‘We don’t need no stinkin’ reference design!’ says XFX
It's not unusual to see factory-overclocked videocards ship with custom cooling solutions a few months after a GPU launches. But XFX didn’t waste any time with its Radeon HD 7970 Black Edition—a factory-overclocked card with a custom cooling solution that aims to take the performance crown. Based on what we’ve seen to date, XFX has delivered the fastest single-GPU card on the planet.
The Radeon HD 7970 is AMD’s latest GPU, with support for DirectX 11.1 and OpenCL 1.2. It’s a brand-new architecture—completely different from past AMD GPUs—built on TSMC’s 28nm manufacturing process and sporting a staggering 4.3 billion transistors. In AMD’s reference design, the 7970’s core runs at 925MHz, and its GDDR5 memory is clocked at 1,375MHz. XFX ups the ante significantly, pushing the core clock speed to a whopping 1GHz and running its 3GB of memory at 1,425MHz.
As you might imagine, the results are nothing short of amazing. We’re seeing genuine performance milestones here, including a 3DMark 11 performance score higher than 8,000 (for a single GPU), Far Cry 2 hitting 100fps at 2560x1600 with 4x AA, and Batman: Arkham City heading north of 50fps at the same resolution and AA settings. On top of that, the idle system power is just 124 watts, and a dark idle (when Windows 7 blanks the screen) draws 110 watts. Push the card and you’ll see system power consumption climb to 349 watts, but that merely puts its overall power draw into Fermi territory. XFX’s Radeon HD 7970 Black Edition is substantially faster than EVGA’s super-overclocked 3GB GeForce GTX 580 Classified, and it’s outfitted with just two PCIe power connectors (one 8-pin and one 6-pin). EVGA’s card requires three power connectors.
Back in October 2011, we reviewed the 120GB Patriot Wildfire, the company’s first SF-2281-based SSD. With 32nm Toshiba asynchronous NAND, the Wildfire was a solid, if unremarkable, drive—awesome compared to nearly every other drive, but not quite up to the standard set by Corsair’s Force GT, OCZ’s Vertex 3, or OWC’s Mercury Extreme Pro. With the Pyro SE, Patriot hopes to change that.
The Force GT, Vertex 3, and Mercury Extreme Pro have one thing in common that the Wildfire lacked: 25nm synchronous NAND. Now a Patriot drive has the same stuff. The 240GB Patriot Pyro SE uses 16 128Gb modules of Micron 25nm synchronous NAND. Can the smaller process and synchronous NAND help the Pyro SE keep pace with the best SF-2281 SSDs on the market?
Yes. The better NAND pushes the Pyro SE past its stablemate and into the rarified air at the top of the SandForce-powered heap. With sequential read and write speeds at 482MB/s and 300MB/s, respectively, as measured by CrystalDiskMark, the Pyro SE is about as fast as the OWC Mercury Extreme Pro, and its 4KB random write speed, at over 91,000 IOPS, is the fastest we’ve ever seen from a 6Gb/s SATA drive. The synchronous NAND makes the most impact on sequential write speeds, offering a 40–50MB/s boost over the asynchronous NAND in the Wildfire.
For every season, there is a spin. Intel’s first consumer SSDs, the X-25M series, didn’t have the fastest performance, but they gained a reputation for reliability. We had high hopes for Intel’s 320 Series SSDs, which turned out to be really great 3Gb/s SATA drives, at a time when everyone else was shipping 6Gb/s drives. When Intel did ship a 6Gb/s SATA drive, the 510 Series, it used a Marvell controller, not an Intel one. Well, Intel has finally released its second 6Gb/s consumer SSD series, and it’s powered by… SandForce?
Yep. The 520 Series may ship in Intel’s familiar 7mm aluminum chassis with a 2mm black spacer, but inside it’s running the same SandForce SF-2281 as everyone else. It does use 25nm Intel synchronous NAND and Intel-validated firmware, which Intel says makes it better, faster, and more reliable than plain-Jane SF-2281-based drives.
Remember Indilinx? The company’s Barefoot SSD controller was the first really good solid-state controller. It was one of the first controllers to offer Trim support, as well as sustained read and write speeds near 200MB/s, and it ruled the roost until SandForce’s SF-1200 controller leapt ahead of Barefoot’s capabilities. The company’s next-gen controller was delayed, and in March 2011 OCZ bought the company. It’s been nearly a year, but OCZ finally has a consumer drive with the new Indilinx Everest controller. Was it worth the wait?
The 512GB Octane drive sent to us by OCZ contains 16 256Gb 25nm Intel synchronous NAND modules, two 2Gb Micron DDR3 SDRAM cache modules (512MB total), and, of course, the Indilinx Everest controller, all in a standard 2.5-inch SSD form factor. In CrystalDiskMark, it averaged 445MB/s sustained reads (35–40MB/s slower than the SandForce drives we’ve tested) and 315MB/s sustained writes (15MB/s faster). Its single-queue-depth 4KB random writes were competitive at around 5,600 IOPS, but at QD32, it only put out 22,000 IOPS—Samsung’s 830 Series does 35,000 and the Patriot Pyro SE does over 90,000. The Octane’s maximum response time in Iometer, at 429ms, is a bit worrying, too—its competitors have max response times of around 40ms. The Octane’s video encoding performance was within seconds of the other drives, and its PCMark Vantage and PCMark 7 scores, though lower than the rest, weren’t too shabby.
WE REVIEWED Eurocom’s top-of-the-line mobile workstation, the Panther 2.0, in our June 2011 issue. That high-end behemoth weighed more than 15 pounds and cost upward of $5,000, but it sported a desktop Core i7-980X CPU and a pair of Radeon HD 6970s in CrossFire. This time around we’re taking a look at the company’s lighter-weight mobile workstation, the Neptune 3D.
While also billed as a high-end desktop-replacement, the Neptune 3D is far more modest than its beefy big brother. It’s based on a mobile Sandy Bridge CPU (Intel’s Core i7-2760QM) and a single mobile GPU (Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 580M). The Neptune 3D weighs less than nine pounds, but its defining feature is its 17.3-inch, 120Hz, 3D display.
Cooler Master’s Storm Trooper is trimmed with a light-gray, rubber-coated plastic liner that covers the front and top of the case, creating a nice contrast with the black steel frame. It looks even better once its red fan LEDs switch on. It’s smaller than both NZXT’s Switch 810 and Xigmatek’s Elysium, measuring 23.8 inches high by 9.8 inches deep by 22.8 inches long and weighing 31.7 pounds. But this enclosure has plenty of room, boasting nine PCIe slots and space for even the longest consumer videocards.
Nine 5.25-inch drive bays occupy the front of the chassis, with a hot-swap 2.5-inch drive bay at the top of the stack. Two hard-drive cages with toolless trays can accommodate 2.5-, 3.5-, or 5.25-inch drives, and a second drive cage at the bottom of the chassis can handle four additional 2.5-inch drives. The trays aren’t shoddy, but they do feel less sturdy than what we’ve come to expect from Cooler Master.
Xigmatek’s Elysium is fricking huge. At 24.3 inches tall, 9 inches wide, a whopping 26.1 inches deep, and weighing more than 34 pounds, this monstrous full-tower enclosure is among the largest we’ve seen. Its cavernous interior can accommodate HPTX, XL-ATX, E-ATX, ATX, microATX, and Mini-ITX mobo configurations—and you can mount a second PSU at either the top or bottom for those power-hungry HPTX builds. The Elysium has 10 PCIe slots, and you can fit a 12.2-inch GPU with room to spare. But all that interior vertical space is a double-edged sword: We had to mount our PSU in the top bay, because its 8-pin ATX 12V cable wasn’t long enough to reach the motherboard from the bottom.
Twelve 5.25-inch drive bays adorn the front of the case. Two four-bay drive cages in the lower half are secured with thumbscrews and can be moved or removed, but the two 12cm front fans mounted to them must go along for the ride. Drives must be secured inside the cages with screws, and all the bays are secured using finicky plastic mechanisms. The case weirdly lacks any 2.5-inch drive mounts, so you’ll need to spring for your own adapters if you’re using SSDs.
At first glance, Optoma’s DLP-based HD33 struck us as the Charlie Brown of this batch. While it was the first 3D video projector in this price range to reach the market, it delivers only 1,800 ANSI lumens of brightness, its zoom lens is limited to 1.2x, and you must buy the 3D glasses separately. Like the Epson, the HD33 doesn’t have a lens-shift feature, but it is the least-expensive model we looked at, and its image quality is at least as good as the other two.
The HD33 comes with an RF emitter for synchronizing 3D glasses, but the emitter is a stand-alone device that must be plugged into a VESA 3D port at the back of the projector. Optoma helpfully provides a bit of two-way tape so you can glue it to the projector housing, but it’s a tacky (no pun intended) solution at best. The glasses Optoma sent for this review (not included in the price of the projector) were considerably dorkier looking and less comfortable to wear than the glasses Acer and Epson provided. Optoma’s glasses are also unique in that they use a rechargeable battery, but that comes with a downside: You recharge them using a Micro USB cable and an AC adapter, which is also not included (although you could plug them into your PC). Alternatively, you can use any manufacturer’s DLP Link 3D-compatible glasses. You can expect to pay about $100 per pair for active 3D glasses of any type.
The best feature of Epson’s Home Theater 3010—a three-chip LCD projector—is its extreme brightness. At 2,200 ANSI lumens, it’s 10 percent brighter than the Acer, and more than 18 percent brighter than the Optoma. Its biggest drawback is the fact that it doesn’t include lens shift, which could make the projector more difficult to set up without having to resort to quality-compromising keystone adjustments.
If you do need to make keystone adjustments, the 3010 renders horizontal adjustments easy and precise. And when you’re running the projector in 3D mode, you’ll definitely appreciate that added brightness, since the tinted active-shutter glasses will block a considerable amount of light from reaching your eyes. The trade-off for all that brightness is a black level that’s slightly worse than the Acer’s. But black remains black, not dark gray, so we think the trade-off is worthwhile.
All three projectors delivered stunning 3D experiences. There’s one scene in the IMAX Blu-ray disc Under the Sea 3D in which a gargantuan potato cod turns to face the camera, and it looked as though the huge fish was protruding eight feet off the screen and right into the middle of our home theater. But only the Epson could accomplish the trick with complete effectiveness in the presence of ambient light from nearby windows.
A fabulous single-player experience in a massively multiplayer online game
STAR WARS: The Old Republic (TOR) comes with a buffet of a story for an MMO, but you only get to fill your plate once. From decisions as significant as choosing your character’s class specialization to events as trivial as responding to key dialog options, everything you do has a lasting and permanent effect on your gameplay. We like the feast: BioWare’s masterful use of instanced environments creates more captivating gameplay for the solo quester than most any other MMO.
But this is BioWare’s first foray into the massively multiplayer world, and it shows. TOR is more a role-playing game you play alongside 999,999 friends than a true MMO. BioWare either poorly integrates or completely misses the mark on many of the elements that define an MMO. On the upside, the beautiful blend of voice acting and dialogue options in each of TOR’s many quests should earn the game a celebratory parade through the Yavin 4 throne room. And while the scripted quests (occasionally punctuated by John Williams’s familiar score) are immersive, they make the rest of the game’s environments seem stale by comparison. TOR’s non-instanced “generic” areas just aren’t very player-interactive. The Nar Shadda casino, a cold and lifeless location that cries out for mini-games and interactivity, is just one example. And don’t get us started on TOR’s cantina music.