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Building The SHIFT, Maingear's DIY Kit
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Date: Feb 20, 2012
Section:Systems
Author: Dave Altavilla
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Introduction and Specs
Alright, we'll come right out and gush a little bit. Our cynical, sometimes overly-critical opinions can occasionally be tempered by momentary flashes of greatness. We see a lot of high-end (and low-end) gear around here, so after a while, you can't stop your eyeballs from glossing over and a yawn from escaping from the cranium. However, when Maingear computers first stepped out with their high-end SHIFT line of gaming and workstation PCs, we took note and were genuinely impressed; a bit of rarefied air if you will.  It wasn't so much the component selection that stood out, but it was the excellent build quality and the SHIFT's 90-degree rotated layout that caused our double-take, and ultimately put Maingear on the map as a major player in the space.

We even liked the design so much that we eventually paid the folks at Maingear a visit to see their operation first hand and witness the birth of a SHIFT PC for ourselves. Maingear definitely impressed us on a number of fronts, from their revolutionary PC designs, to their eat-off-the-floor, tidy manufacturing line in scenic New Jersey, and stand-up staff members and management. But enough of the gushing. You get the drift. Maingear's products may not be the low price watermark, but they definitely set the high quality bar up a notch or three.

Recently Maingear announced that they'd be offering a DIY SHIFT chassis and cooling system kit for a limited time, to folks that might want to try their hand at building a SHIFT-infused PC for themselves.  At $899 for the case, Maingear's integrated Aphex audio enhancement solution, and a Maingear Epic 180 close-looped water cooler, this DIY kit isn't for the weekend warrior, but rather for the elite power user looking to build something special.

We tried our hand at building our very own SHIFT and will step through the process with you here with some hands-on footage and then show you a few performance data points to complete the picture.


Maingear Limited Edition SHIFT Chassis Kit
Specifications & Features
  • Dimensions 24 inches (H)
  • 8.6 inches (W)
  • 21.5 inches (D)
  • Average configured system weight - 60 lbs
  • Up to 6 HDDs (or 12 SSDs) with numerous SSD and mechanical drive options
  • Dual 180mm fans (upgradable)
  • Watercooled with dual radiator options
  • EPIC 180 closed-loop water cooler, maintenance free
  • 90 degree rotation for vertical heat dissipation
  • Rear PSU exhaust and power cable connection
  • Top 120mm exhaust fan and IO cable management
  • Kit retail price:  $899





Right, it's built like a tank at 60lbs and with 180mm cooling fans, in addition to the 180mm radiator in the Epic 180 self-contained water cooler, this PC case means business in every way.  The nice thing about being able to support such large fans is that you don't need to spin up to very audible levels in order to move a lot of air.  Though whether you consider thermals or acoustics as your own personal leading indicator, it's really not large fans or the water cooler that make the SHIFT, well, a SHIFT.


That's it right there.  Pull back that top chassis cover and you expose the rear motherboard IO panel, and card slots.  Thermally, the SHIFT is designed to push and vent all warm air out of the top of the case and mechanically, cable management is handled that way as well, with a quick left-angle turn routing all lines through a simple pass-through in the rear of the chassis.  Let's take a closer look.

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SHIFT Layout and EPIC 180 Water Cooler
Though it's perhaps not widely known, Maingear's SHIFT case was designed in conjunction with Silverstone.  The design is proprietary to Maingear, however, and you can't buy it anywhere else.  Silverstone does manufacture and sell chassis with a similar inverted motherboard tray design, though none appear to have the spaciousness and build quality of what the company put together with Maingear.


SHIFT's inverted motherboard tray with EPIC 180 installed - 180mm white fan mounted to radiator

The PSU mounts in the bottom of the chassis, right in back of the 180mm fan site in the front of the case where the EPIC 180 radiator can also be mounted. There is another 180mm fan mounted right above where the PSU sits.  This fan pulls cool air in from the bottom of the chassis and pushes it out over the motherboard area.  As you can see here, the drive rack area is also right above where the EPIC 180 radiator mounts.  The drive rack has six drive trays that support both 3.5" and 2.5" hard drives or SSDs.  Though we were concerned that the radiated air off the cooler would warm the drive rack, with the white 180mm fan pushing the sort of volume it does over the area, these concerns were unfounded and drives maintained a cool profile.  In fact, as you'll see, the litany of system thermal sensors registered nominal readings under load.

       
Part of the reason the system remained cool and quiet was that the Maingear EPIC 180 self-contained water cooler (developed by CoolIT) is epically huge. The radiator fan shroud is custom fit to slide right in under the drive rack of the chassis and with the fan mounted on it, there is plenty of clearance underneath.  This fan, like the 180mm fan above the PSU, also pulls cool air into the system and over the radiator.  The cold plate, block and pump assembly of the EPIC 180 is also large  and well-built.  The kit comes with screw type stand-offs that use thumbscrews to mount the assembly into a standard LGA 2011 type socket.



The motherboard area is relatively tight with strategically placed pass-throughs in various areas.  These passthroughs aren't as large as we would have liked, though they are lined with rubber grommets to protect cabling from cuts and chaffing.  Working cable routes through these areas takes a bit of work in spots, but ultimately it accommodated our fairly standard configuration, with a modular power supply affording us the ability to only install the cables we need for the build.  Heavier build configurations may be a bit more challenging in terms of cable management and routing.

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System Installation, Setup and EPIC Audio
Once you get the motherboard in place, along with some of its critical power cabling routed, the rest of the build goes fairly easily.  The motherboard of choice for our build was Intel's very own DX79SI "Siler" motherboard.  With only three full-length PCI Express slots (Gen 3 capable though not validated by Intel yet) and a pair of x1s, there's not a ton of room for expansion, though it served our standard NVIDIA SLI multi-GPU setup just fine.


Intel's DX79SI Siler Motherboard, Maingear EPIC 180 water block installed



We actually opted to leave the SATA cables you see here, running on the front side of the motherboard, so we could get at them easier if need be in the future. You could easily use one of the local pass-throughs though, if you wanted to neaten things up a bit more.

 

The OCZ RevoDrive X2 sits nestled in next to the MSI GeForce GTX 580 in this shot but there would be another GTX 580 from Zotac flanking that PCIe SSD in the near future.  Air flow across the card slot area was going to be critical for system stability under load, so we dialed up that 180mm fan to sit at 70% in the BIOS.  Fortunately, at that speed, it's still whisper-quiet.  The back side of the chassis shows most of where our cables are hiding.  The SHIFT's panel design has plenty of room on either side to offer clearance for accommodating all the cabling we could throw at it. Pop the side panel on and it's out of site, out of mind, as they say.

A Few Minutes with EPIC Audio, Powered by APHEX:
APHEX is Pro Audio technology company that has been around for about 35 years specializing in audio processing and production equipment primarily, though they do license their technology as well.  Maingear got together with Aphex to develop an audio enhancement engine for PC gamers, specifically for the headphone-powered crowd.  As part of the bundle, this little number was installed in a 2.5" drive-bay for us.



Maingear's EPIC Audio Engine (powered by APHEX as you can see) offers what Maingear calls "a more immersive PC experience through enhanced sound. The studio-grade processing technology in a custom designed solution for PCs, headphone audio output and microphone input truly gives a more balanced and realistic audio experience." 

In our testing of both in-game sound effects, in-game musical sound tracks and various selections from our personal music library, the EPIC Audio Engine did offer a more dynamic "spatialized" effect with brighter highs and more pronounced, punchy lows.  Though APHEX claims that sound will be more "balanced and articulated" we'd offer that, depending on your personal preference and listening style, the EPIC Audio Engine's seemingly enhanced dynamic range may or may not appeal to you, depending on the content you're listening to.  For example, in game testing, both for sound effects and scene music, we preferred the more cinematic punch and range of the processing engine.  However, certain types of music (Blues and acoustic sets) appealed more to us with the processing engine turned off.  Midrange also seems a bit softened with the effect turned on as well.  However, driving Rock with lots of guitar crunch sounded great with the EPIC Audio Engine enabled.  Of course, our opinion here is all very much subjective, personal preference, but by in large we enjoyed having the ability to amp up the audio experience when the mood struck.  We only wish the effect was available with standard audio output and not just headphones.  We tested the device in conjunction with the Intel motherboard's on-board audio solution and would have like the option to enable it on our room speakers as well.

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Thermal and Acoustic Performance
When we fired up our DIY SHIFT for the first time, the first thing we did after OS and driver installation, was to take a look at system vital signs with Intel's Desktop Utilities software.





Our CPU was hovering around a nippy 29ºC at idle on the desktop and the rest of the Vreg temperatures on the Intel X79 motherboard were also pretty tepid.  Intel's PCH (Platform Controller Hub) Southbridge chip was the warmest of the bunch, registering 43ºC, which is still pretty mild obviously. 

And of course, we stress tested things a bit.


Stock speeds for CPU and GPU, Full Load, Stock Speeds - Core i7-3960X w/ Dual GeForce GTX 580s

Under full CPU and GPU workload, CPU temps hovered around 50ºC and our GPUs scaled up to the low 70s.  Thermals inside this build are impressive to be sure.  Acoustics under load were also completely unoffensive, even the dual GeForce GTX 580s didn't seem to spool up that much.  In short, our DIY SHIFT is one cool and quiet system.  We'll be experimenting with overclocking in the future but all of the above readings were taken at stock speeds.

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Performance Quick-Take and Wrap-Up
And finally, here's a quick lap around the benchmark track.

PCMark 7 and 3DMark 11 Performance
General Performance and Gaming Performance Snapshot




It may sound cliche' but these are some of the best scores we've seen in either PCMark 7 or 3DMark 11.  There's little question that a pair of Radeon HD 7970s would surpass this GeForce GTX 580 SLI setup in 3DMark 11 but it's still a blistering score for the test.  Hands-down our PCMark 7 score here is the fastest we've seen to date, courtesy of OCZ's RevoDrive 3 X2 partially, since the test tends to be fairly disk sensitive.

To say our system build with the Maingear SHIFT DIY kit was a pleasure would be an understatement.  The primary barrier to entry here and our only reservation, is price. At $899, a SHIFT DIY kit, even with Maingear's EPIC 180 water cooler and Aphex audio solution on-board, is an ultra-premium product, like Thermaltake's Level 10 for example.  Still, there are plenty of folks out there that might consider bellying-up for this kind of build quality, performance and style.  Without question, there isn't another chassis design on the market currently quite like the SHIFT, although Silverstone does offer a few case designs with the same 90 degree rotated motherboard area, for a lot less cash.  That said, you'd also have to take into account the cost of Maingear's EPIC Audio Engine and their EPIC 180 water cooler, which are approximately $250 and $125 respectively, along with the cost of a 180mm fan or two, perhaps.  Regardless, that still leaves Maingear's Limited Edition SHIFT DIY kit at a rather steep premium.  This chassis is one of those halo products that you either can justify being somewhat impractical about cost or you can't.

Our opinion is that this chassis design is just plain beautiful.  In terms of its design and layout, it's easily one of our most favorite chassis we've ever worked with. Cable management is neat and clean, while thermal performance and acoustics are best of class. The use of 180mm fans in the design definitely keeps noise levels down, even at full speed and maximum air flow.  Finally, the SHIFT's heavy gauge all aluminum construction with precision fit and finish offer a sense of quality you just don't get with a lot of cases on the market.  We'd suggest that if Maingear were to offer up another option or two of the SHIFT DIY, without EPIC Audio perhaps or maybe even without EPIC cooling, shaving some dollars off the price tag could definitely bring in a few more potential customers who might otherwise be out of reach.  Regardless, as Maingear likes to note, there may be systems and PC chassis out there that are similar to a SHIFT, but they're just not the same.  We'd have to agree.  The Maingear do-it-yourself SHIFT kit may be pricey but we're thoroughly impressed with its combination of style and performance.


 
  • Super heavy-duty all aluminum construction
  • Sharp lines, classic, clean look
  • Tight fit and finish
  • Great layout with good cable management
  • Great thermal and acoustic performance
 
  • Pricey
  • Some areas of cable management are a little tight
  • No EPIC Audio on standard audio output



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