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December 15, 2004

Dell Dimension 8400 Review

Posted by Mark Mitford (editor) on December 15, 2004 09:03 AM in Computer Systems , Reviews .

Dell Dimension 8400

This review should have been called "how to get a high-performance desktop PC with 17 inch LCD monitor for under $650".

Yes, you read that right. If you had the chance to buy a PC with 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, PCI Express Graphics, Serial ATA Hard Drive, 533MHz DDR3 Memory, Gigabit Ethernet, and lots more, for about half the price of buying each component and putting it together yourself, would you do it?

We did, in fact we jumped on the deal, and now we are going to tell you if the Dell Dimension 8400 lives up to the promise of being a high performance PC with all the latest technology.

Purchasing

Most of our site visitors are like us; we want to have the latest greatest PC technology without either:

1) Buying a $3000 system and breaking the bank, or
2) Buying separate components and building our own system, or
3) Overclocking less powerful components

We like to buy a PC for well under $1000 and then spend a couple of hundred bucks every few months to increase its power, and with the right deal the Dell Dimension 8400 seems to promise to be a great sub-$1000 system that can function as a high-performance business, home, and gaming PC.

This is the kind of deal you have to watch out for though, Dell has what they call "outrageous deals" and sometimes they are good but sometimes they are not so good, the deals usually change every week so check back often to see if the deal is great or just ok.

To find the outrageous deals go to the Dell Small Business home page and click on outrageous deals then desktops. Look for a good deal on the Dell Dimension 8400 with a low price and useful free upgrades:

Bad Deals:

Dell Dimension 3000 or 4700 (not powerful or upgradeable enough for a high performance PC)
Free Printer (unless you really need a printer where the ink costs more than a replacement printer)
CD Burner upgrade (you can get a great CD burner for $35)
15" LCD upgrade (a 15" LCD is basically useless)

OK Deals:
Hard Drive upgrade (an ok upgrade but a 160GB+ or 10000RPM hard drive upgrade is easy to perform later)
Processor upgrade (usually means Intel is lowering prices, and the better processor will be standard next week)

Good Deals:
Dell Dimension 8400 (latest technology, very upgradeable)
High "instant savings" and rebates (this is money in your pocket)
17" LCD upgrade (unless you already have a better LCD)
Double Memory (you can never have too much memory)

We waited for the right deal and ordered the following for $649 (after $100 rebate):

Pentium 4 Hyper-Threading Processor 540 at 3.2GHz (800MHz front side bus)
512MB Dual Channel DDR2 RAM at 400MHz (we upgraded this to 533MHz RAM for $30 more)
128MB PCI Express X300 SE Graphics Card (we will upgrade this later)
40GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (we upgraded this to 160GB with native command queuing for $60 more)
Gigabit Ethernet
Windows XP Home
48x CD-ROM (we will upgrade this later)
17" LCD Monitor (free upgrade)
Dell 720 Color Printer (free upgrade)

Comparison Shopping

Is that good value?, well we went to pricewatch and looked to see how cheap each component was to buy individually from reputable merchants:

$50 Plastic Case with 400w Power Supply
$150 925X Chipset Motherboard w onboard Gigabit Ethernet and 5.1 Sound
$260 Pentium® 4 Processor 550 with HT Technology (3.40GHz, 800 FSB)*
$100 Memory 512MB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 533MHz (2x256M)
$250 17in Flat Panel Display
$90 Video Card 128MB PCI Express™ x16 (DVI/VGA/TV-out) ATI Radeon™ X300 SE
$90 Hard Drive 160GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM) w/ Native Command Queuing
$80 Operating System Microsoft® Windows® XP Home Edition
$90 Productivity Software WordPerfect®
$15 Mouse
$15 Keyboard
$10 48X CD-ROM Drive
=====
$1200 Total (before sales tax and shipping each component individually)

* We ordered and paid for the 3.2GHz processor but Dell shipped us a PC with a 3.4GHz processor, we aren't complaining.

We also went to some other retailers and system builders to see what you could get for under $1000:

CompUSA: Athlon 3000+, 512MB 333MHz RAM, 120GB Hard Drive, DVD+RW, XP Home, no graphics card, 10/100 ethernet, 15" LCD Monitor: $979
BestBuy: Athlon 3000+, 512MB 333MHz RAM, 160GB Hard Drive, DVD-ROM, XP Home, no graphics card, 10/100 ethernet, 17" CRT monitor: $938
Alienware: 3.2GHz Pentium 4, 512MB 400MHz DDR2 RAM, 80GB SATA Hard Drive, DVD-ROM, XP Home, Radeon X300 graphics, 10/100 ethernet, No Monitor (add $300 for 17" LCD): $990
ABS Computers: Athlon 64 3200+, 512MB 400MHz RAM, 80GB SATA Hard Drive, DVD-ROM, XP Home, GeForce FX5200 graphics, gigabit ethernet, No Monitor (add $252 for 17" LCD): $955
Gateway: 3.0GHz Pentium 4, 512MB 400MHz RAM, 200GB SATA Hard Drive, DVD+-RW, XP Home, Radeon X300 SE, 10/100 ethernet, 17" CRT monitor: $999
Sony: 3.0GHz Pentium 4, 512MB 400MHz RAM, 160GB Hard Drive, DVD-ROM, XP Home, no graphics card, 10/100 ethernet, No Monitor (add $400 for 17" LCD): $790

So, on paper it looks like amazing value, but what do you really get and is it worth it?

The guts of the PC

Our Dell Dimension 8400 PC was ordered on December 4th, was shipped 2 days early on December 7th, and arrived December 10th (via Dell's standard 3-5 day ground shipping).

Dell isn't big on fancy packaging and presentation: the PC arrived in two brown boxes, one for the PC and one for the monitor. Inside the boxes however everything was securely packed and nothing was damaged.

In addition to the PC you get a basic keyboard and mouse (make that "very basic"), a cheap looking mouse mat, a power lead, a Windows XP CD and booklet, a Wordperfect CD, a large glossy sheet telling you how to setup the PC, and a "product information guide" (the full manual is on the PC in Adobe Acrobat format).

Dell Dimension 8400 Case

Visually it isn't the most interesting PC, (personally I prefer a nice solid aluminum case) but I have seen worse. The case has a lot of flex in it when you carry it and some of the plastic parts feel like they would break off or crack easily.

Dell Dimension 8400 Front Flap Open

The front of the case has a lift up door/flap for better access to the two front USB 2.0 ports and the front headphone port. Once something is plugged in you can lower/close the door again.

Dell Dimension 8400 Rear Ports

The rear of the Dimension 8400 has a set of ports that are part new wave PC and part old style, you still have the serial and parallel ports just in case you own something that isn't USB as well as PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors (the basic mouse and keyboard supplied with the Dimension 8400 use these ports), but on the modern side you have 6 USB 2.0 ports (for a total of 8 including the front 2) and the gigabit ethernet port.

Conspicuously absent is a firewire port, there isn't one on this PC unless you upgrade to an Audigy sound card.

Dell Dimension 8400 Case Open

Now this is nice, to open the case you just push two areas of the case (one on the top, one on the bottom), and then you can open the case up on a giant hinge. It opens first to 45 degrees then another shove opens it fully to 90 degree allowing more access to the innards of this PC than in any other PC we have played with.

Dell Dimension 8400 Inside Drives

Looking inside the case you can see the drives with all the cables organized fairly neatly so nothing gets caught when you open and close the case.

The drives are attached using little green "arms" that make upgrades very easy. Spare arms are provided to add two 3.5" and one 5.25" devices.

Dell Dimension 8400 Motherboard

With the case open you also have great access to the motherboard.

There is a really large heatsink for the processor which is usually hidden behind a green cover (Dell seems to have a thing for green plastic), another piece of green plastic holds the expansion slot door in place, no need for screws or a screwdriver when adding or removing PCI and PCI Express cards.

For other upgrades you have good access to the 4 Serial ATA connectors and to the 4 DDR2 memory slots.

Overall the only bit of hardware you don't have great access to is the power supply. This isn't a major issue as the Dimension 8400 comes with a 350W power supply that should be adequate unless we really go overboard on upgrades, especially as the power supply provides a connector for PCI Express graphics cards that need their own power.

One area where technology enthusiasts won't like the Dell Dimension 8400 is the lack of options in the BIOS, there are no options to overclock the PC is any way, shape or form. This isn't an issue for most users though who just want a fast PC that works out of the box without needing to worry about clock multipliers, memory CAS settings, or anything like that.

The free/upgrade 17" LCD monitor that comes with the Dell Dimension 8400 is also just ok, more than acceptable for most uses but not cutting edge for gaming. We think it is a good monitor to start with while you save for a better monitor (such as the Dell 2001FP 20" LCD which we think is amazing for gaming). Once you get a better monitor you can use the 17" as a second monitor in a dual-display setup.

Software

For the money you get a reasonable selection of software:

The operating system is Windows XP Home which is good enough for the average home user (Dell supplied the PC with a version of XP Home that has Service Pack 2 and all critical updates already applied).

For "productivity" you get Wordperfect Productivity Pack 12 which includes a spreadsheet and a word processor (that works well at copying Microsoft Word's look and feel). This is ok but I would install a copy of Microsoft Office if you have it.

Other software provided includes Musicmatch Jukebox, Windows Media Player 10, the Dell Media Experience (a light version of media center software), Jasc Paint Shop Pro and Photo Album, and McAfee Firewall and Antivirus (for which you need to buy a subscription or switch to a different antivirus program after the trial period is up).

Overall a good selection preloaded that leaves you well protected from viruses and adware without any additional work on your part.

Using the 8400

Setting up and using the Dimension 8400 for the first time is simple:

Connect monitor, mouse, and keyboard to the PC
Connect ethernet cable from home network/router/cable modem (not provided by Dell)
Connect power cables to pc and monitor
Turn on the power
Switch on the PC

As it starts up for the first time you have to click to agree to various software licenses, then setup XP for the first time (set the time zone, setup networking etc), but this is all clearly explained and within 5 minutes you are up and running.

Speaking purely subjectively this feel like a very fast PC, it starts up really quickly and most programs load instantly.

This is also a very quiet PC, while using it we hear the Network attached hard drives in the next room more than we hear noise from the Dimension 8400.

We don't tend to do a lot in the way of benchmarking but I guess we need to here considering the premise of this review is getting a fast PC for a low price:

We ran PCMark04 and got a score of 4566, which is pretty good. The graphics let us down as can be seen from the breakout of scores: CPU 5195, Memory 5268, Graphics 1221, and HDD 5094.

Game performance isn't as impressive, the Radeon X300 SE graphics card supplied with the Dimension 8400 isn't intended to handle the latest greatest games. You can run Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 at a lower resolution and without high details, anti-aliasing and other fancy graphics options, but if you try to enable those options the game becomes more like a slideshow. As an example we ran Half-Life 2 at 1024x768 with high quality graphics but no anti-aliasing and averaged just under 40 frames a second with the X300 SE compared to over 80 frames a second with our older Radeon 9800 Pro equipped PC at the same settings.

As a benchmark we got an Aquamark3 score of 16377, which is very poor considering the good CPU speed of this PC. We didn't even bother running 3DMark03 or 3DMark05 but we will provide those scores when we upgrade the graphics card.

This poor game performance was expected, and our first upgrade to this PC will be a GeForce 6600GT graphics card which should get us 100 frames a second with the same options as well as allow you to play at 1280x1024 resolution with the highest graphics options and some anti-aliasing.

Conclusions

The Dell Dimension 8400 lives up to the promise of providing cutting edge technology and great future proofing at a sub-$1000 price.

It is usable right out of the box as a home or home office PC but to really perform as a good gaming PC a couple of upgrades will be needed: most important is a new graphics card and a good value choice is the GeForce 6600GT (which is only available as a PCI Express card), more memory would be beneficial and we would recommend adding another 512MB (or ideally 1GB) of 533MHz RAM, and finally to reduce game loading delays we would recommend a Western Digital Raptor 10000RPM hard drive.

At the end of the day you are paying $250 for a 17" LCD monitor and $400 for a PC that should cost well over $1000. With another $200 investment in a better graphics card you will have a PC capable of handling all the latest games, and one that has a lot of room for upgrading in the future. That's what I call a bargain.

The downside to this bargain is that it isn't available all the time, Dell seems to have outrageous deals on the 8400 less than half the time, and it is maybe only once a quarter that the deal is as good as the one we got, so check the Dell site for their latest outrageous deals, and good luck!

Pros:
Fast and Powerful
Latest Technology (PCI-Express, DDR2, SATA, etc)
Great Upgradeability
Unbeatable Price

Cons:
Unattractive Flimsy Case
No Overclocking
Poor Graphics Card
This Low Price Isn't Available Most of the Time

Overall Score: 9/10


Follow-Up Articles

GeForce 6600GT Upgrade (posted 12/23)
Western Digital 10000RPM Hard Drive Upgrade (coming 1/21)
Memory Upgrade (coming 2/28)

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Comments on Dell Dimension 8400 Review

HI,
When will life become short enough to forgo all talk and attempts at overclocking?
Isn't nice not to void the warranty and spend a few more $$ or wait 2 months and spend the same $$.
Good review on Dell 8400. Good tips.
With a 533 FSB, do we really need to overclock?
steve

Posted by: Steve Pitts at April 27, 2005 02:39 PM

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