Raw Power: Building The Ultimate PC
So what to do when trying to build the Ultimate PC? The CRN Test Center took an up-close look at how to put it all together. More than just slapping cards into slots, achieving the ultimate personal computing experience takes the construction of, what we determined to be, the ultimate desktop ecosystem.
With the Core i7 as the centerpiece, the highest-performing system we could build with industry-standard components was a process, not an event. Nothing exotic, like liquid cooling or jury-rigged chassis, would be acceptable because we wanted to see what was possible with off-the-shelf parts. Here's a look at how we built the Ultimate PC:
When Intel released its Core i7 processor, built on the next-generation microarchitecture, formerly code-named "Nehalem," performance testing showed it was the most powerful CPU of any kind the Test Center had ever seen. Designing a system around the high-end Core i7 965 Extreme, at 3.2GHz, seemed like a good place to start.
A quad-core processor, the Core i7 introduces many new technologies to Intel's lineup. Replacing the front side bus, Intel's QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) increases bandwidth and reduces latency between the CPU and the chipset. Another new feature is called Turbo Boost Technology, which automatically allows processor cores to run faster than the base frequency, as long as it is operating within power and temperature specs. In addition, the Extreme model offers an unlocked multiplier for those who want to push the CPU's limits.
At a cost of around $1,000, the processor is definitely priced in a class of its own, but we didn't concern ourselves with that, as our goal was to focus only on performance. As a completely new platform, many of the remaining components we chose had their basis in the Core i7. Among other reasons, because Nehalem processors have integrated memory controllers, Intel also introduced a new chipset in conjunction with the Core i7—the X58, which does not have a memory interface. As seems the norm with most new Intel architectures, the Core i7 and X58 also launch the latest, slightly larger socket configuration, this time called the LGA 1366.
Limited by the CPU to an X58-based motherboard (not that we're complaining), and the graphics configuration we desired, the best motherboard available—which could also support our ultimate configuration—was Asus' Rampage II Extreme.
Released under Asus' own Republic of Gamers (ROG) moniker, the Rampage II Extreme is a performance board, designed with enthusiasts and overclockers in mind. Although we didn't use them for this particular project, it has numerous overclocking features, including Tweak-It, a miniature joystick mounted directly on the actual board that allows for changing various settings. Also, the BIOS has an "Extreme Tweaking" tab dedicated to overclocking, which offers a dizzying array of options. There is also something Asus calls Probelt, which is a set of clearly labeled contact points, where a multimeter's leads can be placed for precise measurements. The board offers various other features to make overclocking easier, and a few protection elements to make it safer for the components.
Aside from the enthusiast aspect, the Rampage II Extreme has many of the features we've come to expect from Asus, such as a lighted onboard power button, and the EPU (Energy Processing Unit) engine, now up to version 6, which analyzes the CPU load and automatically regulates the power draw and performance of various components to get optimum energy savings. Finally, the board supports three-way configuration for both Nvidia's SLI, as well as ATI's CrossFireX technologies.
With elegant-looking heat pipes and LEDs, a nice side effect of choosing this board was the techie appearance it gives off through the side window of the case. The Rampage II Extreme provided a nice foundation for the rest of the PC.
Since the advent of Nvidia's three-way, SLI configuration for graphics, it's been a configuration we'd always wanted to see at work for ourselves. We chose three EVGA-built Nvidia GeForce GTX280 cards for the Ultimate PC. At the time, the GTX280 was the top of Nvidia's high-end offerings, and may have even been a little ahead of its time, as some of its features weren't able to be taken advantage of yet. Built with a PhysX Ready processor, the card has built-in support for the PhysX physics engine, making realtime physics processing possible. In addition, the GTX280 has a CUDA-capable GPU, which enables it to take advantage of Nvidia's CUDA Instruction Set Architecture (ISA). Using the standard C programming language (and others to follow), developers can write applications that take advantage of the extra processor power of the GPU and use it in parallel with the CPU.
With all that power, the GTX280 also supports all the "standard" features one would expect from a card of its caliber, such as full 1,080p high-definition video and, as mentioned earlier, two- and three-way SLI, which allows you to bridge up to three graphics cards together to "pool" their resources.
The sheer size of the cards, especially in a three-way configuration, made building the PC trickier than usual.
By itself, the ThermalRight Ultra-120 eXtreme 1366RT heatsink looks like a miniature Hilton Hotel. As the model number implies, this heatsink and fan combo was designed specifically for the Core i7's LGA 1366 form factor. Towering 6-plus inches above the motherboard, the 1.74-pound heatsink houses 52 aluminum fins, which the company claims is more than any other heatsink on the market, and snaked throughout those fins are six 6mm heatpipes.
Most likely chosen because of its size and weight, from an installation standpoint one thing we appreciated about this cooling system was the mounting method, which uses a bracket and backplate. Although having some benefits, we're not too keen about heatsinks that snap into place with nylon plugs. Our experience is that they are difficult to fasten, and pop out at the most inopportune times. ThermalRight's solution includes spring-loaded screws that hold the bracket tightly and securely to the motherboard (and CPU). The low-noise, "Fluid Dynamic Fan" is a 1,600-rpm, 120mm fan that mounts into a holder that easily clips onto the heatsink.
In the end, its engineering and combination with the board and the CPU led to a PC that produced very nice thermals for a system with extreme performance.
The Power Supply
With all that processor muscle in the graphics card, a standard power supply just won't cut it. Each GTX280 requires one six-pin and one eight-pin connection from the PSU. Nvidia recommends a minimum power supply rating of 550 watts just for a single card system. When setting up a triple-card configuration, very few PSUs have enough connectors and juice to handle the load. The PC Power and Cooling Turbo-Cool 1200 power supply, which is certified to work with the Nvidia tri-SLI configuration, has plenty of cables for all three video cards, as well as the other components. A single 12-volt rail distributes 1,200 watts continuously and 1,400 watts peak. PC Power and Cooling, which is part of the OCZ Technology Group, claims that a single rail unit is advantageous to a multiple rail design because 100 percent of the 12-volt output can be utilized. With a high-efficiency rating of 83 percent, the Turbo-Cool 1200 is a stable powerhouse that gave our PC everything it needed, with extra left over for good measure.
The Chassis, Part 1
With only a few PC chassis certified to work with the Nvidia three-way SLI configuration, our first choice was the Cooler Master HAF 932. However, even though it had been certified at the time we started building the Ultimate PC, we soon ran into problems. Partly because the graphics cards are double-width, and partly due to the design of the motherboard, the third card in our SLI setup hung over the end of the motherboard a bit. A quick call to Nvidia confirmed that the case had been added to the certified list without noting that it had to be modified. After taking out a screwdriver and removing a top-mounted fan, then relocating the PSU up to the top, everything fell into place. Still, we opted to go with another chassis that didn't need modification.
The Chassis, Part 2
The case that did fit with the graphics configuration was the Thermaltake Armor+. This full-tower chassis has 10 PCI expansion slots, space for seven 5.25-inch external drives (one of which can be converted for a 3.5-inch), and mounts for an additional seven internal 3.5-inch drives. All mounts are toolless, which makes installation quick and easy. One feature of the Armor+ that we really like is the adjustable PSU support bridge. Essentially a crossbar that shores up the power supply, this bridge slides forward and back to adapt to its size. This makes it much easier to install the PSU and protects the other components should the heavy unit fall from its mount.
The other feature of this case that we particularly like, at least in theory, is the sliding motherboard tray. This not only simplifies mounting the motherboard, but also allows for easy access to other on-board components and front-panel wiring posts. The problem we ran into was that the unusually tall Ultra-120 heatsink did not clear the top of the opening when trying to slide the tray back in. We ended up doing all the necessary work on the motherboard first, then returning the tray inside the case before installing the heatsink. Designed with three cooling zones for the drives, CPU and graphics card(s), the Armor+ has a 140mm fan in the front, a 230mm fan on the side and a 120mm fan in the back. There are additional mounts on the bottom for two more 120mm or 140mm fans. Obviously designed for enthusiasts, the chassis is also capable of supporting a liquid cooling system.
Next: Installing the GPUs
Installing the GPUs
As mentioned, the sheer size and power of the GTX280 cards brought with it certain challenges. Besides requiring specific motherboard, power supply and chassis specifications, the cards' longer- and wider-than-typical dimensions caused unique difficulties while assembling the system. Particularly, the third card of the three-way SLI configuration was troublesome. Because the GTX280 is almost as long as the entire motherboard, the last one, when mounted, hung very close over the chassis front panel wiring posts. First, this made it impossible to use Asus' Q Connector blocks, a feature we always find useful. More important, the card still pressed up against the top of the posts, blocking access to them. Ultimately, we had to connect the wires first and then bend them at right angles toward the front of the case. We were then able to firmly press the card into the PCI-E slot, with a little extra force, until it snapped into place. Although this worked fine for our build, it is something we would rather not have had to do and hope that Asus rectifies this issue in future designs.
Because one of the new specs for the Core i7's memory controller is triple channel support, we opted for three 1-GB DDR-3 modules from Kingston Technology. Also, Intel clearly warns that using memory running at more than 1.65 volts can potentially damage the processor (typical memory runs at 1.9 volts). With this additional restriction, compatible memory was just becoming available as we were building our system so, although the board would support a greater amount of memory, we were only able to get our hands on 1-GB modules. Considering the CPU and graphics, it was plenty of memory for this system.
Storage, Part 1
Originally used by the military and aerospace industries because of their capability to withstand high levels of shock, vibration and temperature, the last few years have seen an increase in interest and offerings of Solid State Drives, commonly known as SSDs. Essentially arrays of flash-memory, SSDs have no moving parts. Among the many benefits of this are low power consumption and heat generation, and no noise. Although they typically have low seek times, SSDs are known for faster startup and random access read times because they don't have motors or read/write heads.
To help make the system boot faster, and keep noise and heat down, we chose the Intel X25-M SSD, with 80 GB of storage, on which to install the operating system. A 2.5-inch drive, we needed to mount the X25-M in a 3.5-inch bracket before installation; we're hoping more enthusiast chassis will begin to include 2.5-inch drive bays. The SSD also boosted the total bill of materials at the end.
Storage, Part 2
Due to its performance advantages, for almost five years Western Digital's Raptor hard drive was hugely popular with computer buffs. To accompany the SSD, we included the Western Digital VelociRaptor hard disk drive, the fourth generation in the line. With its rotational speed of 10,000 rpm and a 16-MB cache, this HDD has earned a stellar reputation among gamers and enthusiasts alike. Realizing that there was an untapped enterprise market for a drive with these specifications, Western Digital decided to design the VelociRaptor in a 2.5-inch form factor in anticipation of releasing a model for easy installation into servers and storage devices.
The first release of the VelociRaptor, though, was the one we used, which finds the drive mounted into what Western Digital calls the Ice-Pack. The Ice-Pack is a mounting frame designed to also function as a heatsink for the drive, which allows the VelociRaptor to be mounted in a standard 3.5-inch bay. There is also another version of the drive with a differently shaped Ice-Pack to make it backplane-ready. Known to be one of the fastest, coolest and most quiet drives available, we thought the VelociRaptor was the perfect complement to the X25-M.
Some will be disappointed that the Ultimate PC was built without a floppy drive. We chose, instead, to use a standard, Toshiba-Samsung CD-DVD RW $30 drive for installation duty and normal, everyday type functions. Since this is the Ultimate PC, however, we needed to make sure the system was capable of doing anything we asked of it. To that end, our second optical drive is the LG GBW-H20 Super Multi Blue. With all the functionality of a typical DVD burner, the GBW-H20 is also capable of playing, and burning, Blu-ray disks. In addition, it is LightScribe-enabled, making it capable of burning images directly onto LightScribe media.
With all the primary PCI-E slots on the motherboard used for graphics, there was no space for a sound card. Realizing this would be an issue, Asus wisely includes a SupremeFX X-Fi sound card that is specifically designed to fit into the Rampage II Extreme. The card mounts nicely into a PCI-E x1 slot reserved just for it.
Both the Test Center lab, where we designed the system, and the room at the Pacific Palms Resort in City of Industry, Calif., where we demonstrated it, didn't exactly need a sound system to fill Central Park. But we did want high-quality sound, so we opted for Altec Lansing's Expressionist Bass speaker system. A twin-unit system, the Expressionist Bass houses a 4-inch subwoofer in the base of each speaker. These sleek- and stylish-looking speakers deliver crisp, robust sound, in a compact form factor.
Shipping and budget issues kept us from going for an 82-inch LCD for the Ultimate PC, so we went with a dual-monitor configuration of NEC's LCD 3090WQXi displays. Designed specifically with color accuracy in mind, the 30-inch 3090WQXi offers a large, brilliant screen that can be oriented in both landscape and portrait modes. We used the pair of monitors to show off the computing power of the system by playing a Blu-ray movie on one, while streaming an online clip on the other. We had wanted to tile the two screens to make one large screen for the movie, but Blu-ray protection policies prevented us from doing that.
We opted for the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Ultimate. Though many complaints remain about Vista, its 32-bit version supports the greatest array of new games, multimedia, productivity and other applications (and drivers) of any available OS today. Next year we'll consider alternatives, including possibly Windows 7 or Linux.
No overclocking was necessary. Without even pushing it beyond the 3.2GHz clockspeed of the Core i7 965 Extreme, the Ultimate PC broke all of the Test Center's records for performance—including that of blade servers we've reviewed this year. The total bill of materials, including the dual-monitor display, came to just more than $8,700. It's the first time we've built an Ultimate PC for less than $10,000, and at much greater performance than ever before.
The bottom line: We found a very robust ecosystem available to system builders and solution providers to meet requirements that may arise for very high-performing systems. This ecosystem will continue to drive down system bills of materials while driving up performance—not so outlandish given that Moore's Law is proving to be alive and well.