Now that it's blessed with Intel's new Core 2 Duo processors, Dell's new XPS 700 high-end gaming desktop finally brings true revitalization to Dell's boutique-class PCs. From the striking case design to the internal polish to the cutting-edge hardware, Dell can finally compete alongside the likes of Falcon Northwest, Velocity Micro, and Dell's own Alienware subsidiary for the hearts and minds of well-heeled enthusiast gamers. There are still a few rough spots, and the particular $4,005 configuration Dell sent us doesn't offer the best bang for the buck, but the XPS 700 earns Dell some long-absent credibility. If you're in the market for a high-end gaming PC, you need to add the XPS 700 to your list of potential systems. With the ever-increasing commoditization of desktop PCs, design is one of the few remaining ways a PC vendor can distinguish itself. The XPS 700 shows that Dell finally understands that it can't survive on rebates and bundled printers alone, especially in the hypercompetitive realm of high-end gaming PCs. Once you get your hands on it and really start poking around, you might have a few issues with the chassis, but based purely on cosmetics, the imposing XPS 700 simply looks like a powerful computer that's been built with as much care as a system from any of the small shop boutique vendors.
Dell's product manager likened the forward-slanted case design to that of a jet engine, and we don't disagree. Both the aluminum case and the banded red plastic across the front and back panels (it's also available in black) give the XPS 700-case a fighter-jet feel. Red LEDs on the front and the back light up the various ports and drive-panel buttons in the dark--one of the few truly functional applications for lighting we've seen on a desktop. An easy-pull tab and a clever latching mechanism make the side panel easy to remove and replace.
Inside, Dell has routed the cables neatly, giving you clear air flow and leaving the spare power and the data connect cables immediately accessible to the empty hard drive and optical drive bays. We've asked for this type of build care from Dell for years, and we're glad to see it finally delivered. We're also happy to report that the XPS 700 is one of the quietest systems we've ever heard. This near silence (but for a brief, loud fan surge at start-up) is largely due to the Core 2 Extreme X6800 chip and its forgiving power specs, which require less cooling and therefore less work from the system fans. The Core 2 Duo E6700-equipped Falcon Northwest Mach V system we also reviewed today is equally quiet.
This is not to say that Dell's new flagship PC is without a few design problems. Measuring 22 inches high, 8.75 inches wide and 24 inches deep, the aluminum-clad chassis is a true beast. It's taller than the majority of desktops currently on the market, and it weighs about 57 pounds, so you'll need to be sure you have the room for it. Also, we aren't in love with the plastic hardware on the front panel. The drive bay and the expansion-slot doors feel flimsy. They're recessed slightly from the front of the case, so it's unlikely that you'd accidentally knock them off if they were open, but they don't feel very solid on their hinges. More annoying is the power button. It's a tiny little nub that's hard to push, and even somewhat painful to press long enough to power down the system. And with no reset button, nor a power-supply kill switch, the annoying power nub is your only option for a hard shutdown, short of yanking the power cable entirely.Dell originally announced the XPS 700 with Intel's previous-generation Pentium D 900 chips. You can still order those models--at significant savings--but we highly recommend that you don't, because Intel's new Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme chips are far superior. The XPS 700 Dell sent to us came with the Core 2 Extreme X6800, which is currently the fastest chip on the market. With that CPU as its foundation, this XPS 700 becomes an elite-level gaming PC, a category Dell has not had success with in some time.
Along with the chip, there's a fairly typical array of high-end hardware. Dell sent us 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; two 320GB, 7,200rpm hard drives; and two 512MB GeForce 7900 GTX cards. Right now, that's about as good as it gets. The only better options might be a 10,000rpm hard drive for faster read/write access (which Dell offers for either $110 or $410, depending on size and number), and an Nvidia GeForce 7950 GX2 graphics card--far and away, the best current graphics card--which Dell does not currently offer but expects to add later this summer.
As it stands, the pair of GeForce 7900 GTX cards are technically faster (even faster than the Falcon Northwest Mach V's overclocked 7950 GX2), but they take up twice the internal space and with two cards, you're adding roughly $500 to the cost; Dell doesn't specify the cost of one 7900 GTX. If you've read this far, you might be wondering about Quad SLI. Nvidia is holding things up on that end; its Quad drivers are still in development and aren't expected until the end of the summer.
For the rest of our XPS 700 review unit, there were few surprises. Dell sent us a top-line Creative X-Fi Xtreme Music card for audio. You could also add Ageia's PhysX physics accelerator card for $249, but you'd be paying for a cutting edge game enhancer that doesn't have a lot to do at the moment due to a lack of games that use it. Dell also sent us the now-standard pair of DVD burners, which is the only optical drive option.
If there's a feature aside from the chip that really sticks out, it has to be the XPS 700's motherboard. Dell's long-standing (although perhaps fading) Intel loyalism meant that it nearly always paired Intel's chips with Intel's motherboard chipsets. No longer. Intel allied its Core 2 Duo chipsets exclusively with ATI and its dual 3D card CrossFire technology. In other words, if you want to build a PC with Nvidia's competing SLI technology, you need to use Nvidia's Nforce 590 SLI for Intel chipset that the Dell XPS 700 uses.As it turns out, the chipset issue is more important that we initially thought it would be. As we said in the features section, the Dell XPS 700 uses Nvidia's new Nforce 590 SLI for Intel chipset. Every competing Intel-based system on our comparison charts used Intel's own 975 chipset. So in addition to the Dell XPS 700 using the fastest current desktop chip on the planet, it also apparently has the fastest chipset as well.