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Paradigm SHIFT: MainGear's Unique Gaming Rig Tested
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Date: May 20, 2010
Section:Systems
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction and Specifications


When it comes to the business of building PCs, true innovation is hard to find. There are exceptions—HP had the Blackbird 002, Alienware designs its own enclosures, and there's always the Thermaltake Level 10—but most companies aren't willing to take the financial risk that's part and parcel of designing new and different products.

Fortunately, MainGear is. While they've not been around as long as Alienware or Falcon-Northwest, the company has six solid years of experience in building custom PCs. MainGear recently sent us a high-end system built around its unique SHIFT chassis. When it designed the SHIFT, with their chassis partner Silverstone, Maingear took a standard ATX configuration and literally turned it 90º. Add a hybrid aluminum/steel frame, custom detailing, and a cable mount system that turns what might've been a ghettoish kludge into a gorgeous surface, and you've got the SHIFT. It's a unique blend of style and practicality that manages to improve system thermals and look good doing it. Curious? So were we. Case dive after the specifications.

MainGear SHIFT Gaming PC
System Specifications

  • Core i7-980 X 6-Core Processor - 3.33GHz @ 4.2GHz
  • Asetek Liquid Cooling System
  • Asus P6X58D Premium
  • 6GB DDR3-1 System Memory
  • 1 x Crucial C300 128GB SSD
  • 1 x Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB HDD w/ 64MB cache
  • 2 x 1.5GB GeForce GTX 480 in SLI
  • 10X Dual Layer Blu-ray Disc  Burner (BD-RE, DVD±RW, CD-RW)
  • Silverstone 1200 Watt, multi-GPU Power Supply
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • Base Price $2,399 - $5740 - as tested

The SHIFT's subdued styling and sleek brushed aluminum finish are similar to Corsair's 700/800D chassis, but the resemblance is only skin-deep. Both the interior and exterior of the SHIFT are uniquely designed to cut system noise and improve thermals in ways that other cases on the market can't.

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The SHIFT: Exterior Design

We've used high-resolution stock photos for the exterior shots on this page; MainGear's own images capture the SHIFT's visual appeal quite well. For component shots and authentic HotHardware photos shot by yours truly, skip ahead to the next page.
 
     
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If you're a fan of minimalism, you'll like the SHIFT—with the top grate installed the enclosure has a futuristic, relatively seamless look. The various air intakes and the PSU's vent space are all beveled and integrated into the chassis, without the need for screws, slides, or bolts to hold the grates in place.

   
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Here we've got the system from the rear and a shot of the "top" ports with a motherboard installed. Visually, the top of the SHIFT looks more-or-less like the back of any other ATX system you've ever used. MainGear didn't cut any corners when they rotated the motherboard 90'; all of the standard back plates and card slots are available. A metal grate normally covers this section of the case; we'll discuss it (and a few caveats to be aware of) on the next page.

The power supply is virtually invisible when fully installed—while there are obviously a few cables that run from the top of the machine when peripherals are installed, the rear of the case is marred by just one power cable; it might even be possible for an enterprising enthusiast to run the power cable underneath the machine, up through a self-cut port, and into the back of the system with no one the wiser.* Add a wireless keyboard, mouse, and 802.11n card, and the monitor cable would be the only visible cord.

 

Here's a close-up on the power supply and top (front) ports. Beyond the front ports and somewhat out-of-focus is the top grate that covers the various peripheral connects and DVI ports. The top panel can be closed when not in use, supports all of the major memory card standards, and sports two USB 2 ports, a FireWire 400 (1394a) port, and three audio jacks, all of which are configurable in software. Personally, we would've preferred to see at least one more front USB connection over the FireWire or one of the audio jacks. That said, having all the motherboard plugs at the top of the system should make it easier to reach back and insert a device as opposed to crawling under the desk or pulling the system out.

The SHIFT doesn't have any idiot lights to speak of—there's a green light (power) and a yellow light (data access) to the left of the memory card slots, but the system is dark otherwise. After 5-6 years of PCs that could double as landing strip beacons, the lack of cerulean fire pouring out of a thrice-damned side panel is a relief.

*Note: Don't try this at home. We're not even trying it at work. We suggest a conversation with MainGear and/or quite a bit of experience in case modding before carving holes in a custom-built enclosure.
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Exterior Design (Cont): Cables & Caveats


   
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First we've got the SHIFT up close and personal, with the top grate removed. Whether you leave the grate on or off is up to you—putting it on changes the SHIFT's tone slightly when the fans are running, leaving it off gives you immediate access to the top area. The grate screws down at the back (to the left and right of the wires you can see in the other two thumbscrews. This is more to keep it secure during shipping than anything else; removing the top panel, even without the screws installed, requires that you lift the panel and pull towards the rear of the case simultaneously. There's no need to worry about it falling off randomly, and it doesn't vibrate even when the system fans are running at full.

The other two thumbnails give you an idea how the SHIFT looks with cables installed. MainGear built a duct at the rear that can accommodate almost any cable; these photos were taken with a wired keyboard, mouse, DVI cable, and ethernet cable all installed—as you can see, there's plenty of horizontal room for anything else that might need plugged in.

The vertical clearance for cables when the grate is installed is almost perfect. We had no problem with most cables; any cords you own that conform to what we'll call a 'typical' design will fit underneath the grate. This includes (but isn't limited to) FireWire (all types), USB (all types), DVI, VGA, DisplayPort, wireless keyboard/mouse transmitters, thumb drives, Bluetooth adapters, and wireless USB devices.


Of the two cables here, the left-hand single-link cable fits with no problem. The right-hand cable is too stiff to bend sufficiently.

 There are, however, some notable caveats. We were able to round up a handful of cables/devices that didn't fit under the SHIFT's grate, including:
  • Nylon-covered/less-flexible DVI cables: We happened to have two different styles of DVI cable around when we hooked the SHIFT up for testing. The cable to the right (dual-link, nylon-covered cable) is much less flexible than the single-link cable next to it. The cable on the left fit without a problem—the cable on the right fit insomuch as the DVI plug was concerned, but couldn't bend sharply enough within the limited space.
     
  • Certain thumb drives: Thumb drives are another type of device that certainly should fit, but in some cases might not. Thumb drives that look like thumb drives (short, rectangular, plain) are no problem. Flash drives that are ruggedized, waterproofed, or contain six company logos, a short message from the CEO, and can transmit status updates to Twitter and Facebook could be. An OCZ ATV thumb drive we had handy (82mm long according to its spec sheet) fit just fine, but larger, high-capacity drives could bump up against the top.
     
  • Standard Video Adapters/Converters: Normal video converters—VGA-to-DVI, DVI-to-HDMI, USB3-to-llama—simply don't fit. If you need to use one or more of these you'll need a short-style adapter. These typically aren't hard to find but can cost a few bucks more than their full-sized cousins.
These restrictions only apply if you actually want to keep the grate on; owners that don't care can simply take the thing off. Be advised that leaving the grating installed has a significant impact on system temperatures.
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The SHIFT: Interior Design

Now that we've worked our way around the external elements, let's pop off a side panel (both made from very light aluminum) and have a peek inside. 

     
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These three shots are grouped together to give a multi-angle view of how MainGear has designed the case. The thumbnail to the left gives a view of the GTX 480s in SLI and the ventilation grill we saw earlier at the top rear of the case.Just to the right you've got the Asetek CPU watercooler, the radiator mount, and the various drive bays.

The middle shot establishes how the various components fit into the chassis. The SHIFT's side-stacked 3.5" drive bays rest just below the 5.25" drives. The empty area below the HDD mounts is presumably meant for a second chassis fan should the HDDs require one. Unlike most cases, the SHIFT pointedly eschews front-panel fans in favor of its vertical configuration. If you look at the area below the video cards you can see the white 1400 RPM exhaust fan that blows directly over the video cards and the system's 1.2kW Silverstone PSU nestled just below that.

Finally, there's the straight-on perspective. The SHIFT's cable routing is very good; there's nothing hanging loose that could impede system airflow. We're not thrilled with the paper-thin gap between the video cards—this sort of configuration inevitably results in Card 0 running significantly hotter than Card 1—but MainGear obviously didn't have an infinite amount of space when it came to mounting a standard  motherboard in a decidedly nonstandard chassis. The Asus P6X58D at the heart of the system technically supports Tri-SLI, and all three cards will fit in the SHIFT...tightly.

   
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These two photos are tighter focuses on areas we've already discussed. The motherboard's expandibility is limited to just one PCIe x1 slot and accessing any USB or FireWire headers that aren't in use would be tricky at best. The other photo highlights the SHIFT's hybrid steel/aluminum frame. MainGear opted for a hybrid frame as a means of reducing case weight without sacrificing structural integrity. Aluminum cases are notorious for sympathetic vibration or ringing but MainGear assured us the SHIFT doesn't suffer from this problem. Based on our experience, they're right.

If you look at the back of the photo you can see the right panel's air intake grill—the SHIFT relies on negative pressure to draw air in through the bottom and side panels. 
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Test Systems & Benchmark Configuration

 

We tested the Shift against the Origin Genesis we reviewed earlier this year. The two systems are outfitted similarly, but the price difference of nearly $1K bears explaining. The majority of the difference is explained not by the speed of the Shift's processor, but by its baseline SKU. Where the Origin used a standard i7-920 with a retail price of around $300 back then, the Shift is using an i7-980X. That processor carries a $991 upgrade fee from the stock i7-930 MainGear offers, and it accounts for most of the price difference.

Most of the rest of it, believe it or not, comes from Western Digital's 2TB Caviar Black. Over on MainGear's configurator you can buy a pair of 1TB C.B's for $280 or a single 2TB drive for $389. High-capacity drives typically carry a price premium, but WD's is a bit high—three 1TB Caviar Black drives are just 10 percent more than the single 2TB HDD. This pricing structure isn't unique to MainGear; we saw similar margins at Newegg as well.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Performance Comparisons

MAINGEAR SHIFT
Intel Core i7-980 X 3.33GHz@4.2GHz
Asus P6X58D
6GB Kingston DDR3 1600 RAM
2x GeForce GTX 480 SLI
1x Crucial C300 SSD
1x Western Digital 2TB Caviar Black 64MB Cache
Win 7 Home Premium x64 / Forceware 197.41

Price: $ 5,740.00 USD

Origin Genesis
Intel Core i7-920 @ 3.8GHz
EVGA X58 SLI Classified
6GB Corsair DDR3-1600
2x ATI Radeon 5970 Crossfire
1x Intel X25-M G2 SSD
2TB WD Caviar Black RAID 0
Win 7 Home Premium x64 / ATI Catalyst 10.3 w/Profile Updates

Price: $4,999 USD


Benchmark Choices, Test Notes:

Now that both ATI and NVIDIA are shipping high-end DX11 hardware, we wanted to test both systems in new, cutting-edge games with all potential detail levels cranked up and preferably maxed out. Our logic here is simple: If you want fast frame rates, you buy one video card. If you want fast frame rates and you don't want to compromise at all on visual quality, you buy two.

After some consideration, we opted not to use the Unigine-based Heaven DX11 benchmark. While it incorporates DX11 functionality, it's also less a measure of game performance and more of a tessellation test, particularly at the higher presets. When it comes to measuring practical performance real-world titles trump benchmarks; we've focused on the former over the latter. Initially we planned to include Aliens vs. Predator as it's one of the relatively few games on the market with DirectX 11 support, but we were forced to drop the title from our lineup—performance varied wildly and randomly.

As you read over the test results, keep in mind that the HD 5970 and GTX 480 aren't particularly close to each other as far as pricing is concerned. The cheapest Radeon HD 5970 at NewEgg will set you back $699 ($1398 for a pair in CrossFire) while the GTX 480 is "just" $499 ($998 in SLI). We benchmarked the Origin Genesis with a single 5970 (where applicable) in order to chart an additional comparison point relative to the pair of GF100's in the MainGear Shift.
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SiSoft Sandra

We began testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, which stands for System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. These are synthetic tests where we expect to see the Shift make the most of its extra cores and higher clockspeed.

Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2010 SP1
Synthetic Benchmarks

 


Origin Genesis: Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz, Maingear Shift: Core i7 980X @ 4.2GHz

The Shift's basic arithmetic performance is a further testament to the strength of Intel's Core i7 architecture. Intel's 32nm Gulftown processor doesn't contain any architectural special sauce that boost its efficiency over the Origin's 45nm chip, but an extra two cores and 400MHz are a potent combination.


Origin Genesis: Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz, Maingear Shift: Core i7 980X @ 4.2GHz
 
Again, we see the same pattern here. CPU-dependent applications are where the Shift shines brightest. Clockspeed isn't everything, but MainGear packed 25.2GHz worth of processing power into a single ATX tower. Pay no attention to the drool collecting on the keyboard. If you're wondering about the difference between the arithmetic and multimedia tests, it's laid out in Sandra's help file. Both benchmarks measure CPU performance, but the Dhrystone/Whetstone benchmarks measure a processor's raw capability to execute integer or floating point instructions. Sandra's multimedia suite is designed to test the various SIMD capabilities of a processor. In the company's own words: The test involves the generation of Mandelbrot Set fractals that are used to realistically describe and generate natural objects such as mountains or clouds. By using various multi-media extensions better performance is achieved.


Origin Genesis: Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz, Maingear Shift: Core i7 980X @ 4.2GHz
 
Finally, we've got Sandra's memory bandwidth analysis. The gap here is a bit over ten percent, which is less significant than it seems. Consumer applications and games are typically more latency-sensitive, than bandwidth-sensitive. The Core i7's integrated memory controller and three channels of DDR3 deliver amply in both categories. 
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PCMark Vantage

Next, we ran the test systems through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric, PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition digital video playback and editing, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.

One thing to keep in mind when comparing PCMark Vantage results is that the benchmark's margin of error is fairly wide—we'd estimate 5-7 percent. Relevant factors include  whether or not the hard drive was defragmented immediately prior to the run and whether Vantage was run immediately following OS+driver installation, or only after a full suite of tests and other benchmarks had been run.

We used the 64-bit version of the benchmark and defragmented the hard drive immediately prior to running it. However, since the Origin PC used an Intel SSD instead of a standard hard drive, we avoided defragging the drive in favor of using Intel's TRIM utility.
 
Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance


Origin Genesis: Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz, Maingear Shift: Core i7 980X @ 4.2GHz
 

The Shift scorched through PCMark Vantage to such a degree that we re-ran the test several times on both systems to make sure our scores hadn't been glitched. Part of the performance difference between the two systems is because the Shift has more available cores, a potentially faster SSD, and a higher clockspeed, but part of it may be AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface).

Most systems and motherboards, including Origin's Genesis, ship with their storage controllers set for IDE mode. In some cases, this makes sense—IDE mode doubles as a legacy compatibility mode, and some SATA controllers, including those made by JMicron and AMD, actually perform better in that mode. The problem with disabling AHCI is that it prevents the drive from using features like NCQ or hot-swapping. MainGear's SHIFT ships with AHCI enabled, and we're guessing that accounts for at least a chunk of the 6000+ gap in scores.
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3DMark Vantage

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage
Synthetic DirectX Gaming


3DMark Vantage

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark Vantage, is specifically bound to Windows Vista-based systems because it uses some advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 10, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.  3DMark Vantage isn't simply a port of 3DMark06 to DirectX 10 though.  With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, in addition to support for the latest PC hardware.  We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark Vantage's "High" and "Extreme" preset options which use increasing levels of detail (and higher resolutions). As always, tests were looped 3x.


Origin Genesis: 2 x Radeon HD 5970, Maingear Shift: 2 x GeForce GTX 480

The Shift's massive advantage in 3DMark Vantage's CPU score is thanks to the presence of an NVIDIA GPU, making this one of the worst "CPU" benchmarks in history. What it does represent (and the reason we've kept it) is the performance difference between running PhysX on a GPU and running it on a CPU. Since we're not specifically benchmarking PhysX performance in any games, we've given a nod to it here. 

The GTX 480s keep pace with the twin 5970s here; ATI's quad GPU configuration is just seven percent faster than a pair of NV's high-end Fermis.

 


Origin Genesis: 2 x Radeon HD 5970, Maingear Shift: 2 x GeForce GTX 480

The performance delta between the two systems rises once we move to "Extreme" detail settings. The Origin is over 30 percent faster than the Shift at this level. Keep an eye on this gap as we continue—3DV isn't a DX11 test, and SLI/Crossfire configurations have often scaled more effectively in Futuremark benchmarks than they ever managed in real-world titles. 
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Cinebench R10 & 11.5

Cinebench R10 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. As such, it's an excellent (and free) rendering benchmark. We've historically used Cinebench R10, but are in the process of moving to R11.5 and have included both tests here for reference.

Cinebench R10 64-bit

3D Rendering

Cinebench 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 could render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.

 


Origin Genesis: Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz, Maingear Shift: Core i7 980X @ 4.2GHz

 



 

The Shift is one of the fastest systems we've ever seen, smoking past the Origin Genesis that was setting HH records in this test a few months ago. It would be a mistake to present either system as slow, but Intel's Gulftown has wings (and cores) that 45nm Nehalem processors can't match, and a 10.5 percent clockspeed advantage to boot. Now let's check Maxon's latest Cinebench 11.5. One of the reasons Maxon released the update was to address a problem in R10's scaling. One of the challenges of parallel programming is that it takes a non-zero amount of time to spin off and retire additional threads. In Cinebench R10's case, this purportedly had a negative impact on the program's scaling in multicore configurations. Cinebench 11.5 fixes the problem—hopefully we'll see a difference.
 

Cinebench R11.5 64bit
Rendering Performance


Cinebench R11.5

Cinebench 11.5 is the latest update to Maxon's 3D rendering benchmark suite and the third major iteration of the Cinebench series. As with R10, CB11.5 includes a single-threaded, multi-threaded, and OpenGL test. We've focused on the first two tests as part of our processor comparison; the OpenGL test is a GPU-specific benchmark and is meant to represent professional graphics performance. Scores between the two benchmarks are not directly comparable, although it is possible to render R10's workload using 11.5, should you feel inclined.


 

Origin Genesis: Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz, Maingear Shift: Core i7 980X @ 4.2GHz

Crunch through the math (we'll spare you), and Cinebench 11.5 scales quite a bit better than Cinebench R10, even at the quad-core level. In R10, the quad-core Origin's multi-threaded performance is exactly 4x faster than its single-threaded performance. That's actually quite good for a real-world application, but CB 11.5 does it one better. There, the Origin's multi-threaded score is 4.94x higher (up 23.5 percent) than its single-threaded result.

The Shift jumps even more. In R10, its MT score was 5.53x higher than its single-thread. In CB11.5, it was 7.35x higher, for a 33 percent increase in scaling rate.

The different scaling rates in R10 vs. CB11.5 is an excellent illustration of how difficult it is to take full advantage of theoretical performance boosts in the multi-core era. It wasn't until Maxon revised the benchmark that anyone released the previous version had left 1-1.5 cores worth of performance lying on the table. The fact that the previous version of the benchmark was fully multiprocessor-aware is that much more evidence of the complexity of the problem. 
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DiRT 2

Dirt 2
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


Dirt 2

Dirt 2 is a racing game released in September 2009, and is the sequel to Colin McRae: Dirt.  Codemasters delayed the PC version of Dirt 2 so that they could enhance their Ego engine with DirectX 11 effects. The engine displays certain bleeding-edge rendering technologies like hardware-driven tessellation, which is used for a more detailed audience, tessellated clot as well as a more realistic water that has lifelike ripples, waves and splash effects. DX11 also affords the game more impressive post-rendering motion blur, filtered soft shadows and lighting effects.  Dirt 2 is also a solid benchmark for multi-core processors since DX11 is designed to take advantage of multi-threaded system architectures.

The game files directory for DiRT 2 contains information on how to construct and command the game to perform a custom benchmark series. We ordered the game to test a race at Battersea with eight other cars on the track. The benchmark guide notes that running tests with other cars could result in slight performance variability, so we looped our test sequence a number of times, cranked every single detail option up as high as it could go, and recorded the results.


Origin Genesis: 1 or 2 x Radeon HD 5970, Maingear Shift: 2 x GeForce GTX 480

DiRT 2 gives the Shift's pair of GTX 480's a solid start; NVIDIA's high-end Fermi compares well against ATI's HD 5970 in terms of price/performance ratio. All three video card configurations handled the game with ease, even with detail levels set full.
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Metro 2033

Metro 2033
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is a new game that's fast gaining a reputation as a poster child for DirectX 11-powered gorgeous visuals. The game takes place in the ruined tunnels of Moscow's subway system, 20 years after nuclear war obliterated modern civilization. Metro 2033 visually impresses in DX9, 10, and 11, but it's DX11 we're concerned with this time out. Antialiasing options in Metro 2033 are quite limited; we were forced to rely on the game's Adaptive Antialiasing as the performance hit from enabling MSAA hit performance severely enough to make the game stutter. We benchmarked a repeatable segment from the "Chase" mission. Metro 2033 sports an "Advanced PhysX" toggle as an in-game option—we've included screenshots with the effect enabled vs. disabled below. It may hurt performance to have the Advanced PhysX option toggled in systems with fewer CPU cores or less powerful video cards, but we were able to enable it without detecting any sort of performance hit. 


                         

Origin Genesis: 1 or 2 x Radeon HD 5970, Maingear Shift: 2 x GeForce GTX 480

Once again we saw the Shift within spitting distance of our dual 5970s (~7 percent back) and well ahead of the single Radeon 5970. In the screenshots we've included below, the standard image is on top, the "Advanced PhysX" image underneath. Capturing exactly the same frame when doing image comparisons can be tricky, but we verified our test by comparing the shape and coloration of the flamethrower's light that's thrown across the left wall.


Metro 2033 "Chase" Sequence - Standard PhysX

Metro 2033 "Chase" Sequence - Advanced PhysX

Compare the smoke cloud in the two screenshots. In the top image, the fire is contained in a smaller area and the smoke at its edges is thick and black. There's an area of translucence just to the right of the focal point, but most of smoke is opaque. In the second image, the smoke only partly obscures the flames; we now see a distinct cone of fire 'behind' the smokescreen. The thicker smoke at the top of the fire is also semitransparent. The impact of using the Advanced PhysX option on game visuals is noticeable, but not game-changing; Batman: Arkham Asylum is a better poster child for the difference PhysX makes on game effects than Metro 2033.

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Battlefield: Bad Company 2

Battlefield Bad Company 2

DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


Bad Company 2

Bad Company 2 is a wildly popular first person shooter that is the latest game in the Battlefield series. Gameplay is best summarized by the game's original working title:  If At First It Won't Explode, Find A Bigger Gun. The vast majority of the buildings, doors, and vehicles in BBC2 can (and emphatically will) blow apart, fall down, or disintegrate, often with no warning beyond the split-second shriek of incoming munitions fire.

This has a delightful impact on tactics and prevents players from hiding inside impervious rickety shacks to avoid 500lb bombs falling from the sky. Bad Company 2 technically supports DX11 but it's actually more of a DX10 title that uses DX11 to "soften all the dynamic shadows as well as to improve performance in general with a few smaller DX11 optimizations that we [EA] are using." We tested the game at 1900x1200 with 8xMSAA selected in-game and 16x AF.

 

 

Our actual benchmark is taken from the "Cold War" mission in which players are tasked with recovering a Russian military vehicle. The last segment of the mission has the player riding in the rear of the Russian truck fending off would-be attackers. Because this segment of the game takes place on a rail, it's an easy test to repeat across multiple cards and settings.


Origin Genesis: 1 or 2 x Radeon HD 5970, Maingear Shift: 2 x GeForce GTX 480


The Shift's dual GTX 480s still pull well ahead of the single Radeon 5970, but the combination of two HD 5970s in CrossFire is 50 percent faster than the GTX 480. None of the configurations have trouble running the game at any point; all three maintain smooth framerates across the board.

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Left 4 Dead 2

Left 4 Dead 2
DirectX 9 Gaming Performance


Left 4 Dead 2

Left 4 Dead 2 is a co-operative, survival horror, first-person shooter that pits four players against numerous hordes of Zombies. Like Half Life 2, the game uses the Source engine, however, the visual in L4D2 are far superior to anything seen in the Half Life universe to date. The game has much more realistic water and lighting effects, more expansive maps with richer detail, more complex models, and the list goes on and on. We tested the game by playing through the last mission of the Dark Carnival episode, with 8xMSAA anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering enabled and all in game graphical options set to their maximum values. Like Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2 is a DirectX 9-based game.


Origin Genesis: 1 or 2 x Radeon HD 5970, Maingear Shift: 2 x GeForce GTX 480
 
Like the original L4D, Left 4 Dead 2 is easysauce for a modern GPU. Even with every detail level cranked, the Shift broke the 200 fps barrier and squeaked past its ATI competition. The fact that L4D2 doesn't take much horsepower leaves gamers free to experiment with ultra-high AA methods and supersampling (be ye an ATI fan or a Green Team user).
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BattleForge


BattleForge
DirectX 11 Gaming Performance


BattleForge

BattleForge is a free-to-play EA online card game that's vaguely reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering but with better graphics and no need to carry around a shoebox of cards. The game supports DirectX 9, 10/10.1, and 11; our screenshots were taken with the game in DX11 mode and with the optional high quality texture pack installed. BattleForge has a built-in benchmark accessible from the "Graphics" subsection which makes it handy for performance comparisons as well.


Origin Genesis: 1 or 2 x Radeon HD 5970, Maingear Shift: 2 x GeForce GTX 480

With BattleForge running in DX11 mode, the Shift's GTX 480's eke out their first clear victory within our benchmark suite. Here, it's ATI's HD series that falls behind; adding a second 5970 increases performance by 46 percent. That's respectable, but it doesn't match the scaling we saw from other titles. The GTX 480's outperform the more expensive HD 5970s by 19 percent.

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Acoustics and Power Consumption

Power consumption was measured at the wall using a Kill-A-Watt power meter; the numbers given are indicative of the system's total power draw. We measure four specific states:

 

  • Idle: The system is booted and left with no background tasks running for 15 minutes. Note that most boutique manufacturers disable power-saving features like C1E, SpeedStep, and in some cases, sleep modes. Windows 7 is invariably left in "Max Performance" mode as well. This results in idle power draws substantially higher than they'd be if these features were enabled.
     
  • Load:  This state models real-world power consumption when the machine is being used for computationally intensive tasks, including 3D gaming, rendering, or data analysis. The applications we use to determine an accurate value for load power can vary depending on the component or components being tested. In this case, we measured power consumption while playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2. 
     
  • Peak: Peak power consumption is the maximum amount of power we were able to draw at the wall. Unlike idle and load measurements, peak power should not be treated as a realistic measure of a system's normal power consumption. We derive this value by simultaneously executing multiple programs (usually synthetic) that we've specifically chosen for their ability to create worst-case thermal/power consumption scenarios.
At present, we test peak power by running Prime95 across n-1 of the available cores on a system. The last core is reserved for executing the OpenGL GPU stress test program Furmark. In order to ensure a system is entirely stable we loop our peak power tests for a total of eight hours--or at least, we try.The Shift was unable to make it past the one hour mark for reasons we'll discuss on the next page. 


The Shift's overclock, extra cores, and power-hungry brace of GTX 480s push its power consumption up significantly over the Genesis, although oddly, the gap is slightly larger at Load as compared to Peak. The 1.2kW SilverStone PSU in the Shift had no problem handling the load. We've not had to discuss this previously, but a power supply is rated to supply a certain amount of DC power as opposed to being rated for a maximum amount of power draw when measured at the wall. Assuming an 80 percent efficiency rate, power supplies like the two in the Genesis and the Shift should be able to pull up to 1.5kW of wall power while remaining within spec. Unfortunately, the Shift wasn't able to run our Peak benchmark for more than an hour before crashing, for reasons we explore on the next page.

Acoustics:
We had to make a few changes to acoustics testing on account of the fact that the Shift's "back" (relative to standard ATX cases) is actually sticking straight up. We simplified the problem by rotating the Shift 90 degrees and measuring it as we would a standard case. Remember that since these are decibel levels, the scale is logarithmic rather than linear.



Six decibels of difference between the Shift and the Genesis means the Genesis is 4x louder than the Shift. MainGear claims that the Shift's orientation allow the system to be cooled more effectively (aka more quietly), and these numbers imply that's accurate. Unfortunately, we're about to muddy that pristine conclusion with the data we gathered on the Shift's operating temperatures.
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The Thermal Price of Silence

Peak Power, Revisited
The Shift was stable in every benchmark we ran and never crashed in any single test, including tests of Prime95 and FurMark provided they were run separately. That said, the system consistently crashed in our Peak power benchmark at or near the one hour mark. One of the main reasons we run that particular test is to ensure a system remains stable under a worst-case thermal scenario; when we started measuring the Shift's CPU temperatures some of what we found was disturbing. Let's start with a look at the Shift's temperatures in our Peak test. One thing we realized once we started poking at the system's thermals is that the presence or absence of the Shift's port-covering grate has a substantial impact on CPU temperatures.



95'C isn't necessarily the highest temperature the Shift's overclocked Core i7-980X would reach, but Prime95 became unstable at that point and began shutting down worker threads (and lowering the CPU load). With the grill removed, the CPU topped at 89'C without generating any errors in Prime95. When we discussed the high CPU temperatures with MainGear, they pointed out that our Peak power test is an absolute worst-case scenario that consumes far more power than any other test or program we've ever measured. That's a fair point, so we headed back to the Shift for another round of testing. This time around, we focused strictly on the CPU. We ran 12 threads of Prime95 using that program's maximum power consumption test. In order to establish a baseline for comparison, we also reset the BIOS for stock CPU speeds and voltages. The only options we didn't change back to defaults were the power management and throttling settings that MainGear left off when it shipped the system. Everything else—uncore, RAM, QPI links, etc—were all set default.


The plot thickens. We continued to see the same 6'C difference between grate-on and grate-off measurements. At stock speeds, even with the grate installed, the CPU got no hotter than a modest 54'C. At 4.2GHz (and MainGear's overclocking voltages), Intel's 980X was far, far hotter. The CPU was stable at this temperature—Prime95 reported no errors even after several hours. Modern processors, both CPU and GPU, are capable of running at temperatures hat would've fried processors from years ago, but we're not comfortable with seeing CPU temps pushing over 80'C. We checked in with Intel for additional information on what constitutes a safe operating temperature. Here's what we were told:
Without knowing the device specifics or environmental conditions, my guess would be that 91C is probably fine. I believe the Tj Max for the 980X is in the range of 100 C, so under a heavy load 91 C sounds reasonable.It is no secret that running a device at a high temperature for a long time will impact its long term lifespan...Voltage has a bigger influence than temperature and temperature has a larger influence than frequency...If the device reaches 91 C for relatively short periods of time (I'm talking hours, days or weeks, not months) then the impact on the lifespan will be negligible
Applying this information to our results, we see that the MainGear's Peak test temperature of 89'C (w/o the grill installed) falls within the upper range of temperatures Intel classifies as safe. The 95'C temperature, in this case, does not—the CPU has become hot enough to begin throwing errors, which renders questions of safe operation moot.

The one issue left on the table was whether or not the radiator pump on the Asetek CPU cooler was functioning properly or not. This was a possibility MainGear had suggested when we first discussed our temperature data; while we thought it unlikely, it was something worth exploring. Since there's a direct correlation between power consumption and heat, we opted to measure the Shift's Gulftown 980X in three distinct states. First, we measured total system power at the wall with the CPU set at stock speeds and voltages. For the second state, we applied all of the overclocked voltages MainGear had used, but kept the CPU and memory at stock speeds. Finally, we returned the system to the same settings MainGear shipped to us.



While these numbers reflect total system power, the Prime95 stress test we used focuses on the CPU near-exclusively. Just increasing the CPU and system voltages to their MainGear-set levels increased power consumption by 89W; pushing the core to 4.2GHz from 3.33GHz resulted in a further 55W rise. That's a total of 144W of additional power—if we assume the CPU accounts for even 80 percent of that, it means the Asetek unit is attempting to dissipate 115W of additional power, on top of whatever the CPU was using at stock. Given that Intel defines a 130W TDP for Gulftown, we've nearly doubled the processor's potential TDP without changing the cooling solution one iota.

Based on this data, we see no reason to conclude that the Shift's radiator wasn't working—on the contrary, it seems to be working very, very well. With no reservoir tank and only a relatively small amount of fluid in circulation, the Asetek unit is more dependent on air passing over the radiator to reduce the water's temperature than it would be if it had a half-gallon of fluid moving through the system. Air, meanwhile, is subject to the basic laws of physics—the hotter the air moving over the radiator, the less effectively it cools. That's also why we saw the variation in stock temperature between our Peak test and our Prime95 test. During the Peak test, the two GeForce GTX 480 cards are running at 98-105'C each, which has a significant effect on the internal case temperature.

Turn Up The Airflow Or Turn Down The Voltages
MainGear has multiple avenues from which it can approach the problem, but since the Shift is designed for quiet operation, we favor reducing power consumption as opposed to using louder fans. A quick peek at overclocking databases online shows plenty of folks hitting 4.2GHz on air with Gulftown CPUs almost all of these are using much lower voltages than the overclocked configuration MainGear provided. As it turns out, we were able to lower the Shift's voltages significantly without negatively impacting system stability.



The difference between the voltage values may be small in absolute terms, but their collective impact on the system's operating temperature was substantial. Using these settings, the Shift drew 485W at the wall during our Prime95 test and reached a maximum temperature of 78'C (grate on). While that's still toasty, it's a solid improvement over what we saw using MainGear's default settings.

The other option would be to increase the amount of available CPU cooling. The Asetek is fitted with a pair of Silverstone R121225SL 120mm fans in a push/pull configuration. These fans emphasize silent operation more than airflow and while you wouldn't normally find us saying that a system needs to be louder, the Shift could give up 2-3 decibels at peak and still be just half as loud as Origin's Genesis. Regardless of what path the company chooses, we feel this is an issue that needs to be addressed. Our thermal tests were conducted in an open-air environment; the PC was dust-free, sat on a wood surface to ensure optimal intake clearance, and happened to rest directly below an air vent. Ambient temperature was kept around 65'F. Even under these conditions, the Shift hit temperatures ranging from 85C in Prime95 to 95C in our Peak power test. Toss in a few months worth of collected dust, an ambient temperature of 80F instead of 65, and a space that's merely adequately vented, and it's all too easy to see the Shift becoming unstable on account of heat buildup.
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Conclusion


Performance Summary:  The SHIFT's overclocked CPU and additional cores push it well ahead of even overclocked quad-core 45nm Nehalem systems and put it on equal footing with the Alienware Area-51 we recently tested. The GTX 480s at the heart of the machine may not always outperform the dual-core pair of Radeon 5970s we tested alongside them, but they hold their own, particularly if we compare them in terms of their price/performance ratio. Factor in PhysX and handy utilities like Badaboom and there's an argument to be made for a set of Fermis cards as opposed to a brace of  four Radeon GPUs.  That said, there is definitely a sweeter spot in terms of value, and it's found in a pair of ATI Radeon HD 5870 cards. And of course, if you prefer Radeon HD 5870 cards, MainGear will happily sell you some. Regardless, the SHIFT's performance is sexy from any angle, particularly if you're looking for a workstation-class machine or have software that can readily put the system's six CPU cores to good use.

We really like the SHIFT. MainGear deserves top honors for taking the risk of building a non-standard chassis and for delivering real benefits as opposed to slick marketing drivel. The case is fully compatible with all standard PC peripherals with just a scant handful of exceptions and the improved airflow gives the system the best acoustics of any system we've tested to date. We'd like to see a future version of the chassis without the temperature delta we observed between having the rear grate attached vs. removing it, but that's a minor point. If you're in the market for a truly different sort of system, MainGear might have precisely what you're looking for.

We'd definitely recommend the SHIFT to any of our enthusiast readers looking for a top-notch system, though we'd opt for one at default clock speeds. At stock speeds, the SHIFT is a fantastic blend of speed, low temperatures, and quieter-than-normal operation (particularly if you were to opt for video cards other than the loudish GTX 480s). While we readily acknowledge that the SHIFT was stable in every benchmark except our peak power consumption test, the CPU temperatures we saw while running Prime95 were too high for our taste. Our chat with Intel confirmed that the CPU should have no problem, even at 89-90'C, but the fact that we're seeing those temperatures in a best-case scenario leads us to believe that the margin of error is too thin for sustained real world operation. While this is a significant concern, it's also a simple one that MainGear should have no problem solving. The SHIFT is quiet, it performs with the speed and grace of a fat kid hunting cake, and it's something new and unique in a market that sees far too many retreads of last year's designs in this year's colors. We very much hope MainGear keeps on doing things differently, and we look forward to seeing the fruits of their labor.


 

  • Innovative, Unique Design
  • Could Make Steve Jobs Jealous
  • Near-silent operation (relative to competitors)
  • Excellent Performance
  • Asetek 550LC Cooler
  • Overclocked Temperatures
  • Easier On The Eyes Than The Wallet
  • Was Not Delivered By Complimentary Sherpa


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