A close look – Joe
SUMMARY: Looks OK so far.
Dell routinely runs sales on its Vostro line of budget boxes and when I saw the Vostro 200 Desktop available for $379 WITH a 19″ monitor, I bit. I was looking for a new monitor and this offer looked interesting. After some deliberation, I decided that a 19″ analog monitor was not for me but a $99 upgrade to Dell’s 17″ Ultrasharp would suit me fine.
This costs $224 if bought separately, so I could buy the Mini-Tower Vostro 200 for about $250 with an Intel 1.8 GHz Dual-Core (E2160) CPU. I also opted for 2 GB RAM and a separate DVD burner as well – as of today, this same box is selling for $439 WITHOUT a monitor. IMHO not a bad deal – I can’t build a box cheaper than this deal.
The Dell box I purchased includes the following:
- Intel 1.8 GHz Dual-Core (E2160) CPU
- Foxconn G33 M02 motherboard, Micro ATX form factor (9.6″x9.6″)
- 300 Watt LiteOn PS (appears to be a standard ATX PS with -5v line missing)
- Intel ® G33 Express Chipset
- 2 GB DDR II SDRAM, 667 MHz, Dual Channel
- 160 GB SATA HD, 7200 RPM, 8 MB Cache
- Four SATA ports
- Windows XP Home
- Integrated 10/100 Ethernet, 7.1 Channel Audio and Intel GMA3100 Video
- 8 USB 2.0 Ports (4 back, 4 front; pinouts for four more)
- 1 48X Combo and 16X DVD+/-RW Dual Drive
- USB Keyboard and Mouse
- 17 inch UltraSharp 1708FP monitor
- Roxio Creator burner software
- Size: 362 mm x 170 mm x 435 mm (14.2″ x 6.7″ x 17.1″)
Thankfully, these budget boxes ship with minimal bundled software so they are not loaded with the usual 90-day bloatware. You could purchase this with Vista Home (no extra cost) but I’m not interested.
Intel’s Dual Core 1.8 GHz CPU is one of the more overclockable CPUs around – a quick glance at the temp specs on this series is quite interesting:
Notice no variance in power over this series’ speed range – looks like LOTS of overhead here – more on this to come. Also note that at idle and low-demand situations for CPU cycles, the CPU down-clocks to 1.2 GHz (6 x 200 FSB) which contributes to its cool running.
You can opt or add a videocard, but I wanted to see how the bare minimum would perform. A quick look at what the G33 chipset supports:
Table 2: Intel® GMA 3×00 and X3x00 series – Video Features
Intel Graphics Core
Intel® GMA 3000
Intel® GMA X3000
Intel® GMA X3100
Intel® GMA X3500
946GZ, Q963, Q965
G31, G33, Q33, Q35
TV Set-up Utility 8
Intel® TV Wizard (G33 chipset only)
Intel® TV Wizard
Intel® TV Wizard
COPP/PMP w/ HDCP
COPP/PMP w/ HDCP
COPP/PMP w/ HDCP
COPP/PMP w/ HDCP
COPP/PMP w/ HDCP
QXGA 75 Hz (2048×1536)
QXGA 75 Hz (2048×1536)
QXGA 75 Hz (2048×1536)
QXGA 75 Hz (2048×1536)
QXGA 75 Hz (2048×1536)
YES (G33 chipset only)
Analog Outputs 9
Actually not too shabby – although my first instinct would be to gag on integrated video, the G33 has some very nice features. How it performs, we’ll see (don’t expect a gaming box!).
The G33 Chipset supports bus speeds from 800 to 1333 MHz, includes PCI Express* 1.1 and “Intel ® Quiet System Technology” – this is a fan controller that couples fan speeds to temperatures which controls noise. I’ve included a complete rundown of the G33 specs in an Appendix at the end of this article, if you’re interested. Note that some of these features may not be available through Dell’s BIOS settings.
Dell spec’d a variation of Foxconn’s motherboard for the Vostro 200 – Foxconn’s commercial product features:
- Supports Intel Core2 Quad, Core2 Duo, Pentium Dual-Core, Pentium D, Pentium 4, Celeron processors , Socket T (LGA775)
- 1333 / 1066 / 800 MHz (FSB)
- Dual Channel DDR2 800 / 667 x 4 DIMMs, Max 8GB
- 1 x PCIe x16, 1 x PCIe x1, 2 x PCI
- ATA x1, SATAII x 4
- 7.1 channel HD Audio
- GbE LAN
- 12 USB 2.0 ports
Missing from Dell’s version are the parallel and serial ports and four USB ports. Foxconn’s BIOS also includes more options than the Dell BIOS, including some overclocking options (no – you can not flash the Dell board with this BIOS). You can see on Dell’s motherboard solder pads for some of these missing features.
Don’t expect much from Dell as to flexibility – this is a minimalist BIOS by any measure. There are no CPU or RAM settings to tweak this box – WYSIWYG. You can vary VIDEO RAM size from 128 or 256 MB but I found the impact minimal (Performance details to follow).
No surprises here – this a very basic box. The front only has an On/Off switch:
The CD/DVD ROM drives pop out from behind the top two doors that flip down – once down, the button to close the drives is virtually inaccessible due to the way the door flap opens – IMHO a pretty stupid design. You can close the drive directly by pushing on the drive tray, so it’s not terrible.
The front sliding panel hides four USB, mic and headphone ports; there is a blank for an optional firewire port:
The back shows the power supply, exhaust fan, four USB, VGA and audio ports and blanks for the PCI slots.
Removing two screws from the back opens the side panel:
The layout is fairly neat, with cables tied to the case. There is room in the case for two 5.25″ drives, two hard drives and one 3.5″ drive. A closer view of the motherboard…
…shows the compact layout. Note that this box includes three fans – an 80 mm on the heatsink (four wire), a 92 mm exhaust fan and an 80 mm inside the power supply. These are all temperature controlled – you hear them spin up at full speed when you power up, then after a few seconds, they power down to a very quiet setting. In normal use, I have not heard the fans spin up beyond their quiet setting; even when I was running Prime 95, the fans did not speed up. This is a quiet box.
A look at the back shows the four PCI slots and fans:
Towards the front are the two 5.25″ bays, one 3.5″ bay and the hard drive mount – you can mount a second hard drive directly below the hard drive shown – four drives will use up the four SATA ports on the board.
The LiteOn power supply is a 300 watt unit – from what I can see, this is a standard 24 pin ATX with the -5v line missing.
Overall this is a no-frills budget box with a stripped down Foxconn motherboard – what could I build this for?
- Foxconn motherboard: $80
- 2 GB RAM Crucial RAM: $50
- Barracuda SATA 160 GB HD: $55
- ATX Case/PS: $30
- Two 5.25″ DVD ROMS: $40
- Intel Core Duo 1.8 GHz Retail: $72
- Mouse and keyboard: $20
- Windows XP Home: $60
Adds up to $407 – with the Dell box costing about $250, this is not a bad deal at all (though I would not use a Foxconn mobo – there are better choices). Factor in that if a friend is asking for a recommendation, if you build it, you own it. Dell’s customer support (standard: on-site for the first year) for me is priceless. One gripe on the Dell: the mouse makes noise – it’s a ball type and if you’re used to a quiet LED mouse, the Dell mouse is annoying.
WARNING: Some of the procedures shown in this section involve alterations which can lead to system instability or void warranties – neither I nor Overclockers.com will be held responsible for actual or consequential damages should anyone try anything shown below – proceed at your own risk!
With minimal included software, this Dell box lacks monitoring and performance software – the following free programs add a very nice suite of utility programs:
- MemSet 3.4: “MemSet is a tweaker which allows users to change memory timings under Windows. You can read principal and secondary timings, and eventually change these timing values.”
- Rightmark CPU Utility: “A small GUI application designed for real-time CPU frequency, throttling and load level monitoring and on-the-fly adjustment of the CPU performance level on supported CPU models via processor’s power management model-specific registers (MSRs). In automatic management mode it continuously monitors the CPU usage level and dynamically adjusts the CPU frequency, throttle and/or voltage level as needed, realizing the “Performance on Demand” concept.”
- Core Temp 0.97: “Core Temp is a compact, no fuss, small footprint program to monitor CPU temperature.”
These three free programs will tell you the essentials for tweaking any PC – CPU temps, speed and memory timings. Overall I have been impressed with how quiet this box is and how cool it runs – even when stress testing with Prime 95, temps never exceeded more than 52ºC with and ambient of about 22ºC – all this with the fans running at low speed.
To evaluate performance, I used both SiSandra and Passmark Performance Test v6.1 to get some performance benchmarks for comparison purposes. I first ran Passmark with only 1 GB RAM and it came in at 534.6 – this is the absolute stock system.
MemSet gives a nice picture of the RAM’s settings:
Both slices are the same – for DDR II to function at its best, you really should use a matched pair. Dell charges $50 for an upgrade to 2 GB (costs Dell about $10) – while you can buy another GB for less, it will most likely not be exactly the same and as a result, any difference and the BIOS will run the RAM at the lowest setting. IMHO avoid any problems and pay the upgrade price.
SiSandra gives a comparison to some other systems – below is the stock Dell setup comparison:
No real surprises here – with only 1 MB CPU cache, the Core 2 CPU does lag behind CPUs with more cache. Now let’s take a look at how the PC’s components benchmark, first at stock settings:
You can change the video to 256 MB in BIOS with the following results:
Interesting – a slight degradation, but really negligible. I went back to 128 MB video setting and changed the RAM timings slightly using MemSet:
A slight gain – altering RAM timings is a tricky business, especially with budget RAM. The memory chips on the shipping RAM are Micron Technology – the issue you might have with aggressively altering RAM timing is data corruption. You may not see it but it is possible – you really have to stress test the RAM before you can assert that it’s OK.
In general as a tweak for a budget box, I don’t think aggressive RAM timing is all that attractive an option – small gains with possible data problems.
The dinosaurs among us used to go to the auto parts store and buy a rear window defogger repair kit to connect the dots on AMD’s overclockable CPUs to increase speeds. With Intel’s Core CPUs, we’re back again to connect pads on the back of Intel’s CPUs to increase FSBs. I picked up this conductive paint by Permatix ($13 – gag!):
Some have used small pieces of aluminum foil – I would not use anything that could work its way loose. The paint stays on – if you make a mistake, rub it off with acetone and start over (you have enough in the small bottle for two lifetimes).
There are plenty of articles around that show which pads to connect, so there’s nothing new here. Removing the heatsink is easy – there are four screws holding the heatsink to the motherboard – pull the power plug, hit the Power On button to discharge any lingering voltage in the PS, disconnect the fan, unscrew in a crosswise pattern and twist to remove the heatsink from the CPU (the grease suctions the heatsink to the CPU). Pop open the socket and the CPU easily comes out. Clean off the thermal grease on both the CPU and heatsink (I used acetone).
It is essential that you do not paint the wrong pads and critical that you do not get any paint on other pads. What I did was to mask off the two pads:
You can just as easily use scotch tape – just take your time and do one line at a time, then join them along the edge. This paint dries very quickly so don’t dawdle. I used a pin as the paint brush – anything bigger is like painting trim with a 5″ brush.
A closer view of the mask…
…and the final result (two coats):
Secure the CPU to the socket, use thermal grease (I use IC Diamond 7 Carat), replace the heatsink with a squishing motion and tighten in a crosswise pattern. The screws have stops so you can’t overtighten them. Replace the power cord and boot up – assuming you’ve done eveything OK, you should now be running at 2.4 GHz (the FSB MOD changes the FSB from 200 to 266 MHz – this is all you can do with this mobo/CPU combo).
Running MemSet now shows that the fsb/dram ratio is at 4:5:
This is changed from the previous 3:5 at 200 MHz FSB. This shows that everything is running at spec speeds – nothing in the system is running out of spec except the CPU; however, while the BIOS shows the CPU as a 1.8 GHz part, the motherboard treats it as a 2.4 GHz CPU running 266 MHz FSB.
Running Passmark Performance Test v6.1 at the “new stock settings” resulted in a benchmark of 674.8 compared to 553.5 before the FSB MOD – a 22% increase. Note that the CPU scores will scale with the FSB MOD ratio (266/200 = 33%; Passmark CPU 1316.7/995.5 = 32.3%) – the Passmark benchmark is a combined score for all components tested and as such will not track 1:1.
SiSandra shows how far this moves the Dell box compared to others:
Memory tweaks can move this a few points more – how aggressive is up to each user’s risk profile.
Dell’s Vostro 200 is a good buy for a budget box and a very good choice for those who want the no-frills basics. One year on-site support is a bargain. Personally I would not tweak this box much beyond the FSB MOD – trying to turn this into some kind of super gaming system might be an interesting challenge, but gilding this lily with expensive, power-hungry videocards will most likely tax the 300 watt PS so that you’ll end up replacing it, adding up to more expense.
By the time you add up aggressive mods to what is truly a bare-bones budget box, you’d be better off starting with a better system in the first place.
IMHO what I’ve shown here is about what you might expect as “reasonable” performance enhancements witout compromising stability or reliability. This is like a Toyota Corolla – you can’t make it into a Dodge Viper, but a V6 Camry is in reach.
As to software and the Windows OS, I installed Ubuntu 7.10 with no problems on this box. To keep it a budget box, there are free productivity, anti-virus and graphics programs available which means that the total cost for an eminently usable PC should be what you paid Dell – there’s no reason to purchase any software besides the OS. If this box was available without an OS, it would be an even better deal (assuming a price break – $50 less?).
I was underwhelmed when I first looked it over. After playing with it for a while, I actually like it – it’s quiet, does not complain and for the basics and price, a nice budget box. I’m thinking of doing a dual boot with Ubuntu 7.10 / XP and using VirtualBox in Ubuntu running virtual XP – sort of a box for all reasons.
I received a number of emails requesting that I push the Dell to 3.0 GHz. I had some hesitation on this because I feel that this is a budget box where stability is paramount. In some instances, pushing the CPU to 3.0 GHz will not be as successful as the jump to 2.4 GHz – it’s the nature of the beast. If you have to resort to increasing power and cooling for stability, you start to get into questionable (but fun!) territory considering this PC’s inherent limitations.
However, with these caveats, I decided to show what might be possible if the stars are aligned just right.
A look at Intel’s tech docs clearly shows how these CPUs control frequency¹. There are three pads that determine the CPU’s frequency – BSEL 0, 1 and 2, located on the CPU as shown here (top view):
These three pads have eight possible combinations – only three are used:
The basic methodology for FSB changes involves the following:
- Shorting a pad changes a High value to Low
- Insulating a pad changes a Low value to High
- Shorting BSEL1 changes a 200 MHz FSB to a 266 MHz FSB
- Insulating BSEL2 changes a 266 MHz FSB to a 333 MHz FSB
These steps are shown below:
Changing a 200 MHz FSB CPU to 333 MHz FSB therefore requires two changes – a “strap” to get to 266 MHz and insulating BSEL2 to go from 266 to 333 MHz²:
You can use tape or even paint over the BSEL2 pad to insulate it. Either way is reversible should it not work or prove to be unstable.
I used a small piece of scotch tape to cover BSEL2. The Dell budget box booted up no problem although it’s clear that temps are higher but not dangerously so – running Prime 95 I now see temps in the low 50s, which is nowhere near a problem (ambient 20ºC). In normal use, if your CPU makes this jump at these temps and is stable, you should be OK.
Running Passmark Performance Test v6.1 at 3.0 GHz resulted in a benchmark of 836.0 vs 674.8 before the jump to 3.0 GHz – a 24% increase. Compared to where we started at stock settings (553.5), performance increased by 51%. Note that the CPU scores will scale with the FSB MOD ratio (333/266 = 25%; Passmark CPU 1636.6/1316.7 = 24.3%) – the Passmark benchmark is a combined score for all components tested and as such will not track 1:1.
As before, all settings are in sync – nothing is running out of spec except the CPU:
SiSandra CPU Benchmarks shows how far the jump takes us:
Overall the CPU in this budget box increased performance by 51% without any changes to cooling. The FSB increased a whopping 66.6% (333 from 200) with seemingly acceptable stability and CPU heat; while it worked for me and some others, pushing this CPU to 3 GHz is not a slam-dunk. Each user has to decide whether making these changes is acceptable considering who will use the PC and with what programs.
Personally I would not make the jump to 3.0 GHz for a “mommy” PC although I would not hesitate at 2.4 GHz.
¹“The BSEL[2:0] signals are used to select the frequency of the processor input clock
(BCLK[1:0]). Table 16 defines the possible combinations of the signals and the
frequency associated with each combination. The required frequency is determined by
the processor, chipset, and clock synthesizer. All agents must operate at the same
²NOTE: Alternative mod to reach 333 FSB:
If covering BSEL2 does not work, the alternative is to connect BSEL1 to a VSS pad and connect BSEL2 to a VCC pad – two straps. VCC are the power pins for the processor and carry a positive charge and VSS are the ground pins for the processor and carry a negative charge.
If you have a 266 MHz CPU, you have only one strap – connect BSEL2 to the nearest VCC pad – this should give 333 MHz.