Dell Studio XPS 16 offers luxury laptop on a budget

The Dell Studio XPS line emphasizes style without sacrificing functionality. These multimedia laptops have a bit of leather trim here, a backlit keyboard there–and a whole lot of plugs, ports, and features packed in.
The Studio XPS 16 is in a prime position to outmuscle one competitor, the slick but slightly flawed Gateway MC7803u. The Dell’s advantage speaks to the idea that you can get a little luxury in your laptop without having to shell out a fortune.

The polished looks and edge-to-edge glass of the MC7803u make Gateway‘s $999 all-purpose box seem a little more premium than its guts actually are. In contrast, Dell’s classy Studio XPS 16 starts at $1199 (as of 1/8/09), $200 higher than Gateway’s offering, and that shows in its build quality and construction (which I’ll get to in a bit).

But it has more substantial possibilities, too: The blingy, premium version of the Studio XPS 16 that we received for testing offers significantly more than the Gateway machine does–at a significantly higher price (our review unit sells for roughly $1804 as of 1/8/09, according to spokespeople). In truth, it would probably be fairer to compare Dell’s beefed-up box with the HP HDX 16, which tips the scales on price, but offers comparable features.

Inside our Studio XPS 16, a 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 CPU, a 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3670 graphics processor, and 4GB of RAM run the 64-bit flavor of Windows Vista. We’re awaiting performance results from the PC World Test Center, and will update this review with numbers and a rating as soon as they’re available.

What I can tell you in the meantime is that I had no problem playing Fallout 3 and Left 4 Dead at the screen’s native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. That unusually strong performance for an all-purpose laptop may be due to the capable mobile graphics processor, or to the laptop’s speedy, 7200-rpm, 320GB hard drive (whose fast rotational speed enables better read/write performance during game play).

Images looked sharp on the laptop’s RGB LED screen. Provided that you don’t have bright daylight bouncing off the colorful and glossy display, you’re in for a treat. Inky blacks, such as in the creepy corners of Left 4 Dead’s zombiethon, look deep and rich. And the sand-blasted landscapes of Fallout 3 pop off the screen.

The sound of the Studio XPS 16, on the other hand, falls a little flat. Two speaker grilles flank the keyboard. Though you can sit for a spell and listen, the audio comes off as hollow. I had no issues with the volume level, though; the laptop’s sound became loud enough to disturb my cubemates.
Besides extra audio outputs, the Studio XPS 16 has a number of nice input options around the sides. You get two USB ports and one shared eSATA/USB jack, and DisplayPort, HDMI-out, and VGA-out jacks cover all possible video needs.

In addition, it sports a four-pin FireWire 400 port, a five-in-one flash memory card reader, a 2-megapixel Webcam, an ExpressCard slot, and a slot-loading Blu-ray Disc drive. Our review unit came with both a six-cell battery and a nine-cell battery for the price.

The operative word with the Studio XPS 16 is “extras.” In addition to all the hardware hoopla, it has you pretty well covered on the software side.

Included in the price is Microsoft Works 9, a 2GB Data Safe Online account (free for one year), and a slick little facial-recognition security suite that uses the laptop’s Webcam to drive the biometric security. And everything from the software to the online storage is accessible through an unobtrusive quick-launch bar at the top of the screen.

Not only is the Studio XPS 16 packed with features, but it also boasts a reasonably sharp-looking design. Earlier, I mentioned that this machine and its siblings are Dell’s answer to Gateway’s MC series. If you were to put the two open laptops side by side, you’d see that the Studio XPS 16 one-ups the MC7803u. The two laptops share similar backlit and square-cut keyboards, but on the Studio XPS 16 the keys feel a little more satisfyingly solid. The same can be said for the Dell’s nicely positioned touchpad and backlit mouse buttons.
Like the MC7803u, this machine sports edge-to-edge glass on the display. The difference here is that Dell locks down the screen by bolting the hinges firmly into both sides of the bezel. In the end, even from a quick glance at the Studio XPS 16, you can see what the $200 difference buys you.

Oh, just so don’t you think I’m completely in love with Dell’s design, I did spy one head-scratcher: The leather pad on the lid adds a classy two-tone touch, but it’s also a little silly. I’d rather have that leather on the wrist rest.

Dell’s Studio XPS 16 is squarely aimed at people who want to get a little more for their entertainment buck; it’s a solidly built multimedia machine that piles on features without breaking the bank.

Though we don’t have the final results to back our statements up just yet, Dell’s Studio XPS 16 looks to be a solid choice for gaming and movies, as well as getting the job done, while keeping costs within reason.

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