|Introduction & Specifications|
One of Merriam-Webster's definitions for the word obscene is "so excessive as to be offensive." By that definition, Maingear sent us an obscenely spec'd SHIFT Super Stock X79 system packed to the hilt with so much decadent hardware that even the one percenters would feel guilty owning it, right up until the moment they pushed the power button and remembered exactly why it's so fun to be filthy rich. As configured, this thing costs $7,570, and that's after deducting $100 as part of Maingear's 'Spring Savings' promotion and before tacking on another $100 or so for shipping. It's not a configuration most of us will ever own -- it's more than half the price of a 5-door Kia Rio, for crying out loud -- but damn, it sure is fun to window shop, isn't it?
Before we go any further, understand you don't need to sit around and wait for a rich relative to croak and leave you with a fat inheritance to afford a Maingear system. On the flip side, if you often find there's too much month at the end of the money, a SHIFT system probably isn't the best way to spend your pieces of eight. SHIFT desktops start at $1,849 for systems built around AMD's 990FX platform, $1,849 for Intel Z68 configurations, and $2,449 for Intel X79 setups like the one featured here. Add another grand for Super Stock builds, which come pre-configured with higher-end components. If you want the Maingear experience on a Walmart budget, the boutique system builder sells less expensive models, including the X-Cube ($649 and up), Vybe ($879 and up), and F131 ($1,099 and up). Savvy? Let's move on.
All of this awesome hardware (and more) is featured in Maingear's SHIFT chassis, a unique enclosure built by Silverstone to facilitate natural airflow through a vertical cooling design better suited for multiple, high-heat videocards. The system's rear panel actually sits at the top of the chassis and is covered by a removable portion of the panel to prevent cables from becoming an eyesore. You can actually buy a DIY SHIFT chassis and cooling kit for a limited time, which we recently featured.
|Software, Accessories, & First Boot|
The size of the system bundle will depend on how many accessories you dropped into your virtual cart when configuring your rig. Maingear offers a number of peripherals and add-ons, including monitors, speakers, keyboards, mice, game controllers, and more.
Our system shipped with a plastic binder stuffed with items including:
We don't want to overstate the bundle, but Maingear's binder is the sort of the thing that lets you know you're shopping from a boutique system builder and not a bulk OEM.
Maingear advertises a "Zero Bloatware" policy that's a refreshing change of a pace in this era of loading up pre-built systems with third-party software. Of course, you're paying a premium for this level of PC cleanliness, and performance robbing crapware is how some OEMs can sell their systems so cheap, but if given the choice, we'd rather shell out a few extra dollars for a pristine setup rather than spend the time cleaning up the pre-installed crud.
At the time of this of this writing, Maingear has a number of special promotions going on, including several free game offers. If you remember to check the boxes, you can receive Batman: Arkham City, Battlefield 3, Just Cause 2, and Jagged Alliance: Back in Action for free when you order a SHIFT Super Stock X79 system.
The only pre-installed software that shipped with our review unit was Cyberlink's Blu-ray Disc Suite, a utility that ships with the LG optical drive that allows you to watch high-definition Blu-ray discs, burn media, and perform a handful of other tasks. By request, you can also have Maingear pre-install Microsoft's Security Essentials antivirus program. If not, Maingear drops an installation file on your desktop, along with another installation file for OpenOffice.
|Overall Design & Layout|
|Maingear could have just as easily been a body shop for custom tuned automobiles, a direction company founders Wallace Santos and Jonathan Magalhaes considered taking before deciding to focus on high-performance PCs instead. These guys haven't lost their passion for auto-geekery and one of the options they offer is a premium paint job, a service that runs $599 for the exterior and $235 or $349 for the interior, depending on color. Our system shipped with a "Rosso Red" exterior finish that's actually much deeper (and better looking) than the thumbnail picture Maingear provides on its configuration page.
The first thing you should know is that this is a big and heavy system. It measures 24 inches high, 21.5 inches deep, and 8.6 inches wide and tips the scales at around 60 pounds (average weight). This isn't a system you're going to lug around to LAN parties, or even from room to room unless you're friends with a chiropractor. And with a $599 paint job, the last thing you want to do is accidentally bump up against a wall and scuff or scratch its stunning appearance.
Brushed aluminum make up the SHIFT's construction, and the brushed aesthetic shines through the coat of paint. Forget for a moment that the case is much too big to tuck away, because even if it weren't, this is the type of system you want to showcase. For an extra $129, you can opt to have a side window installed, a pricey option to show off the company's excellent wire management skills, and another $59 buys you an LED light strip in one of four different colors: blue, purple, red, or white. The chassis looks just fine without all these extras, but if going all out with a painted interior, exterior, LED light strip, and side window, you'll end up about $1,000 lighter in the wallet.
A metal door swings open to reveal the LG Blu-ray/DVD burner and two other optical drive bays. Right below them is the Maingear Epic Audio Engine powered by Aphex, normally a $249 add-on but is a free addition at the time of this writing. This is an audio enhancement solution that's supposed to deliver richer, fuller audio without adding gain. When we tested the Epic Audio Engine, which turns on and off with the flip of a switch, we noticed better sounding audio with it turned on, though not so dramatic that we'd be willing to fork over the asking price if it weren't included for free.
A spring loaded I/O compartment sits on top of the chassis and pops up to reveal a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port, headphone and mic inputs, and a multi-card reader. Aside from the card reader, it's a rather spartan configuration devoid of faster interfaces like SuperSpeed USB 3.0 and eSATA, both of which we'd prefer over a Firewire port. It's one of the few missteps Maingear makes with this system, made even more frustrating by the lack of easy accessibility to the rear I/O ports, which we'll talk about in a moment.
Every high school student knows that heat rises, or at least that's a dumbed down version of the physics behind hot air having a natural tendency to rise above cold air. Rather than go against the grain, the SHIFT chassis rotates everything 90 degrees so that the components -- and in particular, the videocards -- are facing upwards. This vertical design is intended to suck cool air in from the bottom and blow hot air out the top. Maingear explains it like this:
"SHIFT uses the natural behavior of hot air as an advantage - by rotating the internal components of the PC so that all heat is radiated through the top vents and cool air is drawn in from the bottom, SHIFT can harness the most powerful hardware on the planet with ease. Heat is the enemy of electronic components, and hot-running components are more prone to failure. Large, slow moving fans assist with the airflow and are virtually silent, and also feature removable, washable air filters. Generous, inconspicuous ventilation grates and inlets allow for ample airflow without taking away from the design aesthetics of the SHIFT chassis."The upside to this design is cooler running components, which in turn should allow them to run quieter and last longer. It's reminiscent of the BTX form factor Intel tried so hard to promote several years ago, with one big advantage over the defunct standard: it's 100 percent compatible with ATX.
There's also a downside to this design, as implemented by Maingear. All of the rear ports now sit on top of the chassis, but to get to them, you have to unscrew a portion of the top panel. That means removing two screws any time you want access to one of the SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports or any of the other features on the I/O panel, including the convenient CMOS Reset button in case you bork an overclock or BIOS setting. A better solution would be to provide thumbscrews so you don't have to reach for a screwdriver, or to implement a sliding panel design for quick access.
This baby's got back! Since the rear I/O ports took a detour to the top of the case, the back of the SHIFT is clean and clutter free, save for the cables that are routed out from the top through an opening below the removable panel. And with the top panel covering up the I/O ports, there's really no bad angle to view the SHIFT.
Gutting a beast is supposed to be difficult and messy, but that's not the case with the SHIFT. In order to get your hands dirty -- or vice versa, dirty the inside with your hands, as it were -- you first remove the top panel that hides the I/O ports. Once you take that off, there's a lever on both sides that you push to release the side panels.
Once we ripped away the main side panel, we were treated to a clean underbelly, no small feat when you're trying to route and hide cables from three videocards, two solid state drives, a mechanical hard drive, an optical drive, a liquid cooling system, a 1,200W power supply, and fans and lights. Crammed full of $7,500 worth of components, Maingear did a great job cleaning up the inside to facilitate airflow. There's even enough room to stick your head inside and yell "Ricolaaaaa!"
|PCMark & 3DMark Tests|
Touting Intel's flagship Core i7 3960X processor overclocked to 4.8GHz, three of the fastest single-GPU videocards on the planet (AMD Radeon HD 7970), and two blistering fast SSDs (Corsair Force GT 240GB) in a RAID 0 configuration, our performance expectations were through the roof. To kick things off we fire up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
With a little bit of tweaking, such as disabling background services and fine tuning the RAM, the SHIFT Super Stock X79 would be able to top 30,000 points. The system fell just shy of that mark during our test run, thrashing every other system we've ever reviewed, and showed a marked improvement over Maingear's 2010 model SHIFT. PCMark Vantage evaluates overall system performance, and since the SHIFT doesn't really have any weak spots, it's no surprise that it hit the ground running the way that it did.
We built a system inside Maingear's SHIFT DIY kit back in February that consisted of an Intel Core i7 3960X processor, two GeForce GTX 580 videocards in SLI, and an OCZ RevoDrive 3 X2. After benchmarking the system, we said "Hands-down our PCMark 7 score here is the fastest we've seen to date." That score was 5,396, or more than 1,000 points lower than the system Maingear built for this review. In-freaking-credible.
The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Performance preset option, as well as ran the system through a 3DMark Vantage run, which focuses on DirectX 10.
Maingear set out to prove a point in the same fashion as a person who swats a fly with a rocket launcher. The SHIFT's 3DMark Vantage score isn't just ridiculous in the way it decimated every other gaming system we're able to compare it with, it also would qualify as the 16th fastest score in Futuremark's Hall of Fame, only we weren't able to submit the score because AMD's new Catalyst 12.2 drivers hadn't yet been certified by Futuremark at the time of this writing. And if you think that's impressive...
...check out the Extreme preset score, which would currently rank as No. 5 in Futuremark's Hall of Fame. In other words, the hefty investment required to own a system like this buys you one of the fastest consumer systems ever assembled and major benchmarking bragging rights.
The SHIFT scored 19,486 in Futuremark's 3DMark 11, a score that barely missed out on qualifying for a Top 20 spot in the Hall of Fame, with the No. 20 spot going to a system that scored 20,000 with four GeForce GTX 580 videocards in SLI. Suffice to say, the system Maingear sent us will definitely run Crysis and any other game now available or currently in development.
The Extreme preset score is twice as high as the one we recorded when we built a system in the SHIFT DIY kit and, like every other benchmark up to this point, is the fastest we've ever recorded.
|SiSoft Sandra & Cinebench|
|We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
Once again, the SHIFT shattered scores set by previous systems. Quite frankly, we expected this kind of performance from a machine wielding a heavily overclocked Intel Core i7 3960X processor with six processing cores and a dozen threads.
Even more impressive are the Physical Disk and Memory scores. With gobs (16GB, to be exact) of high-frequency RAM (DDR3-1866) and two ultra-performing SSDs in RAID 0, we can't say we're surprised by these results, albeit we're plenty impressed with a system that offers over 40GB of memory bandwidth and around 950MB/s of storage read performance.
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.
Normally this is the part of the review where we talk about how brutal of a benchmark Cinebench is, and how the system being evaluated is ill-suited for CAD work and other professional design work. Well, that's not the case today. In a shocking reversal of past trends, the SHIFT Super Stock X79 made a mockery of Cinebench instead of it being the other way around.
Granted, if you make a living performing workstation chores, there are more appropriate setups out there, but at the same time, a system like this is capable of handling professional level workloads.
|Gaming: Far Cry 2, Just Cause 2, L4D2, and Lost Planet 2|
Even exotic sports cars can be spotted on surface streets from time to time, and by that same token, a $7,500 SHIFT system won't spend all its days chasing benchmark records. When nostalgia takes hold, you might find yourself loading up an older game like Far Cry 2, a title that predates DirectX 11. The SHIFT stood head and shoulders above the other gaming systems we compared it with, and even at a screen resolution of 2560x1600, it pulled nearly 200fps (196.83fps, to be exact), more than any other system at 1920x1200.*
*The Alienware Area 51 was benchmarked at 1920x1080.
Just Cause 2 is another relatively mild benchmark, but what's interesting to notice here is that the SHIFT performed nearly three times better than Digital Storm Enix with two GeForce GTX 580 videocards in SLI.
Left 4 Dead 2 uses Valve's proprietary Source engine, the same one used in the original L4D title and other multiplayer games, and it's so well tuned that you could probably run it on a Leapfrog. We ran the game on the SHIFT using a custom time demo and, well, do the above benchmarks really need any commentary?
You wouldn't know it from looking at the numbers above, but Lost Planet 2 is a benchmark that, more often than not, puts the beatdown on systems, particularly at higher resolutions. The fact that Maingear's SHIFT system scored over 100fps on a 30-inch display with a 2560x1600 resolution and all the visual quality settings cranked up speaks volumes about the graphics rendering power three AMD Radeon HD 7970 graphics cards provide, particularly when backed by a six-core Sandy Bridge-E processor.
|Gaming: Metro 2033, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Batman Arkham City|
It took awhile to get there, but we finally dug up a benchmark capable of stressing the SHIFT, albeit it still managed a buttery smooth 60fps at 2560x1600 with all the settings maxed out. Performance doesn't appear to scale as well in Metro 2033 as it does in other games. Compared to an Alienware X51 system with a Core i5 2320 processor and single GeForce GTX 555 videocard, the SHIFT system 'only' doubled the number of frames per second at a 1920x1080 resolution.
Listen, we're fully aware that it's not fair to pit a $7,500 dream machine against systems that cost only a fraction of that amount, but that's life. The reason we're doing it here is because there's not much else left for the SHIFT to prove, and also because it's interesting to see what kind of performance advantage you can expect if you decide to sell a kidney and use the money on a no-compromise machine.
Batman: Arkham City stands as the only disappointing benchmark in our gamut of tests, though the blame doesn't fall on Maingear. The game doesn't fully support CrossFire, which is why the scores are comparatively weak here despite having three high-end videocards attempting to push pixels. Whether you want to put the blame on AMD's driver team or developer Rockstead Studios is up to you, either way, we expect performance to improve dramatically once there's a software fix.
|Power Consumption & Noise|
|Maingear's SHIFT systems can be configured with one of four different power supplies: Seasonic X-850, Seasonic XP-1000, Corsair Professional Series AX1200, or Silverstone Strider 1.5KW Modular Industrial.
Our review system came configured with a Corsair Professional Series AX1200 that's 80 Plus Gold certified, meaning it will deliver at least 90 percent efficiency at 50 percent load. It's a modular PSU with a single +12V rail and low-profile, flat cables.
We used SeaSonic's Power Angel Power Meter to measure the amount of power our test system pulled from the wall. You'll find three figures below: power supply's maximum rated wattage, peak power consumption under a full CPU/GPU load, and how much the system pulled from the wall when idle, following a fresh system boot.
Think a 1,200W power supply is overkill? That depends on what you're doing. We took the SHIFT on a potential suicide run that consists of loading up the CPU with Prime95 and the GPUs with FurMark, a dangerous combination that you shouldn't run for any length of time. The reason we do it here is to get a picture of an absolute worst case scenario, which turned out to be a peak power usage of 1,131 watts. That's just for the system and doesn't include a monitor or speakers.
At idle, the SHIFT system only pulled 180W from the wall, which is pretty good when you factor in the amount of hardware. One thing to note, however, is that this isn't a silent machine as configured. Whether at idle or fully loaded, the system fans and videocards make themselves aware, though it's quieter than most microwave ovens, if that helps put it into perspective.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Every once in awhile we're reminded why we love doing what we do. This is one of those times. It's not that we ever truly forget, but imagine if someone parked a brand new McLaren F1 (or any of the world's Top 10 fastest cars) in your driveway, handed you the keys, and said, "Have fun testing this hunk of metal." That's what it was like receiving the Maingear SHIFT Super Stock X79.Let's get one thing straight: Few people have the disposable income to afford a $7,500 computer, and even those that do will have a hard time justifying that kind of investment on a PC when you can build a high-end gaming machine for a quarter of that amount, or even less. That's also not the point. You can buy a SHIFT system from Maingear starting at $1,849 for one that's built around AMD's 990FX platform or Intel's Z68 platform, or $2,449 for one that's based on Intel's X79 chipset like the one reviewed here. Those are still relatively expensive when you can pick up a system from Wallyworld or a bulk OEM for less than a grand and be able to play games on it, and there's nothing wrong with that, but the Maingear experience commands a justifiable premium.
We're not gloating (maybe a little), but how else do we put this into perspective? The SHIFT we received is a fully loaded $7,500 system, and even though we knew it would be fast, it was an absolute thrill to drive. This thing crushed our gamut of benchmarks, save for Batman: Arkham City, which didn't know how to take advantage of CrossFire. In every other test, it set new highs, destroying every system we pitted it against. Perhaps most impressive is how it fared in Cinebench, a professional graphics benchmark that typically makes a mockery of the systems we throw at it, but in this case it was the other way around.
What Maingear brings to the table is an impeccable attention to detail and a luxury buying experience. Think white glove treatment. For starters, all Maingear systems ship with zero bloatware. Zip. Zilch. None. Cabling is clean and tidy, just as if you spent hours doing it all yourself. And the SHIFT case is a remarkable design that rotates the motherboard 90 degrees so that your components -- and especially the videocards -- are sitting vertically to blow hot air out the top of the chassis, right where it naturally wants to flow. Topping it off is a binder with a personalized Q/A report on your specific system, qualified and John Hancock'd by the person who built it. That's rad.
As configured, this particular system showcases what Maingear is capable of when you're not restricted by a budget. As we stated earlier, this system is obscene, and it offers no apology for it. Instead, it smashes benchmarks and computing chores with all the force of the Incredible Hulk swatting a fly. Do you need a system like this? Probably not. Can you afford it? Only you (and your accountant) can answer that. Should you buy it if you have the money? Only if you want one of the fastest (and arguably best looking) systems on the planet and aren't afraid to pay out the nose to own it. This is a luxury machine, and if you're in a position to afford it without robbing the kids of their college funds, then hey, more power to you.
All that said, there are some things we didn't like about the system. The front panel is outdated and lacks any SuperSpeed USB 3.0 or eSATA ports. There are plenty of these ports available to use, but they're hidden underneath a removable top panel, so if you want to plug in an external drive to copy files over to your system, you have to fetch a screw driver. That's also where the Clear CMOS button is located, and if you're going to experiment with advanced overclocking and BIOS tweaks, you'll want to remove the panel ahead of time, just in case.
Otherwise, this is a premium build with a price tag to match. Maingear's SHIFT Super Stock X79 is wicked fast, super attractive, delightfully decadent, and awesome without apology. If the Dos Equis guy were to ever drink himself to death and end up reincarnated as a PC, this would be it.