D on, the XPS 17 scored 3,638 on the newer 3DMark Vantage benchmark, well below the category average of 6,725, not to mention the Envy 17 3D (6,538) and G73Jw (7,438); without 3D, the notebook scored 6,135.

The same thing occurred in gaming tests, too: With World of Warcraft at 1920 x 1080 resolution and settings at Ultra, the XPS 17 3D averaged 49 frames per second with 3D enabled, which is 10 fps below the category average, but on a par with the Envy 17 3D (47 fps). When we turned 3D off, that figure jumped to 61 fps. Dedicated gaming rigs such as the ASUS G73Jw saw 130 fps at those same settings.

On the more demanding Far Cry 2, the XPS 17--with 3D turned off--managed 126 fps at 1024 x 768, and 41 fps at its max res of 1920x1080 pixels, on a par with the Envy 17. When we activated 3D, frame rates dropped to an unplayable 19 fps at the max resolution.

Battery Life and Wi-Fi

The 9-cell battery included with our Dell XPS 17 3D lasted 2 hours and 8 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing over Wi-Fi). While it's below the category average (2:32), it's almost an hour longer than the HP Envy 17 3D (1:15), and several minutes longer than the G73Jw (1:56).

The Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230 wireless radio pulled in 29.8 Mbps at a distance of 15 feet from our wireless router and 16.5 Mbps from 50 feet away. Both scores are short the category average of 32.3 and 19.9 Mbps.

Warranty and Software

The XPS 17 3D comes with the usual slate of Dell software. The most prominent app is Dell Stage, a dock that provides quick access to photos, documents, games, music, and websites; we suspect some users will opt to disable it, since it clutters the desktop. Webcam Central adds visual filters to recorded video and still shots; DataSafe is for online and local backup; Dell Instant Launch Manager can be used to customize a touch sensitive shortcut; and Dell Support offers speedy access to the manufacturer's technical support.

Also bundled in is a 30-day trial of McAfee Security Center, Roxio for burning DVD/CDs, and Skype.

Dell backs the XPS 17 3D with a one-year limited hardware warranty that includes 24/7 phone support and free shipping. To see how Dell performed in our Tech Support Showdown, click here. You can also see how Dell stacked up in our Best & Worst Brands report by clicking here.

Configurations

Our $2,434 XPS 17 3D was a top-end configuration. It includes a Core i7 2820QM CPU, 8GB of RAM (available on 3D units only), Nvidia GeForce GT555M graphics with 3GB of video memory, a 3D-capable display, Nvidia 3DTV technology, one pair of 3D glasses, and a 9-cell battery. The only thing missing was an additional 8GB of RAM, the optional TV tuner ($50) and Intel Wireless Display, which can't be added to configurations with a 3D display.

While our XPS 17 came with dual 750GB hard drives, due to the recall of some Intel Sandy Bridge processors, this configuration won't be available until late spring. The closest configuration available now is dual 640GB hard drives ($2,349).

You can get 3D for much less, though. The base model XPS 17 3D is $1,099 and includes a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i5 2410M CPU, 4GB of RAM, 500GB 7200rpm hard drive, Nvidia GT550M discrete graphics card with 1GB of video memory, a CD/DVD burner, 6-cell battery, 2-MP camera, and a 17.3-inch 3D display with a native resolution of 1920 x 1080.

Unfortunately, Dell doesn't offer a 3D-less XPS 17 with a 1080p display. However, you can get a 2.30-GHz Core i7 2820QM CPU, dual 640GB 7200rpm hard drives, 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GT555M graphics with 3GB of video memory, Optimus switchable graphics, and a 17.3-inch 1600 x 900 pixel display for $1,764.

Verdict

Like its smaller brother, the XPS 15, the Dell XPS 17 3D delivers one of the richest multimedia experiences yet. Its bright and crisp display and excellent audio makes it a powerful system for those who want to play and watch content in 3D. However, the XPS 17's price--$2,434--is steep, and frame rates take a serious hit with 3D enabled. An HP Envy 17 3D with the same processor, hard drives, and memory, but a much more powerful ATI Radeon HD 6850M graphics card with 1GB of RAM, costs $2,164. Yet, the XPS 17 has a wider selection of ports and better audio, making it an entertainment notebook to be reckoned with.

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Author Bio
Kenneth Butler
Kenneth Butler, Writer/Web Content Producer
Kenneth Butler started at Laptopmag.com as a freelance fact checker after studying journalism at New York University. When he's not evangelizing Android, he's editing the Laptopmag.com homepage, reviewing gadget accessories, and focusing on the site's evolving page design.
Kenneth Butler, Writer/Web Content Producer on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.30-GHz Intel Core i7-2820QM
Operating System MS Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
RAM 16GB
RAM Upgradable to 16GB
Hard Drive Size Dual 750GB
Hard Drive Speed 7,200rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Dual Drive
Display Size 17.3
Native Resolution 1920x1080
Optical Drive BD-R/DVDRW
Optical Drive Speed 8X
Graphics Card Nvidia GT 555M
Video Memory 3GB
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230
Bluetooth Bluetooth 3.0
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3.9 x 2.2 inches
Ports (excluding USB) USB/eSATA
Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
Ports (excluding USB) Mini DisplayPort
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Kensington Lock
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
USB Ports 4
Card Slots 9-1 card reader
Warranty/Support Dell Basic 1-Year Limited Hardware Warranty
Size 16.3 x 11.3 x 1.4 - 2.3 inches
Weight 8.4 pounds (9-cell battery)
Company Website http://www.dell.com