|Introduction and Specifications|
For many of you, Maingear Computer may not be a household name and that would probably be just fine with the folks out at the shop in Union New Jersey. Loosely classified as a specialty high performance system builder and retailer, Maingear's mission statement on style, performance and quality claims that they strive to not just provide customers with a computer but rather with a "way of life". That's certainly fitting because the target demographic for the type of machines Maingear builds, probably sees high performance computing as a way of life as well. In short, Maingear has a tall order to fill catering to the computing enthusiast, but you all knew that we suspect. That's why you're here at HotHardware right now. The Maingear Ephex high performance gaming system we'll be looking at in the following pages is just the type of high-end product we like to sink our teeth into around here.
In the pages ahead, we'll go through the design, build quality and performance of Maingear's Ephex high performance gaming system configured with 3-Way SLI technology from NVIDIA. We were introduced to Maingear in the process of NVIDIA's 3-Way SLI launch, when NVIDIA had the company ship us a system to test and evaluate 3-Way SLI technology in general. Obviously, NVIDIA felt Maingear's Ephex system build was high quality enough to send out to the press on behalf of their new 3-Way SLI technology. So the question is, beyond 3-Way SLI, does Maingear's Ephex live up to customer expectations of a super high-end gaming system as whole? That's why we're here, so let's journey on.
The Maingear Ephex system we received was configured with an NVIDIA 680i chipset-based motherboard from EVGA as well as an Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850 quad-core processor that is based on the original 65nm Kentsfield architecture. Since we received the system in December, NVIDIA has come out with the new nForce 780i chipset which supports Intel's new 1,333MHz FSB for the 45nm Core 2 Extreme QX9650 quad-core processor as well. Maingear will actually ship systems based on this newer configuration moving forward. As you'll note in the system specs above, the QX6850 CPU is water-cooled and overclocked from the factory at 3.8GHz. In addition, a 4GHz model is available now as well, based on the nForce 780i and Core 2 Extreme QX9650 configuration, should you feel the need for even more speed beyond what is obviously already a dragster configuration.
Our particular test unit came with a flat black brushed aluminum finish, though custom paint jobs like the gorgeous blue flame artwork seen above are also available. Let's get a closer look at the outside skins of this beast, next...
|Maingear Ephex: Exterior Design and Quality|
The Ephex system we received came equipped with a flat black Silverstone TJ10 full tower case, which unfortunately was a bit prone to fingerprints, but that didn't stop us from getting our mitts all over it for closer inspection.
A cold cathode light flanks the inside left corner of the Ephex's side panel window, illuminating the interior with a cool blue hue. If you're familiar with any of Silverstone's chassis lineup, you'll know this case is built like a tank with a thick gauge aluminum front bezel and large side induction vents that mate up to the intake ports of a custom engineered fan shroud, where a 120mm fan pulls cool air into the motherboard area of the case. The backside of the chassis is also equipped with a pair of cooling tube ports for an external watercooling solution, though, as you'll see shortly, Maingear decided to go with a self contained approach from Asetek. All told, the fit and finish of the Maingear Ephex is a clean and high quality design, thanks mostly to the selection of the Silverstone TJ10 for the system's chassis requirement.
Maingear included an LG Blu Ray DVD drive with our build as well as a 5-in-1 Flash Card reader in the single 2.5" bay, leaving three 5.25" bays available for expansion. The top side of the case has two large 120mm exhaust fans for heat ventilation out the top of the system as well as for the integrated Asetek LCLC liquid cooling system radiator unit.
|Maingear Ephex: Interior Design and Quality|
The interior of the Maingear Ephex turned out to be a case study in superior cable management and design layout. As you'll note in the pictures below, this Ephex system is extremely clean and well organized internally.
Strapped in tight and ready for battle are three EVGA GeForce 8800 Ultra graphics cards, which consume every available slot in the chassis, except for the PCI Express X1 slot in the first position, where Maingear elected to install the system's cold cathode light switch that is available on the systems IO back-plate. On a side note, we'd offer that the way the Silverstone TJ10 is designed it is a bit cumbersome if you're the type that likes to have quick access and availability of pulling or moving cards in the system. The side panel inside trim plate you see in the top left shot actually obstructs the area over the card slots, preventing direct access to their retaining screws unless you poke a long screw driver through the slot's access hole directly above it. As you can imagine, unless you have a long magnetic screw driver, things can get sort of awkward here. Ultimately you can remove the trim plate all together to gain unrestricted access but that takes removal of even more hardware, which is less than optimal.
In addition, with three of NVIDIA's behemoth flagship graphics cards operating in 3-Way SLI, an overclocked Core 2 Extreme Quad-Core processor and three hard drives, Maingear needed to back-up this system with a serious power plant, namely Silverstone's own DA1200 PSU. The DA1200 has a continuous power output capacity of 1200 Watts; that's not peak power output mind you but continuous. NVIDIA's system specs for 3-Way SLI call for a PSU capable of 1100 Watts peak power, so the DA1200 is more than up to the task. The Silverstone DA1200 also has dual 8-pin PCI Express and six 6-pin PCI Express power connectors at its disposal, and it offers 1080 Watts / 90Amps of power across its single +12V rail -- in short, and we don't say this sort of thing too often, that's some kick-ass power.
Another nice feature of the Silverstone TJ10 case is its removable drive cage that has a simple press fit design that easily clips in and out of position. Again, a 120mm intake fan is positioned in front of the drives and actually pulls cool air into the general motherboard area but also circulates a lot of air over the drives themselves as well. Finally, you can get a good look at the new Asetek LCLC self-contained liquid cooling system that Maingear employed in this particular Ephex build. As an option to "Redline Your CPU", users can select this water cooling system on Maingear's site at time of configuration and purchase for a $300 premium, but that also comes with a warranty-backed 4GHz overclock for a QX9650 CPU or in our case 3.8GHz for the QX6850 that was installed in our test system. Overall the Asetek LCLC works really well, keeping the QX6850 quad-core CPU at a comfortable 55°C or less under heavy load, even at its aggressive overclocked speed.
In addition, the LCLC and the entire system as a whole was relatively quiet, especially when you consider the amount of horsepower under its hood. The loudest component in the system seemed to be the Silverstone PSU but even that was more than reasonable for the amount of power it can produce. In short, if you're in the market for a system with specs like this, you'll expect the acoustics to scale a bit along with performance, but we have to say the Maingear Ephex does a decent job of keeping noise in check.
|Test Systems and SANDRA|
How the test system was configured: We tested the Ephex 3-Way SLI system exactly as it came configured from Maingear. The system was shipped with its Core 2 Extreme QX6850 CPU pre-overclocked to 3.8GHz and Windows Vista Ultimate (32-bit edition) installed. NVIDIA's official Forceware 169.18 beta drivers came installed on the system along with the latest DX update. The only modification made to the Ephex was the upgrade of NVIDIA's Foreware drives to the full release 169.25 version.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA XII, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA XI suite with the Maingear Ephex ( CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth) . All of the scores reported below were taken with the system running as configured by Maingear with a CPU clock speed of 3.8GHz.
In these synthetic, low-level system benchmarks, the Maingear Ephex obviously outpaced the stock systems used in SANDRA's reference library, thanks to its significant CPU clock speed advantage. In all of the tests, the Maingear Ephex was roughly 10% to 15% faster than the reference systems, with the exception of the memory test, where the Ephex's modestly configured 1066MHz DDR2 memory and 1266MHz FSB (317MHzX4) couldn't keep up with some of the newer DDR3 Intel based and AMD Phenom based systems.
For our next round of benchmarks, we ran all of the modules built into Futuremark's PCMark Vantage test suite. Vantage is a new benchmarking tool that we've incorporated into our arsenal of tests here at HotHardware. Here's how Futuremark positions their benchmarking suite:
In the overall PCMark Vantage performance test, we see the Maingear Ephex and its 3.8GHz overclocked Core 2 Extreme QX6850, outpace the QX9650-based system by over 15%. However, there are a number of performance metrics that go into this final weighted score, so we'll dig into the individual PCMark Vantage tests, next.
The PCMark Vantage "Memories" suite includes the following tests:
Memories 1 - Two simultaneous threads, CPU image manipulation and HDD picture import
In this test, overall system bandwidth with faster DDR3 system memory allowed the QX9650 system to stay within a 2% striking distance of the Maingear Ephex, though the Ephex has an 800MHz CPU clock speed advantage.
TV and Movies 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Video transcoding: HD DVD to media server archive, Video playback: HD DVD w/ additional lower bitrate HD content from HDD, as downloaded from the net
Vantage's TV and Movie test offers similar results, though the Maingear Ephex held a 4% edge over the QX9650 reference test system.
Courtesy, Futuremark: "Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment for all ages. Today’s games demand high performance graphics cards and CPUs to avoid delays and sluggish performance while playing. Loading screens in games are yesterday’s news. Streaming data from an HDD in games – such as Alan Wake™ – allows for massive worlds and riveting non-stop action. CPUs with many cores give a performance advantage to gamers in real-time strategy and massively multiplayer games. Gaming Suite includes the following tests: "
Gaming 1 - GPU game test
PCMark Vantage's 'Gaming' test, which borrows some of its assets from 3DMark06's game tests, shows the Maingear Ephex slightly behind the QX9650 reference system. The power of 3-Way SLI are not fully exploited in this test, and Vantage didn't place as much weight on the GPU-bound portions of its test versus its CPU and memory bandwidth focused metrics.
|PCMark Vantage Continued|
We continue our test coverage with a few more modules from the comprehensive PCMark Vantage suite of benchmarks.
Music 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Web page rendering – w/ music shop content, Audio transcoding: WAV -> WMA lossless, HDD: Adding music to Windows Media Player
Here the Maingear Ephex pulls way out in front of all competitors, with a sizable 14% advantage over even the Core 2 Extreme QX9650. This test is heavily affected by raw clock speed, though parts of are in fact multithreaded as well.
Vantage Communications suite includes the following tests:
Communications 1 - Three simultaneous threads, Data encryption: CNG AES CBC, Data compression, Web page rendering: graphics content, 1024x768, windowed
The results from Vantage's Communications test mirror those of the music test above, and for the mostly the same reasons, though this time our Ephex system posted a 22% lead over the fastest reference system we tested.
Vantage Productivity suite includes the following tests:
Productivity 1 - Two simultaneous threads, Text editing, HDD: application loading
In the Vantage Productivity test, the Ephex's overall high-end configuration, including not only its overclocked 3.8GHz processor but its pair of WD Raptor drives in RAID 0, allow it to chalk up a commanding 26% performance lead over our fastest reference system.
The Vantage HDD suite includes the following tests:
HDD 1 - HDD: Windows Defender
In the HDD test obviously the Maingear Ephex has an unfair advantage with its WD Raptor RAID 0 configuration, though of course these reference numbers are here just to give you a sense of relative performance versus more mainstream system configurations.
|Lame MT MP3 Encode and POV-Ray Raytracing|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
The AMD Phenoms in this test are sadly outclassed by even the Core 2 Duo E6850 dual core system in both the single and multithreaded tests. Beyond that the rest of the numbers speak for themselves really. The Maingear Ephex was 23% faster overall versus the fastest reference system we put against it.
POV-Ray, or the Persistence of Vision Ray-Tracer, is a top-notch open source tool for creating realistically lit 3D graphics artwork. We tested with POV-Ray's standard included benchmarking model on all of our test machines and recorded the scores reported for each. We shoudl also note that we used the latest 64-bit beta build of the program. Results are measured in pixels-per-second throughput.
More of the same is seen in our POV-Ray scoring, with a 20% advantage awarded to the Maingear Ephex, though both Intel quad-core setups blew all other configurations clean out of the water.
|Cinebench R10 and Kribibench|
The beat goes on, chalk up another decisive victory for the Maingear Ephex and its 3.8GHz factory overclocked CPU. The Maingear system nearly doubles the performance of our Phenom 9700 test systems.
For this next batch of tests, we ran Kribibench v1.1, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer where a 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU and the average frame rate is reported.
We used two of the included models with this benchmark: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and the test suite's "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.
Our Ultra model test shows a 15% gain with the Ephex numbers versus the QX9650 reference system but only a modest 4.5% gain in the Sponge Exploded model run; perhaps a nod toward memory bandwidth and system bus speed advantage for the QX9650 setup.
|Crysis and 3DMark06 CPU and System Testing|
When testing full systems with Crysis, we drop the resolution to 800x600, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.
3DMark06's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded DirectX gaming metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance. Calculations that are normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering. The frame-rate generated in each test is used to determine the final score.
Things scaled exactly as we expected in both of these CPU-bound gaming tests, with the Maingear Ephex still taking top honors by roughly a 9% margin versus the fastest stock quad-core setup we tested. Next, we'll look at real-world gaming performance with the Maingear Ephex and what 3-Way SLI brings you over standard SLI or even a single GPU setup.
|ET Quake Wars High End Gaming Performance|
In our next series of gaming tests, we're intentionally not looking at the traditional comparison benchmarks versus our other reference test systems. Rather, we're want to offer you a view of what this system can do with a single, dual-SLI and 3-Way SLI NVIDIA graphics setup under the hood. As such, the remainder of our gaming tests are not CPU bound test conditions, but instead are high image quality GPU bound benchmark runs in some of the most leading-edge game engines of today.
With the Maingear Ephex, it's a fairly straight forward calculation, seeing where SLI and 3-Way SLI scale in performance, especially with a 3.8GHz quad-core CPU driving the graphics pipline. What's obvious here is that you don't need 3-Way SLI actually to drive excellent frame rates at super high def 2560X1600 resolutions, even with 4X or 8X AA turned on. In fact, a single card runs this game just fine at 2560X1600 with 4X AA enabled but we know some of you might jones at the site of these 3-Way SLI scores where even 8X AA settings hold up to well over 60 fps. Simply put, outstanding.
|Company of Heros High End Gaming Performance|
In the next few test runs, we decided to include some reference numbers from various competitive GPUs, to give you a sense of how the Maingear Ephex system performed, whether it was configured with 3-Way SLI, standard SLI or single GPU configurations.
Here we see fairly significant gains for the Ephex, with its 3-Way SLI setup, but at more modest resolutions the breakout isn't as dramatic. Let's look at things at a 2560X1600 HD gaming resolution and also compare things from a single card on up to 3-Way performance.
In this test, we've given you benchmarks only from the Maingear Ephex system but with 1 to 3 GeForce 8800 Ultra cards installed to show you how things scale from a GPU standpoint. At these insanely high resolutions that are only available on 30" LCDs, 3-Way SLI really begins to show its value proposition. 3-Way SLI is about 40% faster than standard SLI and 150+% faster than a single card in this test and the Maingear Ephex has the horsepower to back up three GeForce 8800 Ultras slicing at the graphics workload in unison.
|Crysis High End Gaming Performance|
We also spent some time testing the graphically intense game Crysis on the Maingear Ephex system, at a variety of resolutions and with varying levels of anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.
At more mainstream wide-screen resolutions of 1680x1050 and 1920x1200, we see the Maingear Ephex put up some respectable scores in Crysis. Please take note, that in the graphs above, the lower resolution was tested with the game set to its highest image quality settings, which is why performance at 1680 is below that of 1920.
With Crysis' image quality settings set at an even more demanding 1680x1050 with 4X anti-aliasing, we also checked performance scaling from using one, two, or three GeForce cards. As you can see, performance is significantly increased with the SLI configurations, with the 3-Way SLI setup clearly on top.
|Power Consumption and Acoustics|
We have one final data point we'd like to cover before bringing this article to a close. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each of the system configurations we tested used while idling and running under load.
|Wrap-up and High Level Evaluation|
From a gaming performance standpoint, you simply can't currently buy a faster machine than one that is configured with NVIDIA's 3-Way SLI technology, like the Maingear Ephex. There is but one caveat to this and that is you simply must be running at resolutions or 1920X1200 and up to really see the tangible benefits of 3-Way SLI. Anything short of that and you're just wasting power and GPU cycles. In reality, a standard dual-GPU SLI configuration may be more practical overall.
We've spent a solid month testing and working with the Maingear Ephex high performance gaming system. Though our system came factory overclocked at a robust 3.8GHz processor speed, along with not one but three GeForce 8800 Ultras in its slots, the system performed flawlessly, never once showing any sign of instability. This in and of itself is a sizable achievement, given its power consumption and the thermal challenges that come with the territory in an elite high-end configuration like this. There's really no secret to Maingear's achievement here though, as solid component selection, meticulous build quality and cable management usually equates to a high quality system when all is said and done. The Ephex was an excellent example of what a smaller high quality system builder can put together with proper attention to detail. If Maingear stays on this path, they may not remain that small for long.
The final question we have to ask ourselves is with respect to value. Without question, the Maingear Ephex 3-Way SLI gaming system is a very expensive system, that obviously equates to the sum of its parts. When you're starting with over $2000 in graphics cards and processors alone, it's obvious that you're looking at a system that will need a bit of executive clearance with your significant other. Quite frankly, we'd suggest serious gamers look at the Ephex with a standard SLI or single GPU configuration, since 3-Way is squarely targeted to those where money is simply no object. Regardless of how you slice it though, Maingear certainly knows how to build 'em right. Hats off Maingear - the Ephex has landed and she's sitting pretty.