Although Dell has, for decades, been a staunch proponent of the direct sales model – which cuts out the middlemen – it has over the years mellowed and embraced the channel in order to boost its revenue streams.
You can now buy Dell systems from a number of surprising outlets like Dabs, Amazon and even Tesco. We've been told that some vendors even manage to undercut Dell's own recommended retail price by ordering in bulk for certain products.
Which is the case today with the Dell Vostro 3900, a mid-range, mini-tower base unit aimed at the SMB market. The model we reviewed costs £309 (around $440, or AU$575) excluding VAT and shipping but you can buy it from Debenhams (yes, Debenhams) for as little as £265 including delivery and VAT as part of Dell's PartnerDirect preferred scheme.
Dell describes the PC as being highly dependable, easily expandable and delivering "exceptional business-class performance and value", and the Vostro 3900 certainly ticks at least one of these boxes. The offering hasn't evolved significantly, a sign that the traditional enterprise desktop PC market has matured with very little room for innovation, at least when it comes to base units.
The rectangular black box has a big Dell logo at the front, a DVD writer, two audio jacks and two USB 2.0 ports - there's an empty slot for a 19-in-1 card reader. The connectivity around the back includes four USB ports (two 2.0 and a pair of USB 3.0), three legacy ports (a pair of PS2s and one VGA), an HDMI port, Gigabit Ethernet, and three audio jacks.
A couple of comments here: you will be able to drive at least two full HD monitors out of the box and, if you use an extra pair of USB monitors, up to four in all.
Opening the machine up for upgrade or repair purposes can be done simply by removing two screws; you still need a screwdriver, so it is not a tool-less case.
Removing the side panel exposes a micro-ATX motherboard with a few cables, two free PCIe x1 slots, one PCIe x16 slot, and a PCI one, as well as a lot of free space which can only be a good sign if you want to add more components. There's space for a second hard disk drive, an extra memory module and an extra 5.25-inch device.
There's a fourth-generation Intel Core i5-4460 at the heart of this PC, a processor with 6MB cache, clocked at 3.2GHz and equipped with Intel Graphics HD4600. Given that we're expecting the seventh-generation Core to land this year, it was a bit of a surprise to come face to face with a Haswell part.
To some extent though, it shows that, at least for businesses, older CPUs are powerful enough for most workloads, even when teamed up with a single 4GB single-channel memory module and a 500GB hard disk drive (spinning at 7200rpm).
That's the sort of base configuration that has proved popular with SMBs especially when bundled with Windows 7 Professional. The Vostro 3900 comes, as expected, with a free upgrade to Windows 8.1 Professional and Windows 10 Professional.
The 300W power supply unit should be beefy enough to provide power to a plug-in, standalone midrange graphics card, while the bundled wired keyboard and mouse are average at best.
The included support consists of a basic one-year collect and return warranty. Tripling that costs almost £50 extra which is acceptable and if you think that you could get more than three years out of the system – which is a perfectly reasonable assumption – then the four-year ProSupport, next business day, on-site service comes in at £100 extra.
Funnily enough, although Dell is usually known as a build-to-order outfit, most of the options from the configuration page were greyed out. You cannot change any of the components or the operating system which is a shame. The feature page, which mentions a range of options – especially support for legacy ports – doesn't live up to expectations.
Let's face it, the classic desktop PC hasn't seen any meaningful evolution over the past decade or so. If expansion is a must for your business, then the Vostro 3900 is a good option but it offers no compelling features over the competition other than its price. Check out our list of the top 10 best business desktops for potential alternatives.
A laptop hooked up to a docking station has been one of the more popular options allowing for businesses and their workforces to embrace flexible working fully. And they don't cost a lot more. Cue the Vostro 3558, a Dell laptop with a similar configuration, weighing in at £365 (around $520, or AU$680) including VAT and delivery.
Then there are the three other desktop formats available: all-in-one, ultra-small form factor PC and HDMI dongles, all of which have combined massive leaps in component integration and power management to deliver products that were simply unimaginable a decade ago.