In an age of overly synthesized catchphrases ginned up by some suit to commercialize new soda pop or body spray, the term “pure PC power” was never intended to be marketing hype.
Instead, it was conceived to describe our obsession with performance computers and it has withstood the test of time. Who would have known that 16 Dream Machines later, the pursuit of all-out computing power could still be viable?
But that’s just what this year’s Dream Machine again proves: Despite pundits predicting the PC’s death many times over—speed still matters. For this year’s Dream Machine, we decided to build a rig that balances top-notch performance with the style and elegance of an exotic sports car. The overall package is well-behaved and even fairly modest at power consumption, considering the amount of performance it packs.
As always, it’s not just about the PC proper, though. For our Dream Machine, we tracked down the best hardware available, such as NEC’s freaking-awesome PA301W panels and the wireless Cyborg R.A.T. 9 mouse, to make a lust-worthy setup that any of us would kill to have grace our desktop. So join us as we celebrate another year of the PC’s supremacy.
THE ONLY THING MISSING FROM DREAM MACHINE 2011 IS THE SWEET SMELL OF EXHAUST
Intel 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K
3x EVGA GeForce GTX 580 Superclocked
$1,557 ($519 each)
Cooler Master Cosmos II Prototype
Corsair 16GB Vengeance
Silverstone Strider ST1500
Corsair Hydro Series H100
2x 240GB OCZ Vertex 3
$1080 ($540 each)
3x 3TB Seagate Barracuda XT
$600 ($200 each)
Cyborg R.A.T. 9
Razer BlackWidow Ultimate
3x NEC PA301W
$6900 ($2300 each)
Microsoft Windows 7 Professional
The classic dilemma in technology hasn’t changed in the 16 years we’ve been building our annual Dream Machine: Build now or wait for the next big thing?
In our case, it’s never been so glaringly apparent as this year. That’s because the worst-kept secret in the industry is Intel’s Sandy Bridge E chip that’s coming out in about two months. Sandy Bridge E (for either Enthusiast or Extreme) is a rebadged Xeon chip and is screened to hit high clock speeds. The accompanying X79 chipset will feature no fewer than 12 SATA ports—six of them at 6Gb/s speeds—PCIe 3.0, and quad-channel RAM support, on the new LGA2011 socket.
Yeah, your mouth is probably watering already, so why not “wait” for this new CPU and chipset combo? And at the same time, we should probably also wait for the next-generation GeForce or Radeon card. Oh yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s see what the next round of SSDs, coolers, motherboards, cases, speakers, and mice brings us, too.
You see where this gets you? Pretty soon you’re waiting for the “next big thing” while driving a Pentium 4 box in the slow lane while your fellow gamers scream at you to get the hell off the server and quit dragging down the pings.
In the end, you have to go with the components you have, not the components you wish you had. In the here and now, Dream Machine 2011 is the best PC you can build, and it even has a logical upgrade path as Intel’s upcoming 22nm Ivy Bridge chips will drop right into this beauty.
THE CHEAPEST CPU WE'VE EVER USED IN A DREAM MACHINE—AND PERHAPS THE FASTEST, TOO
Winston Churchill once said, “Never in the field of computing was so much power given so cheaply.” OK, we’re making that up, but if Churchill had access to Intel’s Core i7-2600K part, such a proclamation would be inevitable. And it’s not just that the Core i7-2600K is so freaking cheap, it’s also freaking fast! An overclocked quad-core Sandy Bridge chip will give even Intel’s Big Kahuna, the Core i7-990X, a run for its money in many benchmarks.
Even better, the chipset for the 2600K is modern, not the old fogey still powering LGA1366 motherboards, and if all goes as planned, it offers an upgrade path to the 22nm-based Ivy Bridge CPUs next year. For DM2011, we overclocked the 3.4GHz part to 4.8GHz, which appears to be the limit of our D2 core sample. That’s fine with us. For $317, we’ll take it and smile too.
TRI-SLI IS READY AND RARING TO RUN UNREAL ENGINE 3
For our GPU selection, we had two possible routes to take: three-single GPU cards or two dual-GPU cards. Dual dual-GPU cards are sexy, but many games simply don’t scale to four GPUs. And getting multiple GPUs to behave on a single card often requires clocks to be scaled back. That’s not the case with individual GPUs in three-way mode. It’s this thinking that led us to select three of EVGA’s GeForce GTX 580 Superclocked cards. The cards run fairly cool, even with the factory overclock, and thus don’t pump heat into a case.
RUN TRI-SLI WHILE YOU CHARGE YOUR TABLET
We’ll admit that for our purposes, Z68 gives us no performance advantage over P67. We’re not, after all, going to run SSD caching since we have two big, fat Vertex 3 SSDs in place. With three GPUs, we’re also unlikely to run the integrated graphics. Still, there’s no reason to use the end-of-life P67 if Z68 is here. And that’s what Gigabyte’s GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 gives us. It’s pretty much the same as a GA-P67-UD7 board, but with the updated chipset. The board itself has everything we need: the ability to charge high-drain devices via USB, even when the board is powered off; a crapload of SATA connectors; USB 3.0 internal headers; and not just SLI and CrossFire X, but also tri-SLI. Tri-SLI is accomplished by using an nForce 200 chip to balance the load from the single x16 PCIe 2.0 in the Sandy Bridge CPU.
SQUEEZE THE MOST OUT OF THAT 6GB/S SATA CONTROLLER
What’s faster than one SF-2281-powered SATA 6Gb/s solid-state drive? Two of ’em, in RAID 0. A single OCZ Vertex 3 can hit sustained read speeds of 550MB/s and writes of over 250MB/s; we hit nearly twice that using Intel’s onboard RAID: 1,000MB/s reads and 500MB/s writes. Two 240GB drives give us 480GB of storage for our OS and any game we care to play or app we care to install.
YOU SAW IT HERE FIRST, FOLKS
The case for this year’s Dream Machine is so new you can’t get it in stores. In fact, we barely got ours in time for this month’s issue. Cooler Master’s Cosmos II isn’t supposed to be revealed at all for another month, but given our fondness for the Cosmos S (the chassis for our 2007 Dream Machine), the company snuck us a preproduction model of the Cosmos II. Since it’s not a production model, it still has some kinks to work out, but it’s a beaut nonetheless.
The Cosmos II is fully 20 percent larger than the Cosmos S, and takes full advantage of four years’ worth of improvements in chassis tech. The PSU and six drive bays are sequestered in a compartment at the bottom of the case, while the motherboard compartment features cable-routing cutouts, hot-swap docks, more toolless drive enclosures, and room for a 360mm radiator up top. The result is a roomy, well-ventilated chassis with plenty of space to accommodate our tri-SLI setup, five hard drives, a 240mm radiator, and more, while still looking classy. And that's before we added the custom Smooth Creations paint job.
Acquiring a preproduction model of the majestic Cosmos II was plenty special in its own right, but this being Dream Machine, we had to kick it up a notch. Enter Smooth Creations. The company, which was founded in 1999, is the originator of custom graphics on boutique PCs. Smooth’s case-painting masters got their start on automobiles and custom bikes before their love of hardcore PC gaming led them to their present calling.
With any case-painting job, preparation is no small matter. A case has to be completely disassembled to properly prep all the different substrates. But our Dream Machine case presented its own unique challenges. As Smooth Creation’s CEO Jim Saling recounts, “We had never gotten a Cosmos II before and it was sent overnight from Taiwan… giving us only two days to paint it and send it out to [Maximum PC].” He adds, “Taking it apart, with all its moving parts, and putting it back together to function properly after paint required a few notes during tear down.”
As for the paint itself. It’s an automotive paint from Germany called Glasurit, which is used on high-end European sports cars. Our Dream Machine is painted Super Fly Yellow, a true Lambo color. Saling adds, “Will it make the PC faster? That’s up to the DM builders.”
Well, Jim, we think you’ll find that we did justice to your handiwork.
WE SAY FILL ALL THE SLOTS AND LET GOD SORT 'EM OUT
How much RAM do you need? Hell, given today’s prices, why not max it out? That’s what we did with Corsair’s 16GB DDR3/1600 Vengeance kit. As you can tell from the name, this set of 4GB DIMMs runs at DDR3/1600—no need to stress out the integrated memory controller with additional voltage. So it’s no surprise that it’s the only XMP-rated RAM at 1.5 volts.
ENOUGH POWER TO RUN TWO PCS OR 300 TABLETS
If you’ve ever built a fast computer, you know how much of a pain it is to size your PSU for all of the hardware you’ll stuff inside. With Silverstone’s Strider ST1500, we don’t have the slightest worry, even with three GPUs, five drives, and a zesty overclock loading up this 1,500W PSU.
THE POWER OF A DUAL-FAN RADIATOR WITH THE EASE OF AN ALL-IN-ONE LOOP
We’ve long been impressed by Corsair’s Hydro
series liquid coolers, and the H100 promises to continue the trend. We mounted the H100’s 240mm radiator at the top of the Dream Machine’s case to leave the rear exhaust unobstructed, with two 12cm fans pulling air through the radiator and out the top of the case. We’d have added two more fans for push/pull cooling, but didn’t quite have room, thanks to the fat voltage-regulator module heatsinks.
9TB OF MASS STORAGE, BECAUSE WE CAN
With three 3TB 7,200rpm drives, we’re not running out of storage space any time soon. Rather than run one big array, we’ve dedicated one drive to backups, one drive to high-def video, and one drive to everything else. Why? Why not?!
BRING THE NOISE
You probably wear a headset when you game, but sometimes you just gotta go loud. Fortunately, that’s what the Corsair SP2500 system can do in spades: Get freaking loud! Yes, it will also sound awesome with Schubert, while you sip white wine, but the SP2500 set is best suited for making your neighbors pound on the walls until their fists are bloody.
LAST YEAR'S BD BURNER IS STILL THE BEST, IN OUR BOOK
Yes, it seems wrong to be outfitting Dream Machine 2011 with the same Blu-ray burner we used last year, but we have yet to encounter a drive that offers better overall performance than the Plextor B940SA. With write speeds of 12x for BD-R and 16x for DVD+R, it handles all our optical chores quickly and reliably.
CYBORG R.A.T. 9 AND RAZER BLACKWIDOW ULTIMATE
In gaming peripherals, we look for a mix of maximum-quality construction and extra features that give us an edge. That’s exactly what you get with the Cyborg R.A.T. 9, a wireless gaming mouse with heavy-duty construction that can be customized to fit your hand perfectly. We also love the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate, a keyboard with top-notch mechanical switches, a full set of gaming-grade features, and excellent software to back it up.
GAMES NEVER LOOKED SO GOOD
The professional-grade PA301W not only offers exemplary color and detail, but it also has the unique ability among 30-inch screens to go into portrait mode. This allows us to position three of them vertically for a combined resolution of 4800x2560—and a gaming experience that’s unparalleled. In fact, it was the overwhelming favorite in our Multiscreen Challenge .
THE ONLY REAL CHOICE
You know what we like about Windows 7? It served up a supersize cup of STFU to that no-talent assclown Justin Long, aka the Mac Guy.
While unadulterated power and performance are a given in any Dream Machine build, aesthetics play an important part in setting our annual homage to excess apart from the pack. Still, some stand out more than others in looks.
DREAM MACHINE 2002
This DM was inspired by BMW’s famous 2002 Turbo, which audaciously featured its moniker in reverse to kindly let shepherds in the fast lane know to get the flock out of the way. Besides mimicking the 2002 treatment, this box famously featured the GPU that brought ATI back in front with a vengeance: the Radeon 9700 Pro.
DREAM MACHINE 2004
Jim Saling of Smooth Creations is no stranger to the Dream Machine, having custom painted four of our premiere builds, including this year’s. DM2004 marked paint job number two in that history, rendering a Silverstone Nimitz SST-TJ03 case all the more impressive.
DREAM MACHINE 2008
The year 2008 saw the most expensive case ever used for a Dream Machine. We managed to pull off an incredible deal to procure an HP Blackbird 002 case ($1,000) and then had the entire sucker chromed by Computer-choppers.com, which cost well north of $5,000 to do. It was the epitome of bling.
DREAM MACHINE 2012
We want to hear from you! How should Dream Machine 2012 look? What should it include? Comment below, or send your ideas to email@example.com.
Three GTX 580s is a lot, we’ll admit. You’re not going to find any games out right now that’ll push Dream Machine ’11 to its limits, but that doesn’t mean this system is overkill—far from it. Here’s what’s going to take advantage of the Dream Machine’s power:
The scion of one of PC gaming’s greatest brands, Battlefield 3 will be both the first true PC shooter to come along in 2011 and (hopefully) the first game to really take advantage of the graphics hardware in a cutting-edge PC like ours. Though it’s being released on consoles simultaneously, the PC version of BF3 is clearly superior, with better graphics, larger maps, and more players per dedicated server.
We’ve got a few misgivings about Rage. We hate to see a great (arguably the great) PC developer creating a game with a console as a main focus, but we’ve got enough faith in Carmack that we believe the game will still be able to take advantage of a PC’s extra power. Rage also marks the first use of the id Tech 5 engine, practically guaranteed to power some monster titles going forward.
UNREAL ENGINE 3
Unreal Engine 3 is hardly new (it’s been around since the first Gears of War game launched), but it’s been evolving all along. The latest batch of updates, announced at GDC 2011, includes some advanced features like deferred rendering, subsurface scattering, and image-based reflections. There aren’t any games that have officially committed to taking advantage of the new features yet, but we expect to see some soon. In the meantime, check out the amazing technical trailer (which takes three GTX 580s to run at 1080p resolution).
CAN IT PICK UP WHERE LAST YEAR'S 12-CORE MONSTROSITY LEFT OFF?
Dream Machine 2011 looks great, runs fairly quiet, and its parts list is to die for. But it’s not just about looks and specs, it’s also about performance. Can this machine outpace its predecessor? After all, if technology can’t march forward in 12 months, something is drastically wrong.
And we don’t say that without first taking a really long, Jim Kirk–style pause to seriously ponder whether Dream Machine 2011 can beat Dream Machine 2010. That’s because Dream Machine 2010 was an especially monstrous King Kong of a PC. Just recalling the specs of last year’s Dream Machine is enough to make us pucker up in fear: not one, but two 3.3GHz hexa-core Xeon X5680 CPUs overclocked to 4GHz. Three EVGA GeForce GTX 480 Superclocked cards in tri-SLI, 24GB of DDR3/1600, and two 200GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSDs in RAID 0. Dream Machine 2010 was so mean, we had to feed it five netbooks for breakfast and then sweep up the tablets it crapped out all day long.
What can a lone Core i7-2600K do against that? A lot more than you’d expect. DM2011’s first victory came in our Lightroom 2.6 test where we convert a folder of raw photo files from a Canon 5D Mk II to Adobe DNG format for archival purposes. Fairly limited in threading, the benchmark favored the higher clocks of DM2011, which trounced the older DM2010 by 27 percent. That score is also a new benchmark record in the Lightroom test. We suspect that part of the win is due to the RAID 0 Vertex 3 drives. In some storage benchmarks we ran, the Vertex 3s were pushing in excess of 1GB/s read speeds and 500MB/s write speeds. No, that’s not a typo—in excess of 1GB/s read speeds! You can thank the SandForce 2 controller in the OCZ drive and the excellent SATA 6Gb/s implementation in the Z68 chipset.
ProShow Producer 4 also gave the nod to DM2011, by 16 percent, surprisingly, despite the application support for more compute threads. Clock speed and disk I/O couldn’t help this year’s Dream Machine beat last year’s in our MainConcept Reference encoding test, however—but the loss wasn’t as bad as you’d think. The dual-proc Dream Machine 2010 bested DM2011 by roughly 10 percent. Unfortunately, we were unable to run our Vegas Pro 9 benchmark on last year’s Dream Machine because of a bug in one of the app’s plugins that affects 12-core machines, but we’re pretty sure DM2010 would be favored. Once we moved to graphics, DM2010’s tri-SLI 480s ate dust from this year’s tri-SLI 580s, with STALKER favoring DM2011 by 24 percent and Far Cry 2 (mostly a CPU test at this point) also taking 15 percent. In 3DMark Vantage, the two machines split wins. In the graphics portion, DM2011 took down DM2010 by a healthy 32 percent. But the 12-core monster came back in the CPU portion, with a score that was three times that of the DM2011. In fact, the only machines we’ve seen beat DM2010 in that test are other SR2-based machines running on liquid nitrogen.
We’re happy to report that we’re mostly vindicated on our choice of the tri-SLI cards over quad-SLI. Using the brand-new 3DMark 11 test, DM2011 was able to ace all of the machines from our small form factor roundup in the July issue, three of which featured either quad-SLI or quad-CrossFireX, using two dual-GPU cards as well as overclocked processors.
In the end, Dream Machine 2011 accomplishes what we wanted. It’s the best PC you can build at this moment and it’s even fairly well-mannered. It doesn’t spool up with the sound of 1,000 fans and it uses less than 180 watts (sans monitors) while idling. We’ll call that a win.
Dream Machine 2010
Dream Machine 2011
|Vegas Pro 9 (sec)||WNR||
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
ProShow 4 (sec)
Reference 1.6 (sec)
STALKER: CoP (fps)
Far Cry 2 (fps)
3DMark Vantage Overall
|3DMark Vantage GPU||40,601||53,511|
|3DMark Vantage CPU||91,806||31,648 (-66%)|
Dream Machine 2010 consists of dual 3.3GHz Xeon X5680s overclocked to 4GHz, 24GB of Corsair DDR3/1600, on an EVGA Classified SR-2. It runs three EVGA GeForce GTX 480 Superclocked cards in tri-SLI, two 200GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSDs, and two WD 2TB Caviar Black drives running Windows 7 Ultimate.