Desktop-replacement laptops, with big 17-inch or larger screens, are less common than they used to be. Even Apple has sunsetted its only 17-inch model. Of the handful that are left, most are high-end systems aimed at gamers or multimedia producers, making a budget 17-inch laptop the rarest of all.
Dell's Inspiron line is one of the few to offer a product for those seeking maximum screen for minimum investment. The Inspiron 17R starts at $599, although our $699 review configuration seems like a better overall deal. For an extra $100, you trade up from a second-gen Intel Core i3 CPU to a third-gen Core i5, plus get a larger hard drive.
Of course, on a big-screen laptop such as this, it's harder to hide the cost-cutting. A 13-inch laptop with the same CPU could get away with a mostly plastic body and lower screen resolution, but in a desktop replacement, one's expectations of power, performance, and features are simply higher. For example, the very similar-looking Dell Inspiron 17R SE (for Special Edition) offers options including high-end CPUs, discrete graphics, 1080p displays, and backlit keyboards, but starts at $999.
For the handful of shoppers who want a leave-it-at-home, nongaming laptop and don't mind the suboptimal 1,600x900-pixel resolution on this 17.3-inch screen, I suppose there's a case to be made for the Inspiron 17R, but I'd be hard-pressed to think of the last time a reader asked me about something along those lines.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$699 / $599|
|Processor||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M|
|Memory||6GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||750GB 5,400rpm|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||16.4x10.9 inches|
|Height||1.3 - 1.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||17.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||7.1 pounds / 8.8 pounds|
At first glance, this system is nearly identical to the recently reviewed Dell Inspiron 17R SE. That more expensive Special Edition version has the same general outline, but is covered with a black cross-hatched pattern, while the regular 17R has a smart-looking brushed-metal finish (although it's actually made of plastic) on its lid and keyboard tray. As with many Inspiron laptops, the top layer of the lid pops off and can be replaced by aftermarket alternatives in different colors. The available options I saw were pink or blue, each for $29.
This laptop is not really bigger and thicker than midprice desktop-replacement laptops from a couple of years ago. What has changed, however, is what the rest of the laptop market looks like, as well as consumers' expectations for laptops across all sizes and price ranges. Today's laptop shopper is inundated with messages about ultrabooks and other slim laptops, with superthin designs moving from 13-inch models into 14- and 15-inch or larger territory.
As on the Inspiron 17R SE, the 17R's keyboard is Dell's standard variation on the flat-topped, widely spaced, island-style keyboard found in most current laptops. In the Dell version, the keys have more rounded corners than most, and the top row of function keys is half-height. The current Dell XPS laptops have essentially the same keyboard, but with a slightly more stylized font on the letter keys. The keys feel tight and responsive, but there's still a good deal of flex in the middle.
The touch pad is big enough to be useful on a 17-inch laptop, but still includes separate left and right mouse buttons. You'll have to trade up to the more expensive XPS line to get a full buttonless clickpad. Gestures such as two-finger scroll worked, but not as smoothly as on a MacBook.
Dell's proprietary software dock, called Stage, is here, and by default includes tiles linking to your music, photo, and video collections, as well as tiles for paid services such as Zinio for magazines and WildTangent for games. The size, position, and types of tiles can be adjusted in the settings menu, or you can simply send the entire thing away. As is, it's inoffensive, but it may be obsolete in the coming Windows 8 world.
The 17.3-inch display is where you'll really notice that this is a budget laptop. The native resolution is 1,600x900 pixels, instead of the 1,920x1,080 pixels in the 17R SE model and most other desktop-replacement laptops. Onscreen text and images can be overly large, cartoonishly so at times, and you won't be able to fit as many browser windows or photos on the screen at once. That said, I've very occasionally run into 17-inch laptops with even lower 1,366x768-pixel screens, though that's only on sub-$500 doorbusters.
Compared with the matte finish on the 17R SE's screen, this one was glossy, with that slightly wavy reflective quality found in less expensive displays. Side by side, there was a clear difference in image quality, with the more expensive SE version of the 17R having a brighter, more colorful screen, even with the brightness turned all the way up on both.
A quick-launch button above the keyboard launches a series of audio presets from Waves, a company known for its sound plug-ins, but don't expect miracles. The stereo speakers (plus a subwoofer) get reasonably loud, but are still on the thin side.
|Dell Inspiron 17R||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||VGA plus HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.|
|Data||4 USB 3.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner or Blu-ray player|
The ports and connections on the Inspiron 17R and 17R SE are identical. When some of these features regularly get cut for either space or budget (or both), it's nice to see a full set of four USB ports here, and even better, they're all USB 3.0 ports.
This $699 configuration is the smartest choice out of the three preconfigured versions available on Dell's Web site, with a current-gen (Ivy Bridge) Intel Core i5 CPU, 6GB of RAM, and a 750GB hard drive. Cut by $100 to $599, and you get a previous-generation (Sandy Bridge) Intel Core i3 CPU and smaller 500GB hard drive. Go the other way, up to $849, and the specs are a current-gen quad-core Core i7 8GB of RAM, and a big 1TB hard drive. For $250 more than that high-end config, the 17R SE we reviewed added an Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics card, an additional 32GB SSD, better speakers, and a full 1080p screen.