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Dell XPS 710 review: Dell XPS 710

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The main update to the XPS 710 system is that it now supports Intel's new Core 2 Extreme QX6700, the first quad-core processor. You can read our review of the chip itself for a full breakdown of quad core's pros and cons, but suffice it to say that we like it. It's a forward-looking chip that's totally appropriate for a high-end gaming PC. What's interesting for a different reason is that Dell has shipped the Core 2 Extreme QX6700 at its stock 2.66GHz clock speed. You can overclock the chip yourself, but Dell still won't do that for you. We'll see when we talk about performance how that reluctance comes back to bite the XPS 710 compared to other quad-core PCs.

6.9

Dell XPS 710

The Good

Quad-core CPU brings forward-looking performance; Dell's XPS 700-series chassis remains one of the most unique-looking PC cases on the market; large case means lots of expandability.

The Bad

Outperformed by much cheaper competitors; Dell's long qualification periods for new graphics hardware might mean more reliability, but it also means that other PCs have next-gen hardware today that the XPS 710 doesn't offer.

The Bottom Line

The XPS 710 brings quad-core processing to Dell's flagship desktop, but competing systems from others outshine this system in too many ways for us to recommend it. We still like the case and the build quality, and Dell has even beefed up its support, but among other issues, a $5,000 PC is not supposed to be slower than systems that cost nearly $2,000 less.
When we first wrote about the Dell XPS 710 on November 1, we weren't able to give it a full review because we didn't know the price. Dell finally gave us the number: $5,344 for the configuration we tested. This revelation and some issues with the configuration we're able to talk about only now sour our opinion of this system. Similar systems from and Polywell that cost nearly $2,000 less outperformed Dell's new flagship PC, and the Polywell and systems from several other boutique PC vendors have more up-to-date graphics cards. Dell's XPS 700-series case remains one of the most visually bold on the market, and the XPS 710 review unit we received is as well built as the XPS 700 we saw a few months ago. But anyone spending even $4,000 on a gaming PC has a right to demand a cutting-edge system with the latest and greatest of everything, and while we expect Dell will offer that sooner or later, the XPS 710 doesn't have it right now.

The pair of Nvidia GeForce 7950 GX2 graphics cards (a.k.a. Quad SLI) in this system are also new to the XPS 700 series, but they're not new to the market, as they've been out since June. Although ATI cards have an advantage on image quality on a few games, the Quad SLI setup remains the most powerful current-generation 3D hardware in terms of its ability to crunch frames. The problem is that we'd much rather have a single GeForce 8800 GTX card, which costs half as much, is nearly as fast, matches ATI for current-generation image quality, and supports next-gen DirectX 10 games. Dell doesn't offer that card yet. The company says that it will but that it needs to put the GeForce 8800 GTX through Dell's rigorous reliability testing. We also imagine that Dell is looking at the XPS 710's power supply as part of that discussion. The current 750-watt unit is on the lower end of Nvidia's recommendations for powering two 8800 GTX cards in SLI mode.

Dell told us that it expects to add the 8800 GPUs by late Q4 2006. As a volume shipper, Dell has to be careful about its PCs' reliability. If an untested component causes instability, Dell will face a massive influx of support calls. But if you're a gamer shopping for a highest-end PC, plenty of boutique vendors offer both the Core 2 Extreme QX6700 and the GeForce 8800 GTX card today. At the moment, the XPS 710 can meet only half that bill. By the time Dell does add the GeForce 8800 cards, AMD/ATI's next-gen 3D hardware will reportedly be only a month away, making the gaming hardware question more uncertain.

Even if its 3D cards look a little rusty, you'd be right to assume that the XPS 710 is a fast PC. The problem is that compared to two significantly less-expensive competitors, it's not fast enough. Both the Gateway FX530XL and the Polywell Poly i680SLI come in under $4,000, making the Dell's $5,344 price tag seem too high. These systems expose two weaknesses of Dell's high-end efforts. The Gateway, whose quad-core chip comes factory-overclocked (and under warrantee) to 3.2GHz, outpaces the XPS 710 on every application test by a wide margin. Traditionally, it's been the boutique PC vendors that held overclocking over Dell's head, but now that Gateway, a high-volume competitor, is doing it, we wouldn't be shocked if Dell reconsidered its conservative nonoverclocking position. We suspect the Polywell's application advantage over the Dell (smaller than the Gateway's) is due to the Polywell's 800MHz DDR2 memory. Both the Dell's Nforce 590 SLI (D) and the Polywell's Nforce i680 SLI chipsets will unofficially support 800MHz memory, but Dell opted for slower 667MHz RAM, the highest "official" memory supported.

Multitasking test (simultaneous McAfee AntiVirus scan, DivX 6.1 video encode, CAB file extraction)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
In seconds  
Multimedia multitasking test (simultaneous QuickTime and iTunes encoding)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
In seconds  

Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test
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Apple iTunes encoding test
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The XPS 710 fares better on 3D gaming performance than the Gateway, which is why if you really want the XPS 710 now, we highly recommend that you select it with the Quad SLI configuration featured here. It's only a $140 premium over an XPS 710 with Radeon X1950 XT CrossFire cards, and it will stave off obsolescence longer with sheer horsepower. The test to look for here is F.E.A.R. On the most demanding setting, 1,600x1,200, the XPS 710 beat every other PC. That's indicative of what we know about Quad SLI with current-gen games: it shines brightest at higher resolutions. We'd still rather have the GeForce 8800 GTX card that's in the Polywell system, because with its next-gen graphics support, next year's hot DirectX 10 3D titles will look their best. But if the XPS 710 will have to play games such as Crysis in their DirectX 9 modes, you should feel more confident that it will be able to crunch those frames faster than Gateway's FX530XL and its Radeon X1950 XT CrossFire cards. Of course, you'll have to pay roughly $2,000 for that privilege, for which you could purchase that Gateway and three GeForce 8800 GTXs.

CineBench 9.5
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  
Gateway FX530XT
1696 
516 
Apple Mac Pro
1604 
494 
Dell XPS 710
1309 
429 
ABS Ultimate X9 III
1049 
566 

3D gaming performance (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
F.E.A.R. 1,600x1,200  
F.E.A.R. 1,280x1,024  
Quake 4 1,600x1,200  
Quake 4 1,280x1,024  
Dell XPS 710
97 
115.3 
109 
107.9 
Polywell Poly i680SLI Quad Core
89 
119.3 
123.5 
126 
Gateway FX530XT
72.3 
88.7 
123.2 
132.1 
ABS Ultimate X9 III
67 
82 
139 
150.9 

This is not to say that the Dell and the Gateway are equals aside from performance. We like the Gateway because it's much more affordable, but the XPS 710 is also more upgradable and has some better design elements. Because it's in a full tower case, the XPS 710's motherboard has room for a spare x8 PCI Express slot, as well as a free standard PCI slot. That means you have options for adding a sound card, a TV tuner, or even a PhysX card (should they ever prove themselves worthwhile). The Gateway has essentially no card expandability, with two dual-slot graphics cards in it. We also like the Dell's hard drive layout quite a bit. Four outward-facing drive bays sit near the top of the case, and Dell has laid out the data and power cables conveniently in front of each opening. Only Apple's Mac Pro and its effectively cable-free drive bays are better designed.

For the rest of its specs, Dell sent us the typical high-end configuration of 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 memory, two 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, plus a massive 750GB third drive (7,200rpm) for storage. It also included a Sound Blaster X-Fi Extreme Music (D) audio card (the D means it's Dell's own version, which lacks support for DTS audio), a DVD burner, a DVD-ROM drive, and a multiformat media card reader. Dell threw in the Saitek Eclipse II backlit gaming keyboard and the ever-trusty Logitech G5 Laser Mouse. By all accounts, the XPS 710 is as fully loaded as we found the XPS 700.

You may recall some controversy with the XPS 700 and its motherboard chipset. Without making it clear on its Web site, Dell sold the XPS 700 with a modified version of Nvidia's Nforce 590 SLI chipset, with a few of the features disabled. Overclockers were particularly annoyed that Dell cut out a feature that would automatically overclock certain high-end memory. Rather than risk the ire of scrutinizing journalists and Web site commenters, Dell now indicates on its Web site that the XPS 710 uses the Nforce 590 SLI (D) chipset, the same custom version it uses in the XPS 700. We'd rather have the features, but at least Dell now spells everything out. Dell also seems to have overcome the ship-date difficulties it experienced when the XPS 700 first announced. At one point, Dell's Web site speculated as long as a two-month delay between the time you order an XPS 700 and the time you actually receive it. That time has since shrunk for the XPS 700 (still available as of this writing) to less than a week. The XPS 710 seems to have a similarly reasonable build time of about two weeks, so whatever delivery issues it had, Dell seems to have dealt with.

Finally, we've given all of the major desktop vendors credit lately for adding remote-support capabilities. Dell's is called DellConnect, and it lets a technician assume control of your PC over the Web (with your permission) to solve problems you aren't confident enough to explain yourself. That's a great feature. We're also glad to see that Dell has made the XPS 710's default warranty last for two years. Too many high-end PCs come with only a skimpy one year of parts-and-labor coverage. Onsite service will cost you extra, which is reasonable, but Dell also offers 24/7 phone support to its accelerated XPS support line, as well as robust online support with all manner of troubleshooting help and resources.

Find out more about how we test desktops.

System configurations:

ABS Ultimate X9 III
Windows XP Professional SP2; 3.38GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 920MHz; (2) 512MB ATI X1900 CrossFire; (2) 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm SATA/150; Intel 8201GR/GH SATA RAID controller (RAID 0)

Apple Mac Pro
OS X 10.4.8; 2 x 3.0GHz Xeon 5160; 1,024MB DDR2 FB-SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB ATI Radeon X1900; 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm SATA/150

Dell XPS 710 (Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700)
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo X6800; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; (2) 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7950 GX2 (Quad SLI); (2) 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm Serial ATA/150 hard drives (RAID 0); 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive

Gateway FX530XT (Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700)
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700 overclocked to 3.2GHz; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon X1950 XT (CrossFire Mode); (2) 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm serial ATA/150 hard drives (RAID 0)

Polywell Poly i680SLI Quad Core
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 768MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX; (2) 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm Serial ATA/150 hard drives (RAID 0);

Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700 test bed
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB ATI Radeon X1900; 74GB Western Digital 10,000rpm SATA/150