Digital Storm Bolt Mini-ITX Gaming PC Review
Performance, Noise and Closing Thoughts
Performance on full system reviews like this is pretty quick and dirty - the chances are usually pretty good that we have already reviewed many of the components that make up the DNA of the machine and that is definitely the case with the Bolt. Our system includes a Core i5-3570K, GeForce GTX 660 Ti and a 1TB HDD with a 60GB cache SSD; all things we are quite familiar with.
For our comparisons today we are pitting the Digital Storm Bolt against another mini-ITX rig we reviewed recently, the AVADirect Mini Gaming PC. Please keep in mind though that the AVADirect configuration included a Core i7-3770K as well as a GeForce GTX 680, both upgrades from our current Bolt system. Expect this level of Bolt to be a bit slower, but not by much; should you want a 3770K and GTX 680 though, Digital Storm has you covered for another $400.
Our CineBench 11 results show the Bolt as just a bit faster than the older Sandy Bridge Core i7-2600K while falling a bit behind the stock Core i7-3770K.
The x264 encoding benchmark has two passes, the first of which is lightly threaded while the second can take advantage of more cores and HyperThreading. As such, the first pass results have the Bolt running at 4.2 GHz just barely behind the AVADirect system at 4.4 GHz but once we look at the 2nd results we see the lack of HyperThreading become apparent.
Diving in to the game side of things we see the overall 3DMark score is right in line with some of our previous GTX 660 Ti results with only the Physics test really taking a hit thanks to the 4- vs 8-threads on the two competing processors.
In both Metro 2033 and Battlefield 3 we see that the Digital Storm Bolt is able to easily run these games at 1080p and beyond while outperforming the reference GTX 660 Ti results due to the overclocking processor.
The Digital Storm Bolt is quite a fast machine for as small of a footprint that it takes up and if you upgrade to the Core i7-3770K/GTX 680 model you can really push the "performance per square inch of floor space" barrier!
As I mentioned on the previous page, there was only one sticking point to this design that keeps it from getting a huge ovation for me - the noise levels. There are just certain laws of heat dissipation that we can't get around and the more hardware you put into a small space, the more fans will have to turn to vent that heat out of the chassis. In this case, despite the fairly quite CPU cooler and the modest noise of the GTX 660 Ti, the single point of failure seems to be the 1U power supply from Sparkle.
These units are usually meant for the server market and those customers care quite a bit more about stability and component life than they do sound levels (just visit any server room to see proof of that). Digital Storm claims to have made some adjustments to the fan speed on the power supply but if they did I would hate to have heard what it was like before. A solution for DS might be to connect that fan to a controller than can be monitored via software in Windows (or the BIOS) to only ramp up when really necessary.
Other than that component, the fact that Digital Storm was able to get so much powerful hardware in a tight space like this is pretty impressive. Not only that, but they are using nearly all standard parts so you could conceivably upgrade this system down the road with a new mini-ITX motherboard, processor, etc. There are no guarantees, but having that option puts a lot more value on the Bolt from a "sometimes" DIY-er.
Starting at $999 with a Core i3 processor and a GTX 650 Ti graphics card, the Bolt isn't a bargain but seems pretty reasonable considering the custom case. According to my quick build over at PCPartPicker.com, the base components found in my configuration of the Bolt only totaled about $1,000 but that does not include the 1U power supply or the custom chassis design. You can add in another $100 for the Sparkle unit leaving you about $400-450 for the case + profit for Digital Storm. That is a bit on the high side though you do get lifetime support and a 3-year warranty.
The market for pre-built systems has never been stronger and the fact that we have several options for small form factor builds that still offer up gaming performance on par with full-size machines is really exciting. As PC gaming continues down its path of resurgance I think we'll find more and more users that previously were scared of PC gaming take the plunge and doing so with something like the Digital Storm Bolt is a good way to get off the ground with a helping hand a phone number should anything go wrong. It is has non-intimidating size to it, top quality hardware and superb performance all in a sleek package with only the noise issues of the 1U power supply (and maybe the price) as sticking points.
Right before the holiday weekend we got an email from Digital Storm detailing some changes to the Bolt system based on ours, and other reviewers, feedback. Design changes include:
- "Quieter operation" after moving from a Bronze level 500 watt 1U power supply to a Gold level unit. I have put that part in quotes because I am hesitant to believe that much has changes on the sound levels of the system; we are still talking about a 1U unit here with two tiny fans. Until DS publishes some sound level metrics, we'll consider this a modest change.
- Digital Storm has also given the Bolt "a less glossy and improved external finish" to help prevent fingerprints and dust from reflecting in light.
In addition, there have been some hardware changes in the Level 3 unit that we were sent that are fairly significant:
- Upgrade from a 60GB cache SSD to a 120GB SSD dedicated to the OS installation.
- Storage drive lowered from a 1TB to a 500GB
- Upgrade from a Core i5-3570K to a Core i7-3770K CPU
That is a pretty hefty change in hardware specs, in particular the move from the Core i5-3570K to the i7-3770K. That increases the CPU performance of the Bolt pretty handily and they were able to do that without raising the price.
This definitely gives us a better opinion overall for the entire Digital Storm Bolt configuration as tested and makes it a much better option when compared to the other recent systems we have reviewed.
END UPDATE 11/22/2012