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Dell Inspiron 545 review: Dell Inspiron 545

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Editors' note: This review is part of our 2009 Retail Laptop and Desktop Back-to-School roundup, covering specific fixed configurations of popular systems that can be found in retail stores.

OVR
5.9

Dell Inspiron 545

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Large 1TB hard drive; HDMI video output; strong online technical support.

The Bad

Outperformed by a Gateway that costs $200 less, and an Asus that costs only $30 more; overly spare connectivity.

The Bottom Line

Dell seems to have missed a beat in this year's round of back-to-school retail desktops, and the Inspiron 545 is no exception. Its competition has too much to offer in the way of performance and features, leaving Dell with little but its established online support resources to give it an advantage.

The Dell Inspiron 545 straddles the line between budget and midrange PC because of its $720 price and a few above-baseline features. The problem is that we can find several desktops both more and less expensive that make this Dell look overpriced. We don't want to pile on, but this system is the third Dell back-to-school retail desktop that has failed to impress us. We've certainly liked Dell's retail offerings in the past, so we know it's at least capable of competing on the shelf. Whether it's the sour economy, a misreading of its competition, or a combination of factors coming through in these PCs we're not sure, but we're surprised to find that we can't recommend any of Dell's sub-$1,000 retail desktops for the back-to-school season.

On the outside, the Inspiron 545 has no obvious issues. Its glossy black plastic front has the same unobtrusive appeal as other recent midtower desktops. You get no top side accessories like a CD tray or a rubberized surface for placing handheld devices, but we can always take or leave those features. A media card reader is hidden behind a front panel door, making the face of the system completely innocuous.

  Dell Inspiron 545 Asus Essentio CM5570-AP006
Price $720 $630
CPU 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200
Memory 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM 6GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Graphics 256MB ATI Radeon HD 3450 512MB Nvidia GeForce G100
Hard drives 1TB 7,200rpm 750GB 7,200rpm
Networking Gigabit Ethernet Gigabit Ethernet; 802.11b/g/n wireless
Optical drive dual-layer DVD burner dual-layer DVD burner
Operating system Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit) Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)

As we mentioned, the Inspiron 545 has a value problem. We could pick one of several PCs to compare directly with this Dell. The Asus Essentio CM5570-AP006 makes a good fit because the Dell's only major advantage is its service and its 1TB hard drive, which gives it a 250GB storage edge. The Asus has wireless networking, though, and while not a crucial feature in a midtower, it can still be useful for those who want to minimize cable clutter. The Dell has more RAM than the Asus, but as you'll see on our benchmarks, the extra memory doesn't do much to set the Inspiron 545 apart on performance.

Before we delve into performance, a few other PCs bear mentioning next to this Dell as well. If we look even further into the selection of retail budget desktops, the Gateway SX2800-01 fares very well next to the Inspiron 545. That $510 Gateway outperforms the Dell on every benchmark, and while it lacks a discrete graphics card and has only a 640GB hard drive, there's very little this Dell can do that the Gateway system can't. Similarly, if you spend just $30 more, the Asus Essentio CG5270-BP003 will come through with consistently better application performance and a 3D card that, unlike the Radeon HD 3450 in the Dell, offers noticeably better graphics performance, turning in 67 frames per second on our lower resolution Unreal Tournament 3 test, where the Dell managed just 15fps.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

CineBench test
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multi-CPU  
Rendering single CPU  
Gateway SX2800-01
10,085 
2,773 
Dell Inspiron 545
9,670 
2,749 
Dell Inspiron 545s
6,155 
3,335 

On most of our application tests, the Dell isn't wildly out of whack for its configuration, and stays in the same relative ballpark as the Asus CM5570 and the Gateway that share the same Core 2 Quad Q8200 CPU. But even if we don't count our iTunes test, which confounds the Dell for some reason, we'd still like to see the Dell outperform its less expensive competition. The Dell's extra RAM and its video card will likely provide a better experience editing video than on the Gateway, but we don't imagine most of the likely buyers of these PCs have video editing in mind. And for the tasks they probably will perform, such as consumer-level photo editing, media file conversions, Web browsing, and light duty multitasking, the Dell doesn't provide a significant advantage for its higher price.

We do give Dell credit for selecting a card with multiple video outputs, including HDMI out. That will let you connect this system to a television, or, more likely, a modern LCD that comes HDMI-equipped. We wish Dell had had such foresight with the rest of this PC's outputs. The back panel gives you analog audio output, four USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, and a modem. eSATA, digital audio, and even FireWire are completely absent. Even a year ago we might not have expected those features in a desktop in this price range, but Gateway and other vendors have offered them in systems from $500 on up for the last nine months. The HDMI output on the video card was a smart choice, but the rest of the platform badly needs updating to stay competitive.

Inside the Inspiron 545, Dell offers a reasonable amount of upgrade room. You get two PCI slots (one taken by the modem), a PCI Express graphics card slot, and a 1X PCI Express slot. The 30- watt power supply will limit you to midrange 3D cards and lower, but you could still turn this into a respectable budget gaming PC if you had the inclination. Even after a faster 3D card, you would still have room for a TV tuner, a wireless networking card, or other expansion upgrades. All four memory slots are occupied, but the 8GB of RAM should last you for a while. You can also add a second hard drive if you like, and Dell's panel-mounted hard-drive bays make installation no more complicated than sliding a drive up against the free slot, connecting the power and data cables, and screwing the four screws into the bottom of the drive to attach it to the panel.

Juice box
Dell Inspiron 545 Average watts per hour
Off 1.3
Sleep 2.26
Idle 64.39
Load 103.64
Raw (annual kWh) 250.06734
Energy Star compliant Yes
Annual energy cost $28.38

Annual power consumption cost
Dell Inspiron 545
$28.38 

You can see a noticeable difference between the energy consumption cost of the Inspiron 545 and both the Gateway and the Inspiron 545s. We suspect that's mostly because the Inspiron 545 has a discrete 3D card. The other systems have only an integrated chip. We don't have enough data to say whether a $7 or $8 jump is disproportionate once you factor in a graphics card, but we can at least say that the Inspiron 545 remains within the power consumption threshold that Energy Star deems reasonable for a system with these specs.

Dell's service and support is perhaps the one aspect of this system that Asus can't compete with. Dell has a much more comprehensive array of services online, including system- and configuration-specific information via Dell's code-based registration process. Asus' online offerings are basically nonexistent next to those from Dell. You also get the obligatory yearlong parts and labor warranty with the Inspiron 545, as well as 24-7 toll-free phone support.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
Asus Essentio CM5570-AP006
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200; 6GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 512MB Nvidia GeForce G100; 750GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive.

Dell Inspiron 545-006B
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200; 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 3450 graphics card; 1TB Seagate 7,200rpm hard drive.

Dell Inspiron 545s-004B
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E7400; 6GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics chip; 750GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive.

Gateway SX2800-01
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 32MB (shared) Intel GMA X4500 integrated graphics chip; 640GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.

Asus Essentio CG5270-BP003
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8300; 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 220 graphics card; 750GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive.

OVR
5.9

Dell Inspiron 545

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 5Support 7