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The Road to 1080p
The stars of the show: a group of affordable GPU options
When preparing to build or upgrade a PC on any kind of a budget, how can you make sure you're extracting the highest performance per dollar from the parts you choose? Even if you do your homework comparing every combination of components is impossible. As system builders we always end up having to look at various benchmarks here and there and then ultimately make assumptions. It's the nature of choosing products within an industry that's completely congested at every price point.
Another problem is that lower-priced graphics cards are usually benchmarked on high-end test platforms with Core i7 processors - which is actually a necessary thing when you need to eliminate CPU bottlenecks from the mix when testing GPUs. So it seems like it might be valuable (and might help narrow buying choices down) if we could take a closer look at gaming performance from complete systems built with only budget parts, and see what these different combinations are capable of.
With this in mind I set out to see just how much it might take to reach acceptable gaming performance at 1080p (acceptable being 30 FPS+). I wanted to see where the real-world gaming bottlenecks might occur, and get a feel for the relationship between CPU and GPU performance. After all, if there was no difference in gaming performance between, say, a $40 and an $80 processor, why spend twice as much money? The same goes for graphics. We’re looking for “good enough” here, not “future-proof”.
The components in all their shiny boxy-ness (not everything made the final cut)
If money was no object we’d all have the most amazing high-end parts, and play every game at ultra settings with hundreds of frames per second (well, except at 4K). Of course most of us have limits, but the time and skill required to assemble a system with as little cash as possible can result in something that's actually a lot more rewarding (and impressive) than just throwing a bunch of money at top-shelf components.
The theme of this article is good enough, as in, don't spend more than you have to. I don't want this to sound like a bad thing. And if along the way you discover a bargain, or a part that overperforms for the price, even better!
Yet Another AM1 Story?
We’ve been talking about the AMD AM1 platform since its introduction, and it makes a compelling case for a low cost gaming PC. With the “high-end” CPU in the lineup (the Athlon 5350) just $60 and motherboards in the $35 range, it makes sense to start here. (I actually began this project with the Sempron 3820 as well, but it just wasn’t enough for 1080p gaming by a long shot so the test results were quickly discarded.) But while the 5350 is an APU, I didn't end up testing it without a dedicated GPU. (Ok, I eventually did but it just can't handle 1080p.)
But this isn’t just a story about AM1 after all. Jumping right in here, let's look at the result of my research (and mounting credit card debt). All prices were accurate as I wrote this, but are naturally prone to fluctuate:
|Memory||4GB Samsung OEM PC3-12800 DDR3-1600 (~$40 Value)|
|Storage||Western Digital Blue 1TB Hard Drive - $59.99|
|Power Supply||EVGA 430 Watt 80 PLUS PSU - $39.99|
|OS||Windows 8.1 64-bit - $99|
So there it is. I'm sure it won't please everyone, but there is enough variety in this list to support no less than 16 different combinations, and you'd better believe I ran each test on every one of those 16 system builds!
Athlon and Pentium Live On
Over the past year or so, we have taken a look at a few budget gaming builds here at PC Perspective. One of our objectives with these build guides was to show people that PC gaming can be cost competitive with console gaming, and at a much higher quality.
However, we haven't stopped pursuing our goal of the perfect inexpensive gaming PC, which is still capable of maxing out image quality settings on today's top games at 1080p.
Today we take a look at two new systems, featuring some parts which have been suggested to us after our previous articles.
|AMD System||Intel System|
|Processor||AMD Athlon X4 760K - $85||Intel Pentium G3220 - $65|
|Cores / Threads||4 / 4||2 / 2|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte F2A55M-HD2 - $60||ASUS H81M-E - $60|
|Graphics||MSI R9 270 Gaming - $180||MSI R9 270 Gaming - $180|
|System Memory||Corsair 8GB DDR3-1600 (1x8GB) - $73||Corsair 8GB DDR3-1600 (1x8GB) - $73|
|Hard Drive||Western Digital 1TB Caviar Green - $60||Western Digital 1TB Caviar Green - $60|
|Power Supply||Cooler Master GX 450W - $50||Cooler Master GX 450W - $50|
|Case||Cooler Master N200 MicroATX - $50||Cooler Master N200 MicroATX - $50|
(Editor's note: If you don't already have a copy of Windows, and don't plan on using Linux or SteamOS, you'll need an OEM copy of Windows 8.1 - currently selling for $98.)
These are low prices for a gaming computer, and feature some parts which many of you might not know a lot about. Let's take a deeper look at the two different platforms which we built upon.
First up is the AMD Athlon X4 760K. While you may not have known the Athlon brand was still being used on current parts, they represent an interesting part of the market. On the FM2 socket, the 760K is essentially a high end Richland APU, with the graphics portion of the chip disabled.
What this means is that if you are going to pair your processor with a discrete GPU anyway, you can skip paying extra for the integrated GPU.
As for the motherboard, we went for an ultra inexpensive A55 option from Gigabyte, the GA-F2A55M-HD2. This board features the A55 chipset which launched with the Llano APUs in 2011. Because of this older chipset, the board does not feature USB 3.0 or SATA 6G capability, but since we are only concerned about gaming performance here, it makes a great bare bones option.
An Upgrade Project
When NVIDIA started talking to us about the new GeForce GTX 750 Ti graphics card, one of the key points they emphasized was the potential use for this first-generation Maxwell GPU to be used in the upgrade process of smaller form factor or OEM PCs. Without the need for an external power connector, the GTX 750 Ti provided a clear performance delta from integrated graphics with minimal cost and minimal power consumption, so the story went.
Eager to put this theory to the test, we decided to put together a project looking at the upgrade potential of off the shelf OEM computers purchased locally. A quick trip down the road to Best Buy revealed a PC sales section that was dominated by laptops and all-in-ones, but with quite a few "tower" style desktop computers available as well. We purchased three different machines, each at a different price point, and with different primary processor configurations.
The lucky winners included a Gateway DX4885, an ASUS M11BB, and a Lenovo H520.
What is the Hardware Leaderboard
What is a Leaderboard? If you have to ask you really haven't clicked on enough of the tabs at the top of PC Perspective! The Leaderboard consists of four different systems, each with a price target and are updated monthly. They start with the ~$500 budget system which is for general family or dorm usage but not for heavy gaming usage, though it can certainly handle many online games without issue. The Mid Range machine can be yours for around $1000 and packs enough power under the hood to handle productivity software and can give a console a run for its money when gaming. Things start getting more serious when you look at the High End machine, even while keeping the price around $1500 you start to see serious performance that will show you why PC Gaming is still far more popular than some would have you believe. Finally is the Dream Machine which doesn't have a specific price cap but is limited by a certain amount of common sense; you can slap four GPUs in the system but you really will not be getting a great return on your investment as the performance scaling does not continue to increase at a linear pace.
You may notice several components missing from the HWLB and there is a reason for that. Enclosures are a very personal choice for system builders and no ones desires are exactly the same. Dremel owners with a good imagination want a case that is easily moddable while pet owners want washable filters on their systems. Some may want a giant white case while others an unobtrusive and quiet enclosure and who can tell where you prefer your front panel connectors to be but you? Cooling solutions are again a personal choice, do you plan on getting the biggest chunk of metal you can find with three 140mm fans strapped to it or were you thinking of using watercooling, either a self contained CPU cooler or a custom built cooling loop that incorporates multiple components? The same applies to monitors with some gamers preferring to sacrifice colour quality and viewing angle for the refresh rates of a TN display while others have a need to pick up a professional quality display at over $1000 for when they are working. Size is always personal; just how big can you fit in your place? (Editor's note: we did include a couple of case recommendations in the build guide summary tables, in case you are interested though.)
So continue on to see the components that make up the current four builds of the Hardware Leaderboard. Once you have all your components you can reference Ryan's videos covering the installation of the parts into the case of your choice as well as installing your OS and Steam so you can get right to gaming and surfing.
A not-so-simple set of instructions
Valve released to the world the first beta of SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system built specifically for PC gaming, on Friday evening. We have spent quite a lot of time discussing and debating the merits of SteamOS, but this weekend we wanted to do an installation of the new OS on a system and see how it all worked.
Our full video tutorial of installing and configuring SteamOS
First up was selecting the hardware for the build. As is usually the case, we had a nearly-complete system sitting around that needed some tweaks. Here is a quick list of the hardware we used, with a discussion about WHY just below.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4670K - $222|
|Motherboard||EVGA Z87 Stinger Mini ITX Motherboard - $257|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance LP 8GB 1866 MHz (2 x 4GB) - $109|
|Graphics Card||NVIDIA GeForce GTX TITAN 6GB - $999
EVGA GeForce GTX 770 2GB SuperClocked - $349
|Storage||Samsung 840 EVO Series 250GB SSD - $168|
|Case||EVGA Hadron Mini ITX Case - $189|
|Power Supply||Included with Case|
|Optical Drive||Slot loading DVD Burnder - $36|
|Peak Compute||4,494 GFLOPS (TITAN), 3,213 GFLOPS (GTX 770)|
|Total Price||$1947 (GTX TITAN) $1297 (GTX 770)|
We definitely weren't targeting a low cost build with this system, but I think we did create a very powerful system to test SteamOS on. First up was the case, the new EVGA Hadron Mini ITX chassis. It's small, which is great for integration into your living room, yet can still hold a full power, full-size graphics card.
The motherboard we used was the EVGA Z87 Stinger Mini ITX - an offering that Morry just recently reviewed and recommended. Supporting the latest Intel Haswell processors, the Stinger includes great overclocking options and a great feature set that won't leave enthusiasts longing for a larger motherboard.
The 7 Year Console Refresh
The consoles are coming! The consoles are coming! Ok, that is not necessarily true. One is already here and the second essentially is too. This of course brings up the great debate between PCs and consoles. The past has been interesting when it comes to console gaming, as often the consoles would be around a year ahead of PCs in terms of gaming power and prowess. This is no longer the case with this generation of consoles. Cutting edge is now considered mainstream when it comes to processing and graphics. The real incentive to buy this generation of consoles is a lot harder to pin down as compared to years past.
The PS4 retails for $399 US and the upcoming Xbox One is $499. The PS4’s price includes a single controller, while the Xbox’s package includes not just a controller, but also the next generation Kinect device. These prices would be comparable to some low end PCs which include keyboard, mouse, and a monitor that could be purchased from large brick and mortar stores like Walmart and Best Buy. Happily for most of us, we can build our machines to our own specifications and budgets.
As a directive from on high (the boss), we were given the task of building our own low-end gaming and productivity machines at a price as close to that of the consoles and explaining which solution would be superior at the price points given. The goal was to get as close to $500 as possible and still have a machine that would be able to play most recent games at reasonable resolutions and quality levels.
Does downloading make a difference?
I posted a story earlier this week that looked at the performance of the new PS4 when used with three different 2.5-in storage options: the stock 500GB hard drive, a 1TB hybrid SSHD and a 240GB SSD. The results were fairly interesting (and got a good bit of attention) but some readers wanted more data. In particular, many asked how things might change if you went the full digital route and purchased games straight from the Sony's PlayStation Network. I also will compare boot times for each of the tested storage devices.
You should definitely check out the previous article if you missed it. It not only goes through the performance comparison but also details how to change the hard drive on the PS4 from the physical procedure to the software steps necessary. The article also details the options we selected for our benchmarking.
- HGST 500GB 5400 RPM HDD - $50 - $0.10/GB
- Seagate 1TB Hybrid SSHD - $122 - $0.12/GB
- Corsair 240GB Force GS SSD - $189 - $0.78/GB
Today I purchased a copy of Assassin's Creed IV from the PSN store (you're welcome Ubisoft) and got to testing. The process was the same: start the game then load the first save spot. Again, each test was run three times and the averages were reported. The PS4 was restarted between each run.
The top section of results is the same that was presented earlier - average load times for AC IV when the game is installed from the Blu-ray. The second set is new and includes average load times fro AC IV after the installation from the PlayStation Network; no disc was in the drive during testing.
Load time improvements
On Friday Sony released the PlayStation 4 onto the world. The first new console launch in 7 years, the PS4 has a lot to live up to, but our story today isn't going to attempt to weigh the value of the hardware or software ecosystem. Instead, after our PS4 teardown video from last week, we got quite a few requests for information on storage performance with the PS4 and what replacement hardware might offer gamers.
Hard Drive Replacement Process
Changing the hard drive in your PlayStation 4 is quite simple, a continuation of a policy Sony's policy with the PS3.
Installation starts with the one semi-transparent panel on the top of the unit, to the left of the light bar. Obviously make sure your PS4 is completely turned off and unplugged.
Simply slide it to the outside of the chassis and wiggle it up to release. There are no screws or anything to deal with yet.
Once inside you'll find a screw with the PS4 shapes logos on them; that is screw you need to remove to pull out the hard drive cage.
Get your wallet ready
While I was preparing for the release of Intel's Core i7 Ivy Bridge-E processors last month ORIGIN PC approached me about a system review based on the new platform. Of course I rarely pass up the opportunity to spend some time with unreasonably fast PC hardware so I told them to send something over that would impress me.
This system did.
The ORIGIN PC Millennium custom configuration is one of the flagship offerings from the boutique builder and it will hit your wallet nearly as hard as it will your games and applications. What kind of hardware do you get for $4200 these days?
- ORIGIN PC Millennium
- Intel Core i7-4930K (OC to 4.5 GHz)
- ASUS Rampage IV Gene mATX motherboard
- Custom Corsair H100i 240mm water cooler
- 16GB (4 x 4GB) Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1866 memory
- 2 x NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 3GB SLI
- 2 x Samsung 840 Pro 128GB SSD (RAID 0)
- 1TB Western Digital Black HDD
- Corsair AX1200i power supply
- Corsair Obsidian 350D case
- Windows 8
Our custom build was designed to pack as much processing power into as small a case as possible and I think you'll find that ORIGIN did a bang up job here. By starting with the Corsair 350D micro ATX chassis yet still including dual graphics cards and an overclocked IVB-E processor, the results are going to impress.
If Microsoft was left to their own devices...
Microsoft's Financial Analyst Meeting 2013 set the stage, literally, for Steve Ballmer's last annual keynote to investors. The speech promoted Microsoft, its potential, and its unique position in the industry. He proclaims, firmly, their desire to be a devices and services company.
The explanation, however, does not befit either industry.
Ballmer noted, early in the keynote, how Bing is the only notable competitor to Google Search. He wanted to make it clear, to investors, that Microsoft needs to remain in the search business to challenge Google. The implication is that Microsoft can fill the cracks where Google does not, or even cannot, and establish a business from that foothold. I agree. Proprietary products (which are not inherently bad by the way), as Google Search is, require one or more rivals to fill the overlooked or under-served niches. A legitimate business can be established from that basis.
It is the following, similar, statement which troubles me.
Ballmer later mentioned, along the same vein, how Microsoft is among the few making fundamental operating system investments. Like search, the implication is that operating systems are proprietary products which must compete against one another. This, albeit subtly, does not match their vision as a devices and services company. The point of a proprietary platform is to own the ecosystem, from end to end, and to derive your value from that control. The product is not a device; the product is not a service; the product is a platform. This makes sense to them because, from birth, they were a company which sold platforms.
A platform as a product is not a device nor is it service.
Another Next Unit of Computing
Just about a year ago Intel released a new product called the Next Unit of Computing, or NUC for short. The idea was to allow Intel's board and design teams to bring the efficient performance of the ultra low voltage processors to a desktop, and creative, form factor. By taking what is essentially Ultrabook hardware and putting it in a 4-in by 4-in design Intel is attempting to rethink what the "desktop" computer is and how the industry develops for it.
We reviewed the first NUC last year, based on the Intel Ivy Bridge processor and took away a surprising amount of interest in the platform. It was (and is) a bit more expensive than many consumers are going to be willing to spend on such a "small" physical device but the performance and feature set is compelling.
This time around Intel has updated the 4x4 enclosure a bit and upgrade the hardware from Ivy Bridge to Haswell. That alone should result in a modest increase in CPU performance with quite a bit of increase in the integrated GPU performance courtesy of the Intel HD Graphics 5000. Other changes are on the table to; let's take a look.
The Intel D54250WYK NUC is a bare bones system that will run you about $360. You'll need to buy system memory and an mSATA SSD for storage (wireless is optional) to complete the build.
Haswell and Kepler
With the release of Intel's Haswell core processors and the updated graphics card lineup from NVIDIA, Digital Storm has updated many of their custom PC lines to include both. A little while ago the company sent along a pre-built Ode system that includes some impressive hardware like an overclocked Core i7-4770K and a GTX 780 along with a Corsair SSD and more. Even though the design is using fully off-the-shelf parts, the build quality is impressive and will interest many users that want the jump start of a ready made rig.
Our article today (and embedded video) will give you a quick overview of the hardware, the build and the performance that you can expect for this $2500 PC.
- Digital Storm Ode Custom
- Intel Core i7-4770K (OC to 4.4 GHz)
- ASUS Z87-C Motherboard
- Corsair H100 Water Cooler
- 16GB (2 x 8GB) Kingston HyperX DDR3-1866
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 3GB Graphics Card
- 120GB Corsair Neutron SSD
- 1TB Western Digital 7200 RPM HDD
- Corsair HX1050 Power Supply
- Corsair Graphite 600T White Case
Current pricing on this build is $2577 from Digital Storm's website and while that is definitely higher than buying the same components out right, the difference shouldn't be enough to scare you off. More on that later.
The Ode from Digital Storm is built around the Corsair 600T chassis, an older design that still stands up well in terms of looks and performance. The only draw back to it is that it does not have an internal USB 3.0 header and thus still uses the external cable to plug into the back of the motherboard. If you want to see video from 2010 we did of this case, check the way back machine to do so!
A white color scheme really makes this system stand out and the window on the side panel will let everyone gawk at the components included inside. With plenty of room for fans, radiators and good intake filter support throughout, the 600T remains one of our favorite chassis at PC Perspective.
A 27-in Table PC
While foraging through the land that is Las Vegas during the 2013 Consumer Electronic Show, we ran into Lenovo and they showed us a unique PC design they were calling the "Table PC". The Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon is a 27-in All-in-One design that is finally available in the market and brings some very interesting design decisions and use cases.
At its heart, the IdeaCentre Horizon is a 27-in 1920x1080 display with an AIO PC design that includes some pretty standard Intel-based Ultrabook-style hardware. That includes an Intel Core i5-3337U dual-core processor, a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GTX GT620M graphics processor, a 1TB 5400 RPM HDD and 8GB of DDR3-1600 memory.
But this computer is much more important than simply the hardware it is built around. Built to switch between a standard AIO configuration but allows for a fold-down, multi-user interface with custom software for interaction, the Horizon attempts to bring life to low-cost computers built for more than one user at a time.
From a physical perspective, the IdeaCentre Horizon has the normal and expected design cues. There is an HD webcam up top for Skype calls, touch-based buttons for volume and brightness, indicator lights for drive usage, power states, etc.
The 1920x1080 10-point touch screen on the Horizon was nice, but not great. For a 27-in display that you are going to be interfacing with very closely, the pixel density is definitely lower than our 1080p 21-in touch screen AIO floating around the office. There were some minor glare issues as well, even with the Lenovo "anti-glare coating" while using the Horizon in the fully laid down, flat position.
Power and Value
We have seen our fair share of mini-ITX cases and system builds over the last six months, including rigs from Digital Storm and AVADirect. They attempt to offer a balance between performance, power, noise and size and some do it better than others. With the continued development of the mini-ITX form factor more users than ever are realizing you can get nearly top-end performance for gaming in a smaller package.
Today we are taking a look at the iBuyPower Revolt, in particular the Revolt R770, the highest end base offering of the system. Built around a small, but not tiny, PC chassis iBuyPower is able to include some pretty impressive specifications:
- Intel Core i7-3770K processor
- Custom built Z77 mini-ITX motherboard
- NZXT CPU water cooler
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 2GB graphics cards
- 8GB DDR3-1600 memory
- 120 GB Intel 320 Series SSD
- 1TB Western Digital Blue hard drive
You get all of this in a case that is only 16-in x 16-in x 4.5-in built with a glossy black and white color scheme. The company claims that the Revolt was "designed to be a gaming system for any location" including a home theater, a dorm room or in your study. It includes "vents and air channels positioned precisely to deliver cool ambient air exactly where it is needed" and "integrated atmospheric lighting system is customizable in color."
Check out or quick video review below and then follow on to the full post for more photos of the system and a quick check of performance!
An AIO and Tablet Design
When new and interesting architectures and technology are developed, it enables system designers to build creative designs and systems for consumers. With its renewed focus on power efficiency as well as performance, Intel has helped move the industry towards new form factors like the Next Unit of Computing and the evolution of the All-in-One design.
Today we are taking a look at the new Sony VAIO Tap 20 system, an AIO that not only integrates a 10-point touch screen on a 20-in 1600x900 resolution display and an Ivy Bridge architecture ultra low voltage processor, but also a battery to make the design semi-mobile and ripe for inclusion in high-tech homes.
Check out our quick video overview below and then follow that up with a full pictorial outline and some more details!
This isn't Sony's first foray into all-in-one PCs of course but it is among the first to combine this particular set of features. In what is essentially an Ultrabook design with a large screen, the Tap 20 combines an Ivy Bridge Core i5 processors, 4GB of DDR3 memory and a 750GB hard drive. Here is the breakdown:
|Sony VAIO Tap 20 System Setup|
|CPU||Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||4GB DDR3-1600 (1 x SODIMM)|
|Hard Drive||750GB XXRPM HDD (2.5-in)|
|Graphics Card||Intel HD 4000 Processor Graphics|
|Display||1600x900 20-in touch screen (10 point)|
2 x USB 3.0
SD / Memory Stick card reader
Headphone / Mic connection
|Operating System||Windows 8 x64|
The display is pretty nice with a 1600x900 reoslution though I do wish we had seen a full 1080p screen for HD video playback. As with most touch screens, the display quality is under that of a non-touch IPS monitor but even up close (as you tend to use touch devices) you'll be hard pressed to find any imperfections. Viewing angles are great as well which allows for better multi-person usage.
On the left we find the power connection and a hard wired Ethernet connection that compliments the integrated 802.11n WiFi.
Since the Apple transition to Intel processors and mostly off-the-shelf PC hardware in 2006, people have been attempting to run OS X on home built computers originally destined for Windows. While running a different operating system on similar hardware may seem like a trivial thing, my historical experience with building a so called “Hackintosh” has been arduous at times. However, since it has been a few years since my last attempt, I decided to give installing OS X on modern PC hardware another try.
Otellini will never live that one down...
One of the big stepping stones for OS X on PC based motherboards was the widespread adoption of EFI instead of the standard BIOS environment. Official Intel Macs have always used EFI, which meant until a few years ago, emulating the EFI environment on third party motherboards to build a Hackintosh. That has changed recently and with the release of Sandy Bridge, we have seen full EFI support across all motherboard vendors.
The premiere source for information about Hackintosh builds is the tonymacx86 site and forums. The forums on tonymac is an extremely useful resource for learning about the current state of the Hackintosh scene and the experiences of people with similar hardware to what we will be using.
Tony publishes a yearly Buyer’s Guide article with components of all price ranges that will work with OS X with minimal hassle. He provides many different options in different price ranges in the 2012 guide, including H77, Z77, and even X79 based parts.
While it is technically possible to use AMD processors and graphics cards in a Hackintosh build, Apple officially supports Intel CPUs and NVIDIA Kepler GPUs, so they require much less work to ensure the operating system can fully utilize these components.
A Workstation All-in-One
While consumers know HP for its substantial market share in the world of desktops and notebooks, perhaps more important to HP's bottom line is the company's server and workstation business. While we all know what servers do there might be some confusion about what a workstation is and what it does.
Workstations are usually defined as computers used by content creators and despite that fact that you burned that DVD of your family vacation, that's not quite the same. Brands like Xeon, Quadro, FirePro and Opteron are what you will find different in a workstation class computer versus a standard computer or laptop. And while technology enthusiasts will debate the actual differences between these components, the fact is that the market demands them.
Today we are taking a quick look at the HP Z1 Workstation, a unique workstation in that it resides in the shell of an all-in-one computer. But not just your normal AIO - this is a 27-in 2560x1400 display with a chassis that opens up for easy access to components inside.
Once we show you how the processor, SSD, Quadro graphics and everything else works inside I think you will see the appeal of this kind of system even for professionals that require the stability and software support of a workstation class device. Check out our Video Perspective below and then continue on for some more photos and benchmark results from the HP Z1 Workstation!
The side profile shows the HP Z1 is slim enough but still holds a lot of hardware.
You'll find two USB 3.0 ports, Firewire, audio connections and a card reader near the bottom.
The power button, activity lights and eject button live up top.
Intel Board Team Creates New Form Factor
In many ways the desktop computer needs to evolve. Yes, I know that PC gaming is not only thriving and growing but for the majority of consumers the need to have a box in their office that measures 2' x 3' x 1', taking up leg room under the desk is...exaggerated. Intel thinks they have a solution for this, a new form factor for a PC they are calling the NUC - Next Unit of Computing.
By utilizing low power versions of the Intel Ivy Bridge mobile processors Intel has shrunk the desktop PC to a size even smaller than mini-ITX and hopes they can address various market segments with this new design.
Check out our video right here and continue on for the full written review!
While the consumer that simply needs a basic computing box is definitely a target for Intel and its board division, they are hoping to hit the mainstream markets with interactive displays, digital signage, marketing, analytics and more. And though the design we are looking at today has a very specific form factor, the low power boards themselves could easily be placed into nearly any industrial design.
For a size reference, the Intel NUC is a 4-in x 4-in design that is noticeably smaller than even the mini-ITX form factor that is quickly becoming popular in the DIY markets. The NUC does not have a removable processor though so what you buy is what you get with only a few components that are upgradeable.
A small, custom chassis
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
A couple of months ago Digital Storm contacted us about a new design they were working on that they claimed would easily become the highest performance, smallest custom PC on the market. The result of that talk was the new Digital Storm Bolt, a system designed in-house by DS to target PC gamers that want a powerful PC without the bulk of traditional desktop designs.
Digital Storm claims that the Bolt is the "thinnest, most powerful gaming PC ever designed" and we tend to agree. This is not chassis that you can buy off the shelf but instead was custom designed for this system and actually requires some very specific hardware for it to function completely. Items like a 1U power supply, 90 degree PCI Express riser extensions and slim-line optical drives aren't found in your standard gaming PCs.
Available in several starting "levels" of configuration, the Digital Storm Bolt can include processors from the Core i3-2100 all the way up to the Core i7-3770K and graphics cards starting at the GTX 650 Ti 2GB and increasing to the GTX 680 2GB. Our system came with the following hardware:
- Intel Core i5-3570K @ 4.2 GHz
- Low Profile CPU Heatsink
- 8GB DDR3 1600 MHz memory
- GeForce GTX 660 Ti 2GB
- 60GB cache SSD + 1TB 7200 RPM HDD
- Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WiFi motherboard
- 1U 500 watt power supply
- Windows 7 Home Premium x64
- Custom DS Bolt Chassis
Starting cost for this configuration is $1,599.
Check out our quick video review!
The box the Bolt ships in is pretty timid compared to some of the crates that have hit our office recently but that's just fine by me. Due to the small size of the case though I have actually had some laptop boxes (the Alienware M18x comes to mind) that were bigger!
There she is, the Digital Storm Bolt, a combination of custom steel case design and fingerprint-loving piano black paint. Measuring just 14-in tall and 3.6-in wide the case is going to be able to fit and blend in places other desktops simply could not.
The Dell All-in-One
Reviewers, at times, can be somewhat myopic. I speak for myself in this particular instance. My job as a writer is to test hardware on a daily basis, and as such I have a very keen understanding (or so I hope) of the intricacies of computer design. If I need to build a machine, whether for test purposes or something that my wife can play Song Pop on, I have a near infinite variety of components that I can choose from to fit the needs of the project. As such, we often forget that not everyone has that level of expertise. Most people, in fact, just want to be able to buy something that not only fits their needs, but also simply just has to work.
Dog is unimpressed with packaging. UPS complained profusely though.
This is the reason why we have the Dells, HPs, and Lenovos of the world. The vast majority of people out there are unwilling to build their own machine and support it themselves. They neither have the time nor patience to dive in and learn the ins and outs of a modern PC and the software that runs them. This is not a bad thing. Just as I do not have the patience to learn how to sew, I still like wearing clothes. At least during our podcasts. For the most part.
We must also admit that we are moving well away from the typical beige box that dominated the 90s and early 2000s. Manufacturers have a much better eye for not only functionality, but also aesthetics. No longer do we have the hulking CRTs of yesteryear, and neither do we have the large boxes that are nearly indistinguishable from one or another. Multiple form factors abound and these large manufacturers have design teams that pay very close attention to things like compatibility, power consumption, and thermal dissipation. With these things in mind, they are able to create unique devices that not just serve the needs of consumers, but also just simply work.
Apple has been at the forefront of this type of design for quite some time. This is a company that has prized fit, finish, and functionality far more than they have pursued cost cutting and homogenization. This has lead to much higher margins for the company, and a nearly rabid following by the people buying their platforms. We certainly can argue that they probably perfected the “all-in-one” machine back in the Macintosh days, and since that time they have not stood still. The iMac was a further advancement in that field, but the introduction of relatively inexpensive and large LCD panels allowed them to further shrink the all-in-one. It also allowed them to further sculpt the design into what we see today.
Everything is nicely supported in the box.
Obviously people around the industry have noticed this trend, and noticed the devoted following of the Apple consumers. It is hard to miss. The world is a big place though, and surely there are people who crave the type of design that Apple pushes, but do not necessarily want to jump on that particular bandwagon. Dell has recognized this and created their XPS One lineup of products. Not everyone wants to run OSX and pay the Apple tax. If this is the case for a reader, then this might be the product that catches their attention.