Introduction

There's been a mantra associated with laptops pretty much since they came into being: if you're looking to build the fastest computer possible, get a desktop; the only reason to get a laptop is if you want mobility more than anything else, because laptops are always slower than equivalent desktops. While that statement is still true for the most part, the difference between top-performing desktop systems and top-performing laptops has been diminishing for many years. With NVIDIA working on mobile SLI solutions, we are nearing the point where the major difference between desktop systems and laptops is going to be price. Today marks the launch of NVIDIA's GeForce Go 7900 offerings, ranging from the 7900 256MB GPUs up through 7900 GTX 512MB configurations.

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Unlike the desktop market, it is extremely difficult (actually impossible at present) to review a mobile graphics offering without getting a laptop built around the new GPU. The good news is that Dell sent us their new XPS M1710 with the top-end 7900 GTX 512MB chip, so we have a chance to see exactly what the new mobile graphics "king" brings to the table. Dell didn't stop with stuffing in the fastest mobile graphics chip either; they've decked out the system with a flashy appearance, Intel's fastest mobile processor, 2GB of DDR2 memory, and a huge 17 inch widescreen display with a native 1920x1200 resolution. Clearly, this isn't a notebook targeting the Thin and Light market, but rather it's going after the Desktop Replacement (DTR) segment.

When it comes to computers, just about every person in the world has heard of Dell. Some people love them, some people hate them, and many of their competitors likely fear them. Dell is much maligned in the hardware enthusiast community, and though they have certainly deserved it at times, it's important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Dell manufactures and sells literally millions of computers per year, and when you deal in that sort of volume, with product markets targeting everything from the value segment up through the high-end servers, there are bound to be better products and worse products. Most knowledgeable people realize that there's no such thing as a perfect system that will fill the needs of every individual; a system needs to be tailored to fit the usage requirements of the user, and as often as not that is where people run into problems when dealing with large OEMs.

It is extremely unlikely that any hardware enthusiast would be thrilled to get the latest value desktop system from Dell, just like a classic car buff probably isn't going to be happy fixing up a 1970 Ford Pinto. In fact, there are plenty of people that would never want any form of Dell computer -- for example, overclocking enthusiasts will find that Dell simply chooses not to cater to them at all. We need to keep things in perspective, though, because not everyone wants to overclock; many people will be perfectly happy with an inexpensive, reasonably performing, reliable computer.

Getting back to the topic at hand, laptops are a market that's quite different from the world of desktop enthusiasts. Balancing performance and features against weight, size, and battery life gives manufacturers plenty of opportunities to configure their laptops to fit specific needs. It doesn't require much deductive reasoning to determine that this particular laptop focuses more on improving performance and offering higher end features than on longer battery life or size, so what we're primarily interested in determining is how this system fares as a mobile gaming platform.

In order to keep the document size manageable and bring you the latest reviews in a timely fashion, we're going to review this laptop in two parts. This first part will focus primarily on the external appearance, overall system performance, features, and battery life. We'll be following up with a second article that will spend more time looking at the included software, construction, and some additional benchmarks.

Basic Features
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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, April 20, 2006 - link

    I received the following email, and thought the response would be useful for others:

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    Thank you for the informative article on the Dell Gaming system. I was curious on if you know how this Laptop: http://www.sagernotebook.com/pages/go_np5950.html">http://www.sagernotebook.com/pages/go_np5950.html would stack up to the Dell system. I am thinking of purchasing a gaming laptop and would like to know if you have had any experience with the sager systems vs. the Dell systems. Would the SLI in the sager give me twice the performance of the Dell?
    -----------

    I haven't used the Sager system, but let me just provide the few comments looking at the specs.

    First, SLI pretty much never gives you twice the performance, and on that system it has the older 7800 GTX cards instead of the new 7900 GTX card. That means that the cards are clocked slower. Going along with that, 7800 cards are built using a 110 nm process, while the 7900 is built using a 90 nm process. The smaller process results in lower power requirements and thus lower heat out. The end result is that I'm sure the Sager system will be hotter, and while it might be a bit faster I'm not sure it's worth it. There are other issues I see as well.

    Dual core Athlon 64 processors compete very well with Intel's Core Duo processors. AMD Turion processors are at present only single core. That may not matter a whole lot right now, but I would again give the advantage to the M1710.

    In terms of size, that Sager system is a real beast. 15 pounds with a battery pack means it's about 50% heavier than the Dell. That may not matter much to you, but I certainly wouldn't want to have to carry that laptop around a lot. Periodically toting it between two locations would be fine, but hauling that thing around a trade show or university campus wouldn't be my idea of a good time.

    Finally, the Sager system has a larger display (19 inch widescreen) but a lower resolution. The Dell system can run practically any game (*NOT* FEAR and Oblivion struggles at times with maximum detail setttings) at native resolution with a single 7900 GTX card. If you're going to have a 15 pound "laptop" then you might as well have a 1920x1200 resolution as well. It also ships default with 1 GB of RAM and a smaller, slightly slower hard drive.

    When I look at all the aspects together, as well as the final price, that particular system doesn't look like a great deal -- and besides, it's still in preorder status. I'm sure there will be 7900 SLI laptops available shortly, so if you really want the added heat and add performance of SLI, that's what I would wait for. I would also insist on some form of dual core processor, but that's personal preference.

    Regards,
    Jarred Walton
    Hardware Editor
    AnandTech.com
    Reply
  • Anemone - Sunday, April 23, 2006 - link

    Further comparison thoughts vs the SLI system:

    I will reinforce that dual core is going to be more and more useful in the coming year, even in games. If you online game, which can run other comm processes in the background it is already useful to have dual cores.

    64 bit dual core by dropping in Merom is going to add 20-30% to your 1710's ability. Expensive yes, but damn nice to know.

    This laptop series from the Gen2 to the M170 and now this, have a decent track record of at least one gpu upgrade, sometimes two. It is entirely likely (watch the news as it comes if I'm wrong I apologize) that you'll see the current Gen2/170 series be able to go to the 7900GTX. It is not illogical to think that the 1710 should be able to go to the G80. There aren't enough details yet to say what the G80 will give you, but the ability to add Merom and the likely ability to go one next generation GPU up is a fantastic (albeit expensive) ability to have in a gaming laptop.

    4gb of memory limit. The SLI machine has only 2 as the limit. Even then it may well drop timings at 2gb to 2T (unsure). Even if it does not, when Vista comes out 2gb is going to feel like cramped. The Vista OS can eat as much as 800mb of your memory for the OS alone, and we haven't even seen the memory footprint of DX10/WGF 2.x. For a regular user, this is a liveable issue and thus most machines at 2gb limit will be ok. But for a gamer, the experience could be very frustrating, as hardrive memory extension in the laptop arena is sloooowwwwwww. So 4gb is another reason to go with the 1710, not for right now, but for later.

    Heat kills. Dual SLI is going to be pretty toasty. Ask anyone who has a P4 based notebook and they can tell you that over time, the extra heat eventually kills parts of the machine. There is a long time user satisfaction reason that Dell and others have gone the way of Centrino coupled with a single high end GPU like the 7800/7900. The heat can be controlled and keeps it from getting nasty with other components. This has the effect of allowing the entire system to live longer, especially since gamers are rarely the type to pick up their laptop and use it for 20 min then shut it down, lol. Long use, upping the heat levels and long term durability/reliability are good partners with low heat production, another pick that says the 1710 is better than the SLI machine.

    $.02
    Reply
  • Anemone - Sunday, April 23, 2006 - link

    I'm sorry for some of the bad wording above. I didn't reread carefully enough. :(
    Reply
  • RichUK - Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - link

    Is this supposed to be a mobile platform, lol...

    Also, those lights need to be stripped out straight away!!
    Reply
  • timmiser - Thursday, April 20, 2006 - link

    Nah, keep the lights. The lights are my favorite part! This is a gaming laptop so if you're looking for something a bit more formal and energy effecient, don't look at this baby.

    Reply
  • coster - Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - link

    You guys have a Dell 3007wfp 30" in the house you can test on the unit to see if it Dual link video card? The 7900 GO's plzzz :) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - link

    No. :( ASAIK, it is single-link only, but I'm trying to get confirmation from Dell for Pt. 2. Reply
  • spinportal - Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - link

    Can someone explain or point me to web references on which is faster and why?

    DDR2-533 @ 4-4-4-12 timings
    vs.
    DDR2-667 @ 5-5-5-15 timings

    I would think the DDR2-533 would be better, but I need a proof.
    Reply
  • spinportal - Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - link

    The reason I state this is simple; the author failed to produce timing specs for the DDR2-667 for the M1710. Come on, its 5-5-5-15, put it up as its labeled on the SODIMM or CPU-Z reports it as. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - link

    The installed DDR2 is actually rated at:

    3-3-3-9 DDR2-400
    4-4-4-12 DDR2-533
    5-5-5-15 DDR2-667

    It is running at 5-5-5-15 at present (not sure if the BIOS will allow me to change that). However, think in terms of latency.

    200 MHz base speed with 3 cycle latency = 15 ns
    266 MHz base speed with 4 cycle latency = 15 ns
    333 MHz base speed with 5 cycle latency = 15 ns

    Given that latencies are the same in all three cases, the added bandwidth ought to offer a slight performance increase. I would guess the difference is at best 2%, though, and often less than even that.
    Reply

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