Editor's note: We have changed the ratings in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Find out more here.
On the outside, the latest top-of-the-line consumer desktop from Gateway, the 9310XL, doesn't look like much. Its standard tower case, traditional silver-and-black Gateway aesthetics, and matching peripherals cut a fairly run-of-the-mill profile. But don't be fooled by its bland exterior. The system we tested came tricked out with plenty of firepower and cost a competitive $2,479.
First, the entire 9310 line, of which the 9310XL boasts the best default configuration, features the new BTX case architecture, which we first saw from Gateway in its , designed for better cooling and quieter operation. The design reserves the middle horizontal third of the 9310XL for processor and airflow only and uses bigger 120mm fans that move 40 percent more slowly than old 80mm fans. The result is a nearly silent machine.
The Gateway 9310XL's 3.2GHz Pentium 4 660 is a member of Intel's Pentium 4 600-series processors. This new line of CPUs offers the benefits of a 64-bit architecture, 2MB L2 cache (double the 500 series' 1MB), power-management features designed to reduce thermal wear and tear, and better security. If and when Microsoft releases its 64-bit version of Windows later this summer, any 9310 machine will be prepared to make the upgrade. Until we see supporting applications, however, it will be hard to say just what kind of performance gain the wider bit stream will deliver.
Either way, CNET Labs' benchmarks report that with current 32-bit apps, the 9310XL performs well enough to handle any day-to-day tasks with aplomb; it scored 194 on our SysMark 2004 test. This number isn't as high as the 206 we saw from Gateway's older 7200XL and its 3.6GHz Pentium 4 560, however, illustrating that 64-bit or otherwise, raw processing speeds seem to make more difference than a larger L2 cache, at least with current 32-bit apps.
In our test system, Gateway coupled the CPU with 1GB of RAM (the minimum for the 9310XL), upgradable to 4GB. Our system also included dual 250GB hard drives, a double-layer DVD burner, and an eight-in-one media-card reader. (Also, just to be clear, you can configure the bottom-of-the-series 9310S exactly like our 9310XL, but it's more expensive to do it this way.)
You wouldn't expect a system with such high-end core components to skimp on multimedia, and the 9310XL doesn't. By the time you read this, the model will come standard with one of the most powerful graphics cards, Nvidia's PCI Express 256MB GeForce 6800 Ultra. This almost instantly makes the 9310XL a powerful gaming system, which it demonstrated on our benchmarks by scoring 122.7 frames per second on our higher-end 1,600x1,200-resolution Unreal Tournament 2003 test. Sixty frames per second is considered the sweet spot for gaming. By more than doubling that score, the 9310XL shows that it can handle whatever 3D games you care to throw at it. For the quoted price, you also get a very bright Gateway FPD1950 19-inch LCD monitor.
Leading-edge sound should come standard in a higher-end PC, and the 9310XL doesn't disappoint on this score either. Gateway throws in the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS card, with its 24-bit high-resolution playback, low signal-to-noise ratio, and THX-certified, Dolby-Digital 7.1 surround sound. To go with this state-of-the-art audio subsystem, Gateway includes its almost laughably large GMax 5100 surround sound speakers with their huge, desktop-case-size subwoofer, (a $214 extra), which delivered skull-crunching power and exacting crispness (but were too loud even at volume-level 2 for comfortable listening). A wireless keyboard-and-mouse combo rounds out the package.