Dell's brand-new XPS 730 H2C high-end gaming PC ticks off all the right boxes and even manages to pull off a few new tricks, at least for Dell. It's the first PC that Dell will ship with a factory-overclocked CPU and memory. Our $6,747 review unit features the latest quad-core processor from Intel and boasts four graphics chips between two ATI graphics cards. Dell has also added a few new tweaks to smooth out the case design. That's all good stuff, but the problem is that Dell loses out on price and performance to its boutique vendor competition. This new XPS is ambitious, but you can get more for your high-end gaming dollar elsewhere.
Maingear's Ephex is the primary competition for this new Dell. We reviewed a $5,200 Ephex a few months back. That system technically has lower-end core hardware than the XPS 730 H2C we reviewed, but it still managed to outperform this Dell on our application benchmarks due to Maingear's aggressive overclocking. Equally damning for Dell, you can spec out various Ephex configurations that either match or surpass the Dell on features and would likely widen the performance gap, and still keep the price lower than this XPS 730 H2C.
|Dell XPS 730 H2C||Maingear Ephex|
|Motherboard chipset||NForce 790i SLI||Intel X38|
|CPU||3.8GHz GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770||4.0GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650|
|Memory||2GB 1,600MHz (overclocked) DDR2 SDRAM||2GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(2) 1GB ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2||(2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 3870|
|Hard drives||(2) 160GB 10,000 rpm hard drive, 1TB 7,200 rpm hard drive||(2) 150GB 10,000 rpm hard drives, 750GB 7,200 rpm hard drive|
|Optical drive||Dual-layer DVD-RW||Blu-ray/HD-DVD combo drive|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet||Gigabit Ethernet|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows Vista Ultimate|
Consult the specs of our Dell and Maingear review units, and you'll see a number of differences, but keep in mind that both of these systems are configurable, so there's lots of wiggle room here. Maingear offers the same processor and chipset on its Web site, and even says it will overclock the QX9770 to 4.2GHz, surpassing the Dell's 3.8GHz tweak (from a stock speed of 3.2GHz). Maingear does not offer an NForce 790i-based Ephex with an option for two 1GB Radeon HD 3870 X2 cards, but it does sell a pair of similar GeForce 9800 GTXs, or even the faster GeForce 9800 GX2s, and still comes in less than the XPS 730 H2C. Dell says it will offer the GeForce 9800 GX2s as well after launch, but you can expect two of them will only drive the price higher.
The motherboard/graphics card combinations have been something of an issue in high-end gaming PCs since Nvidia reintroduced the ability to pair two cards in one PC, aka SLI, a few years ago. Nvidia has largely kept SLI support limited to its own NForce-based motherboards, leaving Intel and ATI motherboards with ATI's competing CrossFire technology (with the exception of Intel's super high-end, overkill Skulltrail motherboards, which will support both).
Through creative driver manipulation, vendors such as Hewlett-Packard with its Blackbird 002 and now Dell with the XPS 730 H2C have been able to make NForce boards support both SLI and Crossfire graphics card configurations, which lends those systems more flexibility at the time of purchase, and for upgrading after you take it home. We awarded HP's Blackbird 002 an Editors' Choice award last year in part because it was the first mass market system to offer such freedom, and we commend Dell for accomplishing the same feat here. Maingear does not claim that it has a motherboard that will support both CrossFire and SLI. To ensure long-term compatibility in the face of constant graphics driver updates, Dell says it will provide its customers with drivers written by AMD specifically for this configuration. If aftermarket upgrade flexibility is important to you, Dell has the edge over Maingear.
And although we mention the Blackbird above, you'll note that we don't compare it in our performance charts below. The reason is because HP hasn't moved to keep the Blackbird's specs up to date. We loved that system then, but we'd definitely think twice before purchasing one now. We're confident that HP will update the Blackbird eventually, but comparing it to the more recent Dell and Maingear would be foolish. Until HP updates the BlackBird's configuration options, we can't take that system seriously as a high-end gaming PC.
|Rendering Multiple CPUs||Rendering Single CPU|
As we've said, the Dell XPS 730 H2C is not as fast as the less expensive Maingear Ephex we reviewed back in February. The two are basically tied on our Photoshop test, and on every other application test, the Maingear is faster by a noticeable amount. We suspect this is due to the Maingear's overclocking its Core 2 Extreme QX9650 processor to 4.0GHz. Dell bumped its own QX9770 to 3.8GHz, but as those two chips share basically the same core, the Maingear's clock speed advantage pays off. The Dell is certainly not slow, but we're disappointed that it couldn't outpace a system that costs $1,450 less.
|1,920 x 1,200||1,280 x 1,024|
|1,920 x 1,200 (4x AA, 16x AF)||1,280 x 1,024 (4x AA, 16X AF)|
Forgetting the price disparity with Maingear, the XPS 730 H2C does turn in some impressive gaming results. Throw four 3D chips at a game and that's what happens. The pair of dual-chip, 1GB Radeon HD 3870 X2 cards in this system give it the fastest Unreal Tournament 3 scores we've seen to date. We don't think there's a setting you can find that will slow this system down on that game. And while we usually test with Crysis as a second gaming test, we had to swap in World in Conflict this time, due to some issues we're still working through with our Crysis benchmark and Vista Service Pack 1. Our World in Conflict test results echo those of our Unreal test, showing that the XPS 730 H2C is indeed a worthy high-end gaming system, even if it's not the best value.
We'll add that we're not that letdown at the lack of a Crysis test in this review. Dell itself boasted to us of a whopping 30 frames per second in Crysis at 1,920 x 1,200. Any self-respecting gamer should consider 60 frames per second the gold standard frame rate for first-person shooters. If Dell is only willing to brag about achieving half that speed, it's safe to say that smooth, high-resolution Crysis frame rates remain out of reach for this system.
You'll find Dell has made some under-the-hood changes to the XPS 730 H2C. The older XPS 710 H2C debuted with one of the first Peltier CPU coolers we'd seen, which helped make that system fairly quiet as high-end desktops go. The XPS 730 H2C has a similarly complex cooling layout, with new cooling plates mounted on the chipset and various other internal components. What this means for you is that this system also runs cool and quiet, and although the interior is cramped, Dell did a good job of leaving you access to the spare memory, hard drive, and expansion card slots.
For the hard drives, Dell sent us two 160GB 10,000rpm boot drives, and a separate 1TB 7,200rpm drive for storage. In addition to overclocking out of the box, Dell says that the XPS 730 H2C is also the first consumer desktop for which it will offer to populate all four of this system's hard-drive bays. Like factory overclocking, this is not a new feature for the market, but it is new to Dell. The well-designed, outward facing drive bays make it easy to add and replace drives yourself as well.
Dell also sent us only one optical drive, in this case a standard, dual-layer DVD burner with LightScribe capability. The less expensive Maingear came with a Blu-ray/HD DVD combo drive. We don't find HD-capable optical drives a necessity in a full tower high-end gaming PC, but we won't say no if the price is right. The Dell is already more expensive than the Maingear without it. You can certainly make that upgrade on Dell's configurator if you like, but it will add to the cost, specifically around $300.
We mentioned that the XPS 730 H2C has room for upgrades, and our config has two spare RAM slots, an extra hard-drive bay, and one free PCI Express slot. As this is an NForce 790i motherboard, it will support up to three Nvidia graphics cards, aka tri-SLI. Our review model came with a sound card that would block access for a third video card, so you'd have to go without for three graphics cards. And while there are four memory slots, Dell says it won't offer 64-bit Vista until a few weeks after the XPS 730 H2C launches. Without 64-bit Vista, you can support only 2.5GB of RAM, so if you're after more than that, you will want to wait until Dell expands its OS offerings.
Like past XPS systems, Dell continues to champion the cause of keeping your Windows desktop and the system in general uncluttered with crapware icons and other resource-hogging bundled apps. Aside from Windows Vista Home Premium, Dell includes a Roxio burning application, the 3DMark 06 graphics benchmarking suite. As with Dell's midrange XPS 630, you also get Nvidia's handy System Monitor interface, which provides you with a handy means for overclocking your components even further, as well as a reliable means to monitor their temperature and overall health.
Dell is one of the first vendors to embrace Nvidia's System Monitor software, and we find it a fairly helpful and easy-to-use application. Dell has a similarly handy program of its own on the system by way of the LightFX 2.0 application. This program controls the five LED lighting zones around the outside of the XPS 730 H2C's case, some of which are actually useful, for example lighting up ports on the rear panel, so you can check connections in a dark room. Between those two apps, Dell shows some polish that other vendors, including Maingear, do not. If we had to pick exterior lights or more bang for the buck we'd always take the latter, but there's also something to be said for going further on little extras, especially on a high-end PC.
Our review configuration also came with a handful of accessories, all optional. The Logitech G5 Laser Mouse remains our favorite gaming mouse, and the updated Logitech G15 keyboard provides lots of flexibility for macro programming and custom feedback on its built-in black-and-white LCD. We also got a basic toolkit, as well as a set of Dell-branded Turtle Beach EarForce HPA2 5.1 headphones, complete with a boom mic for online trash talking. You can also opt out of those accessories and lower the price a couple of hundred dollars.
Because this is an XPS system, it qualifies for Dell's specialized tech support hotline, which you can call toll-free 24-7. Dell says you'll find a more rugged breed of support tech on the other end, someone who's ready and able to dive into your demanding performance PC-related queries. The standard warranty provides this system with one year of parts-and-labor protection, and Dell also has a variety of useful resources online, including configuration specific support information that you can access via your special Dell service code.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Dell XPS 630
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Q6600; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; (2) 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics cards; 500GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive
Dell XPS 730 H2C
Windows Vista Home Premium; 3.8GHz Intel Core 2 Quad QX9770; 2GB 1,600MHz (overclocked) DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 1GB ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 graphics cards; (2) 160GB 10,000rpm Western Digital hard drives, 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive
Windows Vista Ultimate; 4.0GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650; 2GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards; (2) 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm hard drives; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm hard drive
Puget Deluge-i L2
Windows Vista Ultimate; 3.5GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Duo E8400; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; (2) 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS graphics cards; 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm hard drive; 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm hard drive
Windows Vista Home Premium (tested); Windows XP Professional SP2 (second partition); 3.2GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics card; 500GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive