Nobody ever said PC gaming was an inexpensive hobby. A really solid gaming laptop can set you back $2,000 or more, and some high-end models easily double that. That's about £1,635 or AU$2,640. The best-case scenario is still usually $1,200 or more for a mainstream gaming laptop, and that's usually without extra features such as a touch screen or support for virtual reality headsets.
And yet, there's never been a better time to be a laptop gamer. After years of underpowered, overpriced gaming laptops, we now have a huge selection of well-made, high-performance systems, from very portable 13-inch ones to massive 17-inch and even 18-inch monsters.
Even better, the latest generation of Nvidia graphics cards -- graphics cards being the key component inside a computer that supports 3D gaming -- has (mostly) erased the line between mobile and desktop versions, which means laptop shoppers are no longer paying significantly higher prices for significantly less performance.
And price is what makes this Dell Inspiron 15 7000 so interesting. Instead of making the workmanlike plastic laptop you'd expect from a 15-inch Inspiron, Dell has decided to see just how much gaming performance it can squeeze into a laptop that starts at just $799 in the US. In some ways, it's a very successful experiment, built around an Intel Core i5 CPU and Nvidia's new GeForce 1050 graphics card. For a little extra, the $899 model we tested trades up to the faster GeForce 1050Ti GPU (and that step-up model is currently on sale for $849 in the US). International configurations differ slightly, but start at £899 or AU$1,699.
For a robust gaming laptop, those are pretty incredible prices. Note that this is a special "gaming" edition of the Inspiron 15, and standard versions without the red design and graphics hardware are also available.
To put the price in context, the Asus Strix GL753 15-inch laptop we're currently testing has the same 1050Ti GPU, but a faster Intel Core i7 processor (and more storage, more RAM, a nicer body and better display), and runs about $1,300 in the US (I've seen similar models for £1,278 or AU$1,599.)
Dell tried a similar experiment in mid-2016, with a then-current Nvidia 960M GPU in an inexpensive Inspiron 15 body. The biggest change here, aside from the updated components, is the design, which combines a matte red exterior with a black interior and some automotive-grille-like rear vents. It frankly looks nicer than a lot of more expensive gaming laptops, which can veer toward overblown nonsense.
|Price as reviewed||$849|
|Display size/resolution||15-inch 1,920 x 1,080 display|
|PC CPU||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7300HQ|
|PC memory||8GB DDR4SDRAM 2,400MHz|
|Graphics||4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.2|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
The flip side is that giving you those 1050 and 1050Ti GPUs at these prices requires some serious corner cutting. The question becomes, just how many corners are you willing to cut to play PC games on the cheap? It's an especially important question, because some of the Inspiron 15's shortfalls make it harder to use as an everyday midsize laptop.
The biggest trouble spot is the display, which has a standard FHD 1,920x1,080 resolution, but that's about the only positive thing one can say about it.
The LCD screen looks washed out and lacks punch and contrast, and that's when viewing it head-on, as one would while gaming at a desk or dining table. It's when you move even slightly to the side that the even bigger problems come to light.
The image immediately fades when viewed from even just a little off-center. This kind of problem with off-axis viewing is something very few laptops, even budget ones, suffer from any more. I can't recall the last time I ran into this kind of problem on a 15-inch laptop, and it's even worse on a gaming/multimedia machine. It's the single biggest issue that gives me pause about giving this system a strong recommendation.
The touchpad is another weak point, and with Windows laptops in general finally catching up to MacBooks when it comes to accuracy and multitouch gestures, this feels like a step backward. It's twitchy, it registers occasional false inputs (such as sensing a double-tap right click incorrectly) and it's got a cheap-feeling plastic surface, which isn't nearly as nice as the glass-topped touchpads we see in many modern laptops. I found myself plugging a mouse in pretty much right away, but that did give me a chance to appreciate that this thing is packed with ports, including three full-size USB ports, HDMI, Ethernet and an SD card slot (but no USB-C).
The real test for any gaming PC is how it performs while running games. Dell may have cut a few corners to get that Nvidia GPU inside at this rock-bottom price, but it's a gamble that pays off in terms of pure gameplay. Standard non-gaming benchmarks were low compared with other mainstream gaming laptops, because of the slower Intel Core i5 CPU here, but gaming tests were as good as laptops that cost much more.
Reliable standbys like BioShock Infinite and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided ran great, as did newer games like Battlefield 1, all at native 1,920x1,080 resolution and medium-to-high detail settings. I tried a just-released PC game, Ubisoft's sword-fighting For Honor, and even though it's still getting early PC patches, the game looked great and ran very smoothly at high detail settings and FHD resolution.
Where you run into some trouble is the screen and its very narrow optimal field of view. Even dead-on, it's on the dull side, lacking the really colorful punch you get with more-expensive gaming laptop screens. When moving your head just a bit to the side while playing, the image starts to fade around the edges of the display. That said, once I was in a good position, with the screen at the correct angle and a controller in my hand, I had a highly satisfying game experience, especially considering the price.
Battery life was another pleasant surprise, hitting 9-plus hours. But note that score is for video streaming, not gameplay, where you're likely to get a couple of hours at best away from a plug.
The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 is the least expensive way I've seen to get this level of gaming performance in a laptop. But, that doesn't mean it's automatically the best bang for your buck. Investing a bit more will get you a laptop with a better display (a real issue here), a bigger hard drive and maybe a better overall design.
The Asus Strix GL753 (which we're currently testing) has the same Nvidia 1050Ti GPU, but a better CPU, better display and more storage, for about $400 more. Dell's sister brand, Alienware, currently has a 15-inch with a Core i5 CPU but a VR-ready Nvidia 1060 GPU for $1,299.
Both are tempting, and probably better long-term investments. But, if you can't break that $1,000 barrier, this is a lot of gaming laptop for not a lot of money, and it gets an enthusiastic, but qualified, recommendation.
|Dell Inspiron 15 7000 (2017)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7300HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti; 256GB SSD|
|Alienware 13 R3 (OLED late 2016)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060; 512GB SSD|
|Dell XPS 15 (2017)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.8GHZ Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050; 512GB SSD|
|HP Omen (17-inch)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070; 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD|
|Asus ROG Strix GL753VE-DS74||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-7700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti; 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD|