Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement | How we test computers
Okay, you want a Dell laptop. But you can't be seen dead with the entry-level Inspiron series, and the XPS range is too good a reminder of the impending recession. Fear not! Dell has conjured up a new product line to sit between the two -- it's called Studio, and it comprises 15- and 17-inch models that are designed to be affordable, well-equipped and stylish.
We gasped in unison when we realised Dell had allowed its comparatively peasant-like Inspiron series to breed with XPS royalty. Fortunately, the offspring isn't as hideously deformed as we might have imagined. Sure, it's not as well-heeled as an XPS, but the Studio is far from a village idiot.
There's a swirly pattern -- like an oil spill or ordinance survey map -- on the lid and wrist rest, and it's available in seven colours and four colour trim options, the trim being the bit that runs around the edge of the screen. Its most striking feature is its large, angular hinge, which is reminiscent of those seen on the current XPS machines. It's not as attractive as those, but it's certainly eyecatching and makes the Studio 17 very pretty in profile. On the right side of this hinge is the power button, while on the left is a 'Wi-Fi catcher', which launches a pop-up Window showing any available wireless networks.
There are signs the Studio 17 isn't quite the definitive article. We'll forgive it for being large -- it's a 17-inch laptop, after all. But it's also quite fat and lacks some of the flair that make the XPSs so sexy. There's no aluminium wrist rest, for example, the keyboard looks and feels slightly clunky, and the lid is spongy and feels cheap.
We shouldn't grumble too much, though. Just because it's not a pure thoroughbred doesn't mean it's not worthy of love. It has a slot-loading DVD drive, D-Sub and HDMI video output, a fingerprint reader for logging in without typing a password, and five -- count 'em -- USB ports.
Like all Dell laptops, the Studio 17 can be customised to hell and back. And then back to hell again. CPU options start from an entry-level 1.73GHz Pentium Dual Core T2370 all the way up to a 2.5GHz T9300, so there's plenty of choice for most budgets and performance needs.
Dell has made some surprising decisions regarding RAM, though. Our review sample came with 4GB of DDR2 667MHz memory, which is rather a waste. We're not saying having lots of RAM is pointless, but rather the 32-bit versions of Windows Vista -- and indeed any 32-bit operating system -- can only access a maximum of 3.12GB of RAM. It's therefore something of a rip-off for Dell to charge an extra £29.99 to upgrade from 3GB to 4GB, when it should be warning customers that there's absolutely no point in doing so. It's not as if it's giving us the choice to upgrade to a 64-bit operating system, which would have made sense -- the 32-bit Vista Ultimate is as far as you can go.
There's a good, if hardly mind-boggling, amount of storage in the Studio 17. The standard hard drive is a 320GB unit, and there are options for 500GB and 640GB of storage -- the latter across twin 320GB drives. That's as high as it goes, which is a shame. This is a 17-inch desktop-replacement PC, remember, so why is there no option for 1TB of storage, as we've seen on the Asus M70? Dell, are you listening?
The Studio 17 is being marketed as an 'HD' laptop. Yes, that's marketing hyperbole (Blu-ray isn't an option), but it does have an HDMI output port, and it comes with a choice of three panels for its 17-inch screen. The first is the entry-level WXGA+ 1,440x900-pixel model, with an ordinary CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamp) backlight. For £30 more you can buy an LED-backlit version, which theoretically allows for longer battery life and brightness that doesn't reduce over time. For £110 extra, you can get the high-resolution 1,920x1,200-pixel CCFL-backlit unit, which gives you acres more desktop real-estate to play with.
A variety of graphics cards are available with the Studio 17. There's the default Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 -- which is pants -- plus a variety of Nvidia and ATI cards. Ours shipped with the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3650. It's by no means a gaming best, but it is a very capable card for tasks such as watching HD movies and even playing the odd game -- at low resolutions.
a pretty good array of software included with the Studio 17. It comes
with the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium, plus Microsoft
Works 9.0, and the Dell Dock -- a blatant rip-off of the Dock in Apple
OS X. This sits at the top of the screen and gives you fast access to
common applications such as media players, Web browsers and the like.
The Studio 17 is a true desktop replacement, so it's fair for us to assume it'll offer good performance. Unfortunately it failed to run our PCMark 2005 and 3DMark 2006 benchmarks, despite our efforts. Based on anecdotal testing, however, we believe it performs close to the similarly equipped MacBook Pro. We'll update the review if we manage to get the benchmarks to run.
One of the things that impressed us most about the Studio 17 is the way in which it runs -- very cool and very quiet. You can actually put it against your naked flesh without it burning your skin off. Likewise, you can use it in a quiet room late at night without the cooling fans waking your loved ones. Battery life isn't great -- just 2 hours, 20 minutes in our BatteryEater reader test, but then again, we can't imagine many people trying to take a laptop this size on a train.
The Studio 17 is by no means as attractive or desirable as an XPS laptop (excluding the gaming XPSs, they're pig-ugly), but it is slightly more appealing than an Inspiron. With that in mind, it achieves its objective: to be cheaper than an XPS without sacrificing too much in the way of looks.
Laptops such as the Asus M70 offer more in the way of storage and connectivity, but the Studio 17 just about holds its own.
Edited by Nick Hide