Dream Machine '08

Nathan Edwards

A Dream Machine graced the inaugural issue of Maximum PC back in 1998, and the tradition of building an annual no-holds-barred PC beast has continued unabated since then. True to form, this year’s rig is the most audacious, most powerful dream rig to date. Equipped with no fewer than eight processing cores, four graphics cores, and five hard drives, DM2008 is probably also our most controversial build. But as Lando said, it’s not our fault.

In the old days, we would just pick the very best hardware available. But those were simpler times, when parts vendors all got along and their sole mission was to provide you with badass gear. Sadly, the stakes are so high today that politics has an undue influence on hardware configurations.

The most obvious evidence of this is the ongoing war between Intel and Nvidia. Both companies try to downplay the tension, but this war of words, drivers, and marketing puts hardware enthusiasts in a pickle. We originally had our sights set on Nvidia’s hot new GPU for this year’s Dream Machine and even prepared ourselves with an “SLI-ready” motherboard. But the two GeForce GTX 280 cards wouldn’t pair up in SLI on our Intel board, despite its Nvidia nForce chips.

That doesn’t mean Maximum PC’s 10th anniversary Dream Machine is compromised. Far from it. If anything, sidestepping the political and technological land mines has made this machine even better. Even more powerful. And, well, even more intriguing, as our graphics cards are so new that you haven’t even heard of them.

Interested? Read on to find out what’s inside the world’s best PC.

Next: The Guts and the Glory! >

No Guts, No Glory

Click to see how we built a better monster

Processors: Two Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9775 CPU

One is the bomb, two are bombastic

Quad core? Nerd, puhlease—that’s so 2008. Next year will be all about CPUs with eight threads. Fortunately, we’re already there with a pair of Intel 3.2GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9775s. Between these most insane of Intel’s Core 2 chips, we get eight cores available to the operating system at a nice round 4GHz. Is that overkill? Perhaps, as you probably won’t find more than a couple dozen apps that will use all of these cores today. But let’s not forget multitasking—you know, like encoding an H.264 video in the background while playing a game and also compiling some code and running a few Folding@Home sessions. You can have all that and your cake, too, with the QX9775s. It’s even possible—dare we say it—that applications optimized for more than quad cores would benefit more from a pair of QX9775s than they would from Intel’s upcoming Nehalem. Time will tell.

Memory: 8GB Corsair FB-DIMM

So much RAM your applications won’t know what to do with it

Most consumers have never been exposed to “fully buffered” DIMMs, as the memory is strictly intended for workstations. To sum it up, it’s a hybrid of serial and parallel interfaces that uses an advanced memory buffer in the module to let machines run in excess of 128GB of RAM. The penalty is latency and tremendous heat from the AMB, so we had to use a Corsair Dominator fan to keep the modules from spontaneously igniting.

PSU: PC Power and Cooling Turbo Cool 1200

A true 1,200W PSU that makes a mockery of many ‘1,000-watt’ units

Most 1,000-watt PSUs would crumple under the strain of our Dream Machine’s loadout, so we turned to our old standby: PC Power and Cooling. Its custom-wired Turbo Cool 1200 gives us more than enough power to run all of our hardware, and with the PC Power and Cooling name behind it, we know the unit won’t quit on us.

Motherboard: Intel D5400XS

The mother of all, um, motherboards

Intel’s original V8 S5000XVN motherboard was essentially a relabeled dual-Xeon board pitched as an enthusiast board, which it wasn’t. Intel took the lessons it learned from the V8 and created the much improved Skulltrail D5400XS board. Gone are the eight FB-DIMM slots and SAS features. In are CrossFire support, overclocking features, and a more traditional, more capable (for most folks) Intel ICH9R south bridge. The cherry on top is the D5400XS’s added support for SLI via the board’s two nForce 100 chips. That makes it the only platform that will run either CrossFire or SLI out of the box with public drivers. Awesome, right? It was until Nvidia decided to not support its latest generation of cards on Skulltrail. Why? It’s this damned war between Nvidia and Intel. And frankly, the situation sucks. If the parties involved ever get their heads out of their butts, the D5400XS will rightly take its place as the holy grail of platforms.

Cooling: A Custom Water-Cooling Extravaganza!

Our home-brewed cooling kit offers maximum performance and minimum noise

The dimensions of the Blackbird chassis limited our options for water cooling this year’s Dream Machine. We opted for a Black Ice Pro2 Xflow radiator, as it’s one of the slimmer two-fan radiators we’ve tested. The reservoir is the same model from last year’s Dream Machine, Danger Den’s single-bay tank.

The entire assembly is outfitted with half-inch tubing and fittings. A super-powerful DD12V-D5 pump ensures a speedy flow rate for our fluid, Feser One clear UV-reactive coolant. This, in addition to our two D-TEK FuZion v2 CPU blocks, ensures that the processors will stay well within a healthy thermal range as we push this machine to its outer limits. Two silent Enermax Everest 12cm fans maintain low coolant temperatures.

Next: GPUs, Sound, Optical, and Storage! >

Videocards: Two ATI Radeon 4870 X2s

Double the performance you’d get from a GeForce GTX 280 on Skulltrail

Nvidia’s decision to not support Skulltrail with its brand-new GeForce GTX 280 left us with the option of using a single GeForce GTX 280 or switching to a single-proc system that would let us use SLI. Instead, we chose option three. And that was to talk to ATI. The timing couldn’t have been better because ATI was willing to share a card so secret it didn’t even have a name yet. We kid you not. These dual-GPU cards were so fresh off the fab that ATI was still deciding whether to dub them Radeon HD 4870 X2 or 4970 X2. (The company settled on 4870 X2.) We only cared that we got ’em. And they’re fast. In fact, on Skulltrail, they’re more than twice as fast in 3DMark Vantage as a single GeForce GTX 280.

Soundcard: Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium

Discrete audio is making a comeback, but as far as we’re concerned, it never left

Onboard audio has grown by leaps and bounds, but we’re still suckers for clean, pristine-sounding discrete audio. It doesn’t hurt if you get hardware acceleration as well, but even we’ll admit that we have plenty of CPU cycles to spare. Creative’s brand-spanking-new Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty features a redesigned DSP to natively support PCI Express. Also new is Dolby Digital encoding (finally) and a pair of optical SPDIFs.

Optical Drive: LG Super Multi Blue GBW-H20L

A jack of all optical trades

With LG’s GBW-H20L Blu-ray burner, we don’t need a separate drive to get decent DVD write speeds—as we did in last year’s Dream Machine. Back then, the top Blu-ray burner was rated at a pathetic 8x for DVD+R. The GBW-H20L not only boasts the fastest BD-R speeds currently available (6x), but it’s 16x DVD+R rating is also quite respectable. To get the full rundown on this drive’s abilities, see the review on page 89.

Speakers: Axiom Audio Audiobyte

Because audio is every bit as important as video

Speaker manufacturers have all but abandoned the PC market when it comes to surround sound, but that’s not why we chose to pair Axiom Audio’s Audiobyte self-powered speakers and EPZero passive subwoofer with this year’s Dream Machine.

This 2.1-channel system sounds absolutely divine with games, movies, and music, delivering the sonic clarity and high resolution our ears crave. High-end audio products are never cheap, but the Audiobyte’s $530 price tag is fully justified. Reviewed July 2008.

Storage: Two Western Digital Velociraptors + Three Samsung D103UJs

This is the ultimate combination of performance and capacity, period

High-performance storage has split along two distinct lines: speed and size. On the one hand, there’s Western Digital’s Velociraptor (reviewed on page 86). It’s the fastest drive we’ve ever tested, but it offers just 300GB of storage space. And then there’s Samsung’s HD103UJ (reviewed May 2008), which combines a terabyte of storage with top-of-the-line performance for its size.

It breaks our hearts to have to choose between the two… so we picked both. We’re running two Revision B Velociraptors in a RAID 0 array. There’s our speed. For our capacity needs, we’re going with three HD103UJ drives in a RAID 5 setup. This gives us two terabytes of combined storage while offering some level of data protection should one drive fail.

Next: Operating Systems, Case, Monitor, and Peripherals! >

Operating Systems: Windows Vista Ultimate x64 Edition + Windows XP Professional

Between the two OSes, we're covering all our bases

We’ve come down pretty hard on Windows Vista over the last 18 months, but the OS has shown major improvements in stability, reliability, and performance, especially since the launch of SP1. While we’re infinitely more confident in Vista now than we were in 2007, we’re still not quite ready to roll solo with the OS. That said, XP isn’t perfect. Since 32-bit XP caps out at 4GB of usable memory, fully half of our Dream Machine’s RAM is useless. We’ll take the best of both worlds, thank you.

Case: HP Blackbird 002

Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

We were lukewarm on the HP Blackbird PC we reviewed in our Holiday 2007 issue, but we’re big fans of its one-of-a-kind chassis. The heavy aluminum case is well constructed and much of the electrical wiring for its features—such as front-panel USB and FireWire connections, a pop-up 15-in-1 card reader, and external LED lighting—is kept hidden from sight.

The hot-swap drive bays on the case’s interior are a treat to work with. A 9.2cm fan runs air across all five hard drive slots. This nod to thermal management is replicated on the case’s ceiling, where two 12cm fans churn the air overtop your heated motherboard components.

HP will sell 25 of its Blackbird cases on a first come, first serve basis beginning September 1. The cost is $1,000 (plus tax and shipping). To order, call 877-776-4752.

Chroming the Blackbird

The Dream Machine is all about going the extra mile—in parts and aesthetics. To give HP’s Blackbird case our own unique stamp, we had the whole thing nickel plated. Computer Choppers does all the hard work and offers a selection of more than 70 plating and finish options, from chrome to copper to platinum. We chose smoked nickel for our rig, which looks a lot like chrome, only smokier and more awesome.

Before the plating is applied, the case is disassembled. Then the parts to be plated are stripped with nitric acid and immersed in a zincate solution so the metal sticks. It’s a complex process that can be made more difficult depending on the quality and/or porosity of the material being plated. Waiting on the finished case was the most nail-biting aspect of building this year’s Dream Machine— we didn’t receive it until the day the feature was scheduled to be photographed! Luckily, HP had sent us another case, which we used to work out all the building issues in the interim.

The cost of having an entire rig plated runs from $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the plating metal.

Mouse and Keyboard:  Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 + Logitech G5 Rev. 2

This input duo adorns the desktop of many a PC power user.

When you spend as much time at a keyboard as we do, you need a plank that’s as comfy as it is durable. That’s why we chose the Natural Ergonomic 4000 from Microsoft for this year’s Dream Machine. Likewise, your mouse needs to deliver pixel-accurate gaming performance and comfort to last through those marathon WoW sessions. The G5 does that and then some.

Keyboard reviewed March 2006. G5 mouse reviewed Holiday 2005.

Monitor: Gateway XHD3000

You won't find a better-looking, better-performing or better-connecting 30-inch LCD

We’ve seen a number of 30-inch monitors suffer from splotchy backlighting, color-tracking issues, and poor presets that introduce problems to the picture. But not the Gateway XHD3000, our big monitor of choice for nearly a year. This 2560x1600 display does it all. Its picture is vibrant, its grayscale range is impressive, and its bevy of connection options coupled with touch-sensitive interface buttons make swapping between your inputs quick and easy. Trust us, you’ll want to hook up every device you have to this rock-star display. Reviewed December 2007.

Next: The Numbers Don't Lie! >

The Numbers Don't Lie

In the end, all this hardware amounts to one hell of a fast machine. And not just in theory—as in, next year when such and such comes out, this rig’s power will be evident (although we do admit that some software optimizations will be needed).
In the here and now, we routinely saw performance benefits with many of today’s applications.

For comparison, we put Dream Machine against our standard zero-point 2.67GHz Core 2 Quad Q6700, GeForce 8800 GTX box—and DM pretty much flattened it with double- and triple-digit spreads. While a sub-3GHz quad-core box might sound quaint today, we’ll remind you that our zero-point PC actually gave a new 3.5GHz Core 2 Duo gaming PC that we reviewed in August a pretty good drubbing. So it’s not exactly a slouch.

Still, perhaps that machine’s not the most telling measure of the Dream Machine’s fury. For a more worthy contender, we turned to the CyberPower Gamer Ultimate SLI Quad PC that we reviewed in July. With its 4GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9770 CPU, 4GB of DDR3, and a pair of GeForce 9800 GX2 cards, the system rocked all those that came before it and we knew this mean machine would be difficult to overcome.

But DM did it. At least in some tests. We saw Dream Machine rip past the CyberPower box in both Premiere Pro CS3 and ProShow Producer by 23 and 36 percent, respectively. That’s nothing to turn your nose up at. In other tests, Dream Machine did well, but not spectacularly. In Photoshop CS3— not exactly the most threaded application in the world—Dream Machine scored a near tie with CyberPower, taking just two more seconds to complete our test. Since Photoshop doesn’t exploit our second proc, and honestly, barely pushes a single quad-core CPU to the edge, this is about what we’d expect from PCs that operate at the same clock speed.

In our MainConcept benchmark, DreamMachine was about 10 percent slower. Why? The encoder that’s used in MainConcept Reference is license-limited to single-processor support. Multi-processor support is available only with the professional version, which on the Dream Machine cut the encode time in half, by the way.

In our Unreal Tournament 3 Direct X 10 benchmark, DM’s pair of Radeons didn’t disappoint, cranking out 145 fps. Mind you, our normal benchmarks are designed to measure system-level performance. They’re not meant for pure GPU analysis—thus, we don’t run with antialiasing or massive amounts of filtering enabled. Still, we saw almost double the numbers that a pair of GeForce 8800 GTX cards could produce and 12 percent more than quad SLI cards mustered. With AA and aniso cranked up, the Radeons really start to strut their stuff. When we were still deciding what cards to use in DM, we also ran a GeForce GTX 280 in 3DMark Vantage. A single GTX 280 belts out 9,668 in the GPU tests—very impressive. But not as impressive as the 19,014 that our two Radeons put out. For all you 3D Vantage fans, Dream Machine’s overall score was 20,539. Not bad.

Of course, this leads us to our most heartbreaking test: Crytek’s Crysis. We expected the Radeons to crush everything in this one benchmark, but they just didn’t perform. Why? First, as we mentioned earlier, our system benchmarks are designed to reflect normal system use, not act as GPU tests—AA is not enabled nor is tons of filtering. However, we do run at an all-out 1920x1200 resolution. That’s enough to make most systems whimper. While CyberPower’s Quad SLI rig spit out 55 fps, DM was chugging along at 26 fps—about the same performance we got from two GeForce 8800 GTX cards. What the frak? We got ATI on the horn and learned that the likely culprits were driver and OS optimizations—or rather, lack thereof. ATI didn’t expect to make the cards public for several more months. The company has done some optimization for the X48 chipset, but Skulltrail’s 5400 chipset wasn’t on the top of the list. The company is still sorting out some issues with how Windows Vista handles ATI’s AFR rendering. So this is what we’re talking about when we say future performance will come through improved drivers.

But what choice did we have? We sure as hell weren’t going to participate in this silly battle between the CPU and GPU camps. As true believers in pure PC power, we weren’t going to betray that mission statement in our 10th anniversary issue—thus, this machine marks our commitment to having it all.

Vista 64-Bit Benchmarks

Zero Point
Dream Machine 2008
Premiere Pro CS3
1,260 sec
547 sec
Photoshop CS3 150 sec
80 sec
1,415 sec
577 sec
1,872 sec
1,353 sec
26 fps
26 fps
Unreal Tournament 3
83 fps
145 fps
Best scores bolded. Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700, 2GB of Corsair DDR2/800 RAM on an EVGA 680 SLI motherboard, two EVGA GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI mode, a Western Digital 150GB Raptor and 500GB Caviar hard drives, an LG GGC-H20L optical drive, a Sound Blaster X-Fi soundcard, a PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750 Quad PSU, and Windows Vista Home Premium 64 bit.

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