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Dell XPS 625 Phenom II Gaming System
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Date: Mar 05, 2009
Section:Systems
Author: Chris Connolly
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Overview

Turn the clock back to the middle of this decade, and the idea of a Dell system using an AMD processor would be considered facetious at best. Dell, had been an Intel-only shop from the beginning, and had only toyed with AMD processors from time to time in highly niche market systems. Many AMD fans considered Dell's acceptance of AMD processors as the holy grail for mainstream adoption in the PC market, a single act which would save AMD once and for all. Intel-fans would no longer point to the PC making behemoth as proof that AMD processors were somehow sub-par and not ready for enterprise-level environments.

Turns out, the years of stories about back-room deals regarding Dell and AMD finally coming together really didn't materialize into anything massive. Dell introduced their first AMD-based systems in 2006, and well, Intel didn't crumble. Having made their way into the final large scale OEM, AMD definitely earned a feather in their cap, but the market situation hasn't changed by any real amount. To this day, Intel based systems make up the lion's share of Dell's sales figures, whereas AMD continues to struggle and fight to keep itself alive on a quarter by quarter basis. Nevertheless, the Dell and AMD partnership has continued over these past three years, and we're finally starting to see Dell get a little feistier with the AMD hardware at their disposal.

Throughout the onslaught of Intel's Core 2 and Core i7 processors, Dell has continued to sell AMD based systems, albeit not prominently. Typically, these systems have been targeted at the budget-conscious market of Dell's customer base rather than anything else, offering comparable performance at substantially lower prices. Obviously, in this day and age, price/performance is playing a much larger role, and well, that may be one of the biggest reasons why we're seeing systems like the XPS 625, which we're looking at today.

Dell's new XPS 625 is their latest AMD-based creation, and is their first out of the labs using the new Phenom II processor. Initial reviews of AMD's new chip have been favorable, as this new quad-core processor is slated to deliver roughly the same performance as Intel's quad-core Core 2 processors at very tolerable price points. While it's pretty clear that the Phenom II can't quite crack Core i7 levels of performance, the question is, do you really need that much computing power? Can the Phenom II deliver a great computing experience at a palatable price?  Is it worth considering one over an Intel-based Dell system?  The XPS 625 is here to help us answer those questions.


Dell's XPS 625 in black (also available in red)

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Features and Specifications

Features and Specifications

"With the Dell XPS 625 desktop driving your gaming experience, your rivals won’t know what hit 'em. Get extreme gaming performance, cutting-edge graphics and an innovative design - all at a killer value." - Dell

  • AMD Phenom II X4 940 (3.0 GHz) Quad-Core Processor

  • Passive Copper Heatpipe CPU / Active Northbridge Cooling System

  • 4 GB DDR2-800 Memory (2 x 2 GB)

  • AMD 790FX Based Custom Motherboard

  • ATI Radeon 4850 Graphics, 512 MB, PCI Express 2.0

  • Western Digital Velociraptor 150GB, 10,000 RPM

  • Integrated 7.1 High Definition Audio (8-Channel Analog + 7.1 Optical S/PDIF)

  • Integrated Gigabit Ethernet

  • 8 x USB 2.0, 2 x Firewire 400, 1 x eSATA

  • 750W ATX Power Supply

  • Custom Dell Chassis with AlienFX Lighting System

  • Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium x64 Edition

At its core, the XPS 625 is a relatively straight forward gaming desktop configuration, albeit with some highly interesting bits. The most interesting tidbit is no doubt the new AMD Phenom II X4 940 processor, which is AMD's current high-end quad-core model.  When coupled together with a motherboard based on the 790FX chipset and a GPU based on the Radeon 4800 series, what Dell has effectively delivered is AMD's new "Spider" platform in a very nice chassis.

The Phenom II X4 940 processor runs at 3.0 GHz, and is a native quad-core device. The X4 940 just hit the streets about a month and a half ago, and is based on AMD's latest generation 45nm manufacturing technology. The processor is equipped with 4 x 512k (2MB) of L2 cache along with a shared pool of 6MB L3 cache, which is three times larger than the original Phenom processor. The Phenom II supports 64-bit computing, SSE3/4, independent clock speeds and voltage levels per core, and has an integrated dual-channel DDR2 memory controller. The unit runs at an 1800 MHz HyperTransport link speed and is compatible with Socket AM2+ motherboards, such as the custom Dell 790FX motherboard in the system. Oh yes. This system is also equipped with a "Black Edition" processor, which means it's completely multiplier unlocked. We'll exploit this later.


Phenom II X4 940 Specs


Radeon HD 4850 Specs

The processor is connected to 4 GB of DDR2-800 memory, which gives theoretical memory bandwidth of 12.8 GB/s, a far cry from Intel's top of the line Core i7 systems, but as the Phenom has never been exceedingly memory thirsty, we're not too concerned about this. Dell allows you to configure XPS 625 systems with up to 8 GB of memory, or you can also equip the system with overclocker-friendly Corsair Dominator DDR2 modules if you wish (our system came equipped with generic DDR2 modules).

In terms of graphics, we have ATI's mid-range Radeon HD4850 graphics card with 512 MB of memory onboard. This card currently sells for about $150 online and is expected to drop in price soon, significantly. While it's not a top of the line card, it's definitely sufficient for most modern games, and won't be a bottleneck unless you push up the resolution and/or FSAA levels. If you want a little extra oomph, Dell offers Radeon HD4870 upgrade options, including multiple cards in CrossfireX mode, if you want to go that route. No Nvidia options in sight, interestingly enough.

Our sample system was equipped with a Western Digital Velociraptor 150 GB, 10,000 RPM hard disk, which is one of the fastest SATA hard disks on the market today. Oddly though, Dell doesn't offer this through their online configurator at this time, although we would expect them to offer it soon. The system was also configured with a 16x SATA DVD-RW drive, Blu-Ray is an upgrade option if you wish.

That's pretty much the basis of the XPS625. The system has integrated audio and Ethernet, along with the expected basics of a modern system. Interestingly enough, the system came with no memory card reader by default, which we would think is a fairly trivial feature to throw in. Nevertheless, a pretty solid quad-core setup for roughly $1,500, although definitely not a mind-blowing great deal for this price tag. This isn't quite like a do-it-yourself system, though, as you'll see in the following pages.

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First Impressions

First Impressions

The XPS 625 is shipped in an impressive, sturdy series of packing boxes, which ensured our system made it safe through the bowels of Fedex. The system itself is shipped surrounded in thick foam for large drop protection, whereas the external coating of the chassis also has a thin layer of protective plastic to prevent against small nicks and dings. The end result is that our system showed up flawlessly, out of the box.


The system is heavy, as Dell has opted to use heavy duty steel instead of a more lightweight aluminum alloy chassis. While it increases overall system weight by a sizable amount, it does keep the system firm and steady when it's placed down on the floor. The heavy duty chassis also helps prevent noise and vibration simply due to the weight and mass of the materials. Not only is the system heavy, it's also impressively large, as it is roughly the same size as a smaller Extended ATX class case. This is no system you can easily pick up and take to a LAN party, it's designed to sit and stay wherever it's placed.

The XPS 625 is, undoubtedly, an attractive system. Dell offers the black model seen here, along with a deep red paint option. The primary color is offset by brushed aluminum alloy side and top panels, which deliver a great industrial, sturdy look to the system. As with other XPS chassis designs in the past, Dell has opted to slightly skew the case at an angle to make it look like it's moving forward, which you either like or dislike as a design choice.

Despite its heavy duty appearance and weight, the system is relatively easy to get into and work with. Dell has a quick-release handle on the top of the chassis, which pops open the side panel doors with a proper tug. The system also uses industry standardized components as far as we could tell inside, so third party upgrades should be just about as easy as any other desktop system, although there a few bits which are undeniably custom to Dell's chassis design.

When the lights go down, the XPS 625 has a special treat under the hood. The XPS 625 chassis design is equipped with Alienware's AlienFX lighting system, which allows you to light up the front and rear of the chassis in any color of your liking. The color selection is done via software, which configures the colors and brightness settings for a series of LEDs embedded in the chassis, which at different levels, can produce lots of different colors. It's a simple and highly effective way to form a bond with your new system, and we like that the lighting is done is a very subtle and tasteful fashion. Most "gaming" systems tend to over-do everything, but the XPS 625 definitely will appeal to a refined gaming audience who appreciate good design.


Red

Green


Blue

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Looking Inside

Looking Inside

In order to get into the system, you don't have to have a screwdriver handy. Simply pull up on the handle which is on the top of the system, and the right side panel flips open, giving you full access to the PC's internals. Dell does an excellent job of keeping things clean internally, as all the components have plenty of access to airflow and there are no rampant cables strewn about. Dell has a nice balance of expandability inside without leaving every possible option open.


A couple major things to note on the insides of the XPS 625, as seen here. The vast majority of the system is cooled by a single 120mm fan which is mounted at the front of the chassis, which includes the CPU itself. The heatsink which is attached to the Phenom II X4 940 processor is a quad-copper heatpipe unit which is completely passive. The airflow must make it from the front of the chassis, through the hard drives, over the CPU, and outside the rear of the chassis, which is a tall order for a low-speed fan.

Not surprisingly, when you put heavy load on the processor, the front 120mm fan has to spin up to high gear in order to get the airflow over on the CPU, which in turn, makes the system extremely loud. During normal desktop operation, the system is pleasantly quiet, as the front fan can spin down to low levels. When gaming or during heavy CPU loading, though, the system is simply unpleasant to be around. If Dell had equipped their CPU cooler with a low-speed fan, this situation could have been avoided entirely, and would have likely allowed them to get rid of the second fan, which is a small fan which sits over the CPU's VRM units, and is also connected to a copper heatpipe-based heatsink.

The cooling issue will only get worse if the system is fully loaded, too. If you have multiple high-speed hard drives and tall, heat producing memory modules, you're putting a lot of high-heat components right in front of your airflow before it even hits the CPU itself. Toss in a pair of hot Radeon 4870 cards in Crossfire mode right above, and you've got an oven right around your passively cooled CPU. Granted, we did not see any instability with our configuration as such, but given the heavy noise levels needed to keep the CPU cool with a fairly minimal configuration, we would say that the maximum system specification would increase the chances of heat related issues to an uncomfortable level. As you can see, the single Radeon 4850 card in our configuration is in a primary PCI Express slot, with a secondary slot for another card via Crossfire. Interestingly enough, the Radeon 4850 only runs at PCI Express x8 mode by default, even with only one card installed. There are also two 32-bit PCI slots, one PCI Express x1 and one PCI Express x8 slot for future additions.

The motherboard has four Serial ATA-II ports pre-wired with cables, two go up to the top of the chassis for optical drives, whereas two go to the bottom for hard disk add-ons. Dell does provide all of the necessary power plugs needed for quick upgrades, but not the necessary cabling for putting in all four hard drives without re-wiring the top of the chassis. The hard disks are also installed in disk caddies for easy sliding in and out, and they also provide some layer of vibration dampening.

The Dell-branded power supply up top supports up to 750W of power, and Dell includes the necessary cabling for multiple graphics cards and to maximize every bit of space in this chassis. All industry standard plugs here, so if you decide to move to a new motherboard, you should be able to without issue (in theory, we didn't try this). In short, it would have been a very nice internal layout, if they would have simply put a fan on the CPU instead of relying solely on the front mounted 120mm cooling fan to keep everything running smoothly.

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Using It

The XPS 625 is loaded with 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium Edition as the only option. While seeing Dell go 64-bit is impressive in itself, the other impressive fact about this system is that it's not bogged down by trialware and pre-installed junk. The default install is clean, quick, and surprisingly lean. Here's how the system looks upon first bootup.


Default view upon first boot up.

Beyond the basic Windows Vista bits, the only items which are pre-installed and loaded upon boot are the Dell Dock (OSX-like bar for quick application loading - see top of screen), the AlienFX lighting system utility (case chassis lighting control, seen in prior pages), and McAfee Antivirus. No free 90-days of AOL or any of that nonsense. Upon first boot, the system was using 1.34 GB of the 4 GB of memory available to it with 65 processes running, which is actually quite tolerable given the nature of the system.

Dell has a custom control center for monitoring the thermals and fan speeds of your XPS system, although this is not loaded by default. The nifty thing about this utility is that you can turn off automatic fan control if you want, go into manual mode, and force fan speeds up and down to your liking. Granted, given the system's thermal issues we've noted earlier, we wouldn't recommend forcing fan speeds down too low.


XPS Thermal Monitor


AMD Overdrive

On the flip side, you can overclock this beast with very little effort. As this is a Phenom II X4 "Black Edition" CPU, you have full control over the system's multiplier for easy overclocking. AMD makes pushing your CPU up further a relative breeze through their "Overdrive" software suite, which allows for itnegrated overclocking, stress testing, and benchmarking all through a single application.

While it's remarkably easy to overclock the processor in this machine, this isn't to say we were able to achieve huge overclocks. Given the passively cooled processor, we ran into thermal issues quite early. We were able to overclock the system successfully from its default 3.0 GHz up to 3.6 GHz and run most of our benchmark suite, although it was not 100% stable. The highest truly stable overclock we were able to achieve was 3.4 GHz, just above 10% higher than stock speed. Not bad for free, but considering that many of these chips are hitting 4.0 GHz on relatively simple air cooling. If you plan to overclock this system, we would recommend swapping out the stock CPU cooler for something a little more heavy duty. We do, however, have benchmarks of our XPS 625 system overclocked to 3.4 GHz throughout the following pages.

We can't go without mentioning the AlienFX lighting suite, just because it's ridiculously simple and cool. The interface is self-explanatory, and gives you the ability to customize your chassis with an array of different color scenarios to fit your liking. This is accomplished by arrays of LEDs which run at varying power levels in order to achieve the color you program in. Green worked best for me.


Customizing XPS 625 chassis colors through AlienFX.

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Testbed and Synthetics
Test System Details
Specifications and Revisions

  • AMD Phenom II X4 940 Processor (3.0 GHz Quad Core)
  • 4 GB of DDR2-800 Memory (2 x 2 GB, CAS 6-6-6-18)
  • ATI Radeon HD4850 512 MB PCI Express Graphics
  • Western Digital Velociraptor 150 GB SATA-II/300 Disk
  • 16x DVD+/-RW Drive
  • Dell 750W Power Supply
  • Windows Vista Home Premium (x64 Edition)

  • Intel Core i7 920 (2.66 GHz Quad Core)
  • Asus P6T Intel X58 Motherboard

  • Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 (2.4 GHz Quad-Core)
  • Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 (2.53 GHz Quad-Core)
  • Gigabyte EP45T-Extreme Intel P45 Motherboard

SiSoft Sandra 2008 Synthetic
Higher Scores are Better




In terms of CPU performance, the Core i7 920 definitely outpaces AMD's new Phenom II in arithmetic, although the X4 940 puts up very competitive numbers in multimedia performance (especially when overclocked). The Phenom II also delivers about 10 GB/s of memory bandwidth from its dual channel DDR2 interface, whereas the Core i7 920 delivers about 24 GB/s from its triple-channel DDR3 interface.

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PCMark, 3DMark, Cinebench
Futuremark PCMark Vantage x64
Higher Scores are Better


Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Higher Scores are Better


Cinebench R10
Lower Times are Better


Our synthetic tests show the Phenom II X4 940 putting up very solid numbers, on-par or besting the Core 2 Quad chips in our tests, while not falling too far behind the new Core i7 processor. Our PCMark numbers show that our overclocked Phenom II delivers roughly the same application / multimedia performance as the Core i7 920, although Intel's new chip is much better for gaming environments.

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Photoshop, Windows Media Encoder, Map Compilation
Adobe Photoshop CS4
Lower Numbers are Better


Windows Media Encoder 9
Lower Numbers are Better

 

Valve Software Map Build Benchmark
Lower Numbers are Better


Real world application performance is pretty strong with the Phenom II chip as well, delivering performance smack dab between our Core i7 and Core 2 Quad system configurations at similar price points. Interestingly, the Core 2 Quad chips performed the best in our Windows Media Encoder 9 tests, even besting out the Core i7. In any case, with any of these quad-core configurations, applications will be speedy and multi-tasking will be buttery smooth.
 

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Crysis, Half Life 2, Particle Test
Crysis
Higher Scores are Better


Half Life 2 Episode 2
Higher Scores are Better


Valve Software Particle Benchmark
Higher Scores are Better


Gaming performance shows the Phenom II X4 940 right on par with our Core 2 Quad chips, but in most cases slightly faster. The Core i7 920 is definitely a faster gaming chip across the board, but the Phenom II delivers strong performance per dollar, and definitely handles modern games well.

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Power Consumption
Power Consumption
Lower Numbers are Better




The Phenom II and the XPS 625 combo is a pretty power-light configuration. At its default clock speeds, the system uses under 300 watts of power under full system load (CPU+GPU), and only uses about 120w when idling at full clock speed. If you enable power management, you can get that number closer to 100w, which is pretty respectable for a quad-core gaming rig.

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Our Conclusion

Configured as our system was, the Dell XPS 625 sells for roughly $1,600, no small chunk of change by any stretch of the imagination. Granted, this is not a lightweight system, and getting this kind of firepower for that kind of cash is somewhat impressive. It's not without its faults, but Dell has put together a pretty solid package with the XPS 625, one which definitely should be worth considering when looking at a new mid-range gaming system.


 

For $1,600, you'd be getting a snappy quad-core processor, four gigs of memory, a 10,000 RPM hard drive, along with a moderately powerful gaming graphics card, all wrapped up in a very nice chassis which is easily expandable for future upgrades. All of the components play nicely together, which is expected as this is essentially an AMD "Spider" platform enclosed under a Dell chassis. If you're an AMD fan who wants something solid and stable, from the first boot-up, the XPS 625 satisfies.

However, a major gripe we had with the system is, unfortunately, something that is rather important to us--noise. Due to the majority of the airflow being directed through the chassis by one 120mm intake fan, the CPU is simply starved for airflow. If you put the CPU under heavy load, the system gets downright loud and unpleasant with its fan spinning at its maximum speed. It should be an easy fix for Dell, one which we hope they address soon enough.

As for the processor itself, AMD's new Phenom II X4 940 chip is a speedy little bugger, and at its intended price point, gets the job done quite well. The Phenom II X4 940 shows AMD is going in the right direction in every way. The chip performs better that the original Phenom, it performs about on par with Intel's Core 2 Quad chips, and is priced competitively. There are some scenarios where it can keep up with the new Core i7 processor, but for the most part, it's the Phenom II vs. the Core 2 Quad, and both chips perform pretty well in a mid-range gaming environment.

A Dell system with AMD inside may still be a little strange to some, but with the XPS 625, they've pulled it off without any major hitches. The system works great, performs very well, and is fairly inexpensive for the hardware that you get. If Dell gets the noise issue under control, they've got a truly great system in their line-up with the XPS 625.

  • Attractive, Well Designed Chassis
  • Solid Price to Performance Ratio
  • Clean, Minimalist Software Installation
  • AlienFX Lighting System

 

  • System Noise Under Load
  • Excessively Heavy Chassis

 



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