Pros: excellent graphics and sound; solid, dependable performance; full keyboard; lots of connections
Cons: heavy and bulky; some issues with USB ports
Moore's Law suggests that computers evolve fast enough that one's useful life (from a speed and memory standpoint) is somewhere in the neighborhood of two years. Intel says 18 months, but hey - they want to sell more chips. Whichever timespan you choose, though, it was becoming increasingly obvious that my work laptop was on the downhill slope after three-plus years - especially when it started crashing during demos at customer offices. Oops...
I didn't get to pick the replacement for my Dell Precision M6300, I just signed for the delivery when the new laptop appeared, and unpacked the Dell XPS 17 L702X from its box. So, after about eight months of use, here's what I think.
The first thing you notice about a Dell XPS 17 is that it's big. Huge, even. In an era when tablets and smartphones are shrinking our computing expectations, sizewise anyway, this thing is behemoth: the case measures about 11½" x 16½" x 1¾"; an added optional 9-cell battery creates a bulge on the bottom that bulks it up to 2¼" thick. That translates to a 17.3-inch diagonal screen, requiring an oversized laptop bag.
The laptop's size and weight (7 pounds, nine ounces) make it less than ideal for schlepping around all day long, and the adapter weighs an additional pound and a half for a total near nine pounds. By comparison, a gallon of milk weighs less than 8½ pounds. That large screen and full keyboard, however, make it a good candidate for a desktop replacement. Yes, a full keyboard, including the numeric keypad - all fit into 14½ inches; perhaps a little tight but much more convenient than the Alt-Fn keypad embedded in most laptop keyboards. The keyboard includes touch-sensitive controls for audio/video and a control console called the Dell Mobility Center with switches for turning connectivity other features on and off.
Dell markets this model as a home/small office system for multimedia and light gaming (serious gamers - chalk-white skin and poptart crumbs on their chins - should head for the AlienWare department). Supporting these uses, the model has a widescreen FHD liquid-crystal display (WLED-LCD) driven by an Nvidia GeForce GT 555M graphics card that's 3D ready (3D glasses not included). That includes a GB of video memory; and has a native display of 1600 x 900. For sound, Dell's RealTek sound system drives a set of JBL 2.1 speakers with "Waves Maxx Audio 3," whatever that is. Suffice it to say the audio is undeniably superior to any laptop I've had in the past.
Besides the obligatory wireless (802.11b, g, n-compliant) and onboard Bluetooth adapter, the XPS 17 includes an integrated 2-megapixel HD webcam with Dell's proprietary camera-management software. The standard optical drive handles both CD-ROM and DVD; we also bought the optional Blu-Ray capability. Naturally, the optical drive also writes to both CD and DVD. A nine-in-one card reader is mounted on the opposite side from the optical drive.
The heart of a laptop is, of course, the processor: my version includes an Intel i7 2630 QM 64-bit central processing unit rated at 2.2 gHz with turbo-boost to 2.9 gHz. More recent models clock at 2.3 gHz boosted to 3.1, in keeping with Moore's law. We bumped the standard 6GB of RAM to 8GB (one of the products we sell is memory-bound, and might choke on a "mere" six). The hard drive, a 7200 RPM affair, has a capacity of 533 GB - they're available less than a year later with terabyte drives. A smallish (240-GB) solid-state drive may be swapped for the SATA hard drive at purchase time.
By default, the laptop ships with Windows 7 Home Premium. We upgraded to Windows 7 Professional, which doesn't seem that much different from the Windows 7 Home Premium I have on my personal laptop. Go figure. Like all computer makers, Dell loads up the laptop with junkware (Stage, McAfee, other junk). Removing these, especially the TSRs, will speed up your system. I've noticed that they're getting harder and harder to catch and yank out, though, with sort of a whak-a-mole effect.
The array of external ports is important to laptop users, too. In this user's opinion, Dell might be a little "light" in that respect. For starters, there's one USB 2.0 port and two USB 3.0 ports plus a "superport" that combines a USB port with an eSATA port - the USB is a "powershare" port for charging. I'd like another USB port or two, since I almost always have three in use.
There's also an HDMI port on the rear to allow you to hook up a television or monitor, along with a mini DisplayPort. The mini is the only output for connecting to non-HDMI monitors and to projectors. It requires a special mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter to be of any use, so make certain you get one. Naturally, there is also an ethernet port; and some models have an antenna port for the optional TV tuner card
The sound card supports a mic IN jack and a pair of phone OUT jacks. One of the output jacks doubles as an S/PDIF (aka mini-TOSLINK) plug for digital audio output. It works with ordinary headphones, too.
Living with the XPS 17
I've had this for several months, with daily use. I run the usual office productivity software and internet applications, plus some high-end technical sofware that pushes the CPU and graphics card. Hard. The little turbo monitor stayed pegged for long minutes at a time until I turned it off. I have had no problems with operation; no problems with memory or any in- or out-put devices, with a couple of exceptions. One mild irritant is that I've had to reload the drivers for the pair of USB3.0 ports at least twice, since they kept getting "lost." The second is that the wireless adapter has priority over the network card rather than the other way around. The second is likely a Windows configuration problem, but the first seems to be hardware instead of software.
The Dell has performed quite well, giving me excellent screen clarity with crisp color reproductions; a necessity when demonstrating the high-resolution output from our technical software. I have not tried out the 3D capability; having no need to do so. The sound is quite good through the speakers, though I rarely use it except with headphones.
With the standard battery, the unit sits flat, and apparently has no little fold-out legs like older Inspiron models. If you opt for the nine-cell battery, its shape raises a rounded ridge on the rear of the base, which tilts the keyboard to a typing-friendly angle. It also allows extra air circulation to the fan ports on the bottom. More importantly, the battery lasts between four and six hours, depending on your settings. On the down side, the larger battery adds eight ounces to the weight of the laptop so, with the AC adapter, the whole shebang weighs nine pounds, four ounces. Ouch. One other option you might want to consider is the backlit keyboard.
The unit is about the size of the box a tablet comes in, and weighs a ton: there's no getting around that. If you are looking for a solid performer that can replace a desktop or will rarely be transported, the XPS 17 is definitely a contender. If, on the other hand, your main need is portability, you will want to look elsewhere (maybe even at a smaller XPS).
Definitely recommended, 4½ stars out of five.