The Ultimate PC 2010: Faster, Cheaper, More Powerful

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It's that time of year again. While many might be decking the halls or trimming the tree, the CRN Test Center is building the Ultimate PC. Just in time for the holiday buying season, we present
our annual report of the state of the art in off-the-shelf PC components. The 2010 model came in at $3,295 with a single video card and no monitor. Last year’s Ultimate PC listed for around $9,000, including three video cards and two monitors. Neither keyboard
nor mouse were stirring on either system.

As in 2009, the current model is built around an Intel Core i7 Extreme processor and is supported by the company's X58 chipset. But replace the 965X quad-core running at 3.2GHz with a 980X six-core device and that reaches 3.6GHz when necessary, settling down to a power-saving
3.3GHz during normal operations. Performance was dazzling, surpassing by far any desktop machine we've seen. For more on overall system performance, jump to the benchmarks section.

NEXT: Processor And Motherboard

Processor And Motherboard

We plugged the Core i7 980X into the LGA1366 socket on an Intel
DX58SO motherboard. Core i7 processors support three separate
memory channels, adding multichannel modes of interleaved memory access to the traditional single-channel asynchronous mode. Tri-channel
and dual-channel modes access memory sequentially by spreading data across multiple memory channels. The result is reduced latency and improved performance, particularly for memory-intensive applications.

The 980X comes from the 32nm process, has a 12-MB cache (up from 8 MB in the 45nm Bloomfield) and can address as much as 16 GB non-ECC RAM. The chip is shipped with Intel’s DBX-B cooling fan, which we put aside in favor of a liquid cooling solution from Corsair
(covered later in the Memory and Cooling section). No fewer than nine heat syncs adorn Intel's sturdy ATX-sized motherboard, cooling among other things the I/O controller hub, Marvell RAID logic and the X58 chip, which connects the processor through the QuickPath Interconnect to peripherals.

As is typical of Intel parts, all slots, ports and connectors on the
DX58SO are clearly marked and documented on the board itself.
There's also a quick reference sheet and a sticker intended for
somewhere inside of the PC's chassis and another for the outside
rear panel. If you forget to connect your power supply to the
auxiliary CPU power connector, the "CPU LED" will glow red to
let you know. The board's 12 USB 2.0 ports ought to satisfy most
users, as will its six internal and two external SATA ports, plus
digital audio, FireWire and Gbit Ethernet. There are four DIMM
slots, three of which are colored to indicate correct positioning
for three-channel memory, if desired. Improper memory placement
won't cause damage, it simply forces the slightly slower
asynchronous mode.

By far the most expensive part is the Intel Core i7 980X Extreme
processor, which sells on the street for $999. The DX58SO
motherboard lists for $219, but can cost slightly more on the
street (Newegg has it for $229).

NEXT: GraphicsGraphics

Selecting a display adapter was among the greatest challenges this
year. We could have simply updated last year's Nvidia GeForce
GTX 280 trifecta with three GTX 580s, but where's the fun in that? To be different, we contacted ATI ... uh ... we mean AMD, and learned that we already had custody of their highest-end pixel pumper, the Radeon HD5870, a board that's also ready to display 3-D, the company said. But we're not satisfied that 3-D specifications are settled, so we decided to wait until a single standard emerged before we started calling one Ultimate.

Another board that caught our attention was the Quadro 2000, a board released in October by Nvidia that's aimed at the business user doing computer-aided design work. Listing for $599, the Quadro 2000 exceeds its Quadro 1800 predecessor in performance by hundreds of times, according to some measures. And its 192 CUDA processor cores delivered adequate performance for gaming, making the card a good all-around choice for pros and hobbyists alike.

We tested the Quadro 2000's gaming prowess in October using our standard fixture, the Asus Crosshair IV motherboard with AMD Phenom
II X6 processor and 4-GB DDR 3 memory with vertical sync forced
off. A maximum frame rate of 414 was displayed by Fraps 3.2.2 when
playing Codemasters Software's Dirt 2 driving game with resolution
set to 1,440 x 900. Average frame rate during game play was about 105 fps. The Quadro gets all the power it needs from the bus; it requires no additional cable from the power supply. Since it uses less power, it naturally runs cool, and lets out its high of 132 degrees Fahrenheit into the PC cabinet. Since there's no rear-panel vent,
it uses just a single slot at the rear.

The Quadro 2000 really performs when doing CAD work. Using Standard Performance Evaluation Corp.'s Viewperf 11, testers
found the greatest improvements when handling scientific visualization
workloads. The 2000 delivered an Ensight score of 20.87, a 1,797 percent gain over the 1800’s score of 1.1. In the Maya test, which measures state changes when rendering models with millions of verticies, the 2000 improved by 735 percent, scoring 49.59 compared with the 1800’s 5.94. We also tested the Quadro 2000 with Viewperf 11 when running in the Ultimate PC with similar results. The Nvidia Quadro 2000 has a street price of $449.

NEXT: Power SupplyPower Supply

From Quadro to Quattro, few companies have been around longer than Antec, and its TruePower Quattro 1200 seemed the logical choice for the Ultimate PC; it was designed with many-core systems in mind. The Quattro's maximum rated power is just that -- a maximum. Its 80PLUS Silver Certification means that it remains more than 80 percent efficient at 20-, 50- and 100-percent workloads, consuming just enough energy to fulfill the power requirements asked of it by the host system.

The Quattro 1200 also is certified for Nvidia SLI and ATI CrossFire multicard power specifications, should the need arise to plug in as many as three video boards. Testers also liked the Quattro's "hybrid" cabling system. It affixes the most often used connections and includes cables and connectors for the rest. All cables use gold connector-ends and are covered in braided sheathing to help with airflow. Concerned only with its own thermal management, the Quattro draws air from the PC's bottom and exhausts it out the back. One important thing to note is the Quattro's power cord, which is different than most. It uses a C20 male (16 amp) connector, and requires a C19 female power cord. One is included, of course, but most resellers are not likely to have extras on hand. The Antec TruePower Quattro 1200 has a street price of $249.

NEXT: Memory And CoolingMemory And Cooling

Since its founding in 1994, Corsair has made its bones by manufacturing speciality components for servers and high-performance
workstations that are bigger, faster and better-performing than those previously available. The company submitted a number of great components to the Test Center for consideration, and we selected
its Dominator-GT 2,000-MHz DDR3 memory and H50 liquid processor cooling system for use in the Ultimate PC.

Like most geeks, we love computer components that look like other things. So we couldn’t help but adore Corsair's H50 CPU Cooler, which looks just like a miniature car radiator. Of course, the two share the same operational principle. Sitting atop the processor is a pump, which is powered by the CPU fan circuit. The pump continuously circulates
liquid through the radiator, which is kept cool by a dedicated fan. Not a
new concept, certainly, but a really cool-looking device and well-thought-out and documented implementation. Adapters and
mounting brackets are included for various Intel motherboards
and processors; those for AMD parts are available upon request.

A megahertz is a terrible thing to waste. And we geeks hate to
waste performance. Unfortunately, Intel took away that choice
because Corsair's Dominator-GT 2,000-MHz memory was faster
than the 1,600 MHz supported by the DX58SO motherboard.
Still, you won't find a cooler looking DIMM nor a cooler cooling
design. Memory modules are among the hottest system components,
yet they often sit there naked, with nary a cooling fin or heat sync among them. Corsair surrounds its memory chips with conductive aluminum that draws heat directly from the PCB. They're also topped with removable fins to maximize airflow and heat transfer. We found the Corsair H50 CPU Cooler selling for $69 and the Dominator-GT 2,000-MHz DDR3 memory selling for $249 for a set of three 2-GB modules.

NEXT: StorageStorage

We designed the Ultimate PC's storage with the motherboard in mind; Intel's DX58SO includes RAID controller logic from Marvell, which by
default is disabled in the BIOS. After enabling it and downloading Intel's Rapid Storage Technology software (which is free), we were able to configure the system's six hard drives as two separate RAID arrays --
one for booting the operating system and the other for storing data.

We configured a pair of 128-GB solid state drives (one from Imation, the other from Corsair) as a RAID 0 array and designated it as the boot volume. We selected RAID 0 to maximize performance and minimize
boot and system access times. That's where we installed the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate. The Imation 128-GB M-Class SSD drive sells for around $199. The Corsair drive, which offers slightly faster read and write times than Imation's, can be found on the street for around $219.

For data storage, we installed four Hitachi 1-TB 7,200 RPM SATA II drives, three of which were configured as a RAID 5 array, and one kept as a spare. We would have used all four, but we ran out of internal SATA ports. The motherboard offers six plus two eSata ports, and connecting the LG Blu-Ray/DVD writer was nonnegotiable! Hitachi's 1-TB SATA drives, which support a 3Gb/s transfer rate, sell for
around $69 on the street. The Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit OEM edition sells for around $179.

NEXT: CabinetCabinet

There are a huge number of ATX-style cabinets out there, and there's a lot to like about many of them. This year we selected NZXT's Phantom series of enthusiast towers. This roomy cabinet made quick work of installing the motherboard, which is usually (and was) the most time-consuming part of the job. The Phantom is designed to host several motherboard sizes, including ATX, micro ATX, Mini ATX, Flex ATX and others.

NZXT simplifies the job of stand-off installation by stamping codes near each threaded hole, indicating which holes get standoffs for the type of board you're putting in. A key explains the one-letter codes, and is stamped inside the cabinet too. Once the stand-offs were in place, holes on the motherboard lined up perfectly. After securing the board to the stand-offs with screws, we were ready to install the drives.

The Phantom has room for seven 3.5-inch internal drives, and each bay includes a rail assembly that makes quick work of populating them with drives. Rather than screws, pins held in with rubber grommets keep the drives in place. The bays are arranged in five- and two-bay cages, so we put our two SSD system drives in the two-drive cage and used four of the remaining five bays for the spinning SATA drives. After about five minutes, we were routing power and data cables.

A front door on the Phantom reveals its five 5.25-inch external bays, one of which received our LG Blu-Ray drive. Drives slide in without rails, are locked into place with a spring lever and can be further secured with screws. Ventilated faceplates are easily removed from the front by releasing a spring lock. They're not sharp and don't easily
bend. A large vent occupies the lower half of the plastic and steel front bezel, which is held in place with spring clips and easily removed. No wires connect it to the chassis.

Cooling fans abound, including two on the left-side panel and a large one on top that's illuminated by blue LEDs. Fans can be controlled individually by means of an illuminated switch on the top panel. A panel on the opposite side is home to power, reset, audio, eSATA
and two USB ports. Side panels are held in place with a thumbscrew and are quickly removed and replaced. The Phantom stands 21 inches high, 25 inches deep and about 9 inches wide. The NZXT Phantom would be suitable for building servers, workstations, gaming systems or anything that needs lots of room to expand. It's available in black, white and red, and sells for around $99.

NEXT: Benchmarks


Now for the part you've all been waiting for (or that you've skipped everything else to find). Based on its Geekbench high score of 13,483, the 2010 Ultimate PC is the fastest desktop machine we’ve seen. Aside from servers, the only thing faster was this same processor and motherboard overclocked by about 10 percent. When set to 3.75GHz, the system delivered a Geekbench score of 14,463.

Testers also evaluated performance of transaction processing and throughput using Intel’s Iometer open source benchmark. Peak rates of 109,000 IO/s were observed when performing 100 percent random reads of a 512K file, during which time the transfer rate peaked at about 52.6 MB/s.

Without exception, the components we selected for the 2010 Ultimate PC are made available through channel-friendly manufacturers and vendors. And with the positive news about this year's Black Friday spending, system builders, too, should be poised to get back in the black before the new year. Happy Holidays from the CRN Test Center. And may all your PCs be Ultimate PCs.

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