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Light at the end of the XPS 700 tunnel

Light at the end of the XPS 700 tunnel

We never thought we'd still be writing about Dell's high-end XPS 700 desktop a month and a half after we posted our review. First, customers were hit with delays in shipping the systems, then last week on Dell's blog, we found out Dell altered the specs of the XPS 700's chipset and audio card, removing some of the features. From the Nvidia Nforce 590 SLI chipset, Dell disabled the DualNet and FirstPacket networking technologies, as well as support for highly overclockable SLI-Ready Memory. From the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Extreme Music sound card, Dell disabled support for the DTS audio codec.

Once we read that blog post, we were ready to drop the rating, especially since the "to ship" date on the XPS 700 didn't seem to be coming down after Dell alleged that it had begun to work through its order backlog. If you ordered an XPS 700 on Tuesday of this week, according to Dell's site, you couldn't expect to receive it before November 8. Before we changed our review, though, we talked to Dell's Liem Nguyen, as well as some other high-end desktop vendors. What we learned has made us decide not to drop the rating. Here's why.

For us, the largest issue is the changes to the chipset, as well as the fact that Dell doesn't explain that its implementation of Nforce 590 lacks some of the features listed on Nvidia's site. Liem made the argument that vendors make changes to technologies all the time and that what it did isn't out of the ordinary. To compare, we asked Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and Velocity Micro. Voodoo PC never returned our call (love ya, Rahul).

The various PC vendors all consult with the PC parts suppliers (Asus, MSI, Foxconn, and others) on designs for things such as cases, power supplies, and the physical motherboards. Sometimes vendors make special requests, but none of the smaller desktop vendors have the capability to make their own motherboards like Dell does, nor can they guarantee enough orders to justify a motherboard supplier's expense for altering a chipset. A motherboard supplier might tweak a chipset itself, but any customizations would apply to any desktop vendor's PCs that used that same motherboard, and often multiple PC vendors will use the same parts. In the case of the Nforce 590 boards, one of the vendors we asked was actually unpacking a sample board for testing. He verified on the phone for us that, unlike Dell's boards, this one had DualNet and FirstPacket enabled, and would support SLI-Ready memory. So Liem's defense isn't really apples-to-apples in the case of the changes to the chipset. The problem, though, is that this vendor and the others are only now testing Nforce 590-based motherboards that will support Intel's Core 2 Duo chips, so they don't have any PCs with that combination of parts on the market yet. Dell does, and according to our testing, it's fast.

So that's one point in Dell's favor, it has strong technology that others don't yet have, and for a comparable (if not better) price than other currently available PCs. The other question came down to timing. We'll give credit to Dell for being the first to sell a Core 2 Duo PC with Nforce 590 (in its complete form or otherwise), but if you can't get it until November 8, what's the point? Lots of new stuff will be out by then, and the other desktop vendors might have Nforce 590 for Intel-based PCs of their own in the meantime. Fortunately for Dell, our research into the issue took a little while. We noticed yesterday that the estimated ship date on the XPS 700 order site said November 2, lopping six days from the previous day's estimate. We checked again today, and the new date is October 24. It appears that Dell is finally working through the XPS 700 backlog.

Liem won't address the specifics of shipping dates or order volume, so we have no way to confirm that the trend we've seen over the past two days will continue, but we do think it's significant that in two days the ship date has dropped by two weeks. Liem told us before that the ship dates were conservative estimates. If they weren't, we'd expect the ship date to drop only a day at a time. It appears that Dell is getting the configuration we saw for review out into the hands of customers, which means our conclusions in the review are valid. We'll keep an eye on the estimated ship date, though, at least until we receive another Nforce 590 for Intel-based PC.

Thus, the Dell XPS 700 has once again dodged the ratings-change bullet. If it seems like we've paid an inordinate amount of attention to this PC over others, we'd agree. Dell is the top desktop vendor by market share, and its XPS 700 is Dell's first serious entrant in the performance-crazed high-end PC desktop arena in years. That combination of factors earns it a special amount of scrutiny. But we'd also suggest that without Dell's blog, we'd be much less likely to know about the shipping delays and other issues. See guys, its working. Now if you'd just ease up on the condescending "I appreciate your passion for this product" marketing-speak (scroll down through the comments, you'll find it)...