Dell Inspiron 17R-1316MRB review: A budget desktop replacement

This laptop looks like a hulking desktop replacement, but its components and price say it's really a budget PC.

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The Dell Inspiron 17R-1316MRB is a budget desktop replacement, which sounds like it might be an oxymoron. After all, how can a laptop that's meant to replace a desktop be, well, cheap (listed at $650, to be exact)?

The answer is simple: It can be inexpensive if it's really meant to replace a small shared living room PC, not compete with high-powered gaming systems like the Alienware M17x R4 or the Asus G75VW. Under the hood it's just a regular old cheap-ish all-purpose machine that has no discrete graphics card.

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Our review model sports an Intel Core i5-3210M processor--a dual-core CPU running at 2.5GHz (3.1GHz in turbo mode)--and a rather small 3MB shared L3 cache. It's also equipped with 6GB of RAM, a 750GB hard drive, a DVD-RW optical drive, and built-in Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. The 17.3-inch LCD panel offers 1600 by 900 native resolution, and relies on Intel's integrated HD graphics, which means it's not quite a multimedia powerhouse. OS chores are handled by the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium.

Performance

In PCWorld's WorldBench 7 benchmark tests, the Inspiron 17R-1316MRB scored a below-average 86 out of 100. This means the Inspiron 17R is 14 percent slower than our baseline model, which sports a second-generation Intel i5 desktop processor and 8GB of RAM. This score is particularly low for the desktop replacement category. In fact, it's safe to say that while the Inspiron 17R may look the part of a desktop replacement, given its hulking, 17.3-inch size, it's nowhere near the league of most desktop replacements we've reviewed recently.

For example, the Alienware M17x R4 scored 146 on PCWorld's WorldBench 7, while the Samsung Series 7 Gamer scored 123. Sure, the Asus G75VW scored just 97, but remember that all three of these laptops are much more impressive than the Dell in ways other than WorldBench 7 performance score. In other tests the Inspiron 17R really showed its weaknesses--it scored 1627 in our office productivity tests, which is nowhere near the 6045 that the category leader, the Origin EON17-S, scored. In our Web performance tests, it managed 13.5 frames per second (the Origin managed 21.3).

While the Dell Inspiron 17R's general performance is a little low, graphics performance is where it gets owned. The Inspiron 17R has no discrete graphics card; it relies on the integrated HD 4000 graphics from Intel. Most desktop replacement-size laptops have discrete graphics cards (because, really, what else are you going to put in a 17-inch laptop?), and that makes a huge difference when it comes to graphics performance.

In our Crysis 2 graphics tests, the Inspiron 17R managed frame rates of between 13.8 (high-quality settings, 1366 by 768 pixel resolution) and 32.7 (low-quality settings, 800 by 600 pixel resolution) frames per second. By comparison, the last three laptops we tested in the desktop replacement category averaged frame rates of between 70.7 and 96.6 fps on the same tests. That's right--other desktop replacements are five times faster than the 17R at higher-quality settings. Also, it should be noted that the 1366 by 768 pixel resolution isn't the highest resolution that the other laptops can reach--they all sport 1080p screens. It's just the 17R that's limited by its 1600 by 900 pixel screen.

On a positive note, the Inspiron 17R does have slightly better battery life than do most of its competitors. In our battery life tests it managed to eke out 3 hours, 42 minutes, which isn't great, but isn't awful for the desktop replacement category. The last three laptops we tested in the category averaged 3 hours, 39 minutes, and the category leader (the Origin EON17-S) achieved only 2 hours, 33 minutes.

Design: chassis, keyboard, trackpad

The Dell Inspiron 17R isn't super-stylish, but it's also not bad-looking for a cheap desktop-replacement-size laptop. Our review model features rounded corners, plastic accents, and a switchable lid, like some other Dell laptops we've recently looked at. The lid features a silver brushed aluminum plate with a shiny finish, but if you flick a switch at the back of the computer the plate snaps out. You can then replace the plate with one of a different color or texture (for around $30 on Dell's website). This is a nice touch if you like to change up your laptop style every once in a while.

The interior sports a similarly luxe-looking brushed aluminum wrist rest (which is not switchable), as well as a black plastic bezel surrounding the glossy screen. Dell is clearly trying with the fancy aluminum plates, but the rounded corners and plastic edges just make the computer look a little cheap. And, well...it is.

The Inspiron 17R also has a full-sized keyboard with matte black island-style keys against a shiny black plastic base, as well as a 10-key numeric keypad. The keys are a little small, but are slightly indented to allow for more accurate typing. I found this keyboard one of the more comfortable I've used recently, as the keys are nicely spaced and offer good tactile feedback. They are initially a little stiff, which takes some getting used to, but typing quickly and accurately is easy.

Above the keyboard are three buttons: a settings button, which opens the Windows Mobility Center; a Waves MAXXAudio button, which lets you toggle through sound presets such as "movie" and "voice"; and a configurable "Instant Launch" button, to which you can assign your desired function.

A large trackpad with discrete mouse buttons is located below the keyboard, slightly offset to the left. The trackpad is actually a continuation of the brushed-aluminum wrist rest, though it has a slightly rougher texture. The trackpad is large and sensitive, and performs multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scrolling smoothly. The buttons are large, but a little difficult to press as they don't have much tactile feedback. They are pretty, though, and they look like they've been neatly cut out of the aluminum background. The trackpad can be turned off using the Fn F3 key, and a small orange light turns on when the trackpad is disabled.

Port-wise, the Inspiron 17R is acceptable: four USB 3.0 ports (two on each side), HDMI- and VGA-out ports, and microphone and headphone jacks, plus gigabit ethernet, a lock slot, and a multicard reader. This isn't the greatest port selection I've seen on a desktop replacement, but the USB 3.0 ports on either side of the machine are a nice touch.

Screen and speakers

The Dell Inspiron 17R sports a 17.3-inch glossy display with a native resolution of 1600 by 900 pixels. While this isn't the best resolution for a 17.3-inch screen, it's not truly awful, either. Other desktop replacements typically have 1920 by 1080 pixel resolutions, but other desktop replacements also cost a lot more than the Inspiron 17R. So you get what you pay for.

Apart from resolution, the Inspiron 17R's screen looks pretty good. It's very bright (almost overwhelmingly so at its brightest setting), so it's good for use outside or in brightly lit areas. Colors look good, if sometimes a little washed out. Images and text look crisp, and off-axis viewing angles are acceptable. The screen isn't too reflective, despite its glossy finish.

Video looks and sounds good on the Inspiron 17R. Integrated graphics issues (such as choppiness and artifacting) aside, HD video runs fairly smoothly. The speakers, which are on the bottom of the computer, near the front, produce loud, full sound. Sound is enhanced with Waves MAXXAudio software, which helps create much louder, deeper audio. The speakers can be a little harsh and tinny at the highest volume setting.

Bottom line

Calling the Dell Inspiron 17R-1316MRB a desktop replacement is a little unfair, since it's not really in the league of the performance desktops that dominate the category. The Inspiron 17R is a solid machine if you're looking for a large screen on a budget, but you have to be aware that it won't perform like similarly sized machines, such as the Origin EON17-S, or the Alienware M17x. But if you're looking for a low-cost desktop replacement for a shared living room PC, the Inspiron 17R is definitely worth a look.

This story, "Dell Inspiron 17R-1316MRB review: A budget desktop replacement" was originally published by PCWorld.

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