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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Thomas TimberWolf

Thomas TimberWolf

Back in 2001, you could see some wonderful and innovative cartoons on the Internet. I’m talking about Thomas TimberWolf, an (unfortunately) short series made sometime in 2000-2001 by Chuck Jones and company. This series is possibly the last animation work of Chuck Jones, who died in 2002. This was about the same time that you could see some truly crappy cartoons on TV — not that things have improved much nowadays. But let’s get back to the good stuff…

One of the wonderful things about Thomas TimberWolf is that the series was done in Flash. While some of the smooth movement and art of hand-drawn cartoons was lost, what we gained was a small file size (about 2.8 MB for 5-6 minutes of fun) and vector art. Vector art?! Oh yeah. It means you can scale any of these cartoons up to whatever size you want, and the lines will still be smooth and crisp. No pixelation, no blurriness, only clear lines and colors. Wonderful!

Let’s also not forget that the cartoons themselves are great. I mean, c’mon, we’ve got an intellectual timber wolf with a tragi-comic flaw: every time he says the word “Timber!”, trees fall on him. He spends his days trying to avoid falling trees and not entirely succeeding. How can you not be entertained by that? 😀 What’s even better is that Chuck Jones’ signature style was retained during the computer animation process. We’ve got the same minimalistic gags, the familiar, endearing character art, and that wonderful, non-specific warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when you watch quality stuff. I can’t describe it, but any cartoon aficionado will probably know what I’m talking about.

Thomas TimberWolf was released on the Internet in 2001, and it seems that a short while after the series ended, the Flash files became easily accessible on various sites, without copyright restrictions. I’m not sure entirely sure about that, so don’t quote me on it, but that seems to be the case. At any rate, I believe I downloaded the episodes from this same site several years ago. They’re still up and available there, so that’s a good thing.

Although only 13 episodes got released to the public, there are about 6 more episodes available, and that’s straight from the horse’s mouth. Stephen Fossati, who created, directed, wrote and co-produced the series, said it sometime in 2005. Stephen Fossati is Chuck Jones’ only living protege and worked closely with him for about 10 years. Their collaboration culminated with the Thomas TimberWolf series. I would love to see the other episodes, and I wonder where they are. If anybody has information about them, please let me know.

If for some reason the site where the episodes are posted goes down, I have them and can post them here. I’m not sure about the legality of it. If someone can give me the all clear on it, I’ll gladly put them up.

So, while they’re still available, go download all of the episodes, and keep them safely on your hard drives. They should be preserved for posterity.

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