Dell's direct business model revolves around offering the consumer choice. Lots of choice.
They usually follow the simple pattern of "good, better, best." That translates to three different lines of laptops (Inspiron, Latitude, and Precision). Within the Inspiron line, they offer Basic, Entertainment, and XPS. Within each category, they offer multiple models. And for each model, you can custom configure the many options. Lots of choice.
In my fairly simplistic view, Dell should only offer two choices: a desktop replacement (DTR) and an ultraportable. All of the fine gradations in between are lost on me.
I already own their ultraportable Inspiron 700m (now called the 710m after they changed the color of keyboard), and it's probably the best portable I've owned (and I've owned a lot of them).
I was interested in upgrading my DTR to a dual-core model (what Intel calls "core duo").
So, out of all of Dell's offerings, I chose the Inspiron E1705 (also confusingly known as the Inspiron 9400 in the Small Business Division). I should note that I'm upgrading from the Inspiron 9300, and I still own the Inspiron 9200 -- the first generation for this chassis and still the coolest, quietest, longest running of the bunch. All three models share a very similar chassis.
Ordered, Built, and Delivered
Dell plays pricing games on a daily basis. They hope to catch lazy shoppers during high price days, and they try to catch the price-conscious consumers on low-price days. I waited for the low-price tide, and then I ordered during a pretty large online coupon promotion.
I expect better deals to come along, but Dell managed to hit my price point that day. Also, you can often get better deals by calling up a Small Business sales rep and haggling, but I was too lazy to do that.
Here's what I got for about $1500 + tax:
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
17-inch WUXGA (wide-aspect 1920x1200) TrueLife (glossy)
Intel Core Duo T2500 (2 x 2.0Ghz)
1GB DDR2-533 RAM
100GB 5400RPM SATA Hard Drive
Broadcom / TrueMobile 802.11g WiFi
extra AC adapter
Free recycling kit!
The WUXGA was a no-brainer. A 17-inch LCD is wasted on lower resolution (unless you have terrible eye-sight), and I wanted plenty of screen real estate and beautiful 3D games.
I was initially going to get the T2400 instead of the faster and more expensive (by about $100) T2500, because I knew the T2400 performance would be fine with me. But Intel has basically made the "2.0GHz" boundary synonymous with "high-end," so I went with the T2500 for hopefully better resale value.
I chose 533MHz RAM because there should be no difference in performance with 667MHz as long as dual channel is enabled. I do plan to upgrade to 2GB using third-party RAM, but Dell was running a special on the 1GB configuration.
I chose the 100GB drive as the best price/performance/capacity tradeoff, but since the disk is both the main performance bottleneck of any computer, and notebook drive capacity is limited, it would be easy to justify going with a larger and/or faster drive.
I chose the Broadcom wireless card instead of Intel's because in my experience, Broadcom cards have better range and more robust drivers than Intel. Oh, and it was $20 cheaper too. :-)
I don't plan to burn many DVDs on my laptop (that's something I do pretty much exclusively on the desktop due to my large-capacity desktop drives), but again the DVD+-RW drive should help the resale value.
I ordered my E1705 on a Saturday and received it the following Friday. I received it one day after they shipped even though I ordered ground shipping. Last year, Dell opened a distribution center in Nevada so most West Coast shippments only take a day. Nice!
Chassis and Styling
I took the laptop out of the box, and the first thing I noticed was how cold it was. That was due to the Mg-alloy lid and base Dell uses on the E1705. They don't advertise this fact, because that's supposed to be a feature exclusive to the Latitude and Precision lines. Nice!
If this is the first time you've seen the 9200 / 9300 / 9400 chassis, then you'll be immediately impressed by how BIG and LIGHT this machine is. It weighs nearly 8 lbs, but it feels much lighter due to the way the weight is distributed across a large area.
I prefer the Inspiron 700m (or the new 710m) for portability, but the E1705 is easy to move around, and it fits nicely in the backpack I ordered with the system.
As far as styling goes, Dell is obviously trying to rip off some of Apple's designs. It's sort of silver (titanium?) with white trim with minimalist lines. If it were a car, it would be a 1964 Corvair Convertible. Minimalism for the masses.
I powered up the laptop, and the first thing I noticed was the *perfect* LCD. No dead or stuck pixels. No light leakage. No "sparkle" or "screen-door" effect. Good brightness. Good contrast. Good colors. This is what I've been waiting for. When Dell introduced the Inspiron 9200, they shipped it with an LG Philips LCD which had the worst "sparkle" artifacts I had ever seen. It was painful to look at. When they introduced the 9300, they took that same panel and added a glossy layer on top. It reduced the sparkle considerably, but the antiglare coating under the glossy layer was still obvious and it made whites look very gray and grainy.
They still ship that same LG Philips panel on the E1705, but the antiglare layer is finally gone, and it looks great! Dell also uses other LCD vendors, including Samsung. The Samsung panel looks very good too (my 9300 has one), with warmer color temperature and better color and grayscale rendition, but with washed-out blacks and a fair amount of light leakage.
The LCD was a huge relief to me, since this is the most important component of a laptop.
Here's a tip. As soon as you finish loading Windows, right-click on the desktop, click properties, select settings tab, click advanced, and change the DPI to 96. Dell sets it to an unnatural 120DPI by default. I assume they used to field a lot of calls from people complaining about the small fonts on a WUXGA display, but font size is easy to tweak, and the 120DPI makes images in IE appear to be jaggy, which probably generates a whole new set of support calls for Dell.
The keyboard is also important, and Dell uses a very nice keyboard with a rubber dome mechanism similar to that used in IBM (now Lenovo) ThinkPads. The action is very quiet, smooth, firm, and consistent. The only problem is that the keycaps are fairly shallow, so it's possible to push one key below the bottom level of the key above and catch the tip of your finger underneath the key above. I'm not a touch typist, so I very rarely run into this problem.
Dell dropped the "track point" device from the Inspiron line a while back in order to further differentiate the Latitude and Precision lines. I love track points, but I've learned to live with the trackpad. Dell switched from Alps to Synaptics with the E1705, and I can't tell much difference between the two trackpads. One noticible difference is the mouse buttons below the trackpad. The E1705 has more travel and less click than the 9300. I like the new buttons!
The first thing you notice after the beautiful LCD and perfect keyboard is all of the damn bloatware that Dell loads onto the system. Dell has gotten progressively worse in this area. Now they have junk from Google and other companies integrated directly into Internet Explorer, and garish "reminders" popping up left and right trying to get you to install crap and buy more from their advertising partners.
Many people simply reformat their Dell's drive as soon as they power them up. Because it's so easy to miss something (a driver, mpeg decoder, various useful features), I used to be firmly in the "Remove Bloatware" camp rather than reformat, but Dell's bloatware has gotten so bad that I think reformatting may be the best route.
The biggest change for the E1705 is the introduction of Intel's Core Duo. This CPU is /superfly/ fast! Intel has been severely beat up by AMD for the last few years in the CPU speed wars. This laptop CPU is nearly as fast as the fastest desktop CPUs offered by AMD and Intel, and it consumes less power than any of them. Not only does the Core Duo have two cores, but it also has faster floating point operations, virtualization technology, and other goodies. One of those goodies involves a bit of trade-off. To reduce power consumption, Intel introduced a variable sized L2 cache. This allows the CPU to conserve power by reducing cache size, but apparently the extra overhead increased cache latency, so the older Dothan cores are faster when it comes to execution with a high cache hit rate.
Bottom-line: if you run any application that is CPU bound, Core Duo is for Yuo. :-)
SATA Hard Drive
Another change from the 9300 involves the use of SATA notebook drives. I'm not sure why Dell went this route. There is no performance improvement, and the change means upgrades are harder to find in the third-party retail market. Oh, maybe that's why Dell made the change. Well, at least the drives aren't proprietary.
And with the E1705, Dell abandoned PCMCIA PC Card and went to the new ExpressCard format. This was a pretty clumsy move. Other laptop manufactures are offering both interfaces during this transitional period, and that's the Right Way to handle it.
Go 7800 GPU
Dell also upgraded the GPU from the go6800 in the 9300 to the new go7800 in the E1705. This is a pretty evolutionary move. The go7800 is a neutered go7800GTX, and basically has the same performance as the go6800 ultra that was offered in last year's XPS Gen 2 gaming rig. It's fast enough to handle just about every game on the market, but the performance obviously falls short of the 7800GTX.
The only serious problem that my system has is with the heat generated by the go7800. This GPU should run relatively cool since the go7800GTX runs pretty cool, and the go7800 runs with a slower clock, at a lower voltage, and with fewer pipes than the otherwise identical GTX. This heat problem could be due to a combination of problems: buggy fan control in the BIOS, a poorly designed cooling solution, or maybe a worker in Malaysia simply forget to put on the TIM pad (thermal interface material). I hope that Dell addresses the heat issue, as a cool and quiet running laptop is extremely important to me. What good is a laptop that runs too hot for your lap?
The only other change worth noting is Dell's new Media Direct feature. The old version had a useless implementation that involved booting Windows to play a DVD. The new version doesn't boot Windows, but seems to boot some sort of scaled-down embedded version of Windows and PowerDVD. The DVD player boots faster than full-blown Windows, but it's still not nearly as fast as a ROM-based dedicated DVD player. In short, it's a feature that Dell can check off when compared to the competition, but it's nothing to write home about.
The backpack. It seems well made, and the laptop fits securely in the protective pouch.
There are plenty of performance benchmarks here
so I won't bother repeating any of them. But I will say that the E1705 performs as well as any DTR on the market, even better than most desktops, and also makes an excellent portable gaming rig.
Dell's support has a spotty record. In the end, they usually do the Right Thing, but it can be a mind-numbing teeth-pulling experience to get to that point.
I called Dell's Tech Support due to the excessive GPU heat I was experiencing (up to 80C at idle!), and I got bounced around, put on hold forever, hung up, called back, bounced around, and finally got the right support guy who arranged for a system exchange. Once I get the exchange, I can post an update to see if my problem was a one-off instance or a deeper design issue.
As awkward as Dell's support process is, I still find it the best out there. You can always get a human, and you can usually get your issue resolved. I've experienced *much* worse from other vendors, and considering Dell's price advantage, I find it amazing you get any support at all.
Also on the upside, Dell includes great "self-help" online support in the form of user guides, service guides, drivers, and forums. Dell does this better than just about anybody else.
Summary and Like-To-Have's
I've been a laptop user for many years, and I'm on an endless quest for the perfect laptop. There are *always* compromises since you have to accept the entire package from one vendor: display, keyboard, pointing device, CPU, drives, case, etc.
The Inspiron E1705 is as close to the perfect laptop as I've found yet. The two main improvements over past generations in this line are the LCD and the CPU, two of the most important components on a laptop.
So, what keeps it from being perfect? Here's my wish list:
- Gigabit ethernet (Dell uses this as a differentiator for the XPS and business lines, but it's becoming critical for an "entertainment" laptop)
- Docking station. A real one, not a USB hub. For people looking for a real DTR that they use on their desk, the lack of docking station can be a deal killer.
- Bring back the eraser-head! I still miss it.
- User-cleanable fans. Older models included pop-out fans that made cleaning a trivial task. That is no longer the case, and it's a serious design flaw for laptops that will be in use for more than a year.
- Removable media bay with second hard drive option. This is another feature used to differentiate Dell's business laptops, but everybody could benefit.
- User-upgradable video card. I know this isn't going to happen, because this is how Dell gets me to buy a new laptop every six months. :-(
Despite a few shortcomings, I would (and do) recommend this laptop to anybody looking for a solid DTR. Just keep your eye out for the good online deals.
Random Geek Facts
1 Week Update
- 16 pixel pipes, 6 vertex shaders (vs 24/8 on GTX)
- core: 250MHz (OC's to 380MHz+) @ 1.1V (vs 400 @ 1.3V on GTX)
- memory speed: 658MHz (OC's to around 900MHz, vs 1.2GHz on GTX)
- memory type: GDDR3 rated for 16ns (1.2GHz)
3DMark06: about 2000 stock, 3000 OC'd
Super Pi 1M: 30s (2GHz single core)
- DVI + VGA (dual external monitor support)
- S-video + digital audio (requires special cable)
- 6 USB
- Mic In + Headphones
- multi card reader (MS, MS Pro, SD, MMC, xD)
LCD vendors: Samsung, LG Philips, maybe Sharp
DVD+-RW vendors: NEC and Sony
Hard drive vendors: Toshiba, Seagate, Hitachi, and Fujitsu
I've had the machine for a week now, and I still love it. My only real issue was with the warm-running GPU. I called Dell, and told them that the temperature went up to 80C. They assured me that it shouldn't run that hot and sent me an exchange unit.
Unfortunately, the exchange unit did exactly the same thing. The GPU gets up to 82C while idling even under battery power (with PowerMiser enabled). Then the fans kick in and bring it down to 70C before the cycle begins again.
Dell needs to issue a BIOS fix for the fan control. The machine gets pretty toasty, and a laptop GPU shouldn't get anywhere near 80C at idle with proper cooling.
The exchange unit they sent me was identically configured to my original system, but many of the components came from different vendors. The exchange had a Samsung LCD instead of the LG. I prefer the LG. The exchange also had a different keyboard, and the action wasn't nearly as nice as the original. What can you do? Dell ships too many machines to rely on one vendor for any component, I suppose.
I'll be sending the exchange unit back to Dell, keeping my original, and running i9kfangui to override Dell's fan control.