Label us Luddites for resisting Windows Vista, but there’s no arguing the point that the new OS currently offers very little you can’t get faster with Windows XP. That goes double for games, which is why we’re baffled by HP’s decision to run Vista Ultimate on the groundbreaking Blackbird 002 gaming rig it sent us.
We’re equally surprised that HP sent us a machine it knew would blue-screen when going into suspend mode (and then leave it to us to discover this). Those two decisions are unfortunate because nearly every other facet of the Blackbird is utterly brilliant. Here’s proof that HP’s acquisition of VoodooPC was much more than an opportunistic move (by a company that many gamers dismiss as stodgily conservative and more appropriate for middle-aged newbs) to glom on to the cachet of a high-profile boutique PC vendor.
Actually, we’d argue that HP shed its old-fogey image months ago when it shipped the superbly designed TouchSmart IQ770 (reviewed April ’07). Although that desktop system is also limited to Vista, the embedded 17-inch touch-screen LCD justifies the decision (and you wouldn’t play games on it anyway).
The Blackbird is a different story. Although HP tells us consumers will be able to order machines with either XP or Vista, we review rigs as they are sent to us. As for the blue-screen issue, HP says it’ll have it fixed before you read this review.
Those issues aside, HP and Voodoo deserve high praise for building an exciting and innovative personal computer while using industry-standard parts for every key component. One glance at the all-aluminum case reveals that it’s highly customized; nonetheless, it will accommodate any ATX motherboard and any standard power supply.
Swinging open the side access panel, which easily lifts off its smooth-as-silk hinges, reveals an Asus Striker Extreme motherboard. In a ballsy move, HP adjusted Nvidia’s nForce 680i SLI BIOS to allow a pair of ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT cards to run in CrossFire mode—tweaking the noses of AMD and Nvidia in the process.
Removing the Blackbird's access panel reveals beauty that's more than skin deep.
Each of the Radeons is outfitted with 1GB of DDR4 RAM and cooled by an Asetek LCLC liquid-cooling system. The LCLC also wicks heat away from the 3GHz Intel QX6850 (Core 2 Extreme quad core), which HP overclocked to 3.76GHz. You can order a Blackbird with an X-Fi soundcard and an Ageia PhysX card, but our unit had neither (relying on Analog Devices’s Integrated Digital SoundMax HD Audio for sound, installed on a riser card to escape electrical noise on the mobo).
The Topower Computer TOP-1100W DVT power supply is rated to deliver 1,100 watts (the 2900 XTs, you’ll recall, are insatiable power hogs). The PSU is mounted at the bottom of the case, which is elevated by a large aluminum foot to allow cool air to enter the case from the bottom as well as the sides. Cable management is simplified by modular power plugs, but there’s more to it than that. The SATA cables for the hard drives, for example, are routed to a set of sockets mounted on an internal backplane. The drives are mounted on trays that slide into a rack and plug into this backplane.
Two vertically mounted slot-fed DVD burners are hidden inside the case’s heatsink-like grill, with only LED-lit eject buttons revealing their presence. The case can accommodate a third (tray type) optical drive next to the other two. An equally well-disguised pop-up module on top of the case harbors a 15-in-1 media-card reader, jacks for a headphone and mic, two USB ports, and a FireWire port.
Close this swing-out panel and its spring-steel strips will push installed PCI Express cards firmly into their slots.
We’re excited about many of the Blackbird’s innovations, but HP’s decision to send us a Vista PC severely undermined the machine’s gaming benchmark numbers (including a Quake 4 performance that was slower than our aging zero-point rig’s). “What about DX10?” you ask. “Pretty much irrelevant for now,” we say. And while we applaud the company’s decision to enable CrossFire on an nForce motherboard, our experience has been that Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GTX and 8800 Ultra are both faster than the Radeon HD 2900 XT (although the GTX’s edge evaporates when running Vista).
Buy this machine and you won’t care which camp wins the next skirmish in the GPU wars because you’ll be covered either way—as rightly you should be. That’s just one of the features that endow the Blackbird 002 with such potential for greatness. Yes, this PC deserves so much better than Vista.
Awesome design using standard components; CrossFire running on nForce.
Videocard driver crash bug; unimpressive gaming performance (due to Vista).
2GB Corsair Dominator XMS2 DDR2 (800MHz overclocked to 1,0066MHz)
Dual Gigabit LAN (Nvidia)
Two 160GB WD Raptors (10,000rpm SATA) in RAID-0, one 750GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.10
Two TSST TS-T632L DVD burners
Two Ati Radeon HD 2900 XTs with 1GB GDDR4 memory in CrossFire
Analog Devices Integrated Digital SoundMax HD Audio
HP Blackbird 002
Premiere Pro 2.0
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.