UPDATE: Since we first evaluated this system, more gaming and software updates have surfaced. Therefore, this updated review reflects new F.E.A.R. scores, as well as 3DMark06 scores.
Dell goes full-throttle with its latest XPS notebook, the M1730, which packs an Intel Core 2 Extreme X7900 processor, dual Nvidia graphics processors in an SLI configuration, and Ageia's PhysX controller, which theoretically makes games look more realistic than before. Although the whole experience is still a work in progress, at $3,824, the XPS M1730 is ready for whatever you can throw at it, and then some.
Our tested configuration features Smoke accents on the lid, but you can opt for Red, Blue, or White inserts instead. The cross-hatched gray top is more demure than some designs we've seen from Dell, though the lit lid accents still scream gaming rig, which isn't ideal for all users. Speakers in the front bezel sport red backlights, and the lid's Dell logo and the mousepad's XPS logo are lit as well. The backlit accents can light up in different colors or can be turned off altogether with the Dell QuickSet utility.
Under the lid, you'll be pleased to find that Dell has upgraded the M1710's keyboard; a full number pad now sits in its rightful place alongside the primary keys. The XPS touchpad has been moved to the left so that it remains centered on the space bar. The silver keys are spaced well, have a responsive, pleasant feel, and are backlit with a clean white light that you can easily toggle off with a Function-key press.
Surrounding the keyboard is the same patterned gray that adorns the lid. The large Power button is easy to see; there's also a button for Dell's Media Direct function, which gives instant media access without booting Windows. A two-megapixel webcam sits above the screen.
The highlight under the lid is the 1920 x 1200-pixel WUXGA display, which features the same glossy, glare-reducing coating as on older XPS models. It's just as nice as before; we had little issue with glare; details were crisp; and colors popped. DVDs and games looked fantastic, and the image was equally usable for Web pages and documents. The wide viewing angles were useful, as well.
The rig is rather chunky at 16 x 11.9 x 2 inches and 11 pounds, with another 3 pounds for the power brick, which is the size of a paperback. The M1730's set of ports hasn't expanded much from last year's XPS offering: four USB ports, DVI and S-video out, FireWire, and a five-in-one card reader. Dual headphone ports and a mic port complement the front bezel media controls. After listening to Toshiba's impressive sound system, the sound from the XPS' two-watt speakers and five-watt subwoofer seemed weak. We would have liked to have seen an HDMI port as well.
Quite impressive is the notebook's storage space; our sample came with two 200GB 7,200-rpm SATA hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration. The heart of this system, however, is the CPU and SLI graphics card combo. The 2.8-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo X7900 is overclockable to 3.4 GHz, and the dual 256MB GeForce GO 8700M GT graphics processors provide plenty of muscle. Dell also offers its Rapid Driver Update program, which has all the latest fully tested drivers and lets you download drivers that Dell hasn't yet tested. We think gamers will take very kindly to this program, but even more, we hope Nvidia gets its DirectX 10 drivers optimized for Vista in the near future.
Our gaming scores were very good: 152 frames per second on F.E.A.R. at autodetect settings. That's just slightly behind Alienware's 161 fps on its Area-51 m9750--the fastest notebook to date. Every game we played was nothing less than a pleasure. The 26,983 3DMark03 score shows a lot of promise, however, as does the 8,064 on 3DMark06. The m9750 we tested notched better scores of 34,585 and 8,706 on those tests. But the 6,940 score on PCMark05 is better than the m9750's 5,552 and one of the best we've seen.
What makes the XPS M1730 stand out, however, is its PhysX card--something Alienware has yet to add to a notebook. It's supposed to take such elements as weight, velocity, and force into account. In other words, in a game, a wall won't just be knocked down; rather, the wall will collapse according to how the character hit it, how much the character supposedly weighs, and how much force was applied. These effects also apply to items falling into water and making an appropriate-sized splash, or the ability for a soldier to shoot his weapon down stairs instead of just straight ahead. So far, the only games that can take advantage of this processor are Ghost Recon 2, Inferno, CellFactor: Revolution, Unreal Tournament 3, and Warmonger. The effects are noticeable. We tested with Ghost Recon and definitely noticed that there's more realism in destructible environments and cloth; debris lingers rather than disappearing, and natural environments look more lush, since foliage is rendered with more detail and movement.
In addition to all the power inside the machine, the small gaming LCD on the keyboard deck is also a strong gaming component; depending on the game you're playing, it can show a character's health and life, how many bullets you have left, or whatever else pertains to a given game. This screen works with any game that supports a G15 gaming keyboard. When you're not gaming, this screen can show RSS feeds, the time, and a countdown timer, with a button to the right to quickly change modes. A battery readout option would be nice for nongaming use, however, and we wish the screen were on the bezel of the display, not the keyboard deck, to make it easier to read.
Other than the lack of HDMI output, we have two other complaints. We think at this price a Blu-ray drive should be included. Second, only one year of support comes standard, but extended warranties are available.
Overall, the M1730 is an impressive piece of hardware that will only get better as more DX 10-compatible titles hit the market. And while nearly $4,000 is a lot to spend on a gaming machine, it's currently the only one on the market with the PhysX card, and it still costsless than the top-notch systems from its fiercest gaming competitors.
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