|Introduction & Specifications|
One of the things we like about AVADirect is the extensive catalog of off-the-shelf parts to choose from. In fact, a major advantage of shopping from a boutique system builder as opposed to a bulk OEM is the availability of name brand hardware you'd otherwise buy from Newegg, or wherever it is you purchase your components, when rolling your own rig. But what's somewhat unique to AVADirect is the smorgasbord of brands and models to choose from. It's like being a kid-geek in a candy store. Just browsing AVADirect's selection of tower cases, for example, you'll find that nearly two dozen manufacturers are represented, each one offering several models. Antec alone accounts for 27 tower cases on AVADirect's website. The bottom line is that if you can conceive it, AVADirect probably carries the parts to build it.
The robust selection of hardware makes evaluating an AVADirect system somewhat of a challenge in terms of focus, but it's a good problem to have. AVADirect also separates its systems into various categories, giving shoppers a logical starting point, and our team something to focus on. In this case, AVADirect pieced together a high-end system from its 'Gaming PC' category, one that's built around Intel's X79 (Sandy Bridge-E) platform. AVADirect spared little expense, configuring a $5,100 machine that's decked out with three EVGA GeForce GTX 680 (Kepler) graphics cards, Intel's flagship Core i7 3960X processor, multiple solid state drives (SSDs) and hard disk drives (HDDs) in both RAID 0 (operating system) and RAID 1 (storage) configurations, along with a heavy dose of overclocking for good measure.
Clearly AVADirect is trying to spread its feathers like a peacock with a system that's dressed to impress, price be damned. At the same time, it's not so far over the top that only the 1 percenters need apply; if we had to assign a number, we'd say a configuration like this one is aimed at the 3-5 percent of gamers who have deep pockets and are willing to spend some serious coin on a machine with no visible bottlenecks. Still, the vast majority of PC gamers will never spend this much on a single configuration, particularly the ones that find time to maintain a relationship with a significant other and have to justify such a heavy investment. So be it. Regardless of the size of the market for something like this, there's plenty for us to evaluate, from build quality to stability, fit and finish. And for those of you who would consider spending six large on a gaming PC, we'll be providing plenty of benchmarks on the pages to follow. Fasten your seatbelts folks, and careful of the whiplash as we take this hotrod for a spin.
An Asus Rampage IV Extreme provides the foundation for which all these goodies stand upon, giving users a heavy selection of overclocking dials and knobs in the UEFI, as well as easy-access buttons on the rear panel (Clear CMOS) and the board itself (Power, Reset, and others). One of the buttons will even switch between two different UEFIs, providing a safety net of sorts should you manage to bork the system with improper settings.
Finally, all this comes wrapped in a large (and heavy!) Silverstone Fortress FT02 silver tower case that we'll examine in more detail in just a moment. Keep in mind that if this particular configuration doesn't float your boat, as we mentioned, AVADirect offers an extensive selection of parts in each category.
|Overall Design & Layout|
|There are a plethora of cases available on AVADirect's website, everything from slim form factor home theater enclosures to towering desktops cases, and everything in between. The one AVADirect chose for this sample system is a silver colored Silverstone Fortress FT02, which weighs about as much as a real fortress, or at least it did after AVADirect finished loading it up with hardware. Forget the P90X workout, you could lug this thing up and down a flight of stairs a couple of times and work up a bigger sweat than Richard Simmons trying to burn off a cupcake, minus the crying.
As is often the case, pictures don't do this system justice. The silver paint job isn't quite show car quality (if that's what you're after, AVADirect will happily oblige for an additional $375 for your choice between Corvette Yellow, Ferrari Red, Money Green, or Viper Blue) but it's well done nonetheless and exudes an air of quality you're not going to find on a budget chassis. For $9 extra, you can opt for a Fortress with a side window, and AVADirect should have gone that route to show off its superb wiring job (more on that later).
Rounded corners separate the Fortress from your run-of-the-mill rectangular chassis, though Silverstone stops well short of plastering its chassis with aggressive angles and other gamer-centric bling. The Fortress will appeal most to people with a more "refined" sense of style, for lack of a better term.
One thing to keep in mind with this case is that it assumes a mighty large footprint. It's a little over 2 feet long, so you'll want to take that into consideration when scanning your living quarters for a place to plop this thing, especially if you're working with tight confines, like a college dorm room or studio apartment.
Case manufacturers are increasingly seeing the benefit of vertical mounted hardware in which heat producing components like graphics cards face upwards and work with the natural flow of hot air rather than against it. Silverstone's Fortress is one of a growing number of cases that orient the motherboard in such a way that the rear input/output shield sits on top of the chassis instead of the back. It's an orientation that seems quirky after all these years of putting the rear I/O on the back of the case, but you can't argue with the science of hot air's natural tendency to rise (we're oversimplifying, but that's okay, because Bill Nye the Science Guy is nowhere in sight).
As such, the top of the Fortress sports a removable metal grill, which you'll need to pop off to plug in your cables, and also when you want to remove either side panel (screws holding the side panels in place are hidden underneath the top grill).
The top grill is completely tool-less, just give it a tug and it pops right off. Your cables, such as the power cord and USB peripherals, can be routed through cutouts in the back or front, which are then hidden out of sight by the top panel when you snap it back into place. It's a tidy and effective setup for maximizing cooling potential, but is it a perfect design?
Unfortunately, no. Just as we complained about with other systems that utilize a similar design, the downside to this blueprint is that it's inconvenient to take advantage of all those lonely USB ports and other inputs the motherboard provides. Most gadgets connect via USB these days, and if you find yourself plugging and unplugging cables on a frequent basis, you'll quickly get annoyed by having to rip off the top panel each time you want to use one of the 'rear' USB ports. Though one could argue that rear USB ports in traditional designs are equally or even more-so inaccessible.
We don't want to overstate the potential problem of constantly having the motherboard's rear ports blocked by the top panel, because in reality, after you connect your permanent devices -- keyboard and mouse, for example -- you might never have a need for the remaining ports. For the temporary devices, like your tablet, smartphone, or digital camera, Silverstone's Fortress packs a pair of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports on the front panel, located on the top of the chassis. The ports, along with headphone and microphone inputs, sit stealthily behind a small sliding door. The power button, reset button, and activity LEDs sit to the left.
|Design & Layout Continued|
|So if the motherboard's rear inputs and outputs are shuttled to the top of the case, then what sits at the back of the chassis? Let's have a look.
A fan grill, of course, complete with a removable filter for easy cleaning. Your power supply, which also sits vertically, is mounted on the other side of the grill, and if it's designed like a standard PSU, it will either pull cool air in from the outside or expel hot air out the back, depending on how the PSU's fan is oriented.
Spinning around to the front of the case we find the LG Blu-ray reader AVADirect installed in this system, with a faceplate that's a near identical match to the silver paint job on the Fortress. Underneath it we have a multi-card reader, giving us access to another USB port, and below that are empty drive bays, one of which sports AVADirect's badge.
The bay covers and faceplates are finished with a brushed aluminum aesthetic that add a touch of elegance to an already attractive looking system.
As you'll see in a moment, three giant fans rest at the bottom of the system, and each one is hooked up to a fan controller that can be switched to High and Low modes. Neither one is particularly loud, but it's worth pointing out that flipping the switches to Low isn't an exercise in futility, which is a complaint we had with Maingear's X79 SHIFT Super Stock system. AVADirect's rig can be fairly quiet, if you want it to be, in part because the GeForce GTX 680 graphics cards aren't obnoxiously loud.
The other reason is because both side panels sport a coat of sound dampening material. Normally we'd sweat bullets at such a design choice on a high-end system, fearing that the added heat would negate any acoustic benefits, but with so much cooling potential, both from the large fans at the bottom and the vertical design, we're totally at ease with having padding on the side panels.
We've given a lot of credit to Silverstone's Fortress up to this point, but once we ripped open the side panels, what we saw was all AVADirect. These folks clearly know how to build PCs, as this is one of the tidiest wiring jobs we've ever seen. The few cables that are visible are tucked neatly out of the way, creating not only a show-worthy interior that you'll want to display to your friends, but also lends itself to an unobstructed environment for airflow to do its thing, which in turn leads to cooler running components and potentially longer lasting hardware.
If there's a downside to this impeccable attention to detail, it's that the wires are so tightly routed that it can be a bit of challenge servicing the machine or upgrading components. It's not impossible to add hardware, it's just a little tricky managing to unplug cables so precisely positioned with little leeway. Of course, if you're dropping six grand on a system like this, the last thing you'll need to worry about for a long, long time is upgrading or adding hardware.
|PCMark & 3DMark Tests|
To kick things off, we fired 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.
AVADirect's X79 system managed to squeeze ahead of Maingear's X79 SHIFT Super Stock by the slimmest of margins in PCMark Vantage, and the results are so close that we're comfortable calling it a wash. That's not surprising since the two systems are so similarly spec'd, the main difference being the choice of videocards (AVADirect equipped its system with three GeForce GTX 680 graphics cards; Maingear opted for three Radeon HD 7970 GPUs). In theory, AVADirect's inclusion of Kepler GPUs should give it an edge, but we had to dial back the CPU's overclocked clockspeed for stability, and Maingear's SSDs were ever-so-slightly faster than AVADirect's. We're splitting hairs here, which is why the two machines benchmarked within a nanometer of each other in this particular test.
In PCMark 7, AVADirect's machine fell slightly behind Maingear by about 100 points, scoring 6,537 compared to 6,654. Both are extremely high scores, which is to be expected with the high-end hardware in their arsenal. As a reminder, AVADirect's system is wielding a pair of OCZ Vertex 3 SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration, 16GB of DDR3-1600 memory (quad-channel), an overclocked Intel Core i7 3960X processor, and three bodacious GeForce GTX 680 graphics cards.
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.
When we focused our attention on 3D performance, AVADirect's system was slingshot back to the top, this time by a more convincing margin. This is the highest 3DMark Vantage score we've benchmarked to date, which shows the kind of muscle you can flex with three high-end Kepler cards doing the heavy pixel lifting.
We saw more of the same our 3DMark 11 Extreme run (albeit by a smaller margin this time around), with AVADirect once again posting the highest score we've ever recorded. Much of the credit belongs to NVIDIA and its Kepler architecture, but AVADirect deserves props for a proper configuration.
The gap widens a bit in Futuremark's 3DMark 11 benchmark, in which AVADirect pulls ahead of the nearest competition by over 2,000 points. To put that into perspective, Dell's Alienware Area X51 scored barely more than a third of the difference (3,244) of AVADirect's score and Maingear's score. In case it's not abundantly clear at this point, 3D performance is not a concern with this system. In fact, it's a benchmark record-setter if ever we saw one.
Another close race between our top two titans, AVADirect again edges out Maingear, this time by 197 points, which is more a testament to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680s at play than anything else.
|SiSoft Sandra Performance|
|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).
The Core i7 3960X stands as the Intel's flagship processor, and even though it's not based on the newer Ivy Bridge architecture that's all the rage, it does sport Sandy Bridge-E DNA, so it's no slouch. As a result, AVADirect posted strong scores in our Sandra tests, aided by six overclocked processing cores, 12 threads, and 15MB of cache.
Slapping a pair of OCZ Vertex 3 SSDs in a RAID 0 config is liking adding a never ending supply of NOS to to a high-octaine sports car. In this case, drive bandwidth approached 900MB/s, which is far better than what you can achieve using mechanical hard drives. RAM performance was also very good in Sandra, aided by high frequencies and a quad-channel pipe.
|Gaming Performance: Far Cry 2, Metro 2033, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.|
Like most modern systems, AVADirect's X79 setup didn't break a sweat in Far Cry 2, an older DirectX 10 title that no longer stresses today's hardware. We include it here as a point of reference, and it's especially interesting to see how performance has nearly doubled over that of last year's high end gaming machines.
Metro 2033 is bit more taxing, or at least it's supposed to be, but AVADirect's tri-SLI system still manages to cruise through the benchmark with better-than-playable framerates, even at a 2560x1600 resolution with all the eye candy turned up.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is another DirectX 11 title that's far more taxing than Far Cry 2 (DX10), but when you're bringing three Kepler cards to the fight, the odds are you'll emerge unscathed, which we can see here. What's also impressive is the distance AVADirect's Kepler-infused system puts between itself and Maingear's rig with three Radeon HD 7970 cards in Crossfire.
|Gaming Performance: Lost Planet 2, Dirt 3, and Aliens vs Predator|
Lost Planet 2 is a title that can really expose single videocard setups at higher resolutions, particularly ones wielding lower end GPUs. To wit, it takes three Kepler cards to break 100fps, whereas a single Kepler graphics card is going to yield around 50-55fps on a similar testbed.
Dirt 3 is another title that scales fairly well with multiple graphics cards. When we initially reviewed NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 680 graphics card (on a different testbed), we recorded 71.67fps at a 2560x1600 screen resolution using the same visual quality settings. By adding two more videocards, we're able to bump performance by over 100fps, which isn't quite a three-fold increase, but few games are able take full advantage of extra GPUs at a 1:1 ratio.
AMD-based graphics cards seem to fare better in Aliens vs Predator than NVIDIA hardware, and it was the only benchmark where AMD's Radeon HD 7970 outperformed the GeForce GTX 680 in our Kepler review. We're talking small victories, however, and what's more, this is one of the few titles that scale at almost a 1:1 ratio when adding additional graphics cards. Here AVADirect was able to muster nearly 91fps with three Kepler cards, compared to 31.7fps for a single graphics (again, the latter is using a different testbed, albeit a similar one with the same processor, same amount and speed of RAM, and the same X79 chipset).
|Power Consumption & Noise|
It's best not to skimp on the power supply, especially if you're configuring a high-end system with a tri-SLI setup or plan to overclock. Trust us -- we've seen lower end PSUs literally go up in smoke. AVADirect offers a number of quality PSUs, including the one configured in the system they sent us, which is Seasonic's new Platinum Series 1000W.
This is a fully modular PSU that's 80 Plus Platinum certified. It features a single +12V rail, which is rated for up to 83A (996W), enough to accommodate a fully loaded system like the one reviewed here.
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.
How is it that a system can pull 1,091W from the wall when the power supply is rated for 1,000W? Good question. It could be voodoo magic. A more likely explanation is that there's some headroom in the power supply, especially since it's a quality unit and not a generic PSU pulled from K-Mart's clearance rack. Let's also not pretend that Seasonic's Power Angel is 100 percent precise down to the last watt, though it does give us a better-than-rough idea of how much power a system is pulling.
A Word on Stability
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: We said earlier that AVADirect came at us like an angry peacock with outstretched feathers, demanding we take notice, and that we did. What else can you do when a company sends you a fully loaded system with three high end graphics cards, an overclocked six core processor, and obscene storage configurations consisting of a pair of SSDs in RAID 0 and two capacious hard drives rocking a RAID 1 mirror? As expected, AVADirect's X79 Custom Gaming PC dashed through our gamut of benchmarks, in some cases breaking records that were set just a month or two ago. Without any visible bottlenecks, AVADirect's build crushed our gaming tests, topping 230fps in Far Cry 2 and, more impressively, breaking 90fps in Aliens vs Predator at a 2560x1600 resolution with all the settings cranked up.At the start of our analysis, we noted the challenge in evaluating a specific system configuration from a system builder that offers as many options as AVADirect does. If we walk a narrow line, then we would have to totally discount other components available to AVADirect's customers, leaving us with a $5,100 system that few gamers can afford. But hey, that's the nature of the game, and the reality is, there are PC gamers out there who have the requisite funds for a balls-to-the-wall system like this one. If you're one of the them, more power to you. As configured, AVADirect's X79 Custom Gaming PC is sure to delight, in gaming and in day-to-day computing, as well content creation that relies on lots of RAM and ample (and fast) storage.
If you don't have that kind of cash to throw around at a gaming system, then pay less attention to the specific benchmark scores and focus more on the build quality. On the positive side, AVADirect's wiring job is more organized than a mob boss, and it's legal to boot. AVADirect's system mechanics are obviously comfortable underneath the hood of a hotrod gaming system, and their attention to detail shows. Less encouraging are the stability problems we ran into, some of which were the result of a faulty CPU, which AVADirect promptly replaced. But we also ran into wonky RAID issues, which probably had to do with overly aggressive overclock settings. It didn't cripple the system by any means, and with a 3-year limited parts and labor warranty, you're pretty well covered if something does go wrong. Still, if you're dropping five large on a system, there's an expectation that you could run it over with a Mack truck and have it still fire up without any quirks.
So, would we recommend this, or any AVADirect system? Sure, RAID hiccups aside, AVADirect's build quality is solid with immaculate wiring, and you can't argue with the performance numbers this system put up. We're inclined to think the CPU issue we had was a one-off fluke, though it certainly did give us cause for concern. The bigger question -- and one you'll have to answer on your own -- is how much are you willing to spend on a gaming system? Fortunately, with system builders like AVADirect around, you can dial pretty much anything you want in, on the level with threshold of pain.