A Gamer’s Laptop Dream…The Dell XPS M1710

The top-of-the-line XPS M1710 with Blu-ray, configured similarly to the $3,498 system we reviewed in October, costs $4,249. It costs slightly less to add a Blu-ray drive than a stand-alone set-top box Blu-ray player, but it costs slightly more than a PlayStation 3 console, which also plays Blu-ray discs. Of course, neither set-top boxes nor the PS3 will allow you to record onto Blu-ray recordable and re-recordable discs. The XPS M1710’s dual-layer drive can write up to 50GB of data on Blu-ray discs, as well as play back Blu-ray movies

CyberLink’s PowerDVD 6.6 is included for playing back Blu-ray movies, while Nvidia’s PureVideo HD is behind the Blu-ray decoding, and Roxio Creator Plus handles burning chores. With Roxio Creator Plus, you can create Blu-ray data discs, for storing massive amounts of data, or Blu-ray video discs, which you can play back on set-top Blu-ray players. The XPS M1710 does not have an HDMI output, so to send that HD signal to a big-screen plasma or LCD, you’ll have to use the DVI output, which should work fine, as long as your display is HDCP compliant. (12/11/06)

 Dell’s latest update to its monster XPS M1710 desktop replacement may not warrant an entirely new model number, but the changes are deep enough to deserve a fresh look. The system earns gaming props for being the first laptop to carry Nvidia’s latest mobile GPU, the GeForce Go 7950 GTX. Also of note: Dell, in an unusual move for a mainstream PC maker, practically encourages buyers to overclock the 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo T7600G processor. Let’s not forget the multicolored lights built into the speaker grilles, air vents, and lid, which play along with music apps and select games (Dell calls it XPS LightFX technology). The $3,498 system is a budget-buster to be sure, but one that’s hard to top if you’re looking for a top-of-the-line desktop replacement for gaming. If you’re willing to sacrifice a little gaming performance for cash, the Gateway NX860XL is worth a look.

Dell calls the reflective red pattern on the back cover Special Edition Formula Red, but it’s also available in the more subdued Metallic Black. Both colors feature backlit XPS logos. The interior and exterior surfaces are covered with a magnesium alloy, and the system measures 15.5 inches wide, 11.3 inches deep, and 1.7 inches thick. Our test unit weighed 8.7 pounds (10.4 pounds with the AC adapter)–a few ounces more than the Gateway NX850XL, but nearly 1.5 pounds more than a smaller desktop replacement such as the Toshiba Satellite P105.

The XPS M1710 includes a full-size keyboard and a touch pad with horizontal and vertical scroll zones. When activated by a compatible application (or when the M1710 is angry with you), the backlit XPS logo on the touch pad glows red. On the front panel of the system, below the touch pad and accessible while the lid is closed, sits a row of media control buttons, including volume controls, fast-forward and rewind buttons. There’s also a button for launching Dell’s MediaDirect software, but that’s located near the display, far from the other media control buttons. MediaDirect is Dell’s homegrown version of Media Center; it plays CDs and DVDs and lets you access photos and other media files stored on your hard drive. The advantage is that you can use MediaDirect without booting up the PC’s operating system, saving time and battery life.

You shouldn’t have much trouble connecting your peripherals. The system includes headphone and microphone jacks, VGA and DVI outputs, S-Video-out, four-pin FireWire, and six USB 2.0 ports. Networking connections include a 56Kbps modem, 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet, and integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless. Bluetooth is an available option. Also onboard are an ExpressCard slot and a 5-in-1 media card reader, but no PCMCIA card slot. The stereo speakers (plus internal subwoofer) are located on the front edge, so they’ll work even with the lid closed.

The XPS M1710 comes equipped with a 17-inch wide-screen display. Its 1,900×1,200 native resolution puts your average 21-inch desktop LCD to shame. The screen has a glossy finish, which many people prefer for gaming and media viewing, but it can be distracting under bright lights or when dealing with text documents. While we’ve complained in the past of limited brightness on M1710 screens, this particular system seemed perfectly adequate once we turned up the brightness control a couple of notches.

Also potentially distracting is the XPS LightFX feature, which takes the 16-color LED lights built into the system’s speaker and fan grilles and back cover and causes them to strobe and flash in time to supported music apps and games. You can also set the lights to flash, strobe, or stay in any color combination you want–although the control panel for the lights is somewhat hard to find. It’s under Dell Quickset in your program menu, and within that, under the gaming tab. The lights are either very cool or very lame, depending on your aesthetic sensibilities. Rest assured, you can disable the lights with a few mouse clicks.

Our review unit arrived fairly tricked out, with 2GB of RAM, a 100GB 7,200rpm hard drive, and a 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 CPU. For the baseline $2,299 model, you get a slower T7400 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive. What really sets it apart from the competition is the 512MB Nvidia GeForce Go 7950 GTX; this is the first laptop we’ve seen with this just-released GPU. You can trade down to the previous model, the GeForce Go 7900, and save $150.

The system held its own against other Core 2 Duo T7600 laptops, such as the Velocity Micro NoteMagix L80 Ultra, in CNET Labs’ multimedia tests. Ironically, it fell behind the Area-51 m5550, from Dell-owned Alienware. When it comes to gaming, however, the XPS M1710 is unbeatable, turning in a score of 99.5 frames per second in Quake 4 at 1,280×1,024 and a respectable 53fps at the same resolution in the more challenging F.E.A.R. test. For almost $3,500, you could doubtlessly get better performance from a desktop PC, but for a gaming laptop, it’s top of the charts. We only saw a nominal performance bump from the GeForce 7900 version of the M1710, but slightly older games such as Quake 4 and F.E.A.R. may not be the best test of a new GPU.

In our battery drain test, the XPS M1710 lasted for 2 hours, 51 minutes, about 10 minutes longer than the last XPS M1710 we looked at, and certainly provides decent battery life for a desktop replacement.

Though Dell has cut warrantees to 90 days on many of its less-expensive models, the company covers the XPS M170 with a two-year warranty, which provides parts-and-labor coverage and onsite service. You can upgrade that to four years for $160 or get four years of Premium service, which adds night and weekend onsite service, for $268. XPS machines get a special 24-hour, toll-free tech-support number to cut down on hold time, and the Dell Web site is reasonably well equipped with driver downloads, FAQs, and user forums 

Editor’s note:  A Blu-ray optical drive is available as an option on the Dell XPS M1710 laptop, as of December 11, 2006. The choice of Blu-ray as Dell’s next-gen optical drive is an obvious one, as Dell is a founding member of the Blu-ray Disc Association. 

 Reviewed by: Dan Ackerman
Edited by:
Matthew Elliott

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