The Dell Dimension 9100 is one of the few Media Center PCs we've seen that's as good for gaming as it is for TV, movies, and music. Our $2,499 review unit is a versatile Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 system that's also a killer game machine. Just don't plan on giving it a home in your living room; with its full-size tower, 20-inch LCD, and wired mouse and keyboard, the 9100 is more suited to a desk, a den, or a dorm room. Even so, you'll love its dual-core processor, dual TV tuners, dual hard drives, dual DVD drives, and other high-end features. This system barely misses a trick and is sure to please buyers with ample budgets. Those with less ample budgets can skip the LCD monitor and save about $500.
The Dell Dimension 9100 sits between Dell's other major lines: the high-end Dimension XPS and the midrange Dimension 5100. The XPS offers some options unavailable on the 9100, including a more powerful, dual-core Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840 processor and up to 1TB of hard drive space. The 5100 tops out with a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 551, a single 250GB hard drive, and an Nvidia GeForce 6800. The 9100 and the XPS both offer the expensive but impressive ATI Radeon X850 XT graphics card as an option.
The striking Dimension 9100 tower, a departure from Dell's black-and-gray steamer-trunk cases of old, features glossy white panels on either side and black optical-drive faceplates. You may wonder about the fist-size hole that spans the width of the tower below the DVD drives; it's a vent area for the CPU-cooling system. The Dimension 9100's BTX form factor puts the CPU near the front of the case instead of the rear and aligns the other heat-generating components on the motherboard for more efficient cooling. Sure enough, the system is much quieter than most--an important factor for a Media Center system. Only the video-card fan makes any noticeable noise, and it's not enough to be bothersome.
True to the BTX form factor, the Dimension 9100's right-side panel easily pops off (instead of the more traditional left one). Inside, the only available expansion options are a single PCI Express slot and a pair of empty SDRAM sockets. Externally, you can connect up to seven USB and three FireWire devices. Dell also serves up 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a pair of 160GB Serial ATA hard drives, two DVD drives (one a double-layer burner), and a 9-in-1 media reader.
Despite the lack of expansion slots, you won't need to add too many aftermarket upgrades; our Dimension 9100 test system came stocked for long-haul computing. Speed buffs will appreciate its dual-core 3.2GHz Pentium D 840 processor, which is designed for multimedia tasks, such as video encoding, and the upcoming 64-bit operating systems and software. It trailed the nearly identical dual-core 3.2GHz Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840 in the Dell Gen 5 XPS enthusiast system, falling 6 percent behind the XPS on SysMark 2004. The ABS Ultimate X8 also uses the Extreme Edition 840 chip, and it powered past both Dells, performing 14 percent faster than the Dell Dimension 9100 on SysMark 2004. The Ultimate X8 has two advantages over the Dimension 9100: XP Pro is a leaner OS than XP Media Center, and the Extreme Edition 840 chip features Hyper-Threading, while the Pentium D 840 does not.
On CNET Labs' multimedia performance tests (run on dual-core systems), the Dell Dimension 9100 fared better, posting times that were nearly identical to those turned in by the ABS Ultimate X8 and the Dimension XPS Gen 5. Still, in our limited experience with dual-core processors, the early edge goes to AMD's Athlon 64 X2 CPU, based on performance we saw from an AMD white box system. Unfortunately, Dell sells only Intel chips.
The Dimension 9100 is also well equipped for multimedia. Its 256MB GeForce 6800 graphics card does a decent job with Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and other visually demanding games. In our Half-Life 2 tests, the Dimension 9100 fell behind the XPS, pushing 37.2fps at a resolution of 1,600x1,200. The XPS, with its superior ATI Radeon X850 XT, scored 32 percent higher. The ultra-high-end ABS Ultimate X8, with two SLI GeForce 7800 GTX cards, had a 43 percent faster frame rate.
The perfect companion to all this gaming is Dell's UltraSharp 2005FPW Widescreen Digital Flat Panel. This LCD definitely turns heads, and not just because it's a dazzling 20-inch wide screen. It can also rotate 90 degrees, great for applications that benefit from a Portrait orientation. Rotating the LCD also makes for easier access to the expansion ports tucked behind it: USB 2.0, S-Video out, and composite video out. A 20-inch, wide-screen LCD not in the budget? Fear not, Dell offers less expensive monitor options.
The gorgeous wide-screen display makes us long all the more for HDTV support. Although the Dimension 9100 sports two TV tuners, a truly high-end Media Center (HP's z555 comes to mind) would also include an option like ATI's HDTV Wonder, which enables you to view and record over-the-air HD broadcasts. Even so, we can't complain about the system's otherwise excellent TV and DVR capabilities.
If TV recording and playback isn't a priority, the highly configurable Dell 9100 is also available with Windows XP Home or XP Pro (but not Windows XP Pro x64 yet), and without TV tuner cards. Bundled applications are geared toward come-ons to purchase upgraded versions and include Musicmatch Jukebox Basic, a trial version of QuickBooks, Corel WordPerfect 12.0, and Corel Photo Album Basic.
Our other complaints with the Dimension 9100 are few. Although Dell's 100-watt, 5.1-channel 5650 speaker system (paired with integrated 7.1-channel audio) produces wall-rattling sound, we found the subwoofer a little weak. Also, the wired keyboard and mouse may suit gamers, but they're not ideal for a Media Center PC. If it were up to us, we'd go wireless.
Following a recent trend we are unhappy to see, Dell has trimmed its standard warranty to 90 days of parts-and-labor coverage, which includes onsite service and free 24/7 phone support. We strongly recommend spending the additional $22 for a full year of coverage. Two-, three-, and four-year plans are also available. A quick-start poster is included, but instead of a printed manual, Dell provides an electronic one. Dell's site offers a deep knowledge base and lets you contact tech support via e-mail or live chat.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Doom 3 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF||Doom 3 1,024x768, 4xAA 8xAF||Half-Life 2 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF||Half-Life 2 1,024x768 4xAA 8xAF|
(Lower times are better)
|Sorenson Squeeze 4.0 video encoding test (in seconds)||Adobe Photoshop CS test (in seconds)||Apple iTunes 18.104.22.168 MP3 encoding test (in seconds)|
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
ABS Ultimate X8
Windows XP Professional SP2; 3.2GHz Intel P4 Extreme Edition 840; Intel Nvidia Nforce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 256MB (2) Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (PCIe SLI); two WDC WD740GD-00FLA2 74GB SATA 10,000rpm; Hitachi HDS724040KLSA80 400GB SATA 7,200rpm; integrated Nvidia Nforce4 Intel Edition SATA RAID Controller
Apple Power Mac G5 dual 2.7GHz
Macintosh OS 10.4; dual PowerPC G5 2.7GHz; 4,096MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (AGP); 250GB Maxtor Serial ATA hard drive
Dell Dimension XPS Gen 5
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 3.2GHz Intel P4 Extreme Edition 840; Intel 955X Express chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB ATI Radeon X850XT PE (PCIe); two WDC WD2500JD-00GBB0 250GB Seral ATA 7,200rpm; integrated Intel 82801GR/GH SATA RAID Controller (RAID 0)
Dell Dimension 9100
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 3.2GHz Intel Pentium D 840; Intel 945GP chip set; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 (PCIe); two WDC WD160JD-75HBB0 160GB Serial ATA 7,200rpm; integrated Intel 82801GR/GH SATA RAID Controller (RAID 0)
HP Pavilion d4100e
Windows XP Home SP2; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 4000+; ATI Radeon RS480 (ATI Radeon X200 Xpress) chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 (PCIe); Seagate ST3400832AS 400GB 7,200rpm, Serial ATA