Summary: Its got quad-processing cores, quad SLI, over a terabyte worth of hard drive space, and does so while running extremely quiet. In case you didn't know, the system we're discussing is Dell's XPS 710. Powered by the nForce 590 SLI chipset, this is Dell's flagship gaming system and it even supports overclocking. Read our thoughts on this system in today's review!
But there are drawbacks to going the do-it-yourself (DIY) route. Most notable among them is the amount of time and effort it takes to research all the components, then put them all together to make a fully functional box. Along the way, you may spend additional time troubleshooting odd behavior and other problems that may crop up from your build. For instance, a lot of the early Core 2-ready motherboards were quirky when it came to RAM support. Certain memory modules just didnít run well in these boards. Alan ran into this most recently in his Core 2 build.
This brings us to another downside of DIY: warranty/tech support. Quite simply, if you buy a completely assembled PC from Dell, HP, or Gateway, you know who to call if you run into problems Ė your systemís manufacturer. But who do you call if you built the system yourself? The issue(s) you may be running into could be caused by the motherboard, or perhaps the chipset driver thatís running on your motherboard, or maybe youíve got a bad memory module or graphics card? Then again, it could be a bug with the graphics driver thatís causing the artifacts and other anomalies youíre seeing in games, or **gasp** perhaps itís Microsoftís fault and/or you configured something in Windows incorrectly. Perhaps itís all of the above?
The problem is, if you arenít an experienced system builder, you may have a hard time determining the culprit of your problems. And even if youíve got 5+ years worth of system builds under your belt, you may still have a hard time diagnosing the cause of your problem. You may be ready to blame your motherboard, when the fault could lie elsewhere. And even if you do have the correct guilty party, often times getting in touch with the manufacturer can be difficult; with the exception of a handful of graphics card manufacturers (BFG, EVGA, and XFX being the most prominent), most component manufacturers donít provide a 24/7 toll-free tech support hotline to call. Email is often one of the best ways to contact these companies, and you may not get a response for several days.
To service this market, system builders like Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and VoodooPC, have been delivering high-end systems with aplomb for years, but these systems are prohibitively expensive. Now larger system manufacturers have entered the fray with their own high-end systems at competitive price points. Today weíre taking a look at one such system, Dellís quad-core, quad-SLI, XPS 710. But is it good enough to meet the needs of an enthusiast? Read on to find out!
The first aspect youíll notice immediately about the XPS 710 is its unique chassis. Gone is the traditional beige box, instead in its place Dell uses an all-aluminum outer shell with a plastic fascia on the front and rear of the case. The fascia on our review system came decked out in Obsidian Red -- not our favorite color choice but certainly distinctive -- fortunately Dell offers two colors to choose from.
The case itself is one of the most impressive weíve seen, as we mentioned itís made entirely out of aluminum, but it has the heft of a system carved from a block of stainless steel! Officially the case weighs in just a pound shy 50 pounds, and after carrying the system up a flight of stairs, we certainly believe it.
This also makes working inside the systemís case a breeze in comparison to smaller system cases.
Another reason why the case is so heavy is because of the way itís built Ė to cut manufacturing costs and save weight, often times case manufacturers will use thinner sheets of aluminum for the outer shell of the system chassis. This isnít the case for Dellís XPS 710 however, the outer aluminum clamshell used for the top and bottom, as well as the left and right sides of the chassis is several millimeters thick.
The aluminum case Dell uses isnít prone to scratching either, as anyone with a Shuttle XPC or an aluminum case can tell you, many aluminum cases can be scratched rather easily. While the Dell chassis isnít scratch proof, it is much less prone to nicks and scratches than many of the other aluminum cases weíve come across.
The bottom line is that this case is built like a tank.
Moving around to the front of the system, youíll find that Dell uses drive bay doors to cover all of the systemís 5.25Ē and 3.5Ē drive bays. Our system came equipped with a 16X DVD-ROM drive and a 16X DVD+/- RW drive, as well as a combo 13-in-1 media card reader, but looking at the front of the system, you could never tell thanks to the drive bay doors. The system itself sports 4 external 5.25Ē drive bays as well as 2 external 3.5Ē drive bays. Inside the system youíll also find an additional 3.5Ē internal drive bay just beneath the power supply unit (PSU) where you can house up to four hard disk drives.
The hard disks are mounted on rails, so installation/removal is a snap, literally. Dell even includes extra SATA power and data cables so if you add additional drives, the cabling is already there and itís even properly tied down for you! This is a really nice touch in our opinion.
Getting inside the system is a snap. No tools are required, all you have to do is pull back on the cover release latch and then pull off the case cover itself. Voila youíre inside the system!
At the heart of the system is NVIDIAís nForce 590 SLI chipset. The nForce 590 SLI never really made much of an appearance in the DIY market, with only ASUS picking the chipset up and even then only making a very limited number of motherboards, but Dell has been using the chipset for quite some time now on their XPS line, including the original XPS 700.
The motherboard Dell uses for the XPS 710 is largely the same as the mobo Dell used on the XPS 700, only its been designed to work with quad-core CPUs from the start (the XPS 700 can be made to work with quad-core although itís officially unsupported because the motherboard lacks the required number of reference lines from the CPU to front-side bus for voltages and therefore itís not backed up by the Dell warranty). The motherboard has been developed completely in-house by Dell and relies on the BTX form factor.
While the motherboard is based on NVIDIAís nForce 590 SLI chipset, it doesnít support all the features of the chipset. For instance, the motherboard lacks the dual Gigabit Ethernet networking ports that the chipset natively supports, in addition, the chipset also lacks support for NVIDIA nForce 590 networking technologies such as Teaming and FirstPacket, as well as SLI-Ready Memory. Dell also limits RAID options to RAID 0 or RAID 1.
Dell says that the networking technologies werenít provided in order to ensure standardization across their entire product line, instead Dell uses the same networking solution on all of their other Core 2 systems. On the memory front, Dell is looking into adding DDR2-800MHz support, but as of now the XPS 710 ships solely with 667MHz memory.
Even if you plug in 800MHz or 1066MHz memory modules, theyíll run at 667MHz, as the systemís BIOS doesnít support SLI-Ready memory nor does it provide BIOS settings for adjusting the speed of the system memory.
This limits the performance potential of the system, particularly at lower resolutions where CPU/memory performance is more important. Earlier this year we ran performance numbers with memory speeds of 667MHz, 800MHz, and 1066MHz with Core 2 and found that the faster memory types could add up to 8% in some games at 800x600 but by 1600x1200 (the resolution youíre most likely to play at if you have a 20Ē LCD) weíre GPU-bound and performance was unchanged from 667MHz all the way up to 1066MHz.
Looking at the board itself, Dell uses a red PCB and the board supports enthusiast-level features such as rounded corners and a power LED. The North Bridge and South Bridge of the chipset are cooled passively Ė a heatsink/fan unit isnít used nor are heat pipes. The chipset is cooled entirely with a simple aluminum heatsink. This is pretty impressive considering the amount of heat the chipset produces.
The layout of the board is pretty good. Airflow is improved by moving cables away from hot-running components like the CPU and graphics cards. Cable management isnít that great however, thereís certainly a lot of clutter inside the system, while Dell does tie down the power and data cables for the SATA drives, none of the thicker BTX power cables are tied down, nor is the floppy data cable Dell includes with the system. Adding insult to injury, the cable isnít rounded either and itís bunched up next to the 120mm case fan which cools the graphics cards and other systems components at the bottom of the system.
Again, it isnít a very elegant system, but it didnít seem to interfere with the operation of any of the systemís components, and this isnít as big of an issue thanks to the sheer size of the system chassis.
For connectivity, Dell provides eight USB ports, six on the backplate of the motherboard and two more USB ports up front, as well as two FireWire connections. The motherboard ships with two x16 PCI Express graphics slots, one x1 PCIe slot, and one x8 PCIe slot, as well as three PCI slots.
The key to this cooling system is the front and rear fascias of the system itself. You see, the entire bottom portion of the front of the case is vented, as is the entire back of the case. On the other side of the front fascia lies a large 120mm case fan.
Air is sucked in from the front of the case, through the 120mm case fan, and from there across the system components.
Finally, the air exhausts out the back of the case. With a large 120mm case fan up front, the system can push a lot of air. Itís a very low RPM fan though, so the fan runs nearly silent, even up close with the case removed we could barely hear it.
Sitting just above the 120mm fan is a slightly smaller CPU fan. Like the main case fan, it sucks in cool air from the front of the case and runs it through a large black plastic duct before it exits out the right side of the duct and ultimately outside the system case itself. Again, this fan does a very good job of keeping the CPU cool while generating very little noise. The heatsink unit Dell uses to keep the CPU cool uses a mixture of copper and aluminum: multiple copper heat pipes are attached to a copper base plate for drawing heat off the CPU, while a large aluminum heatsink then helps to keep the heat pipes themselves cool.
The CPU cooling system itself reminds us a lot of the high-end Scythe Ninja cooler, although the XPS 710ís cooler isnít quite as large as the Ninja, but it does have more fins than the Ninja. The heatsink/fan unit is one of the only components inside the Dell XPS 710 system that you will need a screwdriver to remove, virtually everything else inside the system can be removed sans tools, including the hard drives and graphics cards.
Hard drive cooling
As anyone with a little knowledge of hard drives can tell you, one of the leading causes of premature drive failure is excessive heat. Quite simply, if you donít take care of the heat near your drive(s), it can ultimately kill your hard disk drive prematurely. This can be avoided with just a little bit of cooling, but itís astonishing the number of systems in the wild with little or no cooling near the hard disk drives.
With so much attention to detail on the systemís cooling, we were honestly a little surprised to see that Dell stuck with NVIDIAís reference cooling on the dual GeForce 7950 GX2 cards our system shipped with. The stock 7950 GX2 cooler runs a little noisier than say the fan on the GeForce 7900 GTX or GeForce 8800 GTX, but once housed inside the Dell case we never heard the cards, even when running under load after an extended gaming session.
Dell really deserves credit for putting together such a powerful, yet quiet system. Again, our XPS 710 rig was equipped with a Core 2 Extreme QX6700, 1-kilowatt PSU, and two GeForce 7950 GX2 cards for quad-SLI, yet the system was still barely audible from a distance of 3 feet!
Dell has taken several steps to keep noise at bay. Part of it is the near silent fans Dell uses for the system-level components, but another part of the reason why the XPS 710 is so quiet is the thickness of the case, which helps to deaden the noise inside the case. Dell even uses foam inserts on the connecting points of the case cover, this helps to ensure that noise doesnít escape the chassis, while also preventing air from escaping.
The only thing Dellís really missing are dust filters for the fans themselves. Then again, considering that most of their clientele probably will never crack open their case, a dust filter probably isnít necessary.
Technically, thereís nothing stopping Dell from supporting slower Core 2 CPUs with the XPS 710, but for now Dellís leaving quad-core exclusively to the XPS 710.
The XPS 710 can be ordered with a variety of graphics cards however. Not only does the XPS 710 support NVIDIAís GeForce 7950 GX2, it also can be ordered with the GeForce 7900 GS 256MB, GeForce 7900 GTX, and Radeon X1950 XTX cards. All of these cards can be ordered with a single graphics card, or dual graphics cards. In the case of the GeForce 7950 GX2, this adds up to NVIDIAís Quad SLI. Dell even supports hardware-based CrossFire for ATIís Radeon X1950 XTX. This is the only NVIDIA nForce-based system weíre aware of that supports ATIís CrossFire technology, normally you must have a CrossFire-compliant motherboard for this.
The system can also be ordered with a plethora of memory and display configurations (four DIMMs are in place on the motherbard), as well as offering two power supplies, a 750-watt unit and 1,000 watt PSU.
Our system was outfitted with the 1,000 watt PSU and itís certainly an impressive unit: the PSU ships with four PCI Express power connectors for graphics cards. As a result, this is one of the few PSUs on the market that should have no problems working with dual GeForce 8800 GTX cards running in SLI mode (one of NVIDIAís requirements for GeForce 8800 GTX SLI operation is that the PSU has all four power connectors built-in, using the PCIe power adapters that are so popular nowadays can lead to stability issues when the cards are under load in SLI). The PSU is also designed to deliver high power on the 12V rails, which are used predominantly by the CPU and GPU nowadays, according to the PSUís specs up to 950W are available on the 12V rails, and 150W on the 3.3V and 5V rails.
Because of all this, we have no doubt that the XPS 710 is up to the task of powering NVIDIAís GeForce 8800 GTX, including two of the cards in SLI mode. Weíve been told by Dell that theyíre currently qualifying the 8800 cards for use with the XPS 710 and that they will begin offering the cards before the end of the year. They wanted to make sure that both the graphics card and driver were fully qualified before shipping to customers. Considering how early the current 8800 driver in particular is, this makes a lot of sense, if you recall some of the pre-release 8800 drivers had issues with HDR+AA in some games like Oblivion, as well as lacking support for SLI, so itís good to see that Dell is taking their time with the process and making sure everything is in place and up and running smoothly before offering the cards for sale as an option to customers.
Sitting underneath the graphics cards lies a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic sound card. A lot has been made about the X-Fi cards Dell uses and whether or not they support Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. The answer is that the XPS 710 does support DD 5.1, but doesnít support DTS.
It turns out that Dell uses the exact same sound cards Creative uses on their retail cards, only Dell doesnít install the software codec for DTS playback. In order to hear DTS-encoded content in their full glory, youíll have to install a DVD player that supports DTS. This is something youíll want to keep in mind if DTS support is important to you.
Dell doesnít support DTS playback at this time because their Sonic CinePlayer application lacks support for DTS, and they canít use Creativeís retail software package because of compatibility issues theyíve discovered between the Creative software and CinePlayer.
One component we were a little disappointed with Dell however were the memory modules Dell uses on the XPS 710. Not only are they 667MHz DDR2 modules, theyíre basic 5-5-5-12 modules manufactured by Nanya. Basically, the modules are very vanilla, thereís nothing exotic or high-end about them. Weíd like to see Dell incorporate higher-end modules with faster speeds and tighter memory timings for use on a high-end system like the XPS 710, the modules even lack heat spreaders.
One cool feature Dell includes in the XPS 710ís BIOS is the ability to overclock the CPU. The method Dell employs is CPU multiplier adjustment: multiplier options of 11.0 and 12.0 are provided in BIOS, providing CPU overclocks of 2.93GHz and 3.2GHz with just a few keystrokes.
Since multiplier adjustment is the only form of overclocking supported, the rest of the system components, including the motherboard, chipset, and graphics are all kept at their stock speeds, the only component thatís being overclocked is the CPU. And since Dell has done such a remarkable job of keeping the CPU cool, the Core 2 QX6700 can be overclocked fairly easily Ė we ran our system overclocked to 3.2GHz for approximately 24 hours running looped runs of 3DMark with no problems.
Dell XPS 710
The nForce 680i testbed
Intel Core 2 Extreme Quad QX6700 (2.66 GHz)
LAME MT MP3 Encoding (MS Compiler)
Weíre pairing our standard nForce 680i testbed against Dellís XPS 710 system. This is basically the same system we tested NVIDIAís GeForce 8800 GTX/GTS cards in last month, with the most notable change being the quad-core processor. One item we should also note is that we did ensure to use the same ForceWare 93.71 graphics drivers from NVIDIA.
Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9
LAME MT MP3 Encoding
Despite being saddled with slower 667MHz memory, the XPS 710 delivered solid performance in our media encoding and rendering benchmarks. The XPS 710 slightly outperformed our nForce 680i testbed in both MP3 encoding and our testing with Cinebench 9.5, while video conversion tests with WME9 were just two seconds slower than the nForce 680i system.
Itís basically a dead heat in 3DMark 06, as the nForce 680i testbed and the XPS 710 finish within 1% of each other in 3DMark 06.
For our game performance testing, weíre going to test under two scenarios: low resolution (800x600), where CPU/memory performance is crucial to performance, the and high resolutions gamers are more likely to game it, where the GPU plays a dominant role in performance.
Our testing with Quake 4 is similar to the trends we noticed with F.E.A.R. only the performance margin separating the XPS 710 from the nForce 680i testbed are much greater. We see at 10% gap at 800x600. Once again weíre GPU-bound at 16x12 though.
Valveís Half-Life 2 Lost Coast pushes the GPU subsystem a little harder than Quake, but not as much as F.E.A.R. and therefore the XPS 710 finishes 9% behind the nForce 680i system at 800x600.
Company of Heroes
CPU performance is a little more important in an RTS, and thus the gap separating the XPS 710 from the nForce 680i testbed opens up to 12%. Under high resolution testing though the performance of the various systems is the same, as weíre GPU-bound at 1600x1200 with 8xSLIAA.
Nice case: While we arenít sold on the looks of Dellís XPS 710 chassis, we certainly were impressed with the build quality of Dellís new case. Itís built from solid aluminum and isnít as prone to scratching as many of the aluminum cases weíve come across over the years, and obviously with openings at the front and rear of the case, airflow isnít an issue.
DDR2-667MHz memory: With such exquisite attention to detail for the case, power supply, and cooling, itís really a letdown to see the generic Nanya DDR2-667 memory Dell uses on the XPS 710. Obviously Dell spent a lot of time on R&D for the aforementioned components, but spent no time or effort in researching the systemís memory. At the very least Dell couldíve used DDR2-800 modules rather than 667MHz memory. Lower timings than 5-5-5-12 wouldíve been nice too.