You always hear, “It’s what’s inside that counts,” but does anyone really believe that? We’ve never bought into that load of nonsense, you shouldn’t either. Components matter most, but you’re not going to put top-of-the-line parts in a bargain-bin midtower. Are you?
Every September, when we set out to build the year’s Dream Machine, we have one simple goal in mind: Create the very best machine money can buy—inside and out. We build the fastest, most powerful, most authoritative rig in the world. Demolishing performance records set by lesser machines is just a happy side effect.
Sometimes, we cheat. We get prerelease hardware that’s unavailable to common folk. In the past, we’ve tested dozens of CPUs, looking for the perfect overclocking candidate. This year, we didn’t have any crutches—no prerelease hardware or fancy-pants paint jobs. This year, we relied on good ol’ American muscle.
While past Dream Machines have been hand-built Formula One cars with custom hardware exclusive to the magazine, DM ’07 is a supercharged stock car. It’s equipped with factory parts anyone can buy, but, as always, our Dream Machine is overclocked and ready to burn!
1,333MHz front-side bus finally arrives in the new 3GHz chip.
When it came time to choose our CPU, Intel made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. OK, so Luca Brasi didn’t hold a .38 to our temple, but when you compare the 3GHz quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX6850 ($1,000, www.intel.com) to every other publicly available CPU, the choice is obvious. It mows down the benchmarks and the competition—including AMD’s vaunted quadfather—like it’s the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
Although our Dream Machine’s CPU is new, it’s similar to what you’ve seen before. It has the same 8MB of L2 cache, the same Core microarchitecture, and the same socket support as the Core 2 QX6800. The main difference is the front-side bus, which runs natively at 1,333MHz instead of a mere 1,066MHz. Remember, the cores communicate via the FSB, so that added bandwidth is welcome.
For DM ’07, we overclocked the stock 3GHz chip to 3.66GHz. Although the QX6850 doesn’t clock up like its lesser siblings (low-end chips tend to overclock farther than top-bin chips), we’re still talking about speeds well in excess of 3GHz. That’s some blazingly fast number crunching.
A controversial RAM decision: Is 2GB dreamy?
Dream Machine is all about going hog wild, but we do show some restraint when excess has no bearing on performance. Case in point: We could have easily slotted 4GB of RAM into this year’s Dream rig, but why? We’re not convinced that having 4GB of main system RAM with a 32-bit OS is even useful, as you won’t be able to access all of it. The 2GB we do use comes from Corsair’s award-winning Dominator series ($610, www.corsair.com). It gives us the Corsair reputation in addition to a couple of wicked black heat spreaders.
Overclockability means more to us than bling.
We were faced with a tough decision when choosing a board for this year’s Dream Machine. We could have gone with the flashy features of the Asus Striker Extreme or the all-out overclocking potential of EVGA’s nForce 680i SLI board (reviewed January 2007, $250, www.evga.com). In the end, we decided to go for broke with EVGA’s offering. A good thing, too, as overclocking a quad core can be a bitch. Luckily, the nForce 680i SLI didn’t let us down. We successfully pushed our quad past its 3GHz stock speed to 3.66GHz fairly easily. We couldn’t get past 3.5GHz with the Striker without blowing chunks. Why not Intel boards? Going nForce gives us SLI support—something you certainly can’t get on Intel’s new P35 boards.
The heck with kits. With Dream Machine, it's BYOC: Bring Your Own Cooling.
You can buy a complete water-cooling kit from your favorite online retailer, but we’ve found that the best way to approach the oh-so-finicky combination of liquids and electronics is to fashion a custom system using the best parts from several manufacturers. Like a child before his birthday, we assembled a dream list of cooling parts from two of our favorite suppliers, Danger Den and Swiftech.
While we were tempted to cool every single hotspot on the mobo, we decided that the disadvantages of running an elaborate multi-radiator cooling rig outweighed the meager benefits. Instead, we settled on a traditional CPU/GPU loop using a Swiftech Apogee GTX water block ($75, www.swiftnets.com) for the former and two of the company’s stealth VGA water blocks ($110 each) for the latter. The blocks get the difficult cooling job done, but more than that, installation is absurdly easy.
Laing’s D5 pump, Danger Den part number DD12V-D5, ($90, www.dangerden.com) is our Dream Machine’s workhorse. It’s a beastly fellow that spits fluid at a maximum rate of approximately 315 gallons per hour, pushing our coolant around with nary a sound. We rounded out the loop with generic 1/2-inch tubing, a Danger Den reservoir filled with custom black coolant, and a Swiftech radiator.
Over the top? Of course! This is the Dream Machine, dude.
As much as we hate being predictable, we had to go with an Nvidia-based videocard for this year’s Dream Machine—for the third year in a row. Yes, we’re talking about GeForce 8800 Ultras in SLI. But we’re sure you saw this one coming, since AMD’s ATI brand managers have decided not to play in the high end of the market this product cycle. (Wimps!)
The Dream Machine is all about being the best, so not just any 8800 Ultra cards would do. We picked a pair of XFX’s XXX Edition boards (reviewed August 2007, $875 each, www.xfxforce.com) because they run at blistering speeds: The core is clocked at 612MHz, the shader units spin at 1.67GHz, and the 768MB frame buffer hums along at an amazing 1.15GHz.
Our 750 is like other people's 1,000-watt PSUs.
What, you thought we needed a kilowatt PSU to run this year’s Dream Machine? Maybe if we had selected units from lesser manufacturers, but this SLI/CrossFire-ready PSU delivers more than enough juice. Even better, the unit uses a single-rail design to power all components. While other PSU-makers sport multiple rails, which don’t make efficient use of resources, the Silencer 750 Quad ($190, www.pcpower.com) puts the power where you need it. Since we’ve never had a PC Power and Cooling unit fail in our Lab (aside from the one we dropped), we’re confident that this one won’t cough up a capacitor and drop dead the first time a brownout or power surge strikes. To seal the deal, PC Power and Cooling built this PSU with custom cable lengths, just for DM ’07. Now, if a PSU company would just do that for everybody….
If they came any bigger we'd need a corral, not a case.
So why did we go with Hitachi’s mighty 7K1000 drives (reviewed July 2007, $400 each, www.hgst.com) for the Dream Machine? For the answer, we need but a word: terabyte. At the time of our rig’s construction, Hitachi was the only player to have a fully functioning terabyte drive on the market. And once you’ve enjoyed the sweet taste of 1,000 gigs, you just can’t eat elsewhere.
More than that, the 7K1000’s performance is almost as impressive as its size. Its speeds stomp that of every competitor, save Western Digital’s 10,000RPM Raptor drive. Still, the Hitachi 7K1000 holds its own against that tiny roadrunner. We’re rocking two of them in a RAID 0 configuration for maximum performance, with the other two floating as independent drives—perfect for backups, or approximately 3 billion lolcat pictures.
Next-gen optical supremacy without any sacrifices
There are two big reasons LG’s GGW-H10NI Super Multi Blue (reviewed on page 75, $1,200, www.lge.com) is an obvious choice for this year’s Dream Machine. The first is versatility. The Super Multi Blue reads Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, so we’re free to watch any damn movie we want. Obviously, we’d love it if the drive could also write to both formats, but since consumer-priced HD DVD burners don’t exist, we’ll gladly settle for the Super Multi Blue’s superior Blu-ray burn speeds—reason number two. Spec’d at 4x, this burner can fill a single-layer BD-R disc in less than half an hour, versus the competition’s typical 45-minute run.
The LG drive’s 8x DVD+R burn speeds aren’t stellar, which is why we’re using our mobo’s sixth SATA port to run Asus’s DRW-1814BLT (reviewed August 2007, $50, www.asus.com). The 18x DVD drive affords us single-layer burns in less than six minutes.
Bring some boom into your room.
The GigaWorks S750 speakers ($500, www.creative.com) bear the Creative badge, but their Cambridge SoundWorks heritage is evident the moment you crank up the volume. That’s not to say Creative doesn’t make good audio products, just that its SoundWorks division knows how to design and build awesome speakers that are as easy on your ears as they are on your wallet.
The two additional two-way surrounds in this 7.1-channel system make a huge difference in positioning audio events around your head, and the thundering subwoofer, with its beefy 210-watt BASH amp, serves up scrumptious bass that punches you in the chest. These attributes render this speaker system absolutely perfect for gaming, listening to music, and watching movies on your PC.
Two screens, one heck of a panorama.
It’s true that Dell’s 2707 (reviewed May 2007, $1,400 each, www.dell.com) sports the same 1920x1200 resolution as its 24-inch sibling, but it’s a big step up as far as we’re concerned. Perhaps it’s our advancing age, but we like how everything from text, to icons, to thumbnail views gets a size boost on the 27-inch screen. That greater visibility comes in handy when your dual-display desktop spans nearly four feet from side to side!
Other niceties include the 2707’s stylish aesthetics, its accommodating ergo options, a plethora of inputs, a built-in four-port USB hub, and a 9-in-2 media reader. Shoot, one of these screens is decadent. Two are indeed the stuff of dreams.
Say boo to crappy onboard audio.
As long as we have breath in our nerd lungs, as long as there is sound in our ears, and as long as we have a slot to fill, we won’t accept noisy, host-based onboard sound—which in this case, is about as bad as can be thanks to the EVGA board’s damned EAX-cheating RealTek chipset. For DM ’07, discrete audio is essential. Don’t believe us? Plug a pair of earphones into your mobo’s audio, then try the X-Fi XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Professional Series (reviewed April 2007, $120, www.soundblaster.com) — you’ll never want to go back. The subtle sound changes of a vehicle’s acoustic signature as it moves through different environments will give you reason enough to ditch onboard.
Without kick-ass input devices, our Dream Machine would be a wrist-crippling nightmare.
We could have picked a newfangled wireless keyboard for the ’07 Dream Machine and some sort of crazy three-dimensional mouse, but instead we went back to basics. With variable sensitivity, four easy-access buttons, and a tilting scroll wheel, Logitech’s second-generation G5 ($70, www.logitech.com) is the ultimate take-no-prisoners gaming mouse.
And our keyboard—the Keytronic Classic-U2, in black ($45, www.keytronic.com)—is just that, a classic. With superb key action and an incredible lifetime warranty, it’s hard to pass up. If we were weak-wristed and in need of ergonomic support, we’d pick up Microsoft’s Natural Keyboard 4000 instead, which remains our favorite orthopedic model.
Vista's not ready for full-time use, but a dual boot means it's ready when the time calls for it.
We’ve included Windows XP on every Dream Machine since 2001 because it’s fast and reliable, and we’re extremely comfortable with it. This year, we’re including Vista on the second partition of our Dream Machine in the hope that it will grow to fill Windows XP’s mighty shoes during the course of this rig’s life.
Gaming is, of course, our main reason for dual-booting this year. While the meager selection of Vista-only titles out now doesn’t inspire us—Shadowrun and Halo 2, pshaw—the future holds much promise. We can hardly wait for the DirectX 10 goodness coming down the pike in games like Crysis and Hellgate: London.
Simplicity meets sexy in Cooler Master's case.
Cooler Master’s Cosmos ($200, www.coolermaster-usa.com) is one of the nicest chassis we’ve ever tested, and that’s saying a lot, considering the bounty of enclosures we get in the Lab every month. CM certainly covered the bases with this one, as nearly everything is customized or customizable.
The front panel’s smooth, black door gives way to five grilled bay covers, which pop out with ease. You don’t need a screwdriver to install any 5.25-inch peripherals into the slots; the case’s proprietary mechanisms—simple push-button locking devices—make the process exceedingly simple.
Since we like our Dream Machine to look clean, we applaud Cooler Master’s foresight when it comes to cable management. From the pull-out hard drive bays to the design of the motherboard backboard, this case is built to be neat and tidy. Heck, the Cosmos even comes with handles on both the top and bottom that give the case a fresh style, assist in transportation, and improve airflow (by lifting the case’s inlets off your sweet shag carpet).
Since the inception of this magazine, the Dream Machine has always been about building the very best machine possible using the best components available at the time. To get there, we wheedle, cajole, push, and beg vendors for their newest unreleased parts. Sometimes we get ’em, and sometimes we don’t. This year, there was no magic bullet, but we still managed to build a righteous rig—even without a nitrous tank under the passenger seat or a blower poking through the hood.
This year’s Dream Machine represents the very best PC a person can build right now. Bar none. How do we know? We didn’t just grab the parts and go. We actually tested other options as well—including AMD’s Quad FX platform, equipped with a pair of dual-core Athlon 64 FX-70 CPUs, and an Intel V-8 system using a pair of quad-core 3GHz Xeons. In the end, we decided that Dream Machine ’07’s configuration was the best blend of performance for today and tomorrow.
To judge the performance of our Dream Machine, we reached for our standard benchmark suite, which we use to measure the performance of the many primo PCs that enter our Lab. The suite includes Adobe’s Premiere Pro 2.0 and Photoshop CS2, Nero’s Recode 2.0, Monolith’s FEAR, and Raven’s Quake 4. We also continue to use BAPCo’s applications test, SYSMark2004 SE, but the benchmark has proved finicky over the last year and runs only 20 percent of the time on bone-stock machines.
So how fast is the Dream Machine? One look at our benchmark chart will tell you it’s pretty damned fast. Our aging zero-point system consists of a dual-core Athlon 64 FX-60 with 2GB of DDR400 and a pair of Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX cards. That’s not a config to scoff at—it’s still within the bounds of a high-end machine. Yet against our zero point, the Dream Machine pulls in scores that are almost 100 percent better in every category. In FEAR, the DM’s lead is 120 percent. Keep in mind that these benchmarks aren’t even fully multithreaded to take advantage of our overclocked quad-core CPU. So pat yourself on the back, Dream Machine, you decimate our performance standard-bearer.
More critical readers are probably saying, “So what? Beating up on a moldy-old Athlon 64 is no big whoop. How about the real challengers—those $7,000 to $10,000 machines you review each month?”
That’s where the fun begins. We compared the Dream Machine’s numbers to every single rig we’re reviewed this year. Many of these PCs feature similar components, but even when stacked up against that fearsome lineup, Dream Machine fared well, setting benchmark records in Nero Recode 2.0 and FEAR. In Premiere Pro, Dream Machine trails the fastest rigs we’ve tested—Falcon Northwest’s $10,000 Mach V (reviewed June 2007) and Overdrive’s $7,250 Core2.SLI (reviewed August 2007)—by a mere 0.7 percent. The Mach V, running at an overclocked 3.73GHz, outmuscled DM ’07 in Quake 4 thanks to its clock-speed advantage. The three-month-old Mach V doesn’t have the advantage of our new Ultra cards running in SLI, however, and it takes a beating in FEAR, where the Dream Machine is 27 percent faster.
It’s also worth mentioning that Overdrive’s Core 2.SLI just barely holds the Photoshop CS2 record. But really, the difference in scores between the top four machines in this test is negligible.
To sum up, Dream Machine sets two records (albeit by slim margins) and holds its own against a stable of the fastest PCs on the planet. Not too shabby, if we do say so ourselves.
Our current desktop test bed is a Windows XP SP2 machine, using a dual-core 2.6GHz Athlon 64 FX-60, 2GB of Corsair DDR400 RAM on an Asus A8N32-SLI motherboard, two GeForce 7900 GTX videocards in SLI mode, a Western Digital 4000KD hard drive, a Sound Blaster X-Fi soundcard, and a PC Power and Cooling Turbo Cool 850 PSU.