You know what to expect when you buy an XPS: good looks, high performance, and a substantially lighter wallet. Dell's latest effort, the XPS 420, delivers all these things and should appeal to anyone with a desire to edit video and images, and play games. It features an integrated SideShow display, a BTX chassis and an Xcelerator2 hardware transcoder.
The XPS 420 is available from Dell for a starting price of £549, although our test unit costs a rather more wallet-lightening £1,349.
The XPS 420 is attractive by desktop PC standards. The glossy front panel and silver side panels are attractive in their own right, but we personally think Dell should have chosen one colour or the other -- not both.
At the top of the case you'll find a rubberised strip, designed to accommodate an external hard drive, MP3 player, or any of the miscellaneous shrapnel that normally ends up at the top of your PC. This is lined with non-slip rubber and is slightly recessed so most things stay put.
Two versions of the chassis are available. Our review sample uses the Premium version, which has a 64mm (2.5-inch) SideShow display and corresponding control buttons at the top of the chassis. This allow you to run various Vista 'Gadgets' -- mini applications -- without using the mouse, keyboard or primary display.
Further down the chassis, the optical drive bays are hidden behind a flip-down panel, which helps keep a smart, uniform look. Below these is a memory card reader supporting most popular formats. It's not some random off-the-shelf part either, it's coated in the same glossy finish as the rest of the PC, making it one of the prettiest readers we've ever come across. The card reader panel also houses a button to synchronise the wireless keyboard and mouse, and there's an adjacent 'B' LED that indicates Bluetooth connectivity status.
Dead in the centre of the PC is the power button, above which are a couple of audio ports for your mic and headphones. There's also the obligatory front-facing USB ports (three of them) and a six-pin FireWire port. Six additional USB ports can be found at the rear, along with another six-pin FireWire port and an e-SATA port for connecting an external drive.
The second most interesting addition at the front is the Xcelerator2 panel. This provides S-Video, component video and audio inputs, so you can quickly transfer digital video to your PC. The Xcelerator2 features a hardware video transcoder that claims to manipulate video up to 25 per cent faster than PCs using a CPU alone. You can read more about this later in the review.
The XPS 420 is designed to handle media, so it's no surprise to learn it can accommodate some high-end components. Various CPU options are available, all of which are stonkingly quick. The Premium Chassis, which sports the Dell MiniView screen, comes with either a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600, or for an extra £60 you can have a 3GHz Core 2 Duo E6850.
The E6850 has a faster front-side bus than the Q6600 -- 1,066MHz versus 1,333MHz -- but we still wouldn't recommend buying it. It's more expensive and if you're editing video or multitasking, you're probably better off with the quad-core Q6600. The E850 is great for games, thanks to its faster clock speed and front-side bus, but if you're after a gaming machine, you're better off with something from Dell's H2C family.
Memory comes in several configurations. At the bottom end you get 3GB of 667MHz RAM across two 1GB DIMMS and two 512MB DIMMS. For an extra £70 you can have 4GB in the form of four separate 1GB DIMMS, or better still, two 2GB modules that run at 800MHz. Why Dell doesn't supply even faster memory is a mystery, but the bottom line is this -- when configuring the XPS 420, get the fastest available memory you can afford.
Hard-drive configurations are also numerous. Even the entry-level machine has half a terabyte of storage, across two 250GB drives in a Raid 0 stripe. Here, all your data is written alternately across both disks -- in a stripe -- for faster access. Think of it as having two separate dish washers, each cleaning half a plate each -- but less ridiculous in concept. For an extra £10 you can opt for Raid 1, where everything from one drive is automatically backed up to the other. Why this is more expensive to configure, we have no idea. £15 more will get you two 320GB drives, again in Raid 0, or for £50 more you can have two 500GB drives. Still not big enough? How about the 1.5TB configuration spanning two 750GB drives?
The XPS 420 isn't designed specifically for gaming, but that doesn't stop it being a better gaming machine than most PCs out there. Our review sample shipped with the 768MB GeForce 8800 GTX -- currently the top of the Nvidia range. This is a truly phenomenal card, but if waggling joysticks isn't your sort of thing, you can always strip £215 off the total price and go for the 256MB 8600 GTS -- a mid-range card that will still let you play the latest games, just not very quickly.
Anyone considering buying the XPS 420 should be aware of its trump card -- the Xcelerator. Once you've copied your raw video footage to the hard drive, this card works in tandem with your CPU to prepare video for disc burning or copying to a portable device. This solution can be up to 25 per cent faster than the CPU alone, according to Dell. Once you've prepared your video, it's possible to burn it to DVD or Blu-ray. Dell sells a version of the XPS 420 with twin Blu-ray discs, although we can't really see the sense in it. Buying one Blu-ray drive is expensive enough, so getting two is the height of decadence.
Software is arguably as important as hardware on a multimedia PC, so we were happy the XPS 420 comes with copies of Roxio Easy Media Creator 9 and Adobe Elements Studio. These let you create, capture, edit and share videos, and are worth a couple of hundred pounds if bought separately.
The quad-core Q6600 and 3GB of RAM at the hart of the system performed well in our tests. The XPS 420 achieved a stonking 8,831 in PCMark 2005, making it one of the fastest machines we've tested. The 3GHz Core 2 Duo E6850 might yield a slightly higher PCMark score overall, but the Q6600 has a definite advantage in media creation.
Graphics performance was exceptional, as we expected. It uses the monstrously quick Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX graphics card, which tallied 11,683 -- again one of the highest gaming scores we've ever encountered outside of dual graphics card PCs. The one questionable area in the graphics department is the Dell Xcelerator card. In our tests it didn't appear to make any difference whatsoever.
The XPS 420 is an awesome video-editing machine, but it's not all it could have been. We love the configuration options, the chassis and the performance, but the MiniView display and Xcelerator cards are basically gimmicks. Aside from the superfluous nonsense, we'd recommend it to anyone with a desire to handle large media files.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide