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Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition review: Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition

Dell's Inspiron 17R SE packs reasonably high-end parts into a budget-feeling chassis, saving a few hundred dollars or more over similarly configured laptops.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
8 min read

My initial thought on seeing this new Dell Inspiron 17R SE pulled from its box for the first time was, "Wow, does anyone still make laptops this big?" It's doubly surprising, as we've talked about the latest generation of Dell Inspiron laptops at some length, usually to point out how thin and attractive they are, at least for budget-minded laptops.


Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition

The Good

The <b>Dell Inspiron 17R SE</b> has a quad-core Core i7 processor, decent graphics, and a big 1080p screen.

The Bad

The thick, inelegant body won't impress anyone. For the money, I'd rather have a high-end GPU and midlevel CPU than the other way around.

The Bottom Line

Dell's Inspiron 17R SE packs reasonably high-end parts into a budget-feeling chassis, saving a few hundred dollars or more over similarly configured laptops.

The difference is that those systems, typified by the Inspiron 14z, are part of Dell's "z" line, which indicates a thinner body (perhaps related to the z axis in the Cartesian coordinate system). This is the regular full-thickness Inspiron, a line that Dell has not particularly emphasized of late. There's still a further catch here, however. This is the SE or Special Edition version of the 17R, which means its options include high-end CPUs, discrete graphics, 1080p displays, and backlit keyboards, packed into a chassis that's at least partially aluminum.

In this particular case, our review unit includes an Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU, a 1,920x1,080-pixel, 17.3-inch display, 1TB of HDD storage (coupled with a 32GB solid-state drive), and an Nvidia GeForce 650M GPU, for a total of $1,099.

To be sure, $1,100 is not what anyone would describe as a budget laptop, and Dell's Inspiron line definitely tells the best overall story when it's sitting around the $700-$800 mark. At the same time, that combination of a quad-core Core i7, midrange Nvidia GPU, and 1080p screen is not the stuff of budget laptops. The closest mainstream analog I could find is an HP Pavilion dv7 that trades a smaller hard drive for a Blu-ray player, and costs around $1,200. Toshiba has a Qosmio X870 that can be configured with a better GeForce 670M GPU for $1,299. Getting similar specs from a boutique gaming PC company, or Dell's more upscale XPS line, will also cost a good deal more.

It seems to me that the concept here is to put your dollars into the components inside the laptop, while not worrying as much about the outside. What you end up with is a laptop that isn't going to win any beauty pageants (although it's not hideous), but has some mid- to high-end components at a good price. That said, the GeForce 650M GPU keeps this from being an unbeatable budget gaming monster -- that's too far removed from Nvidia's highest-end parts to satisfy ubergamers.

Price as reviewed $1,099 / $999
Processor 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM
Memory 8GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 1.0TB 5,400rpm / 32GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GT 650M / Intel HD 4000
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 7.5 pounds / 8.6 pounds
Category Desktop replacement

The new Dell Inspiron 17R SE is not really bigger and thicker than midprice desktop replacement laptops from a couple of years ago, nor is it less attractive, or made of cheaper materials. 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.

Every single person who saw our Inspiron 17R SE was taken aback at how big and thick it was, and how much it looked like a throwback to an earlier generation of laptop. To be fair, 1.5 inches does not make for a gigantically unwieldy laptop, and it's the same or thinner than 17-inch Dells from the past few years. But, 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.

Samsung's recent 17-inch Series 7 was less than 1 inch thick, as was Apple's late 17-inch MacBook Pro. Even Toshiba's massive 17-inch Qosmio laptops are a hair thinner than this. The trade-off, of course, is that the Inspiron 17R SE is less expensive when configured similarly, in some cases by a lot.

As on the Inspiron 14z we recently reviewed, the 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. There's less clackiness to this keyboard than to that of the 14-inch Inspiron, but 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 click pad. Gestures such as two-finger scroll worked, but not as smoothly as on a MacBook.

The 17.3-inch display is a system highlight, and one of the main reasons to pick the SE model over the everyday Inspiron 17R. The standard 17R has a 1,600x900-pixel native resolution, which is frankly suboptimal for a big 17-inch screen, while the 17R SE has a full 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution, making it well-suited for HD video, and Blu-ray if you get the optional Blu-ray optical drive. Interestingly, the black plastic screen bezel is not as thick as one might expect on a budget laptop, and the screen itself has an antiglare matte finish, which is an option much sought after by savvy laptop shoppers.

The stereo speakers (plus a subwoofer) are branded by headphone-maker Skullcandy, and get reasonably loud, but are still on the thin side, so don't expect miracles.

Dell Inspiron 17R SE 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

In a laptop market where ports and connections regularly get cut for either space or budget (or both), it's nice to see a full set of four USB ports on the 17R SE. Even better, they're all USB 3.0 ports.

This $1,099 configuration is the power-to-price sweet spot for the 17-inch Inspiron SE models. Cut $100, and you can drop down to an Intel Core i5 CPU. Add $200 and you'll get stereoscopic 3D support (plus 3D glasses), and a Blu-ray drive. Go all the way up to $1,499, and you'll keep those extras and double the hard drive size to 2TB. But if you're looking to spend $1,500 on a laptop, you're probably looking for a premium experience (which could even include laptops from Dell's own XPS or Alienware lines).

The 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU in the Inspiron 17R SE is near the top of Intel's current third-generation Ivy Bridge line. In our performance benchmark tests, it matched up very favorably against some much more expensive laptops, including models from Origin and Maingear. Getting that high-end processor for under $1,100 is one of the real selling points of this configuration.

In gaming performance it's not as comparable to more expensive laptops, as many of those systems have Nvidia's GT 675M chip, rather than the more mainstream 650M version found here. It's a strict price-to-performance trade-off, and if you're a superserious gamer, you probably want the top-of-the-line GPU, even more than a quad-core Core i7 CPU. That said, this system is still excellent for mainstream gaming, even on the latest games. It ran our very tough Metro 2033 test at 1,920x1,080 pixels at 22.2 frames per second, and Street Fighter IV at the same resolution at 87.6 frames per second. Anecdotally, I was able to run Modern Warfare 3 smoothly at full resolution, with graphics settings on high.

No one expects a desktop-replacement laptop to run for very long on its internal battery. Given that plus the power-hungry high-end components and the modest price, I'm surprised it can run for more than 2 hours. It actually lasted for just under 3 hours on our video playback battery drain test, at 2:51. That's longer than many big-screen laptops, but gaming and other intensive tasks would certainly shorten the time.

Dell's higher-end XPS laptops include extras such as accidental damage protection and LoJack service. The more basic Inspiron plan does include on-site service, which is welcome, but only 90 days of what Dell calls premium phone support, which it claims means shorter wait times. A three-year plan (including the upgraded phone support) is $149.

If you buy a Dell Inspiron 17R SE, no one is going to see it and marvel at your aesthetic sensibilities or experience serious tech envy. But, you'll at least be secure in the knowledge that gadget beauty is only skin-deep, and you've assembled a powerful set of components for a few hundred dollars less than some slicker, thinner machines with similar specs.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Street Fighter IV (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Native resolution, 2X AA, V Sync Off  
Dell Inspiron 17R SE - 2051BK (7720)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Annual energy consumption cost
Dell XPS 15
Dell Inspiron 17R SE - 2051BK (7720)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations
Dell Inspiron 17R SE - 2051BK (7720) Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000;; 1TB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Dell Inspiron 15R SE 7520
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB AMD Radeon HD 7730M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 1TB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Dell XPS 15
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Origin EON17-S (Ivy Bridge - Intel Core i7-3920XM)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-3920XM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; HDD #1: 1TB SAMSUNG 5,400rpm + HDD #2/3: 240GB Corsair Force SSD (x2) RAID 0

Maingear EX-L 15
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-3820QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Samsung NP700G7C-S01US
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 675M; 750GB Hitachi 7,200rpm


Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 9Battery 6Support 7