Day 3 with a new Dell and Vista

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.

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.