|Introduction & Specification|
PC gamers are a lucky bunch, particularly those who have only recently begun their journey into the awesome world of computers. Never before has this hobby been so affordable, and there was a time not that long ago when building a cheap gaming rig resulted in a second-rate gaming experience, one devoid of copious amounts of eye candy and buttery smooth frame rates, unless you were willing to crank down the screen resolution until the picture had more blocks than the NES version of Super Mario Bros.
Well folks, that isn't the case anymore. Sure, you can still shell out several grand on a decadent machine loaded with only top-end parts, but outside of bragging rights, and the ability to run a handful of sloppily coded titles at ultra high resolutions, it's no longer necessary to rob your neighborhood convenience store only to still fall short on funds for a superior gaming experience. To prove it, Dell sent us one of their new Studio XPS 7100 desktops built around AMD's recently launched Phenom II X6 1055T processor. AMD's hexa-core chips don't pack the same punch as Intel's six-core architecture, but the upshot is you'll save a king's bounty by riding into the sunset with AMD, and in this case, with Dell as well. The configuration we're looking at runs $1,450 (currently on sale for $1,150), with lesser spec'd six-core rigs starting out at $699. To put that into perspective, Intel's sole six-core offering -- the Core i7 980X -- commands about a grand just for the processor alone.
So we've already determined you won't put yourself in the poor house by plunking down for an XPS 7100, but is that all Dell brings to the table? Good question, and we intend to answer it, starting with the spec sheet.
Right away we see some things we like, and others we don't. The Phenom II X6 processor and ATI Radeon HD 5870 provides a potent one-two combo, not only for gaming, but a range of tasks that rely on the CPU, GPU, or both. And with 6GB of RAM, the XPS 7100 is off to a good start. We're also impressed with the inclusion of a Blu-ray drive, which is sometimes used as a means to jack up the overall price of a system. And the fast spinning 1.5TB hard drive offers a solid, if not conservative approach to system building, striking a balance between both storage and performance.
For the most part, however, what you see is what you get. Dell does offer a few spotty upgrade choices, but nothing that compares with the level of customization you'll get from a gaming specific system builder, including Dell's own Alienware division. You can increase the amount of RAM to 12GB and add a second hard drive in a RAID 0 array, and there are some add-ons available -- like a TV Tuner card -- but that's really it. There aren't any SSD options, and you can't change the processor or videocard, nor can you can add a discrete soundcard because the included Wi-Fi solution takes up the only available PCI-E x1 slot.
|Software & Accessories|
How big or small your bundle is going to be depends in part on how you configure your system. Need speakers? Dell offers six different sets to choose from with the XPS 7100. You can also select from four different monitors up to 24 inches in size, as well as change up the keyboard and mouse combo.
We don't ever like to admit that a picture doesn't do a product justice, because what that really means is that we took a lousy picture. So rather than say that, we'll just tell you that the keyboard and mouse look better in person than they do here. We're not in love with the form and function of either one -- the keyboard lies too flat and doesn't feel like it would survive an angry gaming system in which you smash the plank onto your desktop in frustration, and the mouse doesn't come with any side buttons or other accoutrement found on dedicated gaming rodents -- but both are stylish with a sexy two-tone motif.
Also included are various manuals and start-up guides, driver and utility discs, a VGA-to-DVI adapter, power cord, and dual-antennas for the PCI-E Wi-Fi card that comes standard.
Big name OEMs are notorious for shoveling all kinds of crapware onto their builds, and in exchange, software vendors fork over big bucks for the right to peddle their wares on your desktop. So imagine our surprise when we first fired up our test system and found...virtually nothing? Believe it or not, Dell didn't decimate our desktop with oodles of trial software, useless links, and other junk. The XPS 7100 does ship with AV software -- McAfee SecurityCenter -- but it's a 15-month subscription, not a 30-day trial.
On the top of the screen sits Dell's custom dock, which gives quick access to a variety of tasks, like firing up Internet Explorer, adjusting the sound properties, configuring Parental Controls, and an assortment of other functions.
Not completely without annoyances, we had barely begun to sing Dell's praise for a clean desktop when a popup touting an AV renewal offer crashed the party. Do'h!
We don't put a ton of stock into Microsoft's Windows Experience Index, but for those of you who do, the XPS 7100 scored a respectable 6.0 out of 7.9, and would have scored a point or so higher had we been able to configure our system with an SSD. Other than the "Disk data transfer rate" benchmark, every other subset scored a 7.4 or higher.
|Overall Design & Layout|
Not only is the Studio XPS 7100 geared towards gamers on a budget, Dell says they're also "perfect for listening to music, streaming video, [and] connecting with friends and family via social networking sites and blogs. The Studio XPS 7100 desktop, in particular, delivers a nimble, clear, dependable experience for multitasking entertainment activities and multimedia creation." Had Dell opted for a menacing chassis, they would have had a hard time trying to pitch the XPS 7100 as the every-man's rig.
Instead, the new Studio desktops take a decidedly classier approach. Dell calls it "a cutting edge, tilt-back design in premium Carbide Silver color," whereas we're content to simply call it elegant. The chassis doesn't draw unnecessary attention to itself and will fit in just as well in a business environment as it will in your home computer room.
Blending form with function, you'll find the 19-in-1 memory card jammed conveniently into the top portion of the chassis. Directly below are a pair of optical drive bays hidden behind stealth doors. Press the rectangular button on the side to eject the optical drive, if you have one in installed (the top-end Studio XPS 7100 comes standard with a Blu-ray/DVD combo drive).
Directly below rests another hidden compartment, this one accessible by manually pulling down on the lip. Behind it sit two USB 2.0 ports and a 3.5-inch drive bay, where you can kick it old school by installing a floppy drive, or fill it with something a bit more modern (and useful).
We've certainly seen fancier cases before, but the Studio's isn't without a few subtle touches. A thumbscrew on the back makes easy work out of tearing away the side panel to get at the guts of the rig, and on the top you'll find a resting area for loose change and car keys, or if you don't fancy scratching up your chassis, plop your USB stick or some other non-abrasive object on top instead. Or leave it be and enjoy unobstructed access to the two additional USB 2.0 ports and headphone/mic inputs that sit at the midway point.
Despite the dangling wires you see above, Dell kept the interior surprisingly clean for an enclosure devoid of any cable routing holes and barely large enough to qualify as a mid-tower. There isn't a whole lot of space to work with on the inside, and with the help of a few well placed zip ties, Dell managed to tidy things up about as much as you would expect from a bulk OEM.
Our bigger concern is with the upgrade path, and the Studio XPS 7100 doesn't appear to have much of one. Even if we were to completely disregard the size of the chassis, there are other traits holding it back. A lack of a second PCI-E x16 port means the only way you'll run a CrossFireX or SLI setup is if you cram a dual-GPU videocard in there, and hope the two slow spinning case fans (one on the front, one at the back) provide enough airflow to prevent it from overheating. Even then, the so-called "oversized 460-watt power supply" means there's only so far this rig can go. We should also point out, the only other expansion slot accessible on the board is filled with the included WiFi NIC.
|PCMark and 3DMark Tests|
Dell touts its Studio line as all-around work horses, so we wanted to start things off with Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
Houston, do we have a problem? Not exactly. For as much as Futuremark's PCMark Vantage emphasizes overall system importance, the benchmark puts a particularly heavy emphasis on file system performance. Systems with RAID arrays and SSDs are going to shine, while those with single mechanical HDD setups typically bring up the rear.
The Studio's score does, however, underscore the difference in Intel's Core i7 and AMD's Phenom II architectures. AMD's core count advantage doesn't really come into play until dealing with programs specifically optimized for multi-core processing.
Next we switched gears to Futuremark's 3DMark Vantage benchmark, which focuses squarely on gaming performance. Some of the technologies in 3DMark Vantage are only available with DirectX 10, making this a better barometer of modern gaming prowess than the the older 3Mark06 benchmark. And unlike previous versions, 3DMark Vantage puts a bit more emphasis on the CPU rather than focusing almost entirely on the GPU(s). Given that Dell heavily touts the Phenom II X6 / Radeon HD 5870 combo, we're particularly interested in how the Studio fares here.
Far be it for us to make excuses for Dell's Studio, but we do need to point something out here. Every other rig in the benchmark chart is carrying at least two GPUs, while the Alienware system sports four graphics processors (two HD 5970 cards). The Studio's performance, while far shy of monstrous, is entirely respectable.
At this point in the game, 3DMark06 is kind of like the World Cup, in that it's only of interest to subset of our readers. Now several generations behind, we don't put a whole lot of stock into 3DMark06 scores, but for those of you who do, here you go.
|SiSoft Sandra & CineBench|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed and with 6GB of DDR3-1333 RAM (4 DIMMs).
Are you starting to detect a theme yet? Overall, the scores are in line with what we would expect from a rig of this caliber, which is to say they're very good, not great. Without an SSD, second GPU, or Core i7 processor under the hood, there's only so far the Studio can go.
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.
If there's one area we would expect Dell's Studio to strut its stuff, this would be it. Maxon's CineBench R11 stresses the GPU and CPU separately, spitting out a score for each one. Since CineBench is very much a multi-threaded benchmark, this is as good a place as any to kick the tires on AMD's six-core chip.
Or at least, it should have been. In this case, the tires came up a little flat. It has nothing to do with Dell's ability to build a machine, and falls squarely on the OEM's decision to build around AMD's Phenom II X6 platform. Once again, Intel's Core i7 architecture proves too strong for AMD, even though AMD has a core count advantage.
|Far Cry 2 & Street Figher 4|
Dell's Studio proved adept at slicing through Far Cry 2 with playable framerates with minimal concessions. If you own a 30-inch monitor with a 2560x1600 screen resolution, you'll probably want to dial down the AA to 4X, but otherwise the game ran fine on Ultra High quality settings. And at 1900x1200, anything is fair game. The Studio kept pace with CyberPower's Gamer Extreme 3000 rig we reviewed last year, which came equipped with a dual-GPU GTX 295 and Core i7 860 processor. Credit the HD 5870 and six-core Phenom II X6 combo for giving the Studio plenty of gaming punch.
While not particularly demanding, the Street Fighter IV benchmark does give a good idea at how a graphics card or, in this case, a full system scales at higher resolutions. Dell's Studio cruised through this one without breaking a sweat, once again thanks in large part to the HD 5870 videocard.
|Unigine Heaven 2.0 & S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat|
If you want to brutalize your system, run the unforgiving Unigine benchmark, and if you're a real masochist, crank the visual quality settings up while you're at it. That's exactly what we did, and it brought the Studio XPS 7100 to a crawl, even at 1680x1050. This isn't indicative of real-world performance, but perhaps what you can expect performance to be like a few years down the road, and even then on that rare title (like the original Crysis) that pushes the envelope.
Here we see the limits of a single GPU setup on a high end title with the visuals cranked up. Framerates teetered on the edge of playable, though bear in mind this is with the Ultra presets. Still, what's important to keep in mind here is that if you're a hardcore gamer, the Studio XPS 7100 doesn't offer a whole lot of upgrade options. You can slap a dual-GPU videocard in there, but you can't add a second HD 5870 for added pixel pushing muscle.
|Overclocking, Acoustics, & Power Consumption|
So, you want to overclock your bulk OEM system, is that it? In many cases, you might as well go pound sand, because then at least you'd be doing something. The sad reality is OEM vendors often lock down their rigs with custom BIOSes that prevent Johnny Dangerously and everyone else from wreaking havoc and then dialing up tech support when things take a turn for the worse.
The Dell Studio XPS 7100 comes locked down tighter than Alcatraz, or at least that's the case if you're trying to escape the confines of stock settings and swim to overclocked shores. Poking around the BIOS reveals a barren wasteland devoid of any high-level tweaking options, and AMD's OverDrive utility wasn't able to impose its will, either.
On the plus side, AMD's Phenom II X6 architecture includes a bit of technology called Turbo CORE, which cranks up clockspeeds for you on an as-needed basis. For a full rundown on how this works, as well as the rest of AMD's Phenom II X6 architecture, take a detour over to our X6 1090T processor review right here.
We used SeaSonic's Power Angel Power Meter to measure the amount of watts our test system pulled from the wall. You'll find three figures below: power supply's maximum rated wattage, peak power consumption under a full CPU/GPU load, and how much the system pulled from the wall when idle (following a fresh system boot).
Unlike some of the dedicated gaming rigs we've had come through our labs, Dell's Studio won't lead to any sleepless nights for environmentalists with an sensitive conscious. Whereas some systems have pulled over 1KW from the wall, the Studio didn't even break the 300W mark, and barely sips electricity when sitting idle. Perhaps the 460W power supply isn't such a weak spot after all, though we'd still hesitate to shove a dual-GPU videocard inside.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Dell's Studio XPS 7100 line is intended to appeal to a wide audience, and the top-end configuration takes particular aim at gamers. That doesn't mean the system we reviewed today is an all-out hardcore gaming machine -- nor is it intended to be -- but the addition of ATI's Radeon HD 5870 gives it a performance punch not found on any of the three other baseline configs.
Dell's attempt at captivating a variety of users starts with the styling, Unlike Dell's own Alienware line and other specialty gaming rigs, the Studio's chassis isn't the least bit menacing. The look is far more conservative, though the chrome accents, stealth drive bays, and subtle curvature gives the Studio a bit of character.
While we're fairly indifferent on the aesthetics, we're much more opinionated on the hardware inside. As already pointed out, the Radon HD 5870 injects the Studio with enough gaming adrenaline to play the latest games without sacrificing too much in the way of visuals. Up until Fermi launched, this was the third fastest vidoecard on the planet (behind only the HD 5970 and GTX 295), and the best performing single-GPU solution around. While the 5870's ranking might have changed in recent months, it's still the same card we really liked just a short time ago.
To maintain competitive pricing, Dell paired the HD 5870 with AMD's Phenom II X6 1055T processor. A powerful chip in its own right, we have to caution against being swayed by the enamor of six processing cores. Developers are still grappling with how to take full advantage of multiple cores, and the more cores there are, the more difficult this gets. On top of this, AMD's architecture isn't as strong as Intel's, and in many cases, AMD's six-core chips run on par with or trail behind Intel's quad-core Core i7 chips.
What you end up with is a processor -- and in this case, a system -- that's relatively powerful, but also a good value. If you jumped straight to the conclusion (shame on you!), then you missed where we pointed out that Intel's sole six-core chip alone costs almost as much as the Studio XPS 7100. For $1,450 (or less), you get a capable processor, high-end graphics card, spacious hard drive, Wi-Fi, and even a Blu-ray drive. On the downside, there isn't a whole lot of room for upgrades -- you can't stick a second videocard in the Studio, and you're only going to get so much mileage out of a 460W power supply -- but hey, that's part of buying OEM over rolling your own rig.
At the end of the day, the Studio XPS 7100 is a solid machine that, not without compromises, offers a fair amount of bang for your buck, and looks classy to boot.