Dell's sometimes-confusing array of in-house consumer brands has been thankfully whittled down to three, and there's a clear enough delineation between them to make choosing a Dell laptop (or at least a starting point) a simple equation. The mainstream Inspiron brand hits the lowest end of the price spectrum, with plastic bodies and a surprisingly wide range of component options; the premium-priced Alienware brand is for Mountain-Dew-chugging gamers, with aesthetic palates that lag behind their budgets. In the middle is the XPS line, which takes some of the same higher-end components available from the other two lines, adds new and different options, and wraps the entire system up in an appealing metal-clad shell.
The upscale-looking XPS 17 3D is a relatively recent variation on the brand, taking the current 2011 17-inch XPS, with its second-gen Intel Core i-series processors, and adding stereoscopic 3D support via Nvidia's 3D Vision platform (which is really the standard for PC-based 3D). You can also send the signal to a 3DTV via HDMI and watch video or play PC games in 3D--a potential draw for fans of PC-only games such as StarCraft II.
Our XPS 17 3D rang up at $2,054, but the starting price for a 3D version is $1,199 (non-3D XPS 17 models can be configured down to $899). While it's actually very hard to configure a laptop to cost more than $2,000 these days, our expensive review unit included an Intel Core i7-2630QM processor, 8GB of RAM, a full-HD 1080p screen, Nvidia's GeForce GT 555M GPU, a Blu-ray writer, and 1TB of hard-drive space.
That's probably more computer than anyone needs, but a more reasonable build will get you up and running for under $1,500, and still be a killer gaming/multimedia/3D rig that won't make your apartment look like a dorm room.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$2,054 / $1,199|
|Processor||2.0GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM|
|Memory||8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||100GB (500GBx2) 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce GT 555M|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||16.3 x 11.3 inches|
|Height||1.3 - 1.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||17.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||8.4/9.8 pounds|
With a brushed-metal design and a three-tone black/gray/silver color scheme, the 17-inch version of the Dell XPS is nearly identical to the smaller 15-inch XPS, which we last reviewed in March 2011. It's buttoned-down for a multimedia machine, but wouldn't look out of place in an upscale den or living room.
This is, however, a totally different design than the very recent XPS 15z, a slimmer re-imagining of the XPS line, which has a thinner body, slot-loading optical drive, and large speaker grills on either side of the keyboard. The 15z is a much cleaner, nicer look overall, and we may someday see those design cues make their way to the XPS 17, but for now, this is still a thick, chunky laptop, but not an unattractive one.
Dell's standard onscreen dock--a quick-launch collection of apps and menus--has gotten a major overhaul this year. Instead of being pinned to the top (or optionally, the bottom) of the screen, it now sits about one-quarter of the way up, with large, art-filled tiles for the different categories, including music, games, and video. It's called the Dell Stage, and you can change the size or content of the tiles, or turn the entire thing off. As far as docklike software packages go, this is one of the nicer-looking ones we've seen.
As a 3D-compatible laptop, the XPS 17 3D can be used to view stereoscopic content, including photos, videos, and games, using a pair of included Nvidia 3D Vision glasses (our review unit didn't actually include them, but we had an extra pair lying around; additional pairs run about $100). The nice part about PC-based 3D is that almost any PC game can be played in 3D mode, because the 3D Vision system simply presents the 3D data generated by the game itself; unlike console games, you don't need a specially coded stereoscopic 3D version.
The XPS 17 3D also works with Nvidia's 3DTV Play software, which lets you connect the HDMI output from the laptop into an HDMI input on a 3DTV and view 3D content on the larger screen. We had to go and find the Nvidia software on our own--it oddly wasn't preinstalled, and you should note that Nvidia charges $39 for that software, which also has a 14-day free trial.
Once we got the 3DTV Play software up and running, we were able to play PC games via the XPS 17 on a big-screen Samsung 3DTV. But, this comes with two important caveats. Resolution on 3DTV Play game content is limited to 720p, and there was a small amount of lag in the signal. We found Portal, our test 3D game, still playable, but faster-paced games may suffer with this kind of lag.
The display on the XPS 17 3D has a full HD 1,920x1080-pixel resolution, which is what we'd expect from a high-end desktop replacement. Screen images were bright and clear, and off-axis viewing was above average, but the very glossy screen also picked up a lot of glare. The built-in JBL-branded speakers are loud and reasonably deep, but you'll still want to hook up some headphones or external speakers, depending on what you're playing and how many people are watching.
|Dell XPS 17 3D||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||HDMI, Mini DisplayPort||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone (2x)/microphone jacks.||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.|
|Data||1 USB 2.0; 1 USB 2.0/eSATA, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray burner||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray player|
This is one of the few laptops we've seen that bothers to include a Blu-ray burning drive. Most are simply Blu-ray players that also burn DVDs. More-common BD/DVD-R drives are also available, and trading down to a simple DVD-only drive will knock $175 off the price.
While our XPS 17 3D crossed the $2,000 mark, with its high-powered quad-core CPU and 1TB of hard-drive space, you can get it down to as little as $1,199. That config includes a dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU, and half the hard-drive space and RAM (4GB and 500GB, respectively).
As you might expect, the 2.0GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM powering our XPS 17 3D was an impressive performer. It was evenly matched with Acer's 18-inch Aspire 8950G, which had the same CPU, and both were much faster than high-end desktop replacements with last year's Intel Core i-series CPUs (such as the HP Envy 17 3D, not yet available with a 2011 Intel quad-core CPU, although it's expected any time now).
For gaming, the Nvidia GeForce GT555M is at the high end of Nvidia's mainstream GPUs (but is behind the GTX series, including the new GTX 580M). We ran our old Unreal Tournament III benchmark at 1,440x900 pixels and got 113.1 frames per second. On a more challenging test, we ran Street Fighter IV at 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and got 33.5 frames per second.