Billed as a high-performance version of the popular Inspiron laptop series and featuring a premium design, Dell's Inspiron 17R Special Edition (£899 direct) hits the mark on both accounts. The 17R's third-generation Intel Core i7 processor, switchable Nvidia graphics solution, and mSATA drive provide formidable horsepower, and the beautiful 17.3in full HD display is first rate. However, all isn’t perfection with this media notebook…
With this Special Edition, Dell engineers took the chassis used on the standard Inspiron 17R and added some nice touches, including a textured matte black lid and a matching aluminium keyboard deck. Rounded corners and matte silver trim wrapped around the base and lid give the Inspiron 17R Special Edition a sleek, understated look.
With dimensions of 417 x 277 x 38mm (WxDxH), this 3.4kg laptop is not very travel friendly, but you'd be hard pressed to find a 17in desktop replacement that is. For example, the HP Envy 17 (2012 version) is the same weight.
The 17.3in display is a beauty to behold. Unlike the vanilla 17R, the Special Edition’s display has a non-reflective matte coating that won't make you feel like you're staring into a dark mirror. The 1,920 x 1,080 panel handles full HD (1080p) with aplomb, delivering excellent image detail and vibrant colours. My 1080p test clip, The Magic of Flight, looked bright and sharp, as did the PC version of Duke Nukem Forever. Additionally, side angle viewing was much better than the basic Dell 17R.
The full size chiclet-style keyboard is roomy and comfortable. It has a number pad on the right and is illuminated so you can find your way around in the dark. At the top of the deck are three Dashboard buttons, one of which is user programmable.
One button launches the Windows Mobility Centre, where you can change display and keyboard brightness levels, check battery status and change power settings, and enable or disable wireless. The other button opens Dell's Audio applet where you can adjust bass, treble, and other audio settings. The touchpad has a smooth surface and two wide mouse buttons; both are responsive and the pad provides plenty of room for gesture control.
A pair of Skullcandy-branded speakers embedded in the front edge of the chassis, and a subwoofer built in to the bottom of the base deliver crisp audio with a bit of bottom. Granted, you don't get wall-shaking bass from the tiny subwoofer, but it is a cut above the typical two speaker array found on most laptops.
Ports are plentiful. On the left are two USB 3.0 ports, headphone and microphone jacks, VGA and HDMI video outputs, and the power jack. A 7-in-1 media card reader is located along the front edge of the chassis, and the right side hosts two additional USB 3.0 ports and an Ethernet port. Unfortunately, this model comes with a DVD multi-drive rather than a Blu-ray drive, which means you'll be watching DVD movies in standard definition.
Storage comes by way of a 750GB hard drive, with Windows 7 Home Premium being the OS of choice. As was the case with the vanilla 17R, the drive has the Dell Stage media suite and Dell DataSafe backup software preinstalled. It also has a handful of bloatware products installed, such as trial versions of McAfee Security Centre and Nero. Rounding out the feature set are Wi-Fi, bluetooth, and WiDi wireless options.
A 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM (Ivy Bridge) processor is at the heart of the 17R Special Edition, meaning it’s no slouch when it comes to benchmarking. The notebook performed well in our multimedia tests, turning in scores of 1 minute and 19 seconds, and 3 minutes and 21 seconds respectively on our Handbrake and Photoshop CS5 benchmark tests. In comparison, the Lenovo Y580 (which costs £999) managed a slightly better Handbrake score, but lagged behind the 17R Special Edition by 4 seconds on the Photoshop test.
In the CPU intensive Cinebench R11.5 test, the Inspiron 17R Special Edition managed a time of 6 minutes and 15 seconds, and in that case was outperformed by the Lenovo Y580 by 7 seconds, although that’s hardly a difference to fret over.
The 17R Special Edition has 6GB of system memory on board, and it uses a switchable graphics solution to deliver enhanced GPU performance when it's needed, such as when gaming or using other graphics-intensive applications. An Nvidia GeForce GT 650M supplies the extra horsepower when the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 solution won't suffice.
The Nvidia GPU produced an impressive 93 frames per second (fps) on our medium quality Crysis DX10 test, but could only muster 23 fps on the high quality test. The Y580 scored 97 fps (medium quality) and 13 fps (high quality). Results from our Lost Planet 2 DX9 tests were similar; the Dell notebook scored 82 fps (medium) and 29 fps (high) and the Lenovo Y580 scored 71 fps (medium) and 28 fps (high). You'll want at least 30 fps to ensure smooth gaming, so plan on dialling back some eye candy if you want to take advantage of the 17R Special Edition's native 1920 x 1080 resolution.
The Inspiron couldn't complete our MobileMark 2007 benchmark test, so we ran our comparable 10-hour DVD rundown test to gauge battery life. The 48Wh, 6-cell battery lasted 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is enough to get through a typical movie, but a very poor showing – and almost an hour shy of the Inspiron 15R Special Edition’s longevity. The Y580 gave us 4 hours and 41 minutes of unplugged power, although even that is way behind the likes of the HP Envy 17 (2012) which lasted for over 7 hours.
The Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition is an attractive desktop replacement laptop offering serious productivity chops and enough graphics muscle to satisfy all but the most demanding gamers. Its 17.3in screen is ideal for watching movies and playing games, and its audio output, while not stellar, is still better than what you get with most laptops.
Other than a smattering of bloatware, the Inspiron 17R Special Edition's only shortcomings are its weak battery life and lack of a Blu-ray drive. The Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 is a comparable machine, but stronger in some areas – most notably battery life, and its Blu-ray capability – although it does cost a little more (£100 extra). On balance, we’d recommend pushing for the Lenovo machine, but that doesn’t stop this Dell notebook being a sterling, somewhat more wallet-friendly option.
Manufacturer and Product
Dell Inspiron 17R Special Edition
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium
Nvidia GeForce GT 650M
Intel Core i7-3610QM
Screen Size Type
2nd Graphics Card
Intel HD Graphics 4000
Primary Optical Drive
Storage Capacity (as Tested)