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Dell XPS 420 review: Dell XPS 420

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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.

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7.5 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Support 8

Dell XPS 420

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.

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
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
HP Pavilion Elite m9040n
Dell XPS 420
Apple iMac

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
Apple iMac

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.

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