Day 3 with a new Dell and Vista

Day 3 with a new Dell and Vista

Summary: I’m documenting my experience with a new Dell C521 running Windows Vista. After an initial glitch that requires an onsite service call from Dell, I'm back in business. Today's goal is to stress-test the machine using a selection of real-world applications and see how it performs under fire. How much can a $500 PC handle before it falters? The answer even surprised me.

TOPICS: Dell, Microsoft, Windows

Coming in late? Catch up with the Day 1 and Day 2 installments. The executive summary: I’m documenting my experience with a new Dell C521 running Windows Vista Home Premium. A buggy BIOS update delivered by the Dell Support tool caused a catastrophic hardware failure on Day 1, but after a quick visit from a service tech who replaced the motherboard, I’m back in business.

This is what Day 1 should have been like. After replacing the motherboard and restoring the original factory image, I start fresh. The system boots up quickly. It takes fewer than a dozen clicks to get through the OEM setup: selecting the correct time zone, accepting two license agreements (one from Dell, one from Microsoft), giving the computer a name, and setting up a user account and password. When I reach the Windows desktop, I confirm that I’ve got access to the local network and the Internet and set the firewall to permit access across the LAN.

Next stop is Microsoft Update, where I pick up 10 updates. After a restart, I’m ready to go. In all, I’ve spent less than 10 minutes since powering up for the first time, and I’m at a clean Windows Vista desktop. I haven’t installed any third-party software or drivers yet.

And then I try to stress the system out:

  • I begin copying 5000 picture files (6.3 GB in total size) from a network server.
  • I start up Windows Media Player and begin playing a new DVD, Bruce Springsteen’s Live in Dublin, maximizing the player and zooming the playback size to full screen within the window.
  • I open Internet Explorer and begin visiting websites until I have five tabs loaded.
  • I open Windows Mail and check for new messages, then switch back to Internet Explorer and open a few more windows.
  • I start Windows Photo Gallery. Because this is the first time it’s run, it begins building its index and cache and I can see thumbnails and tags rapidly filling the Photo Gallery window.
  • I open Windows Movie Maker, open the Import dialog box, and use the Windows Search box in the Open dialog box to find 425 pictures tagged “Telluride” and import them into a Windows Movie Maker project. Then I and tell Movie Maker to begin rendering the project in WMV format at 640 x 480 resolution. Movie Maker estimates that this will take 40 minutes or so.
  • Finally, for good measure, I open Adobe Reader and tell it to download and install the latest updates. It begins installing the Reader 7.0.9 update in the background, interrupting me every few seconds with a dialog box.

Throughout all this, the DVD soundtrack has been playing back without a single audible glitch. Task Manager says I’m using roughly 840MB of RAM, about 81% of physical RAM installed. The CPU is at 100%, but there’s no noticeable delay when I switch to another program and begin using it. Every window snaps open instantly, with its full contents displayed. Even with the CPU at 100% and 65 processes running, Flip 3D works, with the DVD playing back in its own Flip 3D window floating above the desktop when it’s at the front of the stack.

So I throw a few more straws on this camel’s back, starting Windows Defender and ordering a full malware scan for all files on the system. Then I go back to Photo Gallery, search for the same group of photos I’m now rendering into a movie, and click the Slide Show button to begin displaying those 425 photos in full-screen mode with transitions. The DVD soundtrack keeps playing in the background, with just a brief skip as the slide show begins, I switch to the Sepia theme, watch and listen for a minute or so, and then exit the slide show and resume watching the DVD, which doesn’t skip a frame. I suppose I could open another 30 or 40 web pages and begin playing Mah Jongg, but this real-world stress test is enough for me.

Overall, it’s a very impressive performance. After a few minutes, I begin shutting down programs one by one and, after closing the last open window, check Task Manager again. CPU usage has dropped to 1% or less and it’s now using 460MB of RAM. Remember, I haven’t tweaked this system at all. Except for the larger hard drive (which has performances specs identical to those of the drive it replaced), this is an off-the-shelf $500 PC.

On this clean OEM machine, I can’t duplicate any of the complaints I’ve heard or read about Vista. In general, these fall into one of the following three categories:

  • System responsiveness issues. I’ve read several complaints about Vista taking too long to display menus or open Explorer windows. Everything’s downright snappy here. Menus show up instantly, and with the exception of Windows Mail, which takes five seconds or so to start, I experience nothing that makes me feel I’m having to wait even a little.
  • Slow startup/shutdown. I’ve tested startup times previously, using clean installations and upgrades on an older system, but never on a brand-new OEM system. Using the same criteria as in my previous round of tests, I measure startup times on this machine, and get remarkably consistent results: roughly 33 seconds to a usable desktop, and never more than 45 seconds to open the default Dell/Google home page in Internet Explorer.
  • Slow file transfers. Over a network using the C521’s Fast Ethernet (not Gigabit Ethernet) adapter, it takes me 16:51 to copy 6.3GB of files. On a nearly identical system running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and plugged into the same Ethernet switch, copying the same batch of files from the same source takes 16:56, a statistical dead heat. I plug in a 500GB USB drive and copy more than 80GB of music files to the Music folder, and the file transfer moves just as quickly as it does on Windows XP.

In the course of the day’s testing, I notice something else: Dell systems I purchased in late 2006 and early 2007 with Windows XP preinstalled were loaded with trial programs and preinstalled software that I really didn’t want. This one seems much cleaner. In particular, it doesn’t include any third-party security programs: every other Dell I installed previously has included a trial version (or a full version) of an antivirus program from Norton, McAfee, or Trend Micro. I’ll take a closer look at the crapware inventory and pick a third-party security program in the next installment (available now - see Has Dell kicked the crapware habit?), and after that I’ll begin adding the pieces to turn this system into a full-fledged Media Center machine. But for right now, I’m going to watch the rest of this concert.

Topics: Dell, Microsoft, Windows

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  • My Toshiba laptop came with McAfee

    I imagine that was my initial problem, because when I first fired up Vista when I got the thing, it was a dog. But this past weekend I restored from the factory DVDs, but then immediately uninstalled McAfee and installed AVG in its place, plus I uninstalled several bits of crapware, plus I updated some drivers and installed patches via Windows Update. Huge difference. It's getting there.

    I'm still underwhelmed by certain things I expected to be overwhelmed by, like Aero. But other things I did not expect to impress me did, like the updated Windows Explorer interface. And the media center, while not the best I've seen, certainly falls under the "good enough" category, and its ease of installation and configuration should make it popular.
    Michael Kelly
  • Thanks Ed

    Expect the usual cries of [i]you are the only one Vista works for[/i] from the usual crowd of Mac zealots who are desperately trying to justify the fact that they spent [url=] twice as much for their Mac [/url] than they needed to or the fact that their Vista clone (Leopard) has been delayed by months and had tons of promised features removed.

    I have now experienced Vista on a brand new laptop and can report that it works flawlessly. I have also used Vista on a 3 year old desktop (middle of the road when I bought it) and it too works absolutely flawlessly. There is only 1 way to combat all the FUD that is spread around these forums and that is with blogs like yours. Thanks again.
    • Vista was delayed for years with many feature removed...

      PC hardware vendors have both inexpensive with very expensive hardware. Many
      PCs cost more than a comparable Mac. So how does that fit with Mac being so
      much more expensive? Does that mean persons paying higher prices than a Mac,
      from vendors as Gateway, Toshiba, HP, and the like, are being ripped off? I think
      not. One purchases what they want.

      Some folks purchase a Chevy others a BMW, Masaratti, Ferrai. All of them can get
      you from point A to point B, did one of those buyers get ripped off, again no. It
      was a choice based on what they wanted.

      There are both Mac and Windows fanboys so why do you feel you must belittle
      folks, do you feel better somehow?

      Vista was delayed years, as we know MS kept removing features originally said
      they that Vista would include. As for a Lepoard being a Vista clone it's more the
      other way around. Many of the features on previous Windows, now Vista were first
      on the Mac. Other than to start a fight who cares? Truly none of that matters, both
      OSX and Windows are improving the user experience with each upgrade, and
      improvement, both are getting better. I use both.

      Oh to this subject the only section of your post that's of value is in the second
      paragraph first two sentences and the final one as well. Those are worthy of your
      post. I'm sure others will be pleased you posted those comments. As for the other
      sentence in that paragraph maybe you should combat yourself perhaps.

      Have a pleasant day NonZealot, you're not living up to your name.
    • Hey, what about the Linux zealots?

      I am just strolling for a trolling.
      • Speaking of Zealots

        You are replying to one of the worse windows Zealots on this site. He will lie, spread
        misinformation and present FUD as fact. Anything Bill or Steve B says he will quote as
        gospel. But if anyone dares question the man behind the curtain, he will call them
        blasphemous. That's a day in the life of NonZealot the windows Zealot.
    • Dude!!!

      Seriously you are the SECOND person to post here and the first was a Toshiba user
      so what cries from MacZ's are you talking about!?!

      You use to be funny sometimes even topical and you trried to be semi factual but
      now your just in Nixon like paranoia land. What's up? Apple is having a solid run
      of good performance but there is not need to fear MS is not going


      Pagan jim
      • The sad thing is I was proven right

        [i]what cries from MacZ's are you talking about!?![/i]

        Reread what I wrote:
        [i][b]Expect[/b] the usual cries of you are the only one Vista works for from the usual crowd of Mac zealots[/i]

        I didn't say they had shown up, I said they would. Look down. I was proven right.
    • I see you're up to your old tricks again.

      [i]Expect the usual cries of you are the only one Vista works for from the usual
      crowd of Mac zealots who are desperately trying to justify the fact that they spent
      twice as much for their Mac than they needed to or the fact that their Vista clone
      (Leopard) has been delayed by months and had tons of promised features

      As I've said many times before. [b]Your irrational hatred of Apple Inc. makes you
      look foolish[/b] You seem to be trying real hard to justify your choice of windows
      (which cost twice as much as OS X for 99% of the world). Yes vista has had over
      2/3rds of the features removed. As well as the fleecing of "vista ultimate" owners
      that are still missing the extra bits Microsoft promised (that are already paid for),
      but again failed to deliver.

      Where are all the cool Windows Vista Extras we were promised?

      WinZealot "I can not in good conscience ever recommend anyone use OSX"

      But you get all gushy over windows. Being that vista is the most heavily DRM laden
      OS, how can you justify your high level of recommendation for it? Is it your
      undying loyalty to Redmond? As for the so called shoot out, well that was staged
      to favor your agenda. Something you claim others do and how bad it is. But when
      you do it, it's a good thing? Are you shooting for extra NBM bonus points this
  • Even my cheap $700 do-it-yourself has gigabit

    Even my cheap $700 do-it-yourself has gigabit, 2 GB RAM, dual core processor, and 19" DVI display. Those cheap Dells come with dirt cheap featureless motherboards. There's no way to get DVI on them. A lot of them don't even have AGP or PCI-Express slots.
    • This one came with a DVI adapter

      The onboard graphics are analog, but the unit I bought has a 256MB PCI-e x16 adapter with DVI and dual-monitor support. It also has a 1x PCI-e slot and a PCI slot, either of which I could use for Gigabit Ethernet, if I so choose. For now I'm going to use the x1 slot for a combo dual TV tuner.

      And that $700 doesn't include Windows, does it?
      Ed Bott
      • Ah sorry, didn't see that card it came with

        Ah sorry, didn't see that card it came with. Windows will cost another $117 for premium edition, unless you want one of those "student upgrade" specials.

        Your referb unit looks a little cheaper.
        • Also it's a small form factor

          Its ultimate destination is the living room, and the C521 fits in a standard audio cabinet. So that's part of my decsion-making process.
          Ed Bott
          • Fair enough

            It's hard to build a small form factor PC on the cheap. It's even harder to make it low noise. One thing good about Dells is that they are very silent since they use an oversized fan in the back with a hood over the CPU heatsink to simplify the air flow.
          • Yes, this one's very quiet

            I've been very impressed with the almost complete absense of noise from this system. In fact, I had to watch the lights when I was doing shutdown tests, because I couldn't tell from the fans and speakers as I normally do!
            Ed Bott
      • If HD, Save Your x1 Slot

        If your HD get yourself an HDHomerun dual tuner that runs on the network. Then you can tune into your stations from any PC on the network. Won't cost any more than a decent dual tuner card.
        • Thanks for the pointer

          Two problems for me:

          1. At $169, it costs roughly double what a good PCIe tuner does. I got an AverTV Combo card for $88 shipped.

          2. The primary benefit, being able to use clear QAM channels in Media Center, is meaningless for me because I have satellite and not cable. But still worth looking at.
          Ed Bott
    • think before talk

      i dont see a connection between dvi and motherboards as the dvi-port exists on the graphics card. i also doubt that there is a mainboard wich has neither agp nor pci-e.
  • Day 3

    Add between $1000 and $1600 to the cost of your computer to represent 24 hours
    of downtime and 16 hours of work time at a professional rate. Meanwhile Dell can
    erase their slim margin and actually incur a cost for the repairman visit and mobo
    replacement. Productivity measured over years, and measured against genuine
    competitive alternatives can now take a back seat as Bruce Springsteen takes the
    Harry Bardal
    • Once again distorting facts

      Harry, there was no 16 hours of professional time. You know that and yet you deliberately post a distortion. Again.

      I spent an hour on Day 1 backing up the system, which I would do with any computer from any platform. I spent aan additional total of a half-hour of my time on Day 1, spread over 12 hours as I chose to do other things (and half of those 12 hours were billable hours).

      You're getting desperate.
      Ed Bott
      • Harry has been desperate for a long time.

        And it gets worse everytine he looks at what he paid for his MAc.