|Intro, Specifications and Features|
Since you are here, reading this and potentially some other articles and news about PC hardware, you've probably attended or at least heard of LAN parties. The main point of LAN parties is, of course, to play video games with your peers on networked PCs. Another fun aspect of LAN parties, especially big events like QuakeCon, is that you get to see all the cool, unique hardware that party goers bring. We're sure some people really get a kick out of showing up the competition with awesome mods and paint jobs.
Not everyone has the desire to mod or paint their own systems, though. That's where a company like Smooth Creations comes in to help you impress everyone who lays eyes upon your rig. Smooth Creations sells all types of custom PCs, including desktops and notebooks. As you may have gathered by now, we are going to focus on the company's LAN gaming system -- the LANShark.
Smooth Creations offers three different base configuration levels of the LANShark: Standard, Pro and Extreme. We received the LANShark Extreme for analysis in our labs. The "Extreme" configured LANShark is the most tricked out LANShark offered by Smooth Creations. It is without a doubt an extremely impressive looking system, complemented by equally impressive hardware components, including an Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 processor, a Western Digital Velociraptor hard drive, a Diamond Radeon HD 4870 X2 video card, 8GB of Kingston HyperX memory, and a complete watercooling system.
As you can tell from the paint job, Smooth Creations wants the LANShark Extreme to look intimidating. If dark, ominous skulls aren't your thing, then you can choose from other options. We think the skulls and the red watercooling tubes make for a perfect combo. It's a safe bet that this system would turn heads at any LAN party. Keep reading to see if the performance of this system matches its great looks.
In many ways, the LANShark is definitely a niche product. While its specs and design are top notch, its flexibility and expandability are limited due to its size. This is not a bad thing if you consider the target audience (LAN party gamers). You don't really want a full-size system with tons of extra room and weight when you are dragging it to a bunch of LAN parties. Compact and practical is more appealing than expandability in this situation.
With that said, we could see people who don't even attend LAN parties checking out the LANShark systems. If you want a dedicated and unique gaming rig that will impress your friends, and you only want what is essential in your rig, then the LANShark might interest you.
|Presentation, Design & Build Quality|
When we found the LANShark Extreme package in our entryway a while back, we were quite surprised by the size of the box. Once we opened the box, though, we discovered why Smooth Creations used such a big box. Inside the large cardboard box, we found a plywood box and a lot of bubble wrap and peanuts protecting everything. Needless to say, the plywood box shocked us at first. Apparently, Smooth Creations protects all of its acrylic systems with plywood boxes during shipping. We opened one side of the plywood box and saw that the LANShark was protected by a soft, white cloth and foam on all sides (see the image below). As you may know, acrylic is much easier to damage than metal, so we appreciate the extra level of care that Smooth Creations takes with these systems.
Once we finally got the LANShark completely unboxed and unwrapped, we were immediately impressed by the excellent airbrush work that covers the entire system. The skull design will definitely make your competition do a double take. The shading and details in the design create an overall menacing feel. Maybe you can even convince your rival LAN gamers that those are the skulls of former competitors.
We were happy to see that Smooth Creations left a "window" on the left side of the system, so that people can take a peek at the system in all its glory. The black motherboard fits the paint job perfectly, and the red tubes make us think we are looking at the bloody guts of a mean machine. As you can see in the first image above, the airbrushing even covers the power supply and other visible flat surfaces within the system. Kudos to Smooth Creations for taking the theme and paint work that far!
The front of the LANShark Extreme features a single external 5.25" bay, and our evaluation unit included a Blu-Ray drive. Below it, you can see the power button, the Smooth Creations LANShark logo, and a couple of fan holes. The Smooth Creations team masterfully cut out an "SC" logo in front of each fan. Sure, this doesn't offer much protection to prevent fingers or objects from entering the LANShark, but they look very cool. When we turn the LANShark around, you can see that even the back of the system is airbrushed with skulls. You can also see the four expansion slots and the rear I/O panel. Additionally, there are rather large slits cut out for ventilation.
You probably noticed the lack of front ports, which is one of our few gripes about the LANShark Extreme. Any time you want to plug something in, you'll have to use the ports in the back. The rear I/O panel includes the following ports: 1 PS/2 mouse port, 1 PS/2 keyboard port, 1 optical S/PDIF-out port, 1 coaxial RCA S/PDIF-out port, 6 USB 2.0 ports, 1 RJ45 LAN port, and 6 audio jacks (center/subwoofer, rear R/L, side R/L jacks, line-in, line-out (front R/L), and mic-in).
Overall, our initial impressions of the LANShark Extreme's design and build quality were quite high. We didn't notice any major problems with the paint or acrylic. The only concern we had was when we were lifting and moving the system. Since it is built from acrylic, you can feel it flex and give a little more than a steel or aluminum case. That's not a ding against Smooth Creations; it's just the nature of acrylic. It's not as rigid as metal. Because of the slight give, we noticed ourselves being a little more cautious when lifting this system than we are normally. We point this out only so our readers realize that they need to take more care when working with, and in, this or any acrylic system.
|Interior Design & Layout|
Getting inside the LANShark Extreme is quite simple. Both side panels are held in place by four screws. Only the screws are holding the side panels in place, so you'll want to take care when removing them. There are no latches or anything like that, which means the panels will start to fall out before you are done removing the screws. We recommend holding the panels in place as you unscrew them. As you can see in the pictures below, once the left panel is removed, the LANShark Extreme's insides are exposed. You can see the the DFI motherboard, Kingston RAM, Diamond video card and the watercooling kit.
We hope you'll also notice that the flat surfaces inside the case are also painted. Check out the power supply, the metal edges hiding the optical drive and watercooling components, and even the bottom of the case. We didn't think the airbrush work could impress us more until we noticed just how complete it is. We've been called anal retentive before, so we really appreciate this level of thoroughness, and we don't see it very often. We also have to mention how clean the wiring is in the system, especially considering its size. All of the cables and wires are hidden, tucked and routed out of sight (as much as they can be anyway).
If you are like us when we first opened up the LANShark Extreme, you are wondering where the hard drive is mounted. Take a look under the power supply in the first picture below. It's mounted in between the motherboard and power supply and appears to be floating. As we'll show you below, the hard drive is indeed mounted to the "back wall" of the system, and it rests there quite securely. In the second picture below, you can see the video card and its watercooling block.
We removed the right side panel as well to get a better look at how Smooth Creations assembles the LANShark systems. You can see how most of the cables and wires are routed back here to keep them out of the way and out of sight. You can also see how the hard drive is mounted by examining the three images below, especially the third one. Directly beneath the power supply, you can spot the Western Digital logo and the three screws holding the drive in place. At first glance, this installation method may not seem very solid, but it actually works very well. It's a clever solution in a cramped space.
As with the external design, we were left quite impressed by the interior design and layout. Not every builder out there takes the time to deliver such a complete and clean design. The company's attention to detail is excellent.
If you looked through the pictures on this and the previous page, you probably noticed the hole on the top of the case that has a tube leading up to it. This is the watercooling system's fillport hole. There is a hex bolt that helps secure the tube in place. Unscrewing the hex bolt releases the tube, which allows you to add more water or coolant to the system if needed. We actually had to do this to our system because it was overheating when we first set it up. During shipping, some air bubbles somehow entered the pump. The presence of the air bubbles was causing the CPU to get hot enough to automatically shut down the system (thanks the a setting in the BIOS). Smooth Creation's support crew recommended we add water, and the problem disappeared.
|Peripherals & Accessories|
As if the LANShark Extreme weren't enough to make your friends and foes envious at your next LAN party, Smooth Creations actually throws in several interesting extras. To continue the skulls theme, Smooth Creations included a custom painted Logitech G5 Laser Mouse and a Logitech G15 gaming keyboard. We love the fact that the mouse and keyboard match the system. And these aren't basic accessories. Unpainted, the G5 goes for around $65 while the G15 fetches $75-90 according to our price search engine. The paint work definitely makes them worth even more, and they are both highly touted by users and reviewers alike. Since they are modified by Smooth Creations, the manufacturer's warranty is void, but Smooth Creations states on its web site that it will cover the peripherals for the length of your system's warranty.
In addition to the Logitech mouse and keyboard, Smooth Creations also includes a custom painted metal box, which can be used to store and transport accessories and software to LAN events. When we opened the box, we found a power cable, the motherboard user's manual, the motherboard driver CD, the Blu-Ray drive user's manual, Nero burning software, system recovery DVDs, and Far Cry 2. The inclusion of recovery discs and a full retail game is definitely appreciated.
|Test Setup & SiSoft SANDRA|
We tested the LANShark Extreme gaming system exactly as it came configured from Smooth Creations. We installed our benchmarking software and made no other unnecessary changes before beginning our testing.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA XII SP2, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA XII SP2 suite on the test systems (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multi-Media, and Memory).
The LANShark Extreme fares pretty well in the SANDRA CPU tests. In the Processor Arithmetic test, the LANShark Extreme performs in line with expectations and is bested significantly only by the Core i7-based Velocity Micro Z55. In the Processor Multi-Media test, though, the LANShark Extreme is right at the top of the pile.
While the LANShark Extreme posted numbers that met or exceeded expectations in the CPU tests, it disappointed us in the Memory Bandwidth test. It's not surprising that the Core i7 system destroys the rest of the competition, but it is surprising that the LANShark Extreme is the second lowest performer of the bunch.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage|
For our next round of benchmarks, we ran the complete Futuremark PCMark Vantage test suite. This component of our testing provides a solid assessment of a system's overall performance.
"The PCMark Suite is a collection of various single- and multi-threaded CPU, Graphics, and HDD test sets with the focus on Windows Vista application tests. Tests have been selected to represent a subset of the individual Windows Vista Consumer scenarios. The PCMark Suite includes CPU, Graphics, Hard Disk Drive (HDD), and a subset of Consumer Suite tests."
Other than in the Gaming test, the LANShark Extreme boasts some very respectful numbers in PCMark Vantage when compared to the reference systems.
|Cinebench & 3DMark06 CPU|
Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D. Cinema 4D from Maxon is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.
In the single-threaded test, the top four systems perform similarly, but the multi-threaded results are a little more spread out. All of the systems sport quad-core processors, and the LANShark Extreme manages to score the second lowest performance in the multi-threaded test. It's worth noting, though, that the next two highest performers aren't much higher than the LANShark Extreme.
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.
Compared to the faster and more sophisticated processors of the comparison systems, the LANShark Extreme just can't keep up with the group. Still, the performance offered by the LANShark Extreme is respectable and not totally unexpected.
|LAME MT & Futuremark 3DMark Vantage|
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.
In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance
Our LAME MT results didn't really meet our expectations. Here, the LANShark Extreme posts the third fastest single-threaded time, but it posts the fastest multi-threaded time. Admittedly, there is only a couple seconds between the best times, but it still surprised us to see these results.
3DMark Vantage is the latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark. This benchmark is constrained to Windows Vista-based systems because it uses some advanced visual technologies that come by means of DirectX 10, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark added two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, and several new feature tests, along with support for the latest PC hardware. We used the Performance preset for our test.
You can see in the above image that the LANShark Extreme managed an overall 3DMark Vantage score of P13721. In comparison, the Velocity Micro Z55 scored P12941 overall. Additionally, the LANShark Extreme posted a GPU Score of 13840 while the Velocity Micro Z55 scored 11760.
|3DMark06 Standard Test|
On the next few pages, we'll focus on a few gaming specific benchmarks, starting with the rest of 3DMark06's modules.
When it was released, 3DMark06 was a hard-core, forward-looking 3D rending benchmark that pushed a system and its GPUs to the limits. The test includes Shader Model 2.0, Shader Model 3.0, and HDR tests. To push the system, scenes are rendered with very high geometric detail and shader complexity, and with extensive use of lighting and soft shadows. The maximum shader length 3DMark06 supports is 512 instructions. The 3DMark06 Overall Score is a weighted average based on the SM 2.0 and HDR / SM3.0, and CPU scores.
With its Radeon HD 4870 X2 and 3.33GHz processor, the LANShark Extreme performs near the top in 3DMark06.
|Half Life 2: Episode 2|
With its updated game engine, nice visuals, and intelligent weapon and level design, Half Life 2 has become just as popular as its predecessor, the original Half-Life. With Episode 2, you’ll get a number of visual enhancements, such as better-looking transparent texture anti-aliasing. We ran this benchmark at 1,920 x 1,200 with 4X anti-aliasing and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled concurrently. We also enabled color correction and HDR rendering. To benchmark the systems in this test, we used a custom recorded timedemo file.
In our HL2 test, the LANShark Extreme edges out all of the other test systems, albiet by the smallest of margins. This is the type of performance we like to see from a LAN gaming rig.
Crytek's game engine visuals in Crysis are some of the most impressive real-time 3D renderings we've seen to date on a computer screen. The engine employs some of the latest techniques in 3D rendering like Parallax Occlusion Mapping, Subsurface Scattering, Motion Blur, and Depth-of-Field effects, as well as an impressive use of Shader technology. The single player, FPS Crysis is a smash-hit, and rightfully so. We ran the full game patched to v1.2 with all of the game's visual options set to 'High' to put a significant load on the systems' graphics engines being tested.
The LANShark Extreme's Crysis performance puts it at the number two position compared to the rest of the systems. While it doesn't best the GTX 280 SLI config, it beats the others by a large margin.
|Performance Analysis & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Looking at the test results, overall performance seems like a mixed bag with the Smooth Creations LANShark Extreme when compared to our reference systems. The LANShark Extreme fell behind in some of the memory and CPU tests, but it fared very well in several of our gaming tests. The latter results are what we feel are most important since this is a gamer-oriented system. Those results show that the LANShark Extreme is a very capable fragging machine that will not let you down during extreme gaming sessions.
You can bet that the LANShark Extreme can handle anything you'd throw at it in a LAN gaming setting. For many games, it probably is even overkill since most people don't carry 24" or 30" monitors to LANs. If you do want to rock a 24" or 30" LCD at LAN parties, then this system will be able to handle most games at the high resolutions provided by screens of that size. Regardless of your monitor size, the LANShark Extreme will serve you quietly and efficiently thanks to its watercooling kit. Not only will you appreciate its quiet nature, but your peers will as well.
Other than the initial problem with overheating that we mentioned several pages back, we had no problems with the LANShark Extreme. It was absolutely stable and solid as a rock as we benchmarked and played games on it. We are big fans of the style and design of our evaluation unit and of the other styles offered by Smooth Creations, which you can check out on the company's web site (www.smoothcreations.com). The art and quality were top notch. Another thing worth mentioning was the fact that the system didn't come loaded with extra, unnecessary junkware (like free AOL offers and the like). The system arrives with only what is needed installed, which is how it should be.
In case you are wondering why our system didn't come stocked with the latest Intel Core i7 chip and/or an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 295, we received our evaluation unit before these products were available. Rest assured, though, if you want to buy a LANShark with these components, you can now do so. Smooth Creations offers all of the necessary components to build a blazing Core i7 rig, including an X58 motherboard, triple channel memory and of course i7 CPUs. At the time of this writing, the video card choices included a Radeon HD 4870 X2, a GeForce GTX 280 and a GeForce GTX 295. Pricing will vary depending on your selections.
Speaking of price, our evaluation unit came in at a heavy price tag of $3,700. To put things in perspective, we priced out all of the components on Newegg and DangerDen.com, and you'd have to spend around $3,400 or so to build a similar system. That's without the swank paint job and personal support offered by Smooth Creations, though. So, for around $300, you get some awesome airbrush work on not only the case but also inside the case and on the peripherals as well. We think it's worth the extra money to have someone else paint it, build it, and warranty it as a whole. If that price is still making you shake your head, and you're still interested in Smooth Creations quality and design, you can get a LANShark or one of the company's other systems for much cheaper. The LANShark Standard starts at just over $1,300, while the LANShark Pro starts at $2,100. If the LANShark isn't your cup of tea, Smooth Creations also offers custom laptops and larger desktops. Based on our positive experience with the LANShark Extreme, we'd suggest taking a look at the LANShark line if you want a dedicated gaming/LAN rig, or the company's other offerings if you have something else in mind but still want something really unique that will turn heads and spur conversation.
Smooth Creations wanted us to let our readers know that the company runs a YouTube video channel, and it can be accessed at http://www.youtube.com/user/smoothcreations.