Review of Dell Dimension E521 Desktop With X2 5600+ Processor (under construction)

Dell started offering the AMD X2 5600+ processor in December 2006 and I was interested in giving this processor a try given my disappointing results building Mozilla products on my Conroe E6600 system. I found a 20% off coupon for the E521 desktop on configurations over $999 so I put together a configuration that cost a tad over $1,000 and claimed the coupon for a total system price of $815 delivered. They indicated that it would take 15 days to arrive but it actually arrived two days after I ordered it. I specified ground shipment and they clearly shipped it by air. Either that or they have a really fast truck that can make it from Austin to New Hampshire in a day.

I ordered the E521 with the X2 5600+ processor, the DVD-RW, 2 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard disk and declined everything else that wasn't free (and many things that were free). I did select the free Vista coupon upgrade in case I decide to give it a try. I paid about $1,189 for my HP Pavillion Conroe E6600 system back in August with a comparable system costing somewhat less today. I added three aftermarket cards to that system for video, audio and ethernet.

The Dimension E521 is Dell's inexpensive desktop line with AMD processors. The E520 line offers Intel processors. Dell doesn't offer the E6600 CPU in the E520 line so I was unable to price out a comparable Intel solution to compare it to my new AMD system. I did price out a similarly equipped HP Pavillion system with the E6600 CPU and it was over $1,100. So I felt that I was getting a pretty good deal for this system.

I was pretty happy with the HP Pavillion except for one area and that's in building Mozilla products. The Conroe apparently performs very poorly on this task. Our daughter started using the Pavillion as it is a great machine for running games and she was squeezing me out of my own office. When I was using my system, she would use her brothers desktop (HP Pavillion X2 4400+) and we'd have arguments over desktop time. She has a Dell Inspiron Dell 8500 but she has to run an 8 inch desk fan to keep the system cool enough (it runs on a Pentium 4). So the time was ripe to pick up a cheap system.

Dell has had its problem the last few years but I've always enjoyed their products. We have another cheapie Dimension system that's unplugged along with three Dell laptops of Pentium 3 vintage. And everything still works.

I still use my three-year-old laptop (Compaq Presario R3000z Athlon 64 3200+ 2.0 Ghz 130 nm, 1 mb L2 Cache) for Mozilla builds but may move everything to the new Dell desktop and I'm hoping that build times drop significantly as I don't get a lot of time on the Presario on it anymore. Our son uses it for college classes.

I put the Dell box into the trunk of my car and headed over to CompUSA to pick up an nVidia 7300GT video card. My home setup is a Dell 24 inch monitor next to a 17 inch Dell LCD display so I wanted dual output with at least one of them DVI. I also wanted 256 MB of onboard RAM for Vista. I went with a low-end card as most of the stuff that I do is mundane office stuff.

One nice thing about the Dell box is that it fits into the trunk of my car. I bought two HP desktops in 2006 and neither of those boxes fit in my trunk. I had to do a rather awkward job of putting them into the back seat to bring them home. HP uses this odd box size that's just large enough in all three dimensions to annoy me. Dell also puts their logo on the box while HP doesn't. I can see a justification for that if you want to decrease theft.

The top of the box contains a wall diagram for setting up the machine (which I never read) and a shallow box containg a box for the keyboard and an area  for the mouse, literature and software CD-ROMs. Yes, you heard that correctly: Dell ships the software CD-ROMs now.

With HP, you have to make your own recovery disks which can be a real pain in the neck if you don't have a DVD burner.

The keyboard is in the thin box to the right and is an oddly shaped Dell design which they've had for several years. The keys have good travel length though some might consider the keyboard bouncy. I like Dell keyboards as they are USB devices and am happy to leave the world of PS/2 behind.

The box/compartment to the left holds the mouse, power cord, documentation and CD-ROMs.

And underneath this section is the computer in two pieces of shaped styrofoam. I already had the computer setup so it was too late to get a picture of it in the foam. But here's a picture where you can use your imagination.


The back of the computer is pretty spartan with a ports for power, surround sound, 4 USB 2.0, ethernet and integrated video. There are four expansion slots in the back for PCI-X 16, PCI-X 1 and 2 PCI slots which means that there is little room for expansion in this box.

The front of the machine is your typical PC though the two grills at the bottom remind me of car grilles.

The top contains room for two 5 1/4 inch devices and one 3 1/2 in devices. The power switch is just above the Dell badge on the front.

There are two USB 2.0 ports and microphone and headphone jacks around the middle.

The top of the box contains the Windows Sticker and a latch. The latch is used to remove the side panel making this one of the easiest systems I've seen to get into the box.

This box is smaller than the Pavillion but is fairly uncluttered. Dell likes to add plastic to direct air and to make it easier to install and remove things.

The wiring is cleaner than it was on my Pavillions. Note the really odd cutout on the left.  The purpose of this cutout appears to be for ventilation. I'm not exactly sure what the airflow would be but it could be to vent warm air from the lower 3 1/2 inch disks and//or provide intake for the heatsink in the middle of the system. And I suppose that it could be used as a way to grab the system when moving it. The one drawback to the venting is that you can hear disk noise which means that they didn't use a really quiet disk (I prefer Seagate and Hitach drives) and that there are some pretty big airflow holes in the system. We're not talking PowerMac or MacPro level ventilation but it's a lot more than I'm used to in Windows boxes.

The upper right houses the power supply in your typical dull aluminum. Dell's website lists a 305 Watt DC Power Supply which I would consider adequate and which is one of the reasons I went with a low-end graphics card. Good enough for a budget machine and certainly for my uses.

Moving down we see the right half of the motherboard. You can see the nVidia integrated video chip, part of the four DIMM sockets with two populated with 1 GB DDR2 SDRAM sticks at 533 Mhz. I do plan to upgrade to 4 GB of memory at some point but I want to install Windows XP Professional x64 edition before adding the extra memory. I generally prefer x64 over Win32 as there are performance benefits to everyday operations in Windows and I'll be able to access more memory.

As you can see, cabling is neat and clean and there is lots of room for airflow on the right.

Moving down we see the expansion slots. Pretty spartan here with just the PCI Express 16 socket at the top, the PCI Express 1 socket on the left and the two PCI sockets on the bottom. The system came with a modem/fax PCI board which was free but I will probably remove it at some point if I need to make room for devices to support x64 and HDTV.

Over the left there are two 3.5 inch device bays. This system had a free upgrade to a 320 GB disk and I took it so there's room for four operating systems. I plan to test Windows Media Center, Vista Home Premium, XP Pro x64 Edition and Vista Business if I can get it for free with the x64 license purchase from Newegg.

Dell's business systems are well-known for adding plastic or metal cartridges to make it easier to install or remove devices. Those blue plastic pieces can slide out of their holders and they contain everything needed for mounting. It's a lot easier than trying to screw small blots into the racks when they're fixed inside the box.

In the middle of the box, there's a big piece of black plastic covering the CPU heat sink. Dell likes to put in ducting in their desktops which I think is a good idea compared to just having air flow whereever it will. The heat sink is a really huge piece of aluminum.

Back up to the upper-right we have area for optical/media drives and there is additional space for a 5 1/4 device and a 3 1/2 device with cutouts in the front. I don't do a lot of multimedia that requires physical media so will probably leave this the way it is for now. 

Setting up my desktop went fairly smoothly. I installed the nVidia 7300 GT drivers and my two wireless mouse worked. I installed Firefox, Thunderbird, VPN for work, Tarantella, FileZilla, NVU, and Avast Antivirus. I deinstalled Norton's security suite, Google Toolbar and one or two other things. A few Windows updates ran and, of course, there were many reboots in doing all of this. The machine feels comfortably like my Conroe now with similar performance.

The main use for this computer for now will be to connect to work and use Tarantella, Firefox and Thunderbird, and use Remote Desktop to connect to my laptop to provide homework help to the kids. I do plan on doing Mozilla builds on it but that will take some setup time which I don't have right now.

In the following days, I also installed 7-Zip, iTunes and ISORecorder so that I could write iso files to CDs.

I had a chance to look around in the bios setup screen and this was one of the nicest bios setup interfaces that I've seen. Dell usually does a good job here with many screens and menus that are well-laid out and I remember this from some of my older Dell systems.

I created a Windows XP Professional x64 Edition CD but couldn't get it to boot so I went into the BIOS setup and found a very nicely laid out set of menus to change BIOS settings. The CD-ROM was after the hard disk so I rearranged to put the CD before the hard disk. I also noticed that there were options for booting off the NIC, a USB floppy, a USB Zip drive, a USB CD-ROM and a USB hard disk. It's pretty cool that they now allow booting off a USB hard disk as it means that I could boot up an alternate OS from a disk in a USB enclosure. I don't recall the ability to do this with any of my HP systems. My PowerMac does have the ability to boot off a Firewire drive.

February 10, 2007

I ran the Windows XP Pro  x64 Edition installation and the first part of the installation was fine but I suspect that there's a SATA or PATA driver problem with the Windows installation that I've heard about from other users. I think that there's a way to get around that problem but I'll have to do some digging on it. Meanwhile I need a way to change the boot timings as 2 seconds isn't enough.

I may give Dell a phone call tonight to ask them about installing x64 on the E521. Perhaps they have a page with detailed instructions on installing Windows XP x64 Edition.

February 11, 2007

I retried the installation and it got past the first reboot but generated a BSOD with an exception at IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL. I googled around and found that it is generally caused by a hardware and/or device driver problem. So this could be the SATA issue or a problem with some other device. I'm going to try going back to the integrated video to see if the video card is the problem. If not, then maybe it is the SATA driver problem. If that isn't it, I'm not sure what to check next. It appears that I'm the first to try x64 on the Dell E521 given the lack of this configuration on the web. I know that this can't be true as Dell has x64 drivers for this system so they must have it running in their labs. But their tech support people don't appear to be hooked up to their lab people.

BTW, I did speak to tech support and the guy was clueless. He thought it was a partitioning problem but I explained to him that the partitioning didn't matter. I guess he looked around but in the end, he suggested calling their software people but that was a fee-based service which I declined. I wasn't at the computer anyways. I was hoping that Dell would have a page with information on installing x64 XP or Vista as their machines support 4 GB of RAM and Dell will even sell you 4 GB of RAM. You just can't use it with 32-bit Windows systems.

While diddling around Dell's website for information on Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, I did run into some interesting pages.
When I woke up in the morning, I had the idea of turning off one of the monitors so I tried that and was able to complete the installation. So I have a basic installation up and running and next need to get the updated drivers from Dell and nVidia installed. I ran into one post about nVidia driver issues on x64, maybe related to DVI and wondered if my dual monitor system was the problem. At any rate, it was a very odd problem and I just got lucky getting it resolved.

In the afternoon, I installed the drivers for the integrated sound, chipset and SATA Controller from Dell's website. No ethernet access though so I need a driver for that too. A quick look at their Drivers and Downloads page shows that they don't have a driver download for their onboard Ethernet so I'm stuck again. At this point I have two options. The first is to grab the ethernet card out of the Conroe system which doesn't run x64 anymore because our daughter is the primary user. The second would be to find out what kind of Ethernet device I have onboard and try to find the driver from I will try the latter first as I'd rather keep things as simple as possible. Having spare parts around definitely does take some of the stress out of life.

Note that I had audio after installing the sound driver and rebooting. I had difficulty finding the sound drivers for my other three machines and I'm still using a beta driver on my 3-year-old laptop to run Windows x64. On the Conroe, I had to go out and buy a sound board that came with x64 drivers. It's really, really nice when you can just download the drivers from the hardware manufacturer's website and kudos to Dell for putting them there.

I did download the modem/fax driver but didn't install it as I doubt that I'm going to use the devices anytime soon. I also downloaded the latest nVidia GeForce drivers so that I can reasonably use the 7300GT video card and then had a look at the network controller. Running with dual boot is really nice because I can download drivers and examine hardware from the Windows XP MCE side while testing drivers on the x64 side. The fact that this machine boots so quickly makes this setup phase only somewhat unpleasant.

The ethernet controller is a Broadcom 440x 10/100 Integrated Controller so it's off to Broadcom's site to see if they have drivers available. They list 5 driver sets and I chose the NetLink 4401 as it is the closest in name to my integrated controller.

I installed the nVidia GeForce drivers and the Broadcom Integrated Controller drivers and Life is Good! I got my displays back at full native resolution and my ethernet is working. So I didn't need any additional hardware this time around.

I installed Firefox x64, FileZIlla, Analog-X Capture, and NVU so that I could update this webpage. Firefox x64 just absolutely flies compared to running it on Windows XP MCE. There's just a nice speed boost in running x64 over Win32 and it's so noticeable on this particular system. Good job Dell and AMD!

Someone an requested my CPU-Z information so I took some screen captures which you will see below. I've spent a good amount of time this weekend on this project and it's time to work on a few other things like schoolwork with the kids and taking a peek at taxes.

CPU-Z 1 Dell E521 X2 5600+CPU-Z Dell E521 X2 5600+

CPU-Z Dell E521 X2 5600+CPU-Z Dell E521 X2 5600+

CPU-Z Dell E521 X2 5600+

February 17, 2007

I installed a number of things to prepare for Mozilla x64 builds and to make the machine more comfortable for work and entertainment.
This machine is an absolute workhorse in the amount of work and entertainment that it can handle at the same time. It's really amazing how well this machine and the E6600 systems perform and I wonder what folks that buy faster processors do with them. More speed is always nice but at some level of performance, does it really matter? Well, I don't have Vista up and running and maybe Vista is a performance hog so maybe faster processors can be justified there but I'd have a hard time spending more money for faster systems at this time.

There's a poster at PlanetAMD64 that's using a 7950GT on his E521 but he has the X2 5000+ processor so maybe he has a little more power available for his high-end card. Still I'm pretty surprised that there's enough juice in this box for that graphics card. I've very happy with a 7300GT and wouldn't think of going higher than a 7600GT.

August 26, 2007

It's been a long time since my last update and this cheap machine has been my daily system this year and I'm very happy with it. Of course, it's probably quite a bit cheaper now given the price war between AMD and Intel.

I recently bought a hard drive from a local retailer, Showtime PC in Hudson, New Hampshire, as I wanted to get away from using my external USB 2.0 drive. The external driver uses up a USB 2.0 slot, requires a power cord and the fan is noisy and I have to manually turn it on and off. I think that performance is fine but maybe we can do a little better with an internal drive. The external drive is quite a bit bigger as the one that I bought was only 80 GB. I just wanted something for building Mozilla products and this was a cheap way to get that done.

I opened up the E521 and looked around for a place to put the disk. I had the choice of the upper bays or the lower bays. The lower bays already had an extra SATA power connector in just the right spot so I put the disk in the plastic sleeve and slid it in. It fits rather snugly and of course it doesn't work as there weren't any spare data connectors in the machine so I just left the disk inside. This is the first time that I've done anything with SATA drives so I had a look on the web to learn about the different standard. I also had a look at the connector for the system drive in the E521 and the connector for the DVD drive. They both plugged into small ports on the motherboard. I saw that there were two additional ports on the motherboard and it appears that I just need to buy a cable to hook from the motherboard to the disk and I should be in business.

I did order and eventually received the Windows Vista Home Premium disk from either Dell or Microsoft. I never got around to installing it though. I've heard so many negative things about Vista and personally don't feel the need to install it as I'm perfectly happy with Windowx XP Media Center and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition.

The systems has accumulated a little bit of dust and I'll need to get a special vacuum cleaner that we have to blow out the dust. Dust and dirt can take a toll on performance for computer systems.

I should post a note when I have the second hard-drive up and running. For a budget machine, it certainly gets the job done. I'm hoping that I won't run into any power issues with the additional drive. If I do, then the disk goes on one of the kids' machines which have bigger power supplies.

August 29, 2007

The right-angle SATA cable arrived. It was an 18 inch cable with a very short right-angle connector. I saw another right-angle connecter that probably wouldn't fit so be careful if you order a cable for an additional disk drive. The 18 inch cable just fit. I would have preferred something like 33 inches but I didn't see one for sale. I ordered two of these in case I need one for another device or system. The disk is in and is nice and speedy. Perhaps the shorter cable improves performance.

My next potential upgrade for this machine is getting up to 4 GB of RAM. It's pretty hard to justify right now so I'll only upgrade if the memory is really, really cheap. At the moment, the recommended upgrade is under $100 to get to 4 GB of RAM with the faster memory. The slower memory is dirt-cheap. I can't really think of anything that I need to add right now.

December 27, 2007

.I was looking for a pickup in performance and more storage space for the Dell E521 so I finally got around to picking up another 2 GB of RAM. I also wanted more in-system storage so I picked up a Seagate 750 GB disk. At the moment, I'm using an external drive to store university course videos but it's a noisy solution as it has a fan that makes a little noise.

I bought Super Talent Heat Spreader PC4200 memory for about $42 per stick. The reason for the high cost was that I went to a local retailer for the part. The memory went in easily and there's a nice performance improvement when running Windows XP Pro x64 Edition. Basically more files are cached which means program startup and file operations run faster as they are cached. I don't have to worry about running out of memory either.

I got the disk and then started looking up the specs and found that that model used 50% more power than previous generations and generated a lot of heat. The Dell E521 3.5 inch disk bays don't have space for a hard drive cooler so I returned the disk and did some research on disk drives in general. I found that those with lower capacity tend to use less power and put out less heat. I may wind up with another 160 GB drive in the system.

The system is my daily machine at home and it gets the job done quite nicely. There's a lot out there that's tempting and Penryn will certainly be interesting but, at the moment, I can't really justify a new system as my daily driver.

One other thing: at this point, I would not recommend buying a system with AMD chips given the murky outlook on an upgrade path. Who knows when they will get their Phenom issues settled. At the moment, upgrades are in extreme doubt.

January 4, 2007

I installed the Intel C Compiler, version 10.1 on a free-trial basis to see if it is usable for building Firefox and Thunderbird. The installation went smoothly and I'm impressed with Intel's code generation quality.

I'm considering a 160 GB SATA drive to replace the 80 GB secondary on the E521 and am thinking of a Seagate model. It seems that the smaller Seagate drives are pretty good on power consumption. Another option would be to buy a new system from Dell with a Penryn chip in it and then put this machine in the living room for general-purpose use. We're using a Dell Vostro that I borrowed from my son's apartment in the living room as the PowerMac G5 is down for cleaning.

I can't complain about the performance of the Dell E521 but I want to experiment with SSSE3 instructions and AMD doesn't support those instructions in any of their chips.

Last Updated January 4, 2007.
All trademarks used are property of their respective owners.