A system with the Intel Viiv sticker is supposed to be optimized for multimedia use. The Viiv spec mandates the Windows Media Center Edition operating system, 5.1 or 7.1 audio, and Intel's Quick Resume instant on/off technology, which basically cuts the audio and video while keeping the PC running. The dual-core CPU--a Pentium D 940 in this case--is also part of the spec, and it's one of the more useful requirements of Viiv. Other things we think you need for a great entertainment PC, such as a TV tuner and a decent video card (both of which come included), are not part of the Viiv requirement, so just looking for the Viiv sticker may not be enough for your needs. Fortunately, the XPS 400 goes far beyond the bare minimum requirements.
The system is housed in a glossy white BTX case with a silver front bezel and black drive-bay covers. The midtower design will add a touch of class to any home office, but it's too big to fit in with your home-entertainment components. A double-layer DVD burner and a DVD-ROM drive occupy the full-size external drive bays, and one of the two 3.5-inch bays contains a 13-in-1 media-card reader. Two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, and headphone and microphone jacks are mounted below the drive bays. Five additional USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and 5.1 audio jacks are located at the rear of the system. The XPS 400 can be configured with a high-end Creative Audigy 2 or X-Fi audio card, but our test system included neither, relying instead on an integrated audio solution. For most users, even home-theater users, the integrated audio is fine.
The system's chassis is completely tool-free, making it easy to install and remove drives and expansion cards. The XPS 400 relies on two system fans and a BTX airflow scheme to keep components from overheating. The machine is fairly quiet, with the only discernible noise coming from the graphics card fan. The interior is tightly packed, and the single x16 PCI Express slot holds a 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 graphics card. Two PCI slots hold a dual TV tuner card and a dual-port FireWire card, leaving two x1 PCI Express slots and one PCI slot available for future expansion. The two hard drive bays mounted at the bottom of the case hold dual Maxtor 250GB Serial ATA (SATA) drives in a DataSafe (RAID 1) configuration for added data protection. If you'd rather skip the redundant protection, you can have Dell configure the drives for RAID 0 and reclaim the extra 250GB of drive space for storing recorded TV programs and other hefty multimedia files.
The XPS 400 uses a Dell-branded motherboard based on Intel's 945P chipset and is powered by Intel's dual-core Pentium D 940 processor running at 3.2GHz. On CNET Labs' BAPCo SysMark 2004 application benchmarks, it turned in admirable numbers, second only to those of the $3,695 Polywell Poly 975MCE-E system. The Polywell's 3.46GHz Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 955 CPU helped it beat the Dell system by 15 percent. The Dell, in turn, ran 11 percent faster than the $1,747 Alienware Area-51 3550, which uses a 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 920 and includes neither monitor nor speakers.
While it can't hold a candle to today's SLI-powered gaming systems, a score of 46.6 frames per second (fps) on our 1,024x768-resolution Doom 3 test proves that the XPS 400 can pull double duty as a midrange gaming box. For an extra $280, you can order the system with a GeForce 7800 GTX graphics card to boost its 3D performance. Even without the GPU upgrade, our XPS 400 test system's GeForce 6800 outclasses the budget GeForce 6200 SE on HP's Viiv PC, the Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n, as well as the ATI Radeon X300 SE graphics card on the iBuyPower Viiv-350.
We put the Dell XPS 400's dual-core chip to work burning a DVD in the background while playing Doom 3. We did not experience any hiccups, and the DVD burn completed without errors. The dual TV tuner, which can capture two standard-def sources, did a decent job displaying live TV and recording TV signals, but certain channels exhibited clipping and signal noise--a common occurrence with PC-based DVRs.
Our XPS 400 shipped with a wired Dell multimedia keyboard and mouse rather than a wireless setup, which Dell offers for an additional $50. It also shipped with Dell's 5650 100-watt 5.1 speakers and its UltraSharp 2005FPW LCD monitor, an impressive 20-inch wide-screen display with a native resolution of 1,680x1,050. Those speakers do not currently seem to be available via Dell's configurator, but the monitor is a good size for this type of PC--not too big to preclude regular Windows work but big enough to make watching TV and DVDs enjoyable.
Along with Windows Media Center Edition, the XPS 400 comes with Corel's WordPerfect Office 12 and CyberLink's PowerDVD. You also get a trial version of Trend Micro's PC-cillin Internet Security app along with Dell's Starter Entertainment Pack, which includes basic photo-editing and digital-jukebox software. Dell's Media Center IR receiver and remote are part of the bundle.
Dell provides a three-year warranty with the Viiv version of the XPS 400, which includes next-business-day onsite service and 24/7 rapid-response telephone support by a team of XPS-certified technicians--a different level of service than Dell's non-XPS systems--a.k.a. Dimensions--receive. For $49, you can upgrade to an even higher level of service called XPS Plus Solutions. This gives you 30 days of access to Dell On Call, which provides assistance with general how-to questions.