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Dell OptiPlex SX280 review: Dell OptiPlex SX280

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The Good Flexible, space-saving design; latest Intel technologies fight obsolescence; DVD drive hot-swappable and compatible with Latitude D notebooks; design consistent across all peripherals.

The Bad No room for expansion.

The Bottom Line Thanks to its diminutive size and next-generation Intel chipset and CPU, the Dell OptiPlex SX280 is perfect for small-business and corporate buyers who need future-proof, small-form-factor desktops.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Support 8

Review Sections

Review summary

Targeting the business market with a small-form-factor PC, the Dell OptiPlex SX280 takes up only about as much room as a college dictionary. You can outfit the unit with Windows 2000 or either flavor of Windows XP and choose from the latest Intel Pentium 4 CPUs, from 2.8GHz to 3.2GHz. Of course, a small system such as this doesn't leave much room inside for gourmet multimedia options. Instead, the OptiPlex SX280 relies on the integrated graphics and audio in Intel's next-generation 915G chipset, which provides able performance that will serve the purposes of most businesses. At $1,781, the OptiPlex SX280 is a bit more expensive than some of its competitors, but the price includes a baseline three-year onsite warranty and Dell's outstanding overall support, as well as the assurance that you'll be able to handle most office tasks, now and in the foreseeable future. We certainly appreciate the aesthetic uniformity of the Dell OptiPlex SX280, since its monitor, its speakers, and its other peripheral components all share the same color scheme. The coolest thing about this corporate PC, though, is its flexible design. Measuring only 10.3 by 3.5 by 8.9 inches (HWD) and weighing just more than 10 pounds, the OptiPlex SX280 looks equally at home sitting on top of or under your desk. You can even maximize your desk space by mounting the unit behind the monitor on an optional stand. Just slide the PC into the clip, screw the unit into place, and voilà: a makeshift all-in-one PC. You can also spring for a cable cover ($7) that hides the unseemly tangle of cords protruding from the rear of the box and provides a modicum of protection against peripheral theft. However, the cover is a nightmare to attach, and you'll have to reattach it almost every time you want to add a component. The highly portable case also features a loop for attaching a security cable.

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Thanks to the OptiPlex SX280's smart monitor stand and the case's small size, this machine is easy to stash out of the way.

The OptiPlex SX280's design versatility also extends to its media drives' accommodations. The tool-free case itself is easy to open, but you won't find any room inside for expansion. Fortunately, Dell has configured the OptiPlex SX280 with its very own swap bay, identical to that found on Dell's Latitude D laptops. This modular drive bay accepts a variety of slimline optical drives, all of which are fully hot-swappable, so you can pop them in and out without missing a beat.

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Using the hard drive as a reference, you can easily see how small the OptiPlex SX280 really is.

Most business users won't be particularly hampered by the fact that the OptiPlex SX280 has no room inside for a standalone graphics card since the system's motherboard provides all of the multimedia features necessary for most day-to-day office tasks. Moreover, the OptiPlex doesn't skimp on connectivity, offering a total of seven USB 2.0 ports (two in front, accompanied by a pair of audio jacks), and a built-in Gigabit Ethernet port. You will need a monitor that supports DVI (or a DVI-to-VGA adapter), however, since the case has no standard VGA video input. And by moving the power supply outside of the case, Dell was able to make the inside nice and compact, but you still need to find somewhere to put the heavy external power brick. A veritable showcase of new technology, the Dell OptiPlex SX280 uses Intel's new 915G chipset, which provides the latest performance enhancements as well as office-adequate audio and video subsystems. Our box came with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 540 CPU and 512MB of new DDR2 RAM, although you can opt for up to 2GB at the time of purchase. As our performance results show, this is plenty of juice for an office environment, delivering near-identical performance to competing full-size business systems.

The new chipset also supports the new Serial ATA hard drive interface, which delivers greater throughput than the old ribbon cable-based IDE connection. Dell offers four Serial ATA drives for the OptiPlex SX280; ours came with a generous 160GB drive, but options range from 40GB to a cavernous 250GB. Of course, without room inside the box for a second hard drive, the OptiPlex SX280 can't leverage the 915G chipset's support for onboard RAID configurations. Hopefully, you would connect the OptiPlex SX280 to your network for necessary data protection.

Dell offers a practical set of options for the OptiPlex SX280: a small selection of peripherals, a wide assortment of monitors and multimedia drives, and a few speaker sets. Our test system's 17-inch UltraSharp 1803FPS LCD delivered a fine picture at its maximum 1,280x1,024 resolution. We also loved the all-in-one monitor stand and its fluid up-and-down and pivoting motions. Moreover, we'd suggest all but the hardest-hearted corporate buyers consider at least the $29 two-piece Dell basic speaker set because even the cheapest speaker would improve upon the pathetic internal speaker in our system. This way, you can listen to music at your desk. We'd suggest the possibility of watching DVDs, too, thanks to the 24X DVD/CD-RW combo drive, but in a move of shrewd corporate efficiency, Dell neglected to install a software DVD player. Of course, you can always download the player of your choice.

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The modular drive bay houses a CD-RW/DVD combo drive.

The ever-present security specter looms heavily over any PC purchase but especially over business-class systems. If you've been following the release of Windows Service Pack 2, you know that Microsoft released a number of security-minded improvements in the OS update, including SP2's new data execution prevention feature (DEP). This feature protects systems against buffer-overrun attacks from Sasser-like code. If you're considering an Intel-based purchase like this one, you'd be wise to note that, at press time, only systems using AMD processors can take advantage of this fix; DEP won't work on Intel-based boxes. Whether Intel is able to address the problem remains to be seen, but until it does, companies looking for maximum security should keep this limitation in mind.
You can opt for only Windows-based operating systems with the OptiPlex SX280; ours came with Windows XP Pro, standard for most corporate environments, although if you want to use Linux, you'll need to keep shopping. You can choose from several productivity suites and additional software packages, including Adobe Photoshop 8.0 and various versions of Microsoft Office 2003. Our test system, however, came with no additional third-party software, but system administrators with many machines to maintain will appreciate Dell's ImageWatch and OpenManage suites. These free management products are designed to help companies lower their total cost of ownership (TCO). ImageWatch, which targets mainly larger institutional customers, provides administrators with early notification of technology changes so that they may better manage their fleets. OpenManage, offered as a free download, provides IT managers with a way to inventory, diagnose, and update systems from a central desk, often handling many systems at once. The software notifies administrators if a system is having problems or if a problem is likely to happen soon. A number of advanced features, such as software distribution, are offered for a per-seat license. Application performance
Thanks to Intel's new 915G chipset and the 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 540 processor, the Dell OptiPlex SX280 stacks up very well against the competition. It should run all current office applications without trouble and should also be able to handle most office applications released over the next few years.

With a score of 185 on our SysMark 2004 benchmark, the OptiPlex SX280 ended up in a virtual dead heat with the nearly identically configured Dell OptiPlex GX280 and the HP Compaq Business Desktop dc7100. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the OptiPlex SX280 beat the Sony VAIO PCV-RS630G, a system that uses an older version of the 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor and Intel's previous-generation 865G chipset by more than 12 percent on our SysMark office-productivity test and 9 percent on SysMark test overall. This difference is a testament to the performance gains that you get from the new hardware. While perhaps not jaw-dropping, they're at least enough to show that the Dell OptiPlex SX280 and its new Intel technology is indeed faster than PCs using older hardware.

Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  

To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).

3D graphics and gaming performance
Business systems aren't generally designed with gaming in mind, but we were pleasantly surprised by the Dell OptiPlex SX280's graphics prowess. In the past, almost all integrated graphics chips made playing games unbearable, but the OptiPlex SX280 relies on the new Graphics Media Accelerator 900 chip that comes with the Intel's 915G chipset. With the new 3D chip, the OptiPlex SX280 was able to muster 51.2 frames per second (fps) on our low-end 1,024x768-resolution Unreal Tournament 2003 test, which is awfully close to the 60fps sweet spot. Still, even a virtually identical system with a low-end standalone graphics card, the Dell OptiPlex GX280 and its PCI-Express 64MB ATI Radeon X300, for example, can post higher frame rates, in this case edging the OptiPlex SX280 by six frames per second on the 10x7 Unreal test. This difference is not earth-shattering, but it illustrates the point that standalone graphics chips, even new and improved ones, are not the ideal solution for 3D gaming. You might be able to get away with some casual after-hours gaming on the OptiPlex SX280, but we wouldn't recommend trying anything challenging like Doom 3.

3D gaming performance (in fps)  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,024x768  

To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003, widely used as an industry-standard benchmark. We use Unreal to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8.0 (DX8) interface at a 32-bit color depth and at a resolution of 1,024x768 and 1,600x1,200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled during our 10x7 tests and are set to 4X and 8X respectively during our 16x12 tests. At this color depth and these resolutions, Unreal is an excellent way to compare the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. We report the results of Unreal's Flyby-Antalus test in frames per second (fps).

Performance analysis written by CNET Labs technician David Gussman.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Dell OptiPlex GX280
Windows XP Professional; 3.2GHz Intel P4 540; Intel 915G chipset; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz; 64MB ATI X300 (PCIe); Seagate ST3160023AS 160GB Serial ATA 7,200rpm

Dell OptiPlex SX280
Windows XP Professional; 3.2GHz Intel P4 540; Intel 915G chipset; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB integrated Intel 915G (shared memory); Seagate ST3160023AS 160GB Serial ATA 7,200rpm

HP Compaq Business Desktop dc7100
Windows XP Professional; 3.2GHz Intel P4 540; Intel 915G chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB integrated Intel 915G (shared memory); Seagate ST380013AS 80GB Serial ATA 7,200rpm

HP Pavilion a650e
Windows XP Professional; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 3700+ (Socket 754); Nvidia Nforce-3 chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB ATI Radeon 9800 (AGP); WDC WD2500BB-22FTA0 250GB 7,200rpm

Windows XP Home; 3.2GHz Intel P4; Intel 865PE chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon 9200 (AGP); WDC WD2500BB-98FTA0 250GB 7,200rpm Like every OptiPlex desktop, the Dell OptiPlex SX280 is backed by a standard three-year, next-business-day onsite warranty, complete with 24/7 phone support. Dell's Web site also provides every imaginable support feature. You'll find full system documentation, a knowledge base of technical help, user forums, help with upgrades, tips and tricks, and even live chat with Dell support personnel. The live-chat support agents always seemed busy whenever we attempted to contact them during business hours, so it may be easier to try to get in touch with them during off-peak hours.

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