A beneficiary of the recent revamp of its home desktop line, the Dell Dimension 9100 was recently reborn as the Dell XPS 400. The hardware remains similar to that of the Dimension 9100 we reviewed back in August, but as a member of the XPS line, the XPS 400 gets the benefit of a new, arguably more respected name, as well as enhanced configuration options and better service and support. We're ambivalent to mildly cynical about the name change, but by improving the service policy and leaving the price the same, the realignment gives Dell's customers a real benefit--one that we can get behind.
As we expressed in our review of the Dimension 9100, the XPS 400 is as good for gaming as it is for TV, movies, and music. Our $2,598 review unit is a versatile Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 system that's also a killer game machine. Just don't plan on giving it a home in your living room; with its full-size tower, 20-inch LCD, and wired mouse and keyboard, the XPS 400 is more suited to a desk, a den, or a dorm room. Even so, you'll love its dual-core processor, dual TV tuners, dual hard drives, dual DVD drives, and other high-end features. This system barely misses a trick and is sure to please buyers with ample budgets. Those with smaller budgets can skip the LCD monitor and save about $500.
The Dell XPS 400 sits between Dell's other major lines: the high-end XPS 600 and the midrange XPS 200 (the latter was formerly known as the Dimension 5100C). The XPS 600 offers some options unavailable on the XPS 400, including a more powerful, dual-core Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 840 processor and up to 1TB of hard drive space. The XPS 200 tops out with a 3.2GHz Pentium D 840 CPU, a single 250GB hard drive, and only a half-height 3D card upgrade path. The XPS 400 and the XPS 600 both offer the expensive but impressive ATI Radeon X850 XT graphics card as an option, but unlike for many new gaming systems, you can opt for a dual graphics card option only in the XPS 600. With prices for dual graphics-capable motherboards falling, we hope it won't be too long before Dell adds that expandibility to the XPS 400 or some other future midrange gaming PC.
The striking XPS 400 tower, a departure from Dell's black-and-gray steamer-trunk cases of old, features glossy white panels on both sides and black optical-drive faceplates. You may wonder about the fist-size hole that spans the width of the tower below the DVD drives; it's a vent area for the CPU-cooling system. The XPS 400's BTX form factor puts the CPU near the front of the case instead of the rear and aligns the other heat-generating components on the motherboard for more efficient cooling. Sure enough, the system is much quieter than most--an important factor for a Media Center system. Only the video-card fan makes any noticeable noise, and it's not enough to be bothersome.
The XPS 400's internal access panel pops off easily, but true to the BTX form factor, it's the right-side panel, not the left one. Inside, the only available expansion options are a single PCI Express slot and a pair of empty SDRAM sockets. Externally, you can connect up to seven USB 2.0 and three FireWire devices. Dell also serves up 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a pair of 160GB Serial ATA hard drives, two DVD drives (one a double-layer burner), and a 9-in-1 media reader.
Despite the lack of expansion slots, you won't need to add too many aftermarket upgrades; our XPS 400 test system came stocked for long-haul computing. Speed buffs will appreciate its dual-core 3.2GHz Pentium D 840 processor, which is designed for tackling multimedia tasks, such as video encoding, and working with the upcoming 64-bit operating systems and software. Compared to similar systems, the XPS 400 fared as expected in CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 tests, which is to say quite well. It couldn't beat out the Polywell Poly 939N4X2 and its speedy hard drives, but aside from that, you can expect that the Dell XPS 400 will deliver totally acceptable day-to-day performance. The XPS 400 also met our expectations in CNET Labs' multimedia tests (run on dual-core systems). You should see speedy times when you encode an MP3 or perform another multimedia task with the XPS 400.
The XPS 400 is well equipped for gaming, at least for today. Its 256MB GeForce 6800 graphics card does a decent job with Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and other visually demanding games. In our Half-Life 2 tests, the XPS 400 fell behind the Gateway FX400XL, pushing only 37.2 frames per second (fps) at a resolution of 1,600x1,200 compared to the Gateway's slightly better 42.9fps on the same test. The XPS 400's score is still playable (barely), but it doesn't bode well for future high-end gaming, as more-sophisticated 3D titles than Half-Life 2 are set to debut soon. You can replace the Dell's GeForce 6800 with a more advanced 3D card at the time of purchase, but with only one graphics card slot in the XPS 400, you'll likely feel some upgrade-path envy in the next year or so.
Regardless of performance down the road, the perfect PC companion to games and movies of any era is Dell's UltraSharp 2005FPW wide-screen digital flat panel. This LCD definitely turns heads, and not just because of its dazzling 20-inch wide screen. It can also rotate 90 degrees, great for applications that benefit from a Portrait orientation. Rotating the LCD also makes for easier access to the expansion ports tucked behind it: USB 2.0, S-Video out, and composite video out. A 20-inch, wide-screen LCD not in the budget? Fear not, Dell offers less expensive monitor options. You can even go display-free and save $500.