Up until four years ago, the best value-for-money laptops carried the Dell logo. Mind you, back then Dell laptops were not the cheapest in the market. Not a long shot. The cheap title would go to most Taiwan and China-branded laptops (some would call this white label). But the warning I gave to most would-be buyers of these low-priced laptops was to pay attention to post-sales support. I know this first hand because I worked for a Taiwan laptop manufacturer earlier on in my career and I had to tell customers that any technical problem had to be looked into by the team at home base – in my case, that meant sending the faulty unit back to Taipei for at least 2-3 months of repair and testing.

What Dell did was build a customer service support hotline and also an online database for querying the more common problems customers faced while using a Dell product. This, combined with their direct, build-to-order business model, made it possible for Dell to compete with the much larger and much more ‘deeply-rooted into society’ competitors.

I’ve been a user of Dell laptops for a better part of nine years. I can say with unbiased opinion that the Dell Latitude is the preferred Dell series for business users) laptops are mostly reliable. They are not the fastest, lightest, and the batteries do not last according to spec. Leading edge is not something I’d associate Dell laptops with although this may be changing with some new models coming this year. I’m sure some of these changes are attributable to better industrial design talent entering Dell’s design team.

Back in late 2009, Intel announced that it was coming out with a next iteration of its popular ‘Core’ processors for desktops and laptops. The first batch of personal computers bearing those new processors started to enter the market until the label ‘Intel Core i3’, ‘Intel Core i5’, ‘Intel Core i7’ and ‘Intel Core i7 extreme edition’ series. Essentially,  the new ‘Core i’ use smaller dies to house two to six processors, have larger cache memory, and support faster memory.

I’ve been meaning to get a new computer to replace our 8-year old iMac and now seemed a good time to consider moving ahead with this. But deciding on what to buy is not going to be easy given that there are so many models and brands to choose from.

So when the opportunity came for me to review one of the new series of Dell laptops I didn’t hesitate. The unit I tested (and from which this report card is written on is the Dell Studio 1747 with an Intel Core i7 quad core processor each CPU clocked at 1.6GHz (4 Cores/8 Threads, turbo up to 2.8 GHz, 6MB Cache). It also came with 6GB DDR3 RAM, 500GB 7200 RPM hard disk, a dual layer slot loading CD/DVD +/- reader/writer, an ExpressCard/34 slot and a 8-in-1 media card reader. Graphics processor was an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4650 with 1GB RAM. For connectivity it came with a Realtek PCIe GBE Ethernet port, 1397 WLAN mini-card, and Bluetooth. The display is 17.3” High Definition 1600×900 widescreen glossy display (WLED Display with TrueLife). The Studio 17 came with a 2.0 MP camera flanked by a pair of microphones. This is one of the few laptops that still carried an IEEE 1394a Firewire connector, in addition to 2 USB 2.0 ports, 1 USB 2.0/e-SATA combo port, HDMI connector, DisplayPort connector and a VGA video connector. Also included is the antenna jack that connects to an internal TV-tuner. Keyboard is a backlit full size with 4 column numeric keypad. It came pre-installed with Windows 7 Home 64-bit edition.

All Dell Studio laptops have a soft cover that comes in one of five colors (chainlink black, spring green, flamingo pink, ruby red, midnight blue, plum purple). The rubbery texture gives the soft feel and allows for a firmer grip. The wedge-shaped side profile creates the illusion that it is smaller than it is. The sloped design makes it easier to carry around the house although at 3.2 kg, this unit is not meant for lugging around town.

Like earlier versions of the Studio series, the inside is a glossy silver-gray palm rest accentuated by a black keyboard and a piano black panel above the keyboard.

Most laptops get very warm to the touch around the keyboard and the palm rest. I was prepared to get scorched by this unit and was surprised that all throughout the test period, it never got hot. Although the right palm rest and left quarter of the keyboard were warmer than the rest. Likewise the bottom of the laptop wasn’t as hot as my Lenovo Thinkpad X200. The back of the screen was cold to the touch.

A common failing of most laptops are weak speakers. The Studio 17 has two JBL speakers on either side of the palm rest. The multimedia controls are above the keyboard taking the right half of the piano-black panel. The touch sensitive keys are a very nice addition. I played several episodes of NCIS and a couple of music videos but even with SRS Premium Sound, the Studio 17 wasn’t as loud as I hoped for. The good news is that the sound from the JBL speakers remained clear even when I set the volume to the loudest it could go.

Dell offers a couple of upgrade options for the display. A 1080p screen will cost extra and so would a touchscreen. That said the 1600×900 glossy screen didn’t make it difficult to watch a video from the sides.

In my line of work I conduct video interviews on a regular basis using my Canon HFS-100 HD camera. I do most of my editing needs using Corel VideoStudio ProX2. Rendering takes a lot of time with my Lenovo X200 Core 2 Duo laptop despite the 3GB RAM and 320GB HDD. A 200MB file takes about 70 minutes to render. On the Studio 17, the same video took under 10 minutes. Imagine if I were using a rendering software that took advantage of the Core i7’s four processors.

I said earlier that one of my hiccups with Dell Latitude laptops is how quickly battery life deteriorates. As I only had a week to test this laptop I cannot with certainty tell that the Studio 17 breaks from this mold. I can say with certainty though that at 100% full charge and with all the bells and whistles running – WiFi, full brightness, and several applications including video editing, word processing, web browsing and Skype running concurrently – I can only get 2 hours 21 minutes from this machine.

Depending on the configuration there is a Studio model for almost everyone. Dell has a simple browser tool that helps prospective buyers decide what model will likely suit their needs (click here)

My final thoughts

Would I buy a Dell Studio? Certainly as a desktop replacement for the home, the Dell Studio 17 I tested offers a much better alternative than the Apple iMac or MacBook Pro I’ve always craved for. One of the constraints of being early to market is that the competition will learn from your experience. I’m sure new models will come out that take better advantage of the Core i7’s compute power for gaming. The Studio 17 is a multimedia workhorse not a gaming machine.

One thing that will challenge many a competitor to the Studio 17 is ‘choice’. Dell has gone out of its way to give consumers the choice of what to include in their Studio 17. You have the option of a full HD screen; four options for processing power; and a Blu-Ray if you are a truly high definition fanatic.

At a starting price of HK$12,499 (US$1,602) with an online discount of HK$1,500 (US$192), this is one of the best value-for-money laptops if you are in the market for the latest laptop using the new Intel Core i series of processors.

Things I liked about the Studio 17

  • Low starting price
  • Good value for money
  • Good built quality
  • Good speakers

Things I found wanting on the Studio 17

  •  The keyboard flexes when keys are depressed
  •  The piano black panel is a dust magnet
  • The touch motions on the trackpad don’t always work (per suggested gestures on the manual)

Other Dell Studio 17 reviews (in case you want other people’s opinions as well)

Dell Studio 17 photo gallery