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If Cadillac made PC cases I feel like the Dell XPS 420 case would be in their lineup. The case is elegant, functional and looks like a million bucks. I honestly love this case. The high-end Dell XPS line which stands for Xtreme Performance System dates back to the 1990s and were sold alongside the Dell Dimension series. The PC we will be looking at in this article is the model 420 from the XPS 400 line and dates from around 2005-2006. The 420 was intended to be a media-based home PC but please keep in mind the XPS 420 we will be looking at here has been significantly upgraded in some areas from its factory stock configuration.

One of the first things you may notice is the shiny piano black face plate giving the 420 an elegant look. Originally these PC’s shipped with Windows Vista but I have upgraded the OS to Windows 7 and replaced the OS badge.

Starting from the top and going down we have two 5 1/4 bays with covers that fold down of which one currently houses a DVD drive. Below these we have two 3 1/2 inch “flexbays” which allow for the addition of a hard drive, floppy drive or various audio/video input/output interfaces. Also on the front we have a mic and 1/8 audio jack as well as two USB 2.0 ports and one IEEE 1394 port. Lastly, we have a power button below these ports followed by the model and Dell badge.

The back of the XPS 420 at first looks very stark to the eyes of a retro gamer but that is mostly because the 420 lacks almost any legacy I/O ports. No serial, parallel or even PS/2 ports grace the back panel but you do have everything you need for a more modern machine. I’ll admit, I would have liked the 420 to at least have a parallel port to make it more useful if used as a more retro XP machine but the less cluttered I/O shield does have a sort of minimalistic charm.

At the top we have audio jacks including an optical audio out. Below this is an Ethernet jack and six USB 2.0 ports. It is recommended you connect more permanent devices such as keyboard and mouse via these rear USB ports. Further down in a second smaller cluster we have a coaxial digital audio out as well as an IEEE 1394 port and an eSATA port.

One of the more unique features of the XPS 420 case is the mini LCD screen on the top front as well as the diagnostic lights to the left. The diagnostics lights essentially serve the same purpose as post “beeps” from an internal speaker or piezo speaker only instead of using a combination of timed beeps it displays a number code using 1 through 4. The diagnostic lights have been used on earlier PC’s and I find this method a little more subtle and quicker to understand than the beeping method but it’s nothing groundbreaking. Next to the diagnostic lights we have two more lights, the top light being a network activity indicator and the lower light being a hard drive activity light. All lights on this top display use a very pleasing blue

Occupying the majority of the panel is the LCD and controls powered by Windows Slideshow. To the right of the LCD screen we have a menu button and below that a navigational and selection buttons.

The LCD itself acts as a sort of mini built-in monitor and according to the manual it allows you to perform tasks such as browse web pictures, view photos stored on your system, play or browse audio and video files, set reminders and alarms, monitor PC settings, and set a real-time count down clock. You can expand the functionality of the LCD via add on programs called “Gadgets”. According to the manual you can access the viewscreen and use these gadgets even if the PC itself is off or in sleep mode.

The screen will also work along side the diagnostic lights to help you troubleshoot problems when booting up.

dellxps420lcd

Unfortunately the Hard drive on this machine required a full reformat and Windows 7 was installed instead of the original Windows Vista for better usefulness as a semi-modern PC. Because of this the miniview seemed to have limited functionality within Windows 7 and I was not able to do much more with it other than play a game of solitaire though I do plan to do more research on this in the future or a possible install of Vista to see the full functionality.

The case itself is very easy to open and only requires pulling a latch on the top rear of the case which releases a side panel.

Removing the side panel reveals the inside of the XPS 420.

If you are familiar with this machine you’ll see right away that a few upgrades have already been performed. First off the power supply has been swapped out from the original to an Evga 750W supply and the video card has been replaced.

I primarily replaced the power supply because of the power hungry nature of the video card I decided to install. Note that the power supply bay on the XPS 420 isn’t entirely ATX compatible and I had a little trouble fitting a standard ATX PSU in the space. with a little adjusting though one will fit, though I was only able to line the PSU up with two screw holes in the rear at the top right and lower left. This left a small space gap below the PSU but still provided a secure placement and the power supply should be fine especially considering your probably not going to be moving a PC like this very frequently. We will talk about the video upgrade at the end of the article.

There are two slots at the bottom of the case for hard drives though you can fit two more in the flexbays if you so choose. My machine came with a 7200RPM 320GB hard drive which I’m fairly certain is the original drive

The motherboard uses the Intel X38 Express chipset and features five SATA 3 ports, 3 PCI, 1 PCIe x16, 1 PCIe x8 (x4 electrically) and 1 PCIe x1. There are more than enough expansion slots for a decent Windows XP or later PC though the lack of a second PCIe x16 connector does more or less rule out a traditional SLI setup. It’s a shame the PCIe x1 slot wasn’t an x16 slot as you can see the solder points on the board for it. The motherboard does lack an IDE connector which isn’t a big deal but it does have a floppy drive connector so if your planning to add a good old floppy drive your good to go.

The built-in sound does a pretty good job but Dell did offer an option for an Audigy 2 card though mine did not come with one.

CPU – Removing the heatsink on the XPS 420 is actually super easy and way more convenient than a standard Intel LGA 775 heatsink and fan. The first step is removing the two screws on the left and right side of the heatsink. and then lift the heatsink up and off.

The heatsink itself is alright and does have a copper base and heatpipes. chances are you won’t really be doing any overclocking on an OEM PC like this anyways.

My XPS 420 came with the stock Intel Core2Quad Q6600 @ 2.4GHz. This seems to be the CPU that shipped with most of the 420s. The Q6600 was an early quad-core CPU that works great with most XP era games but if your planning on doing any gaming on this machine post-2008 or so or want to more easily max out the settings on some of the more intensive titles you may want to consider upgrading.

The first step is to make sure you upgrade the BIOS to the latest version which is ver. A07. I found the latest BIOS on Dell’s website and the upgrade can be done easily with a USB flash drive. Once this is done you should be able to use most of the Core2 family of CPU’s. I upgraded mine to a 2.83GHz Core2Quad Q9500 which is a bit faster then the old Q6600 but also runs on a 1333Mhz bus as opposed to a 1066MHz bus. With the latest BIOS update you should be able to upgrade all the way up to a 3GHz Q9650 if desired.

RAM – My XPS 420 came with 3GB of DDR2 SDRAM and then upgraded to 4GB via 4x1GB sticks as seen in the image below.

I finally upgraded my RAM to 8GB via four 2GB sticks of the type in the image below.

dellxps420ram

The RAM I used were all matching sticks of PC-6400U DDR2 rated at 800mhz. I have read of people that have had trouble running 8GB of DDR2 on the XPS 420 at 800MHz and I also had issues with mismatched RAM combinations where the speed would drop to 667MHz even if all RAM was 800MHz capable. The speed drop is not noticable in most applications and games but if you want 800MHz with 8GB installed I highly recommend using the newest BIOS version as well as four matching sticks of RAM with the same CAS of 5 or higher.

dellxps420rambios

Video – Unfortunately I neglected to take note of whatever video card was originally installed but if memory serves me correct it was something like a Nvidia 8400. punching in the service ID number on Dell’s website brings up nothing. for a video card upgrade I went with the GTX 295.

Sure there are better choices and the 295 is a massive power hog but being released in early 2009 it felt like something that would have been a real possible upgrade to this machine from someone that bought an XPS 420 in 2006 and had been using it as a main gaming/media PC. The GTX 295 was a powerhouse when it was released in 2009 and still makes a usable card years later. As a Windows XP card it delivers more than enough power for almost any XP era game with maybe the exception of Crysis on the highest settings. as a Windows Vista and up card it still is serviceable and many later games are still playable on this card at low settings.

The GTX 295 is a 1792MB dual GPU card that’s perfect for situations like the XPS 420 where there is only one PCIe x16 slot on the motherboard. The 295 power wise is on average a little faster than two GTX 260s in SLI configuration.

The XPS 420 is a beautiful computer with a few possible upgrade paths. Being an OEM machine overclocking options are pretty limited with the biggest roadblock being the RAM. The miniview LCD on the case is interesting but it feels under utilized and a bit of a gimmick. I mean why would you scroll through your photos on a small LCD when your computer and most likely, your monitor are right there. It would have been cool of games took advantage of the LCD though, maybe in the same ways games took advantage of the VMU on the Dreamcast. The XPS 420 with some upgrades is still a usable machine in 2018 for lighter use like web surfing and office/productivity type work and with the right video card even some gaming though don’t expect smooth 60 FPS on ultra settings with new games. As a Windows XP retro machine the 420 potentially makes an elegant and powerful choice.

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Bought one of these new in 2008 withe Monitor. Still have it.

  2. It is, indeed, a real tank and a great system. With the Q9650, nVidea GT9800, 8 GB, card reader and twin 250 GB SATA’s, I have pretty much gone the full monty with mine, and it continues to run with the pack. Great review and pics.

  3. Mine is almost identical to yours. Win 7, 8Gb RAM, new PSU that I had to force-fit.
    Love it and plan to keep it.
    I have been considering a SSD, but I haven’t found documentation with clear steps on how to do it.
    If someone could point me to such documentation, I would really appreciate it.

    • Update. Got my SSD, a 120G just for the OS and Office apps. The rest is on the HDD. Works great.


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