A laptop meant for business users will usually come with features, design and warranty appropriate to that market. But they also come with an increased price to match. In many cases, a more consumer-oriented model will do just as well, and will almost certainly be cheaper. Dell's Inspiron 17R is primarily aimed at a general audience, but can also be purchased as a business model, which we are looking at here.
The 17R is a pretty large laptop, measuring 416.8mm wide and 276mm deep to accommodate the 17.3in display. It's also 37.1mm thick at its broadest point, and weighs in at 3.24kg, which isn't outrageous for a desktop replacement. But this is a notebook you will need to carry in a dedicated laptop bag - and it won't fit in every bag on the market, either. The blend of glossy and matt dark grey with a lighter silver surround is reasonably attractive, and sits quite comfortably midway between sober business designs and more funky appearances for pure consumer usage. However, you can add optional coloured lids to increase the bling factor drastically, should you so desire.
There are three processor options, one model each from the Core i3, i5 and i7 ranges. Our review unit took the middle ground, with a Core i5 3210M, which runs at 2.5GHz and has the usual Intel enhancements, including a Turbo Boost mode that will run one of the two cores at up to 3.1GHz. Intel's Hyper-Threading also means each core is split into two virtual ones. The processor has been partnered with 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory, but the system supports a maximum of 6GB, and there's a second DIMM slot you can access underneath a large section of the base that can be unscrewed and removed.
Although the Core i5 processor is from Intel's latest Ivy Bridge generation and comes with HD 4000 graphics built in, which is a major improvement over the previous generation, Dell has chosen to supplement this with discrete graphics from Nvidia. This comes in the form of a GeForce GT 630M chipset, which sports a decidedly reasonable 96 CUDA processors and will provide much more substantial 3D acceleration. It is also equipped with 1GB of its own dedicated GDDR5 memory, rather than borrowing this from system RAM.
Storage is reasonably generous, albeit traditional. There is no solid-state disk, but these add considerable expense. Instead, a conventional 500GB Western Digital Blue Series 5,400rpm hard disk provides a decent amount of capacity, although without the performance of an SSD. There's an 8x HL-DT-ST DVD rewriter from Hitachi-LG Data Storage, as well as the essential SD card reader. You can access the hard disk for replacement under the same flap as the memory, should you want to consider your own SSD upgrade. There's a second drive bay nearby, too, but no connection header is provided, so you won't be able to populate this. The smaller MSATA bay does have connections, however.
The 17.3in screen sports a native resolution of 1,600 x 900. Viewed from directly in front, this is a rich colourful display, and horizontal viewing angles are pretty good too, making this a good display for a group to view a presentation on. But the finish is a little glossy, so it won't be as viewable in bright sunlight as anti-glare TFTs, and horizontal viewing angles are really not very good at all. Audio quality is particularly decent, though, in large part thanks to the subwoofer lurking on the underside of the system. The sound is full and rich, and plenty of volume is available, which will be handy if you need to make a video presentation in a boardroom without projector and speaker system. Overall, this will be a great system for watching audiovisual content.
The island-style keyboard is a decent size and the keys are well spaced, with the extra space of the large chassis harnessed to provide a separate numeric keypad on the right. Function keys along the top double as media control keys. The action feels a little indistinct, but this should still be a good keyboard for lengthy typing sessions. The touchpad is big and well positioned to avoid accidental interference from the palm of your hands as you type. The large size makes it very good for multi-touch gestures and the physical buttons at the bottom are responsive.
On the left, just in front of the power connection, is a VGA output, and nearer the front can be found full-sized HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports, and separate minijacks for headphones and an external microphone. Either side of the optical drive on the right are located another pair of USB 3.0 ports, plus wired Ethernet and a Kensington lock slot. The SD card reader sits all alone on the front of the system. There's 802.11a/b/g/n wireless and Bluetooth 4.0, but no option for 3G data connectivity. There is also no ExpressCard slot, although this isn't surprising considering this notebook's essentially consumer-oriented focus.
The 17R sports a mid-range processor, so its CPU performance is not quite as high as even some ultraportables, and noticeably behind Core i7-based desktop replacements. The result in Maxon Cinebench R11.5's rendering test of 2.81 is adequate, but this is no mobile workstation. However, the discrete Nvidia graphics mean Cinebench's OpenGL test returned a very healthy 31.08. The result in 3DMark06 of 10,262 is more than twice the usual score for HD 4000 graphics, as is the result in 3DMark11 of 1,226, showing that this notebook will acquit itself well if you do fancy a bit of out-of-work-hours gaming entertainment.
Battery life is a little better than we have come to expect from desktop replacement notebooks, despite the relatively small 48Wh unit. The 17R lasted 78 minutes in our gruelling 100 per cent processor and graphics test, which is about 30 per cent more than other notebooks we have tested in this class. This led to a respectable, if not overly impressive 192 minutes of MobileMark 2007 productivity work, implying the 17R will be a bit more useful away from the power socket than some large widescreen notebooks. The DVD playback time of 160 minutes means you could really only watch one film without external power. But it will look and sound very good.
The Dell Inspiron 17R isn't the notebook to go for if you need a true road warrior machine. It's too large and heavy, with merely mediocre battery life. But if you're after a system for general usage that is particularly good for group audiovisual presentations, even away from the mains socket, this is a serious contender. Priced at just over £500, it will come in cheaper than most entirely corporate-oriented models, making this a great-value option for the business user with a need for capable multimedia facilities.
Manufacturer and model
Dell Inspiron 17R
2.5GHz Intel Core i5 3210M
4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Intel HD 4000 and Nvidia GeForce GT 630M with 1GB GDDR5 memory
500GB Western Digital Scorpio Blue 5,400rpm hard disk
Hitachi-LG HL-DT-ST 8x DVD rewriter
17.3in Dell WLED display with TrueLife and 1,600 x 900 pixels
Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
4 x USB 3.0, VGA, HDMI, LAN, headphone, microphone, SD card reader
Width x Depth x Height
416.8 x 276 x 37.1mm
1 year collect and return