Dell Studio XPS Review

by J.R. Nelson Reads (159,442)

The launch of Intel’s new Core i7 microarchitecture presents a fantastic opportunity for computer manufacturers to introduce their own new products and boost flagging sales. Most of the new Core i7 chips are being put into high-end enthusiast and gaming systems — which carry a high-end pricetag. To that end, Dell has introduced the Studio XPS, a midrange desktop aimed at content creation professionals. With a new CPU, DDR3 memory and a starting price of less than a thousand dollars, Dell’s new desktop looks like an attractive way of upgrading to Intel’s next generation platform. Read on for our full review.

Specifications

  • Processor: Intel Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz (8MB L2 cache)
  • Memory: 6GB tri-channel DDR3 @ 1066MHz
  • Hard drive: 500GB SATA @ 7200RPM
  • Optical drive: SuperMulti DVD+/-RW
  • Sound: Integrated 7.1 HD audio
  • Video card: ATI Radeon HD4850
  • Networking: 10/100/1000 Gigabit ethernet
  • Dell wired keyboard and mouse
  • Operating system: Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit
  • Warranty: One year limited warranty with in-home service after remote diagnosis and 24/7 phone support
  • Dimensions: 14.2″(H)x6.7″(W)x17.1″(D)
  • 360W rated power supply

In this configuration, the Dell Studio XPS carries a suggested retail price of $1299. The base version of it starts at $949.

Build and Design

The new Studio XPS follows the same design cues as most of Dell’s recent desktops. The front of the case uses the same high-gloss tuxedo black plastic as the rest of the Studio desktops. On the front, you can see the optical drive bays up top covered with black plastic. While this gives the desktop a uniform appearance, it does make the access button a little squishy. Directly below the optical drive bays, there is a sliding access door that hides away all of the front ports of the machine.

I actually much prefer this way of hiding mess on the front panel of a desktop to a door that has to be left open. Doors get broken, they look ugly when left open, and they’re just a bit of a pain to deal with. This solution, however, lets you leave the bay open for viewing and access without any of those repercussions. I suspect that most users will just leave it open in general use.

The side panels are traditional Dell, with a vent noticeable in the lower left-hand side of the case. The sides of the case are less important than the front as far as design goes, since it’s going to be pretty hard to see the sides of the computer when it’s sitting beneath a desk. More importantly than how they look, Dell also designed the left case panel to be easily removed for quick access to the interior. Loosen a couple of thumbscrews, and you’re in.

Inside, the case is, like many recent desktops we’ve reviewed, relatively sparsely populated with hardware. The power supply sits at the top of the machine, with the motherboard and graphics card below. On the right sit the optical drive and hard drive. Interestingly enough, Dell has mounted the hard drive vertically rather than horizontally even though there is significant space beside and beneath it. I suspect this is probably a result of the higher number of DIMM slots for DDR3 memory than what has been usual; by mounting the drive in this fashion, Dell facilitates access to the data and power cables.

Mounting the drive in a more traditional fashion would mean banging against the RAM whenever you needed to move it around. Unfortunately, this creates a messy cable situation with cables trailing from the hard drive over the RAM to the motherboard and power supply. Given that a second hard drive would be mounted (in the picture) directly down from the first, I suspect a RAID 0 configuration would simply compound the issue.

The real centerpiece for the new Studio XPS is the new Intel Core i7 platform. Underneath the big (compared to many OEM heatsinks) heatsink rests a Core i7 920, clocked 2.66 GHz. Dell’s BIOS, unfortunately, doesn’t really lend itself to overclocking the processor. It’s a bit of a letdown, considering that Intel’s Core architecture has traditionally been a good overclocker.

Another noticeable difference between computers based on the new Core i7 chip and traditional desktops is the addition of tri-channel memory. What this means is that instead of putting in either two or four memory modules to fully realize the speed of your desktop’s memory, you’re going to need either three or six. In this case, Dell populated the slots with six 1GB sticks of DDR3 memory, although the Studio XPS does support using up to 12. If you’re going above three, however, you’re going to absolutely want to run a 64-bit operating system to make sure your computer can address all of it.

Inputs and Expansion

The Studio XPS does offer a fair number of options regarding ports and expandability. As discussed earlier, the front of the computer has a slotted compartment that hides all of the ports. Beneath the cover rest four USB2.0 ports, one FireWire and audio in/out. As an aside, the four USB ports on the front were some of the tightest I’ve ever used; pulling out a thumb drive literally moved the desktop forward a few inches. I suspect, however, that there is a certain degree of variance involved in the construction of these.

The rear of the Studio XPS offers several more options. In addition to four more USB2.0 ports (bringing the total to eight), there is another FireWire, one eSATA, gigabit ethernet, audio in as well as analog and optical audio out. One thing you can see in the picture is that the Studio XPS has no onboard video whatsoever; this is because it’s only configurable with discrete graphics cards. In this case, it’s an ATI Radeon HD4850, offering up two DVI-I video out ports as well as s-video. It’s certainly an interesting move by Dell. The back of the computer also offers up a cable lock slot.

Inside of the computer, there are external 5.25″ and 3.5″ drive bays available (one of each) as well as two more internal 3.5″ drive bays. There are three PCI-e x1 slots and a single PCI-e x16 slot which is already taken up by the discrete graphics solution.

Benchmarks and Performance

wPrime is a PC performance benchmarking program that forces the computer to perform recursive mathematical calculations. This program is multithreaded, meaning we can take advantage of more than one core of a processor at a time, resulting in a more realistic estimate of a computer’s performance.

wPrime benchmark comparison results (lower numbers mean better performance)

Desktop wPrime 32 time
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz) 9.1s
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz) 13.869s
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz) 14.625s
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 16.301s
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 27.65s
HP Pavilion Slimline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 29.733s
HP Compaq dc5850 (Athlon X2 5000B @ 2.6GHz) 31.421s

PCMark05 overall system performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)

Desktop PCMark05 Score
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz) 10,928 PCMarks
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz) 10,616 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz) 9,999 PCMarks
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 6,887 PCMarks
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850 @ 2.16 GHz) 5,189 PCMarks
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 4,981 PCMarks
HP Pavilion Slimline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 4,593 PCMarks

3DMark06 overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)

Desktop 3DMark06 Score
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450, ATI HD4870X2) 14,705 3DMarks
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920, ATI HD4850) 13,085 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850, NVIDIA FX4600) 10,327 3DMarks
Dell Studio Slim (Core 2 Quad Q8200, ATI HD3450 256MB) 1,820 3DMarks
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850, NVIDIA 9300M GS) 1,714 3DMarks
HP Compaq dc5850 (Athlon X2 5000B, ATI HD3100 IGP) 1,041 3DMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100, Intel X3100) 528 3DMarks

It’s interesting to see that the Studio XPS, with its new Core i7 processor, beats out the $3500 Area-51 desktop. It falls behind in the 3D tests, however, which is no surprise considering the disparity between the graphics cards. It’s easier to see where the scores differ in 3DMark Vantage: the Alienware machine had a combined score of p12578 while the Studio XPS scored p7603. It gets more interesting when you look at the subscores. The Alienware had a GPU subscore of 13148 and CPU subscore of 11129. The Studio XPS, however, had a GPU subscore of 6407 and a whopping CPU subscore of 17275. It won out in PCMark Vantage, which relies much more on CPU performance than its 3D counterpart; the Studio XPS scored 6056 while the Area-51 pulled off 5976.

Audio and Video Compression

The Core i7 920 within the Studio XPS is what makes the new desktop so attractive: it crunches numbers astonishingly fast. In our tests, the computer was able to compress 602MB of WAV audio in 21 files to 320kbps MP3 in just 36 seconds — which is more than twice as fast as some of the flagship parts from AMD.

We also ran a short video compression test in which 21 minutes and 42 seconds of MPEG-2 video footage was run through a one-pass x264 encoder. Taking just 10 minutes and 41 seconds, you can start to see the potential for professional who work with media day in and day out. Given that even these programs weren’t completely capable of using the 8 threads offered up by this new quad-core processor, as developers come up with updated codecs and programs, we can expect to see performance improve dramatically

Gaming

Despite Dell’s claims that the Studio XPS is not considered a gaming desktop, we couldn’t resist loading up Crysis and seeing how well it could run. Even though the game is much more GPU dependant than CPU, performance was still admirable. Running at 1280×1024, 0xAA with all settings maxed, we saw an average of 21.164 frames per second, with a min of 18 and a max of 25. Mostly playable, but not all the great. Keeping the same resolution and anti-aliasing, but reducing the settings to “just” high instead of very high, average frames per second shot up to 33.768, with a minimum of 29 fps and a max of 41. While a dedicated gaming system would certainly get better scores, you could still pull off a few rounds of the latest game in between compressing video.

HDTune results

I think the Studio XPS could really benefit from a faster hard drive. Given how screamingly fast that processor is and how fast and how much RAM the system has access to, it would be nice to see Dell step it up and offer a faster single drive solution. The site does show the availability of 640GB drives; I suspect that they would be significantly faster than the one we have in our system. An alternative is that they do offer pre-configured RAID 0 setups, which could be useful if you need to have access to a fast scratch drive.

Noise and Power Consumption

Given the great performance exhibited by the processor, you might assume that the desktop is a bit of a power hog. Yes and no. At 119 Watts when idling, it certainly uses a fair amount of power compared to some desktops and almost any notebook. When you take into account its relative performance, however, the wattage becomes less of issue, since with many tasks you can get more done in a shorter period of time. The desktop uses 290W when maxed out, though a good bit of that is going to be the HD4850 graphics card. That’s not all that bad, either, considering AMD’s recent efforts at GPGPU computing, and the upcoming release of the Avivo video encoder — the combination of a Core i7 and discrete AMD graphics card may end up being amazing for hardcore A/V enthusiasts and professionals.

With regard to noise, the Studio XPS is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s quiet most of the time, and largely unnoticeable when mixed in with the noise present in a general office environment. If it gets ramped up, however, fans will come on very strong and very loud. At least once it happened with such suddenness and ferocity that I almost jumped.

Conclusion

The new Dell Studio XPS is fast. It’s really fast. Really, really fast. The new Intel Core i7 platform works very well and should be a solid foundation from which to build here on out. Having said that, however, there are a few issues that could be addressed. Given the speed of the processor and discrete graphics, this system begs for a very fast storage solution. I’d really recommend going with a RAID 0 configuration and a huge tertiary drive for storage.

In addition, I feel that Dell let us down in the design department. While it’s by no means a bad design, the release of a completely new platform could have let them play around with things and shown off something unique. Instead, it’s hard to pick it out from some of the recent ones they’ve launched. In reality, this is a minor complaint, especially when compared to what’s inside and the value, but it’s still something I wish was addressed.

Dell is offering a unique product with the Studio XPS. It offers consumers a chance to upgrade to the latest and greatest from Intel for under a thousand dollars and gain what will likely be a massive jump in performance. Paired with discrete graphics from AMD, it’s hard to go wrong: the CPU will get everything done fast, and the GPU will get some of it done even faster. In addition, a lot of pre-built desktops based around Core i7 are going to aimed at enthusiasts and gamers, and thus be sold for significant premiums; the Studio XPS is a response to that. If you’re looking for a new workhorse that will get things done (and maybe play a game or two on the side), I have to say that it’s hard to look past this machine.

Pros

  • Core i7 920 is incredibly fast
  • Studio XPS offers low barrier to entry for new platform
  • Lots of room for lots of memory
  • Easily accessible components
  • Slotted front port cover a much better alternative to door-based covers

Cons

  • Somewhat uninspired design
  • Needs to use faster hard drive
  • Messy internal cabling
  • Fans occasionally very loud


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