|Introduction & Specifications|
Dell's XPS branded products have come a long way since they first appeared in 1993. Starting life as a performance trim for the Dimension product line, Dell has nurtured XPS into a well-known and respected premium performance brand. While not all XPS branded products are specifically targeted at gamers, gaming has always been at the core of the product line-up. The XPS brand's flagship desktop and notebook products have always been heavily gaming oriented, but it looks like that is set to change.
The XPS 730 is Dell's latest XPS flagship desktop product, the fourth generation of the XPS 700 series, and it may be the last. Or at least the last XPS flagship product as we currently know them; large, aggressively styled behemoths sporting the latest hardware and adorned with colorful LED lighting. A week after the XPS 730 was launched, news regarding the demise of XPS as a gaming brand began to circulate. Since its acquisition of Alienware in the summer of 2006, Dell has effectively been operating two separate gaming brands with directly competing products. It was speculated that some changes, possibly in the form of consolidation of the two brands, would eventually be in order. It is now fairly clear that Dell is to focus on Alienware as its premier gaming brand in the future.
While Dell has only now acknowledged that the XPS brand will give way to Alienware as Dell's premier gaming brand, there have been numerous signs that such a move was in the works. Since Dell brought Alienware into the fold, they have been busy introducing new, non gaming oriented products to both the XPS desktop and notebook line-ups. Starting with the XPS M1330 notebook and its derivatives and then the XPS 420 desktop, Dell is busy converting XPS into a premium multimedia brand. While the XPS brand of the future may still include gaming systems, they will not be the high-end flagship systems of today.
So it is with a slight bit of regret that we begin our review of the XPS 730 H2C, possibly the most exciting and last generation of the flagship XPS 700 series.
As we saw in our unboxing and preview article, the XPS 730 H2C is possibly the most well-specified XPS desktop ever. It is powered by the latest dual and quad-core Intel processors cooled by a redesigned H2C hybrid TEC-assisted water cooling system and complete with a warranty that has room for processor and memory overclocking. Not to mention the graphics performance afforded by Quad-GPU graphics setups from both ATI and NVIDIA (although at this time the Quad-SLI option is not yet available). All of this is built on NVIDIA's top-end nForce 790i Ultra SLI platform in the form of a fully-ATX compliant motherboard, unlike all other XPS 700 series machines which used BTX designs. Other features new to the XPS 700 series like a fully ESA compliant chassis design round out the package.
One of the XPS 730's most interesting new features is the motherboard's support for both Crossfire and SLI. The nForce 790i Ultra SLI based motherboard under the hood of the XPS 730 will be able to support both multi-GPU technologies, making it compatible with basically every single graphics configuration currently available. While Dell is not the first manufacturer to pull this off (Voodoo PC has offered this on several systems in the past), it is certainly still a novelty.
|Design & Build Quality|
The XPS 730 chassis is the first significantly new design in the XPS 700 series. The XPS 700, 710 and 720 were nearly identical in their outward appearance and the only significant change, until now, was a few alterations to the available color options. While the XPS 730 features the same profile and dimensions as its 700-series brethren, it sports a totally new grill design reminiscent of the XPS 630.
The XPS 730 also features a new color scheme. There are three color options in total; unpainted brushed aluminum, anodized Victory Red and anodized Stealth Blue. The standard XPS 730 will only be available in brushed aluminum but the H2C trim option will be available in all 3 color schemes. We like the new color options a lot more than the ones available with previous XPS 700 series machines. We especially like the fact that consumers who want the premium H2C trim are no longer stuck with a single color option (Midnight Black) like in the past.
It is worth noting that Dell has not completed roll-out of the XPS 730 yet so these details may change in the future. Currently, the XPS 730 is only available in 3 different H2C trims starting at $3,999, $4,999 and $5,999. A standard non-H2C XPS 730 is not currently available, presumably so Dell can clear out XPS 720 stock.
The XPS 730 is available in 3 colors; Victory Red, Brushed Aluminum, Stealth Blue
The uniform, horizontal louvered design of the previous 700-series models has been replaced with a more modern design punctuated by a large XPS badge. All previous XPS 700 series machines had been adorned with a single, small Dell badge on the front grill. The horizontal button and connections bar is in the same place, but is now in a slight V-shape. The large, louvered intake grill of the previous design has been replaced with a simple wiry crosshatch painted in high-gloss black that looks invisible from a distance when the system is off.
Our review unit has the H2C trim with a Victory Red color scheme. Like the original XPS 700 design, the entire case is wrapped in aluminum, except for the front and rear. The anodized film on the aluminum appears to be fairly thick and scratch resistant. It holds color well and the Victory Red paint is bright, reflective and uniform. The new design also features a high-gloss finish on the non-aluminum parts that is very reflective. Thankfully the paint manages to ward off fingerprints but it does attract a fair amount of dust which becomes visible under harsh lighting. Overall, the paint job is fairly low maintenance, perhaps surprisingly so, considering how reflective and glossy it is.
In our evaluation of the XPS 710 H2C, we criticized Dell for not having a windowed side-panel as an option and it seemed we were not alone in our wish. Around the same time we published our article, Dell launched their IdeaStorm user feedback website. One of the first votes to appear on the IdeaStorm website was over several side-window designs under consideration by the XPS team. Ultimately the winning design was incorporated in the XPS 730.
Instead of a standard rectangular window, the voters chose a unique X-shaped design, as you can see in the following photos. The window doesn't extend to the top of the case to hide the cables and generally unsightly optical and hard drive bays. The side-panel is held on by the same tool-less latch system as the previous 700 series chassis and the latch can be locked via a standard Kensington security port. The side-panel window is available as an option so you will be able to choose a windowless version if you prefer when Dell has completed the XPS 730 roll-out (at the time of writing, all XPS 730 configurations offered come with the windowed side-panel).
Like previous XPS designs, the XPS 730 has 'stealthed' drive bays and the optical drive eject buttons have been smartly integrated into the design. The drive bay doors are spring-loaded and swing down when the drive opens. The drive bay doors operate smoothly and it doesn't seem likely that they could catch on the drive tray, which occasionally happens on several designs we have examined in the past. It is worth noting that when the drive bay door is open, it blocks access to the drive eject button so the only way to close the drive tray is to push on it until the servo activates (all optical drives should have this function). While this isn't a problem per se, it would have been more elegant if the drive eject button remained accessible.
The XPS 730 chassis has two external 3.5" bays which are hidden behind a small flip-down door which is decorated by the XPS badge. The door has a small magnet embedded at each corner which firmly holds it closed. The door has a series of holes cut into it so the 3.5" bay can double as an additional intake grill unless both bays are filled.
The horizontal V-shaped bar on the front of the chassis, just under the XPS badge, holds all of the system's front buttons and connectors. In the apex of the V is a circular back-lit power button. To the left of the power button are FireWire, heaphone and microphone ports and to the right are two USB ports. The XPS 730 does not have a separate reset button so all hard-resets must be done with the power button.
The entire case sits on a stand which slightly elevates the case. The stand is pre-installed at the factory and it has two metal feet or 'wings' that can fold out for added stability.
All XPS 700 series machines are lit by a series of multi-color LEDs and the XPS 730 continues this trend. While the LED lighting system on the previous XPS 700 series chassis looked good, the LED system on the XPS 730 looks great. This is mostly due to the new high-gloss paint used on the non-aluminum areas of the chassis. The paint reflects the light from the LEDs and gives it a much brighter and more uniform appearance. The effect of the lights on the new wiry crosshatch grill, which is covered by the same glossy black paint, is especially pleasing.
While the LEDs on the XPS 730 are located in the same general regions as those on previous models, the LED system on the XPS 730 is quite a bit more advanced and offers much greater control to the user. The LEDs on the XPS 730 are divided into 5 different zones which are controlled separately. The zones are front-top, front-bottom-left, front-bottom-right, rear and internal. Each region can be configured to have its own color and brightness.
With previous models, the multi-color LED system had a fixed number of preset colors to choose from (8 for the XPS 710). For the XPS 730, the LED color is a composition of three separate colors (Red, Green, Blue). Each color has 15 different brightness settings where 0 would be off and 15 would be the brightest setting. This allows for a significantly greater number of colors than before and the LEDs can still be turned off by setting all colors to 0. These settings can be changed on-the-fly via a custom version of NVIDIA's Control Panel utility which comes with the system so you can see the results of your change immediately.
Overall, the new XPS 730 chassis looks every bit as good as the old design, if not better. We like the new color schemes and it is nice that the H2C trim is now available in more than just one color. The paint job and materials seem to be of high quality and we had no problems with the operation of the various switches, latches and doors on the front of the unit.
|Interior Design, Layout & Connectivity|
While the updated exterior of the XPS 730 doesn't stray too far from the previous XPS 700 series chassis, the interior is significantly different. One of the greatest complaints against Dell (and several other vendors) and especially the XPS 700 series is the use of a BTX chassis and motherboard. This made upgrading the system nearly impossible since the BTX form-factor never took off and none of the major after-market manufacturers produce BTX motherboards. The XPS 730 is the first in the series to address and fix this problem by offering full ATX compatibility. In fact, Dell has gone to some lengths to make the XPS 730 chassis as upgradeable and future-proof as any high-end after-market chassis you might purchase from the likes of Coolermaster, Lian-Li or Thermaltake.
Dell has also designed the chassis to be ESA (Enthusiast System Architecture) compliant which allows the system to monitor and report a wide variety of temperature and performance data in real-time. We'll explore the XPS 730's ESA features in detail on a later page.
While Dell has ditched the BTX form-factor, they have kept the "inverted" motherboard setup that visually characterizes the BTX form factor. The motherboard is mounted upside down with the CPU near the bottom of the case and the graphics cards near the top. This is a popular alternative to the original ATX standard configuration and it is used by many computer chassis manufacturers such as Lian-Li. The attraction to this alternate motherboard mounting configuration is that in certain conditions, this configuration has been shown to provide superior cooling efficiency.
The XPS 730 features a variety of system monitoring (as per ESA) and special control capabilities for the LED and cooling system (in the case of the H2C version). In previous 700 series models, these controls were handled by the motherboard. This would be a problem if the motherboard were replaced, since all of that functionality would be lost. In the XPS 730, these functions are contained on a separate circuit board which sits to the left of the motherboard, under the cooling shroud. This means you retain all functionality when the motherboard is upgraded. Both the motherboard and the separate control board sit on a removable motherboard tray, which can be unscrewed from the chassis and lifted out. Unfortunately it doesn't slide out the back like in some after-market solutions.
The XPS 730's motherboard (see image below) is a fairly typical looking ATX board that is not unlike NVIDIA's reference design. However, it features a less ornamental cooling solution than most after-market motherboards and doesn't sport an excessive number of copper heat-pipes. The motherboard's chipset is cooled by a single heatsink and the northbridge and southbridge sides of the heatsink are linked by a set of heat-pipes hidden under the heatsink itself. The voltage regulators around the CPU socket have their own dedicated heatsinks connected by a single heat-pipe.
The interior of the XPS 730 is lit by several multi-color LEDs, just like the exterior. There are also a set of LEDs located on the rear of the system. They are strategically placed to illuminate the rear I/O panel and the expansion slots. This is both aesthetically pleasing and very functional since the illumination makes connecting cables in dark environments, such as under desks, much easier. All of the decorative LEDs are part of the chassis and not the motherboard so you do not lose them if it is replaced.
Compared to the previous 700 series chassis, the power supply and drive bays remain in the same position. There are four 5.25" drive bays at the top of the case and two externally accessible 3.5" drive bays under them. The power supply is located in the rear-top corner. There are four 3.5" internal hard drive bays located in two columns under the power supply. The position of the hard drive bays leaves little room for the two central 5.25" bays and the area is very cramped. Thankfully the front panel can be easily removed, allowing access to the 5.25" bays from the front.
The chassis has built-in cable management for all hard drive cables. Cables are also installed and pre-routed for all four hard drive bays, even if they are not all in use. This makes upgrading extremely simple since all of the cables are provided and installed. You simply need to push the new hard drive in and connect the cables. Unfortunately, like with the previous 700 series chassis, there is no strict cable management for the other cables in the system. This isn't a large issue since Dell routes the cables behind the expansion cards and for the most part they are tucked out of the way and none of the cables are in a position to degrade airflow within the case.
The original 700 series chassis featured a tool-less expansion card design. Push-tab clips were used to secure the expansion cards instead of screws. The new XPS 730 chassis forgoes that and uses screws. A tool-less design would be favorable but this is less of an issue in this case, at least for H2C systems, since all H2C systems come with a free tool kit complete with a set of screwdrivers, as we saw in our preview article.
The chassis cooling is configured in a wind-tunnel setup and no air escapes from any side but the front and back. Except for the drive bays at the top, the entire front of the system is basically one big intake grill. The rear of the system is similar in that, except for the I/O shield and the expansion slots, the entire rear of the system is a large grill to allow for exhaust. This makes for a very efficient cooling design and airflow within the case is relatively straight forward. Another advantage to the design is that there are almost no dead-spots where air becomes trapped or isn't moving.
In total, the chassis itself has two fans, power supply has its own, another fan for each of the two video cards, and two more for the H2C cooling system for a total of seven fans within the system. These fans are all dynamically controlled and vary their speed depending on the stress the system is under. When all the fans are manually turned up to 100% power, the system sounds like a vacuum cleaner but this never happens during normal operation. During our time with our sample unit, most of the fans operated at well under 50% power.
While the system is at idle, the fans are relatively quiet considering the caliber of hardware it is packing. Under load, the fan speed and noise the system produces increases slightly although the system still remains fairly quiet. While it is certainly louder than a modern office productivity PC, the XPS 730 remains deceptively quiet and doesn't announce its presence to everyone in the room.
Located under the externally accessible drive bays is a fan shroud and the H2C unit. In the air-cooled, non-H2C version, the H2C unit would be replaced by a second fan shroud. The fan shroud holds a caged 120mm cooling fan that intakes cool air and blows it over the motherboard's expansion slots. It is protected by a grill on both sides to prevent stray wires from catching in the blades. This fan manages to move a significant amount of air while remaining fairly quiet.
A small 60mm fan is wedged in between the two columns of hard drive bays. It sucks in air through the first hard drive column and pushes it through the second column and out of the case via a dedicated rear exhaust vent. The chassis has no dedicated exhaust fans. However, judging from the high airflow out of the back of the system, it probably doesn't require them.
|The H2C Cooling System Dissected|
The original H2C (aka. H2Ceramic) cooling system first began shipping with the XPS 710 and it was Dell's first implementation of liquid cooling in a consumer product. It isn't a cut-and-dry watercooling solution, rather it's a hybrid two-stage system that incorporates a TEC element to increase cooling capacity. This was new territory, at the time, for Dell so they sought the advice of Delphi and CoolIT Systems to help them design the unit.
Dell leveraged Delphi's automobile component manufacturing experience and they provided consulting and manufacturing of the radiators and tubing used in the H2C. The TEC units used by the H2C were designed and provided by CoolIT Systems, a manufacturer of various liquid and hybrid cooling solutions for OEMs and the after-market. All these elements came together to make a fairly efficient and compact cooling unit that handled the factory overclocked quad-core processors in the XPS 710/720s with ease.
While the original H2C unit was very well suited for use in a Dell built and configured system, for which it was specifically designed, it was a bit too custom. The entire unit was rigid and self-contained. There was no way to use the unit with anything other than a XPS 710/720 with a Dell BTX motherboard. This became a problem when Dell designed the XPS 730 since it's meant to be ATX compatible and user upgradeable. One of the design goals of the XPS 730 was to allow the chassis to be as accommodating and universally compatible as any third-party chassis available on the market. This simply could not be achieved with the original H2C design so Dell sought the help of Delphi and CoolIT Systems again and went back to the drawing board.
We won't go into detail on how the H2C system works but you can refer to our review of the XPS 710 H2C for a description of how the original H2C system functions. The second generation H2C functions in the same general way as the original; it is still a two-stage, TEC assisted liquid cooling unit. However, Dell has added a few additional features that greatly increase the H2C's utility and compatibility. We will mostly be focusing on the changes and additions found in the second generation unit in this article.
The most obvious change to the H2C is a complete restructuring and redesign of the shell that holds all of its components. The second generation H2C features a split design where the cold-plate unit is separate from the heat exchanger unit, as opposed to the rigid all-in-one design of the original. This allows for greater flexibility in cold-plate placement, which is necessary since not all motherboards position the CPU socket in the same place. The cold-plate unit is connected to the heat exchanger unit by a set of flexible hoses so the whole unit is free to be adjusted as needed.
Another obvious addition to the new H2C unit is cooling support for the chipset. The original H2C unit only cooled the CPU. The second generation H2C now has a secondary cold-plate for cooling the chipset. As we saw on the previous page, the northbridge and southbridge chips on the nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard that ships with the XPS 730 are connected together by heatpipes. The finned top part of the heatsink over the northbridge is actually removable to allow the chipset cold-plate from the H2C unit to be connected. In this fashion, the single chipset cold plate is able to cool both the northbridge and the southbridge. Unfortunately, most after-market motherboards do not have this feature so only the northbridge can be cooled. However, the southbridge produces relatively little heat so this shouldn't be a big issue.
The XPS 730 is only available with Intel processors so the H2C unit is only required to support Socket T (LGA 775) that is used by all modern Intel processors. However, the next generation of Intel processors will move to a new processor socket that is larger and not compatible with Socket T. In order to maintain compatibility for future upgrading, Dell has designed the cold-plate mounting mechanism to be reconfigurable to support Socket 1366, which will be used by the upcoming next generation of Intel processor, code-named Nehalem. This ensures the H2C can be used with new platforms for the foreseeable future. The standard XPS 730 air cooler will also have this compatibility feature.
The last compatibility feature added to the second generation H2C is the addition of a small fan to one side of the cold-plate unit. This fan is meant to blow onto the generally passive heatsinks that cool the voltage regulation circuitry next to the processor socket. On many motherboards, these heatsinks depend on the residual airflow from the fan on the processor heatsink to cool them. Since the H2C system is liquid based and doesn't need a processor fan, there is little airflow in that area which can lead the voltage regulator circuitry to overheat in some designs. The small fan provides the airflow needed to ensure this does not happen.
Liquid cooling systems are generally fairly high maintenance compared to air cooling. This is largely due to the need to periodically refill the system. Over time, the liquid within the system will slowly escape by permeating through the tubing, joints and other components. This means the liquid level in the system is constantly dropping, although at an extremely slow pace, usually on a time-scale of months. Since the water is escaping so slowly, it evaporates before enough of it has collected to form a droplet so there is no danger of short circuiting the electronics in your computer. However if the water level within the system drops too much, it could lead to pump failure and overheating.
Most liquid cooling systems use surgical silicon tubing and it is the preferred tubing material for enthusiasts since it is cheap, easy to work with and clear. Unfortunately, silicon is fairly permeable and it allows enough water so seep through that most liquid cooling systems would need to be topped off with more liquid within a few weeks, unless a liquid reservoir is used to act as a buffer. Even with a reservoir, refilling would still be necessary after a few months to a year.
Dell's solution to this problem is to use re-enforced plastic tubing, the same type used in cars. Compared to silicon tubing, plastic tubing is very low permeation and very little liquid escapes as a result. The tubing used in the H2C is thick and re-enforced with crosshatched ribs to prevent kinking. All connections and joints are barbed and the re-enforcing ribs help the tubing lock on to the connection barbs to form an extremely tight seal that is quite strong. Just to make doubly sure that there is no chance of leaks, Dell also uses hose-clamps on all connections.
The pump used in the second generation H2C is very similar to the original. It is still a hybrid unit with a built-in reservoir with a spring-loaded floor. The reservoir ensures the system has some 'extra' water available which comes in handy over long periods of time as some of the water inevitably escapes from the system. The spring-loaded floor maintains water pressure and ensures that a vacuum or worse, an air bubble is not created within the system. The pump speed is now dynamically controlled. The original pump used in the first generation H2C always operated at 100% power, which is unnecessary when the system is idle.
Dell claims that the plastic tubing in combination with the reservoir allows to system to remain completely maintenance free for at least 7 years; a very long time in computer terms.
As with the original H2C system, the second generation unit does not support graphics card cooling. According to Dell, this is because the heatsink mounting mechanisms used on graphics card aren't as standardized as CPU cooling so it is very difficult to anticipate future graphics products to ensure that the H2C will be compatible.
Overall, the second generation H2C cooling system is significantly more impressive than the original. While it functions in the same general way and performance is likely to be similar since it still uses a single 120mm radiator, the new features and compatibility greatly enhances the utility and life-span of the unit.
|BIOS & Utilities|
The XPS 730's BIOS is quite a departure from what we've come to expect from Dell. All of the Dell systems we have reviewed in the last couple of years featured a distinctly proprietary layout that included a collapsible menu system, rather than the much more common tab-based layout seen in most BIOSes. Instead the XPS 730 uses a standard Phoenix BIOS with a traditional layout. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since just about anyone who has rummaged through a BIOS is probably familiar with the standard Award/Phoenix layout so the XPS 730's BIOS should be instantly familiar.
The XPS 730's BIOS is fairly well equipped with options. Most of the BIOS options and controls you would expect from a high-end NVIDIA nForce motherboard are present and unlocked. The BIOS is divided into six tabs which are navigated with the arrow keys. The 'Main' tab contains system information as well as the date and time settings. The 'Advanced' menu contains six sub-menus that control a variety of functions such as the CPU configuration, integrated peripheral functions and the hard drive configuration, as well as the overclocking options. The 'Security' menu has options for setting passwords, the 'Power' menu controls the various suspend and recovery functions and the 'Boot' menu contains the boot priority list.
The first sub-menu in the 'Advanced' tab is 'CPU Configuration'. It contains a couple interesting settings like the CPU multiplier, virtualization, and SpeedStep. Each core in the processor can also be individually toggled on/off except for the 1st core, which may be a useful feature for troubleshooting issues. The most interesting settings are contained in the last two sub-menus within the 'Advanced' tab. These two menus control the overclocking and voltage settings.
The overclocking sub-menu contains all the standard overclocking settings like FSB, CPU multiplier, memory frequency, and memory ratio settings. These settings can be enabled by setting EPP 2.0 Memory to 'Expert' mode. The EPP 2.0 Memory setting can also be used for automated FSB overclocking by a small percent. This menu also contains the memory timing sub-menu.
The second overclocking related sub-menu in the 'Advanced' tab contains all of the system's voltage settings. These are all set to "auto" by default but are unlocked and can to adjusted as the user pleases.
One menu that is noticeably absent from the BIOS is any sort of fan control, voltage, fan speed or temperature monitoring menu. However, rest assured that these functions are available. These functions are all handled by in-OS monitoring utilities and are made available to any ESA compliant software.
One of the utilities pre-installed on the XPS 730 is the NVIDIA ESA System Monitor utility. Besides a neat 3D graphical interface, this utility displays all of the system's voltage, temperature and fan speed information. The NVIDIA System Monitor also has logging functions.
The XPS 730 monitors a variety of sensors located on the chassis, CPU, motherboard, memory, networking device and hard drives (with NVIDIA-powered graphics cards, GPU health data will also be available). This basically encompasses all of the voltage, temperature and fan speed information available to the system. The slider at the bottom of the screen adjusts the transparency of the background. The utility is easy to use and informative. The 3D interface is unnecessary but never gets in the way.
While the NVIDA System Monitor can monitor, log and display all kinds of system status data, it can't actually adjust any system settings. For that, you will need the NVIDIA Control Panel. The version of the NVIDIA Control Panel pre-installed on the XPS 730 mirrors nearly all of the options available through the BIOS in addition to many option not accessible in the BIOS.
The NVIDIA Control Panel offers a very large number of options and setting ranging from LED color and fan control to memory timings and overclocking. You can see many of the most interesting options in the screenshots above. The utility also lets you create and set profiles. Each profile stores its own set of system settings so you can dial in your preferred settings for a number of scenarios and quickly switch between them without manually changing each setting every time. Overall, both utilities are fairly straightforward and easy to use.
It is also worth mentioning that both of these utilities are not exclusive to the XPS 730. The NVIDIA Control Panel can be used with any NVIDIA motherboard and the NVIDIA System Monitor will work with all ESA compliant hardware.
|Test Setup & SiSoft SANDRA|
How We Configured Our Test Systems: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set memory timings for either DDR2-1066 (AMD) with 5,5,5,15 timings or DDR3-1333 with 7,7,7,20 timings (Intel). The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows Vista Ultimate was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives, and ran all of the tests.
SiSoft SANDRA's various benchmark modules reported scores right in-line with logical expectations. The XPS 730 H2C's overclocked quad-core processor and overclocked Corsair Dominator DDR3 put it ahead of all reference systems in all three tests. Even without the factory overclocking, the XPS 730 H2C's components are relatively top of the line and would be difficult to beat.
We pit the XPS 730 H2C against a couple of high-end and mainstream configurations. The variety of test systems we used includes both quad-core and dual-core powered systems. We also used both Intel and AMD configurations. We felt this variety helps gives some perspective on the XPS 730 H2C's performance. These same configurations were used for all of our non game-specific tests. A different set of test systems were used for the gaming-specific tests. For details on test system configuration, refer to the Test Setup page.
|LAME MT & Kribibench|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.
For this next batch of tests, we ran Kribibench v1.1, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer where a 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU and the average frame rate is reported. We used two of the included models with this benchmark: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and the test suite's "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.
|Cinebench & 3DMark06 CPU|
Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D. Cinema 4D from Maxon is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The final score produced by each test system to render the scene is represented in the graph below.
The XPS 730 H2C's performance in our second 3D rendering test was very similar to its performance in Kribibench. Once again, the system's higher clocked quad-core processor and overclocked memory allowed it to achieve a much better result than the rest of the systems.
3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance. Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering. The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.
The XPS 730 H2C claims the top spot in 3DMark06's built-in CPU benchmark. It is worth noting the significant performance advantage the quad-core systems have over the dual-core systems in this test. The quad-core Q6600 was able to post a much better score than the dual-core E6850 despite having a per-core frequency that is 600MHz lower. Our XPS 730 H2C is equipped with an Core 2 Extreme quad-core processor clocked at 3.8GHz, the highest frequency out of all of the systems in our test, so it is not surprising that it achieved the best score.
|3DMark06 Standard Test|
Over the next few pages, we'll focus on a few gaming specific benchmarks, starting with the rest of 3DMark06's modules. For these tests, we compared the XPS 730 H2C to a single quad-core Intel-based system with a variety of high-end graphics configurations. We used both GeForce and Radeon based graphics configurations, both single-card and multi-card. Since the XPS 730 is a relatively expensive high-end gaming system, we didn't feel the need to compare it to mainstream graphics setups or mainstream system configurations since it would be very safe to assume that there would be no competition.
Once again, the XPS' faster processor and memory gave it the edge, even in the SM 2.0 and SM 3.0 shader tests. While these tests specifically test graphics shader performance, they are indeed effected by the configuration of the rest of the system, as proven here. While 3DMark06 is a good indicator of the general, relative graphics and gaming capability of a system, next we'll look at some 'real-world' gaming tests to see how the XPS performs in a couple blockbuster retail titles.
|HL2 Episode 2|
|ET Quake Wars|
|Overclocking the XPS 730 H2C|
Before we wrap up the review, we spent some time overclocking our review unit. Remembering that our XPS 730 H2C's QX9770 was factory overclocked to 3.8GHz, a 600MHz bump from its stock frequency of 3.2GHz, we weren't expecting to get too much further. The factory overclock is already fairly high and we were worried that the H2C unit, as good as it is, would not be able to handle four cores at over 4GHz each, especially since we would likely need to increase voltages quite a bit to get there. However, despite our concerns we eventually decided to go ahead and push the machine as far as it would go anyway.
We're not going to explain in detail how we overclocked the XPS 730 H2C since the process is similar to overclocking other machines. We also described the various overclocking settings available in the XPS 730's BIOS on a previous page. However, if you must know how it was done in more detail, you can check out this video where Louis Bruno of Dell explains the basic overclocking functions available to the XPS 730 and XPS 630 desktop computers.
We started with simply bumping the CPU multiplier up to 11 from the factory overclocked setting of 9.5. This would give us a final CPU frequency of 4.4GHz. Perhaps a bit too optimistic. After the 4th unsuccessful boot, the BIOS automatically put us into 'Safe Mode' and forced us to reconsider our BIOS settings. We eventually arrived at our maximum stable overclock of 4.25GHz at 425MHz FSB (1700MHz quad-pumped) with the the CPU voltage set at 1.536V.
Screenshot of CPU-Z While The XPS 730 H2C Was Overclocked
With these settings, the system was completely stable. However, the CPU temperature was very high. With SpeedStep disabled, the system idled at around 70 degrees Celsius for the hottest of the four cores, and 61 degrees Celsius for the coolest. Under load, the CPU temperatures jumped into the mid-80s. While this is a fairly dangerous temperature for operating a processor for any extended period of time and so is the 1.536V core voltage required to achieve our overclock, we managed to snap some quick benchmarks before anything bad happened.
We achieved a fairly impressive improvement in 3DMark06. The overclock increased our score by 1792 points to 22210. This isn't a very significant increase until you consider that 3DMark06 is largely a gaming test that puts heavy emphasis on graphics performance and we didn't overclock the graphics cards. We also saw a large performance increase in Cinebench as a result of our overclock. Both the multi-threaded and single-thread test saw large boosts in performance.
Overall, the overclock we were able to achieve is fairly impressive. At 4.25GHz, the processor in our overclocked XPS 730 H2C was operating at 1.05GHz faster than the Intel specified stock speed. It's also a 450MHz boost over Dell's factory overclock. Unfortunately, it took 1.536V worth of core voltage to get here and this resulted in high CPU core temperatures. The overclock is simply not sustainable for everyday use without a significantly increased chance of component failure.
In the end, overclocking is always a game of chance. There is no guarantee that you will be able to duplicate our results. On the other hand, you might find that your particular machine overclocks much better than ours did. However, the risks of overclocking are always present, especially when you are dealing with the temperatures and voltages we are playing with. Thankfully, the XPS 730 H2C is plenty fast at the warrantied factory overclocked speed and further overclocking is largely unnecessary.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: The XPS 730 H2C performed very well in all of our tests. The factory overclocked QX9770 at 3.8GHz (up from 3.2GHz stock) gave it the raw power to outpace all of our test systems in any CPU-intensive task. In combination with the factory overclocked NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard and the twin sticks of Corsair Dominator DDR3 memory factory overclocked to 1600MHz, the XPS 730 H2C is an absolute monster in any productivity and multimedia task.
Gaming performance was less decisive but still extremely impressive. Unfortunately the relative immaturity of quad-GPU drivers, especially under Vista, really hampered the XPS in several gaming tests. Our review unit was equipped with dual Radeon HD 3870 X2's in a quad-Crossfire configuration and it performed well in games. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same scaling issues that currently plague all quad-GPU setups and it wasn't always the fastest solution. However, this is due to no fault on Dell's or the XPS' part. It is simply a current limitation of the drivers and software, which will hopefully be remedied over time as the technology matures. Even with these limitations, the XPS exhibited enough brute force to run all of the games in our test at a playable frame-rate. Overall, performance was as we expected it to be for a system of this price, caliber and configuration; absolutely blazing.
We have spent a lot of time with the XPS 730 H2C since we first published our unboxing and preview article nearly a month ago and a lot has happened since then. A short week after we published our preview, news broke that the XPS brand will eventually lose its gaming focus and Dell will be shifting their energy to develop Alienware as their premier gaming brand. The XPS brand will continue to exist but the large LED-lit flagship gaming systems at the heart of the line-up will be replaced by premium multimedia computers. Thankfully, Dell has confirmed that this will not put the life-span of the XPS 730 in doubt. It will be allowed to live a full retail product life and will be available for sale for at least another year.
The XPS 730 is the first major design update to the XPS 700 series. While it maintains the same aggressive profile and dimensions as its predecessors, the 730 sports a new grill and three new color schemes as well as an improved LED lighting system. A new side-panel window option is also available, an early fruit of Dell's IdeaStorm suggestion website.
The new chassis design is superb both in appearance and function. Gone are the proprietary BTX motherboards that plagued the earlier 700 series machines which made upgrading nearly impossible. With the XPS 730, Dell embraces the ATX and ESA standards and the XPS 730 is powered by a standard NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard. The new XPS 730 chassis is a huge step forward in design. It offers a level of flexibility and upgradeability equal to that of a well made after-market chassis. It also looks every bit as striking as the original 700 series chassis and the new color options are better than ever.
The NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard under the hood of the XPS 730 is one of the best gaming platforms currently available and thanks to some custom drivers which allow it to work with both SLI and Crossfire, it just got even better. The XPS 730 is able to support just about every graphics configuration currently available as well as all the latest Intel processors and you'll be able to configure it to match your needs and your budget. Unfortunately quad-GPU scaling still has some performance kinks that need to be worked out before it can reach its full potential, but this is no fault of the XPS 730 and dual as well as single GPU configurations are available.
Like the XPS 710 and 720, the new XPS 730 will be available in both a standard and a H2C hybrid cooling version. In order to meet the new theme of ATX compatibility, Dell has updated the H2C system, improving it in a number of areas. The updated H2C cooling system retains the basic function and performance of the previous version but adds new compatibility features that allow it to work with nearly any motherboard. Dell has even gone so far as to make both the H2C cooler and the standard air cooler compatible with Intel's upcoming Nehalem processor. While the quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX9770 under the hood of our review unit did get a bit too hot when we tried to push it beyond 4GHz in our overclocking experiment, the new H2C system easily handles the factory overclocked frequency of 3.8GHz. Overall, the new H2C unit is a significant improvement over its predecessor.
The XPS 730 is, without a doubt, the best XPS 700 series gaming computer to date. It offers an excellent blend of top-end components, striking good looks, customizeability, ease of use and a fair amount of future-proofing. It is unfortunate that the XPS 730 may be the last generation of Dell's XPS 700 series, as we currently know them, but with the new improved chassis and upgradeability, you'll be able to keep using and re-using it for many years to come. All of this high-end hardware means the the XPS 730 isn't cheap, but then again, which high-end gaming computer is? While you may be able to save some cash by building your own rig, considering the quality of the chassis, cooling and components and the costs of assembly, the XPS 730 is still fairly priced.
The XPS 730 may be the last of its kind. Perhaps the design team of the XPS 730 also realized this, inspiring them to try and make it the best 700 series machine to date. Whatever their inspiration, the XPS 730 turned out to be a great gaming and multimedia computer. The XPS 730 represents the fourth generation in Dell's XPS 700 series and it exhibits a maturity of design that only iteration and refinement can bring. It is clear that Dell has thought long and hard about the complaints levied against past generations of XPS 700 series and they have systematically addressed them while maintaining all of the high-points and charm of the earlier machines. We heartily recommend the XPS 730 and the XPS 730 H2C to anyone in the market for a high-end gaming/multimedia computer and we are happy to award the XPS 730 H2C our coveted Editor's Choice award.