It's been a busy spring for OEMs, and Digital Storm is no exception. Earlier this year, Intel was forced to suspend shipments of Sandy Bridge's accompanying Cougar Point chipset while it fixed a design flaw. This, in turn, left both system OEMs and retail motherboard vendors no choice but to suspend/delay their own Sandy Bridge-based products. Now the market is awash with product refreshes, making it more difficult than ever for any one product to stand out from the crowd. Digital Storm's new Enix appears to pull it off nicely, however, at a (relatively) cheap price compared to many of the boutique systems we've reviewed in the past 18 months.
In light of its specifications, the Enix is an excellent example of a "have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too" design. Digital Storm has packed the system with a 3.4GHz processor overclocked at 4.7GHz and a brace of GTX 580s, while simultaneously opting for an mATX tower designed to maximize airflow and accommodate high-end components. The case—SilverStone's FT03—minimizes chassis depth, thus creating a unique rectangular prism form factor.
We'll tell you up front, the Enix fixes everything we didn't like about the older Core i5 system. While this particular Enix is far more expensive than the Core i5 we reviewed, it's possible to build an Enix that *is* within that system's price range. The downside here is that Digital Storm bit off a bit more than it should've when it tuned the Enix's performance. Details to follow.
|SilverStone FT03 / Enix chassis|
The Digital Storm Enix in profile and front-and-center. SilverStone's vertically oriented FT03 makes the system quite unique. The central case fan (visible in the middle photo) is angled to draw air through the red panel on the left-hand side of the case. The CPU is cooled by Corsair's H70 unit with fans mounted on both sides.
SilverStone's FT03 shares its vertical orientation with with MainGear's custom Shift chassis that we reviewed about a year ago. Both cases orient the motherboard vertically and make use of internal fans to draw air from the bottom of the system, direct it across the motherboard, and exhaust it at the top.
From here, the two diverge. The FT03 is much smaller than the SHIFT, with half or less of its internal volume. Despite this, the case can hold two double-wide video cards, up to three hard drives, and an SSD. Audio is strictly motherboard-only in the configuration we tested, though a non-SLI Enix could accomodate a sound card.
The top of the Enix (with the lid on and off) and the left-hand air port with the grill removed
The Enix's SilverStone FT03 case has several potential drawbacks. The optical drive slot is much lower than usual, while the front panel / top panel is minimalist by today's standards, particularly given the fact that the two USB 3.0 ports at the top of the system are connected to the two USB ports immediately adjacent to them.. As a result, the Enix configuration we were shipped can't accommodate more than six USB devices, total.
That's precious few given the current plethora of USB devices. A user with a high-end keyboard that draws power from dual USB 2.0 ports, a USB mouse, external card reader, a phone / tablet that charges via USB, and a flash drive is out of space for anything else.
SilverStone's decision to use front-mount USB 3.0 ports actually makes things worse. If the top USB ports weren't blue, Digital Storm could internally connect them to one of the motherboard's additional USB headers, and bring the total number of ports up to eight.
The top-mounted power and reset buttons need to be recessed—even with the top cover on, the two buttons sit above the grate and are vulnerable to any sort of accidental tap. Normally we'd hail front-mount USB 3.0 ports as a fine thing, but they make little sense in a system with so few ports to begin with,
Our feelings are decidedly mixed. The FT03 has its strong points, and Digital Storm has outfitted it well, but we're not convinced the tradeoffs are worth it.
|Test Systems, SiSoft Sandra|
For this review, we drew on comparative performance from several of the boutique systems we've reviewed over the past 18 months. In some cases we also included test results from our recent high-end video card revieweds. These tests are run on a Core i7 980X and are therefore reasonably comparable to our other included test results.
Take note of the Enix's price compared to all the other systems..Most of this difference is due to nothing more exotic than the price of system components. The Alienware and Maingear systems both used $1000 processors; the Origin rig used a relatively inexpensive Core i7-920—but compensated with $1400 dollars worth of video cards.The cost difference, notable as it is, is not unexpected.
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. In the case, we ran both Sysmark 2010 and 2011 on the Enix, in order to measure performance differences while maintaining a degree of backward comparability.
The performance delta we see here is intriguing. The Enix's Sandra 2010/2011 GFLOP score is the same--but it's GIPS score jumps a whopping 20 percent. (All of the systems in question used the same blend of SSE4.2 / SSE3 instructions). As a result, it wins this category. We insured the difference here wasn't caused by inherently higher performance in Sandra 2011 itself--the Nehalem-based Core i7-920 @ 3.8 GHz returned identical scores when retested in 2K10 and 2K11. FLOPS performance goes to the Shift, whose additional cores stand it in good stead.
Sandra 2011 measures multimedia performance differently and uses the Enix's AVX instructions. As a result, 2011 results are not remotely comparable. We therefore measured only in Sandra 2010.
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. Again, we see some interesting performance differences. The Enix is beaten by both the Shift and the Area-51, but it keeps up surprisingly well with both.
Origin Genesis: Core i7 920 @ 3.8GHz, Maingear Shift: Core i7 980X @ 4.2GHz
Finally, we've got Sandra's memory bandwidth analysis. There's a gap of some 30 percent between the Enix/Area-51 and the Genesis/Shift--but it has virtually no impact on benchmark results in any area. Latency matters far more than bandwidth in consumer products, which very much includes gaming.
Next, we ran the test systems through Futuremark’s 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.
PCMark Vantage testing shows the Digital Storm Enix slightly ahead of the MainGear SHIFT as we tested it, and quite a bit faster than the Origin Genesis we originally tested. There are several reasons for this. Both the Maingear and the Enix used SSDs with faster controllers (Marvell and SandForce respectively). The Shift and the Enix each have their own particular strong points—the Enix is a quad-core Sandy Bridge processor with its performance improvements and a 4.7GHz clockspeed while the Shift ran at 4.2GHz, but with six cores instead of four.
|Cinebench R10 and R11.5|
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. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput. 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.
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 ourprocessor comparison; the OpenGL test is a GPU-specific benchmark and is meant to represent professional graphics performance. Scores between the two benchmarks are notdirectly comparable, although it is possible to render R10's workload using 11.5, should you feel inclined.
Again, the Enix's single-core performance is quite impressive. Consider the fact that the Enix is only clocked 12 percent faster than the Shift, but is 30 percent faster in single-threaded rendering. The Shift still wins out overall, which is what we'd expect from a six-core processor against a quad-core. At the same time, the gap between the two processors is much smaller than might be expected.
The Shift has 50 percent more cores than the Enix, but is only 16 percent faster. 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.
|3DMark Vantage, 3DMark 11|
We decided to compare both Performance and Extreme presets in both Vantage and 3DMark 11, in order to measure how various video cards match up at the two ends of the spectrum. We were particularly curious about the Genesis—it shipped with dual Radeon 5970s, or four GPUs total. The total available RAM, however, was just 1GB per GPU, which could hand a theoretical advantage to the NVIDIA cards. The Shift used two GTX 480s in SLI; the Enix features a pair of GTX 580s in the same configuration.
The Extreme setting tells a very different story. The Origin Genesis' quad GPUs are very nearly the match of the Enix's 580s, but not quite their equal.
We incorporated results from recent GPU reviews to offer more than a comparison between the Enix and the Genesis. The Genesis easily outpaces a single GTX 580, but the Enix's performance is outstanding. At this preset, however, CPU performance is weighed more heavily—the Enix's 4.8GHz quad-core is extremely potent.
Processor speed accounts for just five percent of the 3DMark 11 score at Extreme settings, making this a purer test of GPU performance. The gap between the Origin and the Enix is noticeably smaller here, falling from 27 percent in the performance test to 17 percent here. The Enix with its dual GTX 580s still takes top honors overall, however, even when compared against AMD's brand-new Radeon HD 6990.
|Far Cry 2|
|Battlefield: BC2 and Just Cause 2|
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.
Here, the Origin Genesis takes a lead, but the Enix's performance is still excellent (and significantly outperforms the Maingear Shift's dual GTX 480s).
The Enix takes the second spot, trailing the 6990 in this test but competes well overall. We expected to see the game scale better in SLI mode; the performance benefit of adding the second GTX 580 is much less than we've seen from this title in other reviews.
|DiRT 2 and F1 2010|
|Power Consumption, Thermals, Stability|
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:
We recognize that both ATI and NV have a valid interest in protecting users from melting their video cards when they fail to heed the various all-capital warnings that convey the benchmark's nature. Nevertheless, Furmark is a very useful product for reviewers. It allows us to verify the efficacy of GPU cooling solutions in worst-case scenarios, Equally vital, it allows us to simulate the presence of dust, inadequate ventilation, or fans spinning slower than they should be. Components in such a system can easily run 10-15'C hotter. Toss in an ambient temperature of 75-80'F instead of the 60-65'F we test at, and systems that were stable in the lab when brand new can turn unstable in the field 12-18 months later.
Because we were able to get Furmark 1.9.0 to properly run in SLI mode, we tested as we have before. This may change with future reviews, however.
A power consumption level of 995W at peak isn't going to win any efficiency awards, but it's 12% less than the Genesis and a whopping 30 percent less than the Shift.
Idle power, meanwhile, is downright impressive; the Enix draws just 45 percent as much electricity in Idle mode as the Shift or the Genesis.
We were very happy with the Enix's power consumption, but our hopes that we'd see subsequently lower temperatures were dashed. Boutique builders continue to push processors to the absolute limits of their thermal design.
Of the three systems we've discussed here, only the Origin Genesis has been capable of running both Furmark and Prime95 simultaneously for more than eight hours straight. The Shift managed an hour--not a result we were thrilled with, but an acceptable one.
The Enix manages 17 minutes. Even that's only thanks to NV's enhanced hardware throttling that automatically reduced the second GTX 580's workload to ~50 percent of what it was when the test began.
Concerned, we next tested a gaming scenario in which two CPU cores have been left running a task in the background (Prime95 in this case) while the other two cores were occupied playing Left 4 Dead 2. It took the system longer to crash--about 35 minutes—but it did.
What's so bothersome here is that $3000 - $5000 systems carry an implicit guarantee of greater stability, higher-quality components, and hardened design. Indeed they often offer such at stock speeds--but then carve away at the margin of error until it's the thickness of a razor blade. This is not unique to Digital Storm, but we're increasingly unhappy with this tendency. There's no reason a user shouldn't be able to run a program like Prime95 or Folding@Home in the background, while blowing the crap out of zombies simultaneously.
Performance Summary: The Enix is a great performer. It's right at the the top of our gaming benchmarks and it offers a fabulous price / performance ratio compared to the previous boutique systems we've examined. The Shift, with it's overclocked Gulftown 6-Core CPU is ,generally speaking, the fastest we've ever tested—but the four-core Sandy Bridge is surprisingly close behind it. We've got nothing but praise for this aspect of the system.
We continue to have concerns about the way boutique builders are trying to balance on the very razor edge of acoustics, performance, and thermals. Consumers may be enticed by such marketing, but we believe they are served better by more durable products that can withstand sustained heavy workloads, dust buildup, AC failures and the like—even if all three become an issue at the same time. This trend, however, is not unique to Digital Storm.