Last summer, Dell agreed to purchase Alienware in a controversial merger of two very different companies. Alienware, who was looking to raise capital to fund its world-wide expansion, found a good partner in Dell when it came to realize that it would be able to meet its demands while simultaneously benefiting from Dell's famous supply chain efficiencies. The later being a great boon for Alienware, who had been suffering from supply woes, with customers often waiting a month or more to receive their orders. In turn, through the merger, Dell hopes to gain access to the lucrative high-end PC gaming market.
Alienware, with their radically designed, alien-theme computers, is a favorite among gamers and famous for producing exclusive, high performance products. While Dell has been trying to shake their image as a company that makes "beige boxes" for mass corporate and consumer consumption. Although they have made great strides with their XPS lineup of gamer oriented desktops and notebooks as of late. Many enthusiasts were concerned that Alienware would lose its identity as it was swallowed by the much larger Dell.
Alienware gained fame for manufacturing systems single-mindedly designed to achieve the highest performance and has amassed a large following in the gaming community. Dell, on the other hand, markets their own line of gamer-oriented computers with their XPS lineup, which began life as advanced configurations of the Dimension desktop line. Alienware traditionally catered to serious gamers, while Dell's XPS lineup was aimed at the casual crowd. In recent times both companies have been reaching for the middle ground. Since Dell's XPS line is in direct competition with many of Alienware's products, the future of the product line was called into question when news of the merger first surfaced.
Most of the fears and criticisms surrounding the merger have proved unfounded so far as Alienware now operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dell and both companies are maintaining separate development tracks for their products. As a wholly-owned subsidiary, Alienware is free to continue managing its own operations and direction, therefore maintaining its image as a top-tier high-performance system manufacturer. Separate development tracks also means that Dell's XPS line is here to stay, at least for now. Its still left to be seen how the overlap between Alienware products and Dell's XPS line will be dealt with, but for now it seems like everything will remain business as usual.
As if to underscore the decision to keep their operations separate, Dell announced their first factory overclocked computer, the $9,930 fire-breathing limited edition XPS 600 Renegade, on the same day as the official merger announcement, which quickly sold out less than a month after release. Clearly there was enough room in the enthusiast market for a Dell-branded ultra high-end "boutique" box. Last month, at this year's CES, Dell announced their second ever computer to sport a factory overclocked processor, the XPS 710 H2C Edition.
The XPS 710 H2C Edition is billed as a top-of-the-line ultra-performance machine built with the most hardcore of gamers in mind, a niche that Alienware is very familiar with. Not only does the XPS 710 H2C hold the distinction of being Dell's first non-limited edition factory overclocked computer, it also uses Dell's first in-house liquid cooling system to keep it's quad-core power plant cool. The XPS 710 H2C is the most heavily performance-specified XPS system yet, with an Intel Core 2 QX6700 processor, dual GeForce 8800 GTXs, 4 GB of RAM and two Western Digital Raptors in a RAID 0 array, as standard equipment. We recently got our hands on one and we've been putting it through its paces, as it ripped through the benchmarks in our labs.
|Specifications, Customization Options & Price|
Dell offers a couple of options for customizing your XPS 710 H2C, however the core system stays the same. You'll always get a factory overclocked Intel multi-core processor (although you get to choose between the quad-core QX6700 and the dual-core X6800) cooled by the H2C system, 4GB of PC2-5300 RAM, and dual 768MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800GTX cards. The motherboard, case and power supply also can't be changed. For the most part, your customization options are limited to storage, peripherals and accessories, although other options are quite varied.
By default, a Dell 2007WFP 20" LCD is included with an order. Also included by default is a bundle of peripherals and accessories such as a Razer Tarantula gaming keyboard and a Razer Copperhead mouse. These and other options can be added or removed during the ordering process. All H2C systems also come with a pre-installed copy of McAfee Security Center, complete with a 15 month subscription. Our review system lacked an LCD monitor but it included a few extras like an additional 750GB hard drive and Roxio Creator Dell Edition software.
Dell recently upgraded their XPS branded notebooks with Blu-ray burners as standard equipment, so we expected it to be at least an option for the ultra high-end XPS 710 H2C. Unfortunately a Blu-ray drive isn't available for the system, at least for now. Another point worthy of note is Dell's use of 160GB Western Digital Raptors. No, that isn't a typo. Dell actually uses 160GB Raptors in their systems, even though the largest Raptors available through retail channels are only 150GB. That means you get an extra 10GB of blazing fast 10,000 RPM goodness per drive, for a total of an extra 20GB in the standard dual-Raptor RAID 0 configuration.
While our review system priced out to $5799, with some tweaking an XPS 710 H2C can be yours for as low as $5,035. Although five thousand dollars is still a hefty amount to spend on a single computer, relative to comparable products from other vendors, the XPS 710 H2C is a bargain. A similarly configured machine from other major brand-name vendors could set you back an extra $500 to $2000. For performance at this level, the XPS 710 H2C is simply the most affordable game in town right now.
Included with the XPS 710 H2C is Dell's standard one year warranty with at-home service, upgradable up to four years. Other standard Dell options like accidental damage coverage and home installation are also available, for a price. An additional benefit is exclusively offered to XPS customers in form of access to the XPS support team. The XPS Team is made up of a group of Dell support personnel who are experienced gamers, that were hand-picked by managers and specifically trained to support XPS systems. To get exclusive XPS service when calling for warranty support, just enter the express service code located on the system chassis.
The key feature of this system and part of its namesake is Dell's H2C cooling system. However, before we dig into what "H2C" means and what it can do for you, lets get a quick air cooling alternatives primer out of the way which should help those of us, who haven't been keeping up with alternative cooling methods, to understand what makes the XPS 710 H2C system special.
|Alternatives to Air Cooling|
Before we get further into our analysis and start dissecting the H2C cooling system, we thought it would make sense to take a look at several of the different alternatives to air cooling currently available, so we can better understand Dell's decisions when they designed the H2C.
In recent times, we've seen the average heat output of processors balloon out of control. The notoriously hot Intel Extreme Edition Presler core reached thermal envelopes of 130 watts. Clearly the trend towards higher frequencies has stalled due to thermal complications. The next logical solution and processor evolution was multiple cores and multi-threaded applications. While performance doesn't increase as linearly as simply increasing the frequency, adding more cores instead of increasing frequency allowed processor manufacturers to keep ramping up processor performance without needing to bundle an exotic cooling kit with every processor.
The current king-of-the-heap in both number of cores per physical processor and overall performance, is Intel's quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX6700 chip. With four cores churning away at 2.66 GHz each, this chip is a monster, and a hot one at that, with a thermal envelop matching the hottest Intel Presler core back in the day, at 130 watts. Now Dell wants to take one of these beasts and overclock it by 540 MHz. At that speed, the quad-cored processor will be producing more heat than most air cooling systems can handle effectively.
To get truly break-out cooling efficiency, you're going to have to leave air cooling behind and venture into a world of water, peltiers, refrigeration and cryogenics. The image below shows various cooling technologies, ordered with respect to their relative cooling abilities. Natural convection cooling through a heatsink (least effective) is at the top while liquid nitrogen (most effective) is at the bottom. As is clear from the diagram, traditional heatsink and heatsink/fan methods aren't nearly as effective.
Unfortunately, the more potent alternative methods of system cooling don't come without catches and drawbacks. Cryogenics, in the form of liquid nitrogen, is the most extreme and also the most effective method. However it has the nasty tendency to quickly turn whatever you're trying to cool into a non-functional frozen brick. There is also the problem of maintaining a steady supply of the stuff. Next comes phase change cooling, more commonly known as refrigeration. It too has its drawbacks. In order to be effective, phase change cooling systems require a number of components which renders them too bulky to fit into a standard computer case. Just like your refrigerator, these components are also quite power hungry. Additionally, both cryogenics and phase change cooling are a bit too effective, causing the cooling area to become so cold that condensation occurs. We don't think we need to explain why water + electronics = bad.
Thermoelectric Cooler (TEC) Cross-section
Then there's thermoelectric cooling (TEC), also known as the Peltier effect, named after the French physicist who discovered the phenomenon. A TEC device is essentially a heat pump that is made of two different metals (n-type and p-type) that are connected together at two junctions. A current is passed through the junction, causing heat transfer from one side of the junction to the other. This results in one side of the device becoming very hot while the other side becomes very cold. However, TECs only shift heat around, they don't remove heat from themselves so a secondary cooling solution is necessary to remove heat from the hot side of the TEC. TECs also draw a lot of power, often requiring over 100 watts and they are prone to suffering from condensation problems as well.
ThermalTake Bigwater 745 Water Cooling Kit
Water cooling has risen as the most popular of the air cooling alternatives and it is slowly creeping into the mainstream. It is now common to see water cooling kits being sold in computer shops and most boutique computer manufacturers have also adopted water cooling in their feature products. In concept, water cooling is actually closely related to air cooling. Like conventional air cooling, water cooling works by drawing heat away from the device being cooled with a primary medium (heatsink in air cooling) then a secondary medium is used to remove heat from the primary medium (air). Water cooling differs from air cooling in its use of a water-block as the primary medium and water, fed to the water block via tubes, as the secondary medium. A pump carries the water, which has been warmed up by the heat from the water block, to a radiator where it is cooled by a third medium, air. The cooled water is then pumped back to the water block where the process begins anew.
We know what you're thinking, "but didn't we just establish that water + electronics = bad a couple of paragraphs ago"? That is a genuine concern, but a well constructed water cooling system is quite safe. In fact, you should be more worried about the pump failing, or the water in the system evaporating than a leak in a well designed system. Unfortunately, most water cooling systems are "some/all assembly required" and this is the root of most problems. Water cooling also requires more maintenance than an air cooling setup. Over time, the water in the system will often evaporate and the system will need to be refilled. Many people also use some kind of coolant in their systems which needs to be periodically changed. These may both be very involved processes, depending on how the system is setup, certainly more involved than the near-zero maintenance required for an air cooling setup, where the only thing you need to worry about is blowing off some dust if it ever gets clogged up.
|The H2C Cooling System|
Dell's answer to heat problems in the XPS 710 H2C is the H2Ceramic cooling system (aka H2C or Hot-to-Cold). While many computer system manufacturers have used conventional water cooling solutions in their high-end machines, Dell has created their own hybrid of the water cooling and thermoelectric cooling methods.
Dell's H2C is a totally self-contained two-stage liquid/TEC hybrid cooling system. Dell has tried to combine the best qualities of water cooling and thermoelectric cooling into a single compact, safe and low maintenance cooling solution. To create the H2C system, Dell combined a very compact water cooling system with two TECs and integrated them into a plastic housing small enough to fit into the XPS 700 series case.
Like conventional water cooling systems, the H2C system uses a closed circuit of liquid (water mixed with coolant in this case) to shift heat away from the processor to a secondary cooling area where the heat can be removed from the system. A metal "cold plate" (ie. water block) is attached to the CPU where it absorbs the heat it generates. A pump continuously moves cool liquid to the cold plate and through the rest of the system. As the liquid moves through the cold plate, it takes heat away with it, cooling down the cold plate. The newly heated liquid is then pumped to a fluid-to-air heat exchanger (ie. radiator) where most of the heat from the cold plate is removed from the liquid. A 120mm fan pulls ambient room air through the heat exchanger, cooling it in the process.
At this point, the mostly cooled liquid then moves on to a Dell custom-designed thermoelectric heat exchanger. The TEC heat exchanger is essentially a water block sandwiched between two heatsink-cooled TEC units. As the liquid passes through, the two TECs use the Peltier effect to cool the water block, and therefore cooling the liquid within. Large heatsinks attached to the TECs soak up the heat they generate and are cooled by the same 120mm fan that cools the fluid-to-air heat exchanger. Finally, the cooled liquid gets pumped back to the cold plate to repeat the process.
As we mentioned earlier, TEC devices often suffer from condensation problems because the cold side of the TEC plate often gets cold enough to reach sub-zero temperatures. Dell dealt with this problem in their H2C unit by connecting the TECs to a combination of controller circuitry and system level firmware that keeps them from becoming too cold. The fan and pump are also thermally regulated so that the entire system doesn't cool the liquid lower than about 20 degrees Celsius, which is the average ambient room temperature. To help thwart evaporation, Dell used tubing made of a special low-permeation material. Dell claims the system can go seven years without the need for maintenance of any kind.
Dell claims their H2C system can cool an Intel QX6700 processor overclocked to 3.2GHz to 9 degrees Celsius lower than the standard air cooler used in XPS 710 systems not equipped with the H2C system. Dell also claims the H2C system is more effective than a conventional water cooling system and we tend to believe them. Unless augmented by some other process, the laws of thermodynamics prevent conventional water cooling from lowering the temperature further than whatever the ambient temperature happens to be since the water is itself, cooled by the air. Even the best water cooling setups can only cool to within a couple of degrees of the ambient temperature. Thanks to the dual TEC setup, the H2C system should be much more robust.
Unsatisfied with statistics and specifications, we put the H2C system to the test. First we measured the CPU's temperature (while factory overclocked to 3.2GHz) to be about 40C under load when the ambient room temperature was a comfortable 22C. Then we changed into T-shirts and artificially increased the ambient temperature to about 30C with a space heater. We recorded the CPU's temperature to be 44C under load, only a 4 degree increase despite the 8 degree increase in ambient temperature. Finally, we put on parkas and opened the window to allow the -18C air from outside to enter the room. When the room's temperature had stabilized at a chilly 10C, we ran the test again and measured the temperature to be 25C under load. So what does all that mean?
While our test was far from scientific, it should give a good idea of how the H2C system stacks up. The fact that the CPU temperature did not rise proportionally with the ambient temperature demonstrates the effectiveness of the H2C's design. Remember that the CPU is a toasty quad-core QX6700, with a TDP (Thermal Design Power) of 130 watts at its stock frequency of 2.66GHz, factory overclocked to 3.2GHz. These are pretty impressive results.
|Presentation, Exterior Finish & Build Quality|
The XPS 710 H2C arrived in a massive black box measuring roughly 30"x28"x17". Printed on each side of the box is an ominous caution sign, warning of it's 72+ lb weight (the delivery guy tells me it's closer to 100 lb). After hauling this monstrosity up a flight of stairs we began to loot its contents. Upon opening the box, we were greeted by a large poster of the XPS 710 H2C, depicting it in all its LED-lit glory. Set-up instructions are printed on the reverse side of the poster. Under that was a box containing all of the cables, manuals and accessories included with the XPS 710 H2C. At the bottom lays the system itself, snuggly inside a bed of foam. Attempting to pick up the XPS out of the foam makes it immediately apparent why warning labels were necessary. While the accessory box has some heft to it, the real weight is the system itself. You do not want to drop this thing on your foot or throw out your back, so grab a buddy to lend you a hand.
Once we freed the XPS from its foamy confines, we gawked at how large it is. While its dimensions aren't too far off from most other full-tower cases from the likes of Antec and Thermaltake, the XPS' case definitely has more presence. Rest assured, no one will miss the black monolith sitting on your desk; and it will sit on your desk. This case simply looks too good to be hidden in the shadows underneath, although we think it's more beast than beauty. The glossy Midnight Black paint, used exclusively on H2C systems, looks great and the case's forward taper gives it an aggressive stance.
While the standard XPS 710 comes in a couple of color schemes, the XPS 710 H2C is available exclusively in Midnight Black. Unlike the standard model, where the sides are left unpainted, the H2C edition is painted completely black. The only things that aren't black, not counting the back of the case, is the shiny Dell emblem and bright red XPS badges. No one will mistake your H2C for its more mundane and less imposing sibling. Those who are familiar with the Antec Sonata mid-tower case will know that glossy black paint jobs are often difficult to keep clean. Luckily, we found the high gloss Midnight Black paint used on the XPS to be highly resistant to fingerprints and smudges.
The case is very well ventilated, the entire bottom half of the front of the case and most of the rear is ventilated by louvered bezels, allowing air to enter and exit with ease. The louvered theme extends to the top half of the front of the case where all the exterior accessible 5.25" bays have matching drive doors. The case also has two exterior accessible 3.5" bays which are hidden behind a similarly decorated door, under the 5.25" bays. Located between the top and bottom halves of the case is the hard drive activity light, network connection light, two USB ports, a Firewire port, headphone and microphone ports.
The forward slope in the case's shape creates natural overhangs where LEDs illuminate the front bezel and the rear I/O panel. The LEDs can take on 7 colors (red, green, yellow, blue, cyan, purple, white) or they can be disabled completely. These settings can be found in the BIOS. Strangely, we could also adjust the LEDs from the NVIDIA control panel.
All four edges of the case are rounded, which creates somewhat of a stability problem, and considering its weight, you really don't want it to keel over and crush your monitor, speakers, keyboard or hands. Dell overcomes this problem by providing a detachable leg mechanism. The mechanism locks into place underneath the case and two large metal legs (which look more like wings) fold out for added stability. At the top-left of the rear of the case is a lever for unlocking the case's side panel. To remove the side panel; pull on the lever, pivot the panel down, then lift away. The lever has a hole in it for a padlock which will prevent it from opening.
Overall, the XPS 710 series case is very sturdy, functional and easy on the eyes to boot. The only drawback is that it's a bit on the large side and it weighs a ton (figuratively). Not everyone's decor can accommodate a black monolith.
|Interior Design, Layout & Construction|
With the side panel off, we get our first peek at the innards of this beast of a system and it appears fittingly complex upon first inspection. For a case this size, one would expect it to be fairly spacious, and while this may be true, it sure does appear to be tight, cozy setup inside. The XPS is packed to the gills (or grills, as the case may be) and there is probably more free space inside a lesser system half its size. That is not to say the innards are a mess, in fact it is quite tidy. Dell has done a decent job of routing cables and tying them down to prevent them from clogging crucial air channels necessary to keep the system at stable temperatures.
The first thing your likely to notice is the large H2C cooling unit occupying the center of the case. The H2C system nearly stretches the entire length of the case. This allows it to reach the fresh air coming from the front intake grill and deliver warmed-up air directly to the rear exhaust grill. Located in the wind tunnel created by the H2C system's plastic shroud is the CPU and the motherboard's Northbridge and Southbridge. Cables that must extend down to the bottom of the case from the power supply are tastefully routed behind the H2C assembly.
A 120mm intake fan is located under the H2C system near the front of the case. It directs air to the pair of GeForce 8800 GTXs. This greatly helps the cooling situation since the two video cards are crammed under the large H2C shroud. Below the twin GTXs are two legacy PCI slots, one of which is occupied by a Creative X-FI card. To the left of the PCI slots is a unoccupied floppy drive connecter. Although our test unit wasn't equipped with one, floppy drive and media card readers are available as optional items during the ordering process. All of the expansion slots have a tool-less clip-on design. Simply plug the expansion card into the motherboard and secure it with the light blue clips.
The area above the H2C shroud is occupied by the external drive bays, hard drive bays and the large kilowatt capable power supply. The hard drive bay has room for four drives, separated into two groups. Sandwiched between the two paris of hard drives is a 60mm fan. The sides of the hard drive bay are perforated to allow the fan to cool all four drives simultaneously. We really liked the position and orientation of the hard drive bays, as it allows for quick and easy access. However, the same cannot be said for the externally accessible expansion bays which are much too close to the hard drive bay and the power supply. As with the expansion cards, all drive bays have a tool-less design and the usual set of screwdrivers are not necessary.
While our unit only came with three drives, those that are particularly observant might notice that there are cables for four drives routed to the hard drive bay. Dell pre-routes all the necessary hard drive power and data cables, so future upgrades are as simple as sliding the drive in and plugging it in. This will save you a lot of time and the hassle of trying to route cables through a crowded case. Power cables for each of the empty exterior accessible expansion bays have also been pre-routed.
The above three images and this paragraph almost didn't make it into this review because we almost didn't notice that LEDs were installed inside the case. We know what your thinking, how unobservant of us. But you see, we have a good excuse. As you can see in the image of the side-panel, our review unit didn't come with a window. In fact, Dell doesn't sell a XPS with a side-panel window, so unless you get out your Dremel and cut your own, you probably wouldn't have noticed the interior lighting either. So why did Dell design a slick shroud for the H2C system, complete with mini windows, then install multi-color LEDs (yes, they change color just like all the other LEDs on the chassis) inside the shroud and elsewhere within the case and then omit the side-panel window? We're not sure exactly why Dell decided to omit the side-panel window, but after closer inspection of the side-panel, it's clear that it just wasn't designed with a window in mind. The metal braces and the curve through the center of the panel make it difficult to add a window to the panel without drastically altering its design. It's too bad the XPS 710 H2C doesn't have a window, because the H2C system looks fantastic when lit-up.
The XPS 710 H2C's motherboard comes with the same slick BIOS seen in all XPS 710 systems. The collapsible menu, complete with scroll bar, is instantly recognizable and visually sets it apart from the Award and Phoenix derived BIOS commonly seen on OEM products.
We really liked how the XPS 710's BIOS looked. Not only is its layout clean and easy to navigate, but it's well documented too. Each page comes with detailed descriptions of the available options on that page and the on-screen documentation usually does a good job of describing what everything does. No more flipping through the manual to find out what some string of jargon means.
The BIOS screen is divided into three separated areas. The bottom of the screen contains a listing of the currently available controls while the left side is dominated by a collapsible menu. The main content appears in the center. We found the menu to be easy to use and well organized. It never took more than a few seconds to figure out where a particular option was. Overall, most of the standard options are there, such as hard drive adjustment, system information, power management options, onboard device management and boot order selection.
Of particular interest is the performance menu. Inside you will find pages for toggling multiple processor support, processor overclock, and HHD acoustics among other things. The CPU clock speed page allows you to choose between Intel's stock frequency for the QX6700 processor (2.66GHz), Dell's factory overclock (3.2GHz) and an intermediate frequency (2.93GHz). No other frequency adjustment were offered but there is a separate overclocking page that we initially thought would hold the additional adjustment options. However, we were wrong. The overclocking page's single option is for toggling the ability to overclock the system. Since the BIOS was designed for use in all XPS 710 systems, the description on the overclocking page says the factory default setting is for overclocking to be turned off. We can confirm that this is false and the factory default is in fact "on".
In the Onboard Devices menu is the chassis LED color adjustment page where the color of the LEDs on the front, interior and rear of the chassis can be chosen from 8 options. The colors follow a gem stone theme, where each color takes on the name of a similarly colored gem stone, such as emerald for green, diamond for white (default) and amethyst for purple. Another interesting option, called Auto Power On, can be found in the Power Management menu. This option allows you to configure the system to automatically turn on at a specific time every day, or only on week days. The actual time when the system is supposed to automatically power on is adjusted on a separate page in the same section of the menu.
While we liked the BIOS and found it easy to use, it wasn't completely without fault. Holding down an arrow key for more than 3-4 seconds while navigating the menu will cause the system to stall and make a beeping noise until the key has been released. Then, once the system has had a second or two to recover, it will automatically scroll an appropriate distance in the direction that you had been pressing. We didn't find this quark too annoying since it didn't happen very often and the collapsible nature of the menu means there isn't usually a need to really lean on the arrow keys.
|Test Setup & SiSoft SANDRA|
The system was left "as delivered" for the duration of benchmarking. Nothing was installed or altered, with the exception of the necessary benchmarking software. A wide variety of custom built test rigs were used for comparison in the benchmarks. The test rigs were divided into two groups; one group was used for the general, rendering and productivity benchmarks, while the second group was used in the gaming tests. Combined, the test rigs cover a wide range of system configurations and should give us a good idea of how the XPS 710 H2C performs.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful high-level information about your hardware and OS. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2007 suite (CPU, Multimedia, Memory and File System) with the Dell XPS 710 H2C.
All of the scores reported below were taken with the XPS 710 H2C's processor running at its shipping clock speed of 3.2GHz, which is a Dell factory-set overclock backed up by the warranty.
Things ran pretty much as expected with SANDRA. The CPU and Multimedia scores were some of the fastest on the list of reference systems, in some cases by a wide margin. Nothing available on SANDRA's comparison list could come close to the performance of the factory overclocked Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700 quad core processor. The pair of 10K RPM 160Gig WD Raptor drives also put forth a good show. While the two drives only offer a combined 320 GB of storage space, this is more than sufficient for a gaming machine. If your not satisfied with just 320 GB, you can choose to forgo the ultra fast Raptors for a pair of 500 GB drives in RAID 0, for a total of 1 TB of storage, at only $20 more. Dell offers a very flexible set of storage options for the XPS 710 H2C and everyone should be able to find a configuration to fit their needs.
The XPS 710 H2C displayed its one true weakness in the memory bandwidth test. Dell's implementation of the NVIDIA nForce 590 SLI chipset technically limits the XPS 710 H2C to officially supporting DDR2-667 memory, rather than DDR2-800 speeds. However, it would have been completely within reason for Dell to drive these timings with this chipset and decent performance memory from the likes of Corsair, Kingston or OCZ etc. Alas, Dell used four sticks of Samsung PC2-5300 RAM with 5-5-5-15 timings in the XPS 710 H2C, hardly what we would call "performance" RAM. These disadvantages cause the overall memory performance to take a hit but how will this effect overall system performance? Lets move on to some more benchmarks and shed some light on the matter.
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05. We incorporated PCMark05 into our benchmark suite soon after its release, and have found it to be even more robust in terms of test features than its predecessor. That said, the CPU and Memory test modules we use for comparison are very similar to the 04 version of the test suite. For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do, and how they work.
"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
The Dell XPS 710 H2C easily took the pole position, beating out our custom quad-core rig. This isn't too surprising since the XPS 710 H2C's processor comes factory overclocked to 3.2GHz while our quad-core system was running bone stock at 2.66GHz. Of particular interest in this, and several of our other benchmarks, is the difference in performance between the two test rigs running X6800's. Both systems have been configured identically, except for the motherboard. One is using a motherboard powered by the nForce 590 SLI chipset, the same one used in the XPS, while the second system is using the much newer nForce 680i SLI chipset. As we can see here, the newer chipset does make a difference.
"The Memory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing." - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
Here we see some very different results. The XPS' use of the lower speed/higher latency memory results in a memory bandwidth disadvantage, which takes a slight toll in the PCMark05 memory test. Here, our X6800 test rig utilizing the new nForce 680i SLI chipset takes the lead while the XPS finds itself in second place. Certainly, CPU cache and core speeds have affected scores here as well. However, PCMark05 is largely a synthetic benchmark, so we encourage you to look more closely at the read-world application testing that we'll provide next.
|WorldBench: Office & Photoshop|
PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmarks, that has replaced the aging and no-longer supported Content Creation and Business Winstone tests in our suite. WorldBench 5.0 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance.
Below we have the results from WB 5's Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7 modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.
Here we see the nForce 680i SLI system take the lead again. Both X6800 systems beat our quad-core system which goes to show that having the extra two processor cores doesn't always pay off all that much in Office-type applications currently. The AMD rig is once again out-gunned, however we will continue to include it in our tests for the sake of reference.
The same can be said for our PhotoShop 7 results. While Photoshop and Office aren't exactly the most critical applications for the demographic targeted by the XPS 710 H2C, if your particularly concerned with getting the most out of these programs, a version of the XPS 710 H2C is offered with the X6800 factory overclocked to 3.46 GHz.
|LAME MT MP3 Encoding & Cinebench 3D Rendering|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending 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. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.
In our single-threaded LAME MP3 encoding tests, the processor with the highest clock is king, and in this case its the XPS 710 H2C. The story is slightly more complicated in the multi-threaded test. While the XPS system retains first place, we see our custom quad-core rig (2.66GHz) losing to the two higher clocked X6800 (2.93GHz) machines. This indicates that the 3rd and 4th cores are not being utilized to their fullest.
The Cinebench 2003 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below (listed in seconds).
If your into 3D rendering, then the more cores/processors the better. The XPS 710 H2C and our own custom quad-core machine take 1st and 2nd respectively. The XPS' multi-threaded score is half that of our Athlon FX-62 system. In single-threaded mode, it's all about processor IPC and clock speed.
|3DMark06 & Quake 4|
Starting with our 3DMark06 test, all of the gaming related benchmarks will be using a new set of comparison systems that were configured to put up a better fight against the XPS 710 H2C, when it came to gaming, than our productivity test systems could have.
3DMark06's test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of different 3D scenes that are generated with software and hardware GPU renderers, which is also dependant on the host CPU's performance. In its CPU tests, the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central processor. GPU rendering tests employ a mix of SM2.0, SM3.0 and HDR techniques and effects.
The XPS 710 H2C with its factory overclocked processor is the clear winner, posting a very impressive 15,302 3DMarks. Just like with our Athlon test system in the productivity benchmarks, we have included an ATI equipped system in all of our gaming related tests for comparison's sake, despite being hopelessly outclassed by the rest of the pack.
The XPS 710 H2C once again takes the top spot at both resolutions. The nearly 153 fps achieved by the XPS 710 H2C, even at a higher resolution of 1900x1200, is good enough to beat all but our X6800 GeForce 8800 GTX SLI system at lower res of 1600x1200. That is very impressive. Our custom quad-core system is bested by the aforementioned X6800 GeForce 8800 GTX SLI system at both resolutions, indicating that Quake 4 doesn't fully utilize all four cores.
|F.E.A.R., Prey & Half-Life 2: Episode 1|
By now you've gotten the gist that we have no intention of testing the Dell XPS 710 H2C at anything less than 1600X1200 resolution, and why should we? With the multi-GPU and CPU horsepower under its hood, along with its stiff price point, you should expect nothing but ultra high-end performance in ultra high-end test conditions. We will also continue testing at 1900x1200, which is the native resolution of the Dell 2400WFP, a brilliant 24" screen that would make a worthy companion for the XPS 710 H2C.
At these settings F.E.A.R. used to invoke horror into even the most powerful of GPUs, that is until the NVIDIA 8800 GTX appeared on the scene. All three systems equipped with GeForce 8800 GTXs in SLI posted 100+ fps at both resolutions. Our Radeon equipped system didn't do so well and only achieved half the fps as the 8800 GTX systems, however the game was still very playable. Also, once again, the Dell XPS 710 H2C took top honors.
We see more of the same story in our Prey tests. Since both Prey and Quake 4 are built on a Doom 3 engine foundation, its not surprising to see similar trends in the two sets of benchmark results.
The Source engine seems to be better able to utilize more than two cores, since the two quad-core equipped systems have a clear advantage over the similarly configured dual-core X6800 system but then again, this game engine is far less GPU-intensive. Regardless, the XPS 710 H2C once again takes first place by a solid margin.
|Overclocking the XPS 710 H2C|
Before we concluded our testing, we spent some time overclocking the Dell XPS 710 H2C using NVIDIA's nTune software. To find the system's peak processor frequency, memory timing and video card frequencies, we slowly raised their respective sliders until we begun to see visual artifacts on-screen while running a game or benchmark, or until our test system was no longer stable.
Remembering that the XPS 710 H2C comes with its processor factory overclocked to 3.2GHz, up from the stock frequency of 2.66GHz, we weren't expecting much of an additional gain. However, we were amazed by what we were able to do. After an afternoon of overclocking and stability testing, we finally arrived at an overclocked processor frequency of 3.66GHz at stock voltage. That is a one GHz overclock from the stock QX6700 frequency; one word -- impressive. We were also able to overclock our pair of GeForce 8800 GTXs from their stock speed of 575 MHz core and 1800 MHz memory to 630 MHz core and 1900 MHz memory.
At this speed, the system was completely stable. We were able to run several benchmarks and we continued to use the system for the rest of the day, all without incident. Our impressive overclock earned us an equally impressive 3DMark06 score of 17985! This is the highest score we have achieved to date, here at HotHardware.
Throughout overclocking, the H2C fan, 120mm case fan, and video card fans were manually set to 100% throttle. This is a significant departure from the 3-5% throttle that the H2C and system fans normally operate at. Under 10% throttle, the system is barely audible but at full power the system is extremely loud. While fully overclocked and with an ambient case temperature of 23C, the processor managed 32C while idle and 44C under load. Considering how loud the system was, we were a bit disappointed by the system's temperature under load. Although we'd have to admit, 44C is still very respectable for a 1 GHz processor overclock, especially considering that there are four cores and all four are running a full 1GHz faster than stock speed.
Dell XPS 710 H2C Overclocked: 3.66GHz / 630MHz GPU / 1.90GHz Video Memory
While we had the card overclocked, we re-ran a couple of benchmarks to see how the higher clocks affected performance. Our rather impressive overclock translated into some big gains in our benchmarks, with a 15% gain in 3DMark06 and a 9% average frame rate increase in FEAR. Overall, we were very pleased with the results and impressed with how far we were able to push the system.
|Performance Analysis and Conclusion|
Benchmark and Performance Analysis:
The performance of the XPS 710 H2C is fitting of a system of this caliber. Although it suffers from a slight performance hit due to its usage of lower quality, standard DDR2 memory, which limits its memory bandwidth to 667MHz, the factory overclock Dell provides with this system more than makes up for it. With the exception of a few tests particularly tied to memory performance, the XPS 710 H2C was able to take the lead in the majority of our benchmarks. This was especially true in our gaming tests, arguably the most important, where it won every benchmark. Overall, we were more than genuinely impressed with the performance profile of the Dell XPS 710 H2C. In fact, overclocking this machine further than it's factory settings, was a jaw-dropping experience.
Throughout our time with the XPS 710 H2C, it displayed the high quality mannerism typical of a Dell desktop. From the second we got it out of the box, the XPS 710 H2C has been a joy to work and play with. It's also fairly quiet, so it is easy to live with too. The XPS 700 series chassis draped in glossy Midnight Black paint also drew a lot of attention. Anyone who happened to spot it would immediately inquire about the nature of the huge, shiny, black tower sitting on our desk.
The overall presentation and packaging of the system is comparable to other systems in this league and we liked the imposing look of the chassis. We also liked the H2C cooling system which we thought performed admirably while still remaining relatively quite compared to the average air cooling solution. However, we wish the video cards were also water cooled. We thought the H2C system's LED-lit, windowed housing looked great. Its too bad no one will see it since a side-panel window is not available. This is a strange oversight on Dell's part. Why light up the interior with LEDs if your not going to offer a side-panel window?
If you have your own keyboard, mouse and monitor, you can pick up a XPS 710 H2C for as low as $5035, which still isn't cheap but compared to other systems with comparable hardware specs, that is a great deal. Dell really shows off their market prowress by offering the XPS 710 H2C for hundreds less than comparable products from smaller boutique shops. At the same time, Dell's size works against them as they can't move quite as fast as the smaller shops. As a result we see the XPS 710 H2C uses older nForce 590 SLI technology, which is perhaps both a limitation in some respects but more than likely a gain in terms of overall system stability, since the nForce 590 chipset is decidedly more mature currently.
We think Dell has a solid and extremely competitive offering on their hands, with their first non-limited edition, factory overclocked system. With its great combination of performance and value, anyone in the market for an ultra high-end gaming rig should take a serious look at what the XPS 710 H2C has to offer. This system is easily worthy of our coveted Editor's Choice award.