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Eschewing the traditional bland beige-and-black cases popular with most PC manufacturers, Dell has taken a bold new direction with the 5100. Gone are the black chassis and the floppy disc drive. While the front of the new case is not going to be exhibited in the Tate Modern, the sides are a glorious, relaxing blanc.
The changes to Dell's new desktop line-up are more than cosmetic: the 5100 can be equipped with up to 4GB of RAM (though current versions of Windows can only use 2GB of this). There's also a range of optional hard-disk set-ups that allow for RAID configurations that were previously the sole preserve of much more expensive machines.
Although the new white livery is the most arresting part of the new design, the 5100's chassis is better equipped for quick access to internal components -- the clumsy opening mechanism of earlier Dell desktops has been updated with an extremely simple side-panel release system. This side panel can be removed from the case by pulling on a handle positioned on the top of the chassis. Once it's detached, the hard disks, memory and PCI slots are unveiled. Replacing the panel can be fiddly, but a hinged panel would have been more inconvenient, especially where access might be restricted by whatever else lurks on, or under, your desk.
We don't expect to see a Dell machine on the cover of Wallpaper* magazine, but the 5100 uses a quite unusual air-cooling method. The front of the chassis has a cut-out section running through it, just behind the fascia. Hot air is propelled from the inside of the case and expelled into this cut-out, and out either side. It's an interesting way to cool the front of the unit without having to introduce complex venting channels. What could have been a very clumsy situation (a fan in the front of the case) has been turned into a fairly elegant feature of the chassis design, and one that overcomes the cooling problems created by jamming the back of your PC up against a wall. The dual-core Intel processor that the 5100 uses can run quite hot, and this would explain Dell's sensible provision of ventilation.
The front of the case is a return to the uninspiring 1980s era of PC design. It's a boring grey-and-black panel. Our test machine came with a DVD writer, but no floppy drive (although it's available as a £23.50 extra). In the slot where you'd expect to find a floppy drive, there are CF, SMC, MS and SD/MMC card readers -- a godsend for digital camera enthusiasts. The back of the chassis is also a clean and tidy design with clearly marked cable sockets and a large ventilation grill.
The 5100 comes with Windows XP preinstalled. It's a sensible choice, but won't -- at least in its current incarnation -- take advantage of the dual-core processor. You'll have to install Linux or wait for future versions of Windows before your 5100 can be driven to its limits. The processor in our review model was a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 with 1MB L2 cache, the highest spec chip available, and £176 more than the basic 2.8GHz option. This makes it a sturdy home-office workhorse, with plenty of headroom for more advanced applications like amateur video editing and retouching digital photos. The 800MHz front-side bus also provides respectable bandwidth, and won't be taxed by anything that a user at the entry level of the market is likely to throw at it.
The graphics card on our review model was a 128MB X300 ATI, and this provides sufficient clout for basic gaming, but there is also the option to configure the 9100 with the 256MB X600 ATI, a more boisterous graphics card, but which nevertheless can't deliver the kind of punch that today's really demanding games beg for. While this won't flummox a business user, your offspring may scream and shout if the neighbour's Alienware plays Battlefield 2 three times as fast.
The card on our 5100 provided both old-school VGA and the newer DVI connectors. If you're looking for a monitor for use with the Dell, we'd strongly recommend you opt for a DVI model, as the sharpness and clarity of these new digital screens can't be beaten. A DVI monitor requires special cables, but these are bundled with most monitors. There was also an S-video out on the Dell, which is useful for connection to a projector or television screen. It's a feature we're more used to seeing on laptops, and domestic applications for the S-video out may be limited. Still, it's an interesting video output alternative, and will let you watch DVDs or downloaded movies on your home TV.
As with most tower PCs, because of the easy access to internal components, you can swap out hard disks, motherboards and PCI cards with relative ease. Most users probably won't need to upgrade components in the 5100. It seems fair to assume that extreme gamers will not be opting for the 5100, in which case you're unlikely to need much more power than the 5100 provides. It's an extremely swift machine for home computing tasks. Unless Microsoft releases a horribly processor-intensive version of Windows in the near future (and that's not beyond the bounds of possibility) the 5100, while no gaming monster, is capable even as a professional's machine. The only upgrade that seems immediately obvious is to equip the 5100 with FireWire so that footage can be transferred from your DV camcorder for editing -- an option on Dell's Configure page that's just £17.63.
The 5100 is so cheap, at £499 for the basic version, that it's almost disposable. Dell is a business-studies textbook example of economies of scale in action. Judging from our experience of the machine, it's extremely capable, despite its lowly price sticker, and its build quality matched what we'd seen from the slightly pricier Dimension 9100: both were very solid, respectable chassis. Office applications on the 5100 ran like a tornado, but, predictably, cracks began to show when we fired up Battlefield 2. The comparison between the 5100 and a dedicated games machine like the Alienware Aurora 7500 SLI seems unfair to make, but for reference at least, know that the 5100 won't deliver much more gaming chutzpah than a PlayStation 2.
Playing Hitman: Contracts, an older game, revealed that textures rendered at a reasonable pace and the general gaming experience was not overly sluggish. Understandably, the 5100 is not pitched as a gaming machine. However, in all tasks other than games, it bumbled along at a sprightly jaunt. Home users on a budget should consider the 5100 as their first port of call. In a low-cost PC retail landscape riddled with Fagin-like conmen and DIY systems held together with bailing twine, the Dell 5100 comes as a welcome relief.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide