17-in. laptops with big screens, low prices

Notebook too cramped? Try one of these (surprisingly affordable) big boys from Acer, Dell and Toshiba.

When most people think "laptop," they think of a device with a 12.1-to-15.4-in. screen, which is really a bit cramped for extended use. 17-in. notebooks, on the other hand, provide a nice, large, desktop-size display. And unlike desktop computers, they still allow some mobility.

In the past, widescreen 17-in. notebooks sat near the top of the digital food chain, with high price tags. Now, however, many are surprisingly affordable and are challenging budget machines on features and value.

To examine the latest trends in reasonably priced larger notebooks, I looked for 17-in. systems from major vendors that sell for $US850 or less. I got my hands on three models: Acer's $US750 Aspire 7738, Dell's $US829 Inspiron 1750 and Toshiba's $US700 Satellite L555. Those prices are about what you might have paid for a budget business machine with a 15-in. screen a year ago. Clearly, a lot has changed.

"It's amazing how much notebook $US850 buys these days," says John Jacobs, director of notebook market research at display research firm DisplaySearch. "17-in. machines used to sell for twice that or more. Today, they're one of the biggest bargains."

With all that space at their disposal, these systems deliver more digital amenities than can be squeezed into smaller and lighter machines. On top of offering a full-size keyboard, about 25 per cent more viewing space than a 14-in. screen and twice the computing power of the typical budget notebook, a 17-in. system has the room and cooling power for lots of RAM and a high-performance hard drive. The Aspire 7738 even includes high-end graphics and HDMI ports.

These are not anemic ultraslim systems that weigh less than 3 lbs. and can't compute their way out of a paper bag. No, these behemoths of the notebook world weigh about 7 or 8 lbs. and are meant to replace a desktop PC, especially when you need a large display to edit images, screen a movie or present to a group.

While they can travel, even the smallest of these systems will cover an entire airline tray table, so forget about having a drink while in the air. In fact, they're more appropriate for going from the conference room to a cubicle or from the kitchen to the family room than for trips from Seattle to Chicago.

Features/specs (as tested)

Acer Aspire 7738

Dell Inspiron 1750

Toshiba Satellite L555

Dimensions (in.)

1.8 by 16.1 by 11.0

1.7 by 16.3 by 10.4

1.8 by 16.4 by 10.7

Weight/Travel weight (lbs.)

7.5 / 8.8

6.8 / 7.6

6.9 / 7.1

Screen size (in.)/Resolution (pixels)

17.3 / 1600 by 900

17.3 / 1600 by 900

17.3 / 1600 by 900

Graphics chip/Dedicated video memory

Nvidia GeForce GT 130M / 1GB

Intel GMA 4500 MHD / 32MB

Intel GMA 4500 MHD / 128MB

Processor

2.1-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

2.1-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo

RAM

3GB

4GB

3GB

Hard drive size/speed

250GB / 5,400

320GB / 5,400

320GB / 5,400

Optical drive

DVD SuperMulti

DVD+-RW double layer

DVD SuperMulti

Ports

VGA, HDMI, microphone, headphone, SPDIF audio

microphone, headphone

Ethernet, modem, VGA, microphone, headphone

Flash card reader/ExpressCard slot

Yes / no

Yes / yes

Yes / no

Battery type/capacity (mAh)

8-cell Li-Ion / 4,800

6-cell Li-Ion / 4,750

6-cell Li-Ion / 4,000

Wi-Fi

802.11a/b/g/n

802.11b/g

802.11a/g/n

Operating system

Windows Vista Home Premium*

Windows Vista Home Basic or Home Premium*

Windows Vista Home Premium*

Warranty

1 year

1 year

1 year

Price

$US750

$US829

$US700

* Vista Home Premium computers include a free upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium

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