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Dell Studio 1747 Laptop: One Fatal Flaw Away from Linux Perfection

Dell's 17-inch Studio 1747 laptop is a beefy desktop replacement that ships with Windows 7. But how does it fare with Linux instead? A few days hands-on with the laptop shows that the machine is almost perfect, save for one fatal flaw.

If you’re looking for a workhorse, desktop replacement laptop it’s hard to find one more powerful than the Dell Studio 1747. Armed with an Intel Core i7, a 17″ inch display, and as much RAM as you’ll find in any laptop, the 1747 is a monster. Power aside, how does it fare as a Linux box? Almost perfect, but with one major flaw.

A few days ago, I caught a special on Geeks.com for a refurbished Dell Studio 1747 with the Core i7-720QM CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200 RPM hard drive, and 17″ display at 1,600×900 resolution. It’s priced around $1,000 new as configured, and the Geeks price was less than $900. I was looking for a good laptop that had enough horsepower, storage, and screen space that it’d be equally useful in the home office and on the road and it looked like the Dell fit the bill.

After the 1747 showed up, I wasted no time blasting Windows 7 off the machine and whipping Linux on. The distro of choice, the 64-bit edition of Linux Mint 9 — a distro that has excellent hardware support, software selection, and all those pesky media codecs.

Hardware Support

Linux Mint 9 installed flawlessly, with one minor hitch. The default install found the Ethernet, but no dice on the wireless. Sadly — and this is the major (for some, maybe fatal) flaw: the laptop is saddled with a Broadcom wireless chipset. Broadcom is not a vendor widely loved and adored within the Linux community. Some of their cards can be made to work, but not with a open source driver.

A glimmer of hope, the Hardware Drivers applet detected the card and it looked like I’d be able to enable support using the proprietary driver. After activating the driver and rebooting, I gave it a shot. NetworkManager saw the wireless, but it couldn’t actually see any networks. Effectively, the wireless as shipped with the 1747 seems to be as useful for connecting to wireless networks as your average brick.

Aside from that, things worked wonderfully on the laptop. I tried the ATI drivers, but switched back to the standard drivers because it was easier to configure dual-head with the native drivers rather than ATI’s proprietary drivers and tools.

Marketing materials for the 1747 make a big deal out of the system’s JBL speakers, and rightly so. Many laptops sound tinny, faint, or distorted when pumping out Ozzy or Mother Love Bone. But the 1747 produces a really nice sound, whether I tried 80s metal or something a little more nuanced like pianist Ehren Starks.

I can’t work the piano keyboard like Starks, but I do give the laptop keyboard quite a workout. For my money, no laptop has topped the IBM-era ThinkPads for keyboards, and the 1747 is no exception. However, on the scale of one to ThinkPad (10), I’d rate the 1747 at an eight. The keys are solid, well-spaced, no oddball placement of keys, and Dell has even crammed the full number keypad on as well. The trackpad works quite well in Linux, and I didn’t have a lot of problems with errant input on the trackpad while typing.

The machine comes fully loaded with ports. It has two USB ports on the right-hand side, and a combo USB/eSATA port (which I’d never even heard of before) on the left hand side. I’ve seen lappies with more USB ports, but not many. It also has an ExpressCard slot, a SD slot, eSATA, DisplayPort, VGA, and HDMI out. Haven’t tried the VGA yet, but the HDMI works beautifully. It also sports two headphone jacks, so if you’re on the road with a friend or significant other you can gather around the laptop on a plane and enjoy a movie.

Speaking of planes, the battery life is fairly robust for a hefty beast. I’ve gotten more than three hours of battery, which is nothing when you’re talking about netbooks, but pretty decent for a performance machine.

Its performance leaves nothing to be desired. The Q-720 has four cores with hyperthreading. Using the 1747, even running one or two VMs in VMware Workstation, everything is snappy.

Worth It?

In almost every way I’m satisfied so far with the 1747. However, the lack of working wireless is really problematic for people who actually use the laptop to move around. I’ve already ordered an ExpressCard adapter that’s gotten good reviews for working with Ubuntu and Linux Mint, which set me back less than $30 on Amazon. Given that I scored a good deal on the laptop, I’m not too unhappy at having to pick up a wireless card.

However, if you’re ordering a new laptop, you might want to take this into consideration. It’s disappointing that in 2010 companies like Dell are still shipping components that are not FOSS-friendly when there are suitable alternatives available.

Overlooking that, I’d give the machine a thumbs-up. If you can get a decent deal on the 1747, use the extra to grab a ExpressCard or USB wi-fi and enjoy.

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