Dell's High-End Home Run

No mere beige box, the dual-core XPS 400 proves that you get what you pay for -- in this case, sizzling performance. All it lacks is an AMD chip

Time was when the best thing a computer company could do was lower prices. Moore's Law -- which states that chips double in power even as prices drop by half every 18 months -- made that easy. Lower prices put personal computers into the hands of the masses, which, in turn, led to the whole world, hip and otherwise, plugging into the Net.

In the late 1990s a two-PC home was uncommon. Now a three- or four-PC home is unremarkable, thanks to inexpensive commodity PCs. And no company is more widely associated with the commodity PC than Dell (DELL), which has relentlessly pushed down costs and prices, forcing rivals to respond in kind. While boosting the volume and frequency with which consumers can buy computers, this process also sapped profit margins.

Solving this problem is one of the motivations behind Dell's XPS line of high-end computers. For years a cadre of computer buyers has demanded more performance than the typical beige box delivers, whether for gaming or producing high-quality digital home videos. As I noted in a recent review, some custom-PC companies do a small-but-booming business selling high-priced premium machines to this tech-savvy audience (see BW Online, 2/9/06, "A Custom PC Made to Wow").


Dell's XPS line has that audience in its sights, too. And, in general, when I look at its entry in this market, I like what I see. Putting aside for the moment any criticism of Dell's decision to use only Intel (INTC) chips and forgo those from rival Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) -- a choice that rankles many -- I found the Dell XPS 400 I've been testing for the past week to be a fine machine indeed.

It priced out at $2,288 without a monitor, or $2,648 with a monitor, which in this case was a gorgeous 20-inch widescreen display. It contained an Intel Pentium D Processor 930 with a rated speed of three gigahertz, one gigabyte of memory, two 250-gigabyte hard drives, an Nvidia (NVDA) GeForce 6800 video card, and a Creative Labs (REAF) X-Fi Sound card. It ships with Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Media Center Edition, an integrated TV tuner, and an integrated 13-in-1 media-card reader built into the front.

It looks far different from the Dell machines I've become accustomed to over the years. The major visual anomaly is a cavity in the front that serves as a de facto handle when you're moving the machine around. In fact, it's designed to facilitate the flow of air that cools the CPU chip and graphics card. The result: A machine substantially quieter that you would expect for a device that, when running full-tilt, needs a lot of chill power.


The choice of the Intel Pentium D 930 is significant because this is a dual-core processor. If a microprocessor chip is the central brain of a computer, then the core is its cerebral cortex -- and the XPS 400 has two of them. The idea behind dual-core processors is that, by dividing the labor usually handled by one core while simultaneously slowing both just a little, you get more work done more efficiently. In time this design philosophy will lead to PC microprocessors with 4, 8, even 16 cores. But for now, we're at two cores.

The pair inside the XPS 400 can get a lot accomplished. I had no trouble watching Quicktime video while running a McAfee (MFE) virus scan in the background, for example, with no apparent degradation in the performance of either.

On the gaming front, I was amazed at the smooth flow of play on games like Doom 3. I'm no good at the game, nor at games like it, but the performances of the graphics was clearly superior to that of lesser machines. The speakers provided excellent sound, though I did detect an underlying buzz in the headphones. Another complaint -- albeit a minor one -- was that the bundled wireless mouse didn't work, despite repeated attempts. I must have had a lemon.


There was no opportunity to test the machine with a cable-TV connection, so I can't report on its ability to record TV shows. However, it does have a coaxial-cable connection on the back, and one of the hard drives is set up just for recording TV shows. I can report that its ability to display video was terrific, especially on that screen.

All this has me wondering: If Dell really wants to make a name for itself in performance-oriented consumer PCs, why doesn't it go where the performance is and try an AMD chip? The difference between AMD and Intel dual-core chips is important. AMD's approach, which allows the two cores on a chip to communicate more easily than those on an Intel chip, has produced an important performance edge, at least for now.

With the XPS 400, Dell has shown that it is serious about the top-shelf of the PC market. But embracing AMD -- a rumor that it's about to do just that pops up a few times a year -- would make its machines truly exciting.
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