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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Toshiba Satellite L555

At $700, it's hard to believe that the Toshiba Satellite L555 comes as well equipped as it does. It's not the lightest, fastest or longest-lasting 17-in. notebook around, but it does everything adequately, if not spectacularly. In other words, it's a genuine bargain.

The system weighs 6.9 lbs. and measures 1.8 by 16.4 by 10.7 in. -- fractions of an inch thicker and wider, and an ounce heavier, than the Inspiron. It is, however, quite a bit smaller and lighter than the Aspire and slips easily into my Brenthaven bag.

With the small AC adapter, the gray and silver system has the best travel weight at 7.1 lbs, nearly 2 lbs. lighter than the overweight Aspire. I really like the system's striped interior -- a welcome change of pace from the competition's monotone designs.

Toshiba Satellite L555
Toshiba Satellite L555

With a 2.1-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 3GB of RAM, a SuperMulti DVD drive and a 320GB hard drive, the Satellite comes with a configuration that rivals those of the Aspire and the Inspiron. It uses an Intel GMA 4500MHD graphics accelerator that has 128MB of its own memory and can grab as much as 1GB from the system.

Like the others, its 17.3-in. screen has 1600-by-900 display resolution; its brightness is midway between the Aspire and Inspiron. If the case lid is bumped into, the screen image tends to wobble a lot.

The Satellite L555's striped interior
The system's striped interior

Its 19.2mm keys have concave surfaces to make typing comfortable, but the keyboard has a mushy feel. I really like the texture of the system's touchpad, but it has the same finish as the surrounding plastic and is not recessed, so it blends in with the background. I often ended up putting my finger in its general direction and missing the pad altogether.

Above the keyboard is a set of multimedia controls, but they're not as thorough as on the Aspire. There is, however, a handy thumbwheel for raising and lowering the volume. The machine lacks a fingerprint reader.

Its assortment of ports includes a hidden gem that involves a major compromise. It is one of the first notebooks of any size or price that has an eSATA connector for directly connecting a hard drive, but to use it you must give up one of the system's three USB ports. It also has ports for Ethernet, modem, VGA and audio, but has neither the Aspire's HDMI nor its SPDIF ports.

While it comes with a flash card reader, it works only with SD and MS cards, and the system does without either Bluetooth or an ExpressCard slot for peripherals.

The Satellite's performance didn't impress, to say the least. With a startup time of 2 minutes 24 seconds and a score of 706.8 on the PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, it is the slowest of the bunch. The 2 hour 20 minute life of its 6-cell, 4,000 milliamp-hour battery was the shortest of the three, but only by a few minutes. The Satellite's Wi-Fi can connect with 802.11a/g/n networks, but its range was limited to 105 feet, the shortest of the three systems.

On top of Windows Vista Home Premium (with a free upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium), the system came with Norton Internet Security with a month of updates and a bunch of games.

While it is the slowest of the three notebooks, the Satellite excels at one big thing: price. At $700, it's hard to beat.

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