Dell Dimension XPS Review

By Eric Grevstad | Posted June 10, 2003
PC speed freaks and hardcore gamers look down their noses at any factory- instead of home-built computer, even a custom job from Alienware or Falcon Northwest. They'd seem no more likely to buy a Dell than a Maserati or Ferrari fan would be to buy Detroit iron. But the all-American Corvette and Viper manage to kick their share of Euro-butt, and Dell has decided to make a desktop for what it calls the "intense gamer" or multimedia enthusiast — a pull-out-all-the-stops performance PC.

To do so, the company has resurrected the mid-'90s Dimension XPS brand and slapped it on a new tower case with vivid blue front and top panels, instead of the sedate gray-black of the shorter, formerly top-of-the-line Dimension 8300.

The same basic setup's inside — Intel's premier 875P chipset and Pentium 4/3.0C Hyper-Threading processor with 800MHz front-side bus and dual-channel DDR400 memory — but the XPS' easy-access chassis packs three rather than two external 5.25-inch and three rather than two internal 3.5-inch drive bays. It also packs a bigger power supply — almost twice as big, at 460 watts.

Impressed yet? Add 1GB of PC3200 DDR memory, both DVD-ROM and DVD+RW drives, and the coolest keyboard we've seen yet. Plus ATI's exotic 128MB Radeon 9800 Pro AGP 8X graphics accelerator for blindingly fast gameplay. Front and rear USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 ports. Creative's deluxe Audigy 2 sound card. Oh, yes, and dual 120GB Serial ATA hard disks providing 240GB of high-speed RAID 0 storage.

Drooling yet? It's hard to pin down Dell's prices, since the company's Web site shuffles order-now, this-week-only specials like a caffeinated cardsharp; as of this morning, both the DVD+RW drive and upgrade from 512MB to 1GB of DDR400 were freebies. But anyway, that let us configure our test system for $2,532, with neither a monitor nor surround-sound speaker system (Dell sells Altec Lansing's 95-watt 4.1 ADA745 setup for $100 and 200-watt 5.1, THX-certified ADA995 kit for $230).

A couple of compromises, such as opting for just one 120GB Serial ATA drive and ATI's lower-clock-speed Radeon 9800 version, would trim that to around $2,100. But even as is, the Dimension XPS strikes us as not a bad value, as wild indulgences go: For $30 or $40 more than a comparably equipped, civilian Dimension 8300, or $150 less than a comparable Alienware Area-51 tower (with a mere 420-watt power supply), you get a PC as powerful as any on the planet, a desktop that's full thermonuclear overkill for everyday word processing and e-mail. Dell's gone bad. And that's good.

Hyper-Threatening
The XPS hides its Lite-On 16X DVD-ROM and NEC 4/2.4/12X DVD+RW drives (and the 1.44MB floppy that's a $20 option on lesser Dimensions) behind a front-panel door that swings open and folds back, though we found it requires a bit of care to close neatly or flush with the case. Next to this, below the power button, a small door covers convenient, up-front headphone, IEEE 1394, and two USB 2.0 connectors.

The silvery shield that bears the Dell logo may cover the bottom half of the case front, but is also a false front in the sense there's ventilation airflow around and behind it for one of five (count 'em) cooling fans — three for the system interior, which work well enough that the Pentium 4 processor gets only a hefty heat sink instead of a fan of its own, and two for the power supply, which is walled off in its own space at the bottom of the tower. Happily, the Dimension proved relatively quiet in everyday use — only once, during a system restart, did all the fans rev up at once. It was like putting your ear to a clothes-dryer vent, but it only lasted for a few seconds.

The Intel-made motherboard resembles the chip giant's D875PBZ, with four DIMM sockets for up to 2GB of DDR400 (or slower DDR333) memory, but is slightly different than that house-brand i875P-chipset platform. Notably, you'll find only four instead of five PCI slots alongside the AGP slot; the middle two of them are occupied by the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 card and Promise Technology FastTrak S150 TX2plus Serial ATA controller. That leaves just two PCI slots free, one uncomfortably close to the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro's heat sink/fan.

But if short a slot, the Dell has bays to spare, and copies its sibling desktops in offering exemplary, tool-free access: A sliding latch lets you open the system up like a suitcase, with the motherboard (half hidden under an air-vent shroud for the CPU) and expansion slots at the bottom and the seven drive bays affixed to the open lid. Green plastic handles indicate user-touchable or -removable components, and most of the power cables carry helpful labels like HDD 2 or BAY 3. We think this classy, easy-open case more than makes up for the lack of a game-geek window that lets you admire the internal components.

Fast Enough for You?
In addition to the front-mounted pair, you'll find six more USB 2.0 ports at the back (one used for the Logitech MX500 optical mouse), along with PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports and two serial, one parallel, and 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports (a dial-up modem is not included).

The Audigy 2 sound card supplies a second IEEE 1394 FireWire port, as well as line- and microphone-in, digital S/PDIF out, and three line-out jacks. The Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card has VGA, S-Video, and DVI outputs (if you want to connect two analog monitors, a DVI-to-VGA adapter plug is a $10 option).

Okay, that's an A for connectivity and maybe an A- for expandability (extra bays and big power supply good, only two free PCI slots bad); what about performance, we hear you yelling? Well, it's an 800MHz-bus, 3.0GHz Pentium 4 with a gig of dual-channel DDR400; did you think it was going to be slow?

Try a BAPco SysMark 2002 rating of 318, with scores of 235 in Office Productivity and a phenomenal 429 in Internet Content Creation. Pentium 4/3.06 systems we've tested can rival the XPS' FutureMark PCMark 2002 processor score of 7,394, but no other PC we've tested to date is close to its memory score of 8,872 or hard disk score of 1,516 — the twin 120GB Seagate Barracuda Serial ATA V 7,200-rpm drives, merged via RAID 0 into a 240GB drive C:, simply blow away run-of-the-mill storage setups. Programs load almost instantaneously. Windows that you see opening and closing on other systems simply appear and disappear like strobe flashes.

The ATI Radeon 9800 Pro extends this transcendent level of performance to graphical applications and games — actually, for "transcendent" we should say "ridiculous" when it comes to some older benchmarks, like Quake III Arena in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode (318 frames per second). The system's 3DMark 2001 SE Pro score was 17,682. It managed 46 fps in the tough Codecreatures 1,024 by 768 benchmark, or 31 fps with super-sharp 4X antialiasing enabled. Its Unreal Tournament 2003 demo flyby score was 224.7.

Keyboard Chic
To enhance the experience of driving this Formula 1 racer, Dell provides a smooth-gliding, ultra-ergonomic Logitech MX500 optical mouse — the corded cousin to the deluxe, cordless MX700 gamer's special, with a one-piece, brushed-aluminum top; browser Forward and Back buttons above its left-side thumb scoop; and scroll-without-spinning-the-scroll-wheel buttons above and below the wheel.

Better yet, Dell's Enhanced Multimedia Keyboard makes for one glamorous desktop, with browser-control buttons (Back, Forward, Stop, Refresh, Home) at the top left and quick-launch buttons for e-mail, My Computer, and Calculator toward the right. Coolest of all are the glowing, backlit CD/DVD buttons — stop, previous/next track, play/pause, mute, and launch the Audigy sound mixer panel — that surround the handy audio-volume knob at the top right.

Our test system didn't come with any productivity software, but a Dell-branded version of CyberLink's PowerDVD player along with two video-editing and multimedia CD- or DVD-making programs, Sonic's MyDVD and Roxio's VideoWave Movie Creator. Windows XP Professional (a $60 upgrade from Win XP Home) was preinstalled.

Is the Dimension XPS a solid, workhorse system that'll cement Dell's Main Street, safe-buy image? Hell, no. Is it radical enough to convert Dell-bashing hacker dudes? Probably not; the owner's manual has a page about a topic not even in the vocabulary of most Dell buyers, overclocking, but predictably enough Dell's against it (the company's labs "vigorously test and fine-tune" its systems for optimum performance, and lock the processor multiplier options in the BIOS setup program to thwart tinkering). But for gamers and speed demons between those extremes, it's a treat.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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