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Dell Inspiron 531 review:

Dell Inspiron 531

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The Good Sleek new case design; overachieving application performance; finally has a Wi-Fi adapter option; integrated Bluetooth (shortly after launch); new, mostly useful support software.

The Bad Some higher-end configuration options are limited to Dell's XPS line.

The Bottom Line The last of the major desktop vendors to update this year's desktops, Dell used that time to good advantage. On some tests, the Inspiron 531 is even faster than systems that cost $500 more. Keep your gaming and digital media ambitions modest, and this PC should deliver nearly everything you'd want in a mainstream system.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Support 8.0

The Dell Inspiron 531 (along with a handful of other new desktops) marks the introduction of a more streamlined Dell product family. For both laptops and desktops, the Inspiron line will represent its mainstream consumer PCs, with the XPS looping together the high-end products. In other words, so long Dimension, hello Inspiron, which makes a strong first impression with this new midtower system. Our $979 Inspiron 531 config is as fast or faster than others in its class and it also has a compelling set of features. Throw in its clean new looks, and this suddenly becomes the mainstream desktop we'd recommend first.

Consider the Inspiron 531 the spiritual successor to the Dimension E521. Both represent Dell's mainstream consumer desktop offering, with configuration options that let you build a system in a price range roughly between $350 and $1,500, not including peripherals and optional software. The new Inspiron also continues the Dimension 531's aesthetic update from the old Dimension 4000 series. While not quite as clean-lined as an Apple product, Dell's new desktop design is attractive enough so that you shouldn't feel embarrassed to keep it in public view.

Like the Dimension E521 we reviewed, our sample Inspiron 531 came with a 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ dual core processor. This new model has 2GB of faster 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, though, as well as a more recent 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600GT 3D card. The hard drive actually got a little smaller, down to roomy-enough 250GB from 320GB on the older Dell, but then the price of this system is actually about $50 less than the older system. We expect you'd be able to upgrade to a larger hard drive for about that price, giving the Inspiron a stronger config on balance.

Compare the Inspiron 531 to PCs from other vendors, though, and you'll find that this system stands out in both features and performance. Two key updates bring the Inspiron 531 in line with and even beyond its competition. Finally, Dell offers 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi via a PCI card. And it won't be available until "shortly after launch," according to Dell, but our review unit also came with Bluetooth functionality built into the 13-in-1 media card reader. You can get Bluetooth in a few other systems if you purchase an expensive Bluetooth-connected mouse-and-keyboard set, but no other mainstream midtower PC that we're aware of has an option for effectively integrated Bluetooth, as Dell has here.

We were also surprised by the Inspiron 531 on our performance tests. Most of the systems we've seen in the $1,000 to $1,500 category aim for speed on either basic applications or games. The Inspiron 531 is just as fast as it should be games-wise, giving you solid-enough Quake 4 performance as long as you keep the resolution reasonable. More exciting are its Cinebench and iTunes scores, which tied or outperformed the pricier Gateway DX430X. You can perform most any mainstream task with the Inspiron 531, and in some cases, much faster than we expected.

In addition to the speed and the various means of wireless connectivity, Dell rounds this system out with the standard optical drive combination of a DVD drive and a dual-layer DVD burner. We're a bit surprised that Dell doesn't even offer a Blu-ray drive as an option with this PC, but we suspect it's keeping that feature exclusive to the higher-end XPS line. We're at least glad to see one feature carry over to this system from more performance-minded systems--a new standard mouse that has two thumb-side buttons. Just know that once you go down the two-thumb-button road, you won't want to veer off.

Dell's service and support pulls more-or-less even with HP and Gateway with this new system by including a useful software front-end similar to HP's Total Care and Gateway's BigFix applications. Dell's support center is as easy to use as HP's software, and both include tools and how-to information to help you maintain your own PC. Dell's support center links primarily to online resources, which could put you in a bind if your Internet connection becomes a source of trouble. Still, it's handy to have all of that information presented in an easy-to-find manner.

In addition to its support center, Dell has also gotten a little more enterprising with its software and service offerings. A service called PC Tune-Up will, for "a small fee," perform automated tasks like defragging your system, setting restore points, and cleaning your registry. To Dell's credit, it also tells you how to do most of those things yourself via Windows' built-in tools.

Dell has also moved DataSafe, its name for redundant RAID 1 hard drives, online, giving you 3GB of online storage for one year. After that you can extend the duration of your storage for an amount to be determined, or upgrade to up to 30GB for $40 a year. We wouldn't exactly call that fee exorbitant, and it's, of course, optional. Still, it's hard for us to get too excited about it when you can get even more storage for free with no time limit through the creative use of various online e-mail providers.

In addition to the new software and the optional storage, Dell's basic support offerings remain largely the same. You get one year of parts and labor warranty coverage, as well as 24-7 toll-free tech support. Online, you'll find the same resources as outlined on Dell's new software, and Dell also continues to offer its Dell Connect service, which, with your permission, gives Dell's techs the option to take over your computer remotely to solve problems.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  
Dell Inspiron 531
Gateway DX430X

Quake 4 performance (in fps)

1,600 x 1,200 (4x AA, 8x AF)  
1,280 x 1,024 (4x AA, 8x AF)  
Gateway DX430X
Dell Inspiron 531

System configurations:

Cyberpower Gamer Ultra 8500 SE
Windows Vista Home Premium; 3.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000+; 1GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 320GB 7,200 rpm hard drive

Dell Inspiron 531
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 250GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive

Gateway DX430X
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6420; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 320MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card; 500GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive

HP Pavilion Media Center m77880n
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6400; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7600; 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive

Velocity Micro ProMagix 2035
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 320GB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive

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