We're used to seeing weak graphics cards in mainstream desktops, although we've been hoping that the hardware demands of Windows Vista would encourage vendors to take graphics a little more seriously. The ATI Radeon X1300 Pro 3D card is the best option Dell offers for the Dimension E521, and this surprised us because it's a HyperMemory card, which means, despite having its own 256MB of RAM, it will also bite off some of the system memory when the graphics need an extra boost. It's better than an integrated chip, at least, and Dell offset this issue by loading up our review unit with 2GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM and pairing the memory with a powerful 2.6GHz Athlon 64 X2 5000+ processor. As our tests showed, that core configuration is powerful enough to get Vista to run well enough, as long as you keep your ambitions modest.
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Our application tests tell the most important story about the Dimension E521: its fast CPU pays off big in bang for the buck. Our major comparison system here is the Gateway DX420X, a $1,600 PC that has a faster Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 chip in it. Naturally, the more expensive Gateway PC beats the $1,000 Dell, but every test other than our game tests, it didn't win by much. The Dimension E521 came in at a near tie with the Gateway on our iTunes test, which shows us that Dell is offering a strong deal in overall computing with this PC.
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The one big drawback is that the Dimension E521's CPU can't make up for the weak graphics card. The Dell couldn't even manage a playable frame rate on our most forgiving Quake 4 test. Typically, we'd recommend just upgrading to a better graphics card on the configurator, but the ATI Radeon X1300 is the highest-end model Dell offers with the Dimension E521. The message, then, is that if you want even a passable game PC from Dell, you're better off looking at the XPS line.
If you're not into gaming, though, there's plenty this Dimension E521 can do. Its 320GB hard drive and combination of DVD burner and DVD/CD-RW optical drives make it more than capable for archiving your photos, music, and video files. Otherwise, this is a fairly spare PC, with no audio card, TV tuner, or other extras, in either hardware or software. You'll find the usual assortment of upgrades on Dell's Web site, including monitors, printers, software bundles, TV tuners, and so on. A single spare hard drive bay stands ready to accept a second drive if you decide you want more internal storage. There's room for one standard PCI card and a single x1 PCI Express card, so you have some leeway for pre- or post-purchase component upgrades as well. Dell also continues to run its aggressive, ever-changing offers with its systems. At the time of this writing, Dell was highlighting free shipping and handling and an instant $170 rebate on the Dimension E521.
As for Windows Vista on this machine, we can report that it runs well. We didn't notice any obvious compatibility issues with the hardware or the software that Dell sent us. But we did have some trouble with CNET's own multitasking test: It wouldn't run without freezing, which is why there's no chart with those results. Whether that was due to a problem with our test script or something else we can't say, but since an internally generated program was the only thing that wouldn't work, we're not inclined to blame this machine. You can also configure a Dimension E521 with Windows Vista Basic and the Business edition for the same price as an upgrade to Home Premium, although we'd miss the Media Center functions of Home Premium on either of those other versions.
Dell's one year of parts-and-labor coverage of the Dimension E521 is about average for systems in this class. Toll-free phone service is available 24/7, and included onsite repairs improve the outlook. As usual, Dell's Web site is valuable for its FAQs and other information, as well as for its live support chat. As always, we also like Dell's DellConnect service, which lets you turn your PC cursor over to a Dell technician (remotely and with your constant oversight) for remote control assistance.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Dell Dimension E521
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+; 2,048MB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB ATI Radeon X1300 Pro HyperMemory graphics card; 320GB Western Digital 7,200rpm hard drive
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600; Intel P965 Express chipset; 1,024MB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7900 GT; (2) 250GB Hitachi 7,200rpm hard drives
HP TouchSmart PC IQ770
Windows Vista Home Premium; 1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-51; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7600 Go; 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6400; Intel P965 Express chipset; 1,024MB 677MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7600 GS; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive
Shuttle XPC X200M
Windows Vista Home Premium; 1.66GHz Intel T2300 Core 2 Duo; 1,024MB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) Intel 950 GMA graphics chip; 250GB 7,200rpm Seagate Barracuda hard drive