Summary: Come read the High-End Gaming Workstation Building Guide that goes over building a flagship system good for games ‘n entertainment as well as workstation applications. This article is so comprehensive that we’ll give you your money back if you don’t come away from this article without learning something new. Want a sample of what’s in this article? Try AMD Opteron, AC line conditioners, the Tyan Thunder K8W, the first published review of Swans T200A, and complete explanations along the way.
Within this article, we’ll take a look at a dozen new products that FiringSquad’s never reviewed before, and be awarding a few Bull’s Eye and Editor’s Choice awards. Get comfortable before you start reading -- this is FiringSquad’s biggest article ever!
There’s a method to my madness. Last year, I wrote about power supplies and in February, I wrote about building a high-end workstation with a focus on memory and graphics. While both of these articles are among our most popular, I received many questions about the relevance of workstation hardware article to a gaming audience. The answer is simple:
Anyone can build a gaming system by following a recipe and buying what everyone else is using. To be at the top-of-your-game at performance system building, you need to understand what you are doing and why. Almost no one has the budget to regularly buy exclusively flagship components but knowing how high-end workstations are designed will help you design a good gaming PC. You’ll be able to cut corners and redirect the money toward a graphics card or faster CPU depending on your goals. More importantly, if something goes wrong with your built system, you will have a good idea of where the weak-link in your system is, and what you need to upgrade.
In this second season of “system building” articles, I’ve gone for gold and will be building what I consider to be an ultimate system where there is no strict budget. I won’t be afraid to spend money on this system, but at the same time, I’m paying careful attention not to waste any money either. You’re not going to see me go with solid-state hard drives or $9000 monitors, but you will see a $99 Goldtouch keyboard and Matrix Orbital LCD. The end result is a system you cannot buy from a store.
“In the last episode…”
Last time, our goal was a scientific computing workhorse built on a very tight budget. I spent a lot of time talking about CPU and graphics card selection, but glossed over many of the other components. This time, we’re not going to leave any step of the process uncovered or any stone unturned. The other important change is that this time, the goal is to build a good workstation for me. Something that’ll let me get my work done during the week, while also letting me enjoy my games on the weekend.
in awe of the nest built by
the sparrow in white
Dual CPUs systems were not originally intended for consumers. At a time when DOS or Windows 95 was what gamers needed, multiprocessor systems were only supported by Windows NT and Unix-like operating systems. Today things are different. The gaming OS of choice is Windows XP Professional, which also happens to support dual-CPUs natively.
By native support, this means that the system will take advantage of multiple processors whenever possible. In the best case, you have an “SMP aware” application that is designed to take advantage of both processors simultaneously. These applications can be difficult to program because the developer needs to make sure both CPUs are running efficiently so as not to take one step forward, and two steps back synchronizing the two processes.
At the moment, few games support SMP (symmetric multiprocessing), but if all goes according to plan, DOOM III will support SMP. Although HyperThreading was designed to keep the Pentium 4’s pipeline busy, it also has the potential to boost SMP development, as companies begin to consider programming with a multithreaded model. Companies such as Massive (Aquanox/Aquamark) are seeing gaming performance benefits from HyperThreading and it’s likely to be something we’ll see in the future. Dual processors are also supported by applications such as Adobe Photoshop/After Effects as well as other similarly high-end computationally intensive applications.
What’s in it for me?
A SMP-aware application is the best case scenario, but you still get an advantage to two CPUs with other applications. When you’re running a game, most of the CPU is spent processing the game data, however a small amount is used by Windows to manage your swap file, to check email in the background, to keep drivers and services running, etc. With a dual processor, Windows will intelligently distribute the workload between the CPUs. Your game will be able to take 100% advantage of the primary CPU while housekeeping applications can run on the second CPU. Another advantage would be multitasking –you can encode movies/audio, continue Folding @ Home, or batch process images while you play games. It’s probably not something you do all the time, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use your computer while you’re doing something computationally expensive?
The coolest “luxury” feature of dual processors is that you’ll almost never need to wait for your PC again. Every once in a while, Internet Explorer will slow to a crawl as it loads a plug-in or encounters something unusual that eats up 100% CPU for a short while. While this is going on, your system becomes unresponsive and acts as if it’s dead. On a dual CPU system, this is often avoided because the second CPU is available. With two CPUs, your system always seems ready to respond to your commands.
Knowing that, which system would you prefer: a dual Opteron, or a single P4 or Athlon 64? Depends on the applications you run right? Well, this system is supposed to be good for games and digital imaging and scientific computing. What’s the right CPU for work and play?
Before I even thought about building anything, I came up with a benchmark suite designed to stress all components of a system, with a combination of real-world dual and single processor tests which we’ll go over later. At the moment I’m writing this paragraph, I have no clue which CPU platform is going to give the best overall performance on my test suite. That’s why we’re building these systems – to benchmark them. It’s unreasonable to write an article covering the build of multiple systems, so I’m going to focus on the Dual Opteron 246 system in this article. Common sense would expect this system to do very well given that it’s the most expensive, but more importantly, you’ll learn the most about system building in general by reading about the AMD64 build.
In our lab, we’re getting a 16 CPU Opteron 240 cluster running Scyld Beowulf Professional with bonded Gigabit Ethernet interconnects (with 8 nodes, exotic interconnects aren’t as important). The nodes are BOXX Technologies RenderBoxx R4’s. Our lab standardized on AMD64 given that our commercial LS-DYNA software is scheduled for AMD64 support, and our memory needs exceed 4GB.
For our low-noise AMD, the CPU cooler design win went to the Zalman CNPS7000-AlCu. This hybrid aluminum-copper processor cooler features a large 92mm cooling fan. By using a low-RPM, large-diameter fan with a high-surface area heatsink, noise is kept to a minimum. Going with the aluminum/copper hybrid rather than the copper only heatsink was important for two reasons:
1) The copper version weighs over one pound, increasing the potential for damage when moving the system
2) Though copper conducts heat quickly away from the CPU, it also is tougher to cool down. When the Zalman coolers are run in the low-RPM silent mode, the fans are spinning slowly enough where the –AlCu and –Cu coolers are very close in performance. Even at full speed, the difference in performance is more for bragging than overclocking or system stability.
SIDEBAR: LS-DYNA is also used for nuclear weapons stewardship
Since I needed an AGP slot in my dual Opteron motherboard, I was left with just a few options:
Four versus Eight DIMM Slots
Unlike other CPUs from AMD or Intel, the AMD Opteron features an on-die memory controller. This means that the memory is attached directly to the CPU. In the Arima HDAMB, the 4 DIMM slots are attached to the first CPU only. The alternative would be to assign 2 DIMM slots to each CPU but that would create another problem: if you ran a single-CPU, you’d only have two functional DIMM slots.
Tyan vs IWILL
The Tyan and IWILL motherboards have 8 DIMM slots. Now, you can put 2 DIMMs with CPU 0 and 2 DIMMs with CPU 1. Each CPU can directly access its own bank of memory. The Tyan and IWILL boards are also more advanced, adding PCI-X and 4 port Serial-ATA.
The appropriate selection of S-ATA and GigE components is the level of attention that makes Tyan such a reliable choice for performance workstations and servers. Before building the system, I did the research to ensure that the onboard chips are well supported in the environments I needed. Tyan does the same thing, and so I would have been just fine if I didn’t do the double-checking.
Analog Devices SoundMax Cadenza
The Tyan K8W is also the only motherboard in this group that features the Analog Devices SoundMax CODEC. For music, the SoundMax CODEC in the Tyan Thunder K8W provides excellent quality for a no-frills on-board audio. It’s noticeably better than the Realtek on-board devices.
The biggest disadvantage of the Thunder K8W is the loss of USB 2.0 due to an AMD chipset glitch. The Arima board featuring USB 2.0 achieves this through an added chip from Via; it is unclear which chip IWILL has selected. Though this is a significant disappointment, the PCI-X Broadcom GigE chip on the Tyan is more important, and I’ll be able to get my USB 2.0 with an add-on board.
Still, it seems to me that there’s not much room for improvement in a K8W other than USB 2.0, PCI-X SATA, and if you really wanted to nitpick, IEEE-1394b. If they Tyan offered the first two, it’d be clear Editor’s Choice material. In its current state, it’s unquestionably deserving of a Bull’s Eye Award.
Dual Opteron Gaming Motherboards
Even though I’ve made a big deal about 8 DIMM slots in a high-performance workstation, if you’re just gaming, the 4 DIMM designs will probably still be a good idea. Most “ultra peformance” gaming systems still do fine with a 1GB of RAM, and 2GB is more than enough for desktop performance. Second, PCI-X makes less of a difference. We’re particularly eager to see the Tyan Tiger K8W and MSI K8T Master2-FAR reach the market. The Tiger K8W has the same Tyan reliability and careful component selection as its Thunder K8W sibling (though it uses an Intel GigE controller), but adds USB 2.0 support. The retail price is set to be half that of the Thunder K8W!
For these flagship systems, we needed the fastest memory we could get, and so we went with Corsair CMX512RE-3200LL for the Opteron and Corsair TwinX1024-3200PRO for the Athlon 64 and Pentium 4 machines. The “LL” modules from Corsair are ultra low latency memory modules with 2-3-2-6-T1 timings which is important due to the loss from registered RAM. In comparison, good unbuffered DDR CAS2 low latency ram will run 2-3-2-7 timing, and Registered ECC DDR3200 RAM from even high-performance companies such as OCZ can run as slow as 3-3-3-8. In real-world applications, it is latency that has the biggest effect on performance as opposed to simple bandwidth.
Last time I explained ECC memory, and this time I’ll explain what registered RAM does.
The key is “address loading.” In an unbuffered (non-registered) architecture, the address signal from the memory controller is sent to every RAM chip on every DIMM module. As you increase the number of banks and increased the load on the memory controller, the signal from the memory controller deteriorates from the ideal square-wave to a sine-like wave where the signal rises and falls very slowly, lengthening the signal. This can cause timing errors because the chipset will try to read a data signal that is not yet completed. With a register, the memory chipset only addresses the register chip – one load rather than 16. On the next RAM clock cycle (half a system clock cycle since it is DDR), the register will send the signal to the RAM chips on the module. This ensures that the communication between the memory controller and RAM are timed precisely. The disadvantage is that there is a slight performance hit and only certain chipsets support/require registered ECC DDR-RAM.
The Corsair Legend
Most reviews of Corsair memory love to talk about Corsair’s “Legendary Performance.” Those in the know, think of Corsair’s “Legendary Reliability.” Corsair’s philosophy to making high performance memory comes from careful selection from memory suppliers and in precise trace lengths and highly controlled board design. By making their memory reliable, they also make the memory run faster. That’s why Corsair has had so much success in the gaming industry and in the server industry. With Corsair, you never have to decide between reliability or performance – you get both.
An ultimate gaming workstation wouldn’t be complete without a powerful graphics card. If we were running digital content creation or CAD applications on our workstation, the no-brainer answer would be a high-end NVIDIA QuadroFX GPU. Quadro FX boards are rock-solid in stability and compatibility, offer exceptional image quality, and have performance that at times is a full generation ahead of ATI’s FireGL. In addition, most popular professional content creation applications are optimized for Cg, NVIDIA’s high-level shader language allowing full advantage of its dynamic branching shader architecture and 128-bit floating-point precision.
In this system, our workstation applications are CPU intensive rather than GPU intensive and so the Quadro isn’t the best product for us. Our decision will have to be GeForce versus Radeon.
$1B question: GeForce versus Radeon
No one can argue against the fact that the ATI Radeon 9800 platform offers excellent DX9 performance. With many DX9 games mirroring ATI’s hardware design, the Radeon 9800 has been handling games like Half Life 2 with little effort. On the other hand, NVIDIA NV3x products were designed as “cinematic computing GPUs,” and seem to focus on non-realtime hardware accelerated rendering features such as 128-bit floating point color and 12-bit sub-pixel accuracy on even their ultra budget GeForce FX 5200 card. Support for dynamic branching in shaders, or developer-selectable FP16/FP32 pixel formats is important in the grand scheme of things, but ends up using valuable transistors that may otherwise have been used for other performance boosting logic. To the end user this means they’ve had to wait for NVIDIA to come out with Detonator 50 series drivers with the new scheduler.
2D Performance Differences
While waiting for Brandon to send me the Radeon 9800 Pro and GeForce FX 5900 Ultra for test, I used a QuadroFX 2000 because I needed a running system. You see, when I evaluate components for stability, I don’t use a dedicated test bed or specialized suite – I force the component to work in a production system. Obviously I do a clean install of WinXP, etc. but the “test system” and my “primary system” for day-to-day work becomes one and the same. I install Windows, move my email and documents over, set up my ICQ and other critical applications and unplug my previous PC. This lets me pick up nuances of performance or compatibility that might otherwise be missed.
Looking at these numbers, ATI’s 2D performance significantly falters behind NVIDIA’s. At a 3-megapixel resolution, the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro is 25.6% slower than NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, and if you were to run the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra at a faster core clockspeed of 430MHz (to bring NVIDIA’s 2D mode closer to its 3D clocksped), there is a 35% performance difference. At the popular resolution of 1280x1024, even at stock clockpeeds the ATI is 21% slower than the NVIDIA! These differences are noticeable and it’s not until you get down to 800x600 that it’s subjectively noticeable.
It’s easy to discount these numbers and say that the differences are small but again, I wasn’t thinking about measuring 2D performance when I came up with this article. As I mentioned earlier, the difference in 2D speed comes across as a system that feels more responsive. Webpages appear to load just slightly faster (when in fact it’s just that the time between parsing of the HTML and rendering it to the screen that has been reduced) and windows draw faster. Even though this differences are only a split second, you should ask yourself how much time you spend browsing the ‘net, how many Windows you’ve clicked/dragged, how many miles of text and images you’ve scrolled through… It’s not trivial when you add it all up.
SIDEBAR: ATI’s FireGL X2-256 is based on the RADEON 9800 PRO 256MB for the desktop.
The Driver Quality Gap
Part of the superior 2D performance you see above is due to hardware, but driver overhead also plays a big role. That has always been a historical challenge for the driver engineers.
The advantage of a portrait mode display is that it reduces scrolling - instead of relying on larger resolutions and then only using half of your landscape mode monitor, producing text too small to read, you will make more efficient use of your monitor. It has been said that 20-25% of your computing time is spent on scrolling and so this quickly adds up to lost time. Interestingly, even the dual portrait display approach that ends up producing a more traditional aspect ratio is useful. Dual vertical 17” LCD monitors is like having a 35mm aspect ratio 24.5” viewable-area monitor, and the ability to maximize windows to one screen is where you gain your productivity.
With the new ForceWare driver set, NVIDIA’s 2D feature set has grown even larger. It’s now possible to “throw” windows to the screen edges and although this needs some tweaking, it’s quickly become a standard feature I use every day. Gesture-computing is also present - you can program the drivers to locate your cursor when you shake the mouse around, make rotation of your mouse trigger a special command. The gestures are most useful when working with multiple virtual desktops, but these are the kinds of tools you need to use to really appreciate. It’s like trying to describe the WASD+mouse layout to someone currently using the arrow keys+mouse - simply saying that the ability to map weapons to nearby letters is better doesn’t fully quantify the experience.
Bottom line? Choosing which video card deserves to be in your system is clearly a personal decision because there are more variables than driver stability or 2D performance. Some of the FiringSquad staff use NVIDIA in their personal machines and some use ATI in their personal machines. For this system, however, we’re running GeForce FX 5900 Ultra.
[At the end of the day, Alan and I agreed that ATI is currently running better in DX9 benchmarks, but in light of the issues that we’ve encountered with IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles, Flight Simulator 2004, and NASCAR 2003/i875P performance at low resolutions with ATI’s CATALYST drivers, we feel that NVIDIA hardware is generally more compatible with a wider variety of applications/platforms, which is also very important - Ed]
SIDEBAR: The end of the graphics war will arrive when the first flagship-performance clockless (asynchronous) GPU.
Last time, my budget prevented me from getting anything other than a standard Western Digital IDE 7200 rpm hard drive. Since I knew that was the weakest link, I added a high-performance drive cooler. The system is still running great.
For the current dual Opteron system, I initially went with an 80 GB Maxtor Diamondmax Plus 9, the 7200 RPM FDB motor. The Maxtor is a high performance 7200 RPM drive that’s quiet and fast. What I am waiting for is the new Western Digital 73 GB Raptor 10,000 rpm S-ATA drive with FDB motors. The 36.7GB Raptor is currently the fastest desktop drive on the market, outperforming even 15K drives in desktop applications according to our colleagues at StorageReview. The 73GB version will be even faster, and should be very quiet with its FDB motor. My plan to go with the Raptor is for reliability. As a flagship model built for enterprise grade performance, the Raptor features a full 5 year warranty and MTBF ratings of 1.2 million!
The rationale for starting with the Maxtor first is pretty easy. Maxtor’s MaxBlast 3.0 is available as a downloadable CD-ROM ISO. One of the features included is a partition-to-partition copy which will work even with your primary OS. It’s like Norton Ghost with the exception that it is free to use as long as you have one Maxtor drive in your system, and in our experience, the Maxtor MaxBlast 3.0 is actually more reliable than many of the 3rd party applications out there.
Some of you may be sending off that email to me saying that I was a fool not to choose SCSI for its proven reliability. The thing with hard drives is that they’re a KNOWN weak link. You can spend plenty of money on a multi-drive software RAID mirroring setup (to give the extra protection of having each drive connected to a separate controller chip) and still have something go wrong where both drives fail simultaneously. It’s not a theoretical possibility – it has happened. Likewise there are Cheetah 15k SCSI drives with 1.5M hours MTBF that still die after a year of light use. It’s rare, but it happens.
There’s no alternative to good backups. Take the time to backup your documents and email. You will never regret it. The Raptor is a good balance between spending money on reliability, performance, and capacity.
Optorite DD0203 DVD+/-RW Combo Drive
What? No Plextor 8x drive? Why didn’t I go with the bigger brand names of Pioneer, Sony, or TDK? The Optorite DD0203 is a fast low-cost DVD+/-RW Combo Drive featuring Burn-Proof, HD-Burn (>1GB on a CD-R, readable only in HD-BURN compliant drives), and a large 8MB buffer. While the Plextor is faster with CD-R’s and DVD-R’s, we did not feel that it was the wisest use of funds.
Speaking of power…
You know the power supply is important and if there was one thing you should always “overspend” on when building a system, it’s the power supply. In the last article, I went with a PC Power & Cooling power supply, one of the best power supplies in the industry. This time I went with the SuperMicro SP450-RP. The SuperMicro has a redundant fail-safe fan – if the main PSU fan fails, a second fan will engage. The rated power is 12V = 30A. 5V = 26A. and 3V = 30A.
To improve the power chain, I am adding an extra component: a Monster Power PowerCenter PC1000 with Clean Power Stage 2 v2.0. Why?
SIDEBAR: The other reference test systems use SilenX.com and PC Power & Cooling power supplies.
If you recall from my Console Picture Guide, I was able to show what the difference between Monster Cable and regular cable did for the Playstation 2. Trying to document the benefits from a line conditioner is much tougher. Here’s what we tested:
It is possible to measure AC line noise and EMI noise and then compare the difference with a line conditioner. In fact, we have the equipment to do so and we have done so, and yes, there is a measurable reduction in line noise with a line conditioner. The more expensive the conditioner was, the greater the reduction in line noise. The problem is that we don’t know if the noise in the AC signal is going to matter, or if we’re going from insignificant AC line noise to even more insignificant line noise. In other words, is it like going from an unnoticeable 1500fps to 3000fps or is it like 15 fps to 30 fps? All I offer at the moment is this:
When I had 3 hard drives fail over 2 weeks, my troubleshooting turned me to the power issue. I had two drives connected to two separate IDE controllers crashing simultaneously. This meant that the problem must be the power supply or the motherboard power regulation – or ghosts were messing around with my system. I’m pretty sure it’s not ghosts, so it had to be something “before” the IDE cable.
After changing the motherboard/power supply/hard drive, I still noticed that my system was uncharacteristically unstable, crashing multiple times a day. The only thing left was noisy AC power as the cause of system problems.
My first step was to measure AC line noise quantitatively, and indeed it turned out that the outlet my PC was connected to was noisier than the other outlets in the room. I then tried a Monster Power PowerCenter PC900, a $99 line conditioner. My system still crashed within the next 24 hours. Seeing a small improvement in stability, I tried the next line up, a Monster Power PowerCenter PC1000, a $150 line conditioner. 1 week later, the system was still running fine. Changing back to a generic surge suppressor brought back regular crashes. I returned to the PC1000 and the system was stable. Then I went back to the generic surge suppressor – and it was still stable – but this time, the AC line noise measured from the wall was lower than when I had first began. Hmm…
SIDEBAR: Audiophiles can get better performance out of their equipment with upgraded power cables. It seems impossible that the last 6 ft of cable can make a difference. After all, that power has traveled miles and miles from the power station. Nonetheless, there are marked differences in tone. According to Lyle Fong, ‘better cables doesnt mean better sound. Just that it changes the tonal qualities of the sound.’
At this moment, I appeared to have
1) A dose-response relationship to line noise
a. When line noise was high, the system was unstable.
b. When line noise was minimal, the system was stable.
2) Measurable reductions in line noise with line conditioners.
3) Spontaneous resolution of the AC line noise from the wall
So the question is why the change in line noise from the wall? Well AC line noise can be caused by anything that is plugged into the grid, and EMI noise has effects over distance because all cables act as antennas. In my apartment, that means something my neighbor has can affect the quality of my own power. EMI noise can be caused by motors such as refrigerators.
At this point, I contacted Monster Cable to ask them if they could send me the “AC line noise generator” they used at hi-fi shops to demo their equipment. I wanted to see if I could generate system crashes with it. You know what they sent?
I didn’t get any sort of exotic component designed to add ridiculous amounts of AC noise – they sent me a generic Nokia cell phone charger with a little Avery label stuck on, noting that it was a “Noise Source.” I couldn’t believe it! I independently tested another cell phone battery charger and indeed it too added AC line noise. This means that even common electrical components can add significant amounts of line noise!
So how can we really know that line noise is the source of the system crashes? In medicine, there are these things called Koch’s Postulates; if bacteria are found everywhere, how do you know if a bacterium you find in a sick person is the cause of their illness, or if it’s just a bacterium that’s hanging out? That’s what Koch’s Postulates are for. They are the rules that, if true, tell you definitively that a bacterium is a source of disease. The four rules are:
1) The specific organism should be shown to be present in all cases of animals suffering from a specific disease but should not be found in healthy animals.
2) The specific microorganism should be isolated from the diseased animal and grown in pure culture on artificial laboratory media.
3) This freshly isolated microorganism, when inoculated into a healthy laboratory animal, should cause the same disease seen in the original animal.
4) The microorganism should be re-isolated in pure culture from the experimental infection.
In other words, you have to find something in all of the animals that are sick, but absent from animals that are healthy. Then after isolating those bacteria, you should be able to give it to a healthy animal and cause it to be sick and then be able to recover the same bacteria in the new animal. (See, you always learn something random from a FiringSquad.com article.)
Going back to our power issues, we did find something in the systems that crashed – noisy power. All of our stable systems were those running with clean power. When we increased the AC line noise to a stable system (by removing the conditioner), it caused crashes. It did not matter if the power was clean from the wall, or clean from the conditioner.
SIDEBAR: There are many diseases with “known” causes in which Koch’s Postulates have never formally been demonstrated.
All we really need to do to get the formal proof is to cause a system to crash by adding noise to the circuitry. So far, I haven’t be able to find the same combination of components to do that – whatever was causing the high levels of AC noise at the beginning of the ordeal was no longer plugged-in. Maybe it was something my neighbor had plugged in?
Nonetheless, based upon these results, I feel confident saying that AC line noise can cause system crashes and that line conditioners can reduce the amount of line noise to a clinically relevant amount that will bring back stability. Is it rare? Probably, but it does happen. It’s like insurance, only you never see it being used. The other problem is that you’re not going to appreciate the protection that the PC line conditioner gives you. Here’s why:
With perfect power (both line conditioner and power supply), your system is never going to crash from dirty power, so you’ll never have an opportunity where you’ll think to yourself “whew, the line conditioner saved me there.” You will be oblivious to the fact that your AC power is noisy. At the same time, with perfect power, when your system does crash, it’ll be from a cause other than dirty power so you’ll think to yourself “this line conditioner was useless.” It’s a thankless job.
However, after losing 300GB of data to dirty power, the less-than-a-dollar-a-day cost of a high-end line conditioner seems trivial, especially given that a line conditioner will not go obsolete. There aren’t many products that have the same never-obsolete status. The alternative is living on the edge and spending several thousand on HW data recovery. Line noise has killed data – it could happen to you too.
So, my current recommendation is to get the best line conditioner you can afford and never thank me for doing so. In our experience, the PC900 won’t be sufficient in a noise-stressed system such as ours and something of PC1000 performance will be needed. We’ll be working on testing other line conditioners once we figure out how to come up with a test bed for “clinically relevant” AC line noise so we can tell you exactly how much money you need to spend.
What about improved picture/sound quality?
Power conditioners also claim to improve picture and sound quality. We’ll be looking at these claims in a future article. Based upon our initial impressions, you’ll be buying a line conditioner for your PC for stability reasons not performance. That said, with our regular cable TV that’s being viewed on a HDTV, we’re noticing an improvement in the image that’s still small, but more significant than high-end cable differences.
The secret to cooling is airflow, and the secret to a quiet PC is laminar flow. Thus, when choosing a chassis, you will ideally want to find one with large exhaust fans at least 80mm in size, but preferably 92 or 120mm. Chassis selection was actually one of the most time intensive portions of this project. We explored many options including products from Enermax, Chenbro, Yeong Yang (Gigacase), Soldam, Lian-Li, Coolermaster, and even Intel!
We finally settled on the SuperMicro 742i-450 Server Chassis in the Opteron for its blend of good looks and design.
This 47 lb. behemoth of a case has a depth of 24.2 inches! The extended length case was helpful since the Thunder K8W is a 12x13” extended ATX form factor, however this also improves cooling significantly. The SuperMicro case features a large 120mmx38mm exhaust fan and a 92 cm front fan. Thanks to the extended length design, the front intake fan is located behind the hard drives and provide excellent cooling through the separation of the drive bays and motherboard. The 5 1/4” drive bays are all true *bays* as opposed to simply face plates. You can mount hard drives to the 5 1/4" bay in the same manner you would a HDD cooler.
The SuperMicro/Ablecom power supply that ships with the 742i-450 is an EPS12V 450W unit that has a proven track-record with SuperMicro’s server boards. No one’s 100% sure how much of the power supply is developed in house, but we’ve had excellent experience with it. Before you run out and buy the SuperMicro chassis however, don’t forget that EPS12V power supplies are not compatible with desktop boards without an optional adapter.
SIDEBAR: We used a Chenbro and an Evercase chassis for our other test systems.
Throughout this entire process, we’ve spent the extra cash to get quiet(er) computing without compromising performance or stability. Now it’s time to cash-in with the killer audio system. We went with unconventional devices: the M-Audio Audiophile USB and Swans T200a.
Since I only have room to setup a stereo audio setup as opposed to multi-channel, I went with the external M-Audio Audiophile USB. By moving all of the audio components to a line-conditioned AC source rather than bus powered circuitry, the M-Audio Audiophile USB is able to provide exceptionally clean audio, free from the EMI-rich environment of the system chassis and inherent noise of the switching power supply.
But I thought USB sound cards sucked?
Most of the time, USB speakers and USB sound cards are associated with low-end rather than high-end products. This is not because the reduction of interference is false, but because most USB speakers and sound cards end skimp on the DACs or OP-AMPs. By going to an external prosumer grade USB (or even Firewire) audio card, you do get the best audio reproduction performance possible. The Revolution 7.1 or M-Audio Sonica Theater would also have been good choices for high quality stereo audio, however the DACs used in the Audiophile USB are even better. The limited bandwidth of USB 1.1 is still adequate for high-quality 2 channel audio however it is true that system performance is lost by going with this product. With USB 1.0, you are only allowed half-duplex 24/96 or full-duplex 16/48 audio.
The M-Audio Audiophile USB was selected instead of the consumer USB devices primarily because we wanted studio-grade audio DACs, but also because we wanted easily accessible headphone jacks and a master volume control knob.
Why you probably won’t pick out the Audiophile USB
The Audiophile USB isn’t a sound card in the traditional sense – it operates much more like a component audio device. There is no software mixer. If you don’t understand what this means, you don’t want the Audiophile USB. That is, there is no way to control the volume from any piece of software. The hardware volume knob is the only output. Essentially, at maximum volume, the M-Audio Audiophile USB is providing the true line-level output and you attenuate the signal using the knob. The line-in is not amplified and provides no gain. In other words, when you do a loop back from the maximum output of the Audiophile USB to the input of the Audiophile USB, you’re recording at a +0 dB.
If there is one thing that has set FiringSquad apart from our colleagues, it is our multimedia expertise. We were one of the first websites in the gaming community to bring attention to the still venerable Klipsch Promedia v2.400 speakers and to our knowledge, the first and only website to document the differences between high-end and generic cables for videogame consoles. For this ultimate gaming system, we searched everywhere for the multimedia speakers with the best bang for the buck possible and settled with the Swans T200a.
Never heard of them? Don’t worry – that’s because their products have primarily been the realm of do-it-yourself audiophiles. Swans Speakers are developed by an engineering team in the United States, but the drivers themselves are produced by the “Hi-Vi Research” division in China. The drivers and enclosures are all CAD engineered with the use of finite element analysis and can compete with the likes of Dynaudio, SEAS, and Vifa. In the US, Swans Speakers are pretty much distributed exclusively through the Internet at http://www.theaudioinsider.com. Like Cambridge Soundworks in the early days, Swans hopes that their 30-day money back guarantee will help them sell speakers without needing costly showrooms. Vertical integration allows the company to provide excellent loudspeaker engineering since Swans is able to cut on the middleman, and have direct communication between all engineers.
Swans’ flagship 2.2 speaker costs a staggering $68,000.00/pair and even at that price, it was a Best of CES 2003 finalist. The T200a I selected for this project is a much more palatable $480/pair and represents their flagship powered speaker. For those with a smaller budget, Swans has their M200, an affordable $250 2.0 setup whose competition includes the Sirocco Spirit, and the $280 T120, a gaming-oriented 2.1 setup.
Obviously, one of the key selling points of the Swan speakers is their excellent build quality. The T200a features a high-gloss piano black lacquer. Our impression is that while the finish is not on par with the best Japanese urushi furniture lacquers, it’s still nicer than anything I’ve seen in the price range. The unique geometry, champagne anodized aluminum, and bright blue LEDs give the Swans T200a’s a perfect balance between an elegant but aggressive finish. These are speakers that will certainly draw attention.
The design of Swans speakers goes beyond improved aesthetics. By avoiding a “rectangular box” enclosure and having non-parallel edges to the aluminum baffle, diffraction is reduced – it’s not just about the look. The aluminum baffle itself and lacquer finish also increase the stiffness of the enclosure, reducing audible resonance.
These speakers are so exciting that Alexis is working on a dedicated review of these speakers (along with the Swans M200). As nice as these speakers look, they sound even better. These speakers will draw attention for their sound quality. There is an uncanny transparency with these speakers offering life-like midrange purity, and detail – all while providing a musical neutrality that is never fatiguing. The speakers are just slightly bright (in a good way – it’s not harsh), imparting a flavor along the lines of Dynaudio Audience speakers or the Sennheiser HD590 headphones. We have never reviewed better loudspeakers at FiringSquad.
So why did you need the Audiophile USB?
When it comes to connectivity, the T200a’s roots as a professional studio monitor show. The rear offers two inputs (balanced XLR, and standard vanilla unbalanced RCA) and a volume knob. There are no bass or treble knobs to be found here.
The Griffin PowerMate is a bit of a silly luxury from one perspective. It’s an $40 incredibly well-built USB aluminum knob that acts like a super scroll wheel. It can be used to scroll through webpages, or act as a shuttle for video editing, or more commonly a dedicated volume knob. The drivers are highly flexible and allow you to assign 5 commands to the device, a button press, left or right rotation or a combination of pressing down and rotating. The commands can be non-macro keypresses (so ALT-TAB, or CTRL-SHIFT-0 is ok, but ALT-F-then-X isn’t possible).
Goldtouch Ergonomic USB Keyboard
‘Almost perfect’ is how I described the Goldtouch Ergonomic Keyboard in my review at GadgetSquad.com. Offering adjustable split and tilt, the Goldtouch keyboard is the first ergonomic keyboard that was able to improve my comfort while also maintaining full typing efficiency. After using the keyboard for a longer time, I’d have to say that a wireless model would also be something great to add to the unit. I’ve come to like the relocation of page up/page down keys and really, it’s just the malpositioning of the left ALT key that prevents me from calling this the perfect keyboard.
We think of Microsoft as the big giant of technology, but it is in fact Logitech who sells the most mice. The MX700 is an excellent mouse as it’s comfortable, and has just the right number of buttons and just the perfect mass. With the high-sampling rate of a corded mouse, and an effective recharging station, it’s the most impressive mouse we’ve used since the original MouseMan+.
SIDEBAR: Don’t skimp on your input devices – they usually last forever.
Matrix Orbital MX232 and 233 LCD panels
In the early days of case modding, simply painting your case a different color from black or beige was already considered amazing. The truly exotic cases however would have serial controlled LCD displays. In the past, however, adding an LCD screen required deft control of your power tools and programming knowledge to display text on the screen. Often, these LCDs would programmed to display static text such as the system name or system specs.
The MX2 series from Matrix Orbital are USB-based 20 character x 2 line LCD displays. Cables are available for connecting directly to motherboard USB headers or for routing it to the back and plugging it into the standard rear-motherboard USB slots. In normal use, the LCD panel is powered from the USB port. The screen itself is available in a variety of colors, and the faceplates include silver and black anodized aluminum, and a black or beige version with a front keypad. The keypad interface can be programmed to switch the displayed information on the LCD, or to change system volume or change tracks in Winamp or start applications. The aluminum panel, which we are using, is keypad-less.
From the rear, you can tell that the Matrix Orbital MX2 is designed to do more than just be a simple LCD screen. In the current revision of the MX2, there are 3 fan headers and what appears to be 4 wake-on-lan headers. In addition, just to the right of the floppy power connector are connections for powering 3 LEDs.
The fan headers support a peak current of 1000 mA at +12V each. These can be used to power fans (obviously) but also provide adequate power for cold cathode lights. What makes these impressive is that they are smart connectors. With the MX2, you now have a smart fan controller. You can automate your system to only turn on fans when the case reaches a certain temperature, or to turn on internal case lighting to turn on in the evenings and turn off at your usual bedtime. Perhaps you want some LEDs to flash when you have email – you can do that to. With the keypad model, you can even manually control the power output.
SIDEBAR: Matrix Orbital also sells larger LCDs or brighter VFDs for the truly hardcore.
The magic of the Matrix Orbital LCD panels is in LCDC, the high-performance LCD driver. Essentially a 2nd-party application, LCDC is developed by an independent developer for the exclusive use with Matrix Orbital displays. Imagine Polyphony Digital (Gran Turismo) when they were still independent, and exclusively working for PlayStation. LCDC allows you to quickly and easily configure your Matrix Orbital MX2 while also giving you incredible room to customize the setup. If you bought bulk Matrix Orbital LCDs (say larger 4 line versions, or high-intensity vacuum fluorescent displays) you would need to spend $18 on LCDC. With the MX2 a full-registered version of LCDC is bundled.
Out of the box, you can easily configure your LCD panel to display information from Motherboard Monitor 5, ASE Game Server (All Seeing Eye – stats for all sorts of gaming servers), Usage monitor (uptime, CPU utilization), FRAPS, stock quotes, real-time news, Winamp 2 and 3 visualizations and even more. What makes LCDC so impressive is that you can check the box for Winamp 2 support and be done with it … or you can tweak exactly what is being displayed; if you wanted to keep track of your system temperature permanently, you can have the first row provide system information and the second row display the Winamp spectrum analyzer or track info.
The “ScreenBuilder” feature of LCDC is where everything gets done.
Here you can define the different “screens” that get shown. You can set up the screen to show your custom logo (i.e. “Powered by FiringSquad.com”) initially and then start going through the different information screens. Perhaps you want to see the HDD usage, your RAM usage, uptime, or network activity. The customization goes even further because it is possible to choose how long or short each screen is. At first glimpse the customization can be daunting, but the documentation for LCDC and user forums are very helpful. The learning curve is perhaps 30 minutes, but it’s well worth the effort.
What’s missing out of the current version of LCDC is the ability to customize what is being displayed based upon the application that is being run. It’s possible to configure the system to only display WinAMP info while music is being played in WinAMP, and to cycle through the other screens when WinAMP isn’t running, but you cannot define that same kind of activity for your own applications though…
Or so I thought. While this feature isn’t part of the basic LCDC setup, there’s a free EXE plugin available. This plugin will monitor for a specific application and can trigger events. For example, when running Photoshop, I have my LCD show my real-time memory usage. When I exit Photoshop, it’ll return to the normally scheduled programming.
The customization process doesn’t have to be complicated though. For example, non-programmable budget LCD panels which emphasize fan speed, system temperature, or voltage monitoring. While this may be cool to have in overclocked systems, this is something I could care less about for this particular system. I am 100.0% confident in my power and cooling, and know that everything is fine – I don’t need to monitor that. What I do want is memory usage information, HDD status, and network status. For a file server, I may have the system cycle through all the HDD’s and report free space and drive temperature. Or in a demo system, maybe I just want the LCD for its bling-bling nature and have it display some animations when idle, and do WinAMP visualization and FRAPS. For these kinds of decisions, I can do it simply by checking boxes.
SIDEBAR: You can run up to 10 Matrix Orbital LCDs in one machine.
This flexibility with point-and-click ease and polish is what truly sets the Matrix Orbital MX2 ahead of its peers. You can get LCD panels that display fan speed or CPU temperatures, or those with fan headers, but MX2 does all that and more than the competition, and is easier to setup. It’s both a toy and a tool.
At ~$100, this is no cheap toy and indeed, the Matrix Orbital MX2 is clearly a luxury item – but you probably expected that. After all, this is supposed to be the ultimate gaming system. However, even at $100 the polish that represents the LCDC/MX2 combo makes it a Bull’s Eye award winner. It’s not going to make your system faster or more stable, but it’s dollar for dollar a better bargain than loading your system up with cold cathodes and multiple windows. I almost feel compelled to give this an Editor’s Choice award since it’s truly special among its peers, but I’ll probably save that until the price goes down. Just in case it’s not clear, we’ve got two different MX2 panels in our labs – the colors are not software selectable.
SIDEBAR: The Matrix Orbital MX4 with a 4-line display is in development
There is one last component which I am not going to address in detail, but should be something you keep in the back of your mind -- the environment. We’ve talked about clean power, good airflow, and proper shielding, but air quality can have a significant effect on your system stability. Anyone who’s seen the inside of a computer knows how much dust can build in your case. Dust can increase your system temperature as it insulates the case (think attic fiberglass insulation) and will also slow down your fans and occlude air intake/exhausts. In a low-noise system such as the ones we’re building, dust will make a relatively significant contribution. We won’t even touch upon the rare doomsday scenario of dust and electrostatic discharge risk.
Without question, all things considered, air purification is a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. We’re not going to say that an air filter is a critical system component, but this is something you should still think about. A system is more than the sum of the components – make sure you’ve made appropriate system decisions in everything you do. An air purifier that improves your comfort can also improve system stability.
We’re not going to review air purifiers at FiringSquad or discuss the difference between HEPA, high-flow HEPA-like, electrostatic, or plasma designs to air purification. I will say that I’ve seen BlueAir purifiers in a neonatal ICU though.
What I want you to do the next time you build a system, or even with your current system is to take 5 seconds to think about the environment your PC is in. You’ve probably already done this subconsciously, but really think about it for a second. Is the PC on the floor, where it can pick up more dust? If so, raise the PC off the floor. If the PC is on your desk, would putting the system to the left or right of your monitor change the amount of dust exposure?
You’ll see high-end companies selling $10,000 PC systems with solid-state hard drives, but if I was building a system for someone who had that kind of money, I’d definitely set them up with a high-end air purifier. It’s that attention to detail that only die-hard enthusiasts like us would think of. It’s too bad no one would be able to afford FiringSquad custom designed systems. ;)
SIDEBAR: When buying an air purifier, the replacement filter costs should be included in your budget.
So there you have it, a walkthrough of how I built a “dream” high-performance PCs capable of both gaming and work. Throughout the process, we’ve approached component selection with a spend-but-don’t-waste-money. You’ve seen us select products from predictable contenders such as Tyan dual processor motherboards, go with products you might not have expected such as the Al/Cu heatsink instead of pure Cu, and feature products you might not have even heard of before such as the Swans T200A speakers. You now know everything I know about building high-end gaming workstations.
This is the first in the series of “system building“ articles that are designed to teach you about the nuances of system design all while showing you how to build feature-rich systems that simply cannot be bought in stores. Although this first article is a high-end flagship system, our upcoming projects include building a budget network attached storage server and a gaming/PC theater system where the goal is purely entertainment and gaming. When we build this pure gaming system, you’ll see how the tools you’ve learned from this “workstation” article can also be used in building a pure SFF system.
We’ve pretty much reviewed every component in this system other than the CPU. That’s what the second part is all about. We’ll be comparing this Dual Opteron against the Athlon 64 and Pentium 4 in a carefully selected benchmark suite.
Opteron 246 –TBD
M-Audio Audiophile USB – 90%
Make sure you read the section in our article carefully. The Audiophile USB provides top of the line audio fidelity, but doesn’t work like a traditional sound card. It can be either the perfect or worst product.
Swan T200A – 92%, Editor’s Choice
The Swans T200A looks great and sounds even better. When FiringSquad gives high praise to the likes of the Klipsch ProMedia or Logitech Z series, there are inevitably those who demand higher quality audio. The Swans do just that. These are hi-fi components and really shine with a high quality source to back it up. Alexis will have a full review of the T200A's and M200's shortly.
Goldtouch Ergonomic USB Keyboard – 95%, Editor’s Choice
You can get a used Model M for about $10, but what makes the Goldtouch Ergonomic keyboard such a high scoring product is that is actually works. It’s hard to put a price on health, but I stopped having any wrist pain after a month of use, and my typing speed is even faster than what it used to be. If this was the same price but wireless, with a repositioned left ALT key, I’d seriously have to starting thinking about criteria we’d need for a 100% score.
Logitech MX700 – 97%, Editor’s Choice
Normally we don’t give scores out this high, but we really cannot think of any other mouse we’d rather be using. The Logitech MX700 is comfortable and tracks excellently. On top of that, their high-sampling RF technology works as advertised. Finally, the docking station to charge the mouse is a well thought out idea, and the bundled NIMH batteries are still running strong.
Griffin PowerMate – 81%
An effective toy and so we give it just a hair higher than 4/5, but it’s a little bit disappointing to see that the Windows XP drivers are not as well developed as those for the Mac.
Matrix Orbital MX2 – 90% - Bull’s Eye
When it comes to system personalization, there’s nothing cooler than an LCD panel and when it comes to LCD panels, there’s nothing better than a Matrix Orbital. It’s more expensive than many of its competitors, but the more we use it, the more impressed we are with it. It’s a fan controller, a VU meter, and a status monitor. You really do get a lot of value from the $100. An addition of integrated USB 2.0 hub would make the MX2 an Editor’s Choice product.
Seems like every single product earned an Editor’s Choice or Bull’s Eye award didn’t it? That’s not because FS is being any more lenient with our grading, but because I’ve hand selected the components. What kind of fools would we be if we built an “ultimate system” with components that did not have at last an 80% score (remember our 80% is like other people’s 90%), or weren’t using components that were worthy of Bull’s Eye or Editor’s Choice awards?
SIDEBAR: Agree or disagree with Alan’s decisions? Ever think you’d see discussion of air purification in an FS article? Chat with others about this article in the news comments!
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