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Hardware review: Dell Optiplex 745 desktop

I ordered the Dell OptiPlex 745 computer for use at work, where we’re in a full Windows environment. As much as I don’t like it, I’m stuck doing my development work on PCs for now. My reaction after using it for about 6 months is mixed.

On the one hand, the form factor is nice. On the other hand, the performance is sluggish, and some of the design aspects of the hardware leave a lot to be desired. I suppose I should take it all in stride, since one can’t expect something outstanding or superior from Dell — only something adequate.

Front view of Dell OptiPlex 745

I got an Energy Star-rated 745 in the Desktop form factor, which can be stood upright or laid on its side, like I have it here in the photo. I ordered it with a 24″ wide screen LCD, which I like except for its cumbersome controls. The keyboard and mouse are standard Dell hardware. Actually, the mouse is supposed to be a “premium” 5-button mouse, but it’s pretty inferior in real-world use.

Here’s what I like about the computer:

  • Lots of USB ports in the back
  • Multi-card reader built into front panel
  • USB ports on front panel
  • Small form factor
  • Easy to service
  • Pretty good deal, hardware-wise
  • The screen was a really good deal when bundled with the computer. (By itself, it’s still pretty expensive.)

Now here’s what I don’t like:

  • Cheap hard drive with tiny buffer size (8 MB)
  • Sluggish performance: it should do a LOT better given the specs, which I’ll outline below.
  • Bad design for monitor speaker panel
  • Cumbersome controls on monitor
  • Loud noise from hard drive
  • Cheap, plasticky, loud mouse that doesn’t feel right in my hand

The computer came with an Intel Dual Core 2.66GHz processor, 250 GB SATA 8 MB Buffer hard drive, 4 GB RAM, 256 MB ATI PCI Express video card, and a few other goodies, including a Firewire card. I installed Vista Ultimate 32-bit edition on it. You’d think with these specs, it’d zip right through the applications and start up really fast. Well, it doesn’t. I’m not sure whether it’s Vista’s or Dell’s fault — or maybe they’re both to blame — but it takes about 10 minutes for a full restart cycle. That’s ten agonizing minutes while I watch it slowly grind through its tasks. Blech.

As if that’s not enough, when I start applications, the performance is once again nothing special. I even use a 1 GB USB flash drive as a ReadyBoost drive, and while it does somewhat minimize the hard drive seek operations, the performance is still nothing special. That’s pretty sad when you think of it. New hardware, new operating system, loaded with goodies, using the equivalent of a nitrous oxide addition to the carburetor in the form of a ReadyBoost drive, and still, it only jogs along at a comfortable pace. Speaking from personal experience, that’s the sad story of Windows and PC hardware in general…

What’s more, and I have a feeling Microsoft is to blame for this, even though I installed 4 GB of RAM in the machine, and the computer sees all 4 GB when it boots up, Windows has chosen to see only 3069 MB out of the 4096 MB. Why, I don’t know. Did it reserve 1 GB for itself without telling me? It would be nice if it said that somewhere, but it doesn’t. Is it because 4 GB is the upper limit on x86 computing platforms? Possibly, but then shouldn’t it still see the whole 4 GB? I don’t know. If one of you can clarify this, I’d really appreciate it.

The OptiPlex 745 wouldn’t be a Dell if it didn’t have a few points of contention, a few things that make you smack your head out of frustration and ask WHY. Here they are:

  • The hard drive has an 8 MB buffer. I tried ordering a drive with a 16 MB buffer, but Dell didn’t offer one at the time of purchase. That’s got to be a pretty stupid thing. Now, just a few months after I bought this, there are drives out there with 32 MB buffers. I have two of them at home, and they’re great. But Dell shot this computer in the foot because they stuck it with a tiny buffer. I sit there all day long and hear the hard drive churning and seeking because there isn’t enough space in the buffer to store transient data. It’s pathetic but hey, it’s a Dell.
  • They stuck a stinking blue LED light right on the LCD’s speaker panel. You can see it below. What were they thinking?! I could understand sticking blue LEDs on external hard drives that aren’t directly in the line of sight, or on the back panel, or side panels, or anywhere else but directly in front of my eyes! It’s not as if the word hasn’t gotten out that the human eye can’t focus blue LED light properly, and people get headaches because of them. Did Dell bother to think about the design? Apparently not. What I had to do was to stick a web cam right in front of the blue LED, in order to hide it. I suppose I could also take some electrical tape and mask it. Either way, this was a stupid design decision.
  • The mouse has to be one of the worst mice I’ve ever used. It’s right up there with old trackball mice at the local public libraries, the ones with gunk built up on the tracking controls… You know the ones I’m talking about… the ones that use to drive us crazy while we looked up citations for our college papers. While this mouse tracks fine, it feels terrible in my hand. As if that’s not enough, it’s so cheap and plasticky, and it clicks so loudly every time I use it, that people down the hall can hear me clicking. It’s horribly annoying. I’m trying to think of creative ways to do away with it. But hey, it’s a Dell mouse…
  • Last but not least, even though the OptiPlex 745 can be stood upright, it has no rubber there. Not even some non-skid backing. So if you stand it upright on a desk with a smooth, hard surface (that’s most desks, in case Dell is reading this) and smack it only slightly, it’ll fly right off the desk. Oh, that wonderful Dell design…

Top view of the Dell OptiPlex

Would I recommend this desktop to someone else? Well, it depends. Do you want a Dell? If you do, and you know what to expect, I suppose it’ll do the job. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and stay away from it, unless you can get it with a better hard drive.

I would recommend the 24-inch display though. In spite of the crappy blue LED on the sound panel, I like the display’s vibrant colors, and I love its size. I also like the fact that it has a built-in USB hub, a built-in multi-card reader on the side, and many inputs (DVI, VGA, component, S-video) on the back. If you can get it at a good price, get it.

And for goodness’ sake, if you do end up getting one, DO NOT get the Dell mouse, or you’ll soon regret your days…

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17 thoughts on “Hardware review: Dell Optiplex 745 desktop

  1. Matthew says:

    Suggestion, Run windows XP 32bit, At a clean install you will probably use 300 mb of available ram, I noticed a lot of down performance is hard disk related time to read from disk impacts the time for system to ready itself. If you have 2+GiG of ram then install ebooster4, allocate 608MB of ram as cache, Add explorer.exe to priority list, build cache. And you will notice up to 50 times computer faster/response as you are taking load of the hard disk and making faster by using the ram in its place.

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  2. Rainer Pitthan says:

    I bought a GX 745 exactly 5 years ago on a super strong recommendation of Government Computer News. Since I bought it through an EPP program I settled for 2Gb memory, maybe a mistake, but I got a $1,800 machine fr $1,200.

    I have been very pleased with it, including the 21″ monitor. I do not game, but I do run programs like Mathematica and Adobe CS2 (I never upgraded).

    However, this winter while I was in extreme need of things to work _ I tried to get a mortgage loan from BofA, which these days is like writing a PhD Thesis in Theoretical Physics _ the machine froze up on me again and again. After contemplation the usual moves, like more memory, etc., I finally I researched defragmentation.

    I had used Diskkeeper at some time in 2002/8, but then the license expired and I forgot. My Win7 machines are set for defrag once a week. Luckily I found that Diskkeeper Light is build-in into XP SP3.

    Well, I had never seen anything like this: 46% defragmented. So the machine strangled itself. I did what I did 15 years ago with Windows 3.1, I run the defrag program again and again, about 10 times, until there were no more red lines in the “Estimated Disk Use After Defragmentation” display, and the available memory went from 47% to 51%. And everything was fine.

    I do like the proposals from Daniel on February 19, 2009 at 02:49, and I am thinking about the memory aspect, because once a month I get a memory fault error (not a blue screen).

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  3. Oyo says:

    Just had my optiplex 745 and im happy, i have a question can i upgrade my video card because
    my optiplex 745 is a mini version seems like it don’t have enough space. Please help me. Thanks

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  4. Ken says:

    I just picked up a similar Optiplex 745 at a university surplus sale, and I’m quite happy with it – but I knew what I was getting:

    – came w/ 2 gigs of RAM, quickly upgraded to 4, soon 8 gigs, all 4 gigs available because I run x64 OS

    – Vista was a resource pig – Windows 7 (released after you wrote the above) runs MUCH better on this hardware

    – I had the x1300 add-in video card, upped it to an nVidia 210 card, got much better 2D graphics (gaming sux, but I don’t game)

    – my system has the E6600 Core 2 Duo, which supports virtualization, and has 4 Meg cache – it is a fine CPU

    – the chipset can run 4 gigs of ram at 800 MHz, 8 gigs only runs at 667 MHz – that is a known issue w/ the Intel’s 965 chipset

    If your complaints are crappy mouse (seriously?), no rubber feet on side if you stand it on edge (whatever), the light on the speaker bar (dubious) and the cache size on the HD than you really don’t have any complaints. The decision to run Vista was your real mistake, not ordering a Dell.

    These are Corp. desktops, we have literally hundreds of them at $WORK, and they perform great under XP or Win7 – that they go up to 8 gigs of RAM will add to their useful life.

    These are 4 year-old machines, but they will be useful desktops for a couple more years.

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  5. Shoogle Nifty says:

    If you have 4GB of RAM, then your ReadyBoost drive should be at least that big to do any bit of good for you. I just loaded XP Pro on to one of these boxes. It is screaming fast with only 2GB of RAM and a 1.86GHz Core 2. XP does not have to deal with the Aero graphics though. My Dell E1705 can get a bit sluggish with Vista Business. I found that the System Restore was always trying to create automatic restore points while I was trying to use the computer CPU intensive tasks.

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  6. Pingback: Hardware review: Dell S2409W Flat Panel Display – Reviews - Raoul Pop

  7. Daniel says:

    I have been running my Dell Optiplex 745 since January of 2007. I too was disappointed for similar reasons, but let me share with everyone the steps that i have taken to make this
    a very nice pc. First, i noticed the cheap SAMSUNG memory cards. Yuk! Go to http://www.kingston.com and order 2 memory cards at 2GB each. KTD-DM8400B/2G for my Ultra Small Form Factor, and i paid only $24 for each! Replace & enjoy the boost! (Reboot. If no video, re-seat the cards as they should SNAP into place)

    Second Step: Go to http://www.westerndigital.com and learn about WD’s Caviar Black. This hdd not only has 32mb of cache, but sports a DUAL onboard processor. I purchased the 1TB model at Best Buy for about $123.00 My original hard drive was a (you guessed it) 160gb SAMSUNG! Shame on you Michael Dell!
    The Caviar Black is the fastest hard drive on the market at this price level, but you could also consider the VelociRaptor if you are willing to spend $300 bucks for the fastest drive on planet earth.

    Anyways, on to steps #3 & #4:
    Pay a visit to http://www.apricorn.com and click on the picture of a small red square which is known as a DriveWire.
    Don’t argue, just buy one ($39 + shipping). The DriveWire comes with a CD to install their “EZ Gig II” cloning software. Just install the software first, then attach your new hard drive to the Drivewire, plug in the Power & USB wire to your dell. If you don’t hear the “found new hardware” bell, then just remove the drive from the Drivewire and re-attach, or just remove/install the usb connection once again. Ok, so your new Caviar Black is attached to the DriveWire, you can feel it spinning, and you dell has announced that it has “found new hardware”.
    Cool. Now just click on the Apricorn EZ Gig II icon that should now be on your desktop and select “Clone Disk” in the upper right hand corner. This is easy, so just follow the prompts. When you have successfully cloned your hard drive, you need only disconnect the power cable to your dell to remove the hard drive. Be sure to remove the 2 small cables that are connected to the drive first. Remove the old hard drive and if you have plastic rails attached, transfer these to the the new drive in exactly the same orientation. Install the Caviar.

    Fire it up! Sooo much faster! Amazing!

    Oh, one more thing for those of us that have the USFF.
    I purchased a ThermalTake T1000 Notebook cooling pad at CompUSA ($29). No need to use the 2 “stands”, just lay it flat on the desk as there is air intake from the side vents.
    Also, turn the cooling pad “backwards” so that the 2 usb ports are to your left and facing you. This way, the large fan is towards the “front” and the fan can blow directly into the vent that is located at the front & bottom of the Optiplex when standing as a tower. Connect the usb cable to one of the usb ports on the pad and the other to a usb port on the dell. This supplies the power to the fan. The 2nd usb port on the pad is a “pass through” port that you can use for any usb purpose of your choosing.

    You dell just went from “loser” to “too cool for school” for less than $300! Best wishes to all.

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  8. Tom says:

    I know alot of people who gave this tower away because of all the issues. I have 1 myself but luckily it was given to me. The previous owner was going to toss it in the dumpster. I asked what was wrong with it he Replied ” It’s a Dell” I do alot of gaming World of Warcraft the most. As much as you can upgrade this tower still lagga alot. Come on 8 gigs ram and a nvidia 7600GT. My laptop with 2 gigs runs better than this desktop.

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  9. Robert Douglas says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s nice to see other people’s experiences with these new Dell systems.

    In regards to the memory usage, a couple of people stated that it can only address 3GB. 32-bit can go to 4GB, but the Dell BIOS is implemented in such a way that it wastes most of the memory above 3GB due to the way they partition the memory. Other brands of firmware do a better job of partitioning the reserved sections. It’s not the OS’s limitation. On other hardware you may get over 3.5GB.

    If you put in 3GB of memory, it’s 3GB total available memory, so that disproves the contention that the OS is using 1GB, otherwise you’d see only 2GB in Task Manager.

    I have a 745 and a 755, and I have become disappointed with both: neither will run 64-bit VM’s under VMware Server. I just installed Windows Server 2008 and I am going to try out Microsoft’s virtualization, but it appears that the Dell BIOS (once again) is the limiting factor. It supports 64-bit OS, but not child instances, it seems. (I could be doing something wrong, but it seems pretty straightforward.)

    As you say, if you are familiar with Dell, you know what to expect.

    I ran across one other annoying issue: my 320GB SATA II drive that I had hoped to use as a replacement for the 80GB drive the system came with causes the system crash during the OS boot process. A friend also heard of this issue from someone else. Very annoying.

    — Rob “I” —

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  10. SK says:

    X86 or 32 bit operating systems (Windows XP, Vista Buisness, Vista Ultimate 32, Vista Home, Vista Basic) are constrained to 3092 Mb or 3 GB of addressable RAM, while x64 or 64 bit operating systems such as XP 64 bit or Vista Ultimate 64bit both can address as much memory as the board can handle, currently 8 GB.

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  12. Sigtryggur says:

    Hi.

    I was baffled by this memory inconsistancy on my Optiplex 745, it has 4 GB at boot but only 3324 MB when I check the task manager.
    That would be ok but for the fact that as soon as I reach 2Gb of memory usage the computer just stops performing and gets really sluggish ! So I might be sending this turkey back actually !
    But thanks for the info.

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  13. Hey Sam, I checked the startup apps list, and they’re the usual suspects. I’d rather not take them off. Can’t say I heard the tick noise you mention.

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  14. I too am in IT and have configured approx 20 of these 745’s When you say yours takes 10 minutes…that concerned me. Have you removed all of the unnecesary applications that load at startup?

    I have installed Vista Ultimate 32 bit, Vista Ultimate 64 Bit and XP Pro 32 Bit and none of them take as long as you stated.

    I have noticed one annoyance with Vista Ultimate 64-Bit…it seems that some time of regback software runs for a few minutes at startup as can be noted by the noise of the hdd running….Now that runs for a few minutes after startup however I have not noticed a performance decrease because of it. Once it stops the HDD is quiet and not churning away and btw this is on a system with 4 gig memory & 500GB SATA HDD.

    When I look at the Resource monitor I notice regback churning away as indicated by the HDD DATA counter adding up. This like I said goes away after a few minutes however it is quite annoying.

    ALSO….I notice this weird tick noise that has a slight echo if you will to it coming from the case. I changed out HDD’s and it is still there. Have you noticed this?

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  16. Hi Raoul, good write up of the Optiplex 745.

    The 4Gb of memory thing confuses many, but is the nature of the 32-bit beast, you’ll see the same thing in Windows XP. You’ve pretty much guessed the reason for only seeing roughly 3Gb. You can read Microsoft’s official explanation of this at http://support.microsoft.com/kb/929605 but essentially around 1Gb of your memory is reserved by your system. That doesn’t necessarily mean that 1Gb will actually be used by your PC. In your case 256Mb of that final 1Gb will not get used because your video card has already made use of that memory space before your actual 4Gb of memory could. If that makes any sense!

    Windows just plays it safe to avoid conflicts with anything else using memory space basically. The only way out is to go 64-bit, which of course brings with it a new set of compatibility problems.

    As I work in IT, and we use Dell as our PC supplier, I’ve seen a ton of these Optiplex 745s. You pretty much hit the nail on the head with the ‘Premium’ Mouse. Not only does it feel cheap, the scroll wheel refuses to act like any other mouse wheel would, I use a number of 3D software packages and it just refuses to act as a way to zoom in and out as it should.

    On the standing it up on its side issue, you’ll be interested to know maybe that the sequel to the 745, the 755 that came out recently, now has rubber feet on the side so that it will do exactly as you suggest it should. It’s very effective, the only way to move the thing now is to lift it up off the desk!

    I haven’t noticed any real performance issues with these, but then I’ve mainly used Windows XP with them, so its possible a result of Vista that you’re seeing some of this.

    Ben

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