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Dell XPS 420 review: Dell XPS 420

Dell's new XPS 420 offers almost all of the latest in PC-based digital-video capability, as well as a few unique features you won't find elsewhere. The default configuration fares poorly against the other new PCs, but if you're willing to spend money on upgrades, you can turn this system into a powerful digital-media nerve center.

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Rich Brown
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Rich Brown

Executive Editor / Reviews - Home and Wellness

Rich moved his family from Brooklyn to Louisville, Kentucky, in 2013 to start CNET's Appliances and Smart Home review team, which includes the CNET Smart Home, the CNET Smart Apartment, and the Appliances Review lab. Before moving to Louisville, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D-printed guns to Z-Wave smart locks.

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8 min read

Dell's new XPS 420 desktop (starting at $1,450, reviewed at $2,279) advertises itself as the complete solution to all of your digital-media problems. Depending on the options you select for it, it can wirelessly serve up photos, music, and high-definition video over your home network, it can quickly convert large video files to smaller, iPod- and Sony PSP-friendly formats, it can even record and time-shift HD digital cable. If you've embraced the idea of a traditional desktop acting as the media hub for your home network, the XPS 420 has you covered. It's also a capable system for manipulating consumer-level digital video. Gamers, HD DVD loyalists, and anyone not looking for a fully loaded digital-media PC will find their needs better served elsewhere.

7.5

Dell XPS 420

The Good

SideShow screen extends Vista Gadgets to the top of the system; nearly complete line of digital-media options lets you make this system the hub of your networked home; strong support.

The Bad

Not quite the best bang for the buck as far as pure processing power; no HD DVD/Blu-ray combo option; needs better software to expose the benefits of the hardware MPEG-2 transcoder.

The Bottom Line

Dell's new XPS 420 offers almost all of the latest in PC-based digital-video capability, as well as a few unique features you won't find elsewhere. The default configuration fares poorly against the other new PCs, but if you're willing to spend money on upgrades, you can turn this system into a powerful digital-media nerve center.
Dell XPS 420

The XPS 420 features a chassis update to Dell's 400 series. This new model comes with a glossy, black front panel that seems to be required of any current mainstream desktop. Beyond just the cosmetics, the XPS 420 also comes with a small Windows SideShow LCD (or Dell MiniView, if you prefer) on the top edge. SideShow was announced early this year at CES. It's essentially an extension of Windows Vista's SideBar pane, and it runs all of the same free Gadget mini applications (similar to Apple's Widgets).


The SideShow LCD screen lets you play with all kinds of free, downloadable mini apps, and you can use it when the system is in sleep mode.

The default Gadgets that come with the XPS 420 include system information screens, a music playlist and short cuts. Right now Microsoft offers about 1,500 others available for download. The chief benefit is that you can run use SideShow to play media or find sports scores, stock prices, weather, or other quick hit information without sitting down at your desk, and while the system is in sleep mode. We've seen SideShow on a laptop or two, as well as on a few high-end home theater PCs, but this is the first time we've seen it on a traditional desktop, and it's a definite boon you won't find from other vendors.

While the SideShow screen comes on every XPS 420, many of the features we received are optional. That's a good thing too, because when we compare the specs of the XPS 420 to one of its rivals, you can see that those features add up.

  Dell XPS 420 HP Pavilion Elite m9040n
Price $2,279 $1,190
CPU 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600
Memory 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM 3GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM
Wireless connectivity 802.11n, Bluetooth 802.11a/b/g
Hardware MPEG-2 transcoder Yes No
TV tuner ATSC/NTSC ATSC/NTSC
Graphics 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS
Hard drive Two 320GB at 7,200rpm Two 320GB at 7,200rpm
Optical drives 2x Blu-ray burner 16x dual-layer DVD burner with LightScribe
Operating system Windows Vista Home Premium Windows Vista Home Premium

The Dell's price also includes a fancy, $70 LCD-equipped (non-SideShow) remote control, as well as a set of $50 Bluetooth headphones. Subtract those, the $350 Blu-ray drive, the $150 MPEG-2 transcoder (aka Dell Xcelerator) as well as various other extras, and you can easily make the XPS 420 more affordable. The trouble is, if this system starts out at $1,499, once you cut out all of the various features you might not end up with the best deal. Dell didn't give us the exact specs of its starting configuration, but based on the spec sheet you can go as low as a Core 2 Duo CPU, 1GB of RAM, a DVD/CD-RW combo drive, a much slower graphics card, and a 160GB hard drive. Compared to the much cheaper quad-core HP Pavilion Elite m9040n and its 3GB of RAM, a $1,499 XPS 420 like the one described above would seem like a bad deal, SideShow screen or not. Our advice is to proceed with caution if you're thinking about the baseline XPS 420, and be sure to compare it with other systems.

And while the upgraded XSP 420 has a distinct features advantage over the HP, Dell still couldn't beat it on our application tests, where the HP tied or won in every case. The HP's biggest advantage was on Photoshop, where it likely benefited by its 3GB of memory to the Dell's 2GB. You can add more RAM to the Dell, of course, but for extra cost.

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

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

Cinebench 9.5
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs  
Rendering a single CPU  
Gateway GM5632E
1,287 
402 
Dell XPS 420
1,260 
398 
Apple iMac
754 
400 

To Dell's credit, though, it was a better at gaming than the HP, coming in behind only a $1,999 Velocity Micro system on our Quake 4 test. Our review system came with a 256MB GeForce 8600 GT. That's a solid--if not outstanding--3D card, and it outpaces anything HP has to offer. Dell also offers a much higher-end (and more expensive) GeForce 8800 GTX, as well as an Ageia physics card if you'd like to make this system more gaming-friendly. It can't compete with the Velocity Micro or Dell's own XPS 700 series systems, though, as Dell does not offer support for dual-card SLI or CrossFire graphics setups.

Quake 4 performance test (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x1,024 (4xAA, 8xAF)  
Dell XPS 420
70.7 
Apple iMac
39.2 

Even if it's not the fastest performer around, the XPS 420 still offers more features than any other mainstream desktop. If you opt for the package we have, you could use the XPS 420 to watch and record unencrypted TV, and then use the Xcelerator to help you change those recordings into PSP- or iPod-friendly video formats. You could also use the XPS 420 to watch Blu-ray movies and stream unencrypted HD content, or anything else, really, to another networked playback device over the wide bandwidth 802.11n, aka Draft N, connection. That all sounds great, and some of it no other mainstream desktop can do, but there are a few limitations.

First, Dell is a Blu-ray-only house. The $350 for the Blu-ray drive upgrade isn't bad, but we'd much rather see an admittedly more expensive HD DVD/Blu-ray combo drive, as offered by both HP and Velocity Micro via their respective built-to-order systems.

We also didn't love the usability of the Xcelerate MPEG-2 transcoder. It's essentially a ViXS Xcode 2110 chip tied to a set of S-Video and composite video and audio inputs in an attractive package that's been integrated into the front-panel design. Dell is unique in offering such a well-integrated hardware solution to assist you in converting video files, but the accompanying software is lacking. You have to go through Roxio's bundled Creator Premiere suite and muddle your way through its non-intuitive video editing options. A dedicated mini app for the specific purpose of converting video to various formats would be much preferable.

We should also add that the 802.11n wireless adapter that came with our system won't be available until a few weeks after launch, although its mini application is outstanding as far as giving you information about available networks, including whether a network supports wireless standards a, b, g, or n. And unless you already have or plan to buy dedicated external storage, you're also probably not going to want a redundant DataSafe hard-drive setup, as Dell sent to us. DataSafe is essentially a RAID 1 hard-drive configuration, in which one drive acts as the mirror of the other, giving you an automatic backup drive. That's a useful feature, of course, but for a real digital-media system, you're going to want as much storage as you can get, and we don't think 320GB will last you that long.

Those criticisms are for the most part minor, and there's also plenty here that we like. No other desktop vendor but Apple currently offers or has announced plans to offer 802.11n networking. If you're trying to stream HD video or multiple streams at once, you'll definitely benefit from the wider bandwidth networking. We also like that Dell integrates Bluetooth (via the optional media card reader) and the SideShow screen. Both of those are forward-looking features that extend the capabilities of this system.

Speaking of Apple though, because the iMac is a non-HD, more-or-less fixed configuration, it might not make the most intuitive comparison to the XPS 420, but we should point out that Apple still has a leg up in terms of keeping your desktop tidy. From the IR sensor for the remote, to the Bluetooth radio, to the wireless-networking antenna, Apple keeps as much of the hardware as it can enclosed within the iMac's case. We like that Dell has integrated Bluetooth into the media card reader, but the Wi-Fi antenna and the remote receiver are still external. We'd love to see any major desktop vendor find a way to cram all of that stuff inside a traditional midtower.

Software-wise, though, Dell has made a significant step toward competing with Apple's iLife Suite. The Adobe Elements Studio package includes Photoshop Elements 6, Premiere Elements 4 for video editing, and SoundBooth CS3 for playing with audio files. Both Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements are "light" versions of their Adobe Creative Suite 3 counterparts, but they promise roughly the same functionality as Apple's iPhoto and iMovie, with SoundBooth CS3 stacking up against GarageBand. You can debate the basic fundamentals of Vista versus the Mac OS, but the fact that Dell includes the Adobe suite finally gives Windows loyalists an answer to those Apple fans who like to hold up iLife as an example of Apple's superiority.

Dell's support is also superior to Apple's and competes well against other Windows vendors. In addition to the standard one year of parts-and-labor coverage, you also get 24-7 toll-free phone support, as well as a year of onsite service. Dell also includes a handful of utilities to help you maintain your system and get help, and it also has its DirectConnect tool, which lets you chat live with a Dell technician and gives you the capability to grant a technician remote access to your PC for faster service.

Find out more about how we test desktops.

System configurations:

Apple iMac
Mac OS X; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7700; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro graphics chip; 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive

Dell XPS 420
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; two 320GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drives

Gateway GM5632E
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 3GB 1,066MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8500GT graphics card; two 500GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drives

HP Pavilion Elite m9040n
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 3GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS graphics card; two 320GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drives

Velocity Micro ProMagix A50
Windows Vista Ultimate; 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6850; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 320GB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card; two 320GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drives

7.5

Dell XPS 420

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 6Support 8