Keith Combs' Blahg

Ramblings from another nerd on the grid

Dell XPS 420 First Impressions

Dell XPS 420 First Impressions

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xps420_graphics My first impressions of the Dell XPS 420 can be summed up in one word, "Solid !"  I've only completed a couple of phases in my new machines metamorphosis, but so far I'm pretty impressed with the machine and it's future.  So let's dive into what it was like when I received it, and the road we're on.

What is the goal?

When I purchased the machine Sunday, I had a couple of goals.  First and foremost, it's a video editing workstation.  I wanted a Quad core machine that could handle intense high definition and standard definition encoding, decoding and transcoding.  Second, I figured if I held out long enough, the Windows Vista market would mature and I could add premium high definition television recording.  TiVo is still handling the bulk of those duties at the moment.

The Package

The box arrived via Fedex in a light rain.  I'm glad it wasn't a heavy rain because the hand holds are open into the box.  There was no water damage.  Inside the box was the typical foam enclosure and a special XPS branded pack of goodies including a mouse pad, wire ties, wiping cloth, binder for disks, etc.  Nice job Dell.

The Hardware

Since I already have an array of LCD panels, I didn't order one with the unit.  If you can afford the Dell 24" widescreen LCD, get one.  I love mine.  I also have a 20" 4:3 aspect ratio LCD sitting right next to the 24" in a multimon configuration.  This gives you a ton of viewing options for the various applications and media you might view.  The 24" is running 1920x1200 and the 20" is running 1600x1200.  I use a KVM switch with these two monitors for the machines I own and use for work.

The XPS 420 computer is a medium to large size case.  There's easy access into the unit and it is designed to hold up to three hard drives, one or more DVD drives, media readers, etc.  I ordered my Dell with the cheapest hard drive they offer knowing I will be immediately replacing the drives through other sources to cut costs.  I also ordered it with the standard 3GB of memory.  The main two hard drive bays are quick access requiring no screws.  There is power routed to both bays.  If you order like I did but plan to add another drive, make sure you buy a SATA cable with the right angle end.  A standard SATA cable will protrude too much and prevent case closure.  I already knew that and had a cable in my drawer already.

xps420_bigtime The machine is very quiet.  There is plenty of ventilation through the case and it will be easily vacuumed when it's time to get rid of some of the dust.  The case itself is pretty attractive with the piano black front and silver sides. There are lots of USB ports front and rear, IEEE 1394 front and rear, GigE ethernet on the back, and an eSATA port on the back.  I see a future for that port.

The XPS 420 comes with a Sideshow LCD panel on the front top.  I haven't decided what if anything I'll use it for, but you can add all sort of Vista Sideshow gadgets and have it display stuff like the weather, number of unread inbox messages, stock ticker, etc.  It'll be fun to play with that later but it's a back burner item for now.

I fired the machine up and took a look around but that was pretty short lived.  I installed Ghost 12 and made an image of the factory install then pulled the 320GB drive out of the box.  I installed a 1TB drive for the OS and applications, then another 500GB drive for additional data capacity.  Although the XPS 420 comes with RAID on the motherboard, I am currently not using RAID 0 or 1.  I do frequent backups so I really don't need the data protection, and I don't have an I/O bottleneck at the moment that would require building a volume with more than one drive.

The machine configuration I ordered comes with two ATI Digital Cable tuners.  I'm not particularly impressed with the tuners because I think their design and stands are too big and clunky looking.  They are external tuners and connect to the XPS 420 via USB.  Good thing the XPS 420 has lots of USB ports.  The tuner cases are designed to let the heat dissipate.  I have both of my tuners hidden behind one of my LCD panels.  Easy access to them, but out of eye sight.  They are ugly (to me). 

AdobeElementsSuiteThe Software

Although Dell lets you deselect a bunch of software normally referred to as "crapware" in our industry, this machine comes with an impressive set of software.  Now don't get me wrong, there's stuff installed I would uninstall like the Google Desktop, but all in all it wasn't totally hosed by a bunch of crud.  One of the suites you cannot deselect on the ordering site is Adobe Elements Studio.  This includes Adobe Premiere Elements 4, Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 and Adobe Soundbooth.

I've been using Premier Elements for a while and like it.  I have never used Photoshop before but it's time to learn considering we dropped development and sales of the Digital Image Studio product family.  I've also never used the Soundbooth product, but if it works well, I know we can put it to use.  Dell supplies the product disk and serial numbers for the Adobe Elements Studio products in case you want to reinstall.

The Operating System (OS) and HD Television

Dell ships the XPS 420 with a number of OS choices.  Unfortunately none of the ordering configurations had what I want.  So when the tough get going, the tough flatten the box and re-install from scratch.  I considered running Windows Vista Home Premium, the 32bit version that the XPS 420 shipped with, for at least five minutes.  But I decided to roll the dice and install Windows Vista Ultimate x64.  I was a little worried about it for one reason and one reason alone.

xps420 HD Overhead The XPS 420 can be configured to support high definition recording.  Not just any high definition recording, premium cable high definition recording.  This is called OCUR and it's a Cable Labs certified and approved configuration that is required.  The BIOS used by OCUR machines is special.  So is the activation process.  As it turns out, it was pretty easy to switch to the x64 OS and config.  You just install a retail copy of Windows Vista Ultimate x64.  When you fire up the Media Center shell and go through the TV tuner configuration, you will be prompted for a special product key.  That key is on the COA sticker on the back of the XPS 420.  After you plug it in, the tuners are activated.  In reality, this sets up the PKI key sets used for the DRM required to be in place for OCUR systems.

After activating the tuners in the Media Center shell, it was a simple manner of downloading the guide and watching the standard definition channels.  Verizon is coming by on Tuesday to deliver the CableCards that plug into the tuners.  After those are in place and properly paired to the Verizon FIOS TV system, I'll be able to view all of the channels I pay for and record any content.  In the meantime, there's a menu item under the TV setup area that lets you scan for "other TV services".  This scan will detect any unencrypted QAM channels and add them to the guide listings.  Most cable systems carry ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS and others "in the clear".  My scan found those channels so I mapped them to the appropriate channel for my area thus replacing the crappy standard def signal with the unencrypted QAM HD version.  Nice.  The machine plays high definition absolutely smoothly and fluidly.  It should.  The little screenshot at right shows me watching ABC in HD while directly connected to my Exchange Server mailbox (non cached mode) and surfing the net with IE7.  It's not even batting an eye.

Performance

There has been a lot of discussion in the industry about Windows Vista, it's performance and usability.  The Dell XPS 420 really makes Windows Vista shine.  I ordered mine with the Intel Quad Core Q6600 processor, 3GB of memory (2x1GB and 2x512MB), 320GB 7200rpm SATA drive and the NVIDIA 8600 GTS video card.  This is far from being a top of the line machine but it's still a very respectable platform.  Like you, I have a budget so I didn't order the Extreme Quad processor, a RAID array, etc.

From what I can tell of the performance so far, it's going to meet my needs nicely.  I'll know by the time the weekend is over.  I plan to do some transcoding and video work tomorrow.  When I decide to pull the 3GB of memory and bump it up, I will probably load it with 8GB of 800MHz RAM.  That will improve the overall platform some and give the applications plenty of headroom while watching HD programming.

If you are a serious gamer, look closely at the graphics card and power supply options.  I decided the 8600 GTS would meet my needs, cut down on power consumption, and lower the heat generated.  So far it seems to be the right choice for the roles my machine will play.  If you are a serious gamer, I'm not sure the other 475W power supply would meet your needs.  Then again, that's why Dell makes the XPS 720 and purchased Alienware.

Summary

Like I said, this seems to be a very solid machine.  If you can find one for $1500 delivered to your door, you should jump all over it.  The case and construction offers a lot of flexibility and expandability.  Ask me in 3-4 years how I like the machine.  I hope to have this one that long.  I'll write more about this later after the CableCard install.  Buy with confidence. I am changing my rating to buy with some caveats.  See the 12/29 update below.

[UPDATE for 12/21/2007]  The CableCard install happened Tuesday without issue and I can see all of the FIOS TV channels in the guide.  I can watch and record the HD channels.  However, I have had a number of recording failures when the machine resumed from sleep.  I am trying to spot a pattern so I am testing various sleep states (S1 and S3).  More later...

[UPDATE for 12/22/2007]  I updated the tuner firmware to the latest available production firmware from ATI.  I also applied the Windows Vista updates that were recommended in the firmware release notes.  This did not resolve the sleep/wakeup and record issues I'm seeing.  In fact, it made it worse.  Fortunately this isn't the core mission of my machine otherwise I'd be upset.

ATI Firmware updates:

http://ati.amd.com/support/drivers/vista32/ocur-vista32.html

http://ati.amd.com/support/drivers/vista64/ocur-vista64.html

[UPDATE for 12/27/2007] I have been running my machine for the past five days without letting it sleep.  It has recorded each and every program without issue on a variety of HD channels I receive with my Verizon FIOS TV package.  In fact, extender Xbox 360 HD playback has also been flawless.  I am researching the power states supported by the machine and will experiment with sleep again before too long.  I wanted to establish a baseline to verify the tuners are really working properly when fully powered and connected at all times.  I'd say 5 days and 500GB of recorded HD content has done that.

[UPDATE for 12/29/2007]  It appears I have the suspend/resume issue resolved with my XPS 420 when recording high def premium channels.  I have a bunch of programs set to record over the next few days so I'll document my config and post a completely separate post on the subject Wednesday or Thursday of next week (assuming we can declare success).  Spoke to soon...  the machine missed a recording this morning so this issue is not fixed... sigh...

I also seem to have identified a bug in the eSATA port implementation.  In order to use the eSATA port, the Intel ICH9R SATA RAID controller must be in AHCI mode.  My eSATA port didn't work with the factory config they shipped me (x86 Vista Home Premium).  I checked this morning since I still had the factory hard drive in original install state.  I reset the BIOS to factory settings and checked things there, too.  I'm assuming if you buy a machine directly from Dell with a RAID config implemented (two or more drives), that the RAID and eSATA port works.  However, that's a x86 32bit implementation.  I'd be interested to know the drivers and versions implemented on that configuration.  Send me email if you have it.  Dell is aware of this issue and looking into it.

[UPDATE for 1/11/2008]  I have rebuilt my machine from the ground up.  I am still on BIOS A02 and have the SATA controller in RAID AHCI mode.  My eSATA port is working properly.  In order for me to do this, I had to reinstall the operating system again, which is unfortunate.  I could not figure out how to get it to work any other way even though I received feedback inside and outside Microsoft.  I do not recommend doing this. If you reinstall the OS more than one time, you'll likely break the OCUR HD recording capability if you have the ATI digital cable tuners.  I recommend you wait for Dell to come up with a supported solution from their engineering team.  They may end up fixing this will a BIOS update or something.  I certainly hope so. 

At this point the only remaining problem I have with my machine is sleep/resume/record/sleep.  I was sent a list of KB articles and their associated fixes.  I will look more carefully at this over the weekend as time permits.  I can certainly live without this working correctly but I would prefer to get it fixed. 

So where do I stand on my buy recommendation?  I still think this is a super machine.  Dell is very aware of the AHCI RAID issue, sleep/resume and other minor issues.  If you don't need to attach a big freaking hard drive or cluster of hard drives to the XPS 420, then buy with confidence.  If you need the eSATA port and you buy a machine today, most likely the machine will arrive properly configured and this issue is effectively only valid for people that purchased prior to today.  They can be fixed a number of ways right now but obviously a reinstall of the OS would be a last resort.

[UPDATE for 5/8/2008]  See http://blogs.technet.com/keithcombs/archive/2008/05/08/dell-xps-420-six-month-report.aspx for my six month report card.

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  • Nice review, Keith! One quibble: You write that you plan to add 8GB of RAM someday. Better check the specs again. The XPS 420 supports a max of 4GB of RAM.

  • Quibble, love that word. It's a nice way to say let's debate.  Fortunately there is no debate on this one.

    A best practice before you buy any machine is to go to the OEM's support area and take a look at the supplied manuals, drivers, etc.  I did that before I purchased the Dell XPS 420.  As you can see at http://support.dell.com/support/edocs/systems/xps420/en/index.htm, there is an Owner's Guide in a couple of different formats.  

    If you download the .PDF version of that guide and look in the Appendix Specifications, you'll see in the second section on memory they support up to 8GB.  The only catch is that you must be running a 64bit operating system.  Hence the reason for the x64 version of Windows Vista I installed.

    I wasn't sure if I would need more that 3GB of memory, but now I don't need to worry about going there down the road.  I did this installation specifically before the OCUR activation to avoid problems with it. I don't know that there would be any, but I took the cautious road just in case.

  • ...I believe this is the most beautiful computer I have ever laid my eyes on.

    Congrats! Oh, and, I have the same graphics card!

  • LOL, get a room TinMan !!!

  • Why didn't you just build your own computer? That way you could have configured it exactly the way you wanted it from the ground up and it would have been a superior machine! I have 3 computers and I built them all. Two with XP Professional and one with Vista Ultimate. All three are lightning fast and infinately configurable. Since I built my first computer, a P3 800MHz machine, I couldn't even imagine ever buying a pre-built machine!

  • You can't build a machine (currently) that allows you to record premium cable channels.  That is a locked down OEM only offering.

  • I didn't know that you could use your own install of the OS. I had always read it was a special version of Windows. I guess I'll just go with the default and put my own copy of Ultimate of Vista on.

  • The BIOS is special and as you can see, Home Premium and Ultimate already understand the cable tuners.  The key is the BIOS and the OCUR activation key on the Certificate of Authenticity (COA).  My COA is on the back of my XPS 420.

  • Do you use an XBOX 360 Media Center Externder or sync recorded tv content to a Zune?   I just wondered how the HD and non-HD content worked with the new CableCard tuner when streaming content to the XBox 360 or syncing it to a Zune.

    Thanks!

    Andy

  • Yes, I use a Xbox 360 as an extender to the XPS 420.  However, it'll be a while before that ever becomes the de facto way we view recorded HD.  My TiVo Series 3 fills that role in the den entertainment center.

    As I understand it, none of the XPS 420 CableCard recorded television content can be synced to a Zune as a result of the OCUR DRM restrictions.  I have not tested it yet since I have not received my CableCards from Verizon.

  • Lots of questions have come up with the release of Dell’s XPS 420 so I thought I’d try and address as

  • Lots of questions have come up with the release of Dell’s XPS 420 so I thought I’d try and address...

  • Keith,

    Great post.  Glad to see some first reviews coming  in on the new machine.  I am wondering if/when I should take the plunge.  I would have this machine in the den and would solely view the TV content via the XBox360 extender...  not doing any local viewing, I don't anticipate needing a top shelf video or audio card in the PC.  Why do you use the Tivo over the XBox extender?  I know the whole debate over the XBox Dashboard vs Media Center interface, and codec support... but it seems that the XBox extender will get me all the functionality I need from the Dell in the den (via wired ethernet)... while I love Tivo, I can't see spending $$ on a CableCard equipped PC AND a TivoHD... its one or the other...  while Tivo can grab media from my PC, I figured the media center extender interface would be more clean... plus, I already have an XBox360...  any recommendations?

  • Regarding the TiVo versus the extender, the primary reason is because when I got the TiVo, my MCE 2005 single P4 machine just wasn't cutting it.  I knew it's days were numbered, but I didn't know when I would replace it.  I don't like to replace things until I can find a good new home for them.  Last week my wife told me she needed a computer for her shoppe, so that gave the P4 a new home.

    Practically the next day Dell announced the new and improved XPS 420 without the Blu-ray drive, reduced price of the tuners, etc.  It was a no brainer at that point.  I needed a video workstation and the cablecard stuff is gravy.  

    I had the CableCards installed today and so far, so good.  I'm recording NCIS, The Unit and other stuff.  While recording, it's using a gig of RAM total in the system, and purring along at 2-7% CPU utilization.  

    Of course this means I have two devices doing the same thing.  I plan to do two upcoming blogs posts.  One to discuss the installation and use of the CableCards on this machine.  The other post will do a comparison of the TiVo to the Vista MCE implementation.  Those posts will offer detailed insight to the question.

    Regarding the money, I can easily justify the price I paid for the XPS 420 for the video editing role alone.  For that matter, the XPS 420 is less than I paid for the desktop it replaced and has a massive amount more capability.

    I paid $400 for the TiVo Series 3, added a 500GB external drive, and the family loves it.  It has paid itself back already since the purchase in June.

    As far as a recommendation is concerned, if you have a good laptop or PC, and are short on cash, the TiVo is still the cheaper route.  If you need a good machine, the XPS 420 rocks.

  • In order to be able to sync content to a Zune, do you think a system with 1 CableCard tuner and 1 analog tuner would work?  I've not heard anyone mention mixing the digital HD tuners with an analog one.  Can you tell Meida Center which tuner to record from?