Dell Dimension C521 review
Dell's first foray into using AMD processors is a modest performer, but fair value
With the justifiable excitement surrounding dual-core and quad-core systems, it's easy to overlook some of the bargains out there. While it's always impressive to see a PC set a new fastest time in our benchmarks, unless you're encoding large amounts of video or working with multiple high-resolution images, a cutting-edge system is likely to be at least partially wasted.
The processor at the heart of the C521 is, for the first time ever in Dell's consumer line-up, supplied by AMD - a significant change from the old days of Dell's exclusive Intel partnership. Specifically, it's the venerable Athlon 64 3800+. While the overall benchmark score of 0.84 doesn't threaten the more expensive PCs that pass through our Labs, it's good enough to ensure a slick Windows system. The single core isn't as efficient at delivering a responsive performance when using lots of simultaneous applications, but it's fine as long as you're reasonably disciplined.
The graphics card is similarly modest - a half-height ATi X1300 Pro. All the same, the C521 doesn't totally lack gaming potential. At our lowest test settings, the system produced good performance, averaging 26fps and 21fps in Call of Duty 2 and Far Cry respectively.
The card has an unusual proprietary display port on the back, which connects to a splitter ending in two D-SUB connectors, allowing two monitors to be driven from the interface. Sadly, the 19in Dell monitor accompanying the system is distinctly average. Its viewing angles are narrow, and colour accuracy is equally disappointing. It's a shame, because although you won't have many complaints in everyday use, you'll notice it if a few people are gathering round to take a look at your holiday snaps.
The storage options in the system are a mix. The memory card reader is useful, and the optical drive will write to all formats of disc except DVD-RAM. But the hard disk is a merely adequate 160GB model - start ripping all your CDs or using the system to edit video and you'll find free space decreasing quickly. Plus, there's no space in the chassis to install a second drive.
There are some redeeming features elsewhere, though, and the C521's chassis is one. Mounted on its side, it's only 11cm wide, and in use it's near-silent, while the black and silver finish is tastefully executed. Opening the chassis is fiddly, though, as the spring-loaded catch holding on the side panel is too clever for its own good.
Once the lid is off, you're presented with a carefully wired system, with every component tool-less. There are two DIMM sockets free, allowing you to top up the 1GB already available. There are also PCI and PCI Express 1x slots for half-height cards. There's no way to horizontally mount a full-sized card, but there's a wide range of half-height cards available. The good news is that the 3800+ is seated in AMD's AM2 socket, which means there's plenty of upgrade potential, including AMD's dual-core processors.
The C521 will be an attractive option for many, striking a balance between cost, performance and size. While the specification merely matches up to the yardstick of "good enough", it has plenty of other redeeming features as a desk-mate. But it does lack expandability, and the small hard disk and lacklustre TFT could prove to be annoyances. As an all-round family system, the lack of 3D power could also be a downside. Those happy with these compromises will nonetheless be rewarded with a compact and unobtrusive system that will happily handle the demands of day-to-day jobs.