Dell OptiPlex 9020 mini-review

I previously reviewed the OptiPlex 755 here, along with entries about upgrading them and installing Windows 7. Click here for those entries.

Since then, I upgraded to OptiPlex 960 systems, but I didn’t feel that it would be fair to review them since I had built them from spare parts (starting with “barebones” chassis from eBay, which are scratch & dent discards from Dell Manufacturing, and adding the necessary parts) and this wouldn’t paint a true picture of the 960. I will say that the OptiPlex 960 is the first Dell business tower system that I would consider truly attractive – they obviously spent a lot of time on the case aesthetics.

My 960’s are getting a bit long in the tooth, since I have been using them since late 2010. Windows has been getting twitchier over time, with things like Virtual PC not wanting to start, “Internet Explorer has crashed”, and so on. This is a still a record for a Windows install, since earlier versions tended to die from “bit rot” and need a wipe and reinstall every few years.

I decided to try the newest OptiPlex model, the 9020 Mini Tower, as on paper its specs looked quite good. It eliminated the floppy disk / multi-card reader bay (which I don’t use, anyway) and was rearranged internally to provide a more useful layout and selection of expansion card slots. I had hoped that this would avoid some of the hassles I’d had in the past with getting a video card to fit into the system. With two PCI Express x16 slots (one of which is only wired x4), I hoped I would be able to experiment with my Intel X540 10 Gigabit Ethernet cards.

Unfortunately, when I went to the Dell business site to configure and purchase a 9020, it seems that they only have pre-configured models available. You can’t specify which processor you want, or even if you want extra memory installed! None of the pre-configured systems were available with a set of options I felt comfortable starting with, so I ordered the 730-8285 configuration from an authorized reseller. This system’s specs are:

  • OptiPlex 9020 Mini Tower
  • Intel® Core™ i7-4770 Processor (Quad Core, 3.4GHz Turbo, 8MB, w/ HD Graphics 4600)
  • Operating System: Windows 7 Pro 64-bit (includes Windows 8.1 Pro License and Installation Disk)
  • Graphics Card: AMD Radeon HD 8570, 1GB DDR3, 1DP 1DVI
  • 8 GB 1600MHz DDR3 Memory (2 x 4 GB)
  • Keyboard: Dell KB212-B QuietKey
  • Mouse: Dell USB Optical Mouse MS111
  • Hard Drive: 1 Terabyte 7,200 RPM
  • Internal Audio Speaker
  • Intel vPro Technology Enabled
  • Resource DVD contains Diagnostics and Drivers
  • 16X DVD+/-RW Drive
  • Chassis Intrusion Switch
  • Dell 3-Year NBD Warranty

At the same time, I ordered a Samsung 840 EVO SSD (250GB) and a pair of 4GB memory modules (to upgrade the system to 16GB total). I planned on using a BDR-206BK Blu-ray burner and HIS R9 270 video card, along with an ASUS Xonar D2X (for digital audio output) from inventory to round out the system.

Upon opening the chassis, I discovered that Dell is using a new, 12V-only power supply. This is based on a concept by Fujitsu (PDF whitepaper here). Unfortunately, despite that paper ending with “The 12 V Only System is not an industry standard yet but a proprietary solution, which is currently implemented by all Tier 1 Systembuilders like e.g. Dell, HP, Fujitsu!”, each of those manufacturers seems to use a slightly different implementation. Thus, there don’t seem to be any 3rd-party manufacturers building compatible power supplies. A search for supplies only turned up people complaining about the problem, not any replacements.

The theory behind the 12V-only power supply is that most of the power requirements on the motherboard are for 12V (newer systems have had 12V rails dedicated to the processor for some time), and the remaining voltages can be more efficiently generated on the motherboard.

So, I’m stuck with the somewhat-anemic stock 290W power supply, and don’t have a good way to power the HIS video card I was planning on using. It might be possible to do something using a reverse SATA power adapter to convert the 2nd HDD SATA power connector into a pair of Molex 4-pin connectors, then use a PCI Express power adapter to convert the HIS card’s connector to a pair of mating Molex 4-pin connectors. However, this may lead to overloading something, as the HDD power connectors are supplied via a single pin from the motherboard. It doesn’t seem to be worth risking damage to the motherboard to try to make this work.

So I am now looking for an attractive case (attractive in the sense of the OptiPlex 960, not in the “Fast and the Furious” sense with neon lighting, see-through panels, etc.) and will buy a generic motherboard (probably from SuperMicro) and components to build a system from scratch. At least I won’t be limited to half-length single-slot video cards.

In summary, I would classify the OptiPlex 9020 as “Not Recommended” due to the inability to configure the system as needed. The power supply issue is probably not relevant for most business users (the primary target market for OptiPlex users). Dell originally designed the OptiPlex line “for customers who are traumatized by change” (actual quote from a Dell Marketing VP many years ago), with a guarantee that the same system configuration would continue to be orderable for a year. The limited number of packaged configurations available means that the customer may wind up with multiple versions of the 9020 if ordered in separate batches.

Bear in mind that this reviewer represents the “traditionalist” view. Articles in the trade press keep telling us that “the next generation of things (be they desktops, notebooks, or tablets) will be the last big update” because the world will have moved on to something else by the time they are due for replacement. If you take that viewpoint, the smaller form-factor OptiPlex 9020 models (which can be treated as non-upgradable) may be an appropriate fit for the business environment. But selling a “classic” mini tower form factor system with limited options and where add-in cards are limited by lack of power just doesn’t make a lot of sense.


3 Responses to “Dell OptiPlex 9020 mini-review

  • 1
    cjcooper
    January 18th, 2017 20:03

    G’day! Did you get anywhere with the motherboard replacement? I’ve run into similar issue (cannot power modern video card with custom PSU/motherboard) and wondering whether any other catches, such as CPU glued on etc 😛

  • 2
    cjcooper
    January 18th, 2017 20:04

    PS: I’ve the SFF so 255W PSU rather than 290 so even not going to attempt a DC-DC solution

  • 3
    Terry Kennedy
    January 18th, 2017 20:06

    Dell cases and motherboards are pretty tightly tied together. There’s usually non-standard cabling for the front panel LEDs / USB ports / power button, the back of the case normally has custom set of punched openings instead of an ATX I/O shield, etc.

    I don’t think there’s anything odd about the CPU mounting in the 9020, though if you’re going to start over with a new motherboard, you may want to get a more modern CPU chip as well.

    I decided to just live with it (I’m sending this message from it). I’m still looking (very low priority) for a better motherboard / case combo to build my own system from scratch. I do that already for my file servers: https://www.glaver.org/raidzilla25 but I used to buy stock systems for my desktops.

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