Dell XPS 420 review
Fast-paced, quad-core performance but other PCs pack much more in for less than £1,000.
Innovation is always at a premium in the intensely competitive arena of desktop PCs, where profit margins are tight and extravagance rarely seen. So it's good to see Dell making an effort with its latest desktop PC.
The XPS 420 bucks the trend, not through the use of a new processor or graphics card, but by including a small LCD screen built into the case that supports Vista's SideShow feature.
In conjunction with a dedicated panel of buttons, you can use it to monitor or control applications - such as Windows Media Player or Outlook - without recourse to the monitor on your desk.
It sounds a clever idea, but in practice we can't quite see the point. Surely no-one is going to choose to use such a small, difficult-to-read screen in favour of simply switching the monitor on and experiencing the applications as they were originally designed.
Fortunately it's not the only area where the XPS stands out. Inside, there's a highly capable Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 processor running at 2.4GHz. Although it's running at stock speed here, it's an eminently overclockable processor - speeds of over 3GHz can be attained quite easily.
The SideShow LCD in all its glory. Quite what you'll use it for is trickier to say.
This is complemented by a good-looking set of components with 3D grunt in the shape of a GeForce 8800 GTX graphics card and 1TB of storage across a pair of 500GB drives.
In our application benchmarks all this helped the XPS 420 achieve an overall score of 1.51 - very good for the money and better than any of the sub-£1,000 PCs we've reviewed in recent months, including the current A-List resident, PC Specialist's Apollo Q6600GT.
Gamers will also be happy with the 420. Dell's XPS range of laptops and desktops are designed for high performance and evidence of this is scattered throughout this machine.
Its graphics card has a massive 768MB of dedicated RAM which helped it blast through our Call of Duty 2 benchmark at 70fps on normal settings and thunder to 37fps with everything maxed out, despite running at a silly resolution of 2,560 x 1,600.
When confronted with more challenging titles, the 8800 GTX card still performed well. Call of Duty 4 posed little trouble: a test on medium settings edged past 100fps, and the highest settings returned an average of 59fps.
Crysis, today's most demanding game, isn't playable on very high settings unless you're willing to compromise on resolution. With high settings, however, it hit 27fps comfortably and even managed to keep the noise down under these intense tests.
As well as being a decent performer, the Dell is a stylish machine - its chunky angles make a bold statement without being too garish. Intriguingly, the chassis houses a small tunnel on the front that performs a dual role.
It hosts several ports (two USB, 3.5mm audio input/outputs, S-Video out, a well-equipped card reader, plus S-Video and composite outputs), but also provides airflow for the fan that cools the BTX motherboard, processor, chipset and graphics card.
On top, there's a handy storage area for USB thumb drives, wireless dongles and other small peripherals.
The rear is well-stocked with USB ports - boasting six - but not much else: the audio and TV jacks are blocked off and the proliferation of cards inside also knocks any SLI ambitions you might have on the head: there's just no room for an extra graphics card in the single remaining PCI Express slot.