So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Dell Inspiron 17R notebook
A big laptop that's perfect for anyone who wants a basic desktop replacement computer
- Decent screen
- Comfortable to use
- Very good battery life
- Single-band Wi-Fi
- Slow storage
Dell's Inspiron 17R is a big unit that's suitable as a desktop replacement-style notebook. It could use better Wi-Fi and faster storage, but, overall, you get a solid computer that's good for a wide range of tasks and, most importantly, a computer that's comfortable to use.
Price$ 1,099.00 (AUD)
Really big laptops don't get as much love as they used to, but there are still plenty of people who appreciate these beasts, primarily because they have roomy keyboards, big screens and (usually) lots of built-in features. Dell's Inspiron 17R-5721 is such a laptop, and it makes for a good desktop replacement, unless you're looking for super-fast performance.
The Inspiron 17R has a 17.3in screen and it's chassis about 410mm wide and 25mm thick, so it isn't the easiest laptop to actually use as a laptop. It's much better suited as a desk-dwelling computer, but in saying that, it's not an overly heavy unit. Our test model only weighed in at just over 2.7kg. You could carry it with you on a day-to-day basis if you wanted to, but its size would make it cumbersome, especially if travelling on public transport.
Along the sides of the chassis, you get only the most modern ports: USB (two each 2.0 and 3.0), HDMI, and Gigabit Ethernet. Also present are a DVD burner, a combination headphone and microphone port, and an SD card slot. The Inspiron 17R also ships with a webcam, Bluetooth 4.0 and a single-band Wi-Fi adapter (an Intel Centrino Wireless-N 2230). It's very much a budget PC, so we won't be too hard on it for not having dual-band Wi-Fi, but it would certainly be nice if it did.
In the engine room, the Inspiron 17R doesn't have a mind-blowing configuration. In fact, despite being such a big and roomy laptop, it still makes use of a 17W, ultra-low voltage, Intel Core i5-3337U CPU (a 'U' model), rather than a more powerful, 35W 'M' model. This means that its performance is somewhat tame and similar to many slimmer laptops on the market; it also means that its power supply isn't huge. The power adapter that ships with this notebook isn't that much bigger than a typical 13in laptop's adapter.
The other good part about the ultra-low voltage CPU is that it also makes the 17R run very cool and its fan doesn't get too noticeable until you fire up a game and the graphics card has to put in work. The CPU is surrounded by a discrete AMD Radeon HD 8370M graphics adapter (although the CPU has its own integrated graphics that are used when the laptop isn't running games), 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM, and a 1TB, 5400rpm hard drive (but no solid state cache drive).
The Core i5-3337U CPU has two cores and Hyper-Threading, and it runs at 1.8GHz. It performed as expected in our tests, recording 46sec in Blender 3D, and 20min and 15sec in our Handbrake DVD-to-MP4 file conversion test (it also took 12min 11sec to create an MKV file in Arcsoft MediaConverter 7). Its hard drive was slow at 21.63 megabytes per second (MBps), and this was reflected in CrystalDiskMark, to, where a read rate of 102.2MBps was recorded, along with a write rate of 89.66MBps.
The real-world feel of this laptop wasn't too bad though. We had no major issues with its responsiveness when launching programs and accessing system settings. There were some pop-ups from pre-installed software to deal with, but once they are configured they won't hassle you too much.
Its graphics adapter is strong, too. The Radeon HD 8370M can be used for some gaming, as its score of 9429 in 3DMark06 indicates, but bear in mind that it won't run most games at maximum details levels — you'll have to make some visual compromises. The native resolution of the screen is 1600x900, which is easy on the eyes, if not a little lower than the 1980x1080 pixels we'd like to see on a screen that's so big. It's a relatively good looking screen for a laptop in this class, and it has acceptably wide viewing angles. Even though it has a glossy finish, we didn't find reflections off it to be too annoying when viewing the laptop from a typical front-on position, but dark screens in a bright environment were challenging.
A 6-cell battery with a rating of 65 Watt-hours resides in the rear of the chassis, and it managed to give the Inspiron 17R a life of 4hr 33min in our rundown test. In this test, we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise brightness, and loop an Xvid-encoded video. This time is excellent for a laptop of this size, and a lot of that can be attributed to the low-wattage CPU.
The full-sized keyboard is comfortable to use for long typing sessions. Its keys are soft and responsive, and there is a plenty of space given to the palm rest. We like the separation between the main keyboard and the number pad, and also the space between the left and right arrow keys and the right shift key. The touchpad is also large (100x56mm), and it supports multi-finger gestures such as three- and four-finger swipes, in addition to two-finger scrolling and one-finger side flicks, which can be used to perform Windows 8-specific actions.
For $1099, this large laptop offers good value if you're looking for a comfortable-to-use, portable computer with better-than-usual battery life. It's good for office tasks, watching movies (it comes with PowerDVD installed) and listening to music (its speakers are decent), and it can even be used for tougher tasks such as gaming, photo editing, video rendering and file conversion -- all within reason as it's not designed to be a killer-fast machine. We also like the large internal storage capacity, the good-looking screen and the overall design of the unit. We just wish it had dual-band Wi-Fi and perhaps a hybrid storage solution rather than just a 5400rpm hard drive.
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