Dell's XPS brand is instantly recognizable in computer hardware and gaming circles. Whether you've owned one or not, there is no debate that XPS branded machines, desktops and notebooks alike, are serious competitors in the high-end and ultra high-end performance markets. While the XPS brand is over fourteen years old, it didn't receive acceptance from enthusiasts until rather recently. It wasn't too long ago that the thought of a machine from Dell that could compete with the best boutique builders both in terms of style and performance would evoke blank stares.
While the XPS brand has always stood for performance, it hasn't always been easy to tell. With early XPS systems, there was often little more than a paint job to distinguish a high performance XPS machine from its more mundane brethren. Considering the high performance consumer market is full of flashy boutique machines with oddly shaped cases and lighting effects, it isn't hard to see how the XPS was often overlooked. However, with each new generation, the styling became a little bit more adventurous than the last. And with each styling update, XPS systems became a little bit more exciting and attractive.
Last year we saw Dell revamp their XPS desktop line-up with the new XPS 700 series chassis, their most adventurous yet. We got a chance to check out the new XPS flagship chassis in our look at the XPS 710 H2C earlier this year and it evoked the same love it or hate it feelings that commonly arise with flashy boutique computers. With its aggressive stance, LED-lit exterior and massive proportions, the XPS 700 series chassis shares little with the older and more conservatively designed XPS chassis we were used to.
This year, it's the XPS laptop series' turn to get a face-lift, and today we'll be looking at the new performance flagship of the XPS laptop line-up, the XPS M1730.
|Specifications & Options|
The XPS M1730 is the first laptop to incorporate a physics accelerator. Dell is offering an AGEIA PhysX 100M Physics Accelerator as standard equipment on all XPS M1730 laptops. We received this news with mixed feelings. On one hand, hardware accelerated physics is pretty neat and we've seen that it can have positive effects in games that support it. On the other hand, very few games support hardware accelerated physics and not everyone will be too thrilled that a physics accelerator with questionable benefits is mandatory. After all, "standard equipment" is not a synonym for "free equipment". We explore this subject a bit more in later pages.
As with any Dell system, there is a plethora of hardware options available via the online configurator if the base configuration doesn't strike your fancy. There are four color options, three processor options, three optical drive options (including Blu-ray), mobile broadband, countless hard drive configurations and plenty of accessories. Our review system priced out to $3,824 but the base model can be yours for $2,699. While not cheap, we think the price is reasonable for what you get.
Since the M1730 is billed as a gaming laptop, possibly the most important component is the video card. The XPS M1730 has that covered since they are all equipped with two GeForce 8700M GTs in SLI. The GeForce 8700M GT is a decent graphics card and it should provide sufficient power to drive the latest games, especially when paired in SLI, it's a bit disappointing that the current fastest mobile graphics card, the GeForce 8800M GTX, is not an option currently. However, we have it straight from Dell that a GeForce 8800M GTX option will be made available at some point and existing M1730 owners will be offered the option to upgrade for a fee.
Included with every XPS M1730 is Dell's standard one year warranty with in-home service, upgradeable up to four years. Also standard with every M1730 is a one year subscription to LoJack Laptop Theft Protection and a one year subscription to Dell's DataSafe Online Backup with 10GB of online storage space. Other standard Dell options like accidental damage coverage and home installation are also available, for a price. An additional benefit is exclusively offered to XPS customers in the form of access to the XPS support team. The XPS Team is made up of a group of Dell support personnel who are experienced gamers, that were hand-picked by managers and specifically trained to support XPS systems.
|Design & Build Quality|
While the XPS M1730 is a completely new design, it doesn't stray too far from the M1710 it replaces. Despite looking nothing like the M1710, the general geometry of the M1730's chassis is similar in many ways to the M1710. However, that is where the similarities end.
If the appearance of the XPS M1730 were to be summed up in one word, it would be 'imposing'. Despite sharing similar dimensions with other 17" laptops, the M1730's design makes it appear to be much larger than other laptops we have seen. This lends to the M1730's imposing presence and it will definitely not appeal to minimalists.
As you would expect, just about every 17" laptop has roughly the same width and depth, with the main difference being thickness. The M1730 is no exception, but its styling gives the illusion that the chassis is larger than it really is. Many laptops (e.g. most ASUS and Toshiba models) feature a wedge-like design where the front is significantly thinner than the back to give the illusion of thinness. Another trick to further enhance the illusion is to make the edges of the laptop as thin as possible, either through rounding, tapering or cutting out areas. However, the M1730 forgoes any illusion of thinness by featuring a relatively uncompromising rectangular shape that is equally thick all the way around. This causes the M1730 to appear bulkier compared to other 17" laptops like the Toshiba X205 despite actually being similar in thickness (2.1" vs 2").
Much of the XPS M1730's thickness is due to its 2/3" thick lid. The lid is much thicker than it has to be and we've seen 17" laptops sport significantly thinner lids. However, the M1730's lid isn't without its advantages. A thicker lid means the M1730 has room for larger and higher quality LCD backlights as well as better rigidity. In fact the M1730's lid is very strong and we observed no give or bending in the lid when a significant amount of pressure was applied. Two metal hinges attach the lid to the body and they are also quite sturdy. The hinges have enough internal friction to allow the lid to be positioned at literally any angle in its range of motion but they are also loose enough to allow the lid to be opened with one hand without causing the laptop to lift from the desk. We found the hinges to be very smooth, however the hinges are concealed by black plastic and we found the plastic made slight rubbing noises when the lid was moved.
Almost the entire chassis, with the exception of the bottom and sides, is covered by a high gloss black and grey pattern of dots that creates a wave effect when viewed from a distance. The pattern appears differently depending on the lighting conditions, viewing angle and viewing distance. Sometimes the pattern can look like carbon fiber, other times it may appear to be smooth waves or even flat black. Due to the varying ways the pattern can be perceived, people who saw the M1730 had varying reactions to it, although most of them grew to like it after some closer inspection.
The top of the lid has two identical trapezoidal shaped areas. The trapezoids are made of clear plastic and in the center of each trapezoid is a shiny XPS label. Behind clear plastic is a non-removable colored insert. There are four insert colors to choose from on Dell's online configurator. Our review unit has a Smoke Grey insert and the other three available colors are Sapphire Blue, Crimson Red and Bone White. In the center of the lid is a silver Dell logo.
The M1730's ports are spread out on three sides while the front of the laptop sports a pair of speakers and a row of media buttons. Located under the media buttons is the IR sensor. On the rear of the laptop is the AC adapter port, Ethernet port and a single USB port. The right side of the laptop has two USB ports, an Expresscard slot, a Kensington lock port and a button and switch. The switch disables the internal wireless card to save battery while the button launches the 'Wi-Fi Catcher' utility which displays a list of networks within range along with signal strength. Located on the left side of the laptop is the optical drive, DVI-out, S-Video out, media card reader, 4-pin Firewire port, and another USB port. Also located on the front edge of the left side are three audio ports. By default one of these ports is for a microphone and two of them are for headphones. However, the audio ports can be configured to provide surround sound output. In case you weren't counting, the M1730 only sports four USB ports in total. That is two less than the M1710. This is somewhat disappointing since there is plenty of space available for more ports.
Like the M1710 before it, the M1730 has numerous LEDs located around the chassis which cause it to light up when on. This might be undesirable if you need to keep a low profile, but then you probably wouldn't purchase a laptop marketed to gamers to begin with. However, if you absolutely hate them, every single decorative LED on the M1730 can be disabled from within the BIOS. We liked the lighting and think the M1730 looks much better when LEDs were turned on then when off. So much so that we took a series of gratuitous pictures of the M1730 in low light conditions to show off its potential.
The LED lighting system on the M1730 is quite extensive and one of the most impressive on any laptop. The LEDs are divided up into regions and each region can be controlled separately. The clear plastic trapezoids on the laptop lid are each lit up by numerous white LEDs and so is the Dell logo in the center of the lid. Each of the two speakers on the M1730 are also lit by LEDs. However these LEDs are multi-colored and each speaker can be individually set to one of 16 different colors. The touchpad is also lit with multi-color LEDs which are controlled separately from the speakers. Lastly, the keyboard is LED backlit by white LEDs.
Possibly the most impressive aspect of the lighting system on the M1730 is the amount of control you have over it. The LEDs can be controlled from the BIOS or from within windows via the "Dell QuickSet" utility which comes pre-installed on the system. As previously mentioned, each LED region can be individually turned off and the colors of the touchpad, and each of the two speakers can be individually set to any one of 16 different colors. The intensity level of the LEDs can be also be set, with eight levels of intensity, not including off. Another cool feature of the lighting system is the ability to link LED intensity to LCD brightness. That means when the LCD brightness changes, so does the intensity of the LEDs.
There are also four LED effects that can be enabled. There is a strobe light effect and a 'breathing lights' effect, where all of the LEDs smoothly cycle in intensity. Another effect called 'smooth color rotation' is similar to 'breathing lights', except with each "breath" the LEDs change colors in unison. The last effect is called 'zone rotation' where the touchpad and speaker LEDs toggle between two colors in rotation while the rest of the LEDs remain constant. The speed of the effects can be changed and the LED effects can be enabled all the time or only when a new e-mail is received. Lastly, the effects can be linked to music and plug-ins are available for Windows Media Player, WinAmp and iTunes.
The M1730 is the first XPS laptop to have a full size keyboard complete with a number pad. While the numpad may be more important for productivity than gaming, many gamers use the numpad for binding game commands and its addition on the M1730 is certainly welcome. Above the keyboard on the right side of the laptop is a small LCD with a couple of accompanying buttons. The M1730's LCD is actually the same one used on the Logitech G15 gaming keyboard. Therefore the LCD on the M1730 also shares the same functionality as the G15's LCD and it can use G15 LCD plug-ins.
This LCD serves a number of purposes. By default the LCD has four plug-ins for displaying the time, a countdown timer function, POP3 e-mail monitor, and a performance monitor that displays CPU and memory usage in real-time. The LCD also displays media activities like a volume bar when the volume is being changed. There are plenty of additional plug-ins which can be downloaded to add support for games and other applications. Sometimes the appropriate plug-in is bundled with the software its meant to support. For example, when we installed Fraps, we had the option to install the Fraps LCD plug-in which used the LCD to display performance information, such as a real-time graph of the frame rate.
The LCD has a blueish backlight and the backlight brightness and contrast can be adjusted. The round button next to the LCD is used to toggle between which plug-in to display while the four rectangular buttons under the LCD are used to control the plug-ins and their function vary from plug-in to plug-in.
|Under The Hood|
Now that we've examined the shiny exterior of the XPS M1730, lets strip it down and examine its guts. The underside of the XPS M1730 is painted a plain, flat black. Worthy of note is that the M1730's chassis is mostly made of magnesium, which results in its 12lb weight (with battery). While the bottom of the M1730 appears to be hard plastic at first, it is actually metal with a thick layer of black paint. Located at the top is a large system of vents that spans the entire width of the chassis. In the center of the chassis is the memory bay, and to the left is the hard drive bay.
We begin our dissection by removing the battery. The M1730 gets its power from a large 85Wh battery. Like other Dell laptop batteries, the one used by the M1730 has a battery life meter built into it. The meter consists of five LEDs and a button. When the button is depressed, the remaining battery life is displayed by the LEDs. While this feature isn't especially useful when the battery is in the laptop, it can come in handy when you have one or more backup batteries. The meter allows you to easily check the remaining battery life in your backup battery without having to plug it into the laptop.
The memory bay is located in the center of the chassis and it's marked by a capital M. The bay is covered by a metal lid which is secured to the chassis by two screws. Once the lid is removed, the SO-DIMM memory slots are easily accessible. Our review unit was populated by two sticks of Nanya 1GB PC2-5300 memory with factory timings of 5-5-5-12. Also visible in the memory bay is part of a heat spreader and a heatpipe. Under the heatpipe is the chipset. To the right of the memory bay is a rectangular hole which reveals a single screw. The screw secures the optical drive to the chassis.
The hard drive bay is to the left of the memory bay. Like the memory bay, the hard drive bay is also covered by a metal lid. Removing the lid reveals a strange drive contraption. The XPS M1730 can support two 2.5" SATA notebook drives and it does this in a rather unique way. The two drives are attached, back-to-back, to a drive bracket. The bracket has four dampened, captive screws, two per side. The screws suspend the drive bracket to the chassis. The drives are connected to a proprietary splitter that combines the SATA data and power connections of both drives into a single proprietary connector which connects to the M1730's motherboard. We thought this drive arrangement was quite clever and we also liked that the drives are suspended by dampened screws, which isolate a significant amount of vibration from the chassis, which reduces drive noise and protects them as well.
The last of the expansion bays are hidden under the keyboard. With the keyboard removed, we see the mini-LCD, monitor hinges and several shallow mini-PCIe bays. With the mini-LCD completely exposed, we can that it is indeed a Logitech product and the logo can be seen in the lower right corner. The mini-LCD is connected to the motherboard by a long cable that runs in a shallow channel cut into the chassis. Under the plug where the mini-LCD is connected to the motherboard is the CMOS battery. To the left of the battery is the WLAN bay which contains the 802.11 wireless card. All of the antennae for the M1730 are located in the monitor housing. The antennae wires for the WLAN run up to the monitor in another shallow channel cut into the chassis. Every M1730 has a WLAN card, but there are two to choose from, the Intel Wireless 3945 a/g and the 4965 a/g/n. Draft-n capability will cost you an additional $25.
To the left of the WLAN bay are two empty bays. These two bays, labeled 'WWAN' and 'WPAN' are located right above the touchpad. The WPAN bay is for the installation of a Bluetooth card. The WWAN bay is for the installation of a wireless mobile broadband card. Dell offers two different WWAN cards, a HSPDA 3.6 (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) card for use with 3G GSM mobile networks, like AT&T. Dell also offers a EVDO Rev A (Evolution-Data Optimized) card for use with CDMA mobile networks like the ones operated by Sprint and Verizon. In the case that a HSPDA card is installed, the SIM card can be inserted into a SIM card slot located under the battery, inside the battery bay. In the case that a EVDO card is installed, the user's subscriber information can be attached to the laptop via a bay, also located under the battery.
Our review unit did not come with Bluetooth or a mobile wireless broadband card so these bays were empty. A Bluetooth 2.0 EDR module only adds an additional $20 to the cost of the laptop and can be added with Dell's online configurator. Both WWAN cards add an additional $150 to the cost of the laptop, however you can receive a $100-$120 discount when you activate with a mobile broadband subscriber.
|WoW Edition and Figureprints|
Earlier this year, in January, Dell auctioned off two unique, custom hand painted, World of Warcraft themed XPS M1710 laptops on eBay to support a charity. This event went so well that Dell and Blizzard entertainment got together to discuss the creation of a special edition World of Warcraft laptop. The discussion must have gone well because on December 4th, Dell officially announced the XPS M1730 World of Warcraft Edition.
With over 9 million subscribers, World of Warcraft is currently the world's largest massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) in terms of monthly subscribers. It's therefore not hard to see why Dell decided to create a WoW themed laptop. However, you may wonder why Dell chose such a powerful model to act as the vehicle for this project. World of Warcraft is a very hardware friendly game that will happily run on a wide variety of hardware. Simply put, Dell wanted to create the ultimate, premium World of Warcraft experience and what better way to do that then with their flagship gaming laptop.
The XPS M1730 World of Warcraft Edition laptop is exactly the same as a standard M1730 in terms of hardware. It is possible to configure a standard M1730 to be nearly identical in specification to a WoW Edition M1730, for a significantly lower price too. However, that would be missing the point. The WoW Edition M1730 is less about the hardware and more about the experience. That starts with the the WoW edition's chassis which features a WoW themed design created by Blizzard artists. There are two versions of the chassis, one for each faction in the World of Warcraft universe; the Alliance and Horde.
Dell XPS M1730 World of Warcraft Edition Lid Designs (Horde & Alliance)
The WoW Edition of the M1730 also has a different starting price. While the base M1730 weighs in at $2,699, the WoW Edition starts at $4,499. Thankfully, the extra $1800 isn't just for the new looks, you also get a bit more hardware than the regular M1730 base model. As you may suspect, all XPS M1730 WoW Edition laptops also come with both World of Warcraft and WoW: Burning Crusade pre-installed (including all the latest patches) as well as exclusive WoW desktop backgrounds and wallpapers. In addition to the redesigned chassis, the World of Warcraft Edition XPS M1730 also comes with a World of Warcraft branded laptop backpack specifically designed for the XPS M1730. The backpack comes full of WoW related loot including:
The XPS M1730 WoW Edition comes with essentially everything you would need to start your WoW addiction or feed your existing one. That is a lot of World of Warcraft swag and we're not done yet. When you place your order for a WoW Edition M1730, you will receive a letter separate from your laptop package that contains a real life World of Warcraft Quest Envelope.
Dell XPS M1730 World of Warcraft Edition Desktop Backgrounds (Horde & Alliance)
Inside the Quest Envelope, you'll find a three items and a personalized letter which explains what the other items in the envelope are. The first item is an Collector's Edition Upgrade Certificate that allows you to instantly upgrade any WoW account of your choice to the coveted "Collectors Edition Account" status. In World of Warcraft, collectors edition status isn't just a fancy label. It grants you access to special in-game privileges, most notably an in-game pet only obtainable by collectors edition owners.
The second item in the envelope is an official Blizzard Beta Club Card that grants you membership to Blizzard's Beta Club. Beta club membership grants you access to five upcoming beta tests for future Blizzard titles starting with the upcoming second WoW expansion, 'Wrath of the Lich King'.
The last item in the envelope is perhaps the most exciting of all. It is a Golden Ticket (not real gold). Willy Wonka, anyone?
FigurePrints is a new company that, in collaboration with Blizzard Entertainment, offers a unique service for World of Warcraft players. A key element in any role playing gaming is the personalization of your character. World of Warcraft is no exception and many players spend exorbitant amounts of time customizing their characters to be exactly that way they like it. FigurePrint proposes to bring your custom crafted World of Warcraft character from the digital realm to the real, physical world.
FigurePrints uses 3D modeling technology previously reserved for the manufacturing industry, called rapid prototyping machines, to convert three dimensional computer models such as your World of Warcraft character into physical objects, such as a figurine of your World of Warcraft character. For the price of $99.95 plus $14.95 shipping and handling, per WoW character, FigurePrints will create a highly detailed 1:18 scale three dimensional figurine of your specific World of Warcraft character. The Golden Ticket included in your Quest Envelope is a one-time voucher for a free FigurePrints figurine.
When you order your figurine, FigurePrints servers grabs your latest character data from the Blizzard Armory, creates a custom 3D model of it and then lets you pose it any way you like. Then, when your happy with the way it looks, you simply hit "print" and your WoW character gets turned into a three dimensional statue, mounted in a glass display case and shipped to your doorstep. However, the $100 price tag is the least of your troubles. FigurePrints are limited availability products and if you want one, you'll have to get in line and wait, unless you have a Golden Ticket, that is. Not only are Golden Tickets free vouchers, they also catapult you to the front of the line so you can get your FigurePrints figurine as soon as possible.
Ultimately, the M1730 WoW Edition laptop won't hold much appeal to non-WoW players and paying an extra $1800 for a new lid design and some game related extras may seem absurd. However, for the 9 million people who have ventured into Azeroth, the WoW Edition laptop presents a tantalizing alternative to the standard XPS M1730.
After careful examination, we have found the XPS M1730 to be a well constructed laptop. The M1730's layout has been well thought out from a service and upgrade perspective and we found it fairly straight forward to work with. Now that we've thoroughly examined the XPS M1730, let's explore what it is like to actually use one.
For a full week, we incorporated the Dell XPS M1730 into our daily routine, substituting it for our usual laptop of choice. We lugged the M1730 with us around town on a daily basis and attempted to get into as many usage scenarios as we could think of. From fragging on the go and typing up this article to giving Powerpoint presentations and watching movies on the subway, we tried it all and now we're ready to report our findings.
The first thing you're likely to notice about the XPS M1730 when you begin using it is its substantial bulk. Not only is it a large laptop, as we've previously mentioned, it also happens to be quite heavy. Weighing in at 12 pounds including the battery, it even outweighs many other desktop replacement laptops. Much of the weight is due to the XPS' primarily magnesium chassis. Add in the weight of the power adapter, some accessories and a book or two, and carrying your laptop bag around all day ends up being quite a chore.
While the M1730 may be taxing to carry around, its magnesium chassis makes it very sturdy. Unlike many smaller laptops, the M1730 is definitely not flimsy by any standard. The laptop lid is secured by two latches above the LCD screen and they do a good job of holding the lid closed during transport. While we made no attempt to overtly abuse our review unit to test its mettle, we are fairly confident the M1730 can survive the bumps and bruises of daily on-the-go use. The M1730 is probably one of the few laptops you could use to successfully defend yourself from a bear attack in a pinch, should such a scenario arise (HotHardware does not condone bear violence).
One of our biggest complaints with the M1730 has nothing to do with the actual laptop itself. The M1730 comes with a massive power adapter larger than any laptop power adapter we have ever seen. The giant adapter is a 230W unit that is about 4 inches wide, 8 inches long and 2 inches thick. It is truly deserving of the nickname of 'brick' and unfortunately we were unable to obtain a real brick for comparison purposes. The power adapter is longer, thicker and nearly twice as wide as the power adapter used by the ASUS C90S we reviewed last week. The adapter is actually close to the size of two ASUS Eee PCs stacked on top of each other.
Located above the LCD monitor is a 2.0 megapixel camera and a pair of digital array microphones. The camera is fixed and cannot be rotated independently of the laptop lid. We found the picture quality to be average. It should be sufficient for webcam tasks. On either side of the camera is a microphone. The microphones did a good job of picking up our voice, even with moderate background noise, although they still can't beat a headset.
Like all recent Dell XPS models, the M1730 comes with a XPS branded leather binder. Inside the binder you'll find the user manuals and slots to put your driver DVDs. Also included with the M1730 is a small cloth pouch that contains a complimentary pair of Creative EP-630 in-canal earbuds.
Keyboard & Touchpad
We found the XPS M1730's keyboard to be pleasant to use, for a laptop keyboard. The keys gave good tactile feedback and did not suffer as much from the softness that afflicts most laptop keyboards. The keys are of sufficient size and we liked their positioning. We also liked that all of the primary keys remain the standard size, with the exception of the Windows keys which has been squished to make room for the Fn key. The Escape and F-keys have are half-height, but this is fairly common for laptop keyboards.
The M1730 offers a full-size numpad complete with a calculator Fn key which launches the Calculator applications in Windows. Other Fn keys include the F1 key, which puts the system in sleep mode, the F3 key which is a shortcut for the battery life application and the F8 key which toggles the video-out. Three of the arrow keys also have alternate Fn functions. The up and down arrow keys adjust screen brightness while 'right' arrow key toggles the keyboard backlighting. We did notice some keyboard sag on the left side but it only became apparent when significant pressure was applied, more pressure than you would normally use to type. Overall, the keyboard was on par with other laptop keyboards we have used and relatively pleasant to type on.
The M1730's touchpad is quite responsive and tracking was reliable. The touchpad buttons have a good, solid feel and provide nice tactile feedback as well as a satisfying click sound. We found that the touchpad was a bit too small and we wished the tracking area was larger. On the other hand, the touchpad buttons were plenty large and we wish they had been smaller to allow more room for the tracking area. The row of media keys on the front of the M1730 were well positioned and easy to access but they provided poor feedback and felt 'squishy'.
Ports & Connections
The ports on the M1730 are well positioned. We liked that most of the ports were located on the left side of the laptop since most people are right-handed and cords on the right side of the laptop could interfere with the usage of a mouse. We also liked that the laptop's four USB ports were spread out so that each side, with the exception of the front, has at least one USB port. While the optical drive was easy to access and well positioned, the tray open/close button was not very responsive and difficult to depress.
The M1730 only has one display option, a 17" glossy WUXGA (1920x1200) pixel widescreen display. This is one of the best features of the M1730. The display is fantastic and picture quality easily rivals some desktop monitors. As previously mentioned, the M1730's thick lid would allow it to house larger, higher quality backlights and that seems to be exactly what Dell decided to do. The backlighting used in the M1730's display is excellent, very bright and uniform. Viewing angles are very good for a laptop. The side-to-side angles are very wide and comparable to quality desktop monitors. The vertical angle isn't nearly as wide but still impressive for a laptop display. Color range is also very good for a laptop display and so is contrast. Blacks were deep and whites were bright and pure. Lastly, backlight leakage was minimal and we only observed a small amount from the bottom of the display.
Speakers & Sound Quality
The XPS M1730 has two speakers located on the front of the laptop. Each speaker has two 18mm drivers which can clearly be seen through the mesh speaker grills. The stereo speakers provide 10 watts of total output power. Sound quality was competent, especially for laptop speakers. We found the sound to be detailed and the sound stage was present, which is more than we can say for most laptop speakers. There was minimal distortion, even at higher volumes, and the harshness that most laptop speakers exhibit was not present. While the sound lacked bass, mids were present and the sound was relatively well balanced, rather than dominated by highs as with most laptop speakers.
As previously mentioned, the M1730 comes with a complimentary pair of Creative EP-630 in-canal earbuds. These earbuds are very popular and well reviewed. Also included are two extra sets of pads that can be changed with the set already installed on each bud. The new pads are of different sizes so it is a good idea to try them out to find the right size for your ears. We briefly tested them and found them to be quite good. Noise isolation is excellent, and the bass is out in force. Highs were good but mids lack detail. While we didn't particularly like them for music, they sounded great with movies and especially games. Overall a significant improvement compared to the M1730's speakers and decent headphones overall.
The XPS M1730 also has two headphone ports on the left side, as well as a microphone port. The extra headphone port lets you share your music or movie with a friend. These three ports can be configured to provide surround sound output in case you want to use a set of surround sound speakers with your M1730. We liked this feature since it means we can hook up surround sound speakers out of the box, without the need to purchase an external sound card or use a break-out box.
Heat & Noise
With a laptop this powerful, heat and noise are serious concerns. Our review unit is equipped with the fastest Intel mobile processor, dual video cards in SLI and a physics processor. Combined, they put out a significant amount of heat. The M1730 has large cooling vents located on its underside and most of its backside. The system has three fans total. They intake air from the bottom of the laptop and expel it out the back. We found the fans to be nearly silent. They are very difficult to hear when the system is idle and not especially noticeable, even when the system is under load. Overall, the system is fairly quiet, an impressive feat given the components it's required to cool.
While the fans were quiet and easy to live with, the optical drive was not. When the optical drive spins up to speed, the entire laptop vibrates and a significant amount of noise is produced. While this is fairly common with laptops, we thought it was especially bad on the M1730. Thankfully it's not a huge concern unless your constantly accessing the optical drive. The hard drives, on the other hand, were completely inaudible.
Considering the caliber of the components in use and the relative silence of the system's fans, we were worried that the laptop would heat up after extended use. After a couple hours of loading, during benchmarking, the M1730 remained relatively cool to the touch. The wrist rest area under the keyboard was never more than lukewarm at worst and the keyboard also remained cool. The rear of the laptop did get warm but it was nothing too concerning. We are glad that Dell did not make the mistake of positioning the exhaust vents on the left or right side of the laptop. When the system is under load, the fans do jettison a significant amount of hot air and if the exhaust vent had been on the either the left or right side of the laptop, using a mouse could have become uncomfortable.
The XPS M1730 uses a proprietary BIOS that will be familiar to Dell owners. The collapsible menu, complete with scroll bar, is easily recognizable and visually sets it apart from the Award and Phoenix derived BIOS commonly seen on OEM products.
We are a big fan of the proprietary Dell BIOSes used in their XPS machines. They all share the same basic layout and superb navigation scheme. The BIOS features a collapsible menu system and is completely self-documented. The BIOS is very approachable and user friendly, avoiding use of jargon and abbreviations. Each page also contains an explanation of the options available on the page and what they do. While the built-in documentation isn't too detailed, it actually beats the user manuals of many OEM motherboards we have seen in the past, and of course the M1730's user manual contains more information should you need it.
The BIOS screen is formated into three separated areas. The bottom of the screen contains a listing of the currently available controls while the left side is dominated by the collapsible menu. The main content appears in the center. We found the menu to be easy to use and well organized. It never took more than a few seconds to figure out where a particular option was. Overall, most of the standard options are there, such as hard drive adjustment, system information, power management options, onboard device management and boot order selection. As is typical for XPS machines, the BIOS contains more advanced options than those seen in other Dell systems.
There are nine sub-menus in the collapsible menu system; System, Onboard Devices, Video, Security, Performance, Power Management, Maintenance, POST Behavior, Wireless. The System menu contains eight pages all related to providing system information. The time, date and boot sequence settings are also found here. The Video menu has two pages which let you set the brightness of the LCD monitor when under battery power and when AC power is connected. The Maintenance menu displays your system's Service Tag and it also contains the Load Defaults option.
Of particular interest is the Performance menu which contains five pages of advanced options. The most interesting page, is titled CPU Overclock Support. This page allows you to overclock the processor by increasing the clock multiplier. We were allowed four different clock speeds to choose from, the processor's default clock speed of 2.8Ghz, and overclocked speeds of 3.0GHz, 3.2Ghz, and 3.4Ghz. Our review system is equipped with a Core 2 Extreme X7900 processor which features an unlocked multiplier. Note that M1730's equipped with a T7500 or T7700 (the other two processor options) may not have the overclocking option available since their clock multiplier is locked. Front side bus overclocking is, not surprisingly, unavailable.
The Onboard Devices menu contains a large number of options for disabling and controlling the built-in devices like the integrated LAN controller. LED options are also found in this menu. Many of the same LED options offered by the Dell Quickset utility we described on an earlier page are available here such as LED colors and intensity. Another interesting option, called Auto Power On, can be found in the Power Management menu. This option allows you to configure the system to automatically turn on at a specific time every day, or only on week days. The actual time when the system is supposed to automatically power on is adjusted on a separate page in the same menu.
The Security menu contains all of the options related to admin password and the system password. When set, the M1730 will prompt for the system password it is powered on, restarted or when it resumes from S3 standby. The admin password prohibits changes to the BIOS settings and it can also be used as a substitute for the system password. There are also several password bypass options that can be set to cause the system to bypass password prompts on warm boots (restart), and resume on standby. Lastly, the Wireless menu allows you to individually toggle Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Cellular devices if they are installed. You can also select which wireless devices the hardware wireless switch located on the right side of the laptop toggles.
Overall, we found the M1730's BIOS to be excellent. All the important options are available and then some. The internal documentation was nice and the menus are well laid out.
|Test Setup & 3DMark06 CPU|
The system was left "as delivered" for the duration of benchmarking. Nothing was installed or altered, with the exception of the necessary benchmarking software. We decided to compare the XPS M1730 to another desktop replacement laptop and several actual desktops. We decided to include the desktops in our benchmarks to give you an idea of how much power you will be able to wield on-the-go with the XPS M1730. The desktop replacement laptop we chose to compare the XPS M1730 to is the recently reviewed ASUS C90S whitebook. It was equipped with a GeForce 8600M GT, which is one of the most popular high performance mobile video cards and can be found in a large variety of performance mainstream laptops as well as many desktop replacement laptops.
To start out our testing, we began with a focus on CPU performance, utilizing FutureMark 3DMark06's CPU performance module. 3DMark06's test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of different 3D scenes that are generated with software and hardware GPU renderers, which is also dependant on the host CPU's performance. In its CPU tests, the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central processor. GPU rendering tests employ a mix of SM2.0, SM3.0 and HDR techniques and effects.
The XPS M1730's Intel Core 2 Extreme X7900 processor, running at 2.8GHz gave it the top spot in the 3DMark06 CPU benchmark. It was able to nudge out the Athlon 64 X2 6400+ by a few points and it defeated the other Core 2 Duo based systems which run at a lower frequency so it was to be expected.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage|
For our next round of benchmarks, we ran the complete Futuremark PCMark Vantage test suite. This is a relatively new addition to our testing toolbox that is proving to be an excellent overall assessment tool.
"The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics and HDD test sets with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Vista Consumer scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes CPU, Graphics, Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and a subset of Consumer Suite tests."
The PCMark Vantage "Memories" suite includes the following tests:
Memories 1 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU image manipulation and HDD picture import
The XPS M1730 ended up in second to last in our first PCMark Vantage test. This is largely due to the fact that the M1730 was using DDR2-667 memory. The desktop systems had a significant advantage since they used much faster memory and it isn't surprising that the Core 2 E6600 system came in first place since it was the only one to use DDR3 memory.
The Vantage HDD suite includes the following tests:
HDD 1 - HDD: Windows Defender
Naturally, the XPS M1730 is the fastest performer considering it is running a pair of 7,200 RPM drives in RAID0. The ASUS C90S demonstrates the kind of performance you can expect if you were to equip the M1730 without a RAID0 array. If RAID0 isn't fast enough for your taste, Dell also offers several solid state drive options for the XPS M1730.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage Continued|
We continue our test coverage with more modules from the comprehensive PCMark Vantage suite of benchmarks.
Vantage Productivity suite includes the following tests:
The Vantage Productivity test suite tells a similar story as the Communications suite. The M1730 takes first place thanks to its superior processor and hard drive speed.
Vantage TV and Movies suite includes the following tests:
TV and Movies 1
- Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server
archive, Video playback: HD DVD w/ additional lower bitrate HD content
from HDD, as downloaded from the net
For the TV & Movies test, the M1730 to finishes in the middle of the pack between the Core 2 E6600 and the Athlon 64 X2 4600+.
Vantage Music suite includes the following tests:
Music 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Web page rendering – w/ music shop content, Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage Wrap-Up|
We contunue our test coverage with the last few modules from the comprehensive PCMark Vantage suite of benchmarks.
Courtesy, Futuremark: "Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment for all ages. Today’s games demand high performance graphics cards and CPUs to avoid delays and sluggish performance while playing. Loading screens in games are yesterday’s news. Streaming data from an HDD in games – such as Alan Wake™ – allows for massive worlds and riveting non-stop action. CPUs with many cores give a performance advantage to gamers in real-time strategy and massively multiplayer games. Gaming Suite includes the following tests: "
Gaming 1 - GPU game test
This is a test where the graphics card is a major factor and it's our first taste of how the M1730 will perform in the task it was designed for. The M1730 ends up in second to last place, however that was to be expected. The GeForce 8700M GT, while relatively fast for a mobile video card, is still quite mediocre compared to a full fledged desktop GeForce 8800 GTX. We'll explore the M1730's gaming potential more on the next page.
The overall PCMark Vantage score is a weighted average of all of the modules in the Vantage suite calculated in total "PCMarks". Here are the results:
While the XPS M1730 fell behind in a couple of the Vantage test suites compared to the desktop systems, overall, it comes out on top. It's also worthy to note the lead the M1730 has on the ASUS C90S which is close to how many mainstream laptops would perform. It's quite impressive that you can take the equivalent of one of our desktop rigs with you on the go.
|Gaming Performance 1|
For our first gaming benchmarks, we'll look at the XPS M1730's performance in Futuremark's 3DMark06. For the overall score, we have compared the M1730 to several laptops we have reviewed in the past. In the rest of the benchmarks, the M1730 was compared to the ASUS C90S.
Futuremark 3DMark06 shows that the XPS M1730 is vastly superior in terms of performance than any of the laptops we have previously reviewed. The difference in performance between the M1730 and its predecessor, the M1710 is especially interesting. The M1710's single GeForce Go 7950 GTX is no match for the M1730's dual GeForce 8700M GTs in SLI. Note that the XPS M1730 and ASUS C90S were both running Windows Vista while all of the other systems were configured with Windows XP.
Here we can see the advantage that the M1730 has in performance over what can be considered a mid-range laptop that isn't gaming oriented. The 8600M GT used by the ASUS C90S is one of the most popular video cards seen in higher end laptops and this test gives us a good idea of where the M1730 stands in comparison.
|Gaming Performance 2|
In our gaming tests, we opted to focus on performance comparisons with the ASUS C90S, which is most closely related to the Dell XPS M1730. The desktop systems used in our previous tests would be heavily favored with their GeForce 8800GTX, so testing wasn't performed.
Admittedly the ASUS C90S isn't much of a competitor for the XPS M1730. The M1730 has a faster processor, and a faster video card, times two. At both resolutions, the M1730 mops the floor with the ASUS C90S, easily achieving double the C90S' performance. However, this was to be expected. Of greater focus is the solo performance. The M1730 remained highly playable at all resolutions and while we did not benchmark it with AA and AF on, it was able to run Company of Heroes just fine with them enabled.
We see a similar performance with Prey. Here, the M1730 is even stronger, beating the E6700 and 8600M GT equipped C90S by much more than double. Once again, the M1730 is able to handle the game just fine at all resolutions with all settings cranked to max.
|Hardware Accelerated Physics|
A highly advertised feature of the XPS M1730 is that it is the first laptop to have a dedicated physics processor. A physics processing unit, or PPU, is a dedicated chip that is designed to offload physics related processing from the CPU. Essentially, a PPU does for physics calculations what a GPU does for 3D graphics. AGEIA PhysX 100M mobile physics processing unit comes as standard equipment on all M1730s and provides the same features as the desktop version we first looked at over a year ago.
However, the decision to make the PhysX card standard equipment, rather than optional, raises a bit of controversy stemming from the lack of widespread PC game support for AGEIA's PhysX PPU. One of the biggest problems with PhysX is its slow adoption and the lack of supporting games. It is difficult to justify the purchase of a dedicated physics processing card when only a small handful of games support them. Surely your money would be better spent on a beefier video card or another stick of RAM? And therein lies much of the objection to Dell's decision to make the PhysX card mandatory.
The above list is taken from the AGEIA website and as you can see, there aren't very many PhysX supporting titles available for the PC. However, there are a couple big names on the short list including both installments in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter series. The XPS M1730 ships with a copy of the second game in the series so you can make use of that PhysX processor right out of the box.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 (GRAW2) incorporates PhysX physics processing in two ways. First, hardware physics processing can be enabled to enhance the standard software processing. Enabling hardware acceleration for physics processing enhances the visual quality of physics in-game and it also increases the amount and diversity of physics-related visual effects. Explosions are more impressive and debris effects are bigger and more realistic. However, the most exciting is a special level called AGEIA Island that can only be accessed on machines with an AGEIA PhysX card.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 (AGEIA Island)
AGEIA Island is a unique level in GRAW2 that showcases what PhysX can do and more importantly it demonstrates the potential of interactive physics. Unlike other levels in GRAW2, AGEIA Island features destructible terrain. Every structure, tree and fence can be shot, damaged and destroyed in fantastic, realistic ways. The three screenshots above demonstrate the joy of explosives on AGEIA Island.
While AGEIA Island is fun, it's still only a single level. More recently Unreal Tournament 3 was released and with it, the PhysX mod-pack. The PhysX mod-pack includes tools for developing maps that incorporate interactive physics as well as two pre-made maps called Lighthouse and Tornado. This mod pack has been in development for some and and we first heard about it in mid-2006.
The basic premise behind the PhysX mod-pack levels for Unreal Tournament 3 is the same as that for AGEIA Island. A level which incorporates interactive physics and destructible terrain. However, the mod-pack levels have a couple extra tricks. First, the mod-pack alters the way the Shock Rifle's secondary fire works. It still shoots a blue orb, but now the orb attracts surrounding debris to it and flying debris can cause damage to players. Another trick is found in the second of the two pre-made levels.
Unreal Tournament 3 (Tornado)
The Tornado map is aptly named because it features an active tornado. The huge whirlwind travels through the level sucking things up as it goes; including you if you're not careful. Like a real tornado, it also launches debris in all directions and if something strikes you on its way down, your dead. The tornado doesn't just pick up players and debris, it also effects projectiles like rockets shot from the rocket launcher. Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable map that really displays what PhysX is all about.
While PhysX can be quite impressive when properly supported and implemented in a game, the fact remains that support is extremely limited. Outside of the very short list of games at the top of this page, you will see no benefits from having a PhysX card in your system. While it's nice that Dell has included a copy of GRAW2 with the system to compliment the PhysX card, it doesn't justify the PhysX card on its own. Ultimately, we wish the PhysX card was optional in case none of the supported games interested the buyer.
Rounding out our testing, we ran MobileMark 2007 to assess the notebook's overall battery life while running a series of applications through a testing script.
We are using the standard benchmark settings from Bapco, along with a few other minor system tweaks. The screensaver was disabled and the volume was set at approximately 20%.
MobileMark 2007 utilizes the following applications
The Dell XPS M1730 provided a bit over an hour and a quarter worth of battery life. While battery performance was poor for an average laptop, the M1730 gave a relatively unnoteworthy performance for a desktop replacement laptop as well. While we weren't pleasantly surprised, we aren't particularly disappointed with the M1730's battery life either. With a Core 2 Extreme processor, dual video cards and dual hard drives, battery life is what we expected. A gaming laptop like the XPS isn't really meant for long term untethered use. Most people in the market for a high performance gaming laptop want it for occasional portability and the ability to easily move their rig from place to place without worrying about a whole bunch of wires. For that purpose, the XPS M1730 will do just fine.
Note that the battery performance in this test pertains to light-weight productivity work, such as web surfing, word processing and checking your email. Battery performance while gaming is likely to be significantly worse. Once again, that is to be excepted and is on par with other gaming laptops of this caliber. Besides, you can't get in 'the zone' with your favorite game while riding on the bus anyway.
|Impressions, Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Analysis: Performance of the M1730 is mostly what we had expected given our system's specifications. The M1730 was able to perform just as well, if not better, than several loaded desktop systems in our tests. While the M1730 can't compete with a high end desktop system equipped with a full fledged GeForce 8800 GTX at this time, it comes relatively close. All of that available in a mobile platform is pretty impressive. The M1730 will also only get better with time since a GeForce 8800M GTX upgrade is in the works. While we suspect that dual GeForce 8800M GTXs in SLI will raise the price of the system quite a bit, it will allow the M1730 to take on serious competition and go toe-to-toe with some desktop systems of the highest caliber. But for the time being, you'll simply have to settle for great gaming performance, rather than the absolute best.
The XPS M1730 is Dell's new flagship mobile gaming system for good reasons. Everything about this system is in line with what we've come to expect from a gaming laptop. From the top-shelf specifications to the unique paint job and lighting effects, the M1730 fits right in with the exotic laptops from the gaming boutiques.
Compared to the aging M1710 it replaces, the XPS M1730 is faster, better equipped and better looking. This notebook offers a tantalizing selection of top-shelf components like the Intel Core 2 Extreme mobile processor, Blu-ray, dual hard drives, dual GeForce 8700M GTs in SLI and a gorgeous, glossy 17" widescreen monitor. While all this mobile gaming power doesn't come cheap, with the sufficiently equipped base model starting at $2,699, the M1730 is at least more affordable than comparable laptops from the boutique brands.
The overall presentation and packaging of the system is comparable to other systems in this league and we liked the gamer oriented styling. We think the M1730's chassis looks great with its extensive LED lighting system and unique paint job. The system not only pleased our eyes, but with its low fan noise and excellent speakers (for a laptop), it pleased our ears too. The M1730 also has excellent thermal management and never got more than lukewarm to the touch, even when under load.
Easy gripes with the M1730 are its bulky dimensions and hefty 12lb weight, but that is the sacrifice you make for this level of performance and you're unlikely to find SLI in a more portable platform. In return for some of the extra weight, you get a highly durable magnesium chassis and a sturdy laptop lid. While the AC adapter has a quality look and feel, its sheer mass was hard to live with and combined with the weight of the M1730 in a laptop bag, things became a literal drag.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the Dell XPS M1730 is a very powerful system. Considering the price, it had better be. What was surprising is how mature Dell's mobile XPS system has become. While previous mobile XPS systems such as the M1710 felt like beefed up Inspirons with ground effects, the XPS M1730 is a complete gaming solution. Dell has obviously spent a considerable amount of time designing the M1730 from the ground up to be a mobile gaming dream system and they have succeeded.