Review unit on loan from Dell.
Gaming laptops are tricky business, aren’t they? The idea of having a portable games machine boasting a powerful graphics card is bloody tempting, but it usually comes with an attached price-tag that would make most people have a heart attack. For the same price you can usually pick up a much more powerful desktop computer, and while it’s a bit harder to lug around the truth is a gaming laptop is kind of useless at actually gaming on the go due to the battery power dropping through the floor. However, having something you can plug in at home, play some games on and then take with you to work is appealing for a lot of folk.
Let’s kick off with the very worst of the laptop, shall we? Everything about the Dell Inspiron’s 15.6″ IPS display falls squarely into the, “It’s okay, I guess” category. The 1920×1080 resolution is frankly a perfect choice for the display size and for gaming performance – although you can opt for a 4k display you spend a bit more cash, something I wouldn’t bother with – but the quality of the images simply isn’t very good. Bear in mind that I’m not using any professional measurements tools here, rather I’m just going by my eye, but the colors lack any depth or punch, with things that should be crimson looking more like a dull red and what should be vivid greens looking like they have the flu. The only good thing I can say is that the black levels were reasonable. Sadly that isn’t enough to make movies and games look their best. Which isn’t to say they look bad, mind you, just…dissapointing.
At least the audio performs better with the little speakers managing to come across surprisingly clear and even being able to fill a small room if you ramp up the volume. I’d still generally recommend plugging in a pair of headphones, but if you fancy letting your ears air out a little then the speakers will do just fine, although the bass is a bit muddled. That’s not surprising, though.
The Inspiron is also a bit bigger and heavier than you might expect for a 15″ laptop. The dimensions are (H) 24.95mm (0.98in) x (W) 389mm (15.32in) x (D) 274.7mm (10.82in) with a total weight of about 2.65kg, not counting the power brick and charging cord. It doesn’t fit very well into most 15″ laptop bags as a result.
To be fair to the chunky beast, though, it’s packing some reasonable hardware. The model I got in for testing might not have the very latest 8th generation Intel processor, but it’s still rocking an Intel i7-7700HQ which is quite sufficient for everyday tasks and gaming. That’s paired with a 6GB GTX 1060 MAX-Q that comes impressively close to standard GTX 1060 performance, and then it’s all topped off with 16GB of 2400Mhz DDR4 RAM. This package comes in at £1,400 on the Dell website, with prices starting at £899 for the cheapest spec.
Storage is no slouch either. The 256GB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD isn’t really big enough to hold much of your Steam library, but it’s pretty fast when it comes to running around the pre-installed Windows 10 with applications and menus all opening up smartly. To whack all your games, music, movies, pictures and other junk on there’s a 1tb HDD as well which did feel a bit slow when it came to loading games but was still solid.
You also get a backlit chiclet keyboard. You only get a white backlight, but it can be adjusted using the FN keys, and on the whole the keyboard is quite reasonable. The keys don’t have a lot of travel which means they don’t feel great, at least based on my own preferences, but typing out this review was never an issue and my typing speed didn’t suffer at all. There’s also a generous amount of room for your wrists to rest, too.
The trackpad doesn’t feel as good as some of the metal or glass ones I’ve used before, Dell instead opting to go for a standard plastic design. I would also have liked some tactile distinction between the left and right clicks, but these two things aside it feels quite nice, is responsive and never seemed to mess up.
In terms of connections, there’s an SD card reader, a combined headphone/microphone jack, a Gigabit Ethernet port, three USB3.1 connections and a HDMI slot so that you can hook it up to an external screen. Your wifi connection is handled via an Intel 8265 Wireless Card.
You even get a fingerprint scanner built into the power button that can be turned on through Windows Hello, and it works pretty well. The only flaw is that unlike my phone’s fingerprint scanner which turns on the device as soon as I touch it, you first have to press the power button on the laptop and then touch your finger to it in order to wake it up. Ah well.
Right, let’s get into the juicy stuff; gaming on this little beast. I put it through a variety of games, all running at 1080p with the laptop plugged in for maximum power delivery. There are a couple of things we need to note; Wolfenstein runs on Vulkan and thus my standard FRAPS benchmark wouldn’t work, so the average FPS was recorded using OCAT, a nice little piece of software that presents a lot of information regarding frame times and percentiles, but I need to become better at using it to establish minimum and maximum framerates, so for now all we have is the average. As for Hitman I ignored the built-in-benchmark in favor of simply going for a stroll through the opening Paris level where hundreds of NPCs do a good job of pushing the hardware. As for The Witcher 3, the test was done by simply through the countryside into Novigrad, while in Mad Max I went and hunted down a roving convoy for some nice wheel-to-wheel combat. The Phantom Pain was a simple run and gun around an airport. Everything else was tested using their in-built benchmarking tools.
What we see is that for the 1080p screen the GTX 1060 is an outstanding choice, able to run the games I tested at damn near 60FPS with everything maxed out. To achieve that nice, stable framerate you’re going to want to play with the settings, but for the most part the GPU and CPU handled everything nicely. Hitman can be a challenging game as its optimization isn’t great and it does tend to favor AMD hardware, but even that got impressive results. The only games it truly struggled on were Ashes of the Singularity and The Witcher 3.
To get this performance it’s important to note that you’re going to need the laptop to be plugged in, because even with all power plan settings and Nvidia settings tweaked to allow max performance it seems the battery simply can’t deliver enough juice to the graphics card, resulting in a notable drop in performance as the battery strangles the laptop. F1 2017, for example, dropped to around 22FPS when running at the highest settings. Of course, I can’t entirely rule out that I something missed something as no other reviews seem to mention this, but then it’s fairly standard to run benchmarks with the laptop plugged in for obvious reasons.
This made testing the battery during gaming an interesting dilemma as I spent a while debating whether to run games at the highest settings and tweak the power options so that it was delivering all the power it possibly could, but in the end I opted to keep the power plan at its default settings and drop the games I played down to achieve actually playable framerates. To that end I tested the battery with the screen at 100% brightness while playing Wolfenstein: The New Colossus and Mad Max, getting a grand total of 1h 15m before the laptop shut down at 10% remaining. There’s nothing amazing or disappointing about that runtime as it’s about normal, but the significant hit that performance takes while running on battery does mean that for portable gaming it’s not that great which really makes me doubt the usefulness of the product as a whole. With that said, if what you want is something you can play games on at home, then unplug and take with you for general Internet browsing it’s going to be fine.
There is a potential upgrade solution in the form of a Thunderbolt 3 port which allows you to attach an external GPU. It’s not exactly a cost-effective method of upgrading your laptop down the line, but it’s generally cheaper than buying a whole new card.
Where there was a surprise, and not in a good way, was testing the battery life while watching a looped 1080p movie with the screen at 100% brightness and a set of headphones plugged in. At just a shade over four hours the battery seemed to die much quicker than I expected, and checking other reviews seems to indicate that it should have lasted around five hours, although the max screen brightness and powering of the headphones could potentially account for this.
As for heat generation and noise, SpeedFan detected tempratures of around 62c from both the GPU and CPU, which are reasonable enough and the area where your hands sit didn’t get overly hot, something which other laptops can do. Oddly the default power plan when on battery mode leaves the cooling passive, which is fine if you’re just doing easy stuff, but obviously if you do fire up a game on the go it’s advisable to turn cooling onto the Active setting.
Once the fans start kicking in the Inspiron does start to get noisy like any other laptop, but I didn’t think it was any worse than normal.
With all of this said and done it’s a tricky machine to recommend. The screen is a major drawback and the battery life isn’t that strong. However, what you do get is a powerful GPU and CPU combination capable of running modern titles at quite high settings, and for the specs you’re getting a surprisingly good deal compared to other laptops. For the same price most others have a weaker i5 processor or come with the 3GB GTX 1060 instead of the 6GB model that this model has stuffed inside of it.
That’s quite a few positives and negatives, then. In the end, though, I think I can give this one a recommendation, albeit a slightly cautious one. If you can accept the somewhat lackluster screen then you’re getting a powerful gaming laptop for the money, and while the battery may not be superb, for some general use throughout the day it should hold up. Just be prepared to stick on it charge for an hour or two at the end of a long day.
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