Dell Dimension XPS Gen 3 review: Dell Dimension XPS Gen 3

3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good 20.1-inch flat-panel display; dual-layer DVD burner; revamped interior access to the case; great front-panel glow.

The Bad Marginal speakers for such a high-priced entertainment PC.

The Bottom Line The Dell Dimension XPS can do almost anything you want it to, but if you're looking for a showpiece quality computer, we've seen more-polished PCs from other vendors.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Service and support 7.0

Review Summary

In its new $3,700 Dimension XPS, Dell has taken the stellar performance of the 3.6GHz-powered Dimension 8400 and transplanted it into a larger, sharper case. The new chassis brings some extra connectivity and an ambitious take on custom case lighting, and Dell couples the unit with an expansive 20-inch LCD monitor, a pair of high-end optical drives, and a better mouse. Are all of these bells and whistles worth an additional $600 over the Dimension 8400? If you demand the best of everything in a do-it-all desktop, then probably, although you can find more customization and more polished assembly (and generally higher prices) from the Alienwares and Falcon Northwests of the world. If all you're after is sheer performance, it's hard to justify the additional cost of the Dimension XPS; the Dimension 8400 offers nearly identical speed for less. While we can't knock the Dell Dimension XPS's performance, we have plenty to say about the steamer trunk case--and not all good. Dell uses this style of case throughout its desktop lines, and we hope it moves to a new design soon. The case remains tool-free, and at 19 by 9 by 19 inches (HWD), you have plenty of room for upgrades, with direct access to the tool-free drive bays on one side and the electronics on the other. But here's the catch: Dell can't compete with the smaller vendors and their pristine case interiors. On those PCs, including those from Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and Voodoo, cables are tightly bound and neatly arranged, maximizing airflow and making parts swapping a breeze. Dell's interior is not sloppy, but once you've seen a PC with origami-style cable folding and perpendicularly oriented hard drives, anything less seems pedestrian.

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Neither the oversize latch nor the steamer trunk case are particularly elegant solutions.

If you can get past your inner perfectionist, you'll find that the Dimension XPS is designed fairly well, with some genuinely creative touches. Most noticeably, this is the first desktop we've seen with selectable colored lighting. From the BIOS, you can set the LED behind the silver plate on the front of the box to one of seven colors (you can also choose to turn off the light altogether). The case features a smart front-panel drive bay cover that rolls out of the way to the side of the box, which minimizes the risk that you might accidentally break it off. Also, the front connectors (one FireWire, two USB 2.0, and a headphone and mic jacks) are positioned on the top half of the case within easy reach. Finally, by placing the power supply and its pair of fans in a completely separate compartment in the bottom of the case, Dell allows you to string the power cable closer to the surface of your work space, minimizing the vinelike mess of wiring strung off the back of your PC.

The rest of the Dimension XPS is pretty much computer as usual. The back panel features six USB 2.0 ports and an additional FireWire port, as well as an integrated Gigabit Ethernet jack. On the inside, two of the three front-accessible 5.25-inch bays are filled with optical drives, and there's only one free 3.5-inch drive bay, with two currently occupied. A front-panel 3.5-inch bay molded for a floppy drive feels remarkably out-of-date; we'd much rather see a media card reader in this spot. You'll find two of the four memory slots available, as well as three of the four PCI slots, although the slot adjacent to the PCI Express graphics card might prove a tight fit. There's also an available x1 PCI Express slot, so you'll be ready to go just as soon as someone releases an expansion card that can fit in such a slot.

Although the Dell Dimension XPS comes bearing Intel's impressive new 925X Express chipset and a 3.6GHz Intel Pentium 4 560 CPU, both the older Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and AMD's Athlon FX-53 have traditionally shown faster performance in certain applications. Then again, systems loaded out with either of the latter high-ticket, hard-to-find parts can easily run you a few thousand dollars more than the $3,700 Dimension XPS, so while you'll not be getting the absolute cream, Dell delivers at least somewhat more affordable froth.

Systems using the aforementioned faster chips can't offer PCI Express (PCIe) slots, since neither of their companion chipsets support the new expansion standard that adds greater bandwidth for graphics cards and other upgrades. The Dell Dimension XPS, however, does. Dell bundles the smoking-fast PCIe 256MB ATI Radeon X800 XT with the Dimension XPS, and while we haven't seen performance increases that we can attribute to PCIe, at least you'll be prepared when games come out that can take advantage of the new spec. You also get 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 system memory, expandable to up to 4GB.

Need the best monitor to display your flashy new graphics capability? You can certainly do a lot worse than the 20.1-inch Dell UltraSharp 2001FP LCD monitor. We were impressed by the maximum resolution of 1,600x1,200 and the 85-degree horizontal and vertical viewing angles, which make this a great monitor for watching DVDs. Playing games is another story. We certainly can't say that the image quality is awful, but don't be too impressed by the rated 16ms response time. A number of monitor vendors have been touting this newly achieved response time (essentially a measure of how long it takes to switch between colors) as the fastest yet; in reality, however, the monitor responds that quickly only when switching from true black to true white. One of the inherent problems of current LCD screens is that moving to finer shades of color takes considerably longer, which is why serious gamers still swear by more responsive CRTs. We humbly suggest that if you're thinking of dropping more than $3,500 on a PC designed primarily for playing computer games, you might consider a CRT yourself.

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We've heard better speakers, but fitting the center channel to the underside of the monitor is a smart design move.

Almost every top-of-the-line system arrives with two optical drives, and so does the Dell Dimension XPS. Accompanying a 48X CD-RW drive, the dual-layer LG GRA 4120B multiformat DVD burner will make you well prepared for the future widespread availability of dual-layer media, onto which you can fit an entire uncompressed Hollywood movie (legally, of course). You'll also find a pair of 160GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drives in a RAID 0 array, which provides plenty of storage for video files, as well as a pair of SATA ports available on the motherboard should you need to expand.

Considering the Dell Dimension XPS's large screen and Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 card, this machine will make a great makeshift home theater. To that end, we like at least the design of Dell's 100-watt 5.1 5650 speakers because you can clip the center channel underneath any Dell UltraSharp monitor. But since the Dell speakers don't offer enough wattage to sustain the audio quality at higher volumes, we suggest upgrading to a higher-end set of Klipsch speakers, which will set you back another $250 if you add them instead of the 5650's at the time of purchase. Also, the wired Dell Enhanced Multimedia Keyboard does have a media control wheel, but for the price of this system, we'd expect a wireless mouse and keyboard set from Logitech. You can add one on Dell's site, but it'll cost you another $30.

Application performance
Because they share basically the same configuration, the Dell Dimension XPS and the Dimension 8400 have nearly identical performance. This illustrates our point that if you can do without some of the Dimension XPS's high-end peripherals, you can spend $800 less for equivalent speed. You can also see that based on the BAPCo SysMark 2004 results, the scores for the two Dells and competing Intel 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and AMD Athlon FX-53-based PCs were also essentially identical. These amazingly high scores make plain the fact that any of these cream-of-the-crop PCs will blaze through almost whatever combination of day-to-day applications you care to throw at them.

Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  

To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).

3D graphics and gaming performance
The 3D results in this comparison are interesting for a number of reasons and help us illustrate the performance differences (or lack thereof) between a number of new technologies. First, if you compare the high-end Unreal Tournament 2003 1,600x1,200 scores, you can see the huge performance gap between the three systems that use graphics cards based on ATI's new Radeon X800 XT (like the Dell Dimension XPS) and the two that rely on Nvidia's last-generation GeForce FX 5950 Ultra cards. While this is a clear testament to the power of ATI's new tech, you can also see that the fastest system, the ABS Ultimate M5-64 , uses an AGP version of the Radeon X800, not PCI-Express. However, the ABS system's higher frame rates are likely attributable to the system's 2GB of memory, not because AGP is somehow faster than PCIe.

If you're wondering why the Dimension XPS lost to the nigh-identical Dimension 8400 on the 1,024x768 Unreal test, we would point to the graphics driver software that shipped on each system. If the systems used the same driver version, you would most likely see nearly identical performance. And as for how the Dimension XPS stacks up overall, by posting a score of 114 frames per second (fps) on the high-end Unreal Tournament 2003 test, it's clear that this PC will deliver outstanding performance in games set to the highest detail settings. You can expect that if you play newer games, such as Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, you may see some performance drop-off, but with so much headroom, losing even 40fps wouldn't dramatically affect gaming performance.

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