|Introduction & Specifications|
Boutique system builders tend to fall into three categories, there are the more custom or high-end offerings from some of the larger names like Dell/Alienware or HP/Voodoo (though you may or may not classify them as "boutique"), there are offerings from large e-tailers like Tiger Direct's SystemMax, and then there are independent companies as well, obviously. A few of the major names in this third category are MainGear, Velocity Micro and the company whose product we have on the bench for you today--Digital Storm.
Digital Storm as a company has been around since 2001. It has become fairly well known in the community for building solid computer systems, primarily targeted at the enthusiast, though they also have a workstation and server product line-up as well. The company has historically taken a design approach to their products that incorporates only top shelf, standard components in an effort to offer the consumer a high quality product that is both easily serviceable and upgradeable down the road. That said, even with top shelf components, quality systems with a reasonable value and price point are not always equal to just the sum of their parts. We'll step you through the salient features, performance, and value of Digital Storm's 950si custom Core i7 gaming system in the pages ahead and let you be the judge of what this boutique builder, with a history for quality products, has to offer.
Our test system was powered by an Intel Core i7 920 processor (2.66GHz), overclocked to 3.79GHz and was built upon EVGA's X58 3X SLI motherboard that we evaluated for you here recently. Also installed was 6GB of Corsair DDR3 system memory set to 1600MHz with latency settings of 9,9,9,24. For graphics, the system was powered by a single GeForce GTX 285 card though dual and 3-way SLI configurations are also available. Finally, we had a single 1.5TB Seagate Baracuda 7200.11 hard drive installed in our system though smaller and faster 10K RPM drives are available as well as larger RAID setups.
|Design & Build Quality|
The Digital Storm 950Si case option that was selected for our system is a Silverstone TJ-09 chassis with two small modifications. A custom Digital Storm logo is located on bottom of the system's front bezel and the plexiglass side panel window has a 130mm Zalman fan cut into it for extra ventilation.
To be honest, we're not all that fond of that extra side panel fan and would have preferred the cleaner look of the case in its standard form. In conjunction with the two large 130mm fans in this chassis, the added side fan isn't required in our opinion, but this is definitely an issue of personal preference more than anything. Additional ventilation is available to the drive cage area of the system via the standard screened vent ports on either side of the chassis and air is pulled in with one of the internal 130mm fans.
One of the 3.5" drive bays in our system was fitted with an 8-in-1 flash card reader. Long gone are the days of the floppy drive, so it's good to see this smaller bay being put to use. The power and reset buttons of the system have a clean, tactile feel when pushed and the power and HDD status indicator LEDs in between the buttons illuminate in cool blue.
It has been said that there is beauty in simplicity and the flip-up USB, Firewire and audio port panel on this case is a perfect example of a simple innovation that adds significant value but can be tucked out of the way when not in use. Incidentally, Digital Storm made sure all ports were hooked up and functional in our system and we in fact tested the line in and out ports during test setup.
Access and Acoustics:
The view from the backside of the system shows its toolless access design with three thumbscrews for each access panel. In addition, external radiator tube ports are cut into this case as standard equipment and are fitted with rubbing bushings to prevent chafing of hoses in the event you set up this machine with a water cooling kit that needs external hose routing.
Finally, in the right hand shot above, you can see the various IO ports for the EVGA motherboard in the system. Also, if you look closely, you'll noticed there is a fan speed controller knob sticking out of one of the card slot plates on the back of the chassis. This knob allowed us to dial up or down the fan speed of the CPU cooler. On that note, this design build from Digital Storm isn't something we would recommend for the enthusiast that is concerned about acoustics. In fact, due to the CoolerMaster V8 cooler employed on the system's heavily overclocked Core i7 chip, along with the extra Zalman fan on the side panel of the case, the system was a bit louder than we expected it to be (at its factory-shipped fan speed settings), especially given the rather quiet demeanor of the Silverstone TJ-09 case itself.
|Interior Layout, Components, Build and Bundle|
Admittedly, we're a bit partial to the TJ series of Silverstone cases, so Digital Storm had already established a good foundation from which to build the machine. From there, with the right component selection and a reasonable effort in proper cable management, routing and tie-off techniques, a super-clean and reliable design is very achievable.
As you can clearly see in these shots above, once the side panels are off you are met with an impeccable layout as well as cool, efficient cable routing that takes advantage of the available area behind the motherboard tray. As such, airflow within the case itself is quite good.
Cooling, Overclocking, Audio and Power:
The CPU cooler that Digital Storm chose to keep this rather vigorously overclocked machine stable, is the CoolerMaster V8. On the top of this fansink cooler is Digital Storm’s logo but beyond that it’s a stock off-the-shelf assembly. This cooler does a nice job of keeping thermals in check, but it is a bit on the noisy side in our opinion, when the fan is dialed up to its maximum speed. We found that the machine’s Core i7 920 overclocked to 3.79GHz ran at 62 - 70ºC under full load at the slowest CPU fan speed setting (712RPM) and idled at around 38ºC. At the V8 cooler's max fan speed of 1K RPM (which again was a bit loud for our taste), full load temp at all four cores dropped to 60ºC - 66ºC range, which was much more palatable. Note that the fan speed of the V8 cooler is virtually infinitely adjustable via its dial potentiometer-based control that is mounted on the backside card slot panel of the case. So you could find a happy medium somewhere along the way between acoustics and the max CPU temp that you're willing to live with.
Corsair’s excellent HX1000W series power supply is providing the juice for this muscle rig and it has more than enough available amperage for the build-out we tested in addition to offering a ton of headroom for expansion. You could easily add another GeForce GTX 285 graphics card to the machine and still have plenty of available power for the factory-set overclock on the CPU, along with the added load of the second graphics engine.
In addition, this PSU’s modular cable design allows for future expansion with only the cable you’d need to power that specific new component being installed. However, we would encourage the folks at Digital Storm to include the PSU’s extra cable connectors as they weren’t included in the kit that arrived to our labs for testing.
Lastly, for a better gaming audio experience, Digital Storm dropped in the Razer Barracuda AC-1 PCI audio card, which has been well-received in the press and the community at large. We found the card offered solid reproduction and response characteristics, though this product is definitely targeted more toward the gamer, versus the audiophile.
Pictured above is the bundle we received from Digital Storm for the system. Beyond the missing extra PSU cables, all, motherboard, audio and graphics card accessories are provided, in addition to SLI and 3-Way SLI bridge connectors. Noticed also Digital Storm's Certificate of Ownership, where multiple QA signatures were signed-off before the system shipped from the factory.
|Test Setup & SiSoft SANDRA|
We tested the Digital Storm 950Si Core i7 Gaming system exactly as it came configured from the Digital Storm factory.
As overclocked and delivered, by Digital Storm
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2009 suite: Processor Arithmetic, Processor Multi-Media, and Memory Bandwidth.
SANDRA CPU and Multimedia Tests
SANDRA Memory Bandwidth and Hard Drive Tests
As you'll note, versus the reference system and component metrics that SANDRA offers in its database, top-shelf components with a healthy dose of overclocking in the mix, equates to excellent overall system performance. Our CPU and Memory tests here show the Digital Storm system blowing by the fastest Core i7 and memory scores in the SANDRA database. In addition, the Seagate 1.5TB hard drive fares rather well too.
|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.
Though general multimedia and productivity performance is more what this specific benchmark is about, here again the Digital Storm gaming system, with its 3.79GHz Core i7 at work and 6GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory, puts up best of class numbers and then some. The only test where the Digital Storm system actually trails is the Music test suite which may be affected more by driver variances and disk performance than anything else, since the competitive systems here all are using on-board sound solutions and some of them have 10K RPM WD Raptor drives installed as well.
|Cinebench Rendering and LAME MP3 Encoding|
Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Maxon's Cinema 4D, a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and others. This benchmark is 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. Each test system’s final scores to render the scene are represented below.
** Please Note: The Velocity Micro and Digital Storm systems in this test are running 64-bit Windows Vista installations and the 64-bit version of this test, as that is how they were configured from their respective factories. The other Core i7 reference systems are running Windows Vista 32-bit and the 32-bit version of the benchmark.
This specific benchmark scales very linearly with both raw processor throughput as well as memory bandwidth. As such, the Digital Storm 950Si at 3.79GHz for its Core i7 processor, drops in as expected, a notch above the overclocked Velocity Micro system, that is also running the 64-bit version of the test. In fact, the highly overclocked Digital Storm system is some 23% faster with its roughly 29% clock speed advantage. This is also a good example of an application that benefits from a 64-bit operating system environment and a 64-bit application workload distribution, though the actual workload itself is identical between 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the test.
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format. This simulates a common scenario that many of us users work with on a regular basis to provide portability and storage of digital audio content. LAME is an open-source, mid- to high- bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is widely used around the world in a multitude of third party applications.
In this benchmark, we've created our own 223MB WAV file and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-threaded modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.
|3DMark Vantage and Crysis Benchmarks|
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.
Digital Storm 950Si - Core i7 @ 3.79GHz, GeForce GTX 285
Velocity Micro Edge Z55, Core i7 @ 2.93GHz, Dual Radeon HD 4850 - Crossfire
As a simple reference point, we thought we'd include the Velocity Micro Z55's 3DMark Vantage numbers for comparison. Clearly the Digital Storm system's overclock speed offers a lot more processing throughput, but the two systems have roughly similar horsepower (at least according to this test) in terms of their GPUs. In the case of the Velocity Micro system, we're looking at the power of two Radeon HD 4850 cards in CrossFire mode and a single GeForce GTX 285 card in the Digital Storm system. We should also note that the Velocity Micro system also retails for about $850 less than the higher-end build-out and overclock setup of the Digital Storm 950Si system.
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 first iteration of the game Crysis may be mostly GPU bound, but it is somewhat CPU bound as well. Quite frankly, it's a pig of a game engine and we'd caution that you should only put so much stock in Crysis performance metrics. In fact, Crytek's Far Cry 2 engine is a much more relevant gaming benchmark these days in our opinion. We'll have those numbers coming up shortly but for now, you can see some interesting results here in the classic Crysis GPU test. GPU scaling, especially for AMD Radeon based cards isn't the best in this game engine and a pair of 4870s in CrossFire just barely outpace the Digital Storm's GeForce GTX 285 backed up by its juiced-up Core i7 platform.
|Half Life 2 Episode 2 Benchmarks|
With its updated game engine, gorgeous 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 cards in this test, we used a custom recorded timedemo file.
Our custome Half Life 2 : EP2 demo shows itself to be affected by both available CPU and GPU resources. Though the Digital Storm system can't quite keep pace with the dual Radeon cards in the Velocity Micro system (Valve's Half Life engine has always favored AMD GPUs somewhat and shows good multi-GPU scaling), it does outpace the GeForce GTX 280 reference system with a 3.2GHz Core 2 platform feeding its pixels.
|Far Cry 2 Benchmarks|
In these final series of game tests, we felt it best to just let the performance of this gaming system and its relative frame rates speak for itself. Here, even with 8X AA turned on as well as the game's Ultra High image quality preset, frame rates are completely fluid and definitely playable, all the way up to 1920X1200 resolution on a 24" flat panel LCD.
|Left 4 Dead Benchmarks|
Though it uses a beefed up and arguably prettier, more visually impressive iteration of the Source engine, Left 4 Dead also proves itself to be efficient and a relatively easy workload for a system of the caliber of the Digital Storm 950Si. For the visuals you get, it's impressive to see just what Valve did with this game engine and how well coded it obviously is. In fact, you could easily dial in a 2560X1600 resolution on a 30" flat panel, leave 8X AA on and Ultra HQ presets enabled, yet still have fluid frame rates and game-play.
|Performance Analysis and Conclusion|
As we've referred to more than once in this product evaluation, in short, the Digital Storm 950Si Intel Core i7 gaming system that we've tested here today offers performance levels that are definitively equal to the sum of its individual components. The system performed admirably in our entire battery of benchmarks and in almost every test posted benchmark numbers far exceeding our standard reference test systems as well as the less expensive and more moderately configured Velocity Micro system. In our productivity, multimedia and encoding tests, its 3.79GHz factory overclocked and warranted processor put out scores that led the pack by a large margin.
In our gaming tests, the system displayed a well-balanced high-end performance profile, offering perfectly fluid and in some cases killer-fast frame rates, within all the latest game engines we tested, even though we setup ultra high image quality and anti-aliasing settings in order to stress this product to its limits.
With all of the aforementioned accolades of this high end gaming system throughout our evaluation here, we've come to ask the question, "what's not to like about the Digital Storm 950Si with its top-shelf component selection and impeccable build quality?" To answer that question is more subjective rather than analytical in reality. First, this product is what it is, so to speak. The configuration we tested was setup almost with a "price is no object" approach, though certainly, as a prospective customer, you could elect for a more modest build-out. Our processor, though it was a more mid-range Core i7 920, was also overclocked by selecting one of Digital Storm's "TwisterBoost" options in their system configuration menu (a $45 up-charge) along with a high-end CPU cooler to keep CPU thermals in check. Beyond its power supply, optical drives, and graphics card, various other options were chosen with either moderate to top-shelf upgrade selections.
That said, one of the major points to consider is, for its $3265 price tag (after current discounts), do you get what you pay for? We'd offer a "yes", but with a few major caveats, depending on your own personal needs. First, you need to take significant stock in the fact that you're buying a heavily overclocked system with a full 3 year parts and labor warranty. From this perspective, you're getting a processor clock speed and setup that actually handily outperforms Intel's fastest Core i7 Extreme 965 chip, which alone would set you back $1000 if you bought it retail yourself. And our system was very stable under our barrage of benchmark testing. Then, factor in Digital Storm's policy for lifetime labor charge free upgrades of components, for what appears to be very competitive prices on the company's web site. From these two perspectives alone, the value profile of the product we tested improves significantly, though only serious computing enthusiasts and gamers that aren't planning a DIY approach need apply.
In addition, if you're a serious gamer and want every bit of performance from the components you've selected, you're likely going to have to make compromises in noise levels, unless you're not shy of stepping into the realm of liquid cooling. As a result, though we weren't fond of that extra side panel fan cut into the case, nor the audible whine of the CoolerMaster V8 cooler at its max setting, it's sort of comes with the territory for an overclocked gaming rig like this - though we think a few tweaks in the configuration menu may have offered a little less racket and just about the same bang for our buck. All told, we're more than confident in this type of gaming system product as delivered by Digital Storm. You can't help but admire a well built killer gaming rig and the Digital Storm 950Si fits that bill to a tee.