Can a PC be scary? Hewlett-Packard’s Firebird is. Why? The Firebird could very well offer a glimpse of where enthusiast computing is headed—and it’s not a future we’re particularly looking forward to.
The Firebird looks like a lap poodle version of HP’s Blackbird 002, but the similarities are only skin deep. While the Blackbird 002 was a traditional meat-and-potatoes performance PC with industry-standard parts, tons of slots, and the power consumption to match, the Firebird is none of those things. It’s silent instead of loud, diminutive instead of imposing, and offers minimal upgrade options.
The Firebird is more of a hybrid between a gaming notebook and a desktop machine—a gametop, maybe. It has 2.5-inch notebook hard drives, a slimline optical drive, two notebook GeForce 9800S GPUs in SLI, and an ExpressCard slot. Heck, the machine doesn’t even have a PCI Express card slot. The only internal expansion options are two PCI Express Mini Card slots, for frak’s sake. And here’s the ultimate snub to power computing: the machine packs a water-cooled 2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 and but two DDR2 slots. Why no Core i7? HP points to the CPU’s lack of hybrid SLI support—it’s only available on Nvidia chipsets currently. The CPU is at least a standard LGA775. HP also managed to get a real hardware X-Fi in the unit. The power brick—not an internal PSU—is a 350-watt unit.
As you might guess, the performance is nothing to text home about. It holds up well against our zero-point rig, but the Firebird gets shot down by just about every PC we’ve reviewed since last July. Next to the Core i7 boxes, the Firebird is sucked into a jet intake and spit out featherless.
The Firebird may portend a reimagined future for "performance" computing.
So what’s so scary about that? Isn’t the Firebird’s performance something to snicker at? Perhaps in the same way you’d snicker at a Toyota Prius as you watch it shrink in the rear-view mirror of your Hemi Cuda. That, ultimately, is the scary part of the Firebird to us.
On the pro side, it’s dead silent thanks to a water-cooled GPU, CPU, and fanless power brick. Power consumption is exceptional for the performance you get, too. At idle, the rig draws less than 90 watts. With all four of the Firebird’s cores going, or with a game running, you’ll typically see power consumption below 190 watts. By comparison, a 3.2GHz Core i7-965 with SLI’d GeForce GTX 280 cards, an Intel SSD, a 300GB VelociRaptor, and 6GB of RAM uses more power than that at idle and climbs up over 650 watts under heavy loads.
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.
In the here and now though, is the Firebird right for you? For the person pursuing a silent and green computing experience with fair gaming and application performance, it is. For the power user/upgrader, it most certainly is not. The machine is just a generation behind the power curve for our tastes and the proprietary parts hurt. But ask us the same question in four years when the Firebird Mk. IV is out, and we may have a different answer.
HP Firebird 803
Sips power and is dead silent given its power envelope.
Disconcerting mix of proprietary parts and last-gen hardware.
HP Firebird 803
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Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700, 2GB of Corsair DDR2/800 RAM on an EVGA 680 SLI motherboard. We run two EVGA GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI mode, Western Digital 150GB Raptor and 500GB Caviar hard drives, LG GGC-H20L, Sound Blaster X-Fi, and PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750 Quad. OS is Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit.