For the last six years I’ve had good results upgrading my computer. I think its performance has been admirable in the face of technology advances. Going into this year I knew my system wouldn’t be able to handle the crop of titles coming out now. Getting a blue screen of death in the BioShock demo was a clear indication that it was time to throw in the towel and replace my computer.
I began investigating motherboards, CPUs, video cards, and so forth in early 2007. I was overwhelmed with all the advances. It only made matters worse as technology seemed to dramatically evolve over the course of six months. The most confusing aspect of technology advances was video card technology language. Needless to say I wasn’t up-to-speed on hardware trends and quickly got lost in the plethora of resources like hardware review sites, including dozens of well respected hardware blog sites.
In the past I found the process of building systems enjoyable. In recent years I’ve found the process time-consuming. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but this year I decided to forgo building a machine and instead leave it to someone else. The decision came down to two choices. Do I buy a desktop or laptop?
I’ve seen first-hand performance from Apple’s MacBooks powered with Intel’s Core2Duo. So the concept of being mobile with lots of processing power had a strong pull. Until companies like Falcon Northwest and Alienware decided to market a line of laptops specifically built for gaming most laptops always seemed more appropriate for business and Internet application. Eventually top computer maker Dell joined the fray launching a line of desktop and laptop systems specifically built for gamers. They dubbed this new series XPS.
Before purchasing a laptop I had two specific needs. First, the laptop needed to be able to play nextgen titles. Second, I need to plug my external audio equipments into the laptop.
After weeks of researching laptop reviews my decision came down to the Area-51 m9750 from Alienware and the XPS M1710 from Dell. In the end I opted for the XPS M1710 based on the overwhelming number of high scores it received from websites. I don’t say this lightly. The XPS M1710 quite literally was awarded 4.5 to 5 stars from PC World, CNET, Anandtech, and any other computer hardware review I came across. I didn’t take their reviews at face value. Visiting the user reviews I discovered nearly all matched what the professional reviewers were awarding. It’s worth noting that some users were awarding below 4 stars on Dell’s site; lending credibility to these reviews.
On August 21, 2007 I placed my order for a XPS M1710. Dell offered four models but only one came with Windows XP Professional. I wish Dell had offered Windows XP for all four choices. I decided on the Windows XP. Next, I choose the Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T7200 (2GHz/667MHz/ 4MB). I selected a 17 inch wide-screen using a technology called WUXGA. Basically this meant a display resolution of 1920 × 1200 with an aspect ratio of 16:10. I maxed out memory with 2GB shared dual channel DDR2 SDRAM running at 677MHZ. I also selected a half-gig nVidia GeForce Go 7950 GTX. I opted for a smaller 80GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive to keep my costs within my desired budget.
One of the things I was keen on was support. I didn’t want to buy this laptop only to have something happen six months down the road. I maxed out all support options with 4 years warranties for general support, XPS support, PlusOnsite hardware service, CompleteCare accidental damage protection, and finally LoJack theft recovery. Needless to say it’s well protected. Including tax and shipping the total cost of ownership came to about $3,800.
On August 29th and September 6th I received consecutive shipping delay notifications. I was fairly annoyed, but I knew there was a high probability that this would probably occur. In the second delay Dell included a message saying “due to this additional delay, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires we receive your consent to continue with this order. Please contact us as soon as possible with either your consent to continue with the order OR your request to cancel and receive a refund.” I replied to the e-mail notification and Dell released it for shipping. The following Monday, September 10, the courier delivered my laptop!
At this point, you can imagine my exuberance. I tried to play coy with my co-workers but I was excited. I quickly opened to package and there it was! Sleek. Black. The letters “XPS” cut into the lid. I sat it on my desk looking at it. I flipped-open the lid and pressed the “on” button. A calming hue of red filled the XPS lettering on the lid, the air vents, and the speaker grill. Even the touchpad had glowing red XPS. It looked awesome!
I spend that night installing driver updates and patching. I was told by co-workers to format and reinstall Windows XP. I didn’t really want to rock the boat. I wasn’t too keen on warranty issues in terms of software and hardware. Against their advice I left the system as-is.
The next day I purchased BioShock and it played great at maximum settings. I also gave Oblivion and Jade Empire a try. Both produced stellar results. Although I will say that Oblivion’s occasional blue screen vexed me (hasn’t Bethesda resolved this yet?). Even though Gothic 3 was a bug ridden mess my only intent was to benchmark it visually. I had reviewed it on my prior system for GiN. On the XPS Gothic 3 rocked. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars demonstrated the power of this gaming laptop. Even World of Warcraft, as old it may be in gaming terms, visually soared! I pushed the settings to the max, and everything looked nice running around inside Iron Forge. It wasn’t until the moment my character ran out of Iron Forge on the road leading down to the valley. At the curve in the road a wonderful vista of the Dun Morogh was revealed! Mountains in the far distances, snow covered trees, and snow effect all rendered in 1920 x 1200! Even the outdated online game Second Life looked good on this system. I was happy with this purchase for a few weeks.
Unfortunately this was about to change.
The first indication that things were awry was when I tried to plug in my head-set. I was invited to a World of Warcraft raiding party. Those of you familiar with them know that Ventrilo (otherwise known as Vent) is a basic requirement. The record port next to the audio port was clearly marked. I plugged in the head-set cable but couldn’t hear anything; not even static. At first I thought Windows did not have the correct recording option selected. It did. I tried everything and thought maybe the head-set broke. Testing on my prior system it worked. I was worried and my guild buddies impatient. Finally in frustration I apologies and respectfully bowed out for that night. Instead of having fun in World of Warcraft I spent that night testing every external device I could. Microphone, several head-sets, my Korg Triton, Korg EM1, and simply none of them worked.
I was confused because I knew these devices worked on my prior system. So I went online to try and find answers. In my search I stumbled across two forum postings. One had suggested an application called Total Recorder. The trial demonstrated that I was able to record audio. My first reaction was the port somehow became damaged and I would need to send it in for repairs; relish that thought. Further investigations revealed a smoking gun on Dell’s forums!
http://tinyurl.com/ywq9m7 (thanks TinyURL) Jimco reveals the following information, “Sorry to tell you that you will not be able to internally record the sound card’s output in your computer. You need a recording source called “stereo mix,” but Dell has locked it out of the sound card’s driver. They have done this on all of the different laptop models that have the Sigmatel 92xx audio chip, as your XPS does. On some of the models there are hacks that can be performed to unlock the stereo mix, but none is known for your model. The workaround solutions: Get an external sound card that has the feature you want.” Grrrr!
To add insult to injury whenever I called XPS support — whom I might add is a special wing of Dell’s support team specially trained for XPS — they had no idea what I was referring to. I’ve had to point them to the forum thread, on their website, to get them to actually see the problem as noted by other laptop owners. Every time I was given the standard “this is out of our control” speech. At this point I gave up. My dream of being able to take my music mobile still exists, but it’s not going to happen with this XPS laptop. So strike one against Dell.
Meanwhile demos for Call of Duty 4 and Crysis began to debut. I was still upset that Dell couldn’t fix the audio recording problems, but I figured I would have some entertainment with these new titles coming out. This was when things went from bad to worse.
Both of these demos played horribly. I’m talking about 800 x 600 slideshows. I’ve seen both demos running at 1024 x 768 with frame rates of 20 on systems half as fast.
A quick check via GPU-Z revealed I had the hardware I ordered from Dell. I was confused because my system ran BioShock and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars wonderfully. The next logical symptom was outdated video drivers. I had installed the GeForce GO 7950 GTX drivers certified by Dell on April 13, 2007. Yes they were outdated. I figured nVidia would have the latest. I visited nVidia’s site. Visited their Download Drivers page, and their configurator brought me to a page with drivers dated July 5, 2006. How could nVidia have drivers older than those provided by Dell? I tried to locate current drivers from either Dell or nVidia and I came to the same dead end. Dell claimed I had the latest certified. nVidia claimed I would have to contact my laptop manufacturer. I went back and forth on this until I came upon this information at http://forums.nvidia.com/index.php?showtopic=42232
“NVIDIA provides driver updates to our Notebook and Laptop computer partners. The driver updates are then packaged and distributed by the partners, often with custom power management and other features and settings specific to that platform. NVIDIA does not control the schedule the various notebook and laptop providers use to release new drivers for their products.”
“NVIDIA is NOT allowed to directly distribute drivers for the vast majority of Notebook and Laptop computers.”
“The only way to get updates for NVIDIA laptop or notebook graphics cards is though the notebook provider.”
The quoted text was posted by an authorized nVidia representative on nVidia’s forums ( http://tinyurl.com/yqengt for references). It’s worth noting the original thread has been deleted. I’m not sure if nVidia did a little “housecleaning” or was pressured by laptop manufacturers to remove the post but it’s accurate. I’ve seen the original thread.
In other words nVidia’s policy is they release their technology as OEM chipsets. Dell takes their technology and mounts it into their proprietary motherboards. At this point nVidia is not responsible for drivers support. nVidia provides Dell with a kind of software development kit in order to create drivers, but it’s ultimately up to Dell to deliver drivers to their customers. And it’s not just Dell. This is the paradigm for all laptop manufactures.
Month after month waiting, meanwhile Dell releases drivers for GeForce Go 7900 GS and 7900 GTX models on December 9. They also released drivers for XPS M1730 and a couple other models. Meanwhile those possessing a XPS M1710 using GeForce Go 7950 GTX on Windows XP are still waiting for their drivers to be updated! Since April 13 nVidia has released two WHQL-certified drivers.
Sites like Videodrivers2go.com have assisted the gaming community but they haven’t been able to provide assistance for Dell XPS laptop owners. The same is true for other related sites. Dell is the only one that can help.
To Dell’s benefit, and detriment, they are a massive company. Sorry to say in the world of gaming things happen quickly and in waves. Dell claims their XPS laptop systems are gaming machines, and they are, but you won’t be able to play any of the high-end games beyond BioShock. To put it bluntly their atrocious driver support makes my particular XPS laptop a virtual brick. So strike two against Dell.
The last little thing that blew my mind is that one pixel is now dead on the screen. Fortunately it is on the right-side of the screen. I have noticed it occasionally, but nothing too distracting. After several inquires the conclusion is that this simply doesn’t happen with normal use. It’s a fundamental flaw that occurs during production. So strike three against Dell!
Three strikes, and as they say in baseball, YOU’RE OUT!
Everyday I hope Dell releases certified drivers before the end of this year but given their record it’s not likely. Against what I said earlier I’m determined to get the record port working but it’s a probably going to be like In the Shadow of the Colossus with XPS support.
So to anyone thinking about buying a Dell my advice is to stir clear of them this holiday season. Buying one is basically like condemning yourself to Hell.