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Dell's formerly bland case offerings take an interesting new turn with the 9100. There's no denying the Apple influence here and, although Dell's designers don't appear to have the confidence to create anything sparklingly original, it's the bright white chassis that is the most striking detail on Dell's new desktop. While this is of little consequence to the machine's operational abilities, it's interesting to note a developing trend towards friendlier-looking chassis designs that appeal to a more general consumer.
Changes here are more than skin-deep: the 9100 runs a 64-bit Pentium 4 dual-core processor. Unfortunately, Windows XP Professional is the only Microsoft OS that currently takes advantage of a 64-bit processor and, even then, few applications are optimised. Linux users, on the other hand, will be able to install one of the many 64-bit versions of their OS. The 9100 also meets BTX (Balance Technology eXtended) standards -- a system of thermal management designed to keep PCs running cooler.
The 9100 can be configured to your specifications when you place your order. Our review model was stocked with a capable nVidia 6800 graphics card and a healthy 1GB of RAM.
Aside from the fresh white panels, the 9100 introduces several major changes to the Dell chassis. Gone is the cumbersome case-opening mechanism, and in its place is a simple screwless catch on the top of the case that pulls back to release the right-hand side panel. This panel detaches completely to give access to all of the computer's key components, letting you swap out hard disks, add memory or insert PCI cards. It's not always easy to reattach the side panel, but it's considerably less hassle than some other solutions we've seen.
Dell isn't renowned for a quirky attitude to computer design, but the 9100 has one of the most novel-looking cooling solutions we've seen yet (if not quite as unusual as Sony's VAIO Media Center PC). The front of the computer includes a kind of wind tunnel that runs straight through the chassis. Air is drawn out of the chassis and exhausted through both sides of the front of the unit, as well as at the rear. Dual-core Intel chips run fairly hot and Dell seems to have been more than cautious in designing a chassis that can cope with the dispersion of heat. The front wind tunnel is big enough to double as a useful hand grip. This is convenient if you cart your machine around the house from time to time, but the slightly sharp edges on the hole bite into your hand like a frisky terrier. It's nothing to get litigious over, but it could have been a less painful experience.
The front of the chassis is relatively non-descript. It's a neutral grey and black affair, and our review model came with one DVD drive and one DVD-recorder drive. These allow for one DVD to be copied straight to another without temporarily storing an image on your hard disk. Acknowledging the overwhelming number of digital cameras out there, Dell gives you the option to include Compact Flash, SmartMedia/xD, Memory Stick and SD/MMC card readers in the front panel. The rear of the machine is also a clean and tidy design with well-labelled ports and plenty of ventilation.
One of the more interesting inclusions in our 9100 was two 160GB hard disks set up in a RAID 0 (also known as 'stripe') configuration. This treats the two drives as a single contiguous hard disk, switching between the two while writing a stream of data. In theory, this increases the speed of your hard-disk activity because two drive heads are skittering across the platters at the same time. In practical terms, you might see a drive performance increase of around 30 per cent using a RAID 0 array. On the downside, because data is split almost at random between the two disks, if one breaks down you effectively lose all your data on both disks.
The alternatives are to set up the drives as entirely separate logical drives, or, for the technically minded, to set them up as a RAID 1 or 'mirror' array. RAID 1 differs from RAID 0 in that it writes the same data to both disks simultaneously, effectively using one drive as a backup. Although RAID 1 means that your two 160GB drives give a collective storage capacity of 160GB, as opposed to RAID 0's 320GB, the advantage is that you have an automatic backup of all your data if something goes wrong. The 9100 can be ordered with the drives configured as a RAID 1 array if you prefer.
The graphics card on our review model was an nVidia 6800, and this provides sufficient clout for gaming, but there is also the option to configure the 9100 with the meagre ATI Radeon X600 (and save £82). While this won't disappoint any business user, the kids are going to hate it. The card on our 9100 provided both old-school VGA and the newer DVI connectors. If you're in the market for a screen, we can't recommend a DVI-equipped monitor enough. The clarity of colour and sharpness is spectacular.
As with any PC in a tower chassis like this, there is the option to add and remove hard disks, motherboards and PCI cards to your heart's content. The ease with which you can remove the side panel on the Dell makes upgrading components as easy as building with Lego.
The 9100's relatively low cost belies what is a surprisingly capable machine. Office applications ran at a nippy pace, although few modern machines are likely to be taxed by productivity applications like Word and PowerPoint. Stepping things up a notch, we installed the hit game Battlefield 2 on our review model.
Battlefield 2 ran at an impressive clip, though not at a resolution remotely comparable to the Alienware systems we've reviewed. Textures rendered passably and the overall gaming experience wasn't overwhelmingly diminished much, despite lower frame rates than we've been able to achieve on dedicated gaming boxes. Having said this, the 9100 is not pitched as a gaming machine and it would be more practical to consider it as a high-end home office workhorse with enough gaming performance to keep little Timmy extremely happy after school.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide