- Well designed and superbly specified
- fast, with fantastic 3D graphics performance.
- The only FireWire port is on the sound card.
We've reviewed plenty of Dell Dimension systems over the years -– normally showcasing a new Intel processor or some other architectural development. The Dimension 8250 is no different, as it marks the debut of a Pentium 4 processor that not only breaks the 3GHz barrier, but also introduces hyper-threading to Intel's arsenal of CPU performance enhancements.The Dimension 8250 is also notable for including a near-perfect array of class-leading components. For example, the graphics subsystem is powered by ATI’s 128MB Radeon 9700 Pro chip, which delivers the sort of performance over which no gamer, however rabid, could quibble. The sound system, meanwhile, is based around Creative Labs’ superb Audigy 2 card and a heavy-duty Altec Lansing 5.1 surround-sound speaker system. Again, you’re not going to hear many complaints from power users about that. What does it all cost? Well, you wouldn’t expect a specification like this to come cheap, but £1,799 (ex. VAT; £2,113.83 inc. VAT) isn’t as eye-watering as you might expect. But do you get value for money?
The styling of Dell’s tower case is familiar enough, with its charcoal-grey livery and tool-free access via a pair of latches on the top and bottom. Once the case is opened, you can also replace drives and expansion cards without recourse to a screwdriver. Both of the system’s 5.25in. bays are occupied by optical drives, while a floppy drive sits in one of the two externally accessible 3.5in. drive bays. Inside, you can fit another 3.5in. hard drive if required –- but since our review sample came with a 200GB unit, you’ll be unlikely to need an upgrade anytime soon with this particular model. All wiring inside the case is tidily routed, and there’s enough integration on the motherboard that only two of the four PCI slots are filled -– with a FireWire-equipped sound card and a V.90 modem (and users lucky enough to have broadband could dispense with the modem card). The Dimension 8250 has the most USB ports we’ve ever seen on a desktop PC -– two at the front under a lift-up flap, and six at back -– and all of the ports are USB 2.0 compliant. No need for a USB hub, then.
As we mentioned already, this Dimension 8250 model has a specification to die for. As well as the fastest available Pentium 4 processor -- the hyper-threading-enabled 3.06GHz Pentium 4 -- and Intel’s 850E chipset, our review system had 512MB of top-end PC1066 Rambus memory filling two of the four RIMM slots. If you need more memory, the motherboard will accept up to 2GB. Then there’s the graphics subsystem. There’s no doubt that the current graphics chipset of choice for gamers is ATI’s Radeon 9700 Pro, so Dell has selected a card with this GPU, 128MB of DDR video RAM and a TV-out port. The monitor with our review system was Dell’s tried and trusted 17in. 1702FP TFT monitor, which has both digital and analogue inputs and delivers a clear, bright and even picture. A system like this is capable of handling demanding applications such as video editing, so it’s no surprise to find a high-quality set of optical drives on-board. For DVD and CD writing, there’s Philips’s DVD+RW-D28, which writes DVD+R media at 4-speed and rewrites DVD+RW media at 2.4-speed. For those times when you simply need fast CD reading, for example when installing software, Dell supplies a 48-speed CD-ROM drive from Lite-On. What about the hard drive? That’s only a 7,200rpm Western Digital unit with a jaw-dropping 200GB capacity. Even Windows XP, Office XP and a shed-load of other application software isn’t going to make much inroads on that. So there’ll be plenty of room left over for video footage, still images galore, days’-worth of MP3 music, or whatever takes your fancy. Today’s leading-edge games and specialist applications like digital music recording require a high-quality sound subsystem, and if you’d asked us to specify the sound card of choice prior to receiving this PC for review there'd have been a unanimous response: Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster Audigy 2. Read our recent review of this Editors’ Choice winning product for the details, but suffice to say that it delivers great sound quality, includes a FireWire port, supports the latest audio standards and can drive more speakers than you can shake several sticks at. Did we mention speakers? How about Altec Lansing’s ADA995? The subwoofer unit in this 5.1 system is bigger than the PC’s system box, and when turned up to number 11, Spinal Tap-style, the whole ensemble can rock like an earthquake.
It goes without saying that the Dimension 8250 is fast -– what else would you expect from those components? But Intel’s much-trumpeted introduction of hyper-threading with the 3.06GHz Pentium 4 (it has been there for some time, but not enabled until now) means that performance analysis is a little more complicated than running the standard benchmarks and reporting the numbers. If do you run benchmarks like Business Winstone 2001 and Content Creation Winstone 2002, you’ll find that the Dimension 8250 is very fast. However, hyper-threading doesn’t deliver any performance benefit in these tests -– in fact, if you turn off hyper-threading in the BIOS, you’ll squeeze more performance from the system. That’s because most of the applications that comprise the Winstone tests -– especially Business Winstone -– are not multi-threaded, and therefore derive no benefit from the two logical processors that Windows XP recognises when the 3.06GHz CPU’s hyper-threading is enabled. More pertinent tests, such as those recently run by ZDNet Germany, show that the hyper-threaded 3.06GHz Pentium 4 can deliver significant performance increases when running a modern multi-threaded application like Cinema 4D R8, or when the operating system is juggling several applications at once. However, in the latter case the result does depend upon the precise mix of programs involved. As far as 3D performance is concerned, the 128MB Radeon 9700 Pro-based graphics card delivers record-breaking scores under 3DMark 2001, as we expected.
Service & support
When it comes to hand-holding, Dell is as conscientious as any manufacturer. The supplied documentation is clear, the standard one-year warranty has enough extended options to cover most scenarios, and there’s plenty of online, email and phone support to get you out of any trouble you can’t solve by yourself. If by now you’ve got the impression we’re quite keen on the Dimension 8250, you’re not wrong. Spend around £2,100 (inc. VAT) on it now and you’ll have yourself a PC that should remain in or around the fast lane for some time to come. UPDATE (26/11/2002): Since this review was published, Dell has informed us that the Creative Labs Audigy 2 sound card is unlikely to be available with the Dimension 8250 before Christmas. In the meantime, a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz card will be offered.