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Dell Inspiron I17R Review

When my Asus laptop died last week I was left with no choice but to purchase another laptop.  I could not go a week (or more) without a computer.    Since I was planning a new computer purchase for a new hire it happened to be good timing.   After a good amount of research I selected a Dell Inspiron I17R.  The exact specs are here:

Dell – Inspiron Laptop / Intel® Core™ i5 Processor / 17.3″ Display / 6GB Memory / 640GB Hard Drive – Mars Black

Since I’ve had several different laptops now in the past 2 years, I thought you might want to learn about what is better and worse with this laptop than the others.   Since I am not comparing apples-to-apples here (or any Apples at all for that matter), I’ll share some background on what I am comparing this Inspiron I17R against.   The first laptop I purchased 2+ years ago was a $3800 Sony Vaio VGN-AR890U, supposedly the best-of-the-best as far as Sony goes (that model is not longer available).   The second laptop I purchased just over 90 days ago was a $1500 Asus G74JH-A1, the most powerful laptop they had at the time.    In comparison the Inspiron I17R is right at the top-end of their mid-range laptops.

Fit & Finish

One of the first things I noticed , right out of the box, is that the Inspiron I17R has  a MUCH better fit & finish than either the Sony or the Asus.   While the Sony comes very close in the fit & finish department, the Asus isn’t even close.    Some of the items on the fit & finish are purely a subjective matter based on the “look” of quality.    Others are quite obvious, especially in the case of the Asus system.

The Dell Inspiron I17R has a nice aluminum-looking finish on the surface around the keyboard.   It just looks that much more solid, and compared to the cheap black plastic look of the other laptops this is a much nicer appearance, IMO.   I’m fairly certain this is just a finish over a plastic surface, but whomever said “looks don’t matter” was quite possibly blind in one eye and had cataracts in the other.

Another key item to point out is how the pieces FIT with one-another.   Where the pieces of the case come together the seams are nearly, to us an appropriate term here, seamless.   One thing I notice almost immediately was that the edges of the LCD screen are a rounded bevel that curves AWAY from the user toward the back of the laptop when the screen is open.  That does a GREAT job of hiding the seams compared to the other laptops.  The Asus, in particular looks very cheap & cheesy in comparison, like a black plastic box just snapped into the lid.  Which it is… in fact the top right corner has popped out more than once leaving a gap between the LCD bezel and the case cover.

This laptop also has all of the expansion and accessory ports exposed, much like the Asus.  While I never really thought of this before, the Sony had most of them behind a closed door.  While that may look nicer when you are not using the laptop, when it comes down to business you almost ALWAYS are using a port and thus the “doors” need to be opened which make it look WORSE while actually in use.  More importantly, the constant opening & closing of the cheap plastic doors on the Sony are going to break something… which is EXACTLY what happened about 13 months into using the Vaio.   Also, the black paint used over the clear-white plastic started to wear off that Sony within a couple of months.  The Sony finish was CLEARLY inferior in many ways, very sad given the $4,000 price tag.

Port Placement

Again, this is something I’ve never put much thought into.  All 3 laptops take a different approach.  The Sony puts MOST of the ports on the sides hidden behind closed doors.  The Asus puts ALL of the ports on the sides.  The Dell puts some on each side and the back.

I’ve learned that for my daily use, where I move the computer from the house to the office EVERY DAY and connect a variety of peripherals, the Dell setup works the best.    Power in the back is a great option since my extra power cords are always hidden behind the desk at both offices (home & work).   It also keeps the power out of the way.    The Dell also has the 2 primary USB ports that I use for the keyboard & mouse on the back.  That means much less “pulling” on the cords to plug them in, like I have to do with the Asus.

Another important feature of this Dell that is distinctly different than both the Sony & the Asus is the port spacing.    The Dell is the ONLY laptop of the 3 that gives a decent amount of space around all of the ports.  In fact the USB ports are all in completely separate locations on the left & right side of the back of the laptop and on the left & right sides of the laptop itself.   This is a BIG thing when you plug in some USB devices.  On my Asus I find I often need to unplug my USB printer any time I need to plugin my larger USB stick.   That’s a pain with the Asus and something that I immediately noticed with the Dell layout.

System Hardware Performance

Ok, so what about the performance of the system, not just the cosmetics?   Well, the Inspiron I17R is OK.    Basically exactly what I expected.   Both the Sony (literally 8x the price) and the Asus (nearly 2x the price) outperform the Dell in nearly every way.  However I did NOT purchase this to be my primary gaming & work system.   This is meant to be a workstation for a programmer first & foremost, and be able to provide a little entertainment like streaming Pandora as a secondary feature.

Video Performance

The main screen is very nice looking.  Kind of surprising given the lower resolution (1600×900 versus 1920×1080 on the Asus and 1920×1200 on the Sony).   However, one thing I learned with this purchase… DON’T JUST SHOP NUMBERS ON PAPER.   In fact I am going to try to actually go SEE the next laptop before I purchase.  It is very obvious that the “glass” (the LCD as a whole) is of MUCH higher quality than the Asus and even a little better than the Sony.   The colors are crisp, clear, and vibrant right out of the box.   Nice job Dell!

However, one thing I did notice once starting to work is those extra pixels really do matter.   Going from the external 1920×1080 HDMI monitor back over the the laptop’s primary display makes it readily apparent just how much LESS real-estate I have at 1600×900 pixels.   While it is still very usable, I am quite a bit less efficient with the 25% reduction in screen real estate.  I didn’t think it would make a big difference, but it DOES have a notable impact.

Another issue with the Dell I17R is that it the built-in Intel HD graphics (don’t be fooled here, “HD graphics” means LOW END graphics a pet peeve of mine as it is clearly deceptive advertising & branding from Intel IMO) pales in comparison to either the Asus or the Sony.   Yes, I could have purchased the Dell I17R with a discreet Nvidia graphics card, however I could NOT get that the same day from the local Best Buy store.   However, if you have a few days to wait and do want an I17R, spend the extra $100 and get the upgraded video card.  It makes a BIG difference for work and ESPECIALLY for play.

For work, the Intel HD graphics has a problem working with the full 1920×1080 resolution of my external 25″ HP monitor.   Every other system I’ve used with HDMI connectivity recognizes & configures itself properly for the full resolution of that monitor.  On the Dell it only fills the screen if I use custom scaling on 1920×1080 or set it to 1600×900 resolution. Both make that HP monitor blurry for text, which I learned leads to eye strain very quickly when coding for hours at a time.

Another thing I noticed very quickly with the graphics is that once you connect an external monitor the video card has a hard time keeping up.  Even the main windows login screen has problems rendering.  When I type my password there is actually rendering lag.  In fact it is so bad that the password screen gets half-erased leaving odd corners, then fully erased, then the screen blanks out as the login process occurs.  I have NEVER seen a video card so slow that you can see the screen rendering taking place.

For play, the Intel HD graphics doesn’t even come CLOSE to the discreet graphics cards.  While playing a challenge series on Starcraft II, which has limited moving 3D objects unlike an interactive game, the Dell I17R had a hard time keeping up even with all settings set to medium.  Starcraft II has settings from low (blah graphics) to Ultra, with 3 steps in between (5 total).    Low is like watching a movie through a dirty pane of glass, and a re-mastered 1950’s classic at that.   Ultra is like seeing Avatar 3D in a fully digital IMAX theater.     The I17R is only usable in gaming if all the graphics settings on modern games are set to their lowest setting.  If you’ve played at any of the higher settings this will be very noticeable and will reduce enjoyment of the games.   If you are playing Solitaire then you’ll be fine, but anything else will be a challenge.    It is important to note that this issue is not unique to Dell, but a typical issue with integrated graphics or “Intel HD” graphics which is their misnomer for an integrated graphics system.     Discreet graphics cards, even low-end cards (which typically have 512M+ of dedicated video RAM these days) has a HUGE impact on gaming.   If you are even THINKING about playing games on a laptop ALWAYS get the discreet graphics card option.

Audio Performance

For those of you that don’t know me, I am an avid music listener.   I probably listen to anywhere from 4-12 hours of online music every day.   Often streamed by Pandora, but as any music listener knows, no one service suffices and I do jump around from my private collection to Pandora to Rhapsody and others on a regular basis.    Music is important to me, as is the QUALITY of the sound.

In general, laptops FAIL at audio quality.  Much like most mobile devices, they simply cannot pack the processing oomph into a small package.  Actually, if ANY of the system engineers were audiophiles they COULD make it happen.  They just choose to allocate that precious real estate to things that typical users will eat up like extra LEDs on every key & port, extra buttons scattered around the box to make it LOOK like it does more cool stuff, and a half-dozen extra useless ports.   Granted, Dell keeps this to a minimum on this particular laptop, but in general audio is WAAAAYYY down on the engineering hit list.

Audio, however, is very HIGH on the marketing hit list.  This makes for an interesting dynamic when it comes to laptop audio, and this Dell is no different.  The I17R boasts “SRS Premium Sound”.  The marketing guys find this important enough to plaster all over the box and so much so that it is the ONLY screen-printed (versus stuck-on stickers) graphic other than the Dell logo on the laptop itself.   However it is truly a farce.

The audio quality of this Dell is by far the worse of all 3 laptops.  To be fair, for the price they did not put in any extra speakers nor should they as it adds weight and price.   BUT the audio they do have is sub-par IMO.     The built-in speakers are VERY tiny and nearly impossible to get any semblance of bass.  Even after tweaking the “SRS Premium Audio” settings in the control panel it is simply not possible to eek out anything but an overly tinny sound coming from any audio track.  

Side Note: SRS Premium Audio, which Dell has plastered all over this I17R, is nothing more than a software application that tweaks the Realtek audio chip a bit to provide different audio profiles.    It means NOTHING as far as the laptop’s ability to actually produce quality sound.

Plugging in the headsets really doesn’t help much.    The sound is still very tinny, but surprisingly it is marginally better than on the laptop itself.  However, it is very obvious that the Realtek chipset and the physical connections on the audio components simply are not up to the job for anything other than basic business-class sound (meaning Skype conference calls in most cases).

In fact, the headset audio on this particular I17R has a very annoying hum & whine while there is NO AUDIO playing.   It is an obvious intrusion of electronics noise as it is louder and more prevalent when the case cooling fan kicks in, which is fairly often.    If you have a quiet music passage, or the music just plain stops, you are always greeted with that subtle-but-very-noticeable audio noise on the headset.

Also important to note, that of the 3 laptops, only the $800 Dell I17R does NOT have digital audio output.  That means no option to connect this system to my external surround sound receiver, which is something I did do at the home office with the other two laptops.  Nothing like letting a real receiver do all the “heavy lifting” and let the computer do what it does best, process digital signals and send them down unfettered to an external device via the impedance-free Toslink cable.

CPU Performance

Overall the CPU, does very well.    While playing Starcraft II there was lag but most of that appears to be caused by the video performance.    While running the Linux VMware virtual machines, firing up a variety of applications, and doing “real work”, the system performed fairly well.  Every now & then a bit of a slow-down, but in general the I5 M460 processor did BETTER than I expected.      Yes, it WAS noticeable at times when compared to the I7 processor in the Asus and the quad-core Q-series Pentium in the Sony, but it could keep up and was certainly viable for getting work done.    No complaints in the processor department.

Summary

So when I look at the system overall, would I recommend this purchase?    Well, that depends.    For myself it is a definite no.   The audio & video performance just don’t meet my admittedly high standards.   However as a general laptop for work & some play, absolutely.

Since this particular unit was  a Best Buy purchase we also get the best of both worlds.  If something goes horribly wrong in the next few months we can bring it back to the local store and get it swapped out as long as they continue to carry the I17R in stock.   Beyond that we get over a year of on-site service from Dell by registering the service tag on the Dell website.  Given my recent spate of failed laptops (both the Sony and Asus had premature screen deaths), this is an important consideration.  Neither I nor my employees can be without a computer for days-on-end.

Also important to note is that when we called Dell to ask about warranty concerns and for general information while considering this purchase, they provided EXCELLENT phone support.   This is quite a stark contrast to the Dell from 3 years ago.

The Dell Inspiron I17R is reasonably priced for what you get.   Unless you are a gamer or an audiophile, I would recommend this purchase over most laptops in this price range.