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Digital Storm x17 review: High-end PC gaming, midrange price

You can build a similar gaming configuration from other boutique PC makers, but this Digital Storm costs a little less.

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Dan Ackerman
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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

8 min read

There's something awfully familiar about the Digital Storm x17. If you're having trouble putting your finger on it, take a closer look at the big, bulky, metal and plastic chassis. This is the same generic laptop body used by Origin and other boutique PC makers for high-end gaming laptops.

Digital Storm x17 Gaming Laptop
8.0

Digital Storm x17

The Good

The <b>Digital Storm x17</b> is highly configurable, and the configuration we reviewed is an excellent value for the set of components, thanks to an included three-year warranty.

The Bad

The dated, generic body is the same one many other boutique gaming laptops have, and it doesn't make this feel like a premium product. AMD's graphics switching is still wonky.

The Bottom Line

It's not the prettiest laptop out there, but the Digital Storm x17 is ahead of the competition at providing maximum power at a minimum (but still significant) price.

Why the off-the-shelf look? It's because smaller PC makers can't design and fabricate their own custom laptop shells from scratch as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and others do. Instead, companies such as Digital Storm take an off-the-shelf body (in this case from Clevo, a Taiwanese manufacturer of generic laptops) and customize it, adding value by hand-assembling and testing the systems, overclocking parts, and making minor cosmetic changes.

That means that a gaming laptop such as this is really measured by its components, customer service, and price. While highly configurable, this default $1,999 build of the x17 includes an Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU, 16GB of RAM, and an AMD Radeon 7970 GPU. According to the Digital Storm Web site, $1,999 includes both a 120GB solid-state drive (SSD) and a 750GB HDD, but note that in our physical review unit we didn't have the SSD. This build has Windows 7 as the operating system, but starting at the end of October, Windows 8 should be available at no extra cost.

A 17-inch laptop from Origin or Maingear configured as similarly as possible (the latter didn't offer the same AMD GPU) would cost a few hundred dollars more, with a more significantly modified version of the same chassis from Origin, and a true custom body from Maingear.

However, Digital Storm includes a three-year warranty in its $1,999 price. Adding the same warranty term brings the similar Origin and Maingear systems I specced out up to about $2,500 each. Note that the exact prices for any particular configuration can change quickly, but for now, this Digital Storm x17 is significantly less expensive than the competition.

Price as reviewed $1,999
Processor 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM
Memory 16GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 750GB, 7,200rpm
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 16.2x10.9 inches
Height 1.7 - 1.8 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 17.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 8.4 pounds / 11 pounds
Category Desktop replacement

Design, features, and display
This is not a looker of a laptop, just to get that out of the way. For $2,000 and up, you're wouldn't be wrong in asking for a sharper, more modern design. The Digital Storm x17 is thick and heavy, made of a mix of black brushed metal and plastic. Nothing from the tiny touch pad to the thick bezel around the inset screen looks or feels premium.

The only visual customizations here are a Digital Storm logo printed in white on the wrist rest and a second logo on the back of the lid. The wrist rest logo is especially jarring and large. Origin takes the same body and adds a new panel to the back of the lid, called an A-panel, which adds some Alienware-like fins. Honestly, that's not much of an improvement, either.

If you're a serious gamer looking for maximum power at a reasonable price, you may be willing to overlook some of these aesthetic issues.

Inside the clamshell, you'll find a nearly featureless interior. The keyboard is of an older style not seen often any more. The individual keys touch at the base, but have an inset raised top that looks more like a regular island-style keyboard. You could call it semi-island-style. There is a separate number pad, but some keys, such as the right Shift key and some of the Windows keys, are either too small or shifted around from their default positions.

The keyboard is backlit, with three different colored zones available and a variety of lighting styles, from flashing colors to blinking patterns. Honestly, other than choosing your favorite backlight color, you'll never use it, and the options are not nearly as detailed as what Alienware offers.

For a gaming and multimedia laptop, the use of Fn+F-key combos for things as basic as volume control is annoying. It's built into the basic Clevo design, but gamers want to able to easily adjust volume on the fly.

The very basic touch pad isn't going to get used much for gaming, when a mouse or gamepad usually takes over. That said, rather than a newer button-free clickpad, the x17 has a more dated-looking small pad above separate left and right mouse buttons, with a fingerprint reader nestled in between. For casual Web surfing or other tasks, it's below average, with jumpy multitouch gestures.

The 17.3-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, as any halfway-serious desktop replacement requires. The screen, which appears to be the same as the ones on other Clevo laptops we've reviewed, is crisp and bright, and displayed games and movies well. Audio was above average, thanks to THX support and Onkyo speakers, but you'll still want headphones or external speakers for serious gaming or movie watching.

Digital Storm X17 Average for category [desktop replacement]
Video HDMI, DVI, DisplayPort VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio 5.1 speakers with subwoofer, headphone, mic, line-out, optical line-out Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.
Data 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, 1 eSATA, SD card reader, Mini FireWire 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

Connectivity and performance
The dated chassis works in your favor if you need a lot of ports and connections, as it includes a few that rarely turn up on newer laptop bodies, such as DVI, eSATA, and Mini FireWire. You also get DisplayPort, HDMI, and USB 3.0, although note that the power connection and the video outputs are on the rear panel, so that may affect how you position the system and its cables on your desk.

Like every boutique PC maker, Digital Storm offers endless customization options for the x17's components. Our Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU is actually the entry point. You can upgrade that to a faster quad-core Core i7 for $170 to $370, or go all the way up to the rarely seen Core i7-3940XM Extreme Edition for $900 more. The same goes for hard drives and GPUs, which include both AMD and Nvidia parts.

It's almost an afterthought to talk about application performance in a system such as this. The CPU is from Intel's most high-end line, so it's incredibly fast, although many other current laptops are in the same category. Even for processor-intensive tasks, it's more power than most users will need, although gamers will appreciate the overhead.

The real action here is in the GPU, in this case an AMD Radeon HD7970, which is the high end of AMD's current 7000-series graphics cards. The system ran our very challenging Metro 2033 test at full 1080p resolution, at 26.7 frames per second -- a very impressive score. The more forgiving Street Fighter IV test ran at 138.2fps at the same resolution. Anecdotally, I tried a few other games, including Just Cause 2 (59.6fps), and the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which ran smoothly at its highest settings.

One thing that occasionally drives me crazy about AMD graphics cards -- the switching between the GPU and the basic Intel HD 4000 graphics is not seamless. I had to manually assign many games to the AMD part, and then restart the game. Nvidia's version of this GPU switching, called Optimus, isn't perfect either, but works much more automatically.

Battery life and support
It's not going to come as a huge surprise that this big, powerful desktop-replacement laptop doesn't have amazing battery life. That said, the x17 ran our video playback battery drain test for 3 hours and 4 minutes, which is not terrible for a 17-inch laptop. It helped that the discrete AMD GPU wasn't needed for the test; playing games will drain the battery more quickly.

Hand-assembled gaming PCs from smaller companies rely on personalized service and support as a selling point. Digital Storm provides a default three-year warranty with the x17, which is an expensive add-on from companies such as Origin or Maingear. That includes "lifetime" access to a U.S.-based support team and free labor for upgrades you buy from the company. Phone support hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. PT, Monday to Friday.

Conclusion
Boutique gaming laptops are among the most expensive laptops you can buy, but ironically also the least impressive-looking, thanks to their generic Clevo bodies. That means it's up to the PC maker to pack in enough high-end components and offer the right level of hands-on support. The Digital Storm x17 isn't the prettiest machine on the block, even by those standards, but this $1,999 configuration performs great and is definitely less expensive than comparable builds from other boutique PC makers.

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, native resolution, 2X AA, V Sync off)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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

Load test (avg. watts)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Digital Storm x17
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB AMD Radeon HD 7970M / 2GB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Razer Blade
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-3632QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 660M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

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 No. 1: 1TB Samsung 5400rpm + HDD Nos. 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 Series 7 Gamer 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 SE - 2051BK (7720)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 1TB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Digital Storm x17 Gaming Laptop
8.0

Digital Storm x17

Score Breakdown

Design 4Features 8Performance 9Battery 6Support 9
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