Dell XPS 17 3D: Speedy, and in stereo

It seems like only yesterday that a Dell, (Nasdaq: DELL) XPS 17 last passed through the PCWorld Labs, yet here we have another one. That always seems to happen when a new CPU generation launches. Toss a capable GPU and 3D stereoscopic capability into the new model, and you have a feature-rich desktop replacement.

The XPS 17 3D reviewed here ships with an Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) Core i7 2820QM clocking in at 2.30GHz but capable of pushing to a full 3.4GHz in Turbo Boost mode. This is one of Intel’s latest quad-core processors built on the new Sandy Bridge architecture’s 32nm manufacturing process. It’s a major improvement over past Intel quad-core mobile CPUs, offering faster clocks, more robust power management, and overall better performance.

The display provides the 120Hz refresh rate and IR emitter necessary for stereoscopic 3D. We used it with an aftermarket set of Nvidia‘s 3DVision glasses, and everything works quite well. Driving the display is an Nvidia GeForce GT 555M mobile GPU. Dell has beefed up the resolution of the display to true 1080p.

Most of the other features are comparable to those of the earlier XPS 17, including dual hard drives, four USB ports (the two on the rear are USB 3.0 capable), 802.11n, a Blu-ray drive, and both HDMI and mini-DisplayPort digital video output connectors.

Our test system’s performance in standard desktop apps was stellar, producing one of the highest scores we’ve seen from a laptop on WorldBench 6, an impressive mark of 151. The new Intel CPU, coupled with a staggering 16GB of main memory, were no doubt major factors. You’ll pay for this power, however: The XPS 17 3D starts at $1450, and the configuration we reviewed will run you $2389 (prices as of February 2, 2011).

The Nvidia GT 555M is newer than the 445M that Dell used in the last-generation XPS 17 L701X. Since the screen is now true 1080p, however, the 555M needs to drive 44 percent more pixels than the older laptop’s 1600 by 900 display had. That means lower frame rates in games, so you may want to dial down the resolution a bit if you’re playing current-generation titles. The performance of the GT 555M seems only slightly better, as in 3D Mark 2011 this laptop garnered a score of 1307 versus the mark of 1286 from the older XPS 17.

At 1080p, the XPS 17 3D ran Far Cry 2 at 49.93 frames per second, while in the racing title F1 2010 it managed just 18 fps in DirectX11 mode. In Just Cause 2, a graphics-intensive DX10 title, it eked out 18 fps as well. On the other hand, in Metro 2033 it reached 25 fps, only a little slower than the older XPS 17, which was running at a lower resolution. We disabled antialiasing in all game tests.

The change in screen resolution also means that stereoscopic 3D gaming, while theoretically capable, will be performance limited. If you want to take advantage of 3DVision for games, you’ll need to reduce the resolution considerably, possibly as low as 1280 by 720.

Playing 3D Blu-ray movies, though, works very well aside from the substantial reduction in brightness and contrast. The effect is particularly startling in the IMAX 3D Blu-ray title Deep Sea 3D. We also viewed standard Blu-ray high-def movies, and those looked great. In all cases, you really want to sit in the sweet spot, as the colour shift and brightness drop-off are both very noticeable as viewing angles change.

Audio quality seems quite good, with acceptable speaker distortion and with the overall tonal quality tending toward neutral. Bass is limited, as you’d expect. The volume level during music playback didn’t seem particularly loud, but audio during games could get quite ear-piercing.

The keyboard seems to be a slight step backward. The keys offer a gentle sculpting, making it easy to settle fingertips into them, but the surface seems slippery–it’s too easy for fingers to slide to another key and mistype while touch typing. The arrow keys and PageDn/Ins cluster keys are way too small, as well.

Overall, the Dell XPS 17 3D offers superb performance in standard desktop apps. Gaming performance is pretty good, too, though you’ll want to scale back the resolution a bit and dial down the graphics features for best results, particularly in newer games. The new display looks very good, and stereoscopic Blu-ray movies are spectacular, if you’re into them. Performance on stereoscopic 3D games is still too limited, however.

Weighing 9 pounds, 11 ounces with the power brick, and measuring nearly 2 inches thick in places, this is no HP Envy 17. Still, if you’re looking for a capable, premium desktop replacement that can do everything, the Dell XPS 17 3D fits the bill.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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