In-Depth

The Ultimate PC Challenge

Tom’s Hardware tests the highest-end desktop systems.

Brian “Zen” Grapatin knows hardware. The longtime professional gamer has been earning a paycheck playing titles like Quake, Painkiller and Unreal Tournament on and off since 1997. A few years later, Grapatin was lured away from college by the top-rated gamer in the world, Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel. Today, the 23-year-old Grapatin acts as Fatal1ty’s personal sparring partner, while continuing to compete at the highest level. It’s a job that demands cutting-edge hardware.

“When I’m practicing for a tournament I need to have the absolute highest frame rates,” Grapatin says. “If I practice on good computers, I know I am ahead of the curve. Otherwise I know there are guys who are learning things I need to learn, because I’m working on a computer that is limiting me.”

Which might explain why so many system makers have started selling gaming PCs over the last few years. Even mass-market builder Dell Computer now offers PCs tuned specifically for game play. Performance-savvy users like gamers are willing to pay top dollar for top performance.

But how much performance is enough? And how much can you expect? To find out, Redmond turned to the unquestioned experts at Tom’s Hardware to performance test a pair of the fastest desktop PCs on the planet: The Falcon Northwest Mach V and the All American Computers (AAC) Liquid XS.

As graphics editor for Tom’s Hardware, co-author Darren Polkowski works with cutting-edge systems and hardware every day. After testing these two systems, he found that these water-cooled wonders not only run circles around workaday PCs, they push state-of-the-art processor and graphics technology to new heights. And they offer a tantalizing glimpse at the performance that mainstream PCs should produce in the next 12 months. The downside: You can expect to pay upward of $6,000 for these super-boxes.

In our battery of tests, both PCs far outperformed our baseline PC, an Intel Pentium 4 660 running at 3.6GHz and outfitted with 2GB of DDR2 SDRAM and a NVIDIA 7800 GT-based graphics card. Across our gaming-based tests, for instance, the Mach V produced frame rates that averaged 93 percent higher than our baseline PC, when running at 1600x1200 resolution with full anti-aliasing and other graphics features enabled. The Liquid XS performed even better, doubling the average frame rate of the high-end Pentium 4 660 desktop used for our baseline.

The Tests
SYNTHETICS
If you want to dig into the performance of specific components, you need focused synthetic benchmarks that stress individual subsystems. We used the following benchmarks to stress everything from CPUs and graphics cards to memory subsystems and hard disks. Synthetic benchmarks can often be run quickly and efficiently, but component makers have been known to tweak code to boost their scores. It’s a competitive business, after all!
  • PCMark 2005: Eleven sub-tests produce an overall system score, with routines ranging from a simple PC startup simulation to graphics tests and multithreaded applications. The higher the score, the better the system is overall.
  • SiSoft Sandra 2005: Popular benchmarking program with many modules. We specifically use Sandra 2005 for its arithmetic tests, stressing raw CPU performance and memory bandwidth benchmarks.
  • 3DMark 2005: Often called the “Gamer’s Benchmark,” focusing on graphics, CPU, and system memory throughput and performance. Useful for modeling system performance of 3-D games.

APPLICATION-BASED
To verify real-world performance, you need to model real-world conditions. To this end we tested our PCs under four different game titles, each of which operates within a unique shell, called an engine. These engines interact with the hardware on PCs, offering insight into different types of usage and stress.

  • Unreal Tournament 2004 (Unreal engine): This popular engine, used for a host of games, can help predict performance in many titles. We use a custom time demo, set up in assault mode on the Fallen City map. We do not use bots, but the graphics details are cranked to their highest level.
  • Far Cry (Crytek engine): Developed with the Crytek engine, this benchmark taxes the graphics card with textures, shading and lighting. We turned on the flashlight in our custom time demo, Cooler01, to give our SLI cards a thorough workout. Far Cry also has High Dynamic Range (HDR), which helps test the effects of HDR code in testing.
  • Doom 3 (Doom engine): Complex lighting in Doom 3 can bring graphics cards to their knees. It also incorporates multithreaded code that can be tapped by dual-core processors. The Doom 3 default time demo is run first with the graphics card driver set to “application controlled.” Then we disabled Full Screen Antialiasing and the high-quality setting in the game for the first run. For the second run, we turn FSAA to 4X to really tax the GPU.
  • Half-Life 2 (Source engine): Half-Life 2 was the biggest title of 2004 and early 2005 and offers the most realistic water modeling of any game you can find. To render the eye candy, the Source engine offloads graphics work to the CPU, providing insight into overall system performance. We also used a custom time-demo to test with HDR enabled.

    — D.P.

Hardware Innovations
At the heart of any high-performance PC is the CPU -- and in this case, it’s an AMD processor. Intel may boast an impressive history and multi-million dollar ad budgets, but AMD has won the loyalty of gamers worldwide, says Grapatin.

“Back in the day when I started in the mid-to-late ’90s, Intel was pretty much the way to go. [But] AMD has really taken off performance-wise,” Grapatin says. “I mean, there are some diehard Intel people who are always going to use Intel, but I would say at least 70 percent of the people I talk to are using AMD.”

The numbers back up Grapatin’s words. An exhaustive November review of desktop processors in Tom’s Hardware showed Intel’s top-end Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 840 CPUs consistently falling short of the AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+. Of 28 total benchmarks, Intel processors won only eight, with only one of those victories coming in a real-world application.

Nearly as important to PC performance is the graphics hardware, which is critical to displaying detailed 3-D environments and producing top-end frame rates for smooth action. Here, ATI and NVIDIA have engaged in an impressive bout of one-upmanship, significantly raising the performance bar every few months. The current leader is NVIDIA, with the GeForce 7800 GTX 512, but ATI is poised to announce another monster graphics processor code-named R580.

Most computer systems need only one graphics card, but the fastest gaming systems employ two cards to put more processing muscle on the task. The results are hard to argue with. In our tests NVIDIA’s Scalable Link Interface helped both the Falcon and AAC systems produce consistent, big leads over the Intel baseline system.

Not to be outdone, ATI just released a dual-graphics scheme of its own, called CrossFire. Review hardware was not available in time for this article; but we expect the ATI Crossfire system to deliver performance improvements similar to that of NVIDIA SLI.

Substance and Style
Many die-hard computer-philes choose to hand-turn their own systems from parts, assembling the best CPUs, graphics cards, RAM, motherboards and other sundry bits to achieve top performance. For our test, we wanted to see the best of what the market could deliver. We contacted two elite system builders -- Falcon Northwest and All American Computers -- that cater to the high-end gaming segment.

Both systems rack up serious style points. The Falcon Northwest Mach V sports a brushed aluminum Silverstone SST-TJ03 tower case adorned with a top-side vent and a backlit, two-color falcon’s head design cut into the front panel. The AAC Liquid XS features a clear acrylic case, complete with multi-color LED lighting, that puts the motherboard, components and coolant tubes on full display.

Of course, the action inside the chassis is what counts. The Mach V is driven by an Athlon 64 X2 4800+ processor, which features a powerful dual-core design for speeding multi-threaded applications and multi-tasking performance. The CPU runs on the Asus A8N32-SLI motherboard with dual x16 PCI Express lanes for maximum bandwidth for graphics cards. We overclocked the processor to 2.7GHz, relying on the water block, radiator, pump and fan unit from Sanyo Denki to keep the processor cool under pressure.

The Mach V we tested came with two 512MB modules of Corsair CMXP512-3200XL memory, which features programmable LEDs that display scrolling messages, such as the owners’ name or system temperature and clock speeds. Storage is addressed by a pair of Hitatchi 500GB hard drives in a RAID 0 array for improved performance.

Heat and noise are two challenges for any high-end system, and the Mach V takes on both head on. In addition to the water-cooling, Falcon installed two 80mm fans with directional ducting to ensure that hot air is expelled from core components. A 120mm fan pulls air into the front of the case and over the hard drives. Sound insulation on the two side panels and the floor of the case help dampen fan noise. A quiet 600-watt, special-built Silverstone SST-ST60F modular power supply ensures plenty of headroom for additional components.

The AAC Liquid XS is every bit as impressive. Inside the glowing acrylic case is an AMD Athlon 64 FX-57 processor overclocked to an even 3.0GHz. This single-core CPU lacks the multiprocessing muscle of other chips on the market, but no processor is its match when it comes to cutting through single-threaded games. In addition to an ample 2GB of Corsair CMX1024-4000PT memory and the paired 7800 GTX 512 graphics cards, two Western Digital 74GB Raptor hard drives spin at 10,000 RPM in a fast RAID 0 configuration for peak performance. The result: Perhaps the fastest consumer hard drive setup you can find. The Liquid XS even includes a 250GB Seagate hard drive for backups and extra storage.

Unique to this system is the cabling, which has been done with the utmost precision. All wires are tied down to keep them in place, and all cables and tubes are cut to custom lengths. The result: A pleasing internal layout that minimizes clutter and allows for maximum airflow. And with a quartet of quiet-running 120mm fans, airflow is not a problem. The interior is split into two compartments, with the lower-most containing heat-bearing components like the water-cooling reservoir, power supply, Danger Den Black Ice Extreme radiator and DD12V-D5 pump.

The Ultimate Laptop
My laptop can beat up your laptop.

My laptop dates supermodels. My laptop gets courtside seats at Lakers games. My laptop is negotiating a deal for his own reality series.

Hey, it’s not bragging if you can back it up. So here comes the backing. Let’s start with the name. It’s an Alienware Area-51m 7700. That alone will start the Pavlovian drool reflex for most gamers. Alienware is known to build the bestest, baddest game machines around. Now, I don’t use it for games, but for making little movies; the same characteristics that make it great for gaming make it sensational for the extreme requirements of digital video.

Now for the power plant: Pentium 4, 3.4GHz, 800MHz frontside bus. Note that this isn’t some wussy Centrino or “mobile” chip, designed to run “cooler” and be “more efficient.” This is a beefy desktop chip that makes the machine so hot it’ll burn a hole in your corduroys if you leave it on your lap too long. Efficiency and coolness is for lesser laptops; we’re talking about fire-breathing power here, boys and girls.

Next is the RAM. The envy-inducing specs: 2GB dual channel DDR2 RAM, running at 533MHz. Dual Channel means it’s extra fast, like Lance sprinting by Ullrich on L’Alpe d’Huez. I can open memory-hogging programs like Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects and Photoshop at the same time, and my Alienware’s barely breaking a sweat.

Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Go with 256MB of DDR3 memory. Now, I realize that for you “Splinter Cell” fanatics, this card is a little old (in fact, by the time your new video card arrives in the mail, it’s obsolete). But how often do you see 256 MB of on-board RAM in a laptop vid card?

Of course, you need that kind of video card to drive the 17-inch wide SXGA+ 1680 x 1050 LCD display. This monitor is sharper than Ken Jennings on “Jeopardy.”

You wanna talk storage? How about two, count ’em -- two -- 100GB Seagate hard drives. Unheard of in most laptops. It was an important selling point for me, because I capture video directly to the hard drive, and digital video information takes up lots of space.

Naturally, this machine isn’t lithe, like my 3 pound Sony VAIO. (Yes, I’m addicted. Can you tell?) But you can’t stuff all that testosterone into a half-inch thick magnesium case, after all. Alien Boy is brawny, at 12 pounds and about 2 inches thick. That’s the price you pay for Olympian performance.

So, you want a piece of my laptop? Come on over; he’s waiting. Just remember that he bench-presses 550.

— Keith Ward, who also owns a desktop computer and two servers along with his laptops, is editor of Redmond magazine.

On the Clock
If you want an ultimate PC, you need to push the hardware. To that end, we revved the clocks on our machines past their specified limits. The water-cooling pays dividends here, keeping silicon components cooler than any fan/heatsink combination could manage. In the most extreme cases, hardcore overclockers have been known to employ techniques like submersion in nonconductive liquids, phase change refrigeration and even liquid nitrogen cooling. The rest of us can move to Alaska and just leave the windows open.

Of course, the proving ground for any high-end PC is the test bench. We put both systems through a battery of tests, spanning synthetic benchmarks like PCMark 2005 and SiSoft Sandra 2005 to real-world gaming tests running Far Cry, Doom 3 and Half Life. To see how well these systems performed compared to their peers, we ran the same set of benchmarks on a high-end Intel Pentium 4 660-based PC running at 3.6GHz.

The results were eye-opening. Across our four game benchmarks, average frame rates at top resolutions and visual fidelity nearly doubled. In the most extreme case, the AAC Liquid XS produced 128.1 frames per second in our Far Cry 32 test running at 1600x1200 pixels with full anti-aliasing. That’s an astounding 178 percent improvement over the 46 fps rate produced by the baseline PC. The Falcon Mach V did nearly as well, producing 117.5 fps.

Impressive results can also be found in the graphics- intensive synthetic benchmarks, including 3DMark 2005 -- often called the “Gamer’s Benchmark.” Our baseline system produced a 3DMark 2005 score of 4964 at the highest visual fidelity settings. The AAC Liquid XS yielded a 12032 score, while the Falcon Mach V turned in a result of 11126. The results indicate significant speed gains when displaying 3-D graphics and working with memory-intensive applications.

The Sandra 2005 benchmark offers broader appeal, modeling subsystem performance that gets involved in everything from 3-D design to spreadsheet work. Here, the dual-core equipped Falcon Mach V shined with a score 59 percent higher than our baseline. The single-core processor in the Liquid XS enabled the AAC system to outstrip the baseline score by only 16 percent.

Most impressive is the ability of the Athlon FX-57 CPU in the Liquid XS to keep pace with the multi-core Athlon 64 X2 4800+ processor in the Mach V. The higher clock rates and streamlined architecture of the single-core Athlon FX-57 makes it highly efficient for many applications, particularly games.

In fact, the Liquid XS outperformed the Mach V in every game and graphics test except two -- Doom 3 and Half-Life. Here, the multi-threaded code in the gaming engines tap the power of the dual-core Athlon 64 X2 4800+ CPU to produce an average fps edge of 8 percent over the Liquid XS and its single-core processor. The benefits of a multi-core system can also be seen in the PC Mark 2005 test, where the Mach V outpaced the Liquid XS by 27 percent.

The PC of the Future

Falcon Northwest and All American Computer offer a look at the very cutting edge of PC technology. But computer junkies, as is their wont, are always asking, “What’s next?” By all accounts, the PC of the future will be faster, sleeker, and more powerful than ever before. Redmond spoke with long-time industry analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight 64, and here’s what he expects:

  • Chassis: The beige box is gone. The trend toward creative packaging and smaller form factors will continue to strengthen. Fast external ports, like USB 2.0 and FireWire, has already eased many tedious upgrades.
  • CPU: Expect 64-bit processors in every computer, with shorter pipelines that get the most out of every clock tick. Also look for quad-core CPUs in the 2007-2008 timeframe, with virtualized environments helping drive adoption. Also look for CPU competition to heat up, as next-gen Intel chips challenge AMD’s performance lead.
  • Graphics Hardware: Today’s exotic dual-card setups will become popular among a growing portion of gamers. Still, most workaday PCs will get by just fine with a single GPU. The Windows Vista Aero Glass interface should help make powerful 3-D features de rigueur in most PCs.
  • Memory: By 2007 fast DDR3 SDRAM memory will appear on system motherboards, promising heightened throughput. But CPUs will still rely on beefy, integrated cache memory to sidestep lengthy fetch times. Servers could see memory with integrated serializer chips to accelerate throughput, but the tech is too pricey for cost-obsessed PC makers.
  • Hard Disk: Perpendicular recording technology has pushed up the density of magnetic bits on drive platters, making terabyte hard drives a real possibility by 2007-2008.
  • Optical Media: By late 2007, the whole Blu-Ray/HD-DVD mess should be sorted out, with many PCs incorporating dual-format drives that can read both types of discs, which can hold 25GB of data or more.
  • Connectivity: 802.11n Wi-Fi networking should be rolling around 2007 or so, while matured 802.16 WiMax wireless promises wide-area broadband access to entire communities. WiMax is hardly a done deal, but eventually users can expect layered connectivity, particularly for mobile users moving around cities, airports, office buildings and so on.

    — M.D.

Fastest Ever
We fully expected these systems to outpace our Intel Pentium 4 660 baseline. Despite the higher 3.6GHz clock rate on the Intel CPU, both AMD processors offer more efficient operation. Add our aggressive over-clocking and the use of powerful, dual graphics cards, and the real question became, how big a lead could these systems forge?

As it turns out, quite an impressive one. Over the years, Tom’s Hardware has reviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of desktops. These two systems from Falcon Northwest and All American Computers are simply the fastest consumer PCs we have tested, bar none. From gaming to workstation applications to office productivity, they stand head and shoulders above systems available on store shelves.

At least for the next month or so.

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