The new Inspiron 531S is the slimmed-down desktop we've been waiting for from Dell. By finally offering a wireless networking adapter option, Dell lets this small PC preserve the tidy profile lacking in its past attempts at the category. Our $659 config, while a decent enough performer, doesn't distance itself from its lower-priced competition as much as we'd like. What's probably most important is that in its specific category, Dell's new Inspiron offers more flexibility than HP's SlimLine. Of the systems in its class, then, the Inspiron 531S is the model we'd pick. For budget-priced PCs in general, you can get more for your money from other vendors.
With this new system, Dell continues its trend of sending us low-priced PCs with AMD processors. The 2.3GHz Athlon 64 X2 4400+ is a solid mainstream part, and matched with 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a 250GB hard drive, and an integrated GeForce 6150SE graphics chip, the Inspiron 531S handled our benchmark tests as well as we'd expect for a sub-$700 PC. Our major issue with this configuration is that it doesn't look like such a great deal when we compare it to the top of eMachines' most recent lineup, the $499 T5230.
|Dell Inspiron 531S||eMachines T5230|
|CPU||2.3GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400||2.3GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400|
|Memory||2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM||1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||64MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE||128MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE|
|Hard drive||250GB, 7,200 rpm||250GB, 7,200 rpm|
|Optical drives||16x dual-layer DVD burner||16x dual-layer DVD burner|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows Vista Home Premium|
If we play with Dell's configurator to match the two systems more closely, you still end up paying $30 more for the Inspiron 531S than you would for the off-the-shelf T5230. That's with bringing the Dell's memory down to 1GB and getting rid of the optional FireWire card, which adds another $30 to our Inspiron config's price tag. Similarly, you can pick up two 512MB sticks of memory for $50 and pop them into the eMachines to bring it on par with this new Dell. Going from 1GB to 2GB on Dell's site adds $100 to the cost. In other words, there's some markup going on over at Dell that goes beyond what we can find if we shop around online.
What's ironic is that the Dell's extra memory doesn't show a significant benefit on all of our benchmarks. Don't get us wrong, we'd much rather have 2GB of RAM than 1GB, especially if you're running Windows Vista on a PC with an integrated graphics chip. You can see on our Photoshop test that the Inspiron 531S's extra memory gives it a significant boost to photo editing compared to the eMachines system. But our music- and movie-encoding tests don't show a significant improvement with more memory. This leads us to suggest that if your computing needs are simple and you don't spend a lot of time working with digital images, you won't lose much if you aim a little lower than the system reviewed here.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
Fortunately for Dell, there's more to the Inspiron 531S than its core components. The wireless networking option and a forthcoming built-in Bluetooth receiver help this system stand out both from the less expensive eMachines, as well as Dell's main competition in this space, the HP Pavilion SlimLine. For eMachines' part, it has no Wi-Fi option. Both Dell and HP offer an 802.1 a/b/g PCI add-in card for $30, and Dell will also be adding a Bluetooth receiver to all of its media card readers soon. True, that will cost an additional $20, but we'd rather have the option than not, and right now HP offers no Bluetooth upgrade.
If we take a closer look at HP's competing system, we find that HP might have the smaller design, but the Inspiron 531S offers more expandability. The Dell measures 14.1 inches high, 3.8 inches wide, and 16.1 inches deep. That might be bigger than the Pavilion SlimLine (10.8 inches high, 4.5 inches wide, and 13.3 inches deep), but Dell puts that extra space to work. Where as HP offers room for only one graphics card and one standard PCI card, Dell has room for the 3D card and three other PCI cards. True, both systems' slim chassis require that you use half-height expansion cards, which limits the extent of your add-in options. But at least with the Dell you could upgrade to a 3D card, the Wi-Fi option, and a TV tuner (although, as was pointed out to us by a reader, you'd have to shop elsewhere for the tuner, as the model on Dell's site is PCI-Express only). HP's SlimLine gives you less flexibility due to its smaller chassis.
However different the hardware might be between HP, eMachines, and Dell, all three vendors have comparable support offerings, which offer you a variety of choices for ways to troubleshoot your system. Dell's basic warranty gives you one year of parts and labor coverage out of the box. It also has a 24-7 toll-free phone support. Beyond those basics, all three vendors have remote control tech support, in which you can turn over control of your PC to a support tech via the Web. Dell also has added a software suite with various free and fee-based means to take care of your system. Unlike HP's Total Care software, which stores the information locally on your PC, Dell's Support Center links to various resources on its Web site. If your Internet connection becomes a problem, you might run into trouble, but overall, the information is useful and well-organized.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Dell Inspiron 531
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; 250GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Dell Inspiron 531S
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.3GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 64MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE integrated graphics chip; 250GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.3GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400; 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE graphics chip; 250GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
HP Compaq Presario SR5050NX
Windows Vista Home Premium; 3.0GHz Intel Pentium D 925; 1GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 224MB (shared) Intel GMA 950 graphics chip; 250GB 7,200rpm Samsung hard drive
HP Pavilion SlimLine s3020n
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+; 1GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) integrated Nvidia GeForce 6150LE graphics chip; 250GB 7,200 rpm Samsung hard drive