Dream Machine Retrospective: Editors and Contributors Look Back

Alan Fackler

Every year when we're building the new Dream Machine, it's hard not to feel a little nostalgic. We've built 15 of them in the past, after all, and each one was an experience (read: harrowing ordeal) all its own. We thought we'd tap into a little bit of that nostalgia, and bring you a Dream Machine retrospective. We asked current and former MaximumPC editors to tell us about their thoughts on the Dream Machine, and their experiences putting them together. Read on for their thoughts!

Senior Editor Gordon Mah Ung:

The Dream Machine is simply the celebration of Pure PC Power. It’s about wanting the best, the fastest and the dreamiest PC possible. It’s about people who aren’t willing to accept mediocre performance or thumb twiddling while waiting for a render or encode to finish. It’s about people who don’t look at their computing experience as a toaster. It’s about their personal computer and it’s going to be fast too, dammit.

Which was the hardest?

I’ve been involved both peripherally (I picked the case for the very first Maximum PC Dream Machine) and as chief architect and gate keeper over the majority of the Dream Machine builds. You want to know which was the hardest? They all were. Every single damned one of them.

Not only are you trying to wheedle new hardware from vendors, you’re also trying to Q&A driver issues, deal with hardware that’s often never been seen outside a lab before and hell, it has to work and be stable and run a full OS and benchmark suite without imploding. Sometimes for fun, hardware vendor A doesn’t like hardware vendor B so you’re caught in the pissing match between the two without a rain coat.

And then there’s trying to get everyone happy on the staff with the hardware which isn’t always going to happen. Did I mention that there’s also a punishing production schedule that goes into producing a national magazine and the numerous silly deadlines and hurdles that have to be jumped? Oh, right, we need you to photograph the entire machine build on this date, but the day after, we need to shoot all of the individual components. So build it and then take it apart the day after. Oh, and we also need all of the benchmarks by this date so make sure you put it back together after a half dozen people have pawed its delicate electronic private parts, overclock it and benchmark it or, well, we print frakking blank pages for the readers.

And then there’s keeping the Editor In Chief’s happy. Good luck on that one. Sometimes it’s “Hey, for fun, let’s build three of them!” or “Hey, for fun, let’s make it out of Lego’s and gummy bears!” Here’s the secret to the dealing with that: Editor –In-Chief’s are like Starship captains who are like children: they want everything and they want it their way. The secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.

In the end, when the issue is put away and the machine is chewing through benchmarks like Joey Chestnut at an eating contest, you marvel at just how cool the Dream Machine turned out to be and then slack off for another 11 months.

Online Managing Editor Alex Castle:

I think the Dream Machine is the computer that’s at the absolute apex of what’s currently on the market. There’s been some debate over the years about how much is too much, when it comes to cost. I think that as long as a hardware upgrade serves a purpose (that is, you can see some measurable improvement in meaningful statistics) then it’s worth doing for the Dream Machine. Sure, sometimes that means you end up with a machine that costs as much as a new car, but price doesn’t really matter when your number one concern is building the best computer that can possibility be built right now.

My favorite Dream Machine was last year’s ridiculous beast of a computer. I think that thrumming, power-packed rig perfectly represents everything that the Dream Machine is about. Also, I’ve got a soft spot for custom water cooling loops. Self-contained water cooling systems are fine, but nothing says “PC Enthusiast” like a fully custom system of tubes piping liquid coolant to every part of your machine.

Editorial Director Jon Phillips:

The Dream Machine, by definition, is the most most superlative, decked-out physical expression of pure PC power — and "pure PC power," by the way, was the motto of boot magazine, which spec'd out the very first Dream Machine in 1996. With few exceptions, a Dream Machine should not only include the highest-performing assemblage of parts available at the time of spec'ing, it should also include a few surprise elements, like, say, a CPU engineering sample released to us early by Intel or AMD. Or a special case or cooling design. Or a new memory or bus interface that we're introducing to an unsuspecting public.

All that, plus a Dream Machine must necessarily be an exercise in compromise. Because rarely do all the best PC parts work together in perfect agreement and harmony. Over the years, we've adjusted some the criteria I describe above, but by and large, the Dream Machine is about using the shared knowledge of the staff to build the most audaciously configured, fastest-performing personal computer an enthusiast and could build and accessorize with his own two hands. Bank account notwithstanding of course!

Our most memorable Dream Machine projects? I would have to say Dream Machine 2001, when Gordon and crew built not one, but three Dream Machines — the ultimate gaming rig, the ultimate content-creation box, and the ultimate do-everything rig. Our ambition levels had never been higher, nor have we attempted three machines since then. Beyond that, I would say every year's race to get engineering samples and secret, unreleased parts is what I find most memorable. Ever since 1996, our editors have worked so f'ing hard to surprise people, and to redefine the meaning of what's possible. The Dream Machine pulls all of us together — editors, readers, and even the industry.

Senior Associate Editor Nathan Edwards:

It's our time to go balls-to-the-wall, and the gender-neutral equivalent. Some years it's the fastest machine money can buy. Other years it's the fastest machine money can buy, with a ridiculous twist, like chrome plating. Occasionally it's a reasonable (but still uber-fast) PC with some luxury perks, like a nice paint job.

My favorite Dream Machine (of the five I've been involved with) has been the 2010 Dream Machine. We just went nuts. The fortuitous timing of the EVGA SR2 Classified dual-Xeon board certainly helped, but that was the year we went more-is-more with a machine that had two hexacore processors, two 240GB SSDs, two 2TB hard drives, 24GB of RAM, two power supplies, three GTX 480s, and full water cooling. It was also a foot and a half long, high, and deep. Man.

That one was also the most complex to assemble. Mostly because the case came flatpacked, but also the watercooling loop, which we had Jeremy from Danger Den do for us. Because he's the Jedi Master.

Deputy Editor Katherine Stevenson:

This year marks the 12th Dream Machine I’ve been involved with, and the experience is consistently a mixture of nervousness, excitement, and dread. Nervousness because we never know whether the parts we’re lusting after will be available on time; excitement because it’s always fun to challenge ourselves with a no-holds-barred build that tops the previous year’s; and dread because everything has to come together just right, or else. Some builds have certainly been more cutting-edge than others, and some have gone more smoothly, but I’m happy to say we’ve never had a DM just plain not work out.

Former Editor in Chief Will Smith:

My favorite Dream Machines were 2006 and 2008. The 2008 machine used HP's badass Blackbird case, but that wasn't awesome enough for us, so we had the whole thing chromed. The end result remains stunning and utterly unique. More importantly, the machine packs 8 cores in two Skulltrail sockets--Skulltrail ended up being an evolutionary dead end, but I still can't get an octo-core CPU, in 2011.

The 2006 machine, with the orange racing paint job is another favorite. The Silverstone case we used that year was gorgeous, the incredible paint job complemented the chassis and just made the whole thing look more awesome. The machine sported a Core 2 Extreme 6800, which was a top-class CPU for a long time.

I think the most challenging Dream Machine for me was either 2001, when we built three distinct machines instead of the customary one, or 2008 when we were packing a workstation motherboard in the relatively tight confines of the Blackbird 002 case. The upshot on Dream Machine is that they're all challenging--even the relatively easy years (like the budget burner we built in 2009) presented unique challenges. It isn't ever easy to build a one-off, world-class PC, even without a budget.

Former Technical Editor Sean Cleveland:

The Dream Machine has always been about pushing boundaries to find the fastest hardware regardless of the price. As such, this posed challenges because the hardware we wanted was often preproduction quality and the drivers were never fully baked. Both of these factors affected system stability under our gauntlet of benchmarks. But when it was done, it was always a beast of a system! We editors drooled over the parts, which were often returned to the manufacturer because of their rarity and demand.

With the 1997 Dream Machine, we pushed hard to get a 300MHz Pentium II into the system without breaking our NDA with Intel. Poor Andrew was on the phone with them daily, but he ultimately prevailed by securing a 266MHz chip, which we then overclocked to 300MHz for benchmarking. This was all done at the last minute. I vaguely recall getting buffered memory (2 x 32MB), which didn’t mechanically fit into the RAM slots. Brad was beside himself, so he notched the memory using a pocket knife to make it fit in the slots. That was a fun night.

Not enough Dream Machine for you? Check out our Old School Monday look at the first Maximum PC Dream Machine, and our gallery on the 9 Components That Didn't Make the Dream Machine.

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