Review: Dell Studio 1747 laptop for music applications

People following this list and my posts closely will remember that I’ve been on the lookout for a new music-making computer for about a year, and had already gotten a Dell Studio 17, but was forced to return it because it wouldn’t allow you to use it for audio with a latency setting below 64ms…which is not something I am able to work with.
In the meantime, Dell had fixed the problem, and also added variants with Clarksfield/Arrandale processors from Intel’s Nehalem family (aka Core i7 and Core i5). So when again carefully looking for a computer (and it’s a beautiful thing that websites like notebookcheck.de have recently discovered the importance of the so-called “DPC latency” and measure it for their tests), the Studio 17 came up again – more specifically the Studio 1747. And with Dell offering a rebate for direct orders, I got one, for €910 (including all the options I decided on, and shipping).

Note that there has been (and probably still is) an issue with an underpowered PSU delievered with the laptop by Dell. This will result in the computer being clocked down when accessing both the processor and the GPU fiercly – more on how I dealt with that below.

THE BASIC SPECS:
With computers, it’s the same as with people: the inner values are primarily of importance. In the case of the Studio 1747, it’s an Intel Clarksfield CPU (meaning Core I7-720QM as the basic variant, and the faster 820QM and 920XM available as options). Now if you take the processor benchmark results vs. processor prices, the 720QM currently is the mobile processor with the best price/performance ratio, so that was the choice for me. These processors work with a 1066MHz memory bus and DDR3 RAM. Dell fits the computer with 4GB (2 2 GB modules), with 6 or 8 GB available as options. It’s safe to say that you rather should not get those options; buying a new pair of 4 GB memory modules and just throwing the factory-installed pair into the trashcan is still considerably cheaper than getting the optional upgrade from dell.
The next most important component would be the graphics adaptor: it’s an ATI Radeon HD 4650 (768MB graphics memory), and with that should be sufficient even for advanced gaming (not that I care that much).

Other components include HD (standard is a 500GB 5400rpm HD, with 2x300GB and 2x500GB pairs as options, but the same that was said about memory goes here – but you have 2 HDD slots, e.g. to use one SSD for low-noise applications), a DVD+-RW drive (Blu-Ray is not available), 1GBit LAN, g WLAN (draft n as an option, as well as bluetooth), lots of graphics connectors, IEE1394 (aka Firewire: 4-pin connector), a simple webcam, JBL 2.1 speakers (which, by laptop standards, are very good) and an eSATA port.

Software-wise, the thing comes with Windows 7 64-bit Home premium as standard, with the more advanced OS versions as options (I opted for Professional for the seamlessly integrated Windows XP virtual machine). While the 64bit variants were a bit of an issue with XP for lack of some drivers, this has changed with Windows 7: all the drivers I know of are available as 64bit variants. And obviously, with a minimum RAM of 4GB, 64bit makes a lot of sense). There’s also a bunch of stuff like a two-year subscription to McAffee included – a lot of these programs should be deactivated (first booting it up, all those services took up more than 1GB of RAM).

The battery pack is according to spec good for 3 hours of operation. While this is not exactly huge, it’s sufficient for my personal application (where I only need to gap the bridge between starting the computer and connecting the cable of my rig to the mains), and by making use of the lots of power management options of the Nehalem CPU (and the very bright display), you can extend that if required (and still outperform most Penryn-type computers).

HOW IT LOOKS:
The thing got a 17” screen /17,3 to be precise) with a max. resolution of 1600×900. This is the current standard for advanced 17” laptops, and the display worked fine for me so far under different lighting conditions. There are no connectors on the rear of the case (which I think is outright stupid – with the exception of an USB stick, I can’t think of anything which you would prefer to connect on the side to get into your way while working – it’s not a problem as my computer sits on top of a Gator G2XU case – btw, it just fits into the computer compartment in this).
Things on the left side are (front to back): IEEE1394, memory-card reader (most formats, including xD – I personally use SD/SDHC and xD and it does them all), USB, DVD-drive (slot-in), USB, power and power button.
Things on the right side: headphones (2x), microphone, ExpressCard, an odd RF/antenna connector I can’t identify, a shared eSATA/USB port, HDMI, D-connector, VGA, LAN and Kensington lock.
Apart from the “no connectors on the back” topic mentioned before, I do disapprove of the huge lot of graphics connectors, at the same time only offering 3 USBs (one of them shared with the eSATA): one more connector would’ve made sense imo (but then, a small hub is both cheap and simple to integrate).

Apropos looks: while you have a choice of different case coulors (I went with the standard black one), the area around they keyboard is light grey and there’s a Dell logo on the back of the screen – need to put some black gaffa over it.

Btw, there’s a pic on twitpic: http://twitpic.com/13mtu9

HOW IT WORKS:
The aforementioned DPC latency is really low: while the old Studio 17 had spikes in the 5us range occuring frequently, thise 1747 stays below 200ns even without optimizing the system. With a typical value of 500ns as a rule-of-thumb “go/nogo” boundary, this works well.

Performance-wise, it’s heaven obviously: running the same setup I used to run on my old (Yonah T2300-based) computer where I would hit the 80% CPU load quite often only sees me running in the 20% region – and that with a buffer size of 128 (which corresponds to roughly 3ms latency). A big screen can be an advantage, too (and I say that even though I intend to move away from even opening the thing completely, but for e.g. doing mobile recordings this will help a lot), and this one works fine for me.

One item I’d like to mention is the touchpad. While I always have seen touchpads as an annoying and weak attempt to provide a mouse replacement for those laptop users, this one (by Synaptics or something) really works well. This has to do with its lowlevel driver, which not only allows you to adjust response curves for pressure sensitivity and movement speed, but also implements those touchpad gestures on low-level, so the two-finger (scroll, zoom) and three-finger (rotate, drag) options do – to my surprise – work really well.

SUMMARY:
So far, I’m really content with the thing: even though there’s some small details you could argue about, the price/performance ratio is outstanding when comparing it to the competing devices (for some comparable offers, see here http://bit.ly/9ikPhF): comparable offers are at least €1000, most of the time above €1200. It seems to work well in the music department, and would also make a nice companion for mobile gaming (or video editing, if you’re into that). Even though Dell has a bad rep (and see the annex for another story about how they always manage to go wrong), for me this works fine and gives me some potential even for future more complex applications I’m planning on.

ANNEX: The Story of the Power Supply.
Following their tradition, Dell had some BIOS and hardware issues with the Studio 1747 (http://bit.ly/bQBOVg for a German-language summary). While most of them have been fixed with a BIOS update, the PSU topic hasn’t:
The computer is shipped with a 90W PSU, which is underpowered for some peak current surges of the computer. These do only happen when both hitting the CPU and the GPU hard and at the same time having the battery in the device. While in the old BIOS version this could fry the PSU (and Dell would send out a 130W PSU upon request), the new BIOS version clocks down the CPU in those cases – not something you want to happen.
I had talked to the sales clerk when ordering the thing and got a confirmation that I could receive the 130W PSU upon request when it showed that the problem surfaced in my application. It still took me two phone calls (being forwarded about 10 times each, but at least it was on their bill) and clever use of the words “violation of competition regulation”, “breach of contract”, “legal representation” and “that international project”, and an escalation to senior mgt. on their side to get me the free 130W PSU. With that, I’m a happy customer – I got two PSUs for my laptop – but on the other hand, last time I checked they don’t offer that computer anymore on their website. Go figure…

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4 thoughts on “Review: Dell Studio 1747 laptop for music applications

  1. Getting things done with DELL support is always and exclusively only working by means of “escalation”. If your issue is getting too close to one of the countless big QA botch-ups they produce, they don’t even escalate anymore, they just ignore you until you start threatening them and whatnot, then they escalate your case but that doesn’t mean you get what you wanted.

    You’re lucky, your 1747 is one of the few models without the DPC problems making it completely inapt for audio software. If it would be, you’d know how badly DELL tries to fuck their customers.

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