Summary: At last year's Computex, we held our first annual FiringSquad Invitational Tournament. Seven different motherboard manufacturers, as well as Shuttle, XGI, and NVIDIA were in attendance, duking it out to see who could build the fastest systems. At the same time, we also played quite a bit of EA's Battlefield Vietnam. Read all about the festivities from our first Invitational Tournament here!
Each year there are certain trade shows that we really look forward to attending. The reasons for this are obvious; You get out of the office for a few days, meet up with old friends and business associates, talk about games and technology and to some extent gossip about each other, and at the end of each chaotic day of rushing from booth to booth and suite to suite, hit the local bars and industry parties and drink, sometimes until the sun comes up. One of our favorite trade shows is Computex. Computex takes place each year in June in Taiwan, one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
Last year we decided to try something different from our previous Computex visits and invited the top name PC manufacturers to participate in an industry invitational gaming tournament. The tournament was a BYOC event in which each competing company was asked to submit their “Ultimate Gaming Rig” for our analysis and performance evaluation. Based on the performance of each system, we handed out awards based performance, design, and ingenuity.
One of the disadvantages of a trade show like Computex is that you get to see all the latest and greatest hardware, but rarely if ever do you actually get to see how fast it really works. Our invitational changes that since we are actually able to get our hands on the hardware that is displayed on the showroom floor a week before the show. This gives us the ability to know in advance what the manufacturers are working on and how good their engineers are at tweaking their hardware.
The other concept behind the invitational was to allow us to see what the engineers could do with the hardware they manufacture. In other words, what can a “modder” do if he has the resources of a full-blown engineering department behind him?
We received most of the gaming systems the weekend before Computex launched. Brandon and I had 3 days and nights to throw everything we had at these systems and came away with some real surprises. On the day of the tournament all the systems were shipped to the World Trade Center where we had setup the ballroom on the 33rd floor overlooking the whole of Taipei.
We spent a hectic and nerve wracking morning running around doing the innumerable things that are involved in setting up a LAN that can almost never be anticipated until the actual moment comes: not enough power cables, or some people forgot their mice/keyboards, not enough game software disks, picking up the little bits of plastic and styrofoam etc. After what seemed like an impossibility, the network was set up and the tournament could progress. This was a pivotal moment, as there were several significant factors against the tournament progressing in the first place. Number one was the time, manpower and equipment constraints of the various manufacturers. For anyone who has ever worked in marketing, trade shows are both exhilarating and exhausting, but mostly the latter. There are so many details to take care of, that all other details in your life for at least two weeks before the show become minor issues relegated to the back burner. Trade shows are incredibly important to a company’s image in front of customers and the media, often being one of the few times a year vendors and customers meet face to face. If the booth design is poor, or there aren’t enough promotional materials, or free gifts or refreshments, you can bet the marketing people who planned the event will be the whipping boys (or girls).
Besides the overworked marketing people that we were relying on to make their participation in the event happen, they were themselves dependent on other departments in order to get the equipment together. You would think it would be easy for most of these companies to set up an “Ultimate Gaming Rig”. However, a lot of the equipment that could have been allotted is either accounted for in engineering or needed for the show itself: any other time of year and it would have no problem, but it still would have taken approval from various departments. The nature of these companies is that they are mostly run by engineers for engineers, with marketing regarded as a necessary evil that no one quite yet understands. Thus any requests by marketing people for “Ultimate Gaming Rigs”, extra power cables or a short screwdriver requires at least a couple of meetings to discuss the issue and then perhaps a few follow up phone calls to make sure the engineers are actually doing what they said they would do, and not testing some obscure low-end video card performance for compatibility with one of their late-model boards sold primarily in the Indian and Chinese markets. This is not to say the engineers do not want to help out the marketing people. It’s just that they have their own priorities that are arguably just as important as or even more so than the marketing department. If Johnny lends out a complete test system to Sally from marketing and then he can’t test a certain class memory for the optimum CAS latency settings to get an extra 20 FPS on high res, then you can bet someone will be sleeping in the lab that night, eating microwaved dumplings and cold boxed milk tea for breakfast.
Beyond the time/equipment constraints there was the political issue of getting these competing companies together to play games against their bitter cross town rivals. Obviously the computer industry is competitive, and no one wanted to be seen losing to the other guy. Since the stakes of the competition were already pretty high because of the “Ultimate Gaming Rig” awards we were giving out, we decided to make the tournament a friendly match up, rather than a potential political hot potato. And friendly it was: for the setup, we already had (mostly) everybody helping each other out, so by gaming time all the various engineers were old buddies. This is inline with the nature of the computer industry, particularly in Taiwan: even though the companies are themselves pretty competitive, people move between companies regularly. It wouldn’t be totally unheard of to find magnets with a rival companies logo holding in place top secret performance test data on the cubicle walls of some product manager who got the magnets from his buddy who does the same job at the rival’s company.
The format of the tournament we left open to our tournament master provided by EA, a wiry little guy with boundless energy who made sure everyone was familiar with the rules of Battlefield: Vietnam. For the first match, we divided the players into two groups for capture the flag. It was ASUS, Shuttle, Soltek and Gigabyte vs. XGI, NVIDIA, ABIT, PowerColor and Biostar. After a hard fought battle, the winner was the former group, but who’s counting? For the second match, we had our highly coveted Firing Squad T-Shirts, some black, some white, randomly. It was white shirts vs. black shirts, which meant that we had players from different companies squaring off against each other. On one white side it was ASUS, XGI, ABIT, Gigabyte, Shuttle and Soltek vs. the ABIT, PowerColor, XGI, Shuttle and Biostar. The black side ended up winning because of their superb strategy and teamwork.
At the end of the day, everyone had a great time which was the whole point. The companies who participated showed they really care about gaming beyond the usual marketing pitches, and their employees proved it by being great sports and genuinely having a fantastic time.
Computex 2004 proved to be a very busy show for all of the manufacturers on hand at the FiringSquad Invitational. With AMD’s Socket 939 launch merely hours old, and Intel’s Alderwood and Grantsdale launches right around the corner, motherboard manufacturers had their hands full keeping up with products based on both platforms. Things were just as busy on the graphics front also, as ATI had just announced their PCI Express-based X300 and X600, while the GeForce 6800 and X800 launches were still fresh on everyone’s mind.
The rules of the invitational were simple, manufacturers were to provide two systems: one high-end rig would be submitted into the contest, while the second PC was to be used solely in the Battlefield Vietnam gaming tournament we were conducting. The high-end rig would also be used in the Battlefield Vietnam tournament, as each manufacturer would be competing with two-man teams.
The manufacturers were competing for one of six awards: Best Portable Design, Highest Overclock, Best CPU/Motherboard Performance, Best Graphics Performance, Best Visual Design, Best Low Noise Design, and finally, the Ultimate Gaming Rig. Lets look at the submissions:
As the first manufacturer to implement jumperless technology into their motherboards, motherboard manufacturer extraordinaire ABIT have always geared their products towards the enthusiast/overclocking community. Since then ABIT has spearheaded other efforts: their “RAID for everyone” initiative was responsible for making IDE RAID a standard feature on most motherboards, and is so popular it’s been added to the latest chipsets from Intel, NVIDIA, and VIA, while their legacy free MAX motherboards have earned rave reviews, including a few Editor’s Choice awards from this website. Last year we saw “The Rise of Cooling”, emphasizing ABIT’s focus on providing enhanced cooling for the motherboard’s power circuitry. A year later we see the importance of cooling, as Prescott’s thermal requirements are staggering. ABIT was also the first manufacturer to aggressively integrate Japanese capacitors into their products.
With all this as a backdrop, we were eager to see what ABIT put together for their Invitational submission. ABIT started things off with Lian Li’s PC-V1200 aluminum case. Because of this, ABIT’s system really stood out from the others both visually and physically – you could literally roll it anywhere you wanted! ABIT chose AMD’s Athlon 64 platform for their gaming rig submission so their K8T800-based KV8-MAX3 was the natural choice for the motherboard. The KV8-MAX3 features ABIT’s OTES technology for cooling the motherboard’s power circuitry and microGuru for overclocking/hardware monitoring. The board also supports six-channel Serial ATA RAID and Gigabit LAN. Paired alongside the KV8-MAX3 was AMD’s Athlon 64 3200+ CPU.
ABIT equipped their system with 1GB of DDR400 SDRAM and their R9800XT RADEON 9800 XT graphics card. We reviewed this graphics card when it first came out and found it to be a solid solution with all the quality you’d expect from a Built By ATI card.
Already well known for their motherboards, ASUS has branched out into many other markets. One of them is notebooks, which ASUS has been producing for several years now.
In addition, the L5000GA’s ACE View display was a real eye catcher. Thanks to IPS and HRP technologies, the L5000GA’s 15” display looks beautiful at all angles, making it perfect for gaming or watching DVD movies. We included pictures of the L5000GA’s display compared against Dell’s high-end Inspiron XPS notebook in our L5000GA review.
For the FiringSquad Invitational, ASUS came back with an even beefier L5000GA system. A desktop Pentium 4 3.2GHz processor powered ASUS’ system, just like the system we reviewed back in May, but ASUS added ATI’s more powerful MOBILITY 9700 to the package. This addition should make the L5000GA even more tempting to gamers.
Biostar used the FiringSquad Invitational to feature their next generation small form factor system, the iDEQ 300 series. Biostar’s iDEQ 300 goes one step beyond their highly successful 200 series, which were able to secure our Bull’s Eye Award back in August of last year.
The next generation iDEQ features an integrated LED front panel display and a built-in FM radio tuner, just like MSI’s MEGA series of small form factor PCs. Biostar also provides a 7-in-1 media card reader, supporting Smart Disk, Compact Flash, and Sony Memory Stick among its list of formats supported.
One feature the Biostar iDEQ 300 supports that no other small form factor system provides is its Instant On Jukebox functionality for not just MP3s and CDs, but also DVDs. This means that you can watch a full length DVD movie without having to boot up the system into Windows. Biostar rounds out the package with integrated Gigabit LAN and 802.11g Wi-Fi.
The most striking aspect of Biostar’s new design is its hinged chassis. With it, the entire front of the system can be lifted up, just like the hood on your car. This gives you easy access to install system components such as memory and the CPU, dropping these parts in is literally a breeze.
Biostar will be offering two 300 series iDEQs initially, the Intel 915G-based 300G, and the iDEQ 300M, which is based on VIA’s PM880 Pentium 4 chipset. The 300G is a Socket 775 solution while the 300M utilizes Intel’s 478-pin socket.
For the FiringSquad Invitiational, Biostar submitted a prototype iDEQ 300G. The system was equipped with a Pentium 4 2.8E processor, 256MB of DDR400 memory, and one of Biostar’s PCI Express-based GeForce PCX 5900 cards.
With so much beta hardware inside, we were a bit worried if Biostar may have gone too far with their official Invitational submission, but we found stability to be pretty good. Biostar employees were also able to game away all day on the iDEQ 300G during the Battlefield Vietnam competition with no problems.
DFI’s really been going out of their way to entice gamers and hardware enthusiasts. Their LANPARTY series of motherboards were the first to ship with round IDE cables, and also include other goodies such as customizable FRONTX 5.25” front panel bays and a convenient strap for carrying your PC to LAN parties. Not only do these motherboards come with lots of extra features, but they also provide great performance and reliability, with competitive pricing. In fact, the last DFI motherboard we tested, their NFII Ultra Rev B finished ahead of ASUS’ enhanced second generation A7N8X-E Deluxe in our nForce 2 Ultra 400 shootout at the beginning of this year.
DFI chose to use this motherboard for the FiringSquad Invitational. It features an enhanced, 4-channel Serial ATA controller, DualNet networking (Gigabit Ethernet in fact), Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, a handy diagnostic LED display, and DFI’s highly regarded CMOS Reloaded BIOS for overclocking.
The system was encased in a Thermaltake XaserV chassis, and was outfitted with AMD’s Athlon XP 3000+ CPU. Keeping the processor fed with data was 1GB of DDR400 SDRAM while ATI’s RADEON 9800 XT graphics card supplied the visuals.
Like ASUS, Gigabyte is one of Taiwan’s mega manufacturers, offering a wide array of products that spans from optical storage, keyboards and mice, all the way up to monitors and notebooks.
Among motherboard manufacturers Gigabyte is perhaps best known for their DualBIOS feature, which integrates dual BIOS chips on the motherboard. If one BIOS fails or is corrupted by virus, you simply revert to the backup BIOS to restore your system’s integrity. More recently Gigabyte has made a name for themselves with their dual power system, which is frequently referred to as DPS.
DPS acts as a second power source for your CPU, ensuring that it has a constant supply of juice when overclocking. With faster processors also consuming more power, DPS could arguably be considered an insurance policy towards the future. Whereas most 925X and 915 motherboards are limited to 3-phase or at best 4-phase power solutions, Gigabyte’s DPS-equipped 925/915 boards supply 8 phases of power.
Gigabyte really decked out the system they submitted to us, starting off with the motherboard, Gigabyte’s GA-8ANXP-D. This is their flagship 925X motherboard with dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers, IEEE-1394b, 802.11g Wi-Fi, support for up to eight Serial ATA hard drives, 3 PCI-E x1 slots and one x16 slot for graphics and Intel’s High Definition 7.1 audio.
In addition to the high-end motherboard, Gigabyte partnered with Corsair, who provided 1 Gigabyte of their brand new XMS2-5400 DDR2 memory. This is pretty high-end stuff folks. For graphics duties, Gigabyte included their PCI Express X800 XT Platinum Edition card, the GV-RX80X256V, while the system was finished off with an LGA-775 Pentium 4 3.2GHz.
The big news at Powercolor was their parent company’s name switch, from CP Technology to TUL, which stands for Technology Unlimited. TUL is focused on providing cutting edge solutions to OEMs and other large customers, while Powercolor will focus on the consumer (retail) market, where they plan to continue the success they’ve established among ATI’s board partners.
Powercolor’s system was housed inside a TUL chassis and TUL A350 RADEON 9000 PRO IGP motherboard with 512MB of RAM. Finally, Powercolor finished the system off with one of their X800 PRO cards.
These newer XPCs ship in more stylish aluminum chassis, featuring drive bay doors, revised I.C.E. heatpipe cooling and 250-watt (minimum) power supply units. We’re looking forward to getting our hands on one for review.
In the meantime, Shuttle submitted their ST61 XPC for the FS Invitational. This wasn’t your everyday ST61G4 however, as Shuttle had configured it with a custom Counter-Strike paint scheme, with two fully-equipped SAS counter-terrorists on the top of the machine. Inside the ST61G4 was a Pentium 4 2.8GHz and 512MB of DDR400 SDRAM.
Shuttle attempted to team up with an ATI board partner who shall remain unnamed for graphics, but that plan fell through at the last minute so they were forced to rely on the ST61G4’s integrated RADEON 9100 IGP graphics. Despite this, 3D performance was respectable, but obviously not in the same class as the other systems with GeForce FX and RADEON cards inside.
In fact, earlier this year Soltek won our roundup of a handful of 865G small form factor systems. At the time we said “The bottom line is that Soltek’s EQ3401 offers the best combination of price, features, and performance, earning our Bull’s Eye Award in the process.” Soltek is now hard at work on their second generation small form factor designs, which we were able to get a preview of the day before our invitational event was held.
Soltek submitted their nForce3 250Gb-based EQ3801 small form factor system into the invitational. This system supports eight channel audio, Gigabit Ethernet, and up to 2GB of RAM. Soltek decided to outfit their box with an Athlon 64 3400+, while they relied on a GeForce FX 5900 XT card for graphics. Soltek also matched DFI and Gigabyte by outfitting their system with 1GB of DDR400 SDRAM.
If you want even more performance, you step up to the “Duo” line, which pairs two V8 processors together to offer more fill rate. These cards are being pitched against NVIDIA and ATI’s flagship DX9 offerings, and were the card XGI used for their FiringSquad invitational system. Running alongside the Volari V8 Duo was ASUS’ 875P P4C800 Deluxe motherboard. Intel’s Pentium 4 3.2GHz was selected for general processing duties and was paired with 512MB of DDR400 SDRAM.
As we stated earlier, the systems submitted were competing for one of five awards: Best Portable Design, Highest Overclock, Best CPU/Motherboard Performance, Best Visual Design, Best Graphics Performance, Best Low Noise Design, and the Ultimate Gaming Rig. On to the winners:
Ultimate Gaming Rig: Gigabyte
With a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 CPU, PCI Express X800 XT Platinum Edition graphics, and 1GB of DDR SDRAM, Gigabyte’s system breezed through our suite of benchmarks, leaving all other competitors in its wake. Gigabyte even housed their system inside a transparent case for added flair.
Best Portable Design: ASUS
ASUS’ L5GA was a no-brainer choice for best portable design. Due to the strength of its components, the L5GA is more than capable of keeping up with a similarly configured desktop PC, and with ASUS outfitting the system with a desktop 3.2GHz Pentium 4 and 1GB of RAM, it’s obvious they’re looking to replace a few desktops with the L5GA.
Best CPU/Motherboard Performance: XGI
While they’re not known for CPUs or motherboards, the XGI rig posted the best SiSoft Sandra scores, including the Gigabyte uber system. XGI obviously took a lot of time prepping their system, turning the memory timings down, enabling the P4C800’s “Turbo” mode, etc, and it showed. If you’re in Taiwan and need help optimizing your system, it may not be a bad idea to drop by XGI’s offices!
Best Graphics Performance: Powercolor
With the Gigabyte card taking the performance crown, the second fastest card was Powercolor’s X800 PRO. The X800 PRO VPU packs a lot of bang for the buck, and has proven to be a delightful card to overclock. With X800 XT Platinum Edition boards still practically impossible to find, the X800 PRO is a solid alternative, and Powercolor’s cards are built with the same level of quality as ATI’s. In fact they’re a little better as they ship with a superior game bundle!
Best Visual Design: Biostar
While the title of this award is Best Visual Design, the Biostar iDEQ 300 series didn’t win this award for its physical looks, rather the design and execution of the system itself. From the Instant-On Jukebox feature Biostar has implemented for watching DVD movies and listening to audio CDs, to its hinged chassis and integrated 802.11g Wi-Fi, the iDEQ 300 has it all. We have a feeling Biostar could gain a lot of Shuttle converts with this system if the price is right, stability and performance are good, and they’re able to deliver final units on time. This is one small form factor system you should be on the lookout for if you plan on upgrading soon.
Best Low Noise Design: Soltek
With its near silent operation, Soltek’s EQ3801 really impressed us. Soltek managed to keep an Athlon 64 3200+ cool with little excessive noise and great performance. Soltek’s extra 5.25” drive bay should come in handy for those of you who do lots of CD-to-CD copies or if you just want to use the space for an extra hard drive, while NVIDIA’s nForce3 250Gb chipset provides features like GigE with Firewall support, and cross-channel operation. Soltek even spices up the package by providing 8-channel audio. We’re really looking forward to checking out Soltek’s 939 derivative of the EQ3801 once it’s available.
Highest Overclock: None
Unfortunately, no one stepped up to the plate and overclocked their system. Therefore, we had to wrap the overclock trophy home and take it back on the plane with us. Maybe next year guys…
2005 Computex Industry Invitational
With the success of our 2004 event behind us, we started planning for 2005. This year’0s tournament will be held on June 2nd, in the same venue as last year. Once again we’ll be getting a close look at the hardware of the future and this year we expect even more participants to attend. AMD will be in attendance this year, so we have no doubt they’ll be pimping dual core Athlon 64 X2. In addition, with ATI rumored to be releasing their dual graphics technology, an enterprising motherboard manufacturer (or two or three) may wish to go for best graphics performance with a pair of X850 XT Platinum Editions.
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