XPS Lifts Dell's Game


By Cliff Edwards

(Readers'

Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Dual-core chip and high-end graphics will impress multimedia junkies

The Bad Be prepared for sticker shock. So-so software suite out of the box

The Bottom Line Solidly built machine for recording and watching shows, playing games, and editing photos

When Dell introduced its XPS line of desktop computers a few years back, the idea was to get in on the small but lucrative market for high-end gaming machines. With its latest release, the XPS Gen 5, the big kahuna of the PC industry is pushing to expand the XPS' horizons to multimedia enthusiasts looking for a lot of oomph in their system -- and who aren't afraid of paying a hefty price to get it.

Does the $4,499 XPS Gen 5 deliver? You bet. Thanks to Intel's (INTC) most expensive PC chip, the dual-core Pentium Extreme Edition, the machine makes you ache for the day (coming soon) when virtually all PCs and notebooks will be able to handle multiple tasks with such aplomb.

No doubt some gaming aficionados are likely to gripe that dual-core chips might actually slow down the frame rates of many graphically intensive titles, since they aren't designed for the newer technology, which puts two processor cores on one die. Rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is quick to point out its single-core Athlon 64 chip remains the gamers' choice. I'll look at some AMD systems later. But Dell (DELL) has cleverly taken pains to market the XPS Gen 5 as a multimedia wonder capable of recording and shuffling TV programming around the home, storing your music collection, and allowing you to work smoothly and swiftly in PhotoShop.

MEDIA SHUFFLE. In all those tasks, the machine performs beautifully. Dell supplied a test system tricked out with the aforementioned dual-core chips, running at 3.2 gigahertz each, a gigabyte of double-date rate memory, two 250 GB hard drives configured in a RAID 0 array, and ATI's X850XT high-end graphics chip with a dual-tuner TV card for recording analog TV programming.

The accompanying 20-inch UltraSharp 2005FPW LCD monitor is a head-turner that delivers great displays of DVDs, TV, games, and more, and the $300 Windows Media Extender lets you transfer programming from Windows Media Center 2005 software to televisions around the home.

One of the first tasks after getting the unit and add-ons out of the box and set up was loading more software onto the machine. My regular gripe with cost-conscious Dell is that, for the price, users should get more brand-name software with their machines.

Out of the box, you get CorelBasic WordPerfect Productivity Pack for office applications, Sonic's RecordNow Basic and MyDVD LE for CD and DVD recording, a six-month trial of AOL, Dell Jukebox for playing and managing music files, and Dell Picture Studio for editing photos.

DUAL ADVANTAGE. I loaded up Windows productivity software, including Word and Excel; InterVideo's MediaOne software, which includes the popular WinDVD program; Adobe Acrobat 7.0; Norton's Internet Security suite; Divx encoding software; print drivers for wireless printing; and two of my current favorite games: Civilization III: Conquests and Halo.

The key to this system's benefits lies with dual-core chips. Most PCs on the market today include only a single chip, yet unless you have a very pricey graphics chip handling some of the work, even those with the latest chips are taxed to the max when trying to encode video. Such machines pretty much give up the ghost if you ask them to do much else at the same time, which is why a lot of people turn off their Internet security software when trying to play a game or edit photos with the processor-intensive Adobe (ADBE) software.

Even with Intel's Hyper-Threading technology, which instructs the processor to handle tasks out of order and with more efficiency, the problem is expected to get much worse in coming months, as media PCs increasingly are used to encode media-rich, high-definition content.

Dual-core chips work by trying to balance the load when you're doing multiple tasks at once. As an added benefit, since you use two processor cores, you can drop the chip's clock speed. Typically, that would allow the system to run cooler and quieter than high-end single-core systems. This particular XPS model isn't noticeably more energy efficient than its predecessors, since it uses Intels' super high-end chip. Cracking open the case, you'll immediately notice the huge energy sink to funnel some of the heat.

GREAT DETAIL. I put the Pentium Extreme Edition chips through their paces by running a Divx-encoded Fantastic Four clip through Windows Media Center while simultaneously performing a Norton system scan and watching an Alias episode using WinDVD. The XPS handled all this without a stutter. The only glitch I could find was when I tried (in an admittedly unrealistic test) to run the same Alias episode using both Media Center and WinDVD. Dell technicians say the video locked up because the same DVD player was trying to handle tasks from two different software programs, not as a result of the chip architecture.

How does XPS handle games? If you're a casual gamer, you should be quite happy with the performance. Setting the system at its highest resolution of 1,600 by 1,200, you get great detail and movement without the flutter and stutter common to mainstream systems with less capable graphics chips.

Hardcore gamers are apt to notice that you don't get perfect frame rates on the XPS. They'll also point you toward competing systems from specialty makers such as Alienware and Falcon Northwest, especially since those companies offer configurations including increasingly popular dual graphics cards. Those companies also tend to speed up, or "overclock," chips to squeeze every drop of performance from the processors. For less intensive games such as Civilization, though, the XPS works just fine.

A LITTLE TWEAK. One major issue that put me out of commission on a couple of occasions was the computer's failure to boot up. After turning it on, I'd get an error message saying the entire operating system had gone missing. For some reason, the computer twice changed the order in which it looked for the OS, and could not find it. After a confab with Dell technicians, they recommended I download a BIOS update for the prerelease system.

The BIOS is a set of routines stored in memory that lets a computer start the operating system and communicate with the hard drive, disk drives, and other devices in the system. The download appeared to clear up the problem.

Finally, in the looks department, the XPS sits in the middle of the road. As with most of these gaming systems, the tower configuration is a bit bulky for my tastes, especially after working mainly with notebooks.

SOLID APPEAL. On the plus side, the understated gray-and-black case does have a lit front panel that offers seven customizable colors, although you have to dig into the BIOS to make the change. (I chose soothing blue.)

If you're looking for a solid, all-around media machine, I would recommend the XPS. While systems from rival companies using AMD chips may work just as well and burn less energy, all but the most discerning shoppers would be happy with this choice.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau


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