Dell comes up short on SMB PC

The Vostro 200 is the first desktop PC in Dell’s new small-business line of computers and peripherals. The machine’s “200” designation might lead you to believe that it’s a step above entry level, but from what we saw, it’s more like a 100-level product that Dell dresses up with small-business services.

Though the Vostro 200 starts at a little more than US$300 without a monitor, our test configuration cost $1,198 (as of 7/24/07) with a 20-inch E207WFP monitor. The hardware itself is about as basic as PCs get, coming in a small, generic case from which you must remove two thumbscrews before you can slide the side off.

Plastic panels cover the optical drives; if a drive is open, the panel obscures the eject button, so you must either use a fingernail to reach the button or nudge the drive tray to make it go back in. On our system, the drive almost always caught on the panel as it was retracting, and we had to pull down the panel to help unstick the drive.

The inside of the case is just as underwhelming: Nothing (unless you count the RAM) is removable without a screwdriver. A single screw on the outside of the case secures a small metal plate that holds in the expansion cards, but multiple tiny screws hold the hard drives, optical drives, and 300-watt power supply. Unlike some of Dell’s OptiPlex PCs, which postition drives on rubber-mounted mechanisms to reduce noise and vibration, the Vostro 200 has its drives screwed to bare metal. The system wasn’t particularly noisy, but it wasn’t nearly as quiet as the OptiPlex 740 we tested a couple of months before it.

The nVidia GeForce 8300GS graphics card in our system had a DVI connector on its backplane, but the backplane also accommodated a separate VGA connector module that connected to an internal port on the card. From the back it looks like one card, but from the inside it looks like two separate pieces are hinged together. It seemed like a kludgy, cost-cutting choice, especially when dual-head graphics cards are so common.

In the PC World Test Center, the Vostro 200 earned a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 80. That’s the best mark among the Windows Vista-based value business PCs we’ve tested recently, but we expected a little better of a Core 2 Duo system with 2GB of RAM.

The small-business services that Dell offers with the Vostro line include an Automated PC Tune-Up utility, which runs 30 different maintenance tasks–such as cleaning out temp files and cookies and defragmenting your hard drive–with one click. Access to this tool and 10GB of online storage is free for only the first year, though. Dell says it hasn’t determined how much the services will cost after that time.

Dell boasts that Vostro PCs “come without annoying trialware preinstalled.” True, our Vostro 200 bore no desktop trial-offer icons, but it did have icons for Dell’s own utilities. Vostro PC users have 24/7, year-round access to “dedicated small-business-trained technicians,” and each machine ships with software that those techs can use to attempt fixing the PC remotely.

If the Vostro we tested were less expensive, these services might make it more appealing. But the hardware isn’t any different from what you’ll find in Dell’s “Home and Home Office” store–the case looked identical to that of an Inspiron 531 we had in for testing, and Dell even sells Vostro 200 PCs with Windows Vista Home Basic.

Dell will soon begin selling a step-up Vostro model that may sport a more sophisticated case. For now, however, Dell’s OptiPlex line offers better hardware and much of the same services, and PCs in that line don’t cost much more. For most people, those PCs offer better value than the first Vostro does.

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