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The case might look familiar from the outside, but the new AU$4,757 Dell Dimension 8400 represents the opening shot in Intel's wholesale overhaul of the desktop PC's core technology. Featuring Intel's new 925X Express (a.k.a Alderwood chipset), a 3.4GHz Intel Pentium 4 550 processor, and the first PCI Express graphics card we've seen--the 256MB ATI Radeon X800 XT--the Dimension 8400 is essentially a showcase for the future of the PC. Early adopter gamers and multimedia enthusiasts will be especially thrilled by the new hardware and the fast performance. As for the rest of us, we'll be better off waiting for software that takes full advantage of the new technology.
Editor's note: The test configuration came loaded with premium options such as Pentium 4 Processor 560 3.6GHz which is not available in some countries. Advertised packages in the Asia-Pacific region feature processor speeds up to 3.4GHz. Please check with your local distributor for more information.
Despite the new technologies inside it, very little about the Dell Dimension 8400's case has changed in the three years since it was introduced as the Dimension 8100. The same, rather dull, gray-and-black-plastic exterior opens up like an Oxford English Dictionary, the motherboard and the power supply are attached to one side, the drives on the other. The latching mechanism still irritates us; it requires you to press buttons on both the top and the underside of the case. When you finally pry it open, the case takes up more desk space compared to a standard tower case with a removable side panel.
It's not until you open the Dimension 8400 that you'll be able to see the new features of Intel's 925X Express chipset. Once your eye leaves the processor's huge heat sink, you'll discover one of the prime benefits of the chipset: improved bus architecture. Replacing the decade-old AGP interface for graphics cards, PCI Express (PCIe) features faster data throughput than either standard PCI or AGP slots. The Dimension 8400 comes with one full-length 16X PCIe slot for the graphics card and one smaller 1X PCIe slot for upgrades such as Gigabit Ethernet cards and others, though cards for the 1x port have not yet been released. Eventually PCIe will replace both AGP and PCI altogether, but until more PCIe cards become available, you'll be glad the Dimension 8400 has three old-fashioned PCI slots, one of which was vacant on our review unit. A pair of 512MB DDR2 SDRAM sticks occupies two of the four system-memory slots, which you can upgrade to 4GB of memory, if for some reason you should find this necessary.
Despite the extreme cooling tactics, the interior of the Dimension 8400 is much neater than the Dimension 8300 cases we've seen. The 925X chipset minimises cable clutter by moving to the smaller Serial ATA cables for connecting hard drives, leaving only one IDE channel and its cumbersome ribbon cable for your optical drives. The Dimension 8400 includes two Serial ATA drives but has ports and 3.5-inch drive bays for up to four SATA drives--and a maximum of 1.6 terabytes (TB) of storage space. That's right, we said terabyte. Sadly, Dell also offers no media-card reader to aid interfacing with digital cameras and other devices.
The usual list of legacy ports, plus Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, and six USB 2.0 ports reside on the back panel. A flip-up panel on the front of the system hides an additional pair of USB 2.0 ports and a headphone jack, but they slant downward, making access more difficult than need be if you have the system sitting on the floor. You'll also find a pair of additional USB 2.0 ports on the side of the bundled LCD monitor.
An early adopter's delight, the Dell Dimension 8400 offers the same high-end flexibility as the Dimension 8300 but with a bevy of new components. Thanks to Intel's new 925X Express chipset, Dell is able to incorporate a 3.6GHz Intel Pentium 4 560 processor, a 256MB ATI Radeon X800XT graphics card with the PCI Express interface, and 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM, none of which we've ever seen before. As is often the case with new PC technology, the hardware is significantly ahead of the software, so while these new parts have the potential to boost performance, and indeed the Dimension 8400's benchmark scores place it among the fastest PCs we've ever seen, you can expect even to reap greater benefits from the system as more-demanding software apps hit the market.
In the meantime, there's very little that the Dimension 8400 can't handle already. It's a fully featured multimedia PC; the crystal-clear, 17-inch Dell UltraSharp 1703FP LCD monitor and the 5.1 Dell 5650 speakers work especially well together--the volume bar and the center speaker attach conveniently to the bottom edge of the display. Connected to the system's Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 sound card, the speakers produced crisp, nuanced audio on our tests. That Dell included a discrete sound card instead of relying on the 925X's new embedded 7.1-channel Azalea sound chip doesn't exactly speak well of the new audio technology. Keep an eye out for our upcoming analysis of the Azalea sound chip compared to other audio solutions in the coming months.
Our Dimension 8400 featured a 12X Hitachi/LG DVD+RW drive. This drive burns DVD+R discs at a rapid rate, but we should note that it's less versatile than the multiformat drives commonly found on other system that burn to both +R and -R media. (Dell is firmly rooted in the DVD+R camp and sells only +R drives on its systems.) The second optical drive, the 48X Hitachi/LG CD-RW drive, is fast and flexible for both burning and playing CDs. (Editor's note: The DVD+RW drive may vary for different countries. Please check with your local distributor for more information.)
Two 160GB, 7,200rpm hard drives in a Serial ATA RAID 0 array provide roughly 300GB of storage after formatting. This amount might seem like more storage than you'd ever need, but each of the motherboard's four Serial ATA channels can support up to a 400GB hard drive, which means that 300GB represents less than 20 percent of the Dimension 8400's storage potential. You can upgrade to two 400GB drives at the time of purchase, but Dell's online configurator does not allow you to upgrade to three or four hard drives, so any more storage will have to be an aftermarket upgrade. Other configuration options include an ATI TV tuner and the usual array of printers, larger monitors, and other products from Dell's catalog.
The unremarkable optical mouse and keyboard get the job done, although they don't look especially stylish doing it. At least the keyboard's multimedia buttons streamline the Dimension 8400's entertainment functions. Dell's Media Experience suite gives you apps for working with your digital media, such as music and photos. You'll also find Dell's Picture Studio 2.0, which features Paint Shop Pro Album 4.0 and Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8.0, along with Sonic MyDVD for recording to DVD+RW discs. Corel's WordPerfect Office 12.0 productivity suite rounds out the software, all of which work within the framework of the Windows XP Home Edition.
The Dell Dimension 8400 is the first PC we've tested with Intel's new 925X Express chipset. Despite support for faster processors and memory, this next-generation technology does not demonstrate any performance advantage over older hardware with today's applications. Until we see more-robust applications especially designed for Intel's newer CPU architecture, performance won't be that much different from the technology that is already on the market.
The Dimension 8400's benchmark scores placed it among our highest-performing PCs. The Dimension 8400 achieved a SysMark 2004 score of 214, about 13 percent faster than the last Dimension 8300 we reviewed. We can see that neither the DDR2 memory nor the faster 3.6GHz Pentium 4 560 processor give the Dimension 8400 a major performance boost. While the Dimension 8400 is a powerful system, it will need supporting software before the hardware reaches its full potential.
The Dell also marks the first time we've seen a PCI Express version of the new 256MB ATI Radeon X800XT graphics card. This card marks a brand-new processor for ATI--and a huge performance boost. The most significant result is the 1,600x1,200 Unreal Tournament 2003 test, with a score of 115.1fps.
This performance increase is likely due to the graphics chip technology more than the new PCIe interface. There are no games on the market yet that can truly take advantage of PCIe's increased bandwidth, so we expect that performance gains will be even greater as we see more-demanding software.
Dell's huge setup guide makes assembling your Dimension 8400 even less strenuous than a walk in the park. The well-written, well-illustrated user guide is not specific to this system, but in addition to basic info for the chassis, Dell has filled the book with hints, tips, and troubleshooting points for attaching printers, scanners, and other peripherals. There's also the Dell Solution Center software that links you to online for additional support resources and tech support by phone.
If you break something that technical support clears as a problem you can't solve, onsite service will handle it during the first year. You can add up to three additional years of onsite service for more money. And, for the "better safe than sorry" crowd, you can purchase coverage to protect your system against spills, drops, electrical surges, and natural incidents, such as lightning strikes.