Conventional wisdom says that PC performance doesn’t matter anymore. That’s because the average consumer, the average gamer, and the average PC jockey can’t tell the difference between a slow POS machine and a fast one. Well guess what, baby? That’s a bunch of crap.
Each part was carefully selected for its ability to kick ass
The truth is, the average gamer can tell the difference between a slide show and 110fps. The average consumer knows that a five-minute boot isn’t good and the average PC jockey really doesn’t like to wait five hours to encode a video. It’s not that they can’t tell the difference, they’ve just resigned themselves to the changing personal computing landscape, buying into the malarkey that portability and “the cloud” trump speed and power.
Dream Machine 2012 video preview
Well, not us. As power users our aspirations for an ever-more-capable, barrier-busting desktop rig never falter. For you, for us, and for all the PC enthusiasts who still give a damn, we present a preview of the utopia we envision: Dream Machine 2012.
This rig is lovingly crafted to be our most elegant Dream Machine yet, without compromising the thing that matters most: performance.
|CPU||Intel 3.1GHz Xeon E5-2687W||www.intel.com||$1,885|
|Motherboard||Asus P9X79 WS||www.asus.com/||$380|
64GB Corsair Dominator
2x EVGA Hydro Copper
|SSDs||2x OCZ Vertex 4 512GB||www.ocztechnology.com||$1,198|
|HDDs||3x 4TB HGST Ultrastar 7K4000||www.hgst.com||$1,587|
|Paint Job||Smooth Creations||www.smoothcreationsonline.com||$700|
|Keyboard||Corsair Vengeance K90||http://www.corsair.com||$129|
|Mouse||Cyborg R.A.T. 7 Albino||www.cyborggaming.com||$99|
|Monitor||2x Dell U3011||www.dell.com||$2,800|
|OS||Windows 7 Professional||www.microsoft.com||$140|
Eight is enough
Not to be disrespectful, but in some ways Sandy Bridge-E is a eunuch. After all, the Core i7-3960X is an eight-core CPU with two of the cores permanently switched off. The Xeon E5-2687W is full processor. All of the eight cores it was born with are ready and willing to work those threads for you.
Such multicorism isn’t new to this year’s Dream Machine—we’ve had DMs with eight cores and even 12 cores before, but never have we done it with a single-socket machine. Still, our choice of processor wasn’t without controversy. Intel has reversed policy by locking down overclocking features on its Xeon CPUs, so our E5 can’t hit the clocks we would have hoped for. That gave us pause and made us consider running a Core i7-3960X instead, even if two of its cores are walled off. But our desire to see all eight cores run free won out—with the E5 we no longer have to wonder what the original Sandy Bridge-E would be like if Intel had left well enough alone.
Workstation CPU, workstation motherboard
Obviously, our decision to go with LGA2011 and a workstation-class processor dictated the choice of dance partner. For that, we turned to Asus’s P9X79 WS—a professional-class motherboard. It’s not built for overclocking the way its Republic of Gamer siblings are, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hang. In fact, the P9X79 WS should do just fine with any unlocked i7 processor. The board features Intel LAN chips and for those who believe in GPU compute, the ability to run multiple cards. How many? The board is one of the few around that will support four-way SLI and CrossFireX in a standard ATX form factor.
Other professional touches include an internal USB port so you can plug in a USB dongle and a no-nonsense fit and finish. As with any performance-focused X79 board, it features eight DIMM slots capable of taking ECC and non-ECC RAM. One true test of a board design is how well it handles a full load of RAM with every DIMM slot loaded—the P9X79 WS says, “Bring it.”
Half for a RAM disk, half for Win7
With eight slots and quad-channel RAM support at our disposal, we decided to go for broke this year by maxing out the system RAM with 64GB of Corsair Dominator Platinum DDR3/2133. We did this not only because these modules looks pretty as hell, but also because we wanted to take advantage of lower RAM prices to run a large RAM disk. Not everyone needs a RAM disk, of course, but it’s hard to argue with 32GB of storage that reads at 5,000MB/s.
1TB of SSD storage, at last
SSDs have come a long way since 2009, when we used our first SSD in a Dream Machine build. That SATA 3Gb/s 256GB unit cost $700. Today, we can get a 512GB OCZ Vertex 4 for roughly $600. Not bad.
For DM2012 we wanted 1TB of storage, so we tapped two Vertex 4 drives in RAID 0. With the X79 PCH set to RAID 0 and a stripe size of 128KB, we saw about 800MB/s reads and 1,000MB/s writes. That’s Dreamy.
We’ll never go hungry for space
With a 32GB RAM disk and 1TB of SSD storage, we were just getting started. Despite all the bellyaching you’ve heard about mechanical drives going away, they won’t. Know why? We have way too much crap. So much so that we can actually use the 12TB of storage we’re packing into Dream Machine 2012. This bounty was achieved painlessly with three 4TB HGST Ultrastar drives.
The most powerful GPUs on the planet, on liquid
There’s only one thing better than the most powerful graphics card on earth—two of them. And, yes, we did entertain the fantasy of four GTX 690 cards in octo-SLI but, sadly, the drivers don’t exist. Normally, running dual-GPU cards comes with a compromise, but the power and thermal efficiency of the new Kepler architecture means our quad-SLI setup is damn near the same as running four GeForce GTX 680 cards. We’ll leave you for now with that tantalizing thought. To get the full benchmark details, click here.
Designed for modding and painting
Consumer desktops may be getting smaller, but our Dream Machine seems to be getting bigger. The Silverstone TJ11 is so big, in some states you have to get a zoning variance to bring it home. It’s so big, it has a power switch on top and bottom for those who can’t reach that high. Even better, the case is designed with modding in mind. Instead of pop rivets and glued-on plastic panels, the aluminum case is screwed together, allowing panels to be removed for easy modding or, in our case, painting. The modularity of the case allowed us to pull the hard drive racks normally stowed away inside the bottom—to make room for a massive 560mm water‑cooling radiator.
When we say that www.smoothcreationsonline.com is probably the best paint shooter in the business, we say it having seen custom-painted high-end PCs from just about every boutique company in the country. Yeah, sure, invariably we’ll get an email from someone saying the paint ain’t that good: “Hell, I can do better in my garage with a rattle can of Rust-Oleum.” From our own experience of being shade-tree case painters, we say, “Fat chance, Bubba!” You can’t touch these paint jobs. Smooth will shoot the outside of a case for a mere $300, and will do both inside and out for $700. In our book, that’s a bargain for a case that makes a serious style statement.
We’ve long been fans of Audioengine’s A5 speakers, and the A5+ builds on that heritage with a few subtle improvements that make them even better.
Well worth the hassle
As soon as we realized we’d be running a 150W Xeon processor and two GTX 690s, we knew we had to water cool. The TJ11 is a great air-cooling case, but the GTX 690’s reference shroud blows air in both directions, which screws with the airflow.
The TJ11’s bottom compartment can hold up to a 560mm radiator, so we grabbed a 560mm Black Ice rad and four 14cm NoiseBlocker fans to go with it. We added another 120mm radiator above the CPU. We kept the TJ11’s two stock 18cm Air Penetrator fans to cool the RAM and the rest of the motherboard components.
We got our compression fittings from Bitspower, which also makes the reservoir, pump top, and chrome pump mod that transform our bog-standard Swiftech D5 pump into a thing of beauty. Mayhems Pastel Berry Blue concentrate prevents corrosion and algae growth while matching our case’s blue accents.
The total cost for our water-cooling loop, including fittings, tubing, rads, fans, res, pump, and accessories, was $926, nearly $900 of which was spent at FrozenCPU.com and the remainder at Performance-PCs.com. You can see the full parts list here. We’d also like to extend special thanks to Daniel Cannon of Singularity Computers in Cairns Australia, whose long, incredibly detailed TJ11 water-cooling build logs on his YouTube channel were enormously helpful in constructing our water-cooling loop.
It fits any mitt
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all glove, and you’d think the same truth applies to mice. But Cyborg’s R.A.T. 7 Albino manages to meet the grip signature of any hand with its unparalleled customization options. Length adjustability, interchangeable palm rests, and pinkie grips are just a few of the ways you can tailor the mouse to your hand’s needs.
Your fingers will feel the difference
To be frank, we didn’t think any keyboard could ever get us to leave our coveted SteelSeries 7G, but after a week of pounding away on the Corsair Vengeance K90’s Cherry MX keys, we were swayed. That’s not even mentioning the brushed-aluminum deck, subtle LED backlighting, and programmable function keys. Yes, it would be nice if every key on the board were mechanical, but we’re not complaining.
Know how much power your PSU is using
You know what makes us nerds? It’s not that we can actually use a 1,200‑ watt power supply, it’s that we want to know what’s happening inside that PSU while we’re using it. That’s what Corsair’s new AX1200i gives us. Just connect the AX1200i to an available USB header, load the monitor app, and you can not only monitor the power supply but actually tweak its voltages from within the OS. Let’s not forget the seven-year warranty, reasonable price tag, and white cabling option.
Because we need the pixels
We like to play games, hence the presence of quad SLI, but we also edit photos and videos and generally like an abundance of screen real estate. This year, we’re taking it easy with our monitor choice and going with “just” two 30-inch panels—as opposed to last year’s three. That hardly means we’re slumming it, however. In fact, Dell’s U3011, with its 2560x1600, wide-angle IPS technology, and 1.07-billion-color support is so superb that its $1,400 price seems like a downright steal. Such a steal, in fact, we got two.
The artwork for the original Dream Machine story seems apt—so diminutive are the parts by today’s standards.
It’s always a good idea to occasionally take stock of your life by looking back at where you’ve come from. While it’s easy to take current circumstances for granted, closer reflection can reveal the true magnitude of our progress. We certainly found that to be the case when we looked all the way back to Dream Machine Mk1. Unleashed on the world in September 1996, the Dream Machine staked out an insane amount of power, storage, and performance.
What made something a Dream in 1996? A 150MHz Pentium processor. That chip ran on a 66MHz bus, was built on a 350nm process, featured a whopping 3.3 million transistors, and contained no cache. That whopping 512KB of pipeline burst cache was mounted on the Supermicro P55-T2S mobo. To keep Windows 95 happy, a whopping 32MB of EDO SIMMs were used for RAM.
The Dream Machine was all about being the best, so EIDE was skipped in favor of an UltraWide SCSI III Quantum Atlas XP3125W drive with 2.1GB of storage. Yes, a $10 USB key has double the storage of the biggest, baddest hard drive you could find in 1996. We suspect that a typical USB key is actually faster than that hard drive, too.
Graphics in Dream Machine Mk1 came from a Matrox Millenium with 4MB of dual-ported WRAM. We paired the Dream Machine with a (then) massive 17-inch Nanao CRT, the ultimate PC display, with 1027x768 resolution and 24-bit color. DM Mk1 also featured a Zip drive, a Moto ISDN modem, a 6.7x Tosh SCSI CD-ROM, as well as an Adaptec 3940UW card and Sound Blaster AWE32 in an ISA slot. Oh, and for the keyboard, a classic IBM PC/AT.
Does performance even matter? Hells, yeah
Performance. Still. Matters. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from that fact. It’s a core belief we will hold at Maximum PC until they cart us all off to the soylent green factory.
This year’s Dream Machine 2012 lives up to that philosophy: Get the very best you can. But it’s meaningless without valid metrics. To measure how fast Dream Machine 2012 is, we turned to our new stable of benchmarks: Premiere Pro CS6, Stitch.EFx 2.0, ProShow Producer 5.0, x264 HD 5.0, Batman: Arkham City, and 3DMark 11.
When we picked our benchmark suite, we intentionally balanced the applications so as not to unfairly favor highly threaded processors. Yes, some of our benchmarks do take advantage of high-thread-count procs but two don’t, and Dream Machine 2012, despite all its brawn, can’t out-muscle our zero-point, and even the tiny Falcon Tiki (reviewed on page 74), in Stitch.Efx and ProShow Producer 5.0. Producer 5.0 tops out with four cores; after that it’s the CPU’s microarchitecture and clock speed that impact performance. Since Intel has clock-blocked our Xeon E5-2867W, the most speed we could get from the chip was 3.5GHz, with Turbo technically taking it to 3.8GHz under soft loads. With the same essential microarchitecture as Sandy Bridge, the zero-point’s higher base-clock speed of 3.9GHz gave it a slight edge in performance in both Stitch.Efx 2.0 and ProShow Producer 5.0. But as we said earlier, Dream Machine is also about anticipating the future—and the fact is, more and more apps will add support for more cores.
In these scenarios the Dream Machine tells all others to just step the frak back. With our Premiere Pro CS6 benchmark confined to the CPU, the Dream Machine 2012 outran the zero‑point by almost 20 percent. The same happened in the TechARP x264 HD 5.0 benchmark. That’s no slow chip in the zero-point, either. It’s a hexa-core Sandy Bridge-E overclocked to just under 4GHz. Even if we had goosed the SNB-E in the zero‑point another 500MHz (just about the limit for most SNB-E chips) we doubt it would have won.
In gaming the contrast between Dream Machine and the zero‑point was even more stark. Many have wondered if quad SLI scales, and we’re here to say, “Damn straight.” Dream Machine 2012’s graphics performance in Batman: Arkham City gave up 67 percent more frames per second than the zero point and an 87 percent higher score in 3DMark 11. Let’s remind you that our zero‑point features a single GeForce GTX 690—not exactly chopped liver in GPU land. Against a single GeForce GTX 680? It’s like having Thor’s hammer land on your head. We saw a 262 percent speed bump with DM2012 against a stock Ivy Bridge box with a GeForce GTX 680 in Batman and a 176 percent bump in 3DMark 11.
We also wondered if the Dream Machine 2012 offers more where multitasking is concerned, given its 16 threads on tap. For comparison, we took our ProShow Producer 5.0 benchmark and ran it while also running the x264 HD 5.0 benchmark on this month’s stupidly fast and small Falcon Tiki. The Tiki might have managed to spank the Dream Machine 2012 in the tests that don’t stress cores, but multitasking is another story. The Tiki was about 12 percent faster in ProShow Producer 5.0, thanks to its clock advantage and newer Ivy Bridge cores, but when ProShow is run with another task, you better go for a walk or do the laundry. The Dream Machine 2012 completed ProShow in 36 percent less time than the Tiki during multitasking, and it encoded at a 54 percent faster frame rate, too.
If you think these are silly, constructed tests that don’t reflect real-world usage, think back to the days when your single core wasn’t enough, and then your dual-core wasn’t enough. Face it, Skippy, we’re not living in the days when a heavy task was using Netscape and encoding an MP3 at 128Kb/s. Today, your quad might be good enough, but believe us, in the future, even a hexa-core machine will start to feel pokey.
To download the PDF for the Dream Machine 2012 Maximum PC issue, click here.
So that's our Dream Machine for 2012. Were you surprised by our picks? How does your gaming rig stack up? Let us know in the comments section below!
For more video and information on the Dream Machine and the history of the series, click here.