Even if it's not the fastest performer around, the XPS 420 still offers more features than any other mainstream desktop. If you opt for the package we have, you could use the XPS 420 to watch and record unencrypted TV, and then use the Xcelerator to help you change those recordings into PSP- or iPod-friendly video formats. You could also use the XPS 420 to watch Blu-ray movies and stream unencrypted HD content, or anything else, really, to another networked playback device over the wide bandwidth 802.11n, aka Draft N, connection. That all sounds great, and some of it no other mainstream desktop can do, but there are a few limitations.
First, Dell is a Blu-ray-only house. The $350 for the Blu-ray drive upgrade isn't bad, but we'd much rather see an admittedly more expensive HD DVD/Blu-ray combo drive, as offered by both HP and Velocity Micro via their respective built-to-order systems.
We also didn't love the usability of the Xcelerate MPEG-2 transcoder. It's essentially a ViXS Xcode 2110 chip tied to a set of S-Video and composite video and audio inputs in an attractive package that's been integrated into the front-panel design. Dell is unique in offering such a well-integrated hardware solution to assist you in converting video files, but the accompanying software is lacking. You have to go through Roxio's bundled Creator Premiere suite and muddle your way through its non-intuitive video editing options. A dedicated mini app for the specific purpose of converting video to various formats would be much preferable.
We should also add that the 802.11n wireless adapter that came with our system won't be available until a few weeks after launch, although its mini application is outstanding as far as giving you information about available networks, including whether a network supports wireless standards a, b, g, or n. And unless you already have or plan to buy dedicated external storage, you're also probably not going to want a redundant DataSafe hard-drive setup, as Dell sent to us. DataSafe is essentially a RAID 1 hard-drive configuration, in which one drive acts as the mirror of the other, giving you an automatic backup drive. That's a useful feature, of course, but for a real digital-media system, you're going to want as much storage as you can get, and we don't think 320GB will last you that long.
Those criticisms are for the most part minor, and there's also plenty here that we like. No other desktop vendor but Apple currently offers or has announced plans to offer 802.11n networking. If you're trying to stream HD video or multiple streams at once, you'll definitely benefit from the wider bandwidth networking. We also like that Dell integrates Bluetooth (via the optional media card reader) and the SideShow screen. Both of those are forward-looking features that extend the capabilities of this system.
Speaking of Apple though, because the iMac is a non-HD, more-or-less fixed configuration, it might not make the most intuitive comparison to the XPS 420, but we should point out that Apple still has a leg up in terms of keeping your desktop tidy. From the IR sensor for the remote, to the Bluetooth radio, to the wireless-networking antenna, Apple keeps as much of the hardware as it can enclosed within the iMac's case. We like that Dell has integrated Bluetooth into the media card reader, but the Wi-Fi antenna and the remote receiver are still external. We'd love to see any major desktop vendor find a way to cram all of that stuff inside a traditional midtower.
Software-wise, though, Dell has made a significant step toward competing with Apple's iLife Suite. The Adobe Elements Studio package includes Photoshop Elements 6, Premiere Elements 4 for video editing, and SoundBooth CS3 for playing with audio files. Both Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements are "light" versions of their Adobe Creative Suite 3 counterparts, but they promise roughly the same functionality as Apple's iPhoto and iMovie, with SoundBooth CS3 stacking up against GarageBand. You can debate the basic fundamentals of Vista versus the Mac OS, but the fact that Dell includes the Adobe suite finally gives Windows loyalists an answer to those Apple fans who like to hold up iLife as an example of Apple's superiority.
Dell's support is also superior to Apple's and competes well against other Windows vendors. In addition to the standard one year of parts-and-labor coverage, you also get 24-7 toll-free phone support, as well as a year of onsite service. Dell also includes a handful of utilities to help you maintain your system and get help, and it also has its DirectConnect tool, which lets you chat live with a Dell technician and gives you the capability to grant a technician remote access to your PC for faster service.
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Mac OS X; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7700; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics chip; 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive
Dell XPS 420
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; two 320GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drives
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 3GB 1,066MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8500GT graphics card; two 500GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drives
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 3GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS graphics card; two 320GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drives
Windows Vista Ultimate; 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6850; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 320GB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card; two 320GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drives