Dell Dimension 9100
The Dell Dimension 9100 is one of the few Media Center PCs we've seen that's as good for gaming as it is for TV, movies, and music. Our $2,499 review unit is a versatilesystem that's also a killer game machine. Just don't plan on giving it a home in your living room; with its full-size tower, 20-inch LCD, and wired mouse and keyboard, the 9100 is more suited to a desk, a den, or a dorm room. Even so, you'll love its dual-core processor, dual TV tuners, dual hard drives, dual DVD drives, and other high-end features. This system barely misses a trick and is sure to please buyers with ample budgets. Those with less ample budgets can skip the LCD monitor and save about $500.
The Dell Dimension 9100 sits between Dell's other major lines: the high-endand the midrange . The XPS offers some options unavailable on the 9100, including a more powerful, dual-core Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840 processor and up to 1TB of hard drive space. The 5100 tops out with a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 551, a single 250GB hard drive, and an Nvidia GeForce 6800. The 9100 and the XPS both offer the expensive but impressive ATI Radeon X850 XT graphics card as an option.
The striking Dimension 9100 tower, a departure from Dell's black-and-grayof old, features glossy white panels on either side and black optical-drive faceplates. You may wonder about the fist-size hole that spans the width of the tower below the DVD drives; it's a vent area for the CPU-cooling system. The Dimension 9100's BTX form factor puts the CPU near the front of the case instead of the rear and aligns the other heat-generating components on the motherboard for more efficient cooling. Sure enough, the system is much quieter than most--an important factor for a Media Center system. Only the video-card fan makes any noticeable noise, and it's not enough to be bothersome.
True to the BTX form factor, the Dimension 9100's right-side panel easily pops off (instead of the more traditional left one). Inside, the only available expansion options are a single PCI Express slot and a pair of empty SDRAM sockets. Externally, you can connect up to seven USB and three FireWire devices. Dell also serves up 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a pair of 160GB Serial ATA hard drives, two DVD drives (one a double-layer burner), and a 9-in-1 media reader.
Despite the lack of expansion slots, you won't need to add too many aftermarket upgrades; our Dimension 9100 test system came stocked for long-haul computing. Speed buffs will appreciate its dual-core 3.2GHz Pentium D 840 processor, which is designed for multimedia tasks, such as video encoding, and the upcoming 64-bit operating systems and software. It trailed the nearly identical dual-core 3.2GHz Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840 in theenthusiast system, falling 6 percent behind the XPS on SysMark 2004. The ABS Ultimate X8 also uses the Extreme Edition 840 chip, and it powered past both Dells, performing 14 percent faster than the Dell Dimension 9100 on SysMark 2004. The Ultimate X8 has two advantages over the Dimension 9100: XP Pro is a leaner OS than XP Media Center, and the Extreme Edition 840 chip features Hyper-Threading, while the Pentium D 840 does not.
On CNET Labs' multimedia performance tests (run on dual-core systems), the Dell Dimension 9100 fared better, posting times that were nearly identical to those turned in by the ABS Ultimate X8 and the Dimension XPS Gen 5. Still, in our limited experience with dual-core processors, the early edge goes to AMD's Athlon 64 X2 CPU, based on performance we saw from an AMD white box system. Unfortunately, Dell sells only Intel chips.
The Dimension 9100 is also well equipped for multimedia. Its 256MB GeForce 6800 graphics card does a decent job with Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and other visually demanding games. In our Half-Life 2 tests, the Dimension 9100 fell behind the XPS, pushing 37.2fps at a resolution of 1,600x1,200. The XPS, with its superior ATI Radeon X850 XT, scored 32 percent higher. The ultra-high-end ABS Ultimate X8, with two SLI cards, had a 43 percent faster frame rate.