Micro-Tower Review Roundup

Maximum PC Staff

The Steam Machines may not be here yet, but these small form factor PCs may be the next best thing

Ask a civvie what a gaming PC is and they’ll say it's a machine slightly smaller than an HVAC system that breathes fire. That, gentle readers, is no longer the case. Alienware planted the seeds of a revolution with its first X51 by shoehorning a real GPU into a machine the size of a VCR. And in the year-and-change since then, interest in micro-towers has exploded (partly due to the looming Steam Machines , no doubt).

And why not? Micro-tower machines can offer 90 percent of the performance of a full-tower box while taking up less room than the original Xbox. While we often see micro-towers as the perfect “Steam Box” to displace those milksops of an excuse for gaming machines called consoles, they’re also finding popularity in space-constrained NYC apartments and college dorms, since plenty of us still want the performance of a “real PC” but don’t want to pay the space premium for them.

Now, don’t confuse micro-towers with the longstanding Shuttle-style small-form-factor PCs shaped like shoeboxes, or other small boxes of that ilk. No, for this roundup, we wanted to focus solely on machines that are as compact as a console but with the graphics grunt of a full tower. With that said, let’s see how these little tykes perform.

iBuypower Revolt

Phenomenal pricing; not-so-great storage

One of the problems of showing off any OEM system to DIYers is they invariably snort, and then cinch up their belt up before loudly pronouncing to the room, “Hell, I could do it better and cheaper!”

The iBuypower features LEDs behind the side panels that can change color at the push of a button.

That’s when iBuypower steps in and crushes their little armchair system-builder fantasy like a fire truck rolling over a Diet Coke can. You still don’t believe us, do you?

Well, just give the iBuypower Revolt a spin: This micro-tower features a GeForce GTX Titan, Core i7-4770K, NZXT Kraken X40 140mm liquid-cooling, 8GB of DDR3/2133 RAM, ASRock Z87E-ITX board, 500-watt PSU, slot-load DVD burner, 1TB SATA 7,200 HDD, 120GB SSD, and Windows 8. Oh, yeah, there’s also a three-year warranty and lifetime phone support, to boot—all for $2,000.

Don’t think we didn’t try to beat iBuypower, either. We spent half an hour on PCPartpicker.com trying to game out scenarios to beat iBuypower at its price/performance game and we just couldn’t do it. And that’s not even mentioning that you can’t get iBuypower’s custom micro-tower case anywhere, either. So, Bubba, just pack up your, “I can do it cheaper “ talk and walk on down the road.

Of the four systems here, the Revolt is actually the portliest of the bunch. Not by much, but when the Alienware X51 R2 and Digital Storm Bolt are each 3.75 inches wide and the Falcon Northwest Tiki is 4 inches, the Revolt looks noticeably bigger at 4.75 inches.

One feature of the case we really appreciate is its ability to rest vertically or horizontally. Only the Alienware and iBuypower support both orientations out of the box. Digital Storm offers an optional attachment at an extra cost and the Falcon Northwest machine only sits vertically. The Revolt’s case features pulsating LEDs integrated into both sides that can be manually switched to different colors or plain shut off. It’s a nice effect but not as impressive as the Alienware’s ability to set the LED colors individually.

We know that micro-towers save space at the expense of serviceability, but we still wanted to know what it’s like to get into each machine’s innards. By sliding off the side of the Revolt, you can access the drives and PSU. To get to the actual guts of the box, you’ll need to pull the PSU, unscrew a metal plate, and carefully tilt it out. From there it’s easy to access the DIMMs and CPU. Pulling the GPU requires unscrewing it from the back plane to slide it out. Overall, it’s not a bad service job if you decided to replace the RAM or upgrade the Core i7-4770K down the road. Of the four systems, though, it’s probably at the bottom in terms of access to components, but to be honest, it’s not that bad. It’s certainly not as easy to wrench on as a mid-tower, but this ain’t no mid-tower. In fact, compared to some traditional shoebox small form factors that we’ve worked on in days past, the Revolt is an improvement.

In the configuration arena, the Revolt is “well-kitted,” as our cousins across the pond say, in the CPU and GPU departments. In fact, you can’t get better in something this small. The GeForce GTX Titan and Core i7-4770K are the absolute fastest parts available in any micro-tower. iBuypower, however, took an interesting tack by including an NZXT 140mm liquid cooler for the CPU. This amount of cooling should allow for pretty reasonable overclocking on a Haswell, but iBuypower left its Haswell part bone-stock. Say what you will about the lack of an overclock in terms of performance, but acoustics nuts will be pleased. Of the four boxes here, the Revolt was the quietest under a full CPU load. Where the other three micros would start to howl under load—even the liquid-cooled Falcon Northwest Tiki—the Revolt was noticeably quieter. It’s not silent, mind you, and we’re not even sure it’s the best solution for a quiet night of pretentious foreign cinema on your HDTV, but it’s definitely the least noisy of the four under load.

One area where the Revolt failed to impress was in storage. iBuypower took the route used by many vendors lately: skimping. To get a PC with a Titan and top-end Haswell under $2,000 (OK, $1 under), you have to rob Bill to pay Steve. In this case, iBuypower went with a 1TB Western Digital Black drive and a 120GB Corsair Neutron GTX SSD. Pardon us, but that is so 2012 in drive capacity. Just trying to run our benchmarks we ran into space limitations fairly quickly. It’s hard to believe, but 120GB of primary storage is no fun. Even the 1TB hard drive seems miserly in a day when 3TB HDDs are growing on trees.

The insides look uninviting, but getting hands-deep into the Revolt isn’t that bad.

In the all-important area of performance, we figured the iBuypower, with its Core i7-4770K, would stand a good chance against the Ivy Bridge–based Digital Storm Bolt, but the heavily clocked-up Bolt easily outpaced it. In our Stitch.Efx 2.0 test, where we task the machine with creating a massive gigapixel image from 200 images shot with a Canon EOS 7D, the Revolt was 9 percent slower than the Bolt. In ProShow Producer 5.0, it was slower than the Bolt by 8 percent. The Revolt does get some partial revenge in our Premiere Pro CS 6 workload, with its final render time just 2 percent slower than the Bolt.

The copper-colored elephant in the room is the Falcon Northwest Tiki, though. With its Haswell soaring along at 4.7GHz, the Tiki simply crushed the Revolt by double-digit margins in almost every benchmark.

That’s all fine and good, but careful observers will note the price disparity. The Revolt is $2,000. The Digital Storm Bolt hits $3,377, and the Falcon Northwest Tiki is more than twice as much at $4,433. Only the Alienware X51 R2 comes in at a lower price, but its components put it in a different class than the top three contenders. No, this is really a three-way battle between the Bolt, Revolt, and Tiki. In that respect, the Revolt certainly doesn’t take home any performance trophies, but with its still-respectable speed and insanely good price, it damn well wins the prize for best deal. And for a lot of folks, that’s what really matters. Double up on the storage and you’ve got an even more well-rounded box.

3.5GHz Core i7-4770K
Motherboard ASRock Z87E-ITX
RAM 8GB G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3/2133
GPU GeForce GTX Titan
120GB Corsair Neutron GTX
HDD 1TB Western Digital Blue
ODD Slot-fed DVD burner
Cooling NZXT Kraken X40
PSU 500-watt FSP
Case Custom
W x H x D
4.75 x 15.5 x 16 inches
Weight (lbs) 20.6
Warranty Three years

iBuypower Revolt

$2,000 www.ibuypower.com

Digital Storm Bolt

Can a last-gen chip keep the Bolt in contention?

Given our experience building Dream Machine every year, we know how meeting a strict deadline invariably leads to compromise. Indeed, sometimes you build a PC with the hardware you have, not the hardware you wish you had.

That’s how Digital Storm might have been feeling when the Bolt was boxed up and sent in for this showdown of the fastest micro-towers on the planet. We say this because, of the four boxes that hit our Lab benches, the Bolt was the odd man out in hardware.

The Bolt itself is little changed from the previous versions we’ve tested. It’s the thinnest of the bunch by a hair. We’re also fans of the angled pedestal. It’s a pretty nice aesthetic and it doesn’t have the same weight penalty as the Falcon Northwest’s granite base. We’ve bitched in the past that we want the ability to lay the Bolt on its side for use in home media centers, and Digital Storm has since responded with a pretty clever solution. Rather than making every unit lay flat, the company now offers an optional bracket for $29 that attaches to the side. Simply unscrew the base, mount the optional bracket, and the Bolt can run on its side with adequate airflow to keep its components cool.

We’re big fans of the angular lines on the Bolt’s case.

To get your hands dirty with the Bolt, you undo four screws in back and slide the entire cover off. That effectively gives you open access to the RAM, CPU, SSD, and PSU. Besides the Falcon Northwest Tiki, the Bolt probably ranks as having the easiest access to parts. Well, except for the GPU, of course. If you intend to pull the GPU, you’ll need to do some graphics-card yoga as well as probably removing the auxiliary PSU fan and maybe even the PSU. It’s not impossible, but also not a five-minute job. We should note that the Bolt is the only system here with an exposed cutout tray to access the backside of the CPU. This makes pulling the Zalman CNPS8900 Extreme air cooler an easy affair.

The Bolt’s outer shell slides off to give you easy access to its guts, and there’s even a cutout in back for the motherboard.

Speaking of the air cooler, we should also mention that under heavy CPU loads, such as video encoding, the Bolt stands out as the loudest. It wasn’t horrible, but it was definitely noticeable. You can’t blame this on the Zalman CNPS8900 Extreme alone. When it comes to overclocked CPUs, it’s pretty hard to ask an air cooler to try to compete with liquid coolers. The Falcon Northwest Tiki uses a 120mm liquid cooler from Asetek and the iBuypower Revolt uses an even bigger 140mm NZXT Kraken X40 liquid cooler, and they rank accordingly in acoustic output. Under CPU chores, the iBuypower Revolt is the quietest. The Falcon Northwest Tiki has the Bolt beat, but keeping a Haswell Core i7-4770K cool and quiet at 4.7GHz is no easy task.

If the Core i7-3770K in the Bolt were stock, it might not make as much racket, but clocked up to 4.35GHz, it’s going to put out some heat. Speaking of Ivy Bridge vs. Haswell, most of you will want to know how the Ivy Bridge does here in a crowd of Haswell parts.

The Alienware X51 R2, with its 3.2GHz Core i5-4430, stands no chance. It doesn’t have the clock speeds nor Hyper-Threading to compete. The Falcon Northwest Tiki at 4.7GHz—that’s right, 4.7GHz—was early ruled Most Likely to Beat Everyone Bloody, before we even finished the benchmarks. No, to really represent the He-Nerd Haswell Haters Club, we turned to the iBuypower Revolt and its stock-clocked 3.5GHz Core i7-4770K. The winner between Ivy and Hassy? We’re calling it for the Ivy part. It’s not a complete victory, but for the most part, the Core i7-3770K comes out on top in the CPU-heavy tasks. In GPU-on-GPU action, it’s mostly a tie, as it’s just Titan vs. Titan there. That is, with the exception of the Tiki, which has an overclocked GPU, too.

The Digital Storm also takes second place to the Tiki in storage, but is clearly more practical and affordable. Its configuration reflects modern tastes and usage, with a 240GB Corsair Neutron GTX SSD and a 2TB WD Black drive. That’s far better than the iBuypower, which uses a 120GB SSD and 1TB HDD, or the Alienware’s sole 2TB hard drive configuration.

What you think of the Bolt ultimately depends on how much you really want top-of-the-line parts in your rig. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Ivy Bridge is still a really great CPU. If we had an Ivy Bridge box, we sure wouldn’t spend the money to upgrade to Haswell.

But—and you knew that was coming—if we were building or buying a new box, Haswell offers the best upgrade path, an actual (albeit evolutionary) performance upgrade, and full SATA 6Gb/s across all ports. We’ll admit that the latter point doesn’t really matter so much in a micro-tower that will max out with two SSDs, but we think the other points are still relevant and ultimately hurt the Bolt’s score, regardless of its very good performance.

Digital Storm Bolt

$3,377 www.digitalstorm.com

3.4GHz Core i7-3770K @4.35GHz
Motherboard Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe
RAM 16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3/1866
GPU Custom
240GB Corsair Neutron GTX
HDD 2TB Western Digital Black
ODD Slot-fed Blu-ray combo
Cooling CNPS8900 Extreme
PSU 500-watt Sparkle
Case Custom
W x H x D
5.5 x 14 x 15 inches
Weight (lbs) 22.2
Warranty Three years

Click the next page for our looks at the Falcon Northwest Tiki and updated Alienware X51.

Falcon Northwest Tiki

The fastest micro-tower to enter our Lab

Here’s a little inside OEM trivia: Falcon Northwest is one of the most competitive system builders we deal with. The company flat-out doesn’t ever like to lose a showdown on performance grounds. Price? Fine. Bundle? OK. But when it comes to performance, Falcon will sacrifice almost everything to win in that category.

That’s just what the company has done with the latest iteration of the Tiki, which damn near maxes out what can be done in a machine of this size.

For example, the 3.5GHz Core i7-4770K in this machine is clocked as high as in the Maingear full-tower rig with custom water cooling that we reviewed in August: 4.7GHz. Falcon does this with the aid of an Asetek 120mm cooler that magically folds into the slim chassis. Of the boxes here, only the iBuypower Revolt and Falcon Northwest Tiki pack liquid cooing. The Revolt’s cooler is bigger at 140mm but its chassis is also pudgier.

Alongside the Tiki’s OC’d Hassy, we also find a GeForce GTX Titan, which, true to Falcon’s competitive spirit, is also overclocked.

The Tiki pushes its CPU as hard as any full-tower box.

The Tiki isn’t watered-down in storage, either. You get two 240GB Crucial M500 SSDs in RAID 0 and a 3TB Western Digital Green drive. Despite its micro-tower form factor, you should be able to easily push 2TB in SSD and 4TB in HDD. Not bad for such a tiny box.

Amazingly, all this runs off of a 450-watt Silverstone PSU. This is down 50 watts from the 500-watt units in the iBuypower Revolt and Digital Storm Bolt. We’re actually impressed that all three boxes buck Nvidia’s mandate of a 600-watt minimum for the Titan. Will there be problems long-term? We guess not, as each vendor would have to eat the cost of replacing a bad PSU (all of them offer a three-year warranty). It’s more likely that the 600-watt spec by Nvidia is based on a full-tower application, which could run multiple hard drives and a dozen fans if so desired by the builder. A micro-tower, on the other hand, is inherently limited to two SSDs, a hard drive, and a single GPU.

Getting inside the Falcon is a very straightforward, almost mid-tower-like affair. Remove two thumbscrews in back and slide off the side door. The 120mm Asetek’s radiator is attached to the door and can be easily removed, if need be. With the door off, you have easy access to the GPU, RAM, and drives. One problem, though: If you need to access the back of the motherboard to futz with a cooler backplate, you’ll have to pull the board, as it doesn’t have the giant cut-out in back like the Digital Storm Bolt, nor can you pull off the right side of the case. As with like the Digital Storm and iBuypower boxes, getting to the GPU is work. It’s not horrible, but it’ll take a few minutes. Surprisingly, this makes the Alienware X51 R2 the easiest box in which to access to the GPU.

In all four units, access to the critical components really isn’t bad. It’s not as easy as a mid-tower or full-tower, of course, but it’s actually easier than most shoebox SFF cases and systems we’ve wrenched on.

Externally, there’s very little difference from the first Tiki we reviewed in August 2012. Well, except for the paint. Falcon had its internal case painter apply a custom copper paint job. It’s certainly smooth and high-quality, but like any custom paint job, its appeal is subjective (kind of like a beige Dream Machine , right?). In the Tiki’s case, most of the editors on staff found it to be garish, but as it’s custom at the time of order, you could specify a more subdued shade.

The granite base was also a source of debate among staffers. We’ll admit that the aesthetic isn’t for everyone, but we’ve come around on its utility. Falcon Northwest has always said the heavy granite base helps prevent the system from getting knocked over. Most of us scoffed at that likelihood, but after taking the Alienware X51 R2 to a small LAN party and seeing how tippy a 3–4-inch-wide system can be when placed on a folding plastic table, we’re more convinced of the granite’s usefulness. The Falcon Northwest Tiki isn’t tipping over unless you shove it. We have to point out, though, that with the Alienware X51 R2, we could just lay the box flat on an unstable surface. The Tiki has no such option for that orientation.

You can easily access the RAM and CPU under the Asetek cooler.

In performance, it was no surprise that the Tiki cleaned everyone’s clocks. With its Core i7-4770K at 4.7GHz and its overclocked Titan, it made quick work of all three of its challengers. And we don’t mean by margin-of-error spreads, either. The Falcon Northwest is large—er, small—and in charge. From CPU-centric tasks to gaming, the Falcon had an edge over the others. Against its old foe and nemesis, Alienware’s X51 R2, the Falcon Northwest Tiki was nearly twice as fast in almost all of the benchmarks. If it took almost 4,000 seconds for the X51 R2 to encode a video, it took half that time for the Falcon Northwest Tiki.

There is a cost to all this performance, though. The Tiki under heavy CPU duress can get loud. Fortunately, it’s not the shrill fan noise or never-ending whir that plagued machines of five years ago, but loud nonetheless. Acoustically, it was slightly louder than the Alienware (which also gets loud when its CPU is pushed hard) but quieter than the Digital Storm Bolt. At idle, the Falcon Northwest Tiki was as quiet as an agnostic mouse having an existential moment, but render a video hitting all eight threads of the chip for 25 minutes and it’ll get noticeable. The GPU, for its part, is better-behaved even under heavy load.

The only other dig we have against the Tiki is its price. The system comes in at $4,443, which is more than twice as much as the iBuypower Revolt and more than three times the price of the Alienware X51 R2. Part of the price is the paint job, which costs $900 itself. Even with that removed, it’s still a lot of cabbage at $3,500, but it does have far more storage onboard than the others here.

As we said, Falcon doesn’t care if it doesn’t win the love of accountants; it just wants to prove that it can make the fastest computers around. With this Tiki, the company accomplishes that. There’s no doubt which machine here is the fastest, or the most expensive.

3.5GHz Core i7-4770K @4.7GHz
Motherboard Asus Maximus VI Impact
RAM 16GB G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3/1866
GPU GeForce GTX Titan
Two 240GB Crucial M500 in RAID 0
HDD 3TB Western Digital Green
ODD Slot-fed Panasonic UJ-265 Blu-ray burner
Cooling Asetek 550LC
PSU 450-watt Silverstone ST-45SF
Case Custom
W x H x D
5 x 14 x 15 inches
Weight (lbs) 23.9
Warranty Three years

Falcon Northwest Tiki

$4,433 www.falcon-nw.com

Alienware X51 R2

Doesn’t advance far enough forward

Alienware kicked off the micro-tower revolution with its original X51. Prior to that, most performance-oriented small-form-factor boxes used Mini-ITX motherboards in shoebox-shaped chassis.

The X51 was different. Starting with the same basic shell and shape as a business-class small form factor, Alienware set out to address the business box’s major weakness: graphics. Most PCs of that size use either integrated graphics or low-TDP, half-height GPUs with minimal chutzpah.

Alienware changed the game by making these thin form factors capable of, well, gaming, by squeezing in full-size GPUs. The rest, as they say, is history, and the three other followers here show the strength of the design, with more competitors likely on the way. What can we say? People want big desktop gaming performance but in a box small enough to be confused with a game console.

So, without a doubt, Alienware deserves credit for moving the ball forward on small, fast PC performance. But does Alienware/Dell keep the forward momentum going with the R2 version of the X51? Unfortunately, no. More on that in a bit.

We checked with our resident Macsexual and he said the Alienware was the coolest-looking of the four

Getting into the X51 is pretty simple. Undo one screw and slide off a side panel to access the GPU and CPU. RAM is also there, tucked in under the air intake for the CPU. If you look at a picture of the X51, you might think replacing or upgrading the GPU would be a serious pain in the butt, but it isn't. Remove two screws holding the GPU in place and then carefully lift out the card. In fact, a GPU swap is actually easier here than with the three other boxes, despite its intimidating looks. Getting at the unit’s sole hard drive—a 2TB 7,200rpm Seagate Barracuda, in our case—is done with the GPU lifted out. Again, it’s really not daunting—we know because we’ve done it several times with the original X51.

And that, sadly, is our problem. Despite the R2 moniker, the X51 R2 is largely the same as the original, and carries the same shortcomings, too. The primary shortcoming is its storage subsystem. The Seagate 2TB 7,200rpm Barracuda is a fine drive but it ain’t no SSD, and booting and other disk I/O–intensive tasks are simply painful. While the three others here boast the optimal setup of SSD-plus-HDD, the Alienware is stuck with a hard drive as its only option. The only way to add an SSD would be to buy a 2.5-inch-to-3.5-inch bay adapter and jettison the hard drive.

Getting into X51 is actually very easy despite the daunting looks of the guts.

The other limitation is in power. The three other rigs here pack 450-watt or 500-watt PSUs, which is apparently enough, believe it or not, to run a GeForce GTX Titan card. When Alienware designed the X51, it moved from an inboard PSU used in most business small form factors to an external power brick. It’s a hefty brick and it puts out 330 watts. That’s not bad, but it’s not enough to run much more than the GeForce GTX 670 in the box. Now, let’s be fair to the GeForce GTX 670; it’s still a great card and, frankly, should play the vast majority of today’s and tomorrow’s games at 1080p resolution with a few knobs turned down a bit, but it’s getting to be a bit elderly.

In the processor department, the Alienware X51 packs a Haswell Intel Core i5-4430 quad-core part without Hyper-Threading. It’s got a 3GHz base clock with a Turbo Boost of 200MHz. As it’s not a K part, overclocking isn’t possible. Period. In performance, as you can imagine, the Alienware X51 R2 doesn’t take home any trophies. We’re not even sure it gets the consolation prize, a certificate created in Broderbund Print Shop 3.0 and spit out on a dot-matrix printer five minutes before the game was over. For example, the Falcon Northwest Tiki is damn near 100 percent faster than the Alienware X51 R2 in everything. And we mean everything. From gaming chores to CPU tasks, the Falcon laps the Alienware X51 R2 almost every single time. It’s not much better against the iBuypower Revolt or Digital Storm Bolt, either.

Before you start saying that it’s just our opinion, man, we’ll acknowledge that the Alienware X51 R2 sets the bar in pricing. The box as configured tips the credit card at $1,350, which makes it the most affordable micro-tower in this roundup. In real-world use, the Alienware X51 R2 will fill the needs of 75 percent of gamers, too. In fact, we took the Alienware X51 R2 to a small LAN party and for gaming at 1080p it performed admirably and got a lot of admiring looks, to boot.

But we have to say, at $1,350 you might think you’re getting a lot of value, until you eye the iBuypower Revolt. Sure, the Revolt is $1,999 but you’re getting a GeForce GTX Titan, an SSD, and a Core i7-4770K with liquid cooling and overclocking capability. If we had to pick a machine that gives you the most bang for the buck, we’d pass over the Alienware X51 R2 and go straight to the iBuypower Revolt, which really packs in the value.

To close this off, we have to again remind people that Alienware kicked off this wave of micro-towers, and we have no doubt there will be an X51 R3 in the future. We just really hope the R3 carries the ability to mount an SSD as well as a hard drive and the ability to run the top-end GPUs. It’s a worthy box, but it falls short against the competition.

Alienware X51 R2

$1,350 www.alienware.com

3.2GHz Core i5-4430
Motherboard Custom
RAM 8GB DDR3/1600
GPU GeForce GTX 670
HDD 2TB Seagate Barracuda
ODD Slot-fed Blu-ray combo drive
Cooling Air cooling
PSU 330 external power brick
Case Custom
W x H x D
3.75 x 14.7 x 12.75 inches
Weight (lbs) 15.2
Warranty One year

Click the next page to see our overall conclusions.

The OG Micro-tower

Remembering the HP Firebird 803

We largely credit Alienware’s X51 with spawning the current micro-tower revolution but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Hewlett-Packard’s contribution back in 2008 with the Firebird 803. The Firebird 803 was a scaled-down version of the honking-huge Blackbird 002 and was comparable in size to today’s micro-towers.

So, why did the Firebird 803 fail? There are probably a lot of reasons, but for us the main problem was a lack of industry-standard parts. At a time when tower PCs all used off-the-shelf parts, the Firebird 803’s mix of laptop and desktop parts was off-putting. It sported a liquid-cooled Core 2 Quad on a proprietary motherboard using an nForce 760S chip, it used SO-DIMMs, and graphics were handled by two mobile GeForce 9800S parts in SLI.

Among the Firebird’s missteps: no PCIe slot for any potential to upgrade. It was essentially a big laptop on a stand with liquid cooling. So, technically, it’s actually fair to give the Alienware X51 full credit for inventing the micro-tower. It isn’t just the size, it’s also the use of an industry-standard discrete GPU.

We couldn’t recommend the Firebird back in its day and we probably wouldn’t today, either, but looking back on our review it’s interesting to note what we wrote: “Beyond just the Mad Max world we’re hurtling toward where everyone has to knife-fight for a liter of gasoline, this could very well be the future of high-end computing. PCs have grown smaller over the years and add-in cards fewer. With external graphics on the way, it’s quite possible the Firebird is a precursor of what an enthusiast PC will look like in 2013.”

Micro-towers under the Microscope

The benchmarks show us what these mighty mites are really made of

In selecting benchmarks for the four micro-towers in this roundup, we decided to reach outside our standard suite of system tests. These machines, after all, seem primarily aimed at gamers, so in addition to our standard CPU-centric benchmarks, we also ran the rigs through off-the-shelf games as well as the new 3DMark and the popular Unigine 4.0 benchmark. As the boxes are limited to single GPUs, we also decided that in addition to 2560x1600 testing, we’d see how these machines run at the far more realistic resolution of 1920x1080.

If you’ve read the reviews or just peeped the specs of each individual box, it should be no surprise that the Falcon Northwest Tiki easily took first place at anything that’s performance related. Its heavily overclocked Core i7-4770 Haswell chip handily sprinted past the stock-clocked iBuypower Revolt and even the clocked-up Digital Storm Bolt with its Ivy Bridge Core i7-3770K. Let the naysayers continue their hating on Haswell, but there’s no doubt here that Ivy Bridge is at disadvantage against Intel’s newcomer.

The Tiki didn’t just win the CPU tests, either; its overclocked GeForce GTX Titan also gave this rig a noticeable performance advantage in gaming at both 1920x1080 and 2560x1600. So let’s just declare this roundup done and over: The Falcon Tiki is clearly faster in every performance category we evaluated. Again, if you didn’t get the memo: It’s the fastest micro-tower we’ve ever tested. It’s also the most luxuriously outfitted, with its RAID 0 SSDs and 3TB HDD.

But who gets the silver medal in this contest? That’s a far tougher call. The Digital Storm Bolt actually has a slight edge over the iBuypower Revolt and is technically second place in performance. You can thank its 4.35GHz Core i7-3770K for that. The Bolt also has the most reasonable storage subsystem, whereas iBuypower decided to kick drive capacity out the door in pursuit of a lower cost. Lower cost is not something to be trifled with, though. The Digital Storm Bolt is almost $1,400 more than the iBuypower—yes, it’s faster, but just by a smidgen. And in the very important acoustics category, the liquid-cooled and stock-clocked iBuypower Revolt is the clear winner. The machine simply doesn’t get loud the way the three others do. So, taking into account cost and noise and very close performance scores, we’re putting the iBuypower Revolt in second place overall. But it takes the first-place prize for bang-for-the-buck. We originally thought that honor would go to the $1,350 Alienware X51 R2, but the iBuypower at $2,000 gives you so much more that we think it’s a much better value.

That leaves the Alienware X51 R2 in last place. Some of you probably saw that coming. The fact is, you can buy three Alienwares for the price of one Falcon, so is it even a fair contest? While its size definitely puts it into the same class, Alienware needs to step up with the third generation of the X51 to make it a bit more competitive with the newcomers, because the other three boxes here certainly won’t be the last to emulate the X51’s form factor.

Falcon Northwest Tiki Digital Storm Bolt
iBuypower Revolt Alienware X51 R2
Premiere Pro CS6 (sec) 2,100
2,601 3,915
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 693 770
842 1,122
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec)
1,432 1,759
X264 HD 5.0 pass 1 (fps)
95.2 84.6
81.4 48.2
X264 HD 5.0 pass 2 (fps) 20.3 17.2 16.4 11.54
Metro Lastlight 25x16 (fps) 27.8 24.7 24.4 15.0
Metro Lastlight 19x10 (fps) 48.5 41.8 42.5 27
Hitman Absolution Ultra 25x16 (fps) 44.9 41.8 42.1 25.9
Hitman Absolution Ultra 19x10 (fps) 70.3 62.9 63.9 41.7
Tomb Raider 25x60 (fps) 52.7 44.7 43.8 18.3
Tomb Raider 19x10 (fps) 83.3 70.1 69.9 43.2
3DMark 11 Overall X5,417 X4,944 X4,931 X2,285
3DMark Firestrike Extreme (score) 5,206 4,645 4,715 2,652
3DMark Firestrike Extreme (graphics) 5,402 4,770 4,925 2,800
3DMark Firestrike Extreme (physics) 12,975 11,719 10,577 5,992
Unigine 4.0 25x60 (fps) 40.9 34.2 35.3 20.0
Unigine 4.0 19x10 (fps) 71.0 58.5 58.6 35.5

Best scores bolded.

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Things You'll Need to Build Your Own Steam Machine

Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows

Steam’s Big Picture mode is designed specifically to navigate using a game controller. No matter what your console controller allegiances are, most would agree that the Xbox 360 controller is the universal standard. The good news is you can use it on your PC, too. Just buy the Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows, which gives you a wireless USB dongle that plugs into your PC. With the Xbox 360 controller in place, you can run just about everything in Big Picture mode.

$40, www.microsoft.com

Logitech K400

Steam’s Big Picture mode runs great with a controller, but since it’s running on a PC, you’ll always need a keyboard. We’ve tried a lot of different wireless keyboards over the years and Logitech’s K400 has consistently kept us happy. It’s basically a variant of the excellent keyboard that came with the failed Logitech Revue Google TV. It runs on AA batteries, so you don’t have to worry about recharging it, either, and it’s cheap. For HTPC/Steam Box use, it’s hard to beat.

$25, www.logitech.com

PC vs. Next-Gen Console: Fight!

A fantasy battle for dominion over the living room (*Note: This article was written before the launch of either the Xbox One or PS4)

Nerds wonder openly what would happen if the Enterprise fought an Imperial Star Destroyer, or who would win in a battle between Superman and Wolverine, so don’t get all apples-to-pears on us, man, if we want to see how the average micro-tower would stack up against the incoming next-gen consoles.

Xbox One

To represent the PC, we went with the bang-for-the-buck winner, iBuypower’s Revolt.

CPU Performance

Both Microsoft and Sony showing up with eight-core, AMD Jaguar x86 processors running at around 1.6GHz must be like two bitter high-school frenemies showing up to prom with the same dress. The Jaguar core itself is an improved Bobcat core, which has been used in the Brazos APUs. In a nutshell, they’re low-power, out-of- order, x86-64 processing cores. For what they are, they’re not bad. But in actual x86 performance, even with eight cores, they don’t compare to the Core i7-4770K. That Haswell chip in the iBuypower Revolt would very likely eat an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 alive and then floss its teeth with the console’s power cord. The good news for the console crowd is that the CPU doesn’t do that much of the heavy lifting anymore. Even better, since developers highly optimize for consoles, audio processing, OS management, and other mundane tasks will likely be fine, since the performance envelope is well known on both consoles. But make no mistake, there’s no question as to what is more powerful in x86 performance.

PlayStation 4

Winner: PC

Graphics Performance

Graphics performance on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is a hotly debated topic that’s been burning up the Internet. From the information we have, the PS4 has the lead in pure graphics grunt. Its shader performance of 1.84TFLOPs is quite a bit higher than the Xbox One’s 1.23TFLOPS. In fact, so much has been said of the graphics disparity between the PS4 and Xbox One that Microsoft officials recently announced that the Xbox’s GPU clocks have been goosed from 800MHz all the way to 853MHz (yawn)—regardless, that still leaves the PS4 the leader. Oh, right, but what about the PC? That Titan has compute performance of 4.5TFLOPs, so figure it out.

Winner: PC


The PS4’s 8GB of GDDR5 and 176GB/s of bandwidth had even us whistling. Especially when you consider the Xbox’s bandwidth is down at 68GB/s. The good news for the Xbox is that it has 32MB of embedded SRAM that looks to offer from 102GB/s to 192GB/s of memory bandwidth to help ameliorate its relatively low system and graphics bandwidth. What about the PC? Isn’t its system bandwidth pretty low at a theoretical 34GB/s? Yes, but for system chores it’s fine. Gaming PCs almost all use discrete graphics, so it’s really the GeForce GTX Titan’s bandwidth we need to break out the ruler for. In that case, it’s 6GB of GDDR5 on a 384-bit interface for roughly 288GB/s of graphics bandwidth.

Winner: PC


Yeah, you knew this was coming. The Xbox is $500, and the PS4 is $400. The iBuypower Revolt is $2,000. Winner: Console? That depends. If we were talking purely gaming, perhaps. But the magic of the PC is that it’s a multipurpose tool. Yes, it’s the absolute best gaming platform but it’s also used for running Microsoft Office, editing photos, encoding videos, compiling applications, and is a limitless platform for exploring the Internet, too. So what exactly is the better value here? If you were holed up in your dorm or apartment due to a zombie apocalypse, would you rather have a PC or next-gen console? Yeah, we’d take the PC, too.

Winner: PC

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