Summary: We're proud to present the 1st Biennial Eternal Battle: 5 days of system building guides. The plan?
Step 1: Build the ultimate gaming system
Step 2: Build the ultimate workstation
Step 3: Put both systems head-to-head
Step 4: In videogame fashion, reveal the true nature of the boss.
Step 1: Build the ultimate gaming system with a no-budget, but don’t waste money approach
Step 2: Build a mission-critical workstation with a focus on stability
Step 3: Put both systems head-to-head in the first biennial Eternal Battle.
Step 4: In classic videogame fashion, reveal the true form of the final boss and continue the battle
Our results might surprise you…
Part 1: Building an Ultimate Gaming PC
Life is about struggles. As a kid, the struggles were simple. It was all about getting that kite to fly or whether you wanted vanilla or chocolate ice cream. As you grew up, it got a bit more complicated as you started to have responsibilities not only to yourself but to others, and one of the battles we all face daily is choosing between work and play. Admit it, if any of us won the lottery, we’d certainly go for an early retirement or at least cut back on our hours at work. This debate between work and play is reflected every time you build a computer. For any given budget, we’re always balancing our need for performance, reliability, and the realities of our budget. With an unlimited budget, we certainly can go all out and get the very best of products, but few of us truly have an unlimited budget…
Dual versus Single CPU
The debate between single and dual CPUs will be resolved by next year. Everyone will need two cores in the future, and the question will change to who needs four CPU cores (through a pair of Dual Core CPUs).
Dual-core for games today
Today’s games aren’t multithreaded. So, when designing a gaming system only one CPU core is needed. Therefore, the fastest individual core is going to be what’s important for having the fastest frame rates and the fastest benchmarks. In real-life, when you’re playing a game, your CPU still needs to spend time managing memory, the swap file, all while keeping your real-time anti-virus file scanner and firewall active. Everyone claims to run a clean system, but how many of us have been dropped out of a LAN game because we received an instant message? How many of you have a torrent downloading in the background while you game? Dual core CPUs would help there.
Choosing The Platform
In the choice between AMD and Intel, there’s little debate. If we’re looking for the fastest gaming performance, it’s going to be with NVIDIA SLI. With Intel SLI products not yet widely available, we’re going with AMD. (This article is being written in May 2005). However, even if Intel SLI boards were widely available, the Athlon FX-57 CPU would still our choice for the fastest gaming system. The FX-55 is already faster in real-world gaming than the P4 EE 3.73GHz CPU (and does so at almost a $250 savings) and the Athlon FX-57 should be even faster. Our FX-57 was a pre-production model.
What makes Opteron 100’s different from Athlon64’s?
While the original Athlon FX-51 was a Socket 940 part and essentially identical to an Opteron 146, today’s Socket 939 Athlon64 FX’s are different. The Athlon 64 FX-57 differs from the traditional Athlon64 line-up in that it features 1MB of L2 cache rather than 512KB found in some AMD designs, and because it represents the fastest core clock speed. Both Opterons and Athlon64s have the same fundamental AMD64 core design.
The days of not knowing if your cooler would be sufficient for your CPU is gone. Manufacturers now make it easy to identify which heatsink works for which CPU, and with standardized thermal requirements, today’s heatsinks consistently overshoot the minimum requirements. For non-overclocked systems, the differences in CPU coolers is more about ease of installation, operating noise, reliability, and looks than it is performance. Everything changes when you need to overclock.
Of course, when it comes to extreme performance overclocking, today’s best designs are still liquid cooled systems with fan-cooled radiators. Actually, according to our contacts, by the end of the decade, both Intel and AMD believe that liquid cooling may become a “standard” component in enterprise servers. That is, forced air cooling will no longer be sufficient even for stock CPUs.
Anyhow, that’s 5 years from now.
Zalman CNPS7000B AlCu
Arctic Silver 5
Our choice of thermal grease also remains unchanged from the last article: Arctic Silver 5. Arctic Silver 5 is one of the easiest thermal greases to apply with unparalleled performance. Although there used to be concern about the silver content of the grease, today’s CPUs with large heatspreaders make the concern about the possible conductivity and capacitance a non-issue.
When it comes to motherboard chipsets, we can think of no other platform we’d prefer over NVIDIA nForce 4 and nForce Professional – even the famed Intel platform division that produced the legendary Triton 430TX, 440BX, and i875P loses in a matchup against “nForce4 SLI for Intel.” The Intel team still has some SATA RAID talent that NVIDIA does not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if NVIDIA’s team ends up recruiting Intel platform engineers too.
Which nForce4 SLI motherboard?
We’ve already done a round-up of most of the nForce4 SLI motherboards on the market. In that article, we gave the DFI LANPARTY nF4 SLI-DR our Editor’s Choice Award and the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum our Bull’s Eye Award.
The specification list for the DFI motherboard includes a bullet point that Japanese capacitors are used. This is a feature worth discussing – since it’s not designed to suggest that Japanese-made products are better than Taiwanese-made products as some people might assume.
Since our desktop is supposed to be about lots of bling, an obvious choice was to go with the new XMS Xpert series with the giant programmable LED display. If you recall, Corsair was the original manufacturer to put the usage LEDs with XMS Pro. Conventional wisdom is that these gimmicks should compromise stability – especially the XMS Xpert which allows you to custom program the LED display through the regular memory bus interface… However, the point is that Corsair does not implement these features until they are sure that it does not compromise stability. We know this because we’ve been using XMS Xpert modules in a production system for several months and no matter how aggressive we are, the XMS Xperts keep on ticking without missing a beat. It is clear that Corsair’s design team understands that when considering the balance between performance, “bling,” cost, and reliability, that it’s really a question of performance, bling, and cost and that there’s never an option for anything other than 100% reliability.
The LED panel is a large 10-digit alphanumeric display which shows real-time voltage, temperature, and frequency and allows you to custom program any message you want. It’s cool enough to have these features, but it’s even more amazing when you realize that this feature works without compromising stability. The Corsair 1GB Twin-X XMS Xpert 3200XL modules feature matched 512MB DIMMS with 2-2-2-5 timing running DDR-400. Corsair’s XL modules with 2-2-2-5 do run hotter than standard 2-3-2-5 low latency modules. While extraordinary cooling is not needed, we would not be comfortable recommending those modules in a fanless system where the modules are only cooled passively. Any normal system with a basic system fan will work just fine.
But DFI has custom-made PC5000 RAM from OCZ Technology available. These modules are rated to as high as 625MHz by running at 2.85V (standard is 2.75V)! Going with these modules would increase our ability to overclock the RAM, however the latency would also be increased to 3-4-4-10. One catch is that although these memory sticks are qualified at 625MHz, it’s not as easy as plugging the modules in and running your applications. Running the Athlon64 memory controller at 312.5 MHz can stress the CPU itself.
Particularly with Pentium 4 systems, low latency memory modules are key. They can represent the difference between two CPU clockspeeds. On the Athlon64, low latency should still be important, however while ultra low latency PC3200 should outperform standard latency PC4000 for most real world tests, it’s going to be tough for 2-2-2-5 PC32000 to compete against PC5000 RAM.
Which one is going to be better? You’ll find out more in our benchmark article, but we ended up going with the OCZ PC-5000 modules. “1GB should be enough for everyone.”
$265 with XPERT LED alpha-numeric display modules
$240 with XMS PRO with LED usage monitor
$195 with XMS standard heat spreaders
$300 OCZ EL DDR PC-5000 Dual Channel Platinum DFI nF4 Special
$195 with for OCZ 2-2-2-5 standard heat spreader
Running Total: $1500
SIDEBAR: $70 is a lot to ask for added bling of Corsair XPERT, but in a way it’s like going for a Matrix Orbital LCD panel.
The power supply used to be an incredibly overlooked component of the system. At the turn of the century, most people did not understand why anyone would want to spend $50-60 on a power supply when a whole new ATX case with power supply could be bought for the same price. Back then, 250W was the plenty to go around. It really wasn’t until the Athlon and P4 that people started to notice the effects of poor power and started to care about the available current on different voltage rails.
Fast forward to 2005, and most people see 350W power supplies as the bare minimum, with most gamers opting to go to 400W and up. Making sure +12V lines have enough amps isn’t as much of an issue, and I’d say that most people are returning to days of shopping by watts, with only the handful of die-hard power gurus considering things such as cross-loading (the idea that what you have on your +3.3V and +5V affects your +12V rail).
Another interesting thing is that very few systems are drawing that much power over any extended period of time. That’s true even with today’s CPUs and SLI GPUs. You really won’t be able to run out of watts until you start adding large multi-drive RAID arrays. On the other hand, the need for better and cleaner power supplies cannot be underestimated. Without question, we are all buying more powerful PSUs than we need when it comes to wattage. What has really been the case though is that PSUs capable of handling higher current are also PSUs that end up being more stable and reliable. Again, we’re not really learning anything new – we’re just rediscovering why the old super-stable SGI workstations would engineer 747 W power supplies when their CPUs were drawing just 17W and the whole system might only draw somewhere between 200-300W from the wall.
Eating Healthy and Exercising
The issue about investing in a good power supply is that it’s not a benefit you can see immediately. It’s not like spending more on a faster CPU or a bigger HDD. With a PSU, you’re just buying insurance and reliability. It’s like eating healthy or exercising – you’ll probably feel great eating the KFC all the time, and putting yourself on the Burger King Angus Diet up until the point you have your heart attack.
So which power supply?
There are few unanimous comments in computing. You won’t be able to get everyone to agree on which CPU to get or even which memory manufacturer is the best. When it comes to power supplies, however, the best of the best is unanimous – PC Power and Cooling. We’ve been using PC Power & Cooling even before high-end PSUs were the cool thing to do. Indeed, two years ago ,we used a Turbo-Cool 475 XE in our Dual Athlon MP and a Turbo-Cool 510 ATX in our Pentium 4 Storage Server. The PC Power and Cooling PSUs are really that good, and it’s amazing that the design continues to be the reference PSU that has yet to be matched. For the desktop our pick is the PC Power and Cooling 510-SLI and for our workstation we’re building tomorrow, we’ll with a PC Power and Cooling 850W SSI. It’s hard enough to stress a PC Power and Cooling 510W PSU, so I’m not even sure there’s a good reason to get an 850W power supply. [cue mysterious foreshadowing music]
Turbo-Cool 510-SLI $230
PC Power and Cooling
Running Total: $1730
SIDEBAR: Don’t worry, we’ll come back to the power supply in more detail later this week. [Wave Jedi hand] This is not a hint of what’s coming up later.
While these BTX-style designs are not ideal for hot-swap drive cages, in a system with fixed HDDs, overall system cooling can be improved by segregating the heat into different zones, maximizing the efficiency of air cooling. While a traditional server case such as that from Chenbro or SuperMicro will still produce quiet and stable performance, this novel approach to system mounting is likely to catch on. This zone-based cooling approach, often erroneously attributed to being an Apple design, was actually found almost a decade earlier in the SGI Octane and works to maximize system cooling.
Lian Li or Silverstone/Enermax?
The differences between these cases are in the layout of the power supply and hard drives. The Lian Li V-series places the hard drives and power supply at the bottom of the case. In doing so, the airflow across the hard drives is optimized because the power supply exhaust fan will also be moving air across the hard drives. The disadvantage is that the CPU is in close proximity to all of the major heat producing elements of the system (the HDDs and PSU). There is a funnel of heat below the CPU with a warm aluminum shield. Likewise, although the HDDs will have superb cooling, the PSU is under greater stress from all of the heat from those HDDs.
With the Silverstone and Enermax design, the motherboard is inverted but the power supply remains at the top of the chassis. This approach is designed to place the CPU as far away from the PSU/HDDs as possible. Dedicated twin 120mm fans provide a continuous stream of cool air. The hard drives are mounted at the rear, at the very top of the chassis. The chassis engineers envisioned gamers using PSUs with twin fans such that the PSU’s second intake fan would also move air across the HDDs. The HDDs face the rising heat of the GPU, and so the stress on the PSU is also significant
To summarize, both the Lian-Li design and Silverstone/Enermax design work to improve cooling over the conventional ATX tower design. The Lian Li V-series does a better job keeping HDDs cool and is overall the easier system to work with, but the Silverstone/Enermax will be better at keeping the CPUs cool. It’s just as effective at cooling HDDs if you’re using a power supply with a second intake fan, however with a flagship PSU, you may need to make modifications. Other considerations include the fact that the Silverstone case offers a reset button whereas the Lian Li does not. The Lian Li also requires the use of specialized screws and tools (which are included), which can be a problem if you lose the accessories and the V1000 and V1200 can have trouble with large power supplies.
The fastest performing single desktop hard drives will be the WD Raptor 10,000 rpm drives despite the lack of S-ATA features such as NCQ. If we were looking for the absolute fastest performance and could live with the reduced drive capacity, they would be good choices. On the other hand, I never seem to have enough hard drive space.
The true ultimate setup would therefore be a pair of Raptors in RAID-0 as the main program drive, a third Raptor dedicated for swap file and temporary files (a 36GB would be fine, but the 74GB is quieter with FDB motors), and then several large capacity 7200 rpm SATA drives for data. Placing the swap/temp files on a dedicated drive will speed up virtual memory accesses, and with a Raptor, it would be that much faster. The striped RAID-0 would provide superior read and write performance, and the remaining 7200rpm drives could be the place for video, audio, and all other large media. This isn’t a luxury we can all afford.
One of the key secrets to the performance of the Western Digital Raptor is its low seek times. However, with NCQ optimization the differences in seek time under real-world conditions narrows. Where the Raptor still holds the crown is with throughput. This is where RAID comes into play.
In a RAID-0 Striping setup, data is read and written to alternative drives and as a result you can double the throughput both when writing and reading. In a RAID-1 Mirroring setup, data is written simultaneously to two drives. While this can actually slow down write speed, the added level of redundancy protects data against a physical crash of a hard drive. Most RAID-1 Mirroring devices do not accelerate the read, but more advanced RAID controllers will be able to read-stripe by requesting alternating blocks from each drive.
What are the best 7200 RPM desktop drives for RAID-0?
On the desktop, our favorite 7200 RPM drive for RAID-0 is the Hitachi Deskstar T7K250. These 250GB 7200 rpm SATA-II based drives have a peak bandwidth of 300MB/sec and NCQ support. Most importantly, Hitachi has built these drives using 2 high-density platters each having 125GB. This increased density should improve reliability, but it will also increase throughput and reduce the seek times. Seagate also produces high-density platter drives (the highest in the industry with 133GB/sec). While this also helps Seagate improve reliability, the design philosophy between Seagate and Hitachi is substantially different. As a general stereotype, when comparing the two, Hitachi drives are engineered for lower-latency whereas Seagate drives have been engineered for quieter operation. That’s just the stereotype, and everyone will be able to find exceptions, however that’s just a design philosophy. No manufacturer will ever claim that their drive is anything but reliable and there is not a very good way to evaluate HDD reliability at this time.
The Hitachi Deskstar T7K250 makes sense in a gaming platform because a RAID-0 configuration doubles your bandwidth, but does not have the same benefit to the drive latency. Therefore, the best HDDs to use for a RAID-0 setup ends up being the one with lowest latency, which ends up being the Hitachi T7K250 when considering 7200 rpm drives. This approach of RAID-0 T7K250’s should provide excellent performance giving us the best of all three worlds: low latency, high throughput, and high capacity. You can go faster with WD Raptors but dollar for dollar, nothing beats a RAID-0 Hitachi T7K250.
Hitachi Deskstar T7K250
$130 x 2
Running Total: $2200
SIDEBAR: Hitachi used to own Denon electronics.
Why Serial ATA is more than just about transfer rates
When you ask most people what makes Serial ATA so interesting, the answer is usually going to involve the super-thin cabling and the frustration of new power plugs. Some people may add that SATA 1.0 can support 150MB/sec transfer instead of a peak 133MB/sec of IDE, but we are all wise to the fact that most hard drives won’t saturate an ATA 133 bus. The cabling issue seems trivial, but it’s just as important as some of the additional underlying features. Having a single cable for each drive produces a point-to-point topology in which each drive can provide maximum throughput to the controller. With IDE, or even traditional SCSI, each additional hard drive can reduce the total throughput available to the system. Likewise, if you look at the SATA cables very carefully, you’ll see that they’re staggered. This is done intentionally so that when you hot-swap a drive, power is sent to the drive in a controlled fashion to limit the inrush of current to a drive. The drive will never get power before the pre-charge and grounding have occurred.
Normally, I’d take the time to ponder the ATI versus NVIDIA issue. After all, the X850 line has proven to be a top-notch GPU that most of us would love to own. Still, NVIDIA stole the thunder from ATI. There’s no debate since NVIDIA beat ATI to dual modern dual PCI Express GPU support and those of us looking for top-of-the-line performance can get a pair 6800 Ultra’s today, while it’ll still be at least a month before ATI will have their new Crossfire GPUs available.
Is SLI a waste of money? What about the GeForce 7800 GTX?
An obvious question is why we aren’t going with a GeForce 7800 GTX in our article. Actually, the easy answer is that this article is being written in May (yup, we had our FX-57 then), a time when the 7800 GTX was not announced yet. This will also help us delineate the issues that arise when buying a “flagship GPU.” Does it make sense to buy the flagship GPU or wait for the “next generation” GPU to come out? This seems like a tough question, but the real answer is straightforward – go with your budget, and buy as early as you can.
So which 6800 Ultras?
For our GPUs, we ended up selecting a pair of BFG GeForce 6800 Ultra OC PCI-E 256MB. These cards feature a 1.1GHz memory clock and a 425MHz core clockspeed a small bump over the standard 400MHz. We like BFG graphics cards a lot as they have quickly grown from being the “start-up” board manufacturer (they came to the market in the GeForce 4 era) to probably one of the most consistently performing manufacturers to date. In a way, they are like the new Canopus of graphics cards, only with more reasonable pricing. We would anticipate BFG’s GeForce 7800 GTX’s to be just as good.
BFG GeForce 6800 Ultra OC 256MB PCI-e
Running Total: $3300
SIDEBAR: Tiled based multi-GPU rendering was introduced with the PowerVR PCX1 in 1997. The PCI bus did not have enough bandwidth to make it as effective as it could have been.
Whereas PC Power & Cooling are the unanimous choice for flagship power supplies, the closest thing to flagship optical drives are those from Plextor. I still remember my 4Plex SCSI CD-ROM with a massive 1MB buffer which came in a box so big you’d think there was a laser printer inside. Indeed, my 12x Plexwriter and UltraPlex 40x Wide SCSI CD-ROM still hold a special place in my heart. Even before Plextor was Plextor and was called Texel, they were always considered one of the best optical drive manufacturers in the world. (I actually skipped Texel drives in my upgrade path. My first single-speed CD-ROM was a Sony drive and then I quickly upgraded to the venerable 2.2x Toshiba XM-3401B. I was an early adopter for CD-ROM technology, paying what probably is the equivalent of buying blu-ray stuff today).
Plextor’s current flagship models are the PX-716SA and the PX-716AL. The SA is a Serial ATA model with 16x DVD+R write performance on 8x certified discs, and 6X write performance on dual layer discs! The AL variant, though being an IDE drive, is a slot-loading drive. We haven’t seen slot-loading drives for sometime (since Pioneer) and this is something we’re looking forward to seeing again. Plextor’s new approach is notable because they claim to be able to use 3-inch CDs without any trouble or extra adapters. It’s unclear if it’ll work with “business card CDs.” For media, I use Taiyo Yuden CD-Rs and DVD-Rs exclusively. The M.A.M. Gold media is better, but the Taiyo Yuden’s are good enough for most.
Running Total: $3425
Keyboard and Mouse
Last year, we recommended the Goldtouch USB adjustable ergonomic keyboard at ~$120. While the Goldtouch remains the best keyboard we’ve used to date for typing, the poor placement of the ALT button makes it a little less ideal platform for a multi-tasking user. We would still recommend the Goldtouch USB to writers or anyone else who spends most of time in the QWERTY area, but we’ve since found a great alternative.
Keyboard and input devices are definitely a personal decision, so it’s worthwhile to head to your local store and to try out a few different mice. I’m not sure how good my recommendations are if both the keyboard and mice I’ve recommended are either discontinued or almost discontinued. I like to think of it as me being too picky about my input devices and Logitech just not being able to justify the expense to continue manufacturing them.
Logitech Cordless Comfort Duo - $100
Logitech MX700 (Refurbished) - $50
Running Total: $3575
SIDEBAR: Logitech mice are among the most reliable.
Microsoft’s poor design choice aside, the floppy drive remains a critical component of your system. Many manufacturers still believe in DOS-based BIOS flashing utilities and refuse to support Windows based flash BIOS updates on the account of the greater potential for irreversible damage. Newer motherboards are able to update the BIOS via a USB flash drive.
If you really cared about the a quality 1.44 floppy drive, you will need to go with a “sealed” design with a die-cast frame such as the 1.44 floppy from Teac (the original gold-standard in floppy drives) or Sony in which moving parts aren’t exposed to the user’s fingers (as is the case with Samsung floppy drives). USB double-speed read floppy drives are available, but I’m not sure who would actually benefit from that as opposed to a USB flash drive.
1.44 Floppy Drive
Running Total: $3590
In our 17” LCD Round-Up, I mentioned that “all things equal,” smaller LCD monitors would offer better gaming performance, even for the same advertised pixel refresh. For that reason we’ve opted to go with a 17” LCD monitor rather than a 19” one. Our monitor of choice for the ultimate gaming system is therefore the NEC MultiSync LCD1770NX. It has the excellent color that will let this system show the full efforts of video game artists, and the brisk pixel refresh that keeps smearing at a level that doesn’t interfere significantly with your gaming. Since our review, the LCD1770NX has actually dropped in price, making it an even better deal. Last time we awarded it 1st place, but we’re making this a Bull’s Eye product.
Sound Card $35 to $280
Sound cards have really started to drop off in technology. The integrated soundcard on the DFI motherboard with Karajan isn’t bad and is perfect when dealing with games and movies. We can improve the quality and performance with an Audigy2 or an Envy24HT. My preference is to go with the Envy24 as it offers better music performance, although the Audigy 2 should offer better CPU performance. A lot of people will be perfectly happy with the Karajan integrated audio though which his why I’ve left it as an optional upgrade.
Speakers $150 to $$$$
Two years ago, we called the Swans T200A and M200A speakers are our PC speakers of choice. The T200A’s remain very difficult to find, but the M200A’s are available at Newegg. These still remain our recommended speakers when it comes to music. For movies and games, the Klipsch ProMedia 4.1 or 5.1 Ultra is our recommendation. Logitech’s Z-5300e offers the best bang-for-the-buck in the lower-priced range. There haven’t been any new speakers that really catch our attention.
We actually don’t have a physics processor in this ultimate system build, but if it were available, we’d definitely put one in. You would be right to point out that most games don’t support the Ageia at this time, but physics processing really isn’t the big deal. You see, realistic physics are not entirely necessary in today’s games. Yes, in the future, game developers might start incorporating things like modeling non-playable characters with Denavit-Hartenberg conventions and then using real-time optimization-based kinematics of virtual characters, but today’s “rag doll” physics and hand-animated characters actually work just fine.
So there you have it, a starting price of a little over $4000 for our “ultimate gaming desktop” with the sound card and speakers being optional. By going with a “no-budget but don’t waste money approach,” our $4000 price puts us in the same price range as Alienware and VoodooPC, only our system has better components such as OCZ’s DFI Special RAM and the DFI LanParty nForce4 SLI-DR. We’ve also listed MSRP for several items in our build, so you should be able to find lower prices on the components we’ve listed.
This is only the beginning, and we’ve intentionally spread out our article. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow morning, for day 2 of our 5-day event! The benchmarks are coming.
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