Review: Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition

The Dell Inspiron 17R is a 17-inch (43cm) laptop which, for many users, would happily serve as a primary home PC.
  • Harley Ogier (Unknown Publication)
  • 09 September, 2012 22:00

NameLaptop: Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition
At a glance:Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU, 6GB DDR3-1600 RAM,NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M, 2GB GDDR5 video memory,1TB 5400RPM HDD (no SSD),17.3-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel display
Summary:A great value proposition if you need graphical and computing power more than portability.

The Dell Inspiron 17R is a 17.3-inch (43cm) laptop which, for many users, would happily serve as a primary home PC.

Since the introduction of Intel-inspired thin-and-light ‘Ultrabooks’, we’ve given a lot of attention to laptops that aim to squeeze as much performance as possible into a very lightweight, portable package. The Inspiron 17R is the antithesis of the Ultrabook concept: it’s big, and uncompromisingly heavy at 3.28kg.

For reference, that’s the approximate weight of a newborn child, or an M16 rifle. Heftier than comfortable, but I guess you learn to carry one around if you have to.

The laptop sports silver plastic trim and a matte-black plastic base. The lid and keyboard surround/palm rest are aluminium, finished in a black honeycomb pattern. The silver trim and charcoal-plastic screen surround look tacky in my opinion, but the rest of the design is appealing.

The 17.3-inch screen is full HD, at 1920 x 1080 pixels for a dot-pitch of approximately 127ppi. That’s fairly average for a 17.3-inch laptop screen, and better than most desktop monitors – most 23-inch models are limited to the same1920 x 1080-pixel resolution. Compared to the latest MacBook with its Retina Display it’s laughable, but the same can be said of any other laptop available today. Certainly, 1920 x 1080 is far better than the 1366 x 768 most commonly found on models with screen sizes 15-inches and under.

The screen has an almost-matte, anti-glare finish that provides minimal reflection. It’s a nice change from the ultra-glossy screens of most laptops, and combined with its high maximum brightness, makes the Inspiron 17R well suited for use in strong daylight. Yes, you can play Minecraft, watch YouTube, and sell your worldly goods to pay for faster broadband, all outside under the comforting glow of the day-star. An important point, with summer only a few months off.

Play Minecraft, you say? Why, that’s a great point to segue into performance territory. Given a massive form factor and aforementioned ‘weight of a newborn child’, Dell had a lot of room to squeeze in high-performance hardware and cool it adequately to maintain that performance for more than a few seconds at a time. Obviously it was ‘good decision day’ when the Inspiron 17R was specced, because that’s precisely what Dell did.

Inside the 17R is an Intel Core i7-3610QM: a quad-core beast of a processor from Intel’s third-generation ‘Ivy Bridge’ range of Core i CPUs. HyperThreading gives it a total of eight concurrent threads. The base clock is a reasonable 2.3GHz, and individual cores are capable of clocking up to 3.3GHz thanks to Intel’s ‘Turbo Boost’ technology, as long as there’s sufficient thermal headroom to do so.

Our version had 6GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, notably faster than the DDR3-1066 or -1333 we’ve been seeing in Ultrabooks.

Graphics are handled between the CPU’s on-board Intel HD Graphics 4000 engine (thanks to Ivy Bridge, now DirectX 11 capable), and a dedicated Nvidia GeForce GT 650M with a whopping 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory. The GT 650M is a killer card, giving us the highest overall results in our graphically-intensive benchmarks we’ve ever seen from a laptop. If you feel like doing some fairly serious laptop-based gaming, but don’t want to be obvious about it with an Alienware or ROG machine, here’s your chance to be sneaky without paying in framerate.

‘Oh, no Boss, that’s my work machine. It’s for spreadsheets. And Microsoft Word. Galactic Readiness Screen? Oh, that’s a new marketing simulation. For marketing. I have no idea who Commander Shepard is, I must have logged in wrong.’

I’m just seeing what I want to see, on the gaming side. This is not a gaming laptop, however it lends itself to the use. Design, 3D work, video editing, the usual ‘creative’ applications Dell pitches the Inspiron series toward are the key tasks here, and it shines in that area too. CPU-intensive benchmarks are also the highest we’ve ever seen from a laptop, with anywhere from 30 to 100% higher performance than other models we’ve tested in Cinebench and 7-Zip.

Results in all-around test suite PCMark 7 were good, but held back by the machine’s 1TB 5400RPM hard drive. Ultrabooks have made SSDs common, and set scores in storage-dependent tasks that mechanical hard drives just can’t match. That was the only disappointment we found performance-wise: if the 17R had featured an SSD as primary storage, or even as a cache, to a faster 7200RPM hard drive, the thing would’ve been a weighty rectangular dreamboat.

Performance means nothing if the machine is unusable, but the 17R is pleasantly easy on the hands.

The full-sized island keyboard includes a numeric keypad, making smart use of the available space (something I wish Apple would do with the larger MacBook Pro models). Key travel is fairly deep and keys have a quiet but clear ‘click’ on activation, giving a comfortable typing experience at anything from hunt-and-peck speeds to a furious hundred-plus-WPM dash.

At 4.5 inches (11.5cm) diagonally, the touchpad is larger than most smartphones. It’s both responsive and accurate, which is frighteningly rare among laptop pointing devices. The two discrete click buttons at the bottom work well, though a little more travel would improve their comfort, particularly when dragging.

Connectivity is pretty good: four USB 3.0 ports, no old legacy 2.0 ports wasting space. All 3.0 ports are backwards-compatible anyway, so anything less feels like a rip-off to me. Separate headphone and microphone sockets, full-sized HDMI output, VGA output, Ethernet port, SD card reader and a tray-loading DVD writer/Blu-ray player.

You should have figured out by now that I liked the Dell Inspiron 17R. Sure, it didn’t look as sexy coming out of the box as the sleek alloy-cased Ultrabooks I’ve been working with lately, but its power and performance won me over. Power, performance, and the fact that the model we tested retails for an amazingly reasonable $1,799.

Okay, that’s not a ‘budget’ figure, but performance laptops we’ve tested previously have come in a thousand, even two-thousand dollars higher. Here, you’ve got a ‘desktop replacement’ laptop with multimedia content-creation and gaming ability, priced the same as weaker-performing yet infinitely more portable Ultrabooks. You’re free to make an informed choice based on portability vs. power, rather than price.

Here’s a hint: if it’s power you’re after, the Inspiron 17R is a pretty good deal.