17-in. laptops with big screens, low prices

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

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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.

At a Glance

Satellite L555

Toshiba

Price (as tested): $700

Pros: Best price, light travel weight, eSATA connector, multimedia controls with volume thumbwheel

Cons: Touchpad is hard to see, no Bluetooth or ExpressCard slot, keyboard flexes too much, screen wobbles

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.

How I tested

To see how these three 17-in. notebooks match up against one another, I started by measuring and weighing each, counting how many ports each has and looking into the features that each offers.

After that I tested their performance and endurance. First I timed how long each system took to start up before I installed any extra software onto its hard drive. Then I loaded and ran PassMark Software's PerformanceTest 7.0, which exercises all the major components and provides an overall score that indicates the system's performance potential.

To see how well the graphics and screen worked together, I ran a copy of Auran's Trainz Simulator 2009, a resource-heavy railroad simulation. With the train set to full speed, I checked for choppiness and background detail, and then ran it overnight to see if the system (not the train) crashed.

I also checked out each machine's Wi-Fi range by connecting it to a Linksys WRT54G wireless router and loading an Internet radio station. Then I slowly walked away until the notebook lost its signal, which I recorded as its range.

After making sure the battery was fully charged, I installed and opened PassMark's BatteryMon and ran the battery down by playing an Internet radio station with the system's audio level set to three quarters.

Finally, for those who want to travel with these behemoths, I tried fitting them into a Brenthaven laptop bag with a padded insert to protect the notebook; it's a custom bag that's designed for 15-in. systems but can also accommodate 17-inchers. All three laptops fit in the bag, but the Aspire 7738 was the hardest to get in and out.

Performance results

Acer Aspire 7738

Dell Inspiron 1750

Toshiba Satellite L555

Start-up time (min:sec)

1:07

1:18

2:24

PerformanceTest 7.0 score*

725.1

765.4

706.8

Battery life with Wi-Fi (hr:min)

2:26

2:40

2:20

Wi-Fi range (feet)

125

125

105

* Higher is better

Conclusions

If this review were concerned with only one criterion, it would be easy to pick a winner. For overall features, the Aspire is head and shoulders above the rest, but it's heavy. Based on price, the Satellite has no equal, but its performance is hardly inspiring. The Inspiron leads in performance but is the most expensive of the three.

But notebooks are not one-trick ponies. To be effective at home and at the office, they need to deliver the goods in several different areas. While none of these three stands out as an obvious leader, I'd love to see what Acer, Dell and Toshiba come up with when they replace these models in about half a year.

That said, the Satellite L555's $700 price tag is tough to pass up for so much computer. Some buyers will prefer the Aspire 7738's extra features or the Inspiron 1750's performance, but I'm a cheapskate at heart. At $700, my choice would be to live with the Satellite's shortcomings and laugh all the way to the bank.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

This story, "17-in. laptops with big screens, low prices" was originally published by Computerworld.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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