Into the Vault – Dell XPS R400

Welcome back to the Vault
Which actually makes no sense, it’s not even a vault.
It’s my basement.

My name is Matt Mutch.
I am a computer enthusiast.
I’d like to tell you a story.

For most of my computing life, I’ve been a Windows PC user. Initially it was by choice, because I’d had some exposure to the Windows platform in school with PCs in the library. At first, it was a single one on a cart, wheeled around to demonstrate the “multimedia revolution” that was set to be upon us any day then, but eventually it was a cluster of them in a corner of the library used to access the internet, as it was back then in the early 90s, with a strange detour to the incredibly antiquated typing lab in the middle school, where dozens of what must have been 486DX monolithic slabs hummed away, running WordPerfect on a DOS SHELL which would have been perfect to teach typing on distraction free except for the capacity of some of them to run “The Oregon Trail” or “Sim Ant”.

Oregon trail screenshot of You have Died of Dysentary scene.
Yeah. Figures.

In the early 1990s, (the exact year is lost to memory), my mother did months of research into current and upcoming PC technology. Out of newspapers and magazines she wrung enough information on up-and-coming technology to walk into a local boutique shop and order one of the most staggering machines it seemed they’d ever assembled.
A recent 66 or 75 MHz model of the Pentium processor? No, thank you, she wanted the top of the line 100 MHz Pentium processor. Would she pair it with 4 or 8 megabytes of RAM? She asked for 16. And a spacious 500 MB hard drive? What’s that? A full gigabyte? No m’am. Perhaps you’ve misunderstood. No one will ever fill an entire gigabyte of storage. She insisted upon it anyway. It should have lasted us forever. She planned on it sufficing for a decade. For what we shelled out for it in 1990s dollars, it really should have. But the march of technology is inexorable. It served us well for about 3 years, and then continued to serve us for another two, eventually under some duress. That PC is no longer with us. It functioned on in some capacity through maybe 1997. I believe something caught on fire eventually. I can’t quite recall. I may have had something to do with that. Not kidding, I literally can’t remember is all.
Around 1996, give or take, my family upgraded from that massive steel mid-tower filled with ribbon cables and hot glue to a slick, injection molded Dell XPS R400. Ordering was done over the phone, taking at least 45 minutes to an hour with the representative to go over each customizable option. By then, I had taken the reigns from Mom as in charge of understanding what everything meant, and with both of our rudimentary understandings of PC hardware, once again we went completely HAM on a computer.

Photo of the actual Dell Dimension XPS r400
Photo of the actual Dell Dimension XPS r400

Specifications aside, it was beautiful. I remember I was legitimately home sick from school the day it arrived in the mail and I was still scrawny in middle school so I nearly killed myself by 1) hauling the boxes including the massive 19 inch CRT into the house and 2) waiting as I was told to by my mother to open it when everyone was around to enjoy it.
The Dell ran Windows 98, which was new to us. Windows 98 impressed out of the box simply by defaulting to a more colorful palette, operating with the now no brainer of millions of colors rather than the 256 color palette of Windows 95. Yes, 95 supported more than 256 colors but let’s face it, it really didn’t want to. It greeted us with animation and bold sound. And it was quickly discovered that it supported full screen movies on the built in DVD-ROM drive complete with hardware MPEG-2 decoding, which took the then incredible stress of DVD decoding off of the inadequate CPU. The Pentium II 400 MHz was still top of the line, mind you. DVDs were simply the stuff of the future at the time. And quite apart from the dedicated movie-watching hardware was the extravagant nVidia Riva TNT graphics card on the still mysterious Advanced Graphics Port.

Internals shot of the Dell XPS r400
Internals shot of the Dell XPS r400

One fun part of this computer was the clever Altec Lansing surround speakers with their attached subwoofer that belted out sound in a way that I had never heard before. The only CDs around the house were a couple of the best of the 60s collections that Dad had gotten on a lark and it was like we were hearing them for the first time. Also included in the system settings was a demonstration app to show off the 3D positioning capabilities which baffled everyone who listened to it. There were no rear speakers in the set up, just angled front satellites, that bounced the sound off of the walls to give the appearance of dimensionality.
[This will be the Stone Age Gamer portion of the article. I’m Dan Ryan. (I’m not Dan Ryan)]
The sound was amazing, but back to that nVidia card. This Dell was a gaming PC before that was really a thing. The old Pentium computer could run Doom and even Quake, but rarely did thanks to the proper parenting from Mom and Dad. But I was older by the time the Dell showed up, and frankly I couldn’t be stopped. Doom and Quake are enough to make me question video game naming now as an adult, but my mother was certainly upset when my two closest friends at the time pooled their money and got me a copy of Diablo for my birthday. Now I can appreciate the reasoning, but as we did then, I’d still insist that it was a harmless adventure game with, perhaps, a poorly chosen title.
I played the hell out of Diablo, with the Dell’s fancy 56k modem enabling multiplayer play with those friends online – at the time another brand new experience. The game Diablo was also an unexpected connection to a female friend of mine at the time but that’s an issue for a completely separate therapist’s couch.
But the true spectacle was the strange day when, unusually close to its release, I found a retail boxed copy of Valve’s Half-Life in the grocery store bargain software bin. I had only just heard about it somewhere, but I was interested in the fairly benign mottled orange box, and mom was always generous, and agreed to buy it.
While the true crux of the experience of the Dell was probably bringing us a more capable internet experience, the thing I will always remember about the Dell was the astonishment of how capably it ran Half-Life. I’d never seen anything so impressive as Half-Life. My good friend Box (née Mike) in particular never seen anything as astounding as how that Dell rendered Half-Life, and he’d coaxed his PowerMac G3 (beige, Pre-Steve Jobs) to run Unreal. His enthusiastic amazement was much more animated than anything I usually mustered. Judging from the slew of positive reviews and Game of the Year awards, we were not alone. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. We didn’t even have to get past the opening sequence in the (physics breaking) tram to be completely blown away.
[End Stone Age Gamer portion of the program]
I’m beginning to think computer hardware is a little heartier than I’d initially anticipated. I’ve had several pieces turn on recently when I really would not have blamed them for being long dead. The Dell XPS R400 still turns on. It still makes all of the oh-so-analog noises older PCs made with all of their moving parts. It is strikingly close to stock configuration. The original hard drive failed at some point, replaced with a similar 20 GB model. Cables were specially modified using a trick I’d seen online for better airflow. And, the original drive having failed, the software is all different. It still boots up, to an un-updated Windows XP home, but despite having a capacious 100 MB iomega Zip Drive built in, I’ve never been good about backing up.

Portrait style shot of the DVD drive, Zip drive, and floppy disk drive of the Dell XPS r400
Anyone still remember what a Zip drive was?

Honestly, the loss of a chunk of personal data does make me a little sad. It was probably nothing important at all, but sometimes, computers get turned off and no one realizes they won’t be turned on again for a decade. And they become neat little time capsules we can go back to and remember with. I don’t sell my iPhones when they become too obsolete because I can turn them back on and see photos and texts from a bygone era and recall fairly well what that life was like.
I really wish I had the Pentium PC and the Dell intact from their day. It’d be fun, and a more than a little cringey, to go back there. Remember, kids, back your stuff up. 🙂
Got an old computer or a new computer you like or hate or are indifferent to and want to talk about it?
I’m @geekadematt on Twitter and this has been
Into the Vault – Dell XPS R400

Prepare yourself to either be amazed by or roll your eyes incredibly hard at the specifications, which I needed shockingly little help to remember off the top of my head:
The Dell XPS R400 was configured from the factory to do work using the 400 MHz Intel Pentium II CPU with 512 kb of L2 cache running at half the CPU speed on a CPU card slotting into the Slot 1 interface. 128 MB of PC100 RAM supported the CPU, and at the time a massive 16 GB 5400 rpm hard drive handled storage. The graphics were produced by an 8 MB nVidia graphics card and sound surrounded when produced by the Turtle Beach Voyetra sound card. A DVD-ROM drive required the assistance of a hardware MPEG2 decoder card, which never worked properly. Additional removable storage fell to a Zip 100 drive and an ordinary floppy disk drive. The Dell communicated with the world by a 56k v.90 capable modem, and late in life had that swapped for a 10/100 Fast ethernet card when cable internet finally came to town. We viewed its glory on a giant 19 inch CRT monitor at a splendid 1024×768 resolution.

-400 MHz Intel Pentium II
-128 MB of 100 MHz single data rate RAM
-16 GB 5400 rpm rotational hard drive (IDE)
-8 MB nVidia Riva TNT graphics card on the Advanced Graphics Port (AGP)
-Voyetra Turtle Beach Montego 3D sound card with special surround speakers
-2x DVD-ROM drive with hardware MPEG-2 decoder card, later removed due to hardware conflicts (remember those?)
-100 MB iomega Zip Drive
-56k V.90 modem (?) – later replaced with a Netgear 10/100 Ethernet card
-19 inch 1024×768 capable Dell CRT monitor

Matt Mutch

Image Acquisition Specialist and Computer Enthusiast. I like Sad Anime.

13 thoughts on “Into the Vault – Dell XPS R400

  • May 14, 2020 at 9:35 pm

    Just fired up my old dell dimension XP’s r400 and it’s running just as it did 20 years ago. Even managed to burn a data CD of old pics. Using a smart n friendly CD..It is sadly time for it to go… are they worth anything to anyone.. the thought of it all going into waste brings a tear to my eye.

    • May 15, 2020 at 1:24 pm

      Sorry, meant to reply, do you get notified if I reply? Hope so, since it’s been a day.

      Thanks for replying! It’s kind of amazing in and of itself.

      Yeah, I remember when I booted it up, it boots just the same as it did so many years ago, same strange chugging noise and everything – probably the DVD-ROM drive. I feel like the tech is old enough that it is likely to just keep going, similar to how many NES consoles still work but modern consoles can bomb out without hope of revival. Still, there is honestly nothing it can do worth while any more, except MAYBE run era-correct PC games.

    • September 2, 2021 at 3:33 pm

      IF you still have this and it fires up let me know. I can make you an offer

      • August 6, 2022 at 11:17 am

        I got one complete set up.
        Keyboard speakers screen.

  • October 5, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    Hi Matt – I have the exact Dell Dimension XPS R400 and a KDS Visual Sensations Monitor. My monitor is the problem and I wonder if you could help. I bought a company that was in business for 30 plus years and they had this computer for their billing only. Funds were tight when I purchased the business so I kept everything the same, as much as possible. Of course my HP has gone out more than once and I have had to replace that. But the Dell, it just keeps on ticking. Anyway, my problem is the monitor. I have no idea if there is an adapter so that I can upgrade the monitor only or what. I am not very tech savvy so I may sound stupid but would really appreciate any advice you can give me. I do not want to lose anything out of my billing program, but it is getting very hard to see anything. I do back it up occasionally. Thank you in advance

    • October 5, 2020 at 3:27 pm

      Hey thanks for reading. I see a KDS Visual Sensations monitor being an old tube or CRT type, is that what you’re referring to? If it plugs into the identical Dell to this article, it must use a standard 15-pin VGA connector, and a huge number of monitors on the market today have standard VGA connectors. It is not exactly easy or reliable to adapt newer connectors to this older standard, it can be done, but foremost I’d recommend just seeking out basically anything with a VGA connection. Almost all monitors are wide screen nowadays, but almost all should be able to display any modes the Dell is capable of outputting. No adapters required, just make sure it has a VGA port.

      • October 5, 2020 at 4:15 pm

        Thank you so much for your quick response. I will give it a try.

  • November 1, 2021 at 11:12 pm

    Hello. Love the sentimental, emotional recollections!

    I just my R400 together to search for some old files I might have overlooked migrating ro subsequent PCs. Unfortunately, I’m having keyboard and mouse issues for which I pray you may have some suggestions.

    The PS/2-connected keyboard and mouse are recognized fine by the BIOS, and the keyboard works just fine to navigate it and enter a password. However, just before Win98 starts, the keyboard lights begin cycling left to right, and the kind and mouse no longer respond, rendering the system useless.

    A USB keyboard seems to behave the same. HELP!

    Thank you.

    • November 1, 2021 at 11:19 pm

      So funny to hear people still have these things around. Unfortunately, and I’m sorry, I have never even heard of a similar behavior. It’s odd that it works fine in BIOS and then you lose it in Windows. That doesn’t sound like a hardware problem itself but you never know – that goes for any era of computers. I don’t have much for you except, try a different keyboard if you’ve got it, try a keyboard without a usb to ps2 adapter if that happens to be a factor, heck, try it even with just a mouse if it will boot. Likewise, try it with just the keyboard. Or the other way around, try usb peripherals if you’ve got them, even if they don’t work in BIOS, which they might not. Just try things, really. The only other thing is, get some compressed air and physically blow out the connectors, since dust can interfere with connections and potentially cause that sort of thing. Rare but I’ve seen similar phenomena.

      Good luck.

      Can always grab an IDE to USB kit off Amazon…

  • August 15, 2022 at 9:16 pm

    I have one of these. Dell XPS R400. Its in mint shape. Haven’t touched it for 20 years. Saw this post and fired it up. IT WORKS! It was a Quake/Asherons Call computer mostly. The graphic card was upgraded so it would run GL Quake. he he. Pictures on request.

    • August 15, 2022 at 9:48 pm

      That’s awesome. Mine remains in fairly good shape, not pristine. I regret, whenever I look at it, having done a clean format at some point. At the time it seemed like a restore, but I’d have rather had it in the state it was in when it was in use… as noted, we also had upgraded graphics, and I remember plenty of fun time running GL Quake and even Half Life. I’m not sure they’ll ever be collectable but they’re their own time capsules.

    • August 23, 2022 at 3:55 pm

      Very cool! I ordered my XPS-R400 in October of ‘98 and am still using it daily at work. It has been used every day since new. I wish I could post a picture. It’s been through 4 floppy drives, 3 CD burner drives, 3 keyboards and 4 monitors. Hard drive and power supply are original. Operating system is also original (win98). Specs: PII 400, 256mb SDram, 512 L2, 100mhz bus, 8gb 7200 HD (original), crystal sound fusion integrated audio, no modem.
      I run Autocad 14, EP14 civil series, MS word, and an old HP 1220 printer. Unbelievable longevity with this machine

      • August 23, 2022 at 10:08 pm

        Absolutely staggering that you still use it daily. Incredible though. Interesting point – yours has integrated audio where there is definitely No spot for that on mine. Indicates it’s a whole other system board, had we not upgraded to the mentioned sound card… very interesting.


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