Electronic Design

Best Computer of 2006 Goes Quad

It was interesting to view the contrasts between last year's Best PC (EiED Online>> Best Computer Of 2005, ED Online ID 11574) and this year's quad core powerhouse utilizing Intel's new Core Duo 2 Extreme QX6700 processor with its 775-landing multichip package. The chip itself is about the same size as the AMD Athlon used last year but it double the number of cores.

The other big change was on the display side with a nod to the latest big screen systems in your favorite electronics store. We used a 27-in. widescreen HDTV, the Viewsonic N2761w, for the monitor.

A quick overview of the parts is next but definitely check out the links to individual reviews of each component used in the system for more details. The overview is followed by the construction steps and finally a quick wrap up of the system's operation.

Matching Powerful Parts

The key to a good system is mixing components that properly support each other. Of course, a top of the line system like this winds up using the best components available at the time.

At the heart of the system is the Intel Core Duo 2 Extreme QX6700 processor. Each of the four processor cores is running at 2.66 GHz. They share access to a 1066-MHz memory system populated by Corsair's Dominator XMS2-8500. The Dominator XMS2-8500 handles speeds up to 1111 MHz with latencies of 5-5-5-15. We used a matched pair of 1-Gbyte units in this project, but the motherboard, Intel's D975XBX2, can handle up to 8 Gbytes of memory using 1-Gbit technology.

The D975XBX2, code named Bad Axe 2, is an ATX motherboard. It has three PCI Express slots and two PCI slots, although only a combination of three boards is allowed. Even with this limited number of slots, the motherboard can handle a great deal including eight Serial ATA drives (four with hardware RAID support). Of course, we matched this with a pair of 750-Gbyte Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 SATA hard disks in a RAID 1 configuration.

It also handled the two ATI X1950XTX graphics cards with CrossFire support from AMD and BFG Technologies' Physics Processor Board with Ageia's PhysX chip. These provide the highest performance level of gaming support around. The four main processors handle the main aspects of the game while the physics board tracks the simulated world and the two video boards handle the display.

Packing this hardware into a case is no easy task, and powering it is even harder. The quad core processors are actually running pretty cool but power requirements when you add in multiple drives and multiple video cards make for a heavy to power supply unit (PSU) like Enermax's Galaxy 1000W. It is one big PSU. We matched it with one big UPS (uninterruptible power supply) from APC, the Smart-UPS 2200VA USB.

The Galaxy 1000W will not fit into just any case so we turned to Enermax again for its stylish ECA3052-BS case. It has a giant fan on the side. Just the thing for multiple video cards and for gamers who want to overclock without turning to liquid cooling.

The ECA3052-BS case (Fig. 1) we received is solid black that matches the black 27-in. Viewsonic N2761w wide screen HDTV. It dominates the desktop and is enough to handle a small room as a TV alone. We chose this display because it provides a large viewing area, thereby eliminating the need for dual monitors. It also provides instant access and picture-in-picture display of HDTV content as well as PC output. Some users, especially gamers, may prefer the faster Viewsonic VX924 19-in. LCD (ED Online ID 11722) that we used last year, with its 3-ms response time.

Watching the latest movies might be nice with a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD drive but they are not available in quantity yet and it is unclear whether a universal drive will win out. This year we chose Hewlett-Packard's 940i DVD writer. It handle writing double-layer DVDs and it can print on LightScribe media like the new multicolor media from Verbatim.

Now we have the three black monstrosities (PC, HDTV and UPS). It made sense to stick with the color scheme and look at the slickest keyboard and mouse around, Logitech's diNovo Edge keyboard and MX Revolution mouse.

Now how about we put all this together.

Putting It Together

We start with the Enermax ECA3052-BS case that has a large interior (Fig. 2). It leaves plenty of room for lots of disk drives and it is large enough to fit the Enermax Galaxy 1000W power supply unit (PSU). The first thing we did after opening up the case was to install the power supply (Fig. 3). Although larger than most, it bolts onto the back of the case with four screws. A small ledge inside provides additional support. There is enough room to access the sockets for additional cables supported by the Galaxy PSU. On a smaller case you may want to plug in all the extra cables you expect to use prior to mounting the PSU.

The Intel D975XBX2 motherboard (Fig. 4) came with the quad core Duo 2 Extreme QX6700 processor installed, but the heat sink was in a separate box. It is relatively easy to install a chip in a ZIF (zero insertion force) socket in case you get the board without the processor.

The motherboard comes with a large heat sink (Fig. 5) and the thermal paste is provided in a plastic syringe. The heat sink has a solid copper base (Fig. 6). The paste is applied to the base and the top of the processor (Fig. 7). The two are then placed together with the heat sink feet matching up with four holes in the motherboard.

The four feet on the heat sink have plungers that must be pressed (Fig. 8) to lock the heat sink into place. The heat sink can be added to the motherboard after it is installed but it is a better idea to add it before. This allows the motherboard to sit on a flat surface where it will not flex.

The next step is to put the backplate that comes with the motherboard in the opening on the rear of the case. This matches the external connectors on the motherboard. The motherboard is then bolted down to the case (Fig. 9). Install all screws before tightening them.

One thing this motherboard has plenty of is power connections. All three must be installed for the motherboard to work properly. This includes the main connection (Fig. 10) and the 12-V power connector (Fig. 11) that most motherboards have. This motherboard has a secondary 12-V connector that uses the standard 4-pin connector (Fig. 12) found on disk drives. The latter cable is near the fan that is open. I used a plastic tie to attach the cable to the wire cage around the heat sink fan so the cable could not fall into the fan. In general, all cables should be tied down once everything is installed so they don't wind up in places they do not belong.

The next step is to install the front panel connections to the motherboard. This included three different kinds of cables. The first is for the audio support (Fig. 13). This turned out to be very easy since the motherboard matches the standard audio front panel connection that uses a single header instead of individual pin connections.

The second cable is for the power switch, reset buttons and status LEDs. This was done using individual pin connections. Finally there was the external SATA drive connection. This simply plugs into one of the motherboard's SATA connections. The last cable connection was for the large fan found on the side of the case (Fig. 14).

The memory was the next item to install. This consisted of two Corsair Dominator XMS2-8500 memory sticks (Fig. 15). These distinctive looking units have four metal heat sinks designed to keep the memory cool. This is especially important for those looking to overclock their PC. Heavy duty liquid cooling is the way to go if you really want to up the clock speed, but lots of fans and good heat sinks are usually sufficient for those that want to bend rather than break the rules. In addition, keeping the processors and memory cool increases their lifetime.

Moving on, we installed the pair of Seagate 750-Gbyte, Barracuda 7200.10 SATA drives (Fig. 16) in a RAID 1 configuration. 750 Gbytes is a lot of data and losing a drive means losing all the data. Installation of the drives was a snap after installing the side rails that come with the case. The drives then slide into a side facing rack (Fig. 17). The other drive bays are a bit more difficult to get to such as the floppy drive bay. The latter tend to be rather passé these days, what with USB memory sticks, so we don't even consider floppy drives. The drives were connected to the motherboard with standard SATA cables and a common power cable.

The removable interchange media of choice these days is DVDs or CDs, so it makes sense to install Hewlett-Packard 940i DVD writer (Fig. 18). It can handle any CD or DVD media, including LightScribe media, which you can write labels on using the drive. Verbatim has some new media that goes beyond the original, gold color LightScribe media.

The Enermax case has lots of external drive bays including a pair at the top designed to work with tray loading drives like the 940i. First you need to make sure both side panels are removed. You can then pop the four snaps holding the front panel so it can be removed. Looking at the back of the panel (Fig. 19) you can see the mechanism used to actuate the drive's eject button and how the metal spring-loaded drive-bay cover flips down. Alignment of the eject mechanism (Fig. 20) is as easy as sliding a piece of plastic to one side. The big trick is pushing the drive back as far as it will go in the drive bay to get the proper front-to-back alignment between the drive and the mechanism.

The 940i uses an IDE interface. Luckily the motherboard still has a single IDE connection. Eventually optical drives will move to SATA but for now only one vendor supplies them. The 940i uses the normal 4-pin power connector. We had to add another plug-in cable to the power supply for the 940i.

The only thing lacking to test the system was the display. First we needed to install the ATI X1950XTX CrossFire boards (Fig. 21) and then plug them into the 27-in. Viewsonic N2761w (Fig. 22). The N2761w takes VGA and HDMI inputs.

The X1950XTX video cards are heavy due to the large copper heat sink and built-in fan. In fact, the combination is heavier than that of the main processor. The fan takes air from the inside of the case and blows it out the back over the heat sink. The boards also require two rear slot openings. They plug into a 16x PCI Express socket. The motherboard spaces the sockets so two boards can be handled in addition to leaving space between them for better air movement.

Installing the boards was interesting. The case has small plastic clips that flip up allowing a board to be plugged in. Flipping them down locks the board in place. It is still a good idea to bolt them down anyway. Installing the first board required careful routing of the audio cable that plugs in just under the rear section of the boards. Installing the second board was almost as difficult since the cable had many extra single-pin connections that could get caught in the socket when plugging in the second card.

My next photo (Fig. 23) shows the two boards installed as well as the physics board to the left (which we will cover later). The next step was to install the cabling between the X1950XTX CrossFire boards (Fig. 24). The second board we installed was a normal X1950XTX board with a pair of DVI connectors on the back. The first board was the CrossFire board with a DVI connector and a pair of special D-connectors. The cable has a matching connector with four lock-down screws for this connector. One end of the cable goes to the other board. The other end goes to the monitor.

One thing you should not forget to do is plug in the PCI Express power supply cables from the Galaxy to each of the X1950XTX boards. The motherboard can deliver 75 W via the PCI Express socket, but the boards require more so an additional 75 W can come over these cables.

We now had enough hardware installed to test out the system and install Windows. We started with XP but Vista became available just as we finished up this article. Installation was typical. Windows starts with the basics and you need to install all the appropriate device drivers after downloading the latest from vendor websites. The process takes an hour or so depending upon what you are installing. I tend to have a lot of extra programs I like to include on the system too.

Over all, the installation was uneventful. ATI's drivers automatically handle the two boards, so there was little to tell what was under the hood. The same was true for the quad core support. You can find the system status in the Windows System properties but not much else. The Intel motherboard status application is handy for tracking the temperature and voltages. It was nice to see everything working nicely after turning down the CPU fan speed to 60%. It was rather noisy otherwise. It was something like an aircraft carrier during normal operations. The production version should address this issue.

The installation process also let me check out Logitech's MX Revolution mouse (Fig. 25) and the diNovo Edge keyboard (Fig. 26). Both are very nice. They can use the same USB Bluetooth dongle. Both have their own charging stations. They have two small contacts on the bottom like the keyboard shown here (Fig. 27). Installation works with just these but it is handy to have a wired keyboard around just in case.

Once I knew the system was relatively stable, I shut it down to install the BFG Technologies Physics board (Fig. 28). This has a Ageia PhysX chip (top) to increase the number of objects and computations a game can utilize by two orders of magnitude. The only thing to remember when installing this board is that it also uses an extra power cable. I had to plug another cable into the PSU for it.

The last hardware step was to install the APC Smart-UPS 2200VA USB (Fig. 29) unit that was charging. This is a hefty UPS, almost as large as the PC and even heavier. It has three individual output sections and it is large enough to handle the PC and display. Don't ever plug a laser printer into one of these things, although a UPS can handle most inkjets.

The UPS is also a USB device so it is recognized when you plug in its cable to the PC. Windows XP and Vista have their own power management software but I prefer APC's own PowerChute. It provides more insight into the status of the system.

Work, Work, Work: Playing Games, Watching HDTV

Getting the system up and running was an interesting exercise since I was able to watch the Viewsonic N2761w before the system was put together. It is a HDTV after all. The remote has nice features like a pair of favorite buttons so you can cycle between just those channels you want to view now instead of the entire collection. Unfortunately there are separate lists for the TV and HDTV tuners. There is one of each and you have to switch modes to view one. Individual tuners also mean separate antenna inputs that can be handy if you have digital cable and still want to check out the local stations.

The picture-in-picture support is nice to have. I was able to view input from other sources like a DVD player or a PC at the same time. Image scaling and other features are just a button press away.

Of course, I had to finish setting up the hardware so I could check out some of the games. While I don't have a full review of the games I did want to touch on the impact of the Agiea PhysX chip.

I started with Agiea's Hangar of Doom demo. This first person shooter places you in the middle of an airplane hangar with an anti-aircraft gun. Just the thing for shooting down airplanes that are strafing you as they fly through the hanger and out the other side. The interesting thing about the demo is the ability to simulate different video quality and the use of the PhysX chip. As I noted elsewhere, the differences are noticeable but subtle when playing fast first- or third-person shooting games. I had to act, stop and watch to see the differences. Eventually it was easy to see what was happening as the scenes were more complex and movement was smoother and more natural. Objects that broke up had more complex movements, although some objects remained intact. I suspect that this is more of an issue of game designers taking advantage of the chip rather than any limitation on its performance.

I was also able to check out some other titles that take advantage of the PhysX chip like Cryptic Studios' City of Villians (Fig. 30), distributed by NCsoft. This is a massive multiplayer game that is part of a series that includes, of course, City of Heroes. Like Hanger of Doom, the game takes advantage of the PhysX chip but it is obvious that even more could be done. This is similar to taking advantage of the capabilities of the X1950XTX dual board solution. These are top of the line hardware enhancements and the game designers have to put together a game that not only addresses these platforms but the less capable ones as well.

The other game was Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (Fig. 31) from Ubisoft. This seems more refined in terms of taking advantage of the PhysX chip. Still, there is definitely more to come. Having the horsepower to handle the details of the physical environment is something relatively new but it is definitely worth having.

Over all, the hardware and software combination worked well. The wireless Logitech mouse and keyboard let me place the large HDTV near the back of the desk. The keyboard provides volume controls so I was not always playing with the Viewsonic remote. It was definitely the Best PC of 2006.

Related Links

American PowerConversion

ATI Technologies/AMD

BFG Technologies










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