Dell’s Studio XPS line has done fairly well in our reviews lately, and we find that the $1,149 Studio XPS sx8100-1986NBC is no exception. Although its full model name is a mouthful, this retail-only desktop compares well with others in its price range from both mainstream and smaller PC vendors. We recommend this Dell to anyone looking for a system to handle a wide-range of mainstream productivity and gaming tasks.

Dell offers a Studio XPS 8100 on its Web site as well as in retail stores. You can customize the online version, but with the same parts ordered directly from Dell as our retail review unit you’d pay about $1,360, not including shipping. You can add a few other features on Dell’s Web site, including a TV tuner, more RAM, different hard drives, and a faster CPU, but the retail model covers the basics for a performance-oriented midrange system. While some of its components aren’t the best available from Dell for this product line, they’re only below by a tick or two.

Our one criticism with the design of this system compared with its online counterpart stems from a color variation. The all-black version offered at retail isn’t offensive, but it looks like almost every other desktop on the shelf. Online, Dell offers the Studio XPS 8100 with a black front plate and a white body that looks far more distinctive. The physical characteristics of the two versions are identical, the highlight of which is an upswept front panel that makes the media card reader and front side USB jacks easy to access.

We went to HP, Gateway, Velocity Micro, and Dell’s own Web site and found no real comparison for the Studio XPS 8100-1986NBC. Most systems we custom built came in too expensive when we matched the components. And Gateway’s ready-made FX-Series PCs were all too high-end. With no real competition on the market right now, we’ve opted to compare the Dell with a desktop from Asus that came out last August for $1,200, although it’s now available for at a steep discount of $799. As you can see, you don’t get many more features for $1,200 now compared with six months ago, the lone major exception is the Dell’s wireless networking card. The Dell’s performance tells a different story.

Don’t let the Dell’s third-place spot on a few of our charts fool you. The Velocity Micro system was overclocked and cost $1,349 at the time of its review, and the Falcon Northwest cost $2,500. Further, the Dell isn’t that far behind the Velocity Micro system, and the Dell actually wins on our multimedia multitasking test. Regardless of the standings, the Dell demonstrates solid mainstream performance, and as long as you don’t have professional-level video editing in mind, it should be suitable for most consumer-oriented productivity tasks.

The Dell’s gaming performance doesn’t overachieve, but it meets our expectations for a mainstream gaming PC. It will play Far Cry 2 smoothly at full detail and lower resolutions. As the resolution climbs, you might notice the occasional slowdown, but it should still play and look pretty good, and you shouldn’t have to dial the detail settings down too far to overcome choppy frame rates. You might find a few games that give the Dell a workout if you have a 22-inch or 24-inch LCD, but generally, you can expect smooth gameplay.

Because the Dell has a Wi-Fi card and a doublewide Radeon HD 5770 graphics card, you don’t get a lot of room for other upgrades–a free standard PCI slot is your only option. You can add a second hard drive, but all four RAM slots are taken, so your memory and storage options are somewhat limited as well. The Dell’s connectivity options are a bit more flexible. You get a handful of USB 2.0 ports, eSATA and FireWire for external storage, S/PDIF digital audio and 7.1 analog audio outputs, and DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort video outputs on the graphics card. Short of still uncommon USB 3.0 devices, you should be able to find a port for any contemporary peripheral or accessory on the back of this system.

Dell has earned itself a good reputation in our lab for its energy efficiency, and this desktop is no different. As you can see in our chart, it’s the most efficient traditional midtower in its price range. Granted, the difference between paying $3.25 a month to power the Dell and $5.46 for the Velocity micro system isn’t that meaningful financially, but we also shouldn’t let the fact that Dell consumes only about 60 percent as much power as the Velocity Micro for comparable performance go unrecognized.

Dell’s service and support is more or less the same as that of its major retail competition. You get 24-7 phone support, a yearlong parts and labor warranty, and a variety of support resources online and on the system itself via various diagnostic tools.

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