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While other models in the Dell Dimension range have shed their dull chassis and turned a sparkling white, the XPS remains dark grey and silver. Though the bodywork on this machine has changed little from previous versions, at its heart the XPS 600 is now an SLI system, meaning it can run dual graphics cards for fairly nerve-wracking gaming action. Playing the game of Peter Jackson's King Kong on the XPS and a 40-inch LCD TV is like strapping on a Kong suit and parachuting into the Amazon.
Our review model really does push boundaries for a consumer desktop machine. The specs on this desktop can't fail to beguile anyone who hasn't been following recent leaps in PC development. This XPS includes one terabyte of hard-disk space -- yes, do not adjust your browser's font size: one terabyte. The review model also included a DVD drive and a DVD writer. Ripping DVDs took minutes and re-encoding video streams resulted in some of the most impressive performance we've ever seen from an off-the-shelf desktop. Of course, elite specs come at a price -- nearly £3,000 with the terabyte of hard-disk space. Can you justify it?
The XPS 600's chassis is similar to those of the previous XPS range. The front of the machine is silver-grey, with a large triangular chrome panel onto which the Dell logo is attached. Beneath the panel there's a neon blue underlight that emits a peaceful glow. Though some might find the machine in slightly dubious taste -- there is something inescapably boy-racer about it -- this is a more subtle approach than some gaming PC manufacturers have taken. Dell has always struggled for credibility with the gaming elite in the same way that BMW would struggle to win over a beat poet. Dell's sheer size and widespread popularity has meant they elude the respect given to smaller, more specialised gaming PC manufacturers like Alienware. But, if the XPS 600 is anything to go by, this may well change.
The chassis on the XPS opens up like a giant clam, pivoting on big hinges built into the rear of the machine. There are no screws or hatches to detach before the chassis will open -- the entire left-hand-side panel of the PC swings clear, giving access to PCI slots, hard disk, motherboard and other components. The catch on this door releases with a light pull in an upward direction -- it's not hard to open the case, but at the same time it's unlikely to fall open accidentally in transit to a LAN party.
As with the Dell 5100 and 9100 we recently reviewed, Dell didn't include a floppy-disc drive on our review PC -- although if you need a floppy drive to install driver software for older hardware, you can add one for £23.50.
Below the DVD and DVD-writer drives on the XPS there are CF, SMC, MS and SD/MMC card readers -- these are especially useful for digital photographers. There is also a small hinged flap that hides FireWire, USB, headphone and microphone sockets. The rear of the XPS is a clean and neat design with obviously labelled cable sockets and a ventilation grill.
Our XPS came pre-installed with the current version of Windows XP Professional, which doesn't take advantage of the dual-core processors. In our case, it didn't manage to take advantage of anything to begin with, as we had to re-install Windows because it refused to boot when the machine first arrived. To Dell's credit it was very easy to install Windows again and all the system software and drivers were included on clearly labelled CDs. After reinstalling we had no problems whatsoever with the machine, so we can only assume this was a glitch in the original installation of Windows.
If you want to stick with Windows you'll have to wait until Microsoft launch a compatible version of their OS before the dual-core processor in the XPS can be driven to its full potential -- Windows Vista late next year. Linux users will be able to take advantage of the full power of the XPS's processor immediately -- many versions of Linux support 64-bit addressing. The processor in our review model was an Intel Extreme Edition 840 running at 3.20GHz with an 800MHz front-side bus and a 2MB cache. In other words, it breathes fire.
The graphics configuration on the XPS 600 is something to gloat over. Dual Nvidia GeForce 7800GTX cards can deal with anything any current games title can throw out. This is an excellent choice of card -- the GTX uses eight vertex shading units and assisted DVD and HDTV decoding up to 1920x1080-pixel resolution. The terminology may seem confusing, but in practical terms this means the the chips on these Nvidia cards render games fast and play videos fast. Very fast.
When you've climbed close to the top of the mountain, why not go the whole way? This is certainly how Dell felt when it installed the hard disk on our review machine -- it was a terabyte (1TB or 1,000GB). Physically, our machine had two 500GB drives, but these were set up in a stripe configuration (also known as RAID 0), making the logical drive size a contiguous 1TB. This arrangement improves drive responsiveness significantly. Instead of one drive mechanism seeking and writing, two drives in a RAID 0 system collaborate with each other. Alternatively, paranoid users can set these two 500GB drives up in a mirror configuration (RAID 1) so that the second drive is used to automatically back up data from the first. However, this approach will effectively reduce usable space from one terabyte to 500GB.
The graphics card on our XPS provided only DVI connectors. If you're looking for a monitor for use with the Dell (£3,000 doesn't get you one), we'd advise you to choose a DVI model. The crisp picture and colour clarity of the new digital screens can't be beaten. If you need to use an old VGA monitor, a DVI to VGA converter can be purchased from most electronics shops, this is a small, relatively cheap cable adaptor.
As with the majority of modern tower PCs you can replace hard disks, motherboards and PCI cards by opening the XPS's swing door. For the moment at least, you'll find it difficult to upgrade the XPS 600 -- simply because most of its components are the fastest currently available. Anyone who really wants to push this machine might consider overclocking the processor and adding extra cooling facilities, but the complication and expense of these additions make them hardly worth the effort. The XPS is already too fast for even the more demanding of today's games to catch and trip up.
We tested the XPS 600 with Peter Jackson's King Kong -- the brand new tie-in game to the forthcoming movie. This is an extremely demanding game that uses sophisticated texture mapping, high levels of anti-aliasing, resolutions up to 1360x768 and some of the most awe-inspiring 3D environments we've seen in any game to date.
To see what the XPS could deliver when pushed as hard as a drunk out of The Ivy, we attached the PC to a 40-inch Samsung LCD television. Because this TV is so big, it's very unforgiving of poor quality input -- it's natively high definition. We expected King Kong to look impressive on the LCD, but we didn't expect it to make us whoop with fear and delight. Whoop we did. It's true to say we've never seen anything this impressive in a first-person adventure game before.
The XPS is fortunate that King Kong makes such spectacular use of its dual graphics card. You will find your jaw slowly slackening as a 15m T-Rex gallops after you like a big glistening bully -- and your jaw will stay slack until you shut the XPS down. Shafts of light fall down through the perfectly texture mapped polygon jungle on screen. Did we say polygons? We couldn't tell these were polygons, there were so many faces to the things they looked essentially smooth. Stare too long at the individually rendered tendrils of foilage and your Kong character loses his grip on a vine and plummets into an infinite (though beautifully detailed) chasm.
We had similar experiences playing Half-Life 2 and Battlefield 2. Hardcore gamers with fat wallets looking for a boxed solution to their needs should definitely consider the XPS 600 alongside current offerings from the specialist games-machine companies. Dell is slowly proving itself to be formidable in a territory that has not traditionally been a strong one for it. May velociraptors tear us limb-from-limb if we tell a lie: this is a brutally fast gaming machine.
Edited by Nick Hide