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Dell XPS 17 (L701X) - Connectivity, Usability and Display
Connectivity on Dell's XPS 17 L701X is truly class-leading, and not just because it includes USB 3.0. The only thing that's missing is an ExpressCard slot, and we honestly can't think of many reasons you would need one here. Along the left there's a memory card reader which not only takes the usual complement of SD/HC, MS Pro/Duo and MMC, but also the new SDXC standard. On the right you'll find a tray-loading DVD-rewriter, twin headphone jacks (one of which doubles as a digital audio output), a microphone jack, and a combined USB 2.0/eSATA port.
Most of the connections reside along the back, which is not necessarily the most convenient location. Here you'll find two USB 3.0 ports in their signature blue livery, Gigabit Ethernet, and a comprehensive digital video output selection of HDMI 1.4 and mini-DisplayPort. Either one will let you hook up high-resolution monitors like the NEC MultiSync LCD3090WQXi, something that many older laptops don't support.
We have equally little complaint regarding this laptop's usability. All the keyboard's keys (with the exception of the cursor keys) are full-size, and a number pad is included together with the usual shortcuts. Among these is a dedicated button for deactivating the touchpad, though you shouldn't need this as we found the pad almost never interfered with typing.
Layout is excellent, though it doesn't match the intelligent shortcut placement and second function key found on the likes of Samsung's R780. The only frustration for power users is that the F-series keys are relegated to secondary functions by default, but this can be altered in the BIOS. The keys also offer a good amount of travel, and though the action on a few (the space bar in particular) feels a tad cheap, typing is still a very pleasant experience overall.
Likewise, the touchpad is pretty neat. It's huge and very responsive, with the same matt, smooth finish as the keyboard's keys. These factors combine to make multi-touch gestures easy to pull off. The pad's buttons are also large and offer very positive action, making this one of the better 'mouse equivalents' we've used on a laptop.
So far then, we're very impressed with Dell's new range. Unfortunately, the L701X's 17.3in screen is where we come across our first real disappointment. Dell still needs to differentiate its highest-end XPS Studio line, and one of the ways it has done this is by limiting the 'vanilla' XPS 17 to a maximum display resolution of 1,600 x 900. While this will be plenty for the vast majority of users, it can be a major caveat for those hungry for more desktop real estate. Because of this, sharpness isn't quite as good as on Full HD screens either, though it's certainly adequate for most and the lower resolution does make viewing small icons and text easier.
The screen's glossy coating can be an issue with bright ambient lights present, though in a darkened environment it does enhance perceived contrast and gives colours that extra little bit of 'pop'. However, the TN panel needs all the help it can get, as contrast is quite poor. Blacks look a little grey, the darkest greyshades are indistinguishable from each other (meaning you'll miss dark detailing in gloomy films and games) and subtle colour gradations at the lighter end blend into solid blocks.
Viewing angles are a mixed bag. There's not even a hint of colour shift, and in this regard the XPS 17's screen is truly outstanding. Unfortunately, viewing from even moderate vertical or horizontal angles results in too much contrast shift for this advantage to be much use. Finally, though there's no sign of light bleed, distribution isn't completely even causing patches of the screen to appear brighter when viewing dark material.
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