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Q&A: Dell addresses XPS 630 issues

Q&A with Dell over problems with XPS 630 gaming desktop

Some Dell customers are not happy with this system. CNET

We posted earlier this weekabout the mounting frustrations of some Dell XPS 630 owners. This midrange gaming desktop earned an Editors' Choice award from us back in February, but we've been wondering (as have the readers who brought this issue to our attention in the first place) if we should think again in light of the problems reported by users on Dell's own support forum (pertinent threads are here and here), many of whom also post on Their influence prompted U.K. review outfit PC Pro to pull their award from their own XPS 630 review a few weeks ago.

As Dell's community support representative, Chris_M, has posted here, on Dell's forum, and elsewhere, fixes for two technical issues involving the external-hard-drive activity light and the system fans are currently in the works. The confusion over the promised, but seemingly absent, LightFX 2.0 LED customization software in this system is addressed in our Q&A below. Anne Camden, from Dell Corporate Communications, and Patrick Desbois, from Dell Engineering, answered questions on these various issues earlier today. We'll give you our verdict regarding the Editors' Choice award at the end.

Q: First, people have reported that the hard-drive lights on the exterior of the case seem to be working incorrectly. Most of the reports indicate excessive blinking.

Desbois: We've identified that issue. First of all, let's back up. The hard-drive lights work, it's that they're blinking at times when they shouldn't. We've identified a fix and are regressing that fix as we speak today.

Q: What does regressing mean?

Desbois: Just validating, making sure nothing is broken. It's just part of the standard product development cycle. There are a couple of ways to control the LED via SATA, via PATA, and our design implementation is one that will work, but we see that intermittently it can have times when the hard-drive light is blinking when it's not supposed to be. To get to the root cause of this we've looked at is the autoplay function on, is Vista doing something it shouldn't be doing. And when we root-caused it, it's an implementation fix that's needed to the front panel control board, the LED board itself.

Q: Will that fix require a firmware update?

Desbois: No, it's a hardware update; it's physically moving a resistor from one spot to another.

Q: So how would you roll that out to customers?

Desbois: How we roll that out to the customers is being worked on right now. It could mean anywhere from a patch in firmware, to a hardware fix to the resistor itself. We're trying to make it so it's easy for the customer without having to do a hardware replacement.

Q: Do you guys have an ETA on when you'll be able to communicate the plan?

Desbois: Imminently. Next few weeks.

Q: I assume this is something you didn't find during the initial qualification process for the 630.

Desbois: The validation tests identify and rigorously test if it's it blinking when it should be when there's hard-drive activity. And it is. And it's also from what we've seen intermittent and it has a very small failure rate, so through out the validation process we didn't see it.

Q: So it doesn't necessarily happen to every 630?

Desbois: That's correct.

Q: Is there a difference between the ones it happens to and the ones it doesn't?

Desbois: It could happen on any 630. The failure rate is very low, so it's hard to identify when it could happen. But it can happen on any 630.

Q: So what about LightFX 2.0?

Camden: What happened with Light FX, was with the launch of the 630, we transitioned the graphical user interface from a Dell developed application called QuickSet to the Nvidia Control Panel. And a lot of people were familiar with the QuickSet version from previous products. And we did not do a good job in communicating this difference, at all. The other thing is that when we moved it to the Nvidia tool, we had to give up a couple of features that we had in the previous generation.

One of the fan favorites was a plug-in, which we actually developed purely for demonstration purposes, but it allows the lights to "dance" to games, music, and videos. The Nvidia tool does not support that functionality at this point in time.

We're working with Nvidia to make the graphic interface a little better, but the other thing we're doing is we're working to get a version of the AlienFX solution [from Alienware], which is very similar, to use on the XPS 630 and 730. It's software development, it takes time, it's not something that's going to happen in the immediate future, but we are working on it, and we plan to have that available as a download in the near future, I'd say by the end of the summer. As soon as we can we will, we're working on it now, it just takes time to make it happen.

Q: Do you think when you say "LightFX" that people expect to see a dedicated application rather than having to use QuickSet or going through a tab in the Nvidia Control Panel? It sounds like LightFX is more of a concept.

Camden: I guess we erred on our perception of what the market perception was of LightFX. We felt LightFX was any kind of application that allows you to control your LEDs. We offered that with the 630, but it wasn't the same flavor as what had been available on previous products, but it still does give you that functionality. You still have control over your lighting regions, and you can make them different colors, etc. But rather than try to re-educate consumers, or rebrand it, we just called it LightFX. And we have a communication that we're going to post on the forums, etc. that pretty much shares what I just told you. As soon as I get it back from the legal eagles we'll post that.

Q: On to ESA and the issue of the spinning system fans. [ESA, if you're unfamiliar, is a technology announced by Nvidia earlier this year that provides a means for your computer to communicate with your various internal hardware components]. I think there's some confusion in general as far as what ESA really means and how it's implemented in a desktop.

Desbois: We developed ESA in parallel, and alongside, as partners, with Nvidia. So the whole ESA architecture has a very heavy hand in it from Dell. And the XPS 730 and the 630 were the first two products that we developed it with. The ESA architecture is actually a separate control board. It's a separate control board that controls fans, lighting, all of the value-added features that we added in our boxes. It's a controller with firmware, its own microcontroller that controls all of those things. But it's physically a separate board, if you open the 630 or a 730, you'll see a separate board, which is actually an ESA board and it holds the ESA architecture.

Q: Now as for the specific issue users reported, where adjusting the lights through the Nvidia Control Panel causes the system fans to spin up and then the software can't get them back to a normal level. The whole point of having ESA on this system is that it's supposed to let you control your fan speed, among other settings, via the software. This seems to be causing some problems.

Desbois: Yes, we have also seen those failures in the field, and it's a very, very, very low failure rate. We've identified and root-caused the issue, with the fans spinning up, we actually have firmware from Nvidia in-house that we have done a good chunk of validation to prove that it is resolved and expect to see a fix imminently. I don't have a time that I can quote you, but soon. More than likely it's a software fix available for download.

Q: So it's a software issue?

Desbois: Yes, it absolutely is.

Q: And that software will be a download from Dell.

Desbois: Yes, we will make it available for download, and I assume that Nvidia would put the same firmware upgrade on their Web site.

Q: And again, this is something we assume you didn't see during qualification. That brings up the larger question of how issues like this slip through to the finished product.

Desbois: You take an example of the last issue with the fans. The failure rate we're seeing is sub-1 percent. In terms of qualification through development, we did not see this failure. You're running in your product development process dozens to hundreds of systems through qualification. Sub-1 percent failure rates, from a statistical analysis perspective, requires more like thousands. So you start to see some of these lower failure rates in the field.

And it's not unexpected of any system to have sub-1 percent failure rates. We catch a majority of issues, thousands throughout the product development cycle, fix them, regress them. To us, we're not missing failure rates that are in the double-digits kind of numbers.

Q: This story has revealed some interesting things about Dell's tech support. For example, on the forum, Chris_M asked users to try various things to resolve their problems, but none of them were finalized fixes, and some users even took exception, feeling like Dell was using them as tech support guinea pigs. Does Dell normally rely on that kind of give-and-take for troubleshooting?

Camden: Let's look at the base customer for this product. They're gamers, they're tech enthusiasts, they actually go to forums and start looking to see (a) if anyone's having issues similar to theirs, (b) if they've posted a question about it, to see if anyone's posted a response. That's how they do their tech support. It works for this specific crowd, better than say a mainstream user who says "I have a system and it just doesn't work and if there's a problem don't make me change drivers, just fix it."

Our moderators are the first line of early warning. When they start seeing something that's getting a lot more views than a typical post, or if they start seeing a lot of people commenting on a post, we have a process in place where they red flag it and get people looking at it.

In this case we knew that people were having questions about LightFX several weeks ago, and frankly it was an internal process that's trying to figure out what's the best way to communicate this. You would think this is something that was easy, but other things were going on. We were exploring how quickly we could work with the AlienFX team. Was this a simple thing, or a hard thing? It ended up being a hard thing, but it took us a while to figure that out.

Our conclusion:

The good news is that Dell seems to know the cause of the main technical issues here, and that fixes are in the works. We'll be keeping tabs on those. We agree with Dell's own assessment that it did not communicate very effectively regarding LightFX 2.0. Even if the explanation that LightFX is more of an idea than an application, 2.0 generally implies more features, rather than less.

We've given this thought, though, and we don't find cause to remove the XPS 630's Editors' Choice award. For one, even if LightFX 2.0 is a promised questionably delivered, we find it in general a gimmick with little actual utility. It might be fun to play around with, but we'd be very surprised if anyone purchased this system specifically for its customizable LEDs. If you did, Dell informs us that you can return your system for that reason.

The bigger reason why we find this system still worthy of your gaming dollar (although you should definitely check out Maingear's new Prelude, too), is what Dell told us about the sub one-percent failure rating. We're inclined to believe that number, because Dell said what it would take to find an error with such low frequency, and it admitted that it, reasonably, does not go to those lengths. We find sub-one percent an acceptable rate of failure for electronic hardware.

Of course, none of what Dell had to say here or elsewhere solves the problems of those who are experiencing them, although hopefully Dell will wrap those solutions up soon. We'll be watching the Dell forum and we'll report here when the fixes are live. If after they do go live we find out that they don't work, you can expect we'll once again revisit our review of this system.