Dell Dimension 8400 (160 GB, Intel Pentium 4, 3.2 GHz, 512 MB) PC Desktop - D84L1

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The Dell Dimension 8400 - High end performance with room to grow

Apr 24, 2005 (Updated Jul 15, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Ease of Use:
  • Quality of Tech Support:

Pros:Intel 925X chipset, SATA hard drive, good expansion options, agressive pricing

Cons:No hard copy manual's, weak ATI PCI-E X300 Video card, no firewire port

The Bottom Line: Dell's Dimension offers the latest technology at affordable pricing. Excellent performance with good upgrade options.


The Dell Dimension 8400 is Dell's top of the line Desktop PC for home and business users, a model which uses Intel's 6XX series CPU's and motherboards based on Intel's 925X Express chipset while being an affordable step below their flashy XPS systems for hard core gamers.

The system I purchased, on the low end of what was available, included these key features/options:

3 ghz Pentium IV processor, Intel 925X Express chipset (3.0 to 3.6 ghz available)
ATI Radeon X300 SE video card, 128mb
On board 5.1 audio
80gb 7200 rpm, SATA hard drive
16X DVD +- R/RW DVD drive, (a NEC 3530A)
Integrated Gigabit Ethernet adapter
1.0 gb 533mhz DDR2 SDRAM
8 USB 2.0 ports, two in front, 6 in back

I purchased this desktop with a Dell 19" LCD monitor (a analog only E193FP) to replace a PC that we were converting to be a full time home theater PC/video server. This PC came with Windows XP home, MS Office 2003 Basic Edition and basic versions of Sonic's MyDVD, and RecordNow software and Dells Media Experience/PowerDVD software. I was able to purchase this system, including 19" LCD and Office basic, for $826 ($758 +$68 tax) delivered, taking advantage of some recent heavy discounting from Dell. I’ve found that the small business side of Dell’s website often offers better pricing on desktops than the home side, even though the small business side requires sales tax to be paid. This PC arrived a surprisingly quick 4 days after placing the order on the Dell small business website, even though it was shipped with their free UPS ground shipping. Occasional deals like this from Dell seem pretty amazing, if I tried to put together a system like using lowest listed pricing from suppliers I consider reliable on Shopping.com, I come up with a price of over $1100, before any shipping and/or tax required (see table at the end of this review).

In the box I found the Dell 8400 Desktop PC, keyboard, mouse, mousepad, a useful and clear poster sized setup guide, power cord, and software cd's for the installed software (the Office Basic Cd's and the software cd's for viewing (PowerDVD) and burning cd's and dvd's, RecordNow 7.3LE and MyDVD 5.3 LE).

Notably, restore cd's for the Windows XP operating system and drivers were not included. The installed Dell support software does allow you to burn a single restore cd for your operating system, which I burned immediately. The restore cd is a bootable cd from which you can use to reinstall windows if you ever loose your hard drive. This reinstallation will also erase/overwrite any data on a drive, according to Dell, and should otherwise only be used if you've backed up all your critical information.

Closer inspection of the 80gb boot drive on my sytem indicated it included a couple of hidden partitions, a small 70mb partition, and a somewhat larger 4gb partition. According to information in the Dell user forums, the small partition contains diagnostic software, and the larger hidden partition is called the Dell PC Restore. According to Dell, the Dell PC Restore is a compressed copy of all the software on your computer when it is first sent to you , a combination of the operating system and applications which came with your system.

Setup

Setup was easy. The setup guide uses clear diagrams and text to enable even first time computer users to connect the color coded connectors from the various parts of this system together in only a few minutes. Once I booted the PC, I chose to activate the Microsoft office software, adjust the display settings to match my monitor's native resolution (1280 X 1024), and remove most of the trial software.


Features

Case Design and Expansion Options

The reasonably attractive black and dark grey case is Dell's standard "tool free" design which hasn't changed much in a couple of years. The Dell case can be opened,without tools, preferably by laying the tower on its right side (as you face the front), and then pressing release buttons on the top and bottom of the case. The hinged case opens like a briefcase, being hinged on the right front corner of the case, to about a 45 degree angle, allowing clear access to the drive bays and expansion and memory slots. The hinged design appears to be sturdy, and easily holds the case open. Access to the motherboard connectors is excellent. The drive bays are attached to the left side of the case, and are easily accessed. For those of use who open their PC’s a lot, this design works pretty well if you have plenty of desktop space to open up the PC's case. If you don't have enough room in the area where your computer sits to lay this case on its side, you'll find this design annoying, but most users should find this design workable. Expansion options in this case/motherboard combination are good. There are 4 memory slots, two of which were filled with a pair of 512mb 533mhz DDR2 SDRAM. There are three free PCI slots, one PCI Express X1 connector and one PCI Express X16 slot, which was used by the video card. Two 5 1/4" external drive bays (one free), two 3 1/2" external drive bays (both free), and three 3 1/2" internal drive bays (two free) are in place. The motherboard has 4 SATA connectors, one IDE connector, and one floppy connector. Cabling seemed to be laid out well, and each end of each ribbon cable included a pull strap for removing it from a drive or motherboard connector without pulling on the cable itself.

To install a drive in this case, Dell includes plastic rails, mounted inside the case, to attach to two additional 3.5" drives and one additional 5.25" drive. Once these rails are attached to a drive, drives can be slid into their slots in the case, and they "lock" in place, thanks to the springy rails. Expansion cards are held in place by one hinged lever, rather than with screws, running across the top of the back of the case behind the PCI slots, another "tool free" feature. The case includes two fans, one in the power supply, and one on the back of the case which was ducted to blow air directly onto the cpu heat sink. There are a several extra power connectors from the power supply available, and each is capped to ensure dust does not accumulate in the connectors.

The only button on the front of the computer is the power button. Behind a flip up cover on front of the case are two USB 2.0 ports and a headphone jack. These convenient ports are angled down, minimizing and clutter or obstructions that cables or usb drives might cause. The ports are close together, which means many usb flash drives will block the second port, when installed. On the back of the computer are 6 more USB 2.0 ports, a parallel port and serial port, mouse and keyboard PS/2 port, sound card ports (in, out, mic, center/LFE, and surround), and 110V power connector. There is no on off switch on the back of the case, no joystick connector nor firewire port.

Networking

The Dell 8400's motherboard includes an on board Intel gigabit network connector. Setting up the network connection was easy. Plugging ethernet cable into the Dell's network port and into a network hub on my home network allowed me to connect to the router and cable modem on my network and start browsing the internet. After running XP's networking wizard and changing the network "group" name to match my home network, I also was able to share files and "see" the other computers on the local network.

CD/DVD Read/Write Performance

Dell lists the following specs for the NEC 3530A cd/dvd writer which is currently included with the Dimension 8400 purchases:

Write speeds:
DVD+R Dual Layer 4-8x
DVD+R 6.6-16x CAV
DVD+RW 4-8x ZCLV
DVD-R DL NA
DVD-R 6.6-16x CAV
DVD-RW 4-6x ZCLV
CD-R 20-48x
CD-RW (low speed) 4X
CD-RW (High speed) 10X
CD-RW (Ultra speed) 20-24X
CD-RW (Ulra speed Plus) 20-32X

(I've seen some reports that this drive will also support DVD -R dual layer at 6X, but I've not found a definitive indication, the Dell specs don't mention -R dual layer support.)

Read speeds:
ZCLV DVD-ROM SL 16x
DVD-ROM DL 12x
DVD±R 16x
DVD±RW 12x
DVD-Video CSS 5x
CD-ROM 48x
CAV CD-R 48x
ZCLV CD-RW 40x

Access time DVD/CD: 140/120 ms
Buffer size: 2 MB
Does NOT support Mt. Rainier packet writing.

I checked read performance of this drive with CD-DVD SPEED, a free cdrom evaluation utility (www.cdspeed2000.com), using several 600-700mb data and music cd's that I own. Maximum cd read speeds on almost all of the cd's I tried was around 40X at the outer edge, a bit below the nameplate 48X speed. For some reason, the drive rarely would spin at speeds much faster than 8000-8500 rpm (almost 10,000 rpm is required to reach 48X speeds). I found the same to be true of burning cdr's, speeds were closer to what I'd expect for a 40X drive. For example, I tested burning one 800mp SVCD compliant video file, creating a 700mb SVCD with Nero (v. 6.6) . 3 minutes and 4 seconds were required. I was able to burn the same SVCD using a 48X rated Lite On cd writer in 2 minutes and 45 seconds. CD read and burning speeds arent’ bad, especially for a multifunction drive like this, but it doesn't seem to live up to its nameplate speeds. This drive also handles digital audio extraction accurately (extracting wav files from music cd's to your computer's hard drive), but again no faster than at 40X speeds, allowing you to extract audio from a full music cd in about 3 minutes.

DVD read performance matched expectations, though read speeds for CSS encrypted DVD’s are slow (but not so slow as to create any problems watching movies). Again using CD-DVD Speed, I tested the NEC 3530 reading a DVD -R disk containing a full 4.4gb of data. Read speeds started at 6.56X, and increased to 16X at the outer edge of the disk. Note that the claimed maximum read speed for DVD Video (CSS) disks (commercial video DVD's) is 5X, which I confirmed with testing on several DVD's. This is a good bit slower than some competing models, for example much slower than the Benq 1620, which can read CSS disks at max speeds of 8X (dual layer) or 16X (single layer). (Like the NEC drives, Benq drives are often rebadged under other names like Iomagic.)

Dell's rebadged NEC 3530A also handles DVD burning quite well. I've tried burning several 4.4gb DVD video disks with Nero V 6.6, using 8X DVD -R disks (OEM Prodisk) 8X DVD+R Memorex disks (OEM CMC), and 8X rated Sony DVD +R (OEM Taiyo Yuden) disks. The NEC 3530 was able to burn the Sony disks at 16X speeds, meaning it took slightly less than 6 minutes to burn a full DVD, not too surprising, given these blanks were Taiyo Yuden. The NEC would burn the other disks at 8X speeds, requiring about 9 minutes and 50 seconds.

Hard Drive

The hard drive included with my system was a Seagate Barracuda ST380013AS 80gb SATA hard drive. Seagate says this is a 7200 rpm drive with an 8mb buffer, read seek time of 8.5ms, and a sustained data rate of 56mb/sec. On this system, Sisoft Sandra reports a file transfer rating of 49mb/sec and an average access time of 7ms. This is my first SATA hard drive, so I think the numbers look great, and the drive “feels” fast when we are using the PC. The drive is also very quiet.

More information on the optical and hard drives included with Dell systems can be found here:
http://support.dell.com/support/systemsinfo/documentation.aspx?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=dhs&~cat=7

Software Bundle

Dell includes a lot of trial and lite software with their desktops. The Dimension 8400 includes Dell Media Experience (DMX, which is built around a “lite” version of PowerDVD), AOL/Earthlink (6 months), H&R Block (trial version), MusicMatch Basic, Jasc Photo Album (basic version), QuickBooks SP (Lite version), and McAffee Security Suite (90 day trial version). The Dell Media Experience software will be useful for those who plan to connect their PC to a TV screen large monitor, as it provides DVD playback and menus designed for viewing on a large screen from a distance, and can be operated with an optional remote. The rest of the trial software is of questionable utility, all make frequent offers/requests to upgrade that hinder use of even the included features in the lite versions.

I took advantage of special pricing to also pick up a copy of Office 2003 basic for $29 (normally it’s a $129 adder), which includes the 2003 versions of Outlook, Word and Excel. All come preinstalled, though an installation cd is included. I activated these products online without any problems.

Other Comments/ Performance

This computer runs quieter than other systems I have owned, including older Dells. The standard Dell keyboard is light ( perhaps too light), but typing is comfortable. The system has run very stable thus far, being used for light gaming, video and music playback and running office software.

A 350 watt power supply doesn’t sound like much, but Dell rates their power supplies conservatively. A Dell 350W power supply is significantly better than the generic 350W model you'd buy at Compusa. Dell does warn that If a card fan is not present in your computer and you are installing a graphics card that runs at 75 W or higher, contact Dell to find out how to purchase a card fan., an indication the power supply's heat dissipation may be lacking under very high loads.

I choose the most inexpensive graphics card available for this system, since it won’t be used for 3D gaming. The ATI 128mb PCI Express X16 Radeon X300 SE video card is dedicated PCI Express graphics card that is the first step up from on board graphics chips which are typically so slow as to be completely unsuitable for any 3D gaming. (The X300SE is slower than the ATI's Radeon X300 chip, though neither are suitable for heavy 3D gaming. The X300SE uses a 64bit datapath vs the X300's 128 bit path, and memory speed is slower on the SE, 200mhz vs 300 mhz on the X300) Compared to onboard graphics, a standalone card like the 128mb ATI X300 SE offers users a few pluses, particularly for multimedia enthusiasts, including…....

- Being able to advantage of the frequent driver updates offered by ATI,
- avoiding sharing system ram like many onboard graphics solutions
- VGA (analog), DVI, and S Video outputs
- Multimonitor support
- Pivot options
- DirectX 9 support

Despite knowing all the pluses of this card, running gaming card benchmarks is still a bit depressing. The Aquamark3 gaming benchmark reported an overall score of 16230, with a GFX score of only 1785 and an average framerate of 16.3 fps. (For comparison, I’ve also run Aquamark3 on an older Dell, a 4550 with a 2.66ghz cpu and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, and got on overall score of over 37,000, with a graphics score of 5250 and an average fps of 37). Comparing this card to reported benchmarks for other cards in other reviews indicate it perhaps approaches older cards based on ATI’s 9500 and Nvidia’s Geforce 5600 chips. You can play most 3D games with this card, but only with features turned off and at low resolutions. If 3D gaming is of any interest, don’t get this card, but for less demanding gaming and most other applications it should work well.

In addition to comparing gaming benchmarks to my Dell 4550 (mentioned above), I also compared how well the 8400 handled video encoding. Despite a CPU that was only 12% faster than the 4550’s (3ghz vs 2.66ghz), and a bit more memory, albeit faster memory (1gb 533mhz DDR2 vs 768mb 333mhz DDR), the 8400 encodes about 50% faster. I use Nero to convert DivX avi files to VCD’s. Converting 44 minute avi video files to VCD compliant video files takes about 13 minutes on my old Dell 4550. The Dell 8400 can do the same thing in 8.5 minutes.

Support

Dell offers a wide range of support options, including a 1 year warranty and options for years 2-4, at different prices. I chose the “free” 1 year economy warranty. In the past, I’ve always been able to get help from Dell via phone support or their user forums, though I will admit that getting good phone support can take several calls and some long waits. The user forums contain a lot of very helpful information, and Dell provides downloads of drivers, firmware, manuals, etc on their website. Dell driver updates for OEM devices, like video cards, are less frequent and slower than what’s available from the original manufacterer, but usually they are made available, at least in the first couple year or two of a product's life.

Conclusion

If you are considering buying or building a high end PC, purchasing this model from Dell, at least as a starting point, can be an option to save a few hundred dollars if you are willing to watch and wait for the right sales and coupons. Its also a good choice for those looking for a new PC with near state of the art performance, upgrade options, and technology that will keep up for the next 2-3 years. Though the 3D performance of the graphics card I chose was weaker than I expected, I'm very satisfied with my purchase.


"Build your own" vs "Buy from Dell" price comparison
Shopping.com prices for individual parts compared to Dell’s price for a delivered “ready to use system” with 1 year warranty:

Tool free Case w/ decent power supply: $60
Intel 630 CPU w/fan: $225
1GB (2 X 512MB) 533mhz DDR2 SDRAM, $100
80GB 7200 rpm SATA drive: $60
Win XP Home : $84
16X DL internal DVD writer: $60
Intel 925X motherboard w sound, Ethernet: $120
19” analog LCD display: $250
ATI 128mb X300 SE video card, VGA, DVI, S video: $60
Office 2003 Basic: $129
Keyboard, mouse: $15

Total: $1163 plus shipping and tax, vs a delivered price of $826 from Dell


Recommend this product? Yes


Amount Paid (US$): 826
Operating System: Windows
Processor: Other
Processor speed: over 1000
RAM: More than 256
Internal Storage: CD-RW and DVD
Hard Drive (GB): Over 50

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