Dell tries again with its XPS 730 high-end desktop gaming system

After one of the worst starts in the history of PCs two years ago, Dell's XPS desktop series has come crawling back, but not without scrapes and bruises along the way. Yesterday it revealed a new 730 model it hopes can recapture Dell's glory.

Dell's XPS 730, supporting a Core 2 Extreme processor and nVidia's 790i Ultra SLI motherboardThere are two schools of thought in the consumer PC industry: One believes that the global economy is in such poor shape this year that computer purchases will end up being heavily curtailed, and that the discretionary segment of the market -- the high end -- will absorb the brunt of the blow. The other believes that since the bad economy will impact lower wage earners hardest, higher wage earners will continue spending as they have before, and thus the high end of the market will be an oasis in the desert.

Dell is clearly betting on there being genius among those in the latter school. Yesterday, it formally took the wraps off its heavily revised XPS desktop gaming system, giving it an updated case and a new number: the XPS 730. It's also betting that consumers will forgive the company for its first endeavor in the premium desktop market two years ago, the XPS 700. That system was plagued by a multitude of problems that delayed its shipment to customers for months; some who pre-ordered a system in April expecting for it to be shipped in July, waited until as late as November.

In the end, the company laid the blame on a faulty cooling assembly rather than any number of supply problems, for which there was plenty of evidence. Yesterday, with Michael Dell now acting as CEO as well as Chairman, the company took extra steps to prove in advance the same mistakes wouldn't be repeated, including its new patented ceramic cooling system developed jointly with Intel.

There could still be a minefield ahead for Dell, even if it has worked out its supply, manufacturing, and cooling problems this time around. The bad economy notwithstanding, Dell has taken a gamble by choosing nVidia's 790i Ultra SLI chipset as its primary platform. Though that chipset has scored tremendously high in enthusiast sites' tests, reports from the field indicate that motherboards from Asus, XFX, and EVGA using that chipset have all faced stability problems running Windows Vista. While Dell uses its own motherboard design for high-end systems rather than rely on third parties, the 790i's track record is already making gamers wary.

Among the common problems we noted testers are reporting with 790i-based motherboards (not Dell's) is that timing multipliers fail to stay set, and voltages tended to fluctuate. Builders are the types who can notice these problems right away (sometimes they're even the culprits themselves); but some of Dell's customers will not be the type of enthusiast who will instinctively know what's going on when they see a "blue screen of death" from Windows...or who can calmly explain what's happening to Dell's customer support.

Dell's XPS 730, supporting a Core 2 Extreme processor and nVidia's 790i Ultra SLI motherboardAn XPS 730 H2C equipped with Intel's absolute top-of-the-line Core 2 Extreme QX9770 processor and a single 1 TB hard drive with Windows Vista Ultimate pre-installed, is priced just one dollar shy of $7,000. We wondered, what would a system builder pay for a similar buildout if he bought all the pieces, or as near an approximation as is currently available, separately? In other words, what's the premium for Dell's builders alleviating its customers' potential headaches?

TigerDirect currently sells the 3.2 GHz QX9770 for $1,499; it would be up to the builder to do Dell's task of overclocking it to 3.8 GHz.

Perhaps the most stable -- or should we say instead, "least unstable" -- nForce 790i motherboard, according to customers' reviews, appears to be the XFX MBN790IUL9, which NewEgg currently sells for $349.99.

The XPS 730 uses Corsair Dominator DDR3 memory, which in the 2 GB module size sells for $459 at NewEgg. For the $7,000 model, there's twice as much RAM, so we double that cost to $918.

For the $7,000 model, Dell chose a pair of ATI Radeon 3870 graphics cards operating in Crossfire mode -- this even though the nForce motherboard might obviously prefer nVidia cards in SLI mode. We went with our gut instinct on brands and performance and chose Asus' rendition of the 3870 X2, which melds two GPUs into one card in Crossfire mode. NewEgg sells that for $439.99.

For the 1 TB drive, we chose Western Digital's Caviar RE2 GP, which NewEgg sells for $279.99.

The $7,000 model features two optical drives: a Blu-ray burner and a 16x DVD writer. As everyone knows now, a DVD burner is very cheap, and a good one runs about $40. Meanwhile, TigerDirect is offering a Philips 2x Blu-ray burner at $379.99.

Now, in all fairness, it's probably not possible to equal the very distinctive anodized aluminum "slant" design of Dell's XPS case; its original was actually quite nice, but for this one, the company pulled out all the stops. To be as fair as possible for our shopping comparison, we chose this custom-painted Wraith case by CSX, which is an after-market modified Cooler Master Cosmos S. It includes five fans, and for $999, it should; but it doesn't include a power supply or CPU cooler. In keeping with our money-is-no-object theme, we choose Cooler Master's Aquagate Max liquid CPU cooler at $299.99, and threw in a Real Power Pro 1250 W at $359.99.

And finally, we need to throw in a copy of Windows Vista Ultimate, which is selling today at $262.99.

The final tally for our hypothetically equivocal system, not counting some of the extra accessories a builder will inevitably need along the way (like silicon grease), came up to $5,828.93, meaning that the premium for Dell constructing a fairly similar system on the customer's behalf is almost exactly 20%. Or, to look at it another way, at a consultant's standard rate of about $50/hour, that's just under 23.5 hours' work. If the XPS 730 is as solid as Dell promises it to be this time around, that premium is actually quite fair.

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