Dell Inspiron e1705 as a Gaming Notebook with nVidia Go 7900GS (pics, specs)

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Introduction

I still love my old notebook — five years ago, I received a Compaq Presario 700us, and despite its problems it got me through college. Last year, I upgraded the CPU to an Athlon 1.2Ghz and finished my thesis work in Computer Science. Even with the upgrade it is still not fast enough — the low end integrated video card assures that it will never run any game made in the last 5 years.

With the summer approaching, I decided it was time for a proper upgrade. After dipping into the savings account, this came in a box several days later:

Dell Inspiron E1705

  • Processor 1.86 Ghz Core Duo
  • Memory 512MB DDR553 (upgraded to 2GB DDR667)
  • Video Geforce Go 7900GS 256MB (core 375Mhz, memory 507Mhz)
  • Screen 17in WUXGA Truelife LCD (LG LP171WU1)
  • Hard drive 80GB Hitachi 5k100
  • Optical drive Philips DVD+-R SDVD8820
  • Network Broadcom 440x 10/100
  • Intel Pro/Wireless 3945ABG
  • Dell 350 Bluetooth (2.0 + EDR)
Reasons for Buying

There were two major factors driving my computer selection — I wanted to play Bethesda’s Oblivion, and I will be working in Computer Graphics this fall. I knew from the beginning that I’d get a notebook even though I could save a few hundred by building a desktop myself — for the past four years I’ve been taking my old notebook home from college (a few thousand miles away) and the freedom of always having my games, music and development environment with me has been priceless.

After the integrated S3 Twister in my Compaq, I vowed never to get a computer with integrated graphics ever again (even though the quality of such solutions has improved tremendously). In fact, my requirements were even more specific — the video card had to be able to run games at the display’s native resolution, support at least PS 2.0 and have good OpenGL drivers. A dual core processor would be nice, and I wanted the ability to monitor the system temperature — my Compaq heats up a lot, but I can never be sure if it is still running within the specifications. I wanted the computer to be at most $2000 and as light as possible.

Given my requirements, I narrowed my selection to three notebooks —

  • Sager 5760 Core Duo, Geforce 7900GTX 512 MB, 17in widescreen
  • HP DV8000t Core Duo, Geforce 7600 256MB, 17in widescreen
  • Dell E1705 Core Duo, Geforce 7900GS 256MB, 17in widescreen

I really wanted that Sager — it seemed like the perfect notebook — top of the line graphics, easy to upgrade CPU and GPU, and just an awesome build. However, I could not justify the cost. The base model is $1900 from a Sager reseller and I’d have to spend more to upgrade the CPU and the memory. I decided to order the HP after much deliberation even though the GPU is slower. For a configuration similar to the Sager, the HP was $700 cheaper and I had worked too long for that money to throw it on a premium video card. However, there was a problem with my bank account and the order with HP never went through. I couldn’t be happier.

Buying

That same night, I configured the Dell for the same price as the HP, but with the significantly better 7900GS GPU, after applying a $750-off coupon. I bought the notebook from www.dell.com and used a coupon listed on www.notebookreview.com/dellCoupons.asp. It wasn’t easy. It turned out the coupon applied only to specific E1705 configurations — E1705s1, E1705s2, E1705s4 and E1705s5, but that wasn’t obvious at first. Also, these configurations are not fully customizable — the s1 is only a Core Solo, the s4 (or was it the s5?) can’t be configured with 512MB ram (I planned to buy 2GB from www.newegg.com), etc. Eventually, I chose the s2 model, which was preconfigured with a two-year warranty, but all hardware options were available. In the end, I’m pretty happy with what I got for my $1430 (including tax). It is not the best deal around — some people have bought a similar configuration for $1250, but the extended warranty might be useful and I wasn’t willing to wait for a less restrictive coupon.

Build

I find the design of the laptop to be excellent, both aesthetically and functionally. For me looks are secondary as this is a machine for programming and gaming, not impressing people.

The first impression (view large image)

The first time I saw it, my reaction was : “Oh boy, that’s big”. Since then, I’ve gotten used to it and now I view my old laptop as too small. The Dell is light for its size and sits perfectly on my knees. I’ll mention this again later on, but the air intake vents are on three sides of the laptop (bottom, side and top), so that even if the ones on the bottom are blocked, there still seems to be sufficient airflow. The case is very sturdy and seems to be made of hard plastic or an alloy of some sort. The hinges hold the display very well, and the display casing seems quite strong. There are no ripples when I push on the back of the display case and even though it is possible to twist it a little from the top corners, that is to be expected on such a wide screen. Overall, I can pick up the notebook with confidence that it will last years of careful use. In contrast, my old Presario had such thin plastic that the LCD shattered after a bump, even though the laptop was in a sturdy briefcase.

The E1705 is very easy to maintain, hardware wise. To get inside, you only have to pop off the panel above the keyboard, and there are two screws holding the keyboard. Take those off, and you are inside. Next, the display has to be removed, as well as the top of the base case. At this point, there is access to the CPU, GPU, fans and heat sinks. Upgrading to a Core 2 Duo should be a breeze. Note that the fans are separate from the heat sinks and can be replaced easily. Compared to its big brother the XPS M1710, the E1705 only has a single heat pipe on the GPU. There is enough space behind the CPU heat sinks to fit the second heat sink of a dual-pipe GPU such as the 7900 GTX, but there is a piece of plastic blocking the way. I guess I’ll have to cut that piece when I decide to upgrade. Please, search the forums for people who have done that before modding your case. The service manuals on Dell’s website are excellent and provide detailed instructions with pictures, but keep in mind that opening the notebook this far will void your warranty. Mine was opened by a Dell technician while I was watching.


Disassembly while keeping warranty (view large image)

Aesthetically, the E1705 has a very clean look — black on the bottom, silver on the top and inside, with white on the sides. The keyboard is black and contrasts nicely with the case. Overall, the notebook is not ugly, and this is all I care about.


Looks nice! (view large image)

Display

Programming on an XGA screen can be painful, so I decided to go for the highest resolution available. I had some concerns, since my eyesight is not very good, but I couldn’t be happier with the 1920×1200 resolution I got. It allows me to have two full pages of a document opened side by side, or Visual Studio and Firefox without having to alt-tab. It is great.

My Inspiron came with a panel from LG-Philips model LP171WU1 (this seems to be the only WUXGA panel listed on the LG website). You can find the full specifications here:

http://www.lgphilips-lcd.com/homeContain/jsp/eng/prd/prd300_j_e.jsp

To summarize, this is a panel with 25ms response time, 500:1 contrast and 190cd luminance. As all notebook displays, it displays 18-bit colors, but the Geforce 7900 should support dithering to increase the color range. The display is of the glossy type, and can be used as a mirror with some success. That bothers me far less than I thought it would. Viewing angles are very good.


Standard viewing position — E1705 on left, Presario 700us on right (view large image)


Top viewing angle — E1705 on left, Presario 700us on right (view large image)


Side viewing angle — E1705 on left, Presario 700us on right (view large image)

Subjectively, the display is stunning — the color saturation is not as good as on a high-end desktop panel, but with some calibration colors look amazing (decreasing the gamma on the blue color channel produces a more natural tone). The contrast is nice, and there is no ghosting while gaming or watching a movie.


Display in action (view large image)

There is no backlight leakage on the bottom of the panel and in the daylight, blacks are very … black. At night, however, they look like a shade of grey — still pretty dark and nothing worth complaining about in a laptop. However, if this was a desktop panel, I might consider it unacceptable.


How it really looks (view large image)


Exaggerated backlight leakage (slow shutter speed) (view large image)

In the end, regardless of the black levels, the LCD is a pleasure to look at, whether it’s used for DVDs and HD movie playback or web browsing.

Sound

The E1705 contains two speakers placed at the front and a small “subwoofer” on the bottom. Although quite small, this extra speaker improves the sound substantially, more than I would have expected — muting it from the Volume Control (there is a separate slider with a mute button) results in the sound lacking any bass. At full volume, it extends the low frequencies enough to provide a pleasant listening experience. Overall, the speakers are loud enough and sound decent, although subjectively, my old Compaq had better speakers (less bass, but more defined mid-s and hi-s). I usually listen through headphones (Sennheiser HD 595) and with those the quality is very nice — there are no noticeable audio artifacts like hissing or popping and the amplifier has enough power to drive them.

The sound is provided by SigmaTel 9200 High Definition Audio, which is connected to the new Intel HD audio bus.

Rightmark Comparisons

RightmarkComparison1.htm — 16-bit, 44 kHz

RightmarkComparison2.htm — 16-bit, 48 kHz

RightmarkComparison3.htm — 24-bit, 48 kHz

RightmarkComparison4.htm — 24-bit, 96 kHz

As the RightMark reports show, the sound quality is decent — the measured dynamic range and noise level are close to the results of the Audigy NX and the SigmaTel at least supports 24bit sound (dynamic range increased by 3db). The frequency response is puzzling, however. The “ripple” at high frequencies suggests some sort of equalization takes place, but there is no way to control it. Some audio solutions allow a manufacturer to set up a system equalization to compensate for inaccuracies in the notebook speakers (the newer Analog Devices support that, apparently so does the SigmaTel). Unfortunately, this means that there is no way to get a clean analog output from the E1705. It is possible that using audio drivers not customized by Dell may solve the issue. I tried the audio package from Intel’s website, and while the drivers load and sound plays, there are issues with the Direct Sound support. For now, I will not spend any more time working on the sound.

Although the sound quality is decent, feature-wise, the SigmaTel is borderline useless — in the default implementation, there is no DirectSound3D or OpenAL support, no multi-channel output (just line-out and mic-in/line-in) . My old Compaq had an Analog Devices SoundMax 2, which provided good support for position audio and EAX 2 reverb effects.

Dell provides an upgrade called Sound Blaster Audigy HD Software edition (also referred to as Audigy MB), which costs $25. This is a special filter driver installed on top of the SigmaTel driver, which adds support for positional audio, EAX 3 and uses the same applications as the real Audigy (Mixer, EAX Console, etc). The upgrade also installs a software wavetable synthesizer which supports SoundFont 2.1. This is the same synthesizer that comes with the Audigy 2 ZS Notebook soundcard, just an older version. I did not buy this upgrade as it is only supported in Windows XP, and since it is a software-only solution, it will incur a performance hit in games. If I am going to be listening to software EAX effects, I’d rather get the Audigy 2 NX (usb) with its surround sound support, optical in/out, USB ASIO drivers for home-studio recording and the same EAX 3. Some people report that the Audigy NX works in Vista, which is an added bonus. It is a shame the E1705 does not have PCMCIA slot, as I was hoping to use my old Audigy 2 ZS Notebook — its sound quality and feature set is better than both the SigmaTel and the Audigy NX.

Overall, I am unimpressed with the E1705 from the perspective of sound. The speakers are fine, and if you only listen to music, the notebook provides enough. Anything more advanced will require an external sound device. I hope that Creative Labs will release a good ExpressCard Sound Blaster in the near future.

Performance

General

The system feels exceptionally fast. With the dual-core processor, multitasking is instantaneous and multithreaded applications can double their performance. There have been plenty of reviews of the Core Duo architecture, so there is no point of repeating their conclusions. Here is a good one:

http://www.anandtech.com/mobile/showdoc.aspx?i=2663

In comparison to the older Pentium M, the Core Duo supports the SSE3 instruction set, which should increase the performance of applications that support it. Also, the E1705’s BIOS allows to turn on the Virtualization support of the processor. It is a set of instructions designed to improve the performance of virtual machines (for example running Linux on VMWare in Windows). I tried a linux distribution in VMWare Workstation 5.5 and did not find any performance difference with Virtualization on. It is very possible VMWare does not yet support this new technology.

CPU and Memory

Sisoft Sandra 2005.10.10.69

CPU Arithmetic

Drystone 16604 Mips

Whetstone 6665 MFlops (iSSE3)

CPU Multimedia

Integer 34737 it/s (x4 iSSE)

Float 38522 it/s (x4 iSSE2)

Memory (using dual-channel DDR667)

Non-Buffered

3339 MB/s

Buffered

3643 MB/s

It is interesting that the system does not seem to benefit from dual-channel memory. It turns out that the FSB on the CPU is 64 bits wide and runs at 667 MHz. This corresponds to a single channel of DDR2-667. I guess that the dual-channel provides a nice memory bandwidth boost when running with integrated graphics. However, the benefits in the E1705 are marginal at best. Also, this means that running dual-channel DDR2-533 may provide the same memory performance. Indeed, the memory bandwidth was almost the same with the pre-installed memory. However, the memory latency is lower when the memory speed matches the FSB speed.

Super Pi

1 min 20 sec

The 1:20 matches results from machines with the same CPU. Running two instances of SuperPi does not change the time — both instances finish in 1:20.

Graphics

Synthetic

The default clocks on the single-pipe 7900 GS are 350Mhz core, 507Mhz memory. I left the driver settings their defaults.

3DMark03 14022

3DMark05 6325

3DMark06 3466

Memory Read-back

One project I was working on last year involved reading back data from video memory for processing, and the graphics card I had at the time showed very weak performance. This is by no means a detailed analysis, but if you are interested in running generic programs on a video card, you can find a lot more information at gpgpu.org.

S3 TwisterK 4.8 MB/s

Intel 865G 28.3MB/s

ATI X600 Pro 193.1 MB/s

Nvidia GF Go 7900GS 665.9 MB/s

Note that these results are for OpenGL readback in Windows (tested with Pete’s framebuffer read speed). Some research groups have had better results under Linux and many of the workstation cards accelerate read-backs in hardware. In any case, the 7900 GS shows a very nice performance and will be an important asset in future projects.

Games

Oblivion

Settings

1280×800

High Quality setting (drivers)

Everything on max, except grass distance and Ext shadows

Some ini file tweaks for better image quality

No shadows on grass

HDR


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This game is one of the reasons for getting this notebook with a high-end video card. It is a very taxing title and very few video cards can render at decent speeds at high settings. Anandtech.com did a comprehensive analysis of the game, and the performance of the 7900GS is roughly equivalent to a desktop 7600GT. On my game, I’ve installed Qarl’s Texture Pack 2 and Natural Environments. Performance is excellent inside buildings and caves (mostly above 30 fps), but wide expanses can bring performance to the low teens of the fps scale, especially when the engine has to render a lot of grass. Playing on a wide-screen is amazing and the high-contrast display, when calibrated is gorgeous.

Mafia

I use this game as an example of the older generation titles that use TnL, but no pixel shader. After years of struggling with this game on my old Compaq, with slideshow game play at lowest graphics settings, here is how the E1705 compares:

Settings

1920×1200

High Quality setting (drivers)

8x antialiasing, gamma-corrected, supersampling on transparency

16x anisotropic filtering, no filtering optimizations

Every in-game setting at max

The game looks stunning at the UXGA resolution with excellent performance. This is definitely a game I will revisit in the near future.


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Others

I’ve been dying to play Conker’s Bad Fur Day on the Nintendo 64 emulator, and the Nvidia is perfect for the task — the emulation is pretty accurate with excellent performance at 1600×1200 with 8x antialiasing.


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Other games I’ve tried include Warcraft 3, Ultima Ascension and Playstation 1 emulated games — Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy 7-9. These are older titles, and I can finally enjoy them with all possible eye candy. I must say, Ultima Ascension, despite its game-play problems ages quite well — the engine scales pretty well with new hardware and the image quality is very nice for a DirectX 7 title. Other games I plan to install include Doom 3 and Need for Speed Most Wanted. Performance in these newer titles should be excellent according to online reviews.

In general, I am very satisfied with the performance of the 7900GS. Would I be happier with a 7900GTX? Definitely, but not at the $700 price premium. Also, the single-pipe 7900GS should overclock quite nicely judging from other people’s experience, and even reach 7900GTX levels. The performance in Oblivion, while decent, will benefit greatly from the higher core speed.

HD playback

The HD movies on Microsoft’s website look stunning.

http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/musicandvideo/hdvideo/contentshowcase.aspx

There are no dropped frames when playing back using overlays (default in Windows Media Player). I tried rendering using the 3D textures option in Media Player Classic, which allows me to apply pixel shaders to the video stream. Performance was not so great with a high number of dropped frames. With the right configuration, the 7900 should be able to handle HD-DVD just fine with the processor in my system.

Hard Drive

The hard drive in my computer is a Hitachi 5k100 with a SATA interface. It runs at 5400rpm and according to storagereview.com, it is among the fastest in its class. Its power management includes a number of low-power states and it also supports AAM (Automatic Acoustic Management). The AAM allows the heads to stop less abruptly during seeking and reduces seek noise significantly. The option to enable or disable this technology is in the BIOS setup under the performance category. Interestingly, while the noise in Silent mode is significantly lower, HDTune reports only a miniscule increase in access times. The subjective performance decrease is more dramatic — the system feels slightly less responsive, but I find the whisper-quiet seeks a worthy trade-off.

HDTune

Hitachi HTS541080G9S Benchmark

Performance Mode

Silent Mode

Transfer Rate Minimum

4.7 MB/sec

4.0 MB/sec

Transfer Rate Maximum

35.2 MB/sec

35.5 MB/sec

Transfer Rate Average

28.3 MB/sec

28.7 MB/sec

Access Time

16.7 ms

17.6 ms

Burst Rate

87.9 MB/sec

88.3 MB/sec

Burst Rate

2.2%

2.2%

Note that some notebooks may ship with a different brand of hard drives, which may not implement AAM.


Standard SATA connector (view large image)

Optical Drive

Mine has a Philips DVD+-R SDVD8820 but some notebooks may have a Sony driver instead. This one has a decent feature set.


The most notable missing feature is the DVD-RAM support, but I doubt I will ever need it. Performance is standard for a 8x DVD drive. Note that while in device manger the optical drive is shown as connected to the SATA bus, it appears to use a standard IDE connector.


Standard IDE connector (view large image)

Heat and Noise

I find the E1705’s cooling system very well designed. The CPU and the Chipset share a copper heatpipe, connected to an aluminum heatsink on the back-left side of the display. The video card has its own heatpipe/heatsink assembly. Each of the heat sinks is cooled down by its own temperature controlled fan. There are air intake grills on the top of the laptop, next to the keyboard, on the sides and on the bottom. With such a design, if the bottom vents are blocked, by a pillow for example, the fans can still draw cool air from the other vents. The exhausts are on the back.

Both fans are extremely quiet during normal operation. The CPU fan is significantly larger and gets noisy at about 3000 rpm, but it very rarely spins that fast. The size of the fan is a remnant of the shared chassis design — the XPS M1710’s video card has two heat pipes and the larger fan has to cool both the CPU heat sink and one of the GPU heat sinks. In the case of the E1705, both fans are off most of the time, and spin at low speeds (<3000 rpm) even under heavy load. The CPU fan has three speeds — 2300rpm, 2900rpm and 3600rpm or so, although I can select only the lowest and highest with I8kFanGUI. The GPU fan operates at 2700 rpm and 3700 rpm and unlike the CPU fan, it is very quiet at both speeds.

I’ve used I8kFanGUI to measure system temperature and here are the results (CPU temp/ GPU temp).

Idle (fans off) – 34C / 75C

Idle (fans on low) – 28C / 56C

Full Load (fans on low) – 56C / 65C

Note that these measurements were done at 23C ambient temperature. In some cases I’ve seen CPU temperatures hit a 70C maximum and the GPU can reach 75C with fan on high speed. Even these higher temperatures are within specifications, so I am not worried about overheating. Besides, both devices have a thermal protection in place and will throttle back on very high temperatures.

The chipset and memory temperatures hover at about 50C, a little less when idle and up to 55C under load. The maximum hard drive temperature I’ve observed is 45C. One concern I have is with the placement of the ExpressCard slot. It is directly above the hard drive and a power-hungry card (sound or SATA for example) may raise the hard drive temperature significantly.

In the tradition of desktop-replacement machines, the default configuration is not easy on the legs — even when idle the GPU reaches scorching temperatures. The fan does not kick in until above 70C and that is too hot. Fortunately, forcing the GPU fan to low speed fixes the issue — the GPU temperature drops to a much more comfortable 56C.

The optical drive in my old Compaq was a heat sink for the memory, or this is how it felt — the memory chips on the motherboard made contact with the DVD drive through a non-conductive sheet. Since the integrated graphics used 20% of the memory bandwidth at all times, watching a movie left the DVDs at scorching temperatures. Even the fan dedicated to this hotspot didn’t help much. Not so on the E1705. The optical drive is on the lower-left, away from any of the hot system components barely heats up at all. Noise can be an issue however. At highest speed (8x for DVD, 24x for CD), some discs produce significant vibrations and noise, while others do not. The solution can be simple — I use DriveSpeed tool from the Ahead Nero application (it can be downloaded for free) to set DVD speed to 6x and CD speed to 20x. There is a slight drop in performance, but the lower speed eliminates vibrations almost completely and the drive is quieter.

Some people report that the Philips drive has many problems reading and writing to certain media, but I have not experienced that yet, although it has some problems reading scratched DVD movies. Fortunately, the drive can be replaced easily – if the issues continue, I’ll ask Dell for a replacement. I’ve also considered getting a slot-loading drive from newegg.com.

In general, I am satisfied with the temperature and noise aspects of the laptop, although I am slightly disappointed with the power usage of the GeForce 7900 GS. I realize it is a high-performance part and will require a lot of power, but NVIDIA is touting the PowerMizer technology with its ability to shut down parts of the GPU core, yet the core produces enough heat when running only 2D at low clock speeds to reach 75C. The solution, as Nvidia sees it, is to have both an integrated GPU for low performance scenarios and a powerful GPU for gaming, where the switch between the two will be transparent. Similar solutions exist now, but require a reboot when switching.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard does not have a number pad. Instead, some of the extra space on the sides is used for air intake vents. For the past 5 years I’ve used my Presario 700us as my only machine, and the only time I’ve needed a number pad was when playing a racing game. So, while not important to me, the missing pad may be a problem for others.

Otherwise, the keyboard is excellent. The keys have a decent travel and make a soft clicking sound. There is no flexing and it is easy to type fast. While I find the old IBM Thinkpad keyboards to be slightly better (I have no idea how the Lenovo keyboards are, they might be the same), although it is difficult to describe the exact differences – the Dell keyboard just seems “softer” that the IBM one. On the other hand, it is quite similar the Presario keyboard I’ve used before, and seems to work just fine.


The keyboard (view large image)

The E1705 uses a touchpad from Synaptics, and I’ve found their models to be among the best — it is possible to configure pressure sensitivity and palm check sensitivity, to assign actions to taps in specific zones, and it supports locking drags. Also, the MoodPad and Pressure Graph applets are fun to play with for a few minutes, as is the huge maze game in the scrolling tutorial. I would have liked to have one of Synaptics’ newer touch pads, which feature an LCD screen, but this one works quite well for me.

The only other keys on the notebook are the MediaDirect button and the set of multimedia keys on the front, which include Mute, Volume Up/Down, Pause, Previous, Next and Stop. These work in Windows Media Player and maybe other applications as well.

Ports

This is a list of the ports on the machine, starting from the left and going counter-clock wise:

Left

  • Optical drive
  • 2 USB ports
  • CPU intake vent


Left side (view large image)

Back

  • CPU exhaust vent
  • Power plug
  • Analog VGA
  • DVI
  • 4 USB ports
  • S-video out (SPDIF-out with a dongle)
  • GPU exhaust vent


Back side (view large image)

Right

  • GPU intake vent
  • Headphone-out
  • Mic-in / Line-in (software selectable)
  • 4-pin Firewire
  • Memory card reader (SD/MMC, MS/Pro, xD)
  • ExpressCard/54 Slot


Right Side (view large image)

The E1705 includes a nice selection of ports, but there are a few things missing. First, there is no serial port, and this is something I could have used — once in a while, I have to configure a Cisco router or two, and it is very convenient to just plug into their serial ports without having to carry an extra usb-to-serial adapter. Also, my HP 360LX handheld has a serial connection, and so does my TI-89 calculator. However, the lack of a serial port is not the end of the world. I would have also appreciated 4 programmable stereo jacks for 7.1 surround, but this can be fixed by an Audigy NX, so this is not a deal breaker for me either. The lack of a Carbus slot almost was. Given I was getting a gaming system, I was hoping to use the hardware acceleration and EAX effects of the Audigy ZS. The only notebook on my list with Cardbus support was the HP and in the end I decided a better GPU was more important than a better sound card. Also, there is always the possibility that Creative will release an ExpressCard sound device.

It is interesting that the E1705 features both VGA and DVI ports. The DVI port does not accept a DVI-to-VGA adapter since my adapter has 4 extra pins. Also, it does not seem that Windows supports more than 2 displays on the 7900 GS. My guess is that the output to a second display is mirrored across both the VGA and DVI ports, but I’ll have to test this in the future.

Network

The notebook comes with the Intel Pro/Wireless 3945 card, although Dell now provides the option of a 802.11n internal wireless card, although the card implements the draft of this standard. The card seems to have excellent range and works reliably, although I use Ethernet almost exclusively. This laptop is a desktop replacement and I do not expect to use the wireless too much.

I decided to spend the $20 Dell asks for a Bluetooth module. It seems to work well with the generic Windows drivers, although the Bluetooth stack with the Dell drivers provides additional Bluetooth services, such as Bluetooth audio. With the generic drivers, I was able to set a Bluetooth network connection at around 400Kbit (I have an old Bluetooth 1.0 adapter in the home desktop). Supposedly, the Dell Wireless 350 Bluetooth Module supports the higher speeds of the 2.0 specification, but I have been unable to verify that. The module is connected to an internal USB 2.0 port and its antenna is in the display casing of the laptop as is the separate WiFi antenna.

Overall, the wireless options are quite satisfactory and easy to upgrade when replacements become available. The only missing feature is an infrared port, but this might be the incentive I need to retire my old HP 360LX handheld for something with Bluetooth.

Power Usage

I opted to save some money by buying the low capacity battery (53Whr). Given how rarely I’ve used my old notebook on batteries, I think I made the right choice. This battery gives me about 2:30 hours of run time idle. The first thing I do with a new machine is to figure the power consumption of the components. I’ve used the Performance Counters in Windows XP to determine the battery discharge rates under different conditions (Control Panel -> Administrative Tools -> Performance). The drawback is that I can only obtain power usage data while running on battery, which means that the GPU will be running in power-saving mode. On the plus side, since this is the power usage reported by the battery, it can be used to accurately calculate the rundown times for different battery capacities.

To obtain the baseline, I set the CPU to lowest speed (1Ghz at 0.95V) using the excellent RightMark CPU Clock Utility. The GPU went to “Maximum Power Savings” under the PowerMizer tab of the Nvidia drivers. The LCD was at the lowest brightness running at 1920×1200. All wireless devices were off with no peripherials plugged in.

Baseline : 20.5W

LCD off: 18.0W

LCD max brightness: 27.6W

The LCD itself consumes about 2.5W at lowest brightness, going up to 9.6W at highest brightness. I was expecting the highest power usage to be around 6W, but this is the price to pay for such a bright screen.

Baseline: 20.5W

CPU 1GHz Full Load 1 core : 25.6W

CPU 1GHz Full Load 2 cores: 28.8W

CPU 1.86GHz Full Load 1 core: 36.8W

CPU 1.86GHz Full Load 2 cores: 44.3W

The CPU is indeed very efficient — this is almost the power usage of the Athlon4 1.2 GHz in my old laptop, but this processor is a few times faster. These numbers were obtained by running one and two instances of Super Pi at different CPU speeds. The Core Duo has a specified TDP (Thermal Design Power) of 31W and that corresponds to the observed discharge rate.

It is difficult to test the power usage of the GPU separately so I opted to test in 3D applications. Note however, that on battery, the benchmark is heavily GPU limited, so the CPU may not be under full load.

3DMark06

CPU 1GHz, GPU in Max Battery: 32W

CPU 1GHz, GPU in Balanced: 35W

CPU 1.86GHz, GPU in Max Battery: 32W

CPU 1.86GHz, GPU in Balanced: 41W

Oblivion

CPU 1GHz, GPU in Max Battery: 33 W

CPU 1.86GHz, GPU in Balanced: 40W

DVD Playback

CPU 1GHz, GPU in Balanced: 30 W

From these numbers we can calculate that gaming at highest performance level with LCD on highest brightness as well will consume around 50W per hour. At that level, the 53WHr battery will provide 1 hour of runtime while the 80WHr battery will provide almost 2 hours. Note that the on battery power, the highest performance mode for the Nvidia 7900GS is not available and as a result, performance is significantly lower.

3DMark05

6325 (AC, Max Performance)

2931 (Battery, Balanced)

1234 (Battery, Max Power Saving)

It seems that the 7900 GS uses quite some power even when idle. This is the price to pay for a high-end gaming card. I have seen notebooks with integrated graphics use as little as 12W, so unless you plan to play the latest games, the X1400 may be a wise choice and should significantly extend the battery life.

Overall, I am very satisfied with the battery performance. I knew I was getting a gaming machine and was prepared to pay with battery life for it. Still, compared to some of the other DTR notebooks, this is not bad at all — those monsters can consume in excess of 150W under full load and come with huge 220W power supplies! The E1705 provides a nice balance between power usage and performance. However, for the casual gamer, a lower-power Geforce 7600 or an ATI X1400 may provide longer battery life and lower temperatures.

Pre-loaded Software

I have my own Windows XP Pro, so I ordered the E1705 with the bare minimum. Yet, since I was very busy at work, I ended using the pre-installed Windows XP Home for a few days. After uninstalling the AOL software and the McAfee antivirus, the system was very snappy, even with the original 512 MB ram. There is not much to say about the OS really, except that there is no Restore CD (can be ordered for $10 from Dell at the time of purchase) and I didn’t bother looking for ways to make one. There is a partition (around 3GB) that contains an image of the OS and that restore program can be executed by hitting F12 when the system boots.

One interesting feature is the MediaDirect. There is a third partition on the hard drive that contains a stripped-down version of Windows. Its media center application can play DVDs, music CDs and music files that are placed in a special folder of the primary partition. There is a dedicated button on the left of the power button for starting the MediaDirect application. I haven’t bothered investigating what file formats are supported as I never plan to use this feature — the computer starts up very fast in the regular Windows XP, so I have no need for the Media Direct. Now, if it was some sort of a hardware implementation (on flash memory maybe) that offered significant power savings compared to booting Windows, it might have been more useful.

Reinstalling Windows was a breeze and took less than an hour to get everything working. Windows XP SP2 has built-in drivers for the network card, so I was able to simply download the needed drivers from the Dell website. However, I didn’t find a way to reinstall the MediaDirect application, so if it is something you may want to keep, make sure you do not delete its partition. There is a utility Dell provides that fixes the MediaDirect partition after you’ve reinstalled Windows. Also, note that using a pre-Windows XP SP2 CD for installing the OS produces a BSOD.

Customer Support

I had to contact Dell on two occasions and both times found their support people to be helpful and semi-knowledgeable.

As I mentioned before, my model came with a 2-year on-site warranty. It also had a Dell On Call service ($50 at the time). It allows me to call for help with setting up my computer, which would have been totally useless. Using the Live chat feature at Dell Support, I was in contact with a person in less than 5 minutes and in 10 minutes the Dell On Call was cancelled. The representative was very polite and did not give me any problems.

On the third day of heavy gaming, the processor fan started producing a periodic whining sound — every 3 seconds it would make a slight scraping sound which although not loud was very annoying. It was the perfect chance to test the On-site support since this would have been a deal-breaker for me. Again, I used the Live Chat and got connected to a tech in a few minutes. It took 40 minutes to “diagnose” the problem even though I had done extensive testing and gave them the results. I use I8KFanGui application to run the CPU fan and the scraping noise is there; I turn the fan off, and the noise disappears. You’d think this is enough, but the tech asked me to remove the hard drive, restart the computer (even though we were in a chat session), and other things, unrelated to the fan issue. At one point I lost my patience and told him to send me the fans or send a tech with the fans. He then called me on the phone and two minutes later I had my case reference number. This was on a Saturday. On Monday, a local tech called me to schedule an appointment and on Tuesday I had new fans installed on the laptop. There hasn’t been an issue since then and all this happened two weeks ago.

I am very satisfied with the support I’ve received so far. While the tech had me running in circles, he has a diagnostic script to follow, which may have been useful if he was talking to a less knowledgeable user. Dell resolved the fan issue in around 3 days, and I am happy with that.

Conclusions

The Inspiron E1705 is perfect for my needs — excellent graphics performance and a dual-core processor in a light and power-efficient package. I am very satisfied with the package as a whole and can’t wait to continue playing Oblivion.


Pros

  • Very fast dual core processor
  • Nvidia 7900 GS
  • Excellent Display
  • Environment monitors (temperature and fans)
  • More power-efficient than other DTR notebooks

Cons

  • No number pad
  • No Legacy support (serial, Cardbus/PCMCIA)
  • Sound card

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