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After the screen's lacklustre performance, it's good to see (or hear, rather) the XPS 17 making an impressive comeback on the audio front, where Dell's partnership with JBL really pays off. The stereo speakers are markedly more powerful than those found on most laptops and are joined by a 12W subwoofer to handle bass. Waves' MaxxAudio 3 processing lets you adjust dialogue volume independently and extends the low range with psycho-acoustic algorithms, among other enhancements.
The speakers produce a room-filling volume without distortion, a rich and detailed soundstage, and dialogue comes across with unusual distinction. While undeniably impressive, clarity and bass aren't necessarily the best of any laptop "on the planet" as Dell claims, but the number of portable machines that can match it could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Among these is Toshiba's Satellite P500, which uses Harman/kardon speakers. Interestingly, Harman/kardon and JBL both fall under the same parent company, so it's not surprising that they match up well.
General performance of the XPS 17 is excellent, as expected considering its specifications. The dual core Core i5 460M is more than powerful enough for the average user, and if you do want more cores, as ever Dell's machines are quite customisable and a Core i7 is just a click away.
Dell's latest is also surprisingly competent at gaming thanks to its Nvidia GeForce 435M, though obviously it doesn't hold a candle to laptops with 'true' gaming cards, like the Mobility Radeon 5870 found in the MSI GX740.
Crysis is notoriously forgiving of low frame rates, but with an 18fps average at High Detail (and that on a 'lowly' 1,280 x 720 resolution) it couldn't be called playable with the best will in the world. However, dropping detail down to Medium resulted in an eminently playable 30.2fps average. That this multimedia-oriented laptop for under £750 can even play a title so demanding at all is quite impressive, and it certainly makes Dell's new XPS a capable choice for the casual gamer.
We didn't get the chance to test stereoscopic 3D output, but the graphics aren't really powerful enough for the majority of 'true' 3D gaming, so 3D Blu-ray would probably be the main area of interest (you would, of course, need to add the Blu-ray upgrade, which is £90 direct from Dell).
We weren't expecting too much from the XPS 17 in terms of battery life – after all, it's not exactly the most portable machine around.
However, we were pleasantly surprised by only 10 minutes short of four hours in the semi-intensive Productivity test and an equally impressive two hours and fifty minutes for DVD playback, which is plenty to watch even the extended editions of most films. These truly are excellent results for this class of machine, and can be further amplified by going for an optional higher-capacity battery than the 56Wh default.
Finally, on the value front this XPS does really well. Considering the power, build quality and features you get - especially cutting-edge ones like USB 3.0 connectivity - £730 seems quite reasonable, though we are used to seeing Blu-ray included at this price point and the screen rather lets things down if you're picky about image quality. An apt comparison from a value perspective is the 15.6in Asus N53JN, which also offers USB 3.0 and Optimus, but with a lower screen resolution, weaker graphics, a slower CPU and hard drive, yet still costs £40 more than the Dell with Blu-ray drive.
Decent build quality, a stylish design, good usability, impressive specifications, all the connectivity you could ever want and some of the best speakers to be found on a laptop make a strong case for Dell's new XPS 17. Only its distinctly underwhelming screen prevents this 17.3in laptop from picking up a recommended award.