Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: Various

The Road to 1080p

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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”.

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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:

Tested Hardware
Graphics Cards

MSI AMD Radeon R7 250 2GB OC - $79.99

XFX AMD Radeon R7 260X - $109.99

EVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 - $109.99

EVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti SC - $153.99

Processors

AMD Athlon 5350 2.05 GHz Quad-Core APU - $59.99

AMD Athlon X2 340X 3.2 GHz Dual-Core CPU - $44.99.

AMD Athlon X4 760K 3.8 GHz Quad-Core CPU - $84.99

Intel Pentium G3220 3.0 GHz Dual-Core CPU - $56.99

Motherboards

ASRock AM1B-ITX Mini-ITX AMD AM1 - $39.99

MSI A88XM-E45 Micro-ATX AMD A88X - $72.99

ECS H81H3-M4 Micro-ATX Intel H81 - $47.99

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!

Keep reading our look at budget gaming builds for 1080p!!

Manufacturer: Noctua
Tagged:

Introduction and Technical Specifications

Introduction

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Courtesy of Noctua

Noctua is well known among enthusiasts for their high performance and sonically tolerable processor cooling solutions. Their U-series coolers combine unrivaled cooling performance with an innovative design to ensure quiet operation and motherboard compatibility. The NH-U12S is composed of a single aluminum-finned radiator with five nickel-plated copper heat pipes seamlessly integrated into the copper base plate. For performance testing of the NH-U12S cooler, we put it up against other high-performance liquid and air-based coolers. With a retail MSRP of $69.99, the NH-U12S CPU cooler is an affordable solution offering superior cooling potential.

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Courtesy of Noctua

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Courtesy of Noctua

Noctua construct the NH-U12S cooler for optimal heat transfer between the processor and its 125mm wide aluminum radiator. The NH-U12S contains a total of five heat pipes directly integrated into the copper base plate, terminating on each side of the aluminum-finned radiator. The use of copper heat pipes allows for optimal heat transfer of heat from the processor to the aluminum radiator fins and ultimately the air medium. To facilitate this transfer, Noctua paired the NH-U12S with their NF-F12 120mm, 1500RPM fan. The fan features rubber cover plates on all four corners to minimize fan vibration and vibration transfer to the radiator, further reducing fan noise. The CPU base plate is seamless and polished to a mirror finish, ensuring an optimal mating surface.

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SecureFirm2™ LGA115x mount kit
Courtesy of Noctua

Noctua bundles their SecureFirm2™ mounting kits for using the NH-U12S with any current AMD or Intel socket motherboard. Also included are the Noctua-branded NF-F12 120mm 1500RPM fan, NT-H1 thermal paste, a PWM power splitter cable, and two sets of fan mounts (four mounts total) for use with up to two fans with the unit.

Continue reading our review of the Noctua NH-U12S CPU air cooler!

Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: EVGA

Introduction and Technical Specifications

Introduction

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Courtesy of EVGA

The Z97 Classified motherboard is among EVGA's newest offerings in their Intel Z97 line of products. EVGA improved upon their previous revision Classified boards, adding in support for 5th generation Intel Core processors through integration with the Intel Z97 chipset. Most flagship motherboard command a premium price with the Z97 Classified being no exception. It's $379.99 MSRP may price it out of reach for many enthusiasts, but its integrated components and overclocking-friendly features more than justify the price.

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Courtesy of EVGA

EVGA designed the Z97 Classified board with an 8-phase digital power delivery system for the CPU, ensuring a stable system under any operational conditions. The Z97 Classified has the following integrated features: eight SATA 3 ports; an mSATA/mPCI-E port; dual Intel GigE NIC ports; five PCI-Express x16 slots; a PCI-Express x1 slot; 2-digit diagnostic LED display; on-board power, reset, and dual CMOS clear buttons; triple BIOS switche; PCIe disable switch jumper block; integrated EZ Voltage measurement points; and USB 2.0 and 3.0 port support.

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Courtesy of EVGA

Continue reading our review of the EVGA Z97 Classified motherboard!

Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: MSI

Introduction and Design

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It was only last year that we were singing the praises of the GT60, which was one of the fastest notebooks we’d seen to date. Its larger cousin, the GT70, features a 17.3” screen (versus the GT60’s 15.6”), faster CPUs and GPUs, and even better options for storage. Now, the latest iteration of this force to be reckoned with has arrived on our desks, and while its appearance hasn’t changed much, its performance is even better than ever.

While we’ll naturally be spending a good deal of time discussing performance and stability in our article here, we won’t be dedicating much to casing and general design, as—for the most part—it is very similar to that of the GT60. On the other hand, one area on which we’ll be focusing particularly heavily is that of battery life, thanks solely to the presence of NVIDIA’s new Battery Boost technology. As the name suggests, this new feature employs power conservation techniques to extend the notebook’s life while gaming unplugged. This is accomplished primarily via frame rate limiting, which is a feature that has actually been available since the introduction of Kepler, but which until now has been buried within the advanced options available for such products. Battery Boost basically brings this to the forefront and makes it both accessible and default.

Let’s take a look at what this bad boy is packing:

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Not much commentary needed here; this table reads like a who’s who of computer specifications. Of particular note are the 32 GB of RAM, the 880M (of course), and the 384 GB SSD RAID array (!!). Elsewhere, it’s mostly business as usual for the ultra-high-end MSI GT notebooks, with a slightly faster CPU than the previous model we reviewed (the i7-4700MQ). One thing is guaranteed: it’s a fast machine.

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Continue reading our review of the MSI GT70 2PE Gaming Notebook!!

Manufacturer: Cooler Master

Features and Specifications

Introduction

As the popularity and availability of small form factor PC components continues to grow, more companies are coming out with new enclosures that support this expanding market.  Today, we are taking a detailed look at Cooler Master’s latest entry into the mini-ITX arena; the Elite 110 case. It’s amazing just how powerful a PC can be built around one of the latest mini-ITX motherboards and how much hardware can be stuffed into a small cube. In addition to basic computing needs, the Elite 110 enclosure offers a great many expansion options, with support for overclocking, a high end graphics adapter, up to four HDD/SSDs, a full size ATX power supply, and even water-cooling; all inside a small ~10” cube!

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Cooler Master Elite 110 mini-ITX case key features:
•    Small footprint: 280 x 208 x 260 mm (11.1 x 9.2 x 10.3”)
•    Supports mini-ITX motherboard
•    Front mesh panel with vents on both sides and top
•    One 120mm intake fan in front (included) or one 140mm fan (optional)
•    Two 80mm fans on the side (optional)
•    Supports a 120mm radiator in front for water-cooling
•    Supports a standard length ATX PSU (up to 180mm)
•    Supports one dual-slot graphics card (up to 210mm length)
•    Supports up to three 3.5” HDDs / four 2.5” SSDs
•    External I/O panel with two USB 3.0 ports
•    Blue LED On/Off switch on front panel

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Specifications for the Elite 110 case (Courtesy of Cooler Master):

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Please continue reading our Cooler Master Elite 110 Case review!

Subject: Storage
Manufacturer: Seagate
Tagged: sshd, Seagate, hybrid, 4TB

Introduction

Introduction

We've looked at many hybrid options over the past few years. First we checked out Intel's RST Caching solution, introduced on the Z68 chipset. Then we looked into Seagate's first few rounds of SSHD's, which were basically a standard HDD with an 8GB cache tacked on to the controller. Despite larger adoption of SSD's taking place, Seagate continues to push further into the hybrid market, with the addition of dual mode caching and other advancements. Today we take a look at their most recent push:

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Yup, that's 4TB of hybrid goodness right there. No doubt this is a desktop class product, but how well can it handle desktop workloads?

Read on for the full review!

Author:
Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: Gigabyte

FM2+ Has a High End?

AMD faces a bit of a quandary when it comes to their products.  Their APUs are great at graphics, but not so great at general CPU performance.  Their products are all under $200 for the CPU/APU but these APUs are not popular with the enthusiast and gaming crowd.  Yes, they can make excellent budget gaming systems for those who do not demand ultra-high resolutions and quality settings, but it is still a tough sell for a lot of the mainstream market; the primary way AMD pushes these products is price.

Perhaps the irony here is that AMD is extremely competitive with Intel when it comes to chipset features.  The latest A88X Fusion Control Hub is exceptionally well rounded with four native USB 3.0 ports, ten USB 2.0 ports, and eight SATA-6G ports.  Performance of this chipset is not all that far off from what Intel offers with the Z87 chipset (USB and SATA-6G are slower, but not dramatically so).  The chip also offers RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 support as well as a 10/100/1000 Ethernet MAC (but a physical layer chip is still required).

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Now we get back to price.  AMD is not charging a whole lot for these FCH units, even the top end A88X.  I do not have the exact number, but it is cheap as compared to the competing Intel option.  Intel’s chipset business has made money for the company for years, but AMD does not have that luxury.  AMD needs to bundle effectively to be competitive, so it is highly doubtful that the chipset division makes a net profit at the end of the day.  Their job is to help push AMD’s CPU and APU offerings as much as possible.

These low cost FCH chips allow motherboard manufacturers to place a lot of customization on their board, but they are still limited in what they can do.  A $200+ motherboard simply will not fly with consumers for the level of overall performance that even the latest AMD A10 7850K APU provides in CPU bound workloads.  Unfortunately, HSA has not yet taken off to leverage the full potential of the Kaveri APU.  We have had big developments, just not big enough that the majority of daily users out there will require an AMD APU.  Until that happens, AMD will not be viewed favorably when it comes to its APU offerings in gaming or high performance systems.

The quandary obviously is how AMD and its motherboard partners can create inexpensive motherboards that are feature packed, yet will not break the bank or become burdensome towards APU sales?  The FX series of processors from AMD do have a bit more leeway as the performance of the high end FX-8350 is not considered bad, and it is a decent overclocker.  That platform can sustain higher motherboard costs due to this performance.  The APU side, not so much.  The answer to this quandary is tradeoffs.

Click here to read the entire review of the Gigabyte G1.Sniper A88X!

Subject: Storage
Manufacturer: Plextor

Introduction, Specifications and Packaging

Introduction:

You might not expect it from who was originally an optical drive company, but Plextor has been cranking out SSDs for a while now. We will be taking a look at the recent wave of releases from Plextor, starting with the M6M:

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This SSD contains the same Marvell 88SS9188 controller seen in the Crucial M550, MX100, and ADATA SP920 SSDs, but with additional firmware tweaks claimed by Plextor.

Let's dive right in. Read on for our full review!

Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: GIGABYTE

Introduction and Technical Specifications

Introduction

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

The Z97X-SOC Force motherboard is the premier offering in GIGABYTE's Overclocking Series of boards. The overclocking series boards are designed with enhancements and features meant to appeal to enthusiasts and professional overclockers alike. The Z97X-SOC Force board deign is based on the previous generation Z87X-OC Force, featuring the same black and orange coloration typical to the series. The board does contain several evolutionary changes making the board easier to use and more appealing to its target users. At an MSRP of $209.99, the Z97X-S0C Force is competitively priced to appeal to all levels of enthusiasts.

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

GIGABYTE enhanced the board power regulation system designed into the current generation boards, allowing for use of a simplified cooling and fewer power phases. As a result, the Z97X-SOC Force is packed with 8-phase digital power circuit for the CPU, using International Rectifier (IR) based PowIRstage digital controllers and 10k-rated black solid capacitors to ensure system stability under any conditions. The Z97X-SOC Force board comes standard with the following integrated features: six SATA 3 ports; one SATA Express 10 Gb/s ports; a Qualcomm® Atheros Killer E2201 NIC; four PCI-Express x16 slots; a PCI-Express x1 slots; two PCI slots; 2-digit diagnostic LED display; on-board power, reset, CMOS clear, CMOS battery clear, OC Ignition, OC Tag, OC Turbo, OC Touch, Settings Lock, Direct to BIOS, and Memory Safe buttons; Dual-BIOS, active BIOS, and IC Trigger switches; OC PCIe and OC DIMM switch jumper blocks; integrated voltage measurement points; and USB 2.0 and 3.0 port support.

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Courtesy of GIGABYTE

Continue reading our review of the GIGABYTE Z97X-SOC Force motherboard!

Author:
Manufacturer: NVIDIA

A powerful architecture

In March of this year, NVIDIA announced the GeForce GTX Titan Z at its GPU Technology Conference. It was touted as the world's fastest graphics card with its pair of full GK110 GPUs but it came with an equally stunning price of $2999. NVIDIA claimed it would be available by the end of April for gamers and CUDA developers to purchase but it was pushed back slightly and released at the very end of May, going on sale for the promised price of $2999.

The specifications of GTX Titan Z are damned impressive - 5,760 CUDA cores, 12GB of total graphics memory, 8.1 TFLOPs of peak compute performance. But something happened between the announcement and product release that perhaps NVIDIA hadn't accounted for. AMD's Radeon R9 295X2, a dual-GPU card with full-speed Hawaii chips on-board, was released at $1499. I think it's fair to say that AMD took some chances that NVIDIA was surprised to see them take, including going the route of a self-contained water cooler and blowing past the PCI Express recommended power limits to offer a ~500 watt graphics card. The R9 295X2 was damned fast and I think it caught NVIDIA a bit off-guard.

As a result, the GeForce GTX Titan Z release was a bit quieter than most of us expected. Yes, the Titan Black card was released without sampling the gaming media but that was nearly a mirror of the GeForce GTX 780 Ti, just with a larger frame buffer and the performance of that GPU was well known. For NVIDIA to release a flagship dual-GPU graphics cards, admittedly the most expensive one I have ever seen with the GeForce brand on it, and NOT send out samples, was telling.

NVIDIA is adamant though that the primary target of the Titan Z is not just gamers but the CUDA developer that needs the most performance possible in as small of a space as possible. For that specific user, one that doesn't quite have the income to invest in a lot of Tesla hardware but wants to be able to develop and use CUDA applications with a significant amount of horsepower, the Titan Z fits the bill perfectly.

Still, the company was touting the Titan Z as "offering supercomputer class performance to enthusiast gamers" and telling gamers in launch videos that the Titan Z is the "fastest graphics card ever built" and that it was "built for gamers." So, interest peaked, we decided to review the GeForce GTX Titan Z.

The GeForce GTX TITAN Z Graphics Card

Cost and performance not withstanding, the GeForce GTX Titan Z is an absolutely stunning looking graphics card. The industrial design started with the GeForce GTX 690 (the last dual-GPU card NVIDIA released) and continued with the GTX 780 and Titan family, lives on with the Titan Z. 

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The all metal finish looks good and stands up to abuse, keeping that PCB straight even with the heft of the heatsink. There is only a single fan on the Titan Z, center mounted, with a large heatsink covering both GPUs on opposite sides. The GeForce logo up top illuminates, as we have seen on all similar designs, which adds a nice touch.

Continue reading our review of the NVIDIA GeForce GTX Titan Z 12GB Graphics Card!!

Author:
Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: Intel

A refresh for Haswell

Intel is not very good at keeping secrets recently. Rumors of a refreshed Haswell line of processors have been circulating for most of 2014.  In March, it not only confirmed that release but promised an even more exciting part called Devil's Canyon. The DC parts are still quad-core Haswell processors built on Intel's 22nm process technology, but change a few specific things. 

Intel spent some time on the Devil's Canyon Haswell processors to improve the packaging and thermals for overclockers and enthusiasts. The thermal interface material (TIM) that lies in between the die and the heat spreader has been updated to a next-generation polymer TIM (NGPTIM). The change should improve cooling performance of all currently shipping cooling solutions (air or liquid), but it is still a question just HOW MUCH this change will actually matter. 

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You can also tell from the photo comparison above that Intel has added capacitors to the back of the processor to "smooth" power delivery. This, in combination with the NGPTIM, should enable a bit more headroom for clock speeds with the Core i7-4790K.

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In fact, there are two Devil's Canyon processors being launched this month. The Core i7-4790K will sell for $339, the same price as the Core i7-4770K, while the Core i5-4690K will sell for $242. The lower end option is a 3.5 GHz base clock, 3.9 GHz Turbo clock quad-core CPU without HyperThreading. While a nice step over the Core i5-4670K, it's only 100 MHz faster. Clearly the Core i7-4790K is the part everyone is going to be scrambling to buy.

Another interesting change is that both the Core i7-4790K and the Core i5-4690K enable support for both Intel's VT-d virtualization IO technology and Intel's TSX-NI transactional memory instructions. This makes them the first enthusiast-grade unlocked processors from Intel to support them!

As Intel states it, the Core i7-4790K and the Core i5-4690K have been "designed to be used in conjunction with the Z97 chipset." That being said, at least one motherboard manufacturer, ASUS, has released limited firmware updates to support the Devil's Canyon parts on Z87 products. Not all motherboards are going to be capable, and not all vendors are going to the spend the time to integrate support, so keep an eye on the support page for your specific motherboard.

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The CPU itself looks no different on the top, save for the updated model numbering.

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Core i7-4790K on the left, Core i7-4770K on the right

On the back you can see the added capacitors that help with stable overclocking.

The clock speed advantage that the Core i7-4790K provides over the Core i7-4770K should not be overlooked, even before overclocking is taken into consideration. A 500 MHz base clock boost is 14% higher in this case and in those specific CPU-limited tasks, you should see very high scaling.

Continue reading our review of the Intel Core i7-4790K Devil's Canyon CPU!!

Author:
Manufacturer: MSI

Lightning Returns

With the GPU landscape mostly settled for 2014, we have the ability to really dig in and evaluate the retail models that continue to pop up from NVIDIA and AMD board partners. One of our favorite series of graphics cards over the years comes from MSI in the form of the Lightning brand. These cards tend to take the engineering levels to a point other designers simply won't do - and we love it! Obviously the target of this capability is additional overclocking headroom and stability, but what if the GPU target has issues scaling already?

That is more or less the premise of the Radeon R9 290X Lightning from MSI. AMD's Radeon R9 290X Hawaii GPU is definitely a hot and power hungry part and that caused quite a few issues at the initial release. Since then though, both AMD and its add-in card partners have worked to improve the coolers installed on these cards to improve performance reliability and decrease the LOUD NOISES produced by the stock, reference cooler.

Let's dive into the latest to hit our test bench, the MSI Radeon R9 290X Lightning.

The MSI Radeon R9 290X Lightning

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MSI continues to utilize the yellow and black color scheme that many of the company's high end parts integrate and I love the combination. I know that both NVIDIA and AMD disapprove of the distinct lack of "green" and "red" in the cooler and box designs, but good on MSI for sticking to its own thing. 

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The box for the Lightning card is equal to the prominence of the card itself and you even get a nifty drawer for all of the included accessories.

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We originally spotted the MSI R9 290X Lightning at CES in January and the design remains the same. The cooler is quite large (and damn heavy) and is cooled by a set of three fans. The yellow fan in the center is smaller and spins a bit faster, creating more noise than I would prefer. All fan speeds can be adjusted with MSI's included fan control software.

Continue reading our review of the MSI Radeon R9 290X Lightning Graphics Card!!

Author:
Subject: Processors, Mobile
Manufacturer: AMD
Tagged: amd, FX, fx-7600p, Kaveri

Kaveri Goes Mobile

The processor market is in an interesting place today. At the high end of the market Intel continues to stand pretty much unchallenged, ranging from the Ivy Bridge-E at $1000 to the $300 Haswell parts available for DIY users. The same could really be said for the mobile market - if you want a high performance part the default choice continues to rest with Intel. But AMD has some interesting options that Intel can't match when you start to enter the world of the mainstream notebook. The APU was slow to develop but it has placed AMD in a unique position, separated from the Intel processors with a more or less reversed compute focus. While Intel dominates in the performance on the x86 side of things, the GPU in AMD's latest APUs continue to lead in gaming and compute performance.

The biggest problem for AMD is that the computing software ecosystem still has not caught up with the performance that a GPU can provide. With the exception of games, the GPU in a notebook or desktop remains under utilized. Certain software vendors are making strides - see the changes in video transcoding and image manipulation - but there is still some ground AMD needs to accelerate down.

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Today we are looking at the mobile version of Kaveri, AMD's latest entry into the world of APUs. This processor combines the latest AMD processor architecture with a GCN-based graphics design for a pretty advanced part. When the desktop version of this processor was released, we wrote quite a bit about the architecture and the technological advancements made into, including becoming the first processor that is fully HSA compliant. I won't be diving into the architecture details here since we covered them so completely back in January just after CES.

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The mobile version of Kaveri is basically identical in architecture with some changes for better power efficiency. The flagship part will ship with 12 Compute Cores (4 Steamroller x86 cores and 8 GCN cores) and will support all the same features of GCN graphics designs including the new Mantle API.

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Early in the spring we heard rumors that the AMD FX brand was going to make a comeback! Immediately enthusiasts were thinking up ways AMD could compete against the desktop Core i7 parts from Intel; could it be with 12 cores? DDR4 integration?? As it turns out...not so much.

Continue reading our preview of the AMD FX-7600P Mobile Kaveri APU!!

Subject: Storage
Manufacturer: Intel
Tagged: ssd, pcie, NVMe, Intel, DC P3700

Introduction, Specifications and Packaging

Introduction:

Intel has a nasty habit of releasing disruptive technology, especially in the area of computer storage. Among the first of those releases was the X25-M, which was groundbreaking to say the least. At a time where most other SATA SSDs were just stopgap attempts to graft flash memory to a different interface, Intel's SATA SSD was really the first true performer.

With performance in the bag, Intel shifted their attention to reducing the cost of their products. The next few generations of the Intel line was coupled with leadership in die shrinks. This all came together in the form of SSD releases of increasingly reduced cost. Sure the enterprise parts retained a premium, but the consumer parts generally remained competitive.

Now Intel appears to have once again shifted their attention to performance, and we know it has been in the works for a while now. With the SATA bottleneck becoming increasingly apparent, big changes needed to me made. First, SATA, while fine for relatively high latency HDD's, was just never meant for SSD speeds. As SSD performance increased, the latencies involved with the interface overhead (translating memory-based addresses into ATA style commands) becomes more and more of a burden.

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The solution is to not only transition to PCIe, but to do so using a completely new software and driver interface, called NVM Express. NVMe has been in the works for a while, and offers some incredible benefits in that it essentially brings the flash memory closer to the CPU. The protocol was engineered for the purpose of accessing flash memory as storage, and doing so as fast and with the least latency as possible. We hadn't seen any true NVMe products hit the market, until today, that is:

Behold the Intel SSD DC P3700!

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Read on for our initial review!

Subject: Storage
Manufacturer: Crucial
Tagged: ssd, sata, mx100, crucial, 16nm

Introduction, Specifications and Packaging

Introduction:

Back in July of last year, Micron announced production of 16nm flash memory. These were the same 128gbit dies as the previous gen parts, but 16nm means the dies are smaller, meaning more dies from a single wafer, ultimately translating to lower end user cost.

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It takes a bit of time for those new flash die shrinks to trickle into mainstream products. Early yields from a given shrink tend to not have competitive endurance on initial production. As production continues, the process gets tweaked, resulting in greater and longer enduring yields.

Continue reading for the full scoop!!

Author:
Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: ASUS

Tablet Specifications

In many ways, the Google Nexus 7 has long been the standard of near perfection for an Android tablet. With a modest 7-inch screen, solid performance and low cost, the ASUS-built hardware has stood through one major revision as our top selection. Today though, a new contender in the field makes its way to the front of the pack in the form of the ASUS MeMO Pad 7 (ME176C). At $150, this new 7-inch tablet has almost all the hallmarks to really make an impact in the Android ecosystem. Finally.

The MeMO Pad 7 is not a new product family, though. It has existed with Mediatek processors for quite some time with essentially the same form factor. This new ME176C model makes some decisions that help it break into a new level of performance while maintaining the budget pricing required to really take on the likes of Google. By coupling the MeMO Pad brand with the Intel Bay Trail Atom processor, the two companies firmly believe they have a winner; but do they?

I have to admit that my time with the ASUS MeMO Pad 7 (ME176C) has been short; shorter than I would have liked to offer a truly definitive take on this mobile platform. I prefer to take the time to work the tablet into my daily work and home routines. Reading, browsing, email, etc. This allows me to filter though any software intricacies that might make or break a purchasing decision. Still, I think the ASUS design is going to live up to my expectations and is worth every penny of the $150 price tag.

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The ASUS MeMO Pad 7 has a 1280x800 resolution IPS screen. This 7-inch device is powered by the new Intel Atom Z3745 quad-core SoC with 1GB of memory and 16GB of on-board storage. The front facing camera is of the 2MP variety while the rear facing camera is 5MP - but you will likely be as disappointed in the image quality of the photos as I was. Connectivity options include the microUSB port for charging and data transfer along with 802.11b/g/n 2.4 GHz WiFi (sorry, no 5.0 GHz option here). Bluetooth 4.0 allows for low power data sync with other devices you might have and our model shipped with Android 4.4.2 already pre-installed. 

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The rear of the ASUS MeMO Pad is a pseudo rubber/plastic type material that is easy to grip while not leaving fingerprints behind - a solid combination. The center mounted camera lens takes decent pictures - but I can't put any more praise on it than that. It was easy to find image quality issues with photos even in full daylight. It's hard to know how disappointed to be considering the price, but the Nexus 7 has better optical hardware.

Continue reading our review of the ASUS MeMO Pad 7 ME176C!!

Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: ASUS

Introduction and Technical Specifications

Introduction

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Courtesy of ASUS

The ASUS Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1 motherboard is the newest member of thier TUF (The Ultimate Force) series. The board features the Intel Z97 chipset, but keeps the aesthetics and functionality you have come to expect from TUF series boards, and more specifically the Sabertooth line. That does not mean to say that ASUS did not improve the design of the Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1 board. The Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1 comes with a premium MSRP of $249.99 with features to justify its premium price point.

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Courtesy of ASUS

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Courtesy of ASUS

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Courtesy of ASUS

ASUS used the previous Sabertooth board as a template to design and improve upon the Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1. The board includes the line's signature TUF Thermal Armor board overlay and TUF Fortifier back plate. With the new revision of the Thermal Armor, ASUS integrated two optional fans into its design as well as flow ports above the CPU VRM heat sinks to adjust the airflow through the Thermal Armor. The board is designed with an 8 phase digital power system with alloy chokes redesigned to run cooler than previous generation chokes, 10k-rated Titanium capacictors, and military-grade TUF MOSFETs. Additionally, ASUS integrated on board ESD (elctro-static discharge) protection into the rear panel keyboard/mouse, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, LAN, and audio ports to protect the motherboard and integrated components from voltage fluctuations and power surges.

Continue reading our review of the ASUS Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1 Motherboard Review!

Subject: Storage
Manufacturer: Thecus

Introduction

The N2310 is a budget dual-bay NAS from Thecus and an interesting product beyond the low cost for this category, boasting a number of features that help set it apart.

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Apart from the primary role of a network attached storage (NAS) device - you know, storage - there are some interesting things a piece of hardware like the N2310 can do. This inexpensive NAS is actually a server, too, so beyond storing up to 8TB of data it’s powerful enough to replace a dedicated PC for certain tasks - the kind of tasks that some of us leave a PC running 24/7 to accomplish.

In this review we’ll take a look at some of the functionality that helps set the N2310 apart, as well as the kind of real-world performance you might expect to see.

It’s All About the Gigabytes

There are more reasons now than ever before for large storage options. Even though SSD’s are at their lowest prices ever most of us still need to supplement a fast boot drive with some traditional spinning disks. Just think about what accumulates in an average year on your PC… photos, music, videos, program backups and images, you name it. All those GB’s have to go somewhere, and there are obviously internal and external hard drives to share the load. However, regardless of the local storage option you might chose, it’s not always so convenient to actually access this stuff again. Clearly, the easier it is to access your files, the better - and not just from one device. So, having centralized storage is a great idea, right?

Between computers, tablets, and of course our phones, there are generally quite a few connected devices in the average technology-inclined home. And while every device mentioned can connect to the internet - and cloud storage has become very popular - there's still something to be said for local content management. Beyond the convenience of sharing sometimes massive amounts of data easily at home, another benefit of always-on storage is backup. Ideally, every computer in the home would be backed up locally as well as the cloud, and a great way to take care of the local side of backup is with a NAS. Setting one up is very easy these days, with a growing number of affordable options from various vendors.

Thecus makes an interesting case for a budget NAS with the N2310. For a comparison, Allyn recently looked at Western Digital’s My Cloud EX2 network drive, and this is a highly polished all-in-one solution is now selling for about $199 (without drives). The Thecus N2310 is less expensive at $149, and both offer two 3.5” drive bays. (The My Cloud is also offered pre-populated with drives providing up to 8TB of storage.) These “diskless” enclosures present a good opportunity to save some money up front, and whether you choose to run on two drives you happened to have around the house or office, or if you want to go out and grab a couple of Western Digital 4TB Red drives, they can accommodate your situation.

Let’s take a look at the Thecus N2310.

Continue reading our review of the Thecus N2310 SOHO NAS Server!!

Author:
Manufacturer: Various

The AMD Argument

Earlier this week, a story was posted in a Forbes.com blog that dove into the idea of NVIDIA GameWorks and how it was doing a disservice not just on the latest Ubisoft title Watch_Dogs but on PC gamers in general. Using quotes from AMD directly, the author claims that NVIDIA is actively engaging in methods to prevent game developers from optimizing games for AMD graphics hardware. This is an incredibly bold statement and one that I hope AMD is not making lightly. Here is a quote from the story:

Gameworks represents a clear and present threat to gamers by deliberately crippling performance on AMD products (40% of the market) to widen the margin in favor of NVIDIA products. . . . Participation in the Gameworks program often precludes the developer from accepting AMD suggestions that would improve performance directly in the game code—the most desirable form of optimization.

The example cited on the Forbes story is the recently released Watch_Dogs title, which appears to show favoritism towards NVIDIA GPUs with performance of the GTX 770 ($369) coming close the performance of a Radeon R9 290X ($549).

It's evident that Watch Dogs is optimized for Nvidia hardware but it's staggering just how un-optimized it is on AMD hardware.

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Watch_Dogs is the latest GameWorks title released this week.

I decided to get in touch with AMD directly to see exactly what stance the company was attempting to take with these kinds of claims. No surprise, AMD was just as forward with me as they appeared to be in the Forbes story originally.

The AMD Stance

Central to AMD’s latest annoyance with the competition is the NVIDIA GameWorks program. First unveiled last October during a press event in Montreal, GameWorks combines several NVIDIA built engine functions into libraries that can be utilized and accessed by game developers to build advanced features into games. NVIDIA’s website claims that GameWorks is “easy to integrate into games” while also including tutorials and tools to help quickly generate content with the software set. Included in the GameWorks suite are tools like VisualFX which offers rendering solutions like HBAO+, TXAA, Depth of Field, FaceWorks, HairWorks and more. Physics tools include the obvious like PhysX while also adding clothing, destruction, particles and more.

Continue reading our editorial on the verbal battle between AMD and NVIDIA about the GameWorks program!!

Author:
Subject: Displays
Manufacturer: ASUS

4K for $649

The growth and adoption of 4K resolution panels (most commonly 3840x2160) has really been the biggest story of the past year or so in the world of PC gaming. After a couple of TVs that ran at 3840x2160 over HDMI at 30 Hz found there way into our offices, the first real 60 Hz 4K monitor that I got some hands on time with was the ASUS PQ321Q. This monitor was definitely targeted at the profressional market with its IGZO display (near IPS quality) and somewhat high price tag of $3500. It has since dropped to $2400 or so but it remains somewhat complicated by the use of MST technology (multi-stream transport) that was required to hit 60 Hz.

Earlier this month I took a look at the Samsung U28D590D 28-in 4K panel that was capable of 60 Hz refresh rates for just $699. This display used a single-stream transport DisplayPort connection to keep setup simple but used a TN panel rather than IPS/IGZO. This meant viewing angles were not as strong (though better than most TN screens you have seen before) but...that price! 

Today we have our second low cost, SST 4K monitor to evaluate, the ASUS PB287Q. We saw it at CES back in January and with a launch date of June 10th and an MSRP $649, ASUS is setting itself up for an impressive release. 

So what can you expect if you purchase the ASUS PB287Q 4K monitor? In short you get an adequate screen that won't live up to IPS standards but is just good enough for the PC gamer and productivity user in all of us. You'll also get a form factor that well exceeds that of the Samsung U28D590D with fully moveable stand and VESA mounting. And a price of $649 for a 3840x2160 screen doesn't hurt either.

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Read on the next pages for more details on the user experience in Windows 8.1 as well as while gaming to see if this is the right monitor for you to buy this summer!

Continue reading our review of the ASUS PB287Q 4K 60 Hz 28-in Monitor!!