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More than 20 years after they first appeared, the handful of big brands still producing business PCs seem to have perfected the concept of the small desktop. Dell’s latest OptiPlex offers a good look at the state of the art for this approach to Windows computing; pared down to the minimum but robust, carefully designed to give IT personnel quick access to any component with a completely rational design that never deviates from the published manual. (Prices and support here

Launched in late 2015, the ostensible reason for the refresh was to update the family to the latest Intel Skylake Core i3, i5 and i7 processors but what has come out the other end is a lot more than a new engine inserted into last year’s design.

In the relatively recent past, PCs were often unforgiving with different makers adopting new technologies at different rates. The OptiPlex is very different, accommodating every conceivable interface and specification going. As well as the standard connectors and jacks, the customer gets six USB 3.0 ports (two of each on the front panel), four USB 2.0 ports with smart power on and three HDMI ports. A front SD card slot is also available on some models.

Two case sizes are available, mini tower and small form factor, which is where the OptiPlex starts to shine. PCs stopped being primitive boxes designed for service access only years ago but the Dell’s business-friendly design is still impressive and novel. On the Mini Tower, a sliding latch allows the side cover to be quickly and smoothly removed, after which the drive bay frame can be raised using a hinged design to access the motherboard, CPU, dual RAM slots and 240v PSU. Adding and removing extra internal drives – up to two HDDS can be accommodated - would be easy using a quick-mount system.

The Mini Tower is actually a good balance of space conservation with some room for expansion at a later date. Four full height expansion slots are available: two PCIe x16, a PCIe x1 for external video, and one plain PCI slot. The supplied system came with a 3.2GHz Core i5 6500 (paired to the Q170 chipset), 8GB of RAM (116GB maximum) and, curiously, a motherboard-mounted 120GB SSD card drive containing the OS but with no secondary hard drive. Windows 7 Pro is supplied by default although a Windows 10 upgrade disc is included. Ethernet is standard although the 802.11ac wireless card is a n option.

Software and services is a major feature of the Dell business PCs. This includes:

Dell Protected Workspace

A subscription-based endpoint security system (one year is included) based on sandboxing technology from a US firm called Invincea that seems to have been developed a few years back during the panic about Chinese Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs). Apparently endorsed by the NSA, the technology essentially virtualises applications such as Office, PDF Reader, and the web browser) into secure containers isolated form the system itself. Access into and out of these containers is then monitored from anomalous behaviour and isolated if any is detected. It sounds worthy but virtualising something like Office probably has implications that should be looked into by any IT department thinking of using it.

Dell backup and Recovery

A way to back up files on a continuous or timed basis and the system itself, i.e. applications and settings. The Premium version is for local backup only although an encrypted cloud option is also available, aimed presumably at small office and single business users.  The cloud option is a subscription service.

Dell Client Command Suite tools

Free client-management admin tool that allows OptiPlex systems to be deployed, configured down to BIOS level, monitored and patched. These were given a major overhaul in 2014 and so anyone familiar with the previous set of management tools will find revised versions of these in this suite under new names.

Security options

Naturally the system contains a TPM but can also be configured to authenticate users with FIPS 140-2 smartcards, fingerprint readers and other smartcard readers.

Dell OptiPlex 5040 PC review conclusion:

If Dell’s OptiPlexs have one confusing aspect it’s the sheer number of variations offered on the same business theme – we counted 17 families in the lineup, a dizzying array of sizes and what PC designers call form factors. The 5040 series fits bang in the middle of these and in many ways typifies what the OptiPlex range has to offer the business user. Well built, so quiet we had trouble being sure it was turned on, and a comprehensive range of hardware and software options, the 5040 series will surely give Lenovo and HP a run for their money.

However, it would be remiss of us not to point out that Dell has had a glitch or two on the business software front, notably last year’s eDellRoot certificate security flaw affecting the firm’s Dell’s Foundation Services remote support tool. This sort of issue isn’t unique to Dell – Lenovo had an even more egregious issue with its ridiculous Superfish cock-up earlier in 2015 – but it is a reminder that all the quality in the world won’t protect customers if basic errors have been made elsewhere.

Price as reviewed: from £531 plus VAT (including SSD but excluding HDD)

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