A Fast Runner &#151 No Footprint

Does it still count as a desktop if it takes zero square inches of desk space? That’s the puzzler behind Dell’s new business PC, the OptiPlex SX280 &#151 which squeezes Intel’s new 915G Express platform, Pentium 4 processor, DDR-2 memory, Serial ATA storage, and a swappable device bay into a case you can pick up with one hand and then hangs it off the back of an LCD monitor, so the monitor stand’s the only part that touches your desk.

Even without a wireless keyboard and mouse (oddly missing from Dell’s configuration page), it’s an exceptionally neat and tidy productivity package, with performance that’ll tempt SMB owners to forgive its not-exactly-low price.

Though bigger and thicker than a compact laptop, the SX280 is small and stubby even compared to desktops given the “small form factor” label in the past &#151 9.8 by 3.5 by 10.3 inches, about the size of a big-city phone book (it weighs about 11 pounds).

One thing that both keeps the system petite and contributes to its quiet operation is the lack of a conventional power supply; its 220-watt supply is a notebook-style external power brick (albeit twice the size).

Power supply aside, the SX280 is a self-contained desktop, not built into or permanently yoked to an LCD monitor as with all-in-one designs like the Gateway Profile or Sony Vaio V series. It’s seen to its best advantage, however, when teamed with one of Dell’s two LCD monitors with what the company calls an all-in-one stand &#151 a height-adjustable base with a bracket for mounting the OptiPlex behind the display. (Dell cautions that you shouldn’t rest a heavy CRT on top of the PC as you might with a full-sized desktop.)

The special stand also helps explain our test system’s total price of $1,706: It includes the 15-inch E152FP monitor, an XGA-resolution (1,024 by 768) analog LCD that proved admirably bright and sharp, with no bad pixels and wide viewing angles, and which offered a flicker-free-even-under-fluorescents refresh rate of 75Hz as well as the usual flat-panel 60Hz.

As excellent as it was, however, the monitor also amounted to $479 of the bottom line, which will strike most shoppers as $100 if not $150 over the going rate for a 15-inch desktop LCD nowadays. Opting for Dell’s other height-adjustable, 15-inch flat panel &#151 without the piggyback bracket &#151 would have saved $80, just as splurging on the 17-inch 1703FP with all-in-one stand would have added $120.

Still, the combo configuration is slick and convenient. It’s a bit of a tight fit, taking us a few minutes to slide the computer onto the monitor-stand shelf properly and tighten two thumbscrews beneath, but once secured, it lets you lift and relocate the system one-handed. Neatniks can take advantage of a $9 item in our test configuration, a snap-on cable cover that extends the SX280’s chassis a few inches to help route the power, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and Ethernet cables from the system’s rear.

And before you dismiss $1,706 as too expensive for an office word-processing-and-spreadsheet station, let us point out that our OptiPlex had a couple of glamorous options, such as an NEC DVD+RW drive, which we daresay most bosses wouldn’t bother putting on every desktop.

Opting for a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive would have saved $110, just as downshifting from Intel’s Pentium 4 530 (3.0GHz) processor to the 520 (2.8GHz, with the same 1MB of Level 2 cache and 800MHz front-side bus) would have saved $40, and settling for a Celeron D would have saved even more. On the other hand, our system didn’t come with any software other than Windows XP Professional; Dell charges $49 for Corel WordPerfect Office 12 and $255 for Microsoft Office 2003 Small Business Edition. OptiPlex prices also include a three-year warranty with next-business-day on-site service.

Small But Mighty

 Dell's OptiPlex SX280

Small in stature but not in power, the Dell Optiplex SX280 makes an effective, if slightly pricey, business tool.

What sacrifices do you make for such a subcompact design? Expansion slots and drive bays, obviously: While a simple twist of a plastic knob pops open the OptiPlex’s case, the motherboard has neither PCI, AGP, nor PCI Express slots, just two DIMM sockets for up to 2GB of DDR-2 memory (our test unit had a pair of 256MB DDR-2/533 modules; penny-pinchers can opt for DDR-2/400).

There’s a single 3.5-inch internal bay for a desktop Serial ATA hard disk, and one 5.25-inch bay for a slim line optical or floppy drive, accommodating the same modular or swappable devices as Dell’s Latitude D series notebooks. (There’s even a 40GB, 5,400-rpm second hard drive available.)

The 915G chipset takes care of video, using Intel’s Graphics Media Accelerator 900 shared-system-memory platform that boasts more speed and DirectX 9 capability than its unlovable i865G Extreme Graphics 2 predecessor. If you want a PCI Express x16 slot for more CAD-capable 3D graphics, along with more expansion room, Dell will happily steer you to the SX280’s conventional chassis small desktop or mini-tower sibling, the OptiPlex GX280.

You also sacrifice old-fashioned PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, though you’ll find a classic serial and parallel port alongside five USB 2.0 ports at the rear. The back panel also holds an RJ-45 connector for the built-in Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet adapter, plus video and power-supply connectors and audio-in and -out jacks. Two more USB 2.0 ports and headphone and microphone jacks are up front. You won’t find an IEEE 1394 port &#151 office desktops with integrated graphics rarely perform digital-video-editing duty.

The video connector is a bit of a good news/bad news story: Since it’s a DVI port for a newfangled digital flat-panel display, you won’t be able to use your trusty analog monitor unless you spring for Dell’s DVI-to-VGA adapter cable (a $15 portion of our test system’s price). The good news is that the latter is a Y cable with both DVI and VGA outputs, so if you’re lucky enough to have corresponding monitors, the machine supports dual displays.

DDR-2 Makes a Difference
We’re on record as being skeptical about the price-versus-performance benefits of moving from DDR to DDR-2 SDRAM, but this system makes a decent argument for its DDR-2/533: Helped by the 80GB Western Digital Caviar SE hard disk &#151 a 7,200-rpm Serial ATA drive with 8MB buffer &#151 it earned a BAPCo SysMark 2004 test score of 171 (that’s good).

Dell still charges an extra $14 for an up-to-date optical instead of an antique rolling-ball mouse, which these days amounts to employee abuse, but the USB scrolling mouse proved comfortable and capable, as did the USB keyboard with browser-navigation and volume-control buttons.

The OptiPlex SX280 should be a first-class business desktop for years to come. It’s not cheap, but it’s small, swift, quiet, and it provides flexibility for multiple monitors and USB peripherals if not traditional under-the-hood expandability, and it sure can clear up cubicle room.

&#8226 Pros

A phonebook-sized desktop that offers up to Pentium 4 540 (3.2GHz) power, up to 250GB of Serial ATA storage, and dual-monitor support. The ultimate in desk-space savings: The computer hides behind nifty height-adjustable LCD monitor.

&#8226 Cons
Your mean boss will say, “Screw the space savings, it’s too expensive”

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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