- Excellent application and 3D graphics performance
- gorgeous 18in. flat panel offered at unbeatable price.
- Limited high-end speaker options.
Dell has rolled new Intel and ATI technology into its latest performance-class desktop, the Dimension 8300. Match Intel's new 875P ('Canterwood') chipset and 3GHz Pentium 4 processor with ATI's latest graphics card -- the Radeon 9800 Pro -- and you have a PC built for both work and play. Dell adds a strong set of features to the Dimension 8300, including a stellar 18in. flat-panel display, and the company keeps the Dimension line's convenient case design. All of this adds up to a competitively priced system for gaming, digital video editing and all small office/home office tasks.
At first, we thought the Dimension's tool-free case, which debuted about 18 months ago on the Dimension 8200, was unintuitive and difficult to open. Indeed, the first time you try it, you'll think that the quick-release latch on the top of the case isn't working -- that is, until you realise there's an identical latch located on the underside. Then the case suddenly slides open with ease, thanks to a hinge in the front that separates the drive bays from the PCI slots, giving you unprecedented access to the innards. Of course, having the drive bays on one side and the motherboard on the other means that some cables must traverse the width of the case. Hence, you'll need to unplug a power cord or two to gain access to the drives or the motherboard. Despite the smaller size of the tower, the 8300 still houses a total of seven drive bays, four of which were free in our evaluation model, in addition to four PCI slots. Four DIMM slots hold a maximum of 2GB of memory. On the outside, the black-and-grey Dimension 8300 looks like a mainstream, general-purpose system. Beneath the 8300's staid exterior lies a PC that's equally adept at handling gaming and small office/home office duties. The matching black-and-grey keyboard, mouse and monitor make sleek additions to your desktop. One addition that Dell has decided not to make standard on the 8300 is the floppy drive, although it was included on our evaluation system. A full complement of ports adorns the back of the case, including six USB 2.0 connectors, while two USB ports and a headphone jack can be found on the front beneath a somewhat annoying flip-up plastic door that looks certain to snap off after a few months of use. We can't say enough, though, about the elegant design of the keyboard, with its built-in audio controls in the top right-hand corner. The various buttons are laid out in a concentric circle around the large, elegant volume control, and the whole module integrates seamlessly with your audio software and speaker system.
The Dimension 8300 features the latest Intel technology in the form of the new 875P chipset and the 3GHz Pentium 4 processor with an 800MHz frontside bus. The 3GHz Pentium 4 differs from the 3.06GHz Pentium 4 introduced last autumn in that it supports the speedier 800MHz frontside bus of the 875P chipset. The older 3.06GHz P4 supports a frontside bus of 533MHz at most. It may be 60Hz slower in raw clock speed, but the new 3GHz P4 eases a bottleneck by widening the well-travelled path between processor and memory (a.k.a. the frontside bus), which results in improved performance. The 8300 is substantially overqualified for mundane tasks and is best put to the test with graphics, video and animation, where this system keeps pace with anything on the market today. Digital video hobbyists looking to make use of the 8300's muscle will enjoy the speedy 4X DVD+RW drive that Dell included on our evaluation unit. In addition, our 8300 included a 16X DVD drive, a Creative Audigy 2 sound card and a 120GB, 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive from Seagate -- this is first time we've seen a review system with this new hard disk interface. As for getting some work done between video projects, Dell bundled Microsoft Office Small Business Edition on our test system. If you plan to put the 8300 on a network, you should know that Dell chose not to integrate Gigabit Ethernet support on the 8300's motherboard. Although the 875P chipset supports this latest version of Ethernet networking, Dell decided to include integrated 10/100 Ethernet instead. Dell does sell a Gigabit PCI card should you have such a network. If you only want to share broadband Internet access among multiple PCs, you should notice no difference between 10/100 and Gigabit. Dell offers this bundle with the fastest graphics card currently available: ATI's Radeon 9800 Pro, with 128MB of dedicated video memory. The result is a multimedia system that flew through our 3D graphics benchmarks and delivered spellbinding DVD video. In our experience, the 1,280 by 1,024 native resolution looked crystal clear on the bundled 18in. 1800FP LCD. We wish that the on-screen menu system on this display was a bit more intuitive, but there's no arguing with the picture quality of the UltraSharp monitor. Colours look intense, animation moves smoothly and the viewing angle is wide enough to accommodate multiple users viewing the screen at once for, say, watching a DVD. Dell pairs this display with the high-end Altec-Lansing ADA-995 speaker system, which supports 5.1 surround sound and the THX-audio format. Unfortunately, the huge subwoofer is almost as large as the 8300's tower itself (and weighs even more), but the system features foolproof setup, thanks to colour-coded ports and connectors that can be plugged into only the proper jacks. Its sound is delicious, especially when playing the new DVD-audio format. Even so, given the quality of the sound card, we'd appreciate more high-end speaker options.
We initially had problems benchmarking our pre-production Dimension 8300 review sample, experiencing regular 'Blue Screen of Death' crashes full of alarming error messages. However, these glitches were cured by a BIOS update from Dell, and hopefully shipping models will exhibit nothing untoward. The Dimension 8300's application performance was very good overall. It performed about 17 per cent faster under Business Winstone 2001 compared to the Dimension 8250, which has the older 3.06GHz Pentium 4 with a 533MHz frontside bus. Under Content Creation 2002, which uses high-end rather than mainstream applications, the two systems delivered almost the same (but still very good) scores. Disk performance from the 120GB Seagate Serial-ATA drive was good, but not noticeably better than the Dimension 8250's 200GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital Ultra-ATA/100 drive. The Dell Dimension 8300 uses ATI's flagship Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, and it turned in outstanding 3D performance scores – the fastest we've seen to date on any desktop PC.
Service & support
Our Dimension 8300 evaluation model shipped with a three-year onsite next business day warranty. You can increase this to five years for another £70. As far as technical support is concerned, Dell offers 24/7 online support at www.euro.dell.com. Dell's online support is extremely thorough, featuring full interactive chat with support technicians, downloads, FAQs, a knowledge base and customer forums. You can even set up a password-protected, personalised account on Dell's site that stores all of your support needs in one place. Telephone support is also available during local business hours.