Review: Three 17-in. laptops provide big screens for low prices

Notebook too cramped? Try one of these (surprisingly affordable) big boys from Acer, Dell and Toshiba.

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Dell Inspiron 1750

With models starting at about $500, the Inspiron 17 series low-balls all the others, but when you configure it the way you want to, the price quickly balloons: The Inspiron 1750 model I tested, with a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive and a double-layer DVD burner, costs $829.

Despite being the most expensive of this group of three 17-in. notebooks, it lacks some digital amenities. Still, it beats the pack on performance and battery life, if only by a hair.

Measuring 1.7 by 16.3 by 10.4 in. and weighing 6.8 lbs., the Inspiron is the smallest and lightest of the three and is not that much heavier than systems that have 15.6-in. screens. With its AC adapter, it hits the road with a travel weight of 7.6 lbs., more than a pound lighter than the Aspire.

Dell Inspiron 1750
Dell Inspiron 1750

It easily slides into my Brenthaven bag for quick getaways. It's available in white, black and six fashion colors; I looked at a black model because it cost $40 less.

Like the Satellite, the Inspiron has a 17.3-in. screen that can show 1600-by-900-pixel resolution and uses Intel's GMA 4500MHD graphics chip. But the Inspiron comes with 32MB of video memory rather than the Satellite's 128MB; it can take control of up to 1.6GB of system memory. While running Trainz, the Inspiron's colors were the least vibrant of the three machines, and it showed the least background detail.

The black system I tested is as plain as it gets, with no ornamentation like the Satellite's striped interior. It also makes do without multimedia controls. The Inspiron's 19.3mm keys have a mushy feel to them, but its recessed and textured touchpad is a real winner.

As far as ports go, the Inspiron is the only one of the three systems to come with an ExpressCard slot for adding peripherals such as a 3G cellular data card, but it does without the Satellite's eSATA connector and the Aspire's HDMI plug. It provides three USB 2.0 ports, plus Ethernet and VGA ports, as well as microphone and headphone jacks. There is a flash card reader, but it can work only with SD and MS cards, not the xD cards that the Aspire can read.

While the system's default Wi-Fi tied with the Aspire's for top honors with a range of 125 feet, it works with only 802.11b/g networks, not the newer 802.11n equipment. (You can configure the system with 802.11n wireless cards from Dell or Intel, which add $25 or $40 to the price, respectively.) The model I tested does without a Bluetooth radio (available as a $20 add-on) and lacks the communications backup of having a modem jack for times when everything else fails.

Performance is the Inspiron's strong suit, with the top score of 765.4 on the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark; its start-up time of 1 minute 18 seconds was edged out of first place by only a few seconds. The 6-cell, 4,750 milliamp-hour battery was able to run for 2 hours and 40 minutes, making it the long-distance champ of the three, if barely.

The Inspiron comes with either Windows Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium; if you opt for the latter (a $30 add-on), Dell includes a free upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium when it becomes available in October. The system also includes Works 9.0, a 30-day subscription to McAfee's SecurityCenter, and Video Chat, one of the best videoconferencing apps around.

It may not be the least expensive 17-in. system, but if size, weight, performance and battery life trump all other considerations, the Inspiron 1750 excels.

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