|Introduction & Overview|
We evaluated the original Dell XPS 730 in early May, shortly after its initial release. At the time, it was Dell's latest high-end gaming machine and the word on the street was that it would be the last to carry the XPS badge. Moving forward, Dell was to concentrate on their Alienware gaming brand and the XPS brand would lose its gaming focus to embrace multimedia and content creation. Naturally, we checked with Dell directly and while they did confirm the rumor, they also assured us that the XPS 730's life wouldn't be cut short and it would go on to live through a full product cycle. It seems they weren't bluffing, not that we doubted them in the first place.
Shortly after Intel released their new Core i7 processors about a month ago, Dell announced a new update to the XPS 730 with Core i7 tech under the hood. The new XPS 730x is first and foremost a technology update. The Intel Core 2 processors and NVIDIA 790i Ultra SLI chipset powering the original XPS 730 have been swapped with new Core i7 processors and Intel's X58 Express chipset. The XPS 730x retains the original 730's ability to support both Crossfire and SLI and the latest graphics options from both the green and the red camp are available. Like all XPS 700 series machines since the XPS 710, the 730x is available with optional factory overclocking and a H2C edition that features a two-stage liquid cooling system. This brings the XPS 730x to the forefront of bleeding edge tech and should present a nice performance boost over the original 730.
While the new performance features are the highlights of the update, they aren't the only new additions. In our evaluation of the original 730, we noted that the XPS 730 chassis, an update of the original XPS 700 series chassis used in previous models, was one of the best we've seen, rivaling that of the HP Blackbird 002. For the XPS 730x, the chassis has received several subtle updates while retaining all of the qualities we liked from the original XPS 730.
The various pre-installed software and utilities included with the XPS 730 have also been updated for the 730x. The original 730 had software configurable LED lighting controlled via a custom screen in the NVIDIA control panel. While this worked, it wasn't particularly elegant or user friendly. The XPS 730x still offers configurable LED lighting, but it is now controlled by Alienware's slick AlienFX utility. Hardware and performance monitoring has also been improved and the XPS 730x now includes a custom monitoring utility that makes monitoring system temperatures and controlling fan speeds extremely easy.
Overall, there are enough new updates and changes to warrant a fresh look at the flagship of the XPS series so we've obtained a XPS 730x and gave it a full shakedown. Read on for details of the new features and a full suite of performance benchmarks.
|Presentation, Design & Build Quality|
The Dell XPS experience starts when a very tired delivery man knocks on your door to drop off the system. The box is simply massive at 21"x28"x30.5"; complete with weight warning symbols. Opening the box, you are greeted by two smaller boxes and the system itself, wrapped in protective foam. Each of the two smaller boxes are full of the various accessories and gadgets included in your order such as a keyboard, mouse, gamepad, etc.
Also included are a few freebies. Every XPS 730 system comes with a free tool kit with all of the various screwdrivers you would need to tinker with your system, a free Dell XPS metal mouse pad and a free set of XPS branded Turtle Beach Ear Force HPA2 surround sound gaming headset. The Ear Force HPA2 offers true surround sound thanks to four individual speakers per earpad and its own dedicated amplifier. While we aren't in the business of reviewing headphones, we have played with the Ear Force HPA2's before and we found them to be excellent headsets for games and movies. They offer good surround sound positioning and excellent bass. Also included is a leather XPS branded binder full of all of your manuals, guides and driver disks.
For the XPS 730x update, Dell didn't change the chassis. It's the same aggressively styled 21.9 inch tall, 50 lb monster used by the original XPS 730. We aren't complaining as we found the chassis to be superb in our review of the original XPS 730.
For our original XPS 730 article, we evaluated a unit in a Victory Red color scheme. This time our sample is dressed in Stealth Blue. One thing is for sure, the blue is certainly stealthy. While under studio lighting the paint job certainly does appear to be a deep blue color, under most lighting conditions the paint job appeared black as night. This might be an important consideration if you're adamant about the color of your chassis. The paint job is still of very high quality, it just might not appear, in normal lighting conditions, to be quite the color you were expecting.
Overall, the case is of the same high build quality we found in our review of the original 730. The XPS 730x offers four 'stealthed' optical drive bays and the two 3.5" bays are hidden behind a flip-down door emblazoned with the XPS logo. The horizontal V-shaped bar on the front of the chassis holds a row of connections including two USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port, the microphone port and the headphone port. The power button is located in the apex of the V and it is backlit by a bright white LED when the system is powered on. Located directly under the power button is a hidden HDD activity LED which only becomes visible when it flashes.
The entire chassis sits on a black base which slightly elevates the case and provides two metal fold-out feet which help to stabilize it on uneven surfaces like carpets and rugs. We definitely recommend using the fold-out feet, even on relatively flat surfaces, since at 50 lbs the XPS 730x is pretty heavy and you don't want it to tip over and crush a toe.
The XPS 730x retains the advanced lighting system of the original 730. The entire chassis, inside and out, is illuminated by dozens of user configurable multi-colored LEDs. The LEDs are divided into 5 separate zones and each zone can be controlled independently of the others. The color of each LED is a composition of three colors (Red, Green, Blue) and each color can be adjusted to any one of 16 brightness settings (including off). This theoretically gives you 4096 colors to choose from across 5 zones for millions of different combinations, and that's just the start. The LEDs can also be set to change depending on what applications are running and even in response to user configured events such as receiving new email. If you prefer a more subdued look, the LEDs can be set to a neutral white or even turned off completely.
Dell XPS 730x Color Options (Click for larger image)
The XPS 730x is available in the same three color options as the original 730; clear coated brushed aluminum, Victory Red and Stealth Blue. Most XPS 730x configurations are available with the optional X-panel windowed side-panel and a windowless version is also available if that is more your style. Since the chassis hasn't changed much from the original 730, we didn't go into too much detail here. For more pictures of the chassis in Victory Red and a detailed analysis of the chassis and its build quality, check out our review of the original XPS 730.
|Interior Layout & Functionality|
Like the exterior, the interior layout of the XPS 730x remains largely unchanged from the original 730. This is good since we didn't find anything wrong with the 730 series chassis to begin with and we're glad Dell didn't introduce any unnecessary changes.
The original 730 featured lighting on the interior of the chassis which was linked to the same system that controlled the lighting for the exterior. For the XPS 730x, Dell has taken interior lighting a step further with Theater Lighting.
The Theater Lighting system is a pretty clever approach to a common problem. The great weight and bulk of the XPS 730 makes it inconvenient to move around in order to find the best angle for optimal lighting and a flashlight was nearly always necessary when you needed to open up the chassis for maintenance/upgrades. Theater Lighting is a set of white LEDs independent of the standard interior lighting system that is designed to illuminate the interior while you muck about under the hood. The lights turn on automatically when the side panel is opened and they are powered by their own independent power source so the system doesn't even need to be plugged in.
The Theater Lighting system consists of 4 ultra-bright white LEDs powered by two AA batteries. The batteries are located on the side of the 5.25" drive cage, hidden under a plastic shroud. Despite there only being 4 LEDs, they are very bright and are positioned well; together they illuminate the entire motherboard area as well as the upper drive cages. The new Theater Lighting system works very well and we can honestly say you probably won't ever need a flashlight while working in the XPS 730x.
The interior of the chassis is just as functional as before, with the same emphasis on reusability. The XPS 730 series chassis is fully ATX compliant and will accept any ATX motherboard, not just the ones supplied by Dell. The rest of the chassis is just as adherent to common standards and you'll find that the chassis in general can be completely stripped of its original hardware and replaced with new off-the-shelf components as easily as any aftermarket chassis from the likes of Thermaltake and Coolermaster. This will certainly be a welcome feature years after your XPS 730x purchase, when the original hardware is becoming a little old and you're ready for an upgrade.
The chassis is also ESA (Enthusiast System Architecture) compliant which allows the system to monitor a variety of temperature and performance data in real-time. Other features we liked from the original 730, such as pre-routed cables, also make a return. As you can see in the images above, our review system was only configured with two hard drives, leaving two empty drive bays. All of the necessary power and data cables for the two empty bays have been installed so adding additional drives is simply a matter of putting the drive in and connecting the pre-routed cables.
Since the interior of the chassis hasn't changed much from the original XPS 730, other than the addition of Theater Lighting, we won't go into further detail here. However you can check out our dissection of the original XPS 730 chassis for more pictures and a detailed analysis.
Like all XPS 700 series systems since the XPS 710, the XPS 730x will be available in a factory overclocked 'H2C' version which features Dell's H2Ceramic hybrid cooling system. The XPS 730x is available with two different levels of factory overclocking (or no overclocking at all). At this time factory overclocking is only available with the Core i7-965 Extreme processor and you will not be provided with the option if you chose the i7-920 or the i7-940.
Level 1 overclocking will bring the i7-965 Extreme processor up to 3.46GHz from the default clock of 3.2GHz, while level 2 overclocking will push it all the way to 3.73GHz. Level 1 overclocking is available with both the standard air cooling and the H2C cooling option, but level 2 overclocking is only available with H2C. Both levels of factory overclocking are fully covered by the standard parts and labor warranty with in-home service (3 years for H2C systems).
Like the original 730, the XPS 730x is offered with the second generation of the H2C cooling system. The H2C system doesn't receive an update for the new Core i7 processors since the second gen unit was originally designed with Core i7 compatibility in mind right from the start.
Click here for more pictures of the H2C hybrid cooling system and a detailed analysis of its functions.
|Software & Utilities|
One minor criticism we had of the original 730 was the number of applications that came preinstalled. While there weren't too many, some of them were rather useless and could easily be considered bloat. It also didn't help that an anti-virus registration screen greeted you on first boot. This is an area where Dell has made great improvements.
The above image is a screenshot taken immediately upon first boot. As you can see, not only is the desktop clean but the taskbar is relatively tidy and there are no registration/sign-up/configuration windows filling up the screen. The only things that seem to be installed are the bare essentials like the drivers and some basic software utilities to help you interface with the hardware, such as Roxio Creator for optical disk creation and PowerDVD DX for watching DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. Windows Vista User Access Control (UAC) is also disabled by default, an advantage in our opinion (Note: To clarify, Dell ships their machines with UAC enabled, though for the purposes of our review it was disabled on our test machine). Dell has also included three utilities which are new for the XPS 700 series; Dell Dock, XPS Thermal Monitor, and Alienware AlienFX Editor.
The original XPS 730 also had a Dell Dock, although it came in the form of a somewhat useless variation on the Windows Sidebar. Just like the regular Sidebar, the old Dell Dock didn't really provide much in the way of useful functionality and we quickly did away with it. We found the new Dell Dock to be more useful.
The new Dell Dock presents itself as a shortcut bar docked to the top edge of the desktop by default. It can be moved anywhere on the desktop and can dock with any edge. Its primary function is to provide quick access to your favorite programs and files. By default, the Dock comes with seven main categories as well as shortcuts for the Recycle Bin and Internet Explorer. The seven categories are E-mail/Chat, Internet, Photos, Music, Videos, Security and Help/Support. All seven categories are populated by default.
The Dock is extremely customizable, you can easily create and edit categories, separators and shortcuts using the right-click menu. Click and drag any item you wish to create a shortcut for to the appropriate place in the dock and a shortcut will automatically be created. There is also an extensive preferences dialog, also accessible from the right-click menu. From here you can adjust the transparency, docking position, dock color, edit effects options and toggle auto-hide. Overall we found the Dell Dock to be a pretty handy shortcut bar and a great way to keep our desktop clean of icons.
The original XPS 730 had extensive thermal monitoring and fan control abilities. But they were controlled via the NVIDIA Control Panel which was a bit awkward to use. It was also an odd place to put thermal monitoring and control options since they didn't exclusively pertain to the graphics card or the chipset. For the new XPS 730x, Dell has included a custom utility to handle this, called the XPS Thermal Monitor.
The Thermal Monitor is a standalone utility that acts like a one-stop-shop for all of the 730x's thermal monitoring functions. By default the screen displays all of the thermal sensors present in your system and the sensors are polled every second to ensure up to date information. Each of the temperature and fan speed monitors is displayed in its own widget which can be undocked from the main XPS Thermal Monitor interface and placed anywhere on the screen. This is a nice feature since you can put the most important sensor widgets on your desktop to keep an eye on things during activities like overclocking.
The XPS Thermal Monitor's second function is to act as an advanced fan controller. By default all of the fans are engaged in automatic fan control but the Thermal Monitor allows you to create new fan control profiles. Instead of the standard fan speed slider, the Thermal Monitor presents you with a fan speed vs. temperature graph for fan control. The speed of the fans is controlled by the adjustable graph, relative to the temperature detected by the thermal sensor of your choice. This allows for some very fine tuning if you are unhappy with the defaults or just like to tinker.
The last utility that Dell added for the XPS 730x update is a little piece of borrowed technology from their Alienware division. The AlienFX utility which Alienware owners have enjoyed for years is now available for the XPS.
The AlienFX utility is a very slick and powerful LED lighting control utility. There are two modes it can operate in, Basic and Advanced. In Basic mode, the utility acts like a simple LED color chooser. You can individually choose the colors for each of the XPS' five lighting zones from a selection of 16 preset colors. However, the real meat of the program is in the Advanced mode which is significantly more complex. Luckily the AlienFX utility has built-in video tutorials to help you get acquainted with what it has to offer.
Switching to Advanced mode drastically changes the options available to you. You can still pick colors for each of the five lighting zones, but you can choose when the lights come on and if / when they change colors. The lighting system can be set to change depending on system events like receiving a new email or if a certain application is launched. You can, for instance, set a profile that will change all of the LEDs to red while playing Crysis and flash blue when a new email is received. Overall these are some fun features to play with and the visual cues for events may come in handy too.
|Test Setup & SiSoft SANDRA|
SiSoft SANDRA's various benchmark modules reported scores right in-line with our expectations. The XPS 730x H2C's overclocked Core i7 processor and tri-channel DDR3 put it ahead of all reference systems in all three tests. The lead the XPS 730x has in the processor arithmetic and memory bandwidth tests are particularly stunning. The advantage of the new Core i7 processors and tri-channel memory are plain to see.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage|
We pit the XPS 730x H2C against a couple of high-end and mainstream configurations as well as the original 730 configuration we reviewed and the Velocity Micro Edge Z55 Core i7 gaming system. We felt this variety helps gives some perspective on the XPS 730x 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 730x H2C really shines in the Cinebench rendering rest, taking the overall lead by a huge margin. While the Core 2 equipped XPS 730 does better here than in Kribibench, it's clear it can't compete with the Core i7 equipped systems on equal footing.
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 730x H2C claims the top spot in 3DMark06's built-in CPU benchmark. This is to be expected since this is a synthetic CPU test and the XPS 730x is equipped with the most powerful processor out of all of our reference systems. The performance advantage it has over the other Core i7 is in line with its factory overclock.
|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 730x H2C to a single quad-core Intel-based system with a variety of high-end graphics configurations as well as the original XPS 730 H2C and the Velocity Micro Edge Z55 Core i7 system. We used both GeForce and Radeon based graphics configurations, both single-card and multi-card. We specifically chose to use the GeForce GTX 280 and the Radeon 4870 as they are the current top-end single-GPU products from the two graphics camps and they are both available as options for the XPS 730x.
It is obvious that multi-GPU setups rule the day when it comes to 3DMark. This is especially evident in the Shader Model 3.0/HDR test where all of the systems with multi-GPU setups all scored better than the single-GPU systems. However the advantage of the Core i7 architecture over the older Core 2 tech is still evident as we see both the XPS 730x and the Velocity Micro Z55 scored better than the Core 2 reference systems equipped with similar graphics setups.
|HL2 Episode 2|
|ET Quake Wars|
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: The XPS 730x H2C performed very well in our suite of performance benchmarks. Judging from our results, it is clear that the update to Core i7 provides a considerable performance advantage over the older Core 2-based offerings. In all of the CPU intensive benchmarks, the XPS 730x took the top spot thanks to its Core i7-965 Extreme processor factory overclocked to 3.73GHz.
Performance in games was also fantastic. Our review sample was equipped with a single GeForce GTX 280 which was at a natural disadvantage to the Crossfire and SLI systems we put it up against, but it still managed to fare very well. In several instances, the XPS 730x was even able to outperform some of the multi-GPU systems due to its massive increases in CPU horsepower and memory bandwidth.
Overall, the XPS 730x, like the 730 that came before it, is a great performer. The new update to Core i7 has helped increase performance drastically over the Core 2 Extreme processor used in the original XPS 730s and once again puts it at the top of our benchmark heap.
We have spent a lot of time with various XPS 700 series systems over the last two years. They have consistently proven to be excellent machines and they have claimed their fair share of Editor's Choice awards. In our last XPS 700 series system review where we looked at the original 730, we said the 730 was possibly the best XPS 700 series system yet made and will ever be made. We have been proven wrong. Dell has pleasantly surprised us again with the new XPS 730x update which improved on the 730 without tampering with any of the aspects we liked of the original.
The update to Intel's new Core i7 architecture is certainly the star of the show. While the original XPS 730 was far from slow and we had no complaints about performance during our original review, the update to Core i7 has brought a significant performance boost, and who can argue with that? Thankfully it doesn't seem like Dell has increased the price despite the technology update, as the XPS 730x occupies the same price range as its predecessor. Granted, the XPS 730 was pretty pricey to start with but that is a rather moot point when it comes to systems of this caliber. While you will be able to save some cash by building your own rig, considering the quality of the chassis, cooling and components and the time and costs of assembly, the XPS 730x is still fairly priced.
All of the features we have come to like about the XPS 700 series over the years have not been tampered with for the XPS 730x update. The excellent second generation H2Ceramic hybrid liquid cooling system is still being offered as an optional alternative to standard air cooling and so is factory overclocking. Like with previous models, the factory overclocking for the XPS 730x is completely covered by the default manufacturer warranty. In fact, the warranty has been extended from just 1 year when we last reviewed a XPS 700 series system, to 3 years parts & labor with in-home service (for the H2C models).
For the XPS 730x update, Dell hasn't messed with the excellent XPS 730 series chassis. It is still the huge, heavy, aggressive brute we liked so much in the past. While it is very bulky, the chassis features excellent build quality, strong heavy duty materials and a great internal layout. It is very well behaved and produced very little noise considering the caliber of components it was cooling. The chassis is also built to accept standard off-the-shelf components and it's completely ATX and ESA compliant. That means you can reuse the chassis well after the components have become outdated.
The only change to the chassis is the welcome addition of Theater Lighting, Dell's innovative internal work lighting feature. We found the Theater Lighting system did its job surprisingly well considering it is nothing more than a few white LEDs hooked up to two AA batteries. The LEDs are positioned well and provide plenty of lighting inside the chassis and even in complete darkness we didn't need a flashlight to perform standard installation and maintenance tasks. The system is so simple and works so well, it's a wonder no one else is doing it.
The thermal monitoring and LED control systems have also been improved compared to the original 730. The addition of the new XPS Thermal Monitor utility and some borrowed tech from Alienware in the form of the AlienFX editor has really made monitoring and controlling the system's various thermal, and lighting sub-systems a snap. We also liked the new Dell Dock which is a significant improvement over the Windows Sidebar widgets offered for the original XPS 730.
Overall, the XPS 730x is a worthy update to what we thought was the best XPS 700 series system to date. In our evaluation of the original XPS 730, we said it was a very mature product, the new XPS 730x only builds on this with further refinement. The new update brings a host of subtle improvements and a major shift in technology, all of which have proven to be assets rather than detriments. With the XPS 730x, Dell has really put some extra polish on an already great product and we have no trouble awarding it our Editor's Choice award. We heartily recommend anyone in the market for a high-end gaming / multimedia computer take a long, hard look at the XPS 730x, it may just be what you are looking for.