Summary: Armed with a Core 2 Extreme QX6800 CPU overclocked to 3.6GHz and dual GeForce 8800 Ultra cards, the ABS Ultimate X Striker Extreme is built to deliver outstanding performance. But does it deliver? It's time for Editors Challenge winner Jacob Vandy to find out!
On the one side, there are proprietary prebuilts, with generic components and constricted upgrade paths dedicated to maximizing profits and shafting the consumer. You are not allowed to choose certain pieces of the PC puzzle, let alone become privy to exactly what they have chosen for you. More often than not, you are forced to purchase upgrades through the same company from whence your computer came, lest you void the warranty. Yes, some manufacturers have taken great strides toward pleasing the hardcore gamer with more cash than he has time, but there is plenty of room to improve.
On the other side, there is Joe Schmoe Enthusiast; with a feather in his cap and Google on his side, he knows exactly what he wants, where he can get it, and how to put it all together. Considering the system requirements of the latest entertainment titles, Joe inquires his tech-savvy friends as to which widget and what who-sit he’ll need to get into the game. After spending several late nights reading build-it-yourself guides and enthusiast forums, he’s a walking tech-cyclopedia. Online stores with low overhead costs offer rock-bottom prices and ship parts straight from a warehouse and Joe E. is off and gaming within a week of placing his order.
Of course, there are those who not only don't have the time or the interest to partake in such an endeavor, but they do not want to be constrained in their component choice and upgrade options. It is to those individuals that custom system builders like ABS cater to. Their custom prebuilts combine some of the best of both worlds: You get the customer service, build quality, and convenience of a prebuilt with the name brand parts and customizability that come with building your own.
The Ultimate X Striker Extreme is the top of the line gaming machine from ABS. Based on the ASUS Striker Extreme motherboard, it features dual-GeForce 8800 graphics cards and a quad-core Core 2 Extreme CPU. You’re certain to “say bye-bye to lag,” but will this rig leave it so far in the dust that you forget what it looks like? Don’t touch that dial!
SIDEBAR: Interested in purchasing this system? If so, ABS is currently offering FiringSquad readers a $100 discount! Just enter the promo code "FSQUAD100" at checkout.
ABS has made Gigabyte's 3D Aurora 570 the face of its flagship gaming system. Available in black or silver, it sports a brushed aluminum exterior with blue plastic surrounding the front I/O ports. Blue LEDs adorn said front panel, the power button, and the three case fans. There’s even an LED that projects the ABS logo onto the surface of your desk. Shiny!
The robust drive bay door and the side panel each have locking mechanisms to keep nosy passersby at bay, emanating a sort of "look, but don't touch" vibe. It weighs just less than 20 pounds empty; consequently, its paneling isn’t extraordinarily sturdy at about a millimeter thick. You won't find a traditional acrylic window on the 3D Aurora. In its stead is a steel-mesh grille. Not as eye-catching, but internal lighting shines through and it acts as decent ventilation. On the topic of ventilation, there is none at the top of the case. The power supply is entrusted with getting rid of that hot, rising air.
The inside of this ATX case is very roomy. Of course, it's got to be to fit all the goodies ABS has packed in there. Measuring in at 8 x 20.5 x 22.4 inches, there is room for five 5.25" drives and seven 3.5" drives, two of which can be external. Plastic locking mechanisms on the drive bays and screw-less hard drive rails provide for tool-less installation across the board. Two 120mm fans are placed at the rear for exhaust, an element that Gigabyte claims to have pioneered. The third fan is placed on the front of the case, blowing air from outside across the hard drives. The entirety of the upper portion of the case is free of obstructions, ensuring that the larger high-end power supplies fit easily, and a removable support bar holds them in place.
A definite advantage of buying a prebuilt computer is the professional cable routing. They spend a lot of time and energy making sure that it looks pretty when you take off the side panel to show your friends. It also does wonders for air flow. They do such good job that some cables just don't want to move anywhere. For instance, the SATA cables come zip-tied to adhesive anchors on the hard drives themselves; this makes drive removal or replacement a real chore. Other than that, ABS' cable management puts the average rag-tag bunch of twist-ties to shame. Just be sure to remember how everything goes when you have to dig in there for upgrading.
The CPU is cooled by the 3D Aurora's companion cooling solution, the Galaxy II. Two mounting holes above the fan grates and rubber-lined outlets for tubing on the backside of the case obviously accommodate Gigabyte's only horse in the liquid-cooling race. The 2-in-1 reservoir/pump sits inside the case, sandwiched between the video cards and hard drive cage, and the radiator hangs on the outside rear. The latter, in addition to receiving airflow from the upper-rear 120mm case fan, has a 120mm fan built-in. This fan is adjustable from 1200 to 2600 RPM via an exterior knob installed into an expansion slot. The temperature difference between low speed and high speed is about ten percent, but be warned: The radiator fan on the highest setting is the loudest component of a setup that includes two stock-cooled 8800 Ultras. There is an additional 80mm fan that clips onto the CPU water block, but it makes very little impact on the temperature of the processor. Its only practical function is cosmetic, as the water block isn't much to look at. The blue LEDs are a plus, matching the coolant and the other lighting scattered throughout the system.
The Striker Extreme is the chief model of the 680i SLI line of motherboards from ASUS, designed to be the ultimate gaming motherboard. The 680i chipset endows the Striker Extreme with two PCI-E 16x slots, one PCI-E 8x slot, one PCI-E 1x slot, two PCI slots, 10 USB ports, 6 SATA II ports, and one ATA-133 port. NVIDIA MediaShield technology supports RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5. It also supports JBOD, which stands for “Just a Bunch Of Disks” and refers to when several hard drives are simply combined into larger partitions, without the benefits and drawbacks of a RAID configuration. Two firewire ports are provided by the VIA VT6308P chip, dual gigabit ethernet ports by Marvell 88E1116 chips, and two external “SATA-on-the-go” ports are converted from a PCI-E 1x slot by the Silicon Image 3132 chip. Last, but not least, onboard 8-channel High Definition Audio is courtesy of the SupremeFX proprietary audio card that is built upon the ADI 1988B codec.
At first glance, you will notice the elaborate cooling system surrounding the CPU socket, which is made up of solid copper heatsinks and heatpipes. The latter relies upon the evaporation and condensation of a liquid contained inside it. For example, when the southbridge chip heats the liquid, it will eventually turn into vapor, and rise up toward the heatsink mounted on the northbridge chip. As heat is released into the air, the vapor turns back into liquid, and drips back down to the southbridge to start the process again. This method of cooling covers the CPU voltage regulators, too, and is efficient enough that it does not require the assistance of a traditional chipset fan. That means less noise and, with no moving parts, it never has to be replaced.
The layout of the board isn’t anything to write home about. The Serial ATA ports are on a 90-degree tilt, but are located too low to be easily accessible when oversized video cards are installed. The seldom-used Floppy connector takes up prime real estate alongside the RAM slots, a major oversight on the part of ASUS. The case’s front panel connectors would be far more suited to that space, but instead are relegated to the proverbial bowels with the auxiliary USB and firewire connectors. Onboard power, reset, and CMOS clear buttons are also placed at the bottom, which makes them impossible to reach when the lower-most expansion slot is filled. For the first two, it’s a moot point, bearing in mind that they would only be used when the motherboard is not mounted in a case. Regardless, that CMOS clear button should most definitely be in a more reachable spot, if only for the sake of overclocker sanity. If you’re into extreme amounts of cooling, five fans and three temperature sensors are supported by additional connections proliferated around the lower half of the board. A growing trend in high-performance motherboards, all solid-state capacitors are used for longer life and greater reliability.
The I/O panel showcases the PS/2 keyboard and mouse, SPDIF out, four USB, one firewire, two ethernet, and two external SATA connections, in addition to an LCD POST display and onboard LED switch. The POST display shows you, in plain English, exactly what is happening as your computer turns on, in addition to notifying you of any errors that may occur. The days of listening to beeps or even deciphering number codes to figure out what’s wrong are over. Upon successful boot, it will present any of a number of programmable bits of information, including the system time or how long the computer has been running. The LED switch controls the numerous blue LEDs placed along the edges of the motherboard; ASUS claims they allow for system work without external light sources, but they just look pretty.
Available at the heart of the Ultimate X Striker Extreme is one of the highest of high-end consumer processors, the Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX6800. Featuring four cores running at 2.93 GHz on a 1066 MHz front-side bus with 8MB of L2 cache, it packs up to four wallops at once. If two cores are good for multi-tasking, four are great; unless you continuously scan for viruses, compress files, encode media, surf the web, video-chat, and write a term paper all at the same time, your computing experience will almost always be silky smooth.
At the tippy top of the graphics heap right now is the GeForce 8800 Ultra. Essentially an 8800 GTX with higher clocks and a slightly improved cooler, the 8800 Ultra epitomizes the hardware enthusiast's ubiquitous aphorism. That is, even the slightest performance enhancement is worth the obscene amounts of money being asked for it. Not that you won't be impressed by its rendering muscle, if you value your financial security, you may opt for a less expensive member of the 8800 family; there are several choices available.
Included in this build is a pair of EVGA's vanilla variant of the Ultra, with core, shader, and memory clocks of 612, 1500, and 1080 MHz, respectively. With 128 unified stream processors and 768MB of 384-bit GDDR3 RAM each, these bad boys will be sure to cure your low-FPS blues. HDCP compliance means they’re ready and raring to display high-definition video, providing you shell out for a similarly capable DVD drive. Four dual-link DVI outputs ensure multi-display ecstasy and, as with the entire 8x00 family, they fully support DirectX 10 and Shader Model 4.0.
To fuel these power-mongers is no small task. NVIDIA recommends a power supply of at least 900 watts for two 8800 Ultras in SLI, but you need to make sure the +12V rails have enough amperage. According to EVGA, each 8800 Ultra will draw up to 34 amps through their dual 6-pin PCI-E power connectors. The Tagan Turbojet 1100W fitted into this configuration meets that and then some. Along with the four rails that provide 72 amps to the video cards, it sports two more +12V rails at 20A each, a +5V rail at 28A, and a +3.3V rail also at 28A.
Two 80mm fans supply the air flow across the precious PSU innards whilst simultaneously exhausting hot air from the 3D Aurora case. Without the eloquence of a modular design, the spare cables just float around in the empty 5.25” drive bays. At least they are out of sight and are not obstructing air flow quite as much as they could be. A pleasant and unique feature of the TurboJet is a grounding cable that is meant to be connected to the chassis. Provided you ground yourself by touching the metal framework of the case, this will lessen the chance of electro-static discharge, one of the primary causes of premature component failure.
This particular build includes the premium RAM upgrade, consisting of 4GB of Wintec AmpX PC2-6400 in a dual-channel pair. The high capacity DIMMs are convenient in that there are still two free slots on the motherboard, but they leave something to be desired of the timings. 5-5-5-15 isn't quite what you would expect from a build of this magnitude. For this reason, you might choose the alternative 2GB of Corsair XMS2 and put in another 2GB yourself. The timings are better, yet the price difference is minimal.
Four gigabytes of RAM is quite a luxury and more than enough for any game. However, a 32-bit operating system cannot utilize all of that RAM. Due to an addressing limitation in a 32-bit environment, there are only 4,294,967,296 unique numbers that correspond to one byte of memory. Some of those addresses need to be assigned to other devices that use memory, like a graphics card. Once these are taken into account, main memory is left with little more than 3GB worth of addressing space, meaning that only that much RAM is able to be used. 64-bit operating systems are capable of addressing many, many more unique bytes (two to the sixty-fourth power). So, you will need to upgrade to either the x64 version of XP or 64-bit Vista to take complete advantage of 4GB of RAM.
A common practice among the hardcore crowd is using high-RPM disk drives, like the Western Digital Raptor, to store the operating system and games. Multiple high-RPM disk drives in a RAID 0 configuration? Even better. In addition to cost, storage capacity is a pretty major downside to this approach. To alleviate that, a slower, high-capacity hard drive is often employed for storing items that are less frequently accessed. A 750GB Seagate Barracuda fits the bill quite nicely, bringing the total of space to nearly a terabyte.
Perpendicular recording is the talk of the magnetic storage industry as of late. This breakthrough allows for immense amounts of data to be stored in the conventional 3.5" form factor, giving birth to high-capacity drives like the 750 GB Seagate Barracuda included in this build. Not only that, but smaller hard drives, like those in laptop computers or iPods, are able to reach unprecedented capacities upward of hundreds of gigabytes. The best part is that prices are dropping nearly as rapidly as capacities are rising. A 500 GB hard drive can now be had for around a hundred bucks. You've got to love the computer industry.
Rounding out the innards of the machine is a Samsung DVD burner with LightScribe capabilities. It is very quiet and supports just about any sub-HD media format you can think of. The only caveat is the ATA-133 interface; while a transfer speed increase might not be noticeable, using Serial ATA would eliminate the ghastly IDE cable from an otherwise beautiful interior.
Considering the inherent risks associated with overclocking, ABS makes it clear that any unauthorized attempts at it will void your warranty. They will overclock the CPU up to 20%, but it's going to cost you $250. Quite a price to pay, but if you want that extra performance while keeping your warranty intact, you don't have a choice. However, if you choose to throw caution to the wind, the ASUS Striker Extreme offers a veritable cornucopia of overclocking options.
On the novice end of the spectrum, there are several settings for automatic overclocking. You can increase the clock speed up to 20% in 5% increments or set the front-side bus and memory speed to any of five combinations. One interesting feature is called N.O.S.; Advertised as a "boost of nitrous," the Non-delay Overclocking System will detect when CPU load is high and automatically overclock it up to 10%. When the load is off, it returns to the original frequency.
The power user will feel right at home with the plethora of settings for overclocking that include PCI-Express frequencies, obligatory FSB and multiplier settings, spread spectrum options, and the full range of RAM timings. Last, but not least, all the voltage controls are accounted for. The VCore is adjustable in 0.00625V increments all the way up to 1.9V. That is certain to help you push the unlocked Core 2 Quad Extreme processor to the limit. Don’t worry if you go too far and the system hangs; CPU Parameter Recall, or “CPR,” will restore the default settings automatically.
This system received the royal overclocking treatment; The FSB was increased to 1200 MHz, the multiplier kicked up a notch to 12, the VCore cranked to 1.55V, and the 3:2 memory divider selected. As a result, the CPU clock is rock solid at 3.6 GHz and the memory is running full-steam at 800 MHz.
The Test Setup
Company of Heroes
Rainbow Six: Vegas
Lost Planet: Extreme Condition
Call of Juarez DX10 Benchmark
There's no doubt about it, this beast is blisteringly fast. That tends to happen when you combine some of the latest and greatest from every category of hardware. Quad-core, SLI, RAID 0, dual-channel… so much techno-jargon in a computer description has to be good! It won’t set any world records, but every game you throw at it will look so gorgeous and run so smoothly, you might very well forget the price tag. Bring on the next-generation games, the Ultimate X Striker Extreme will laugh in their faces.
Custom-built gaming machines aren’t exactly known for being easy on the wallet. Big companies need to pay for office space, support staff, technicians, warehousing, and on top of that, they need to show a profit for their investors. If you want to benefit from their services, you must expect to pay the premium. But hey, on the bright side, ABS will throw in a couple of free games and a polo shirt.
A water-cooled edition of the 8800 GTX from BFG Tech is available for inclusion in the Ultimate X Striker Extreme and it may be preferable to the stock-cooled 8800 Ultra. Sure, the Ultra is faster, but at what cost? Suffering a space heater on your desk in the middle of the summer? Not to mention, slim waterblocks on the GPUs would not obscure PCI slots.
The best thing ABS can do is to add the water-cooled 8800 Ultra to their repertoire of graphics adapter choices. The Galaxy II should have no problem handling the extra load, but if not, what is to stop them from offering a beefier liquid-cooling solution? Low heat and noise output is surely at the top of many a potential customer’s list of things to look for; stock cooling may be unacceptable in such a high-end rig.
DirectX 10 games have finally begun to hit the streets and there are few better reasons to upgrade to Vista than buying a brand new computer with a DX10-capable video card. The 64-bit version is essential for making full use of an amount of RAM higher than 3GB, so keep that in mind. For those of you waiting on a Vista service pack, Microsoft is readying a beta build for public release this week. Maybe it will address the mysterious deal-breakers some of you complain about but never seem to mention specifics on.
If you’re looking for a top-shelf gaming experience that just works, the ABS Ultimate X Striker Extreme will not disappoint. Unbelievable performance, massive upgradability, high-end CPU cooling, and more hard drive space than you can shake a stick at add up to an impressive machine, indeed. If you have to take out a second mortgage to afford it, so what? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, my friend.
Interested in purchasing this system? If so, ABS is currently offering FiringSquad readers a $100 discount! Just enter the promo code "FSQUAD100" at checkout.
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