|Introduction & Specifications|
Notebook makers aren't the only ones trying to cram big performance parts into little form factors. Desktop system builders are attempting the same thing, and if you require proof, all the evidence you need is packed inside Maingear's Potenza Super Stock (SS) gaming PC. Built around the mini-ITX form factor, the Potenza SS is a small form factor (SFF) system that rises above moderate expectations of what a comparatively itty-bitty PC can truly deliver. As it turns out, a mini-ITX rig can pack quite the payload.
It starts with an Intel Ivy Bridge foundation, and Maingear bumped up the default processor option to an unlocked Core i7 3770K chip. Maingear then goosed the CPU past its stock 3.5GHz clockspeed as part of the company's optional Redline overclocking service, and while that's usually asking for trouble in a cramped form factor, cooling chores are carried out by Maingear's Epic 120 Supercooler, a self-contained liquid cooler built by CoolIt. That's some serious hardware for a mini-ITX system, and we haven't even begun to talk about the Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 graphics card or the speedy Corsair Force GT solid state drive (SSD). We'll get to all that in due course, but first, let's talk size.
This is a compact system that measures just 7.4 inches (W) by 15.6 inches (H) by 9.25 inches (D). It isn't particularly light, as we found out when this editor dropped it on his foot (more on that later), but it's certainly compact. It's not much larger than a typical bookshelf speaker, yet it's remarkably capable thanks to the continued march of technology, which led to Maingear being able to stuff it full of fast hardware. Let's have a look at the configuration Maingear sent us.
Glancing at the parts list and all the amenities, there's nothing to tip that this is a compact PC, though that's quickly revealed when observing the dimensions. As well spec'd as it already is, the Potenza SS is capable of uncorking even more power if you choose to shake more bills out of your wallet. Maingear's configuration page allows you to choose up to 16GB of RAM, a GeForce GTX 680 or Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition graphics card, up to three hard drives or SSDs configured in a RAID array, Blu-ray burner or reader, and more.
One thing you can't upgrade on the Potenza SS is the 450W power supply. That shouldn't be an issue since you're not going to feed this rig multiple graphics cards, but a 650W or even 550W PSU would make us feel better about things. Our quibble with the sole PSU choice aside, there's not a ton to criticize here, but there's plenty to like.
|Software, Accessories, and First Boot|
Every Maingear system we've reviewed has delivered a white glove experience beginning with the contents. Maingear takes the simple process of bundling cords, drivers discs, paperwork, and other included goodies and transforms it into a bona fide welcome package that makes you feel as though you're part of an elite club. In some respects, you are. Unlike any of the bulk OEM vendors, Maingear systems, including the Potenza reviewed here, come with an optional "Out of Box" experience with gifts wrapped in a customized binder.
The Out of Box Experience bundle includes:
This is precisely the sort of the thing the boutique buying experience is all about, or at least it should be. Maingear's attention to detail here is what separates the boutique buying experience from that of shopping a bulk OEM PC or picking up a computer at your local Wally World.
Another upside to shopping a premium system vendor is the lack of performance robbing trialware and other cruft that can muck up an otherwise clean Windows install. As you can see in the screenshot above, Maingear's awesome "Zero Bloatware" policy is in full effect. You inevitably end up paying more for the luxury of a clean desktop -- third-party companies pay big bucks to have their wares littered across OEM desktops, which can result in lower priced system configurations -- but you gain an uncluttered system that's firing on all cylinders.
When configuring a Potenza, or any Maingear system, you want to be sure and scan for any free promos you might be eligible for and mark the appropriate checkboxes. If buying a Potenza today, checkboxes include:
Our review system shipped with an Nvidia graphics card so it's not eligible for the Dirt Showdown freebie offer, but it does include Just Cause 2 and other goodies.
Maingear's bloatless installation policy also means your system ships without any security software, leaving you on your own to choose an antivirus solution. That's not a problem for tech savvy users, but for the less experienced, this could be a problem. Fortunately, Maingear does give users the option of having Microsoft's free Security Essentials program pre-installed. It's not the best or fastest performing AV program out there, but it does a good job overall and is certainly better than surfing the Web naked (figuratively folks).
|Overall Design & Layout|
|Maingear markets the Potenza as "the world's first mini-ITX gaming system designed for overclocking," and the Super Stock version is built around Intel's Z77 chipset by way of an Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe motherboard. You can also order a Potenza based on Intel's H77 chipset, or if your brand preference swings AMD, there's also an entry-level configuration built around the Sunnyvale chip designer's FM1 platform starting at $899.
The Potenza is short in stature yet stout in features. To give you a sense of scale, we plopped an Xbox 360 console next to the Potenza. Maingear's rig is a little taller and obviously wider in the gut, but it's actually less deep than the Xbox 360. As previously mentioned, it's about the size of a bookshelf speaker, giving end users more flexible placement options than a mid-tower or full-tower desktop. It's not quite as svelte as Alienware's X51, but it's far more powerful and still nimble enough to find a place in a home theater setup, if that's where you want to place it.
As configured, the Potenza weighs 18.1 pounds, and you'll feel every bit of it if you manage to drop the system on your foot, as this editor did. The Potenza sports a four main panel design constructed from 2.5mm slabs of sand-blasted and anodized aluminum (Silverstone, which builds the case, tells us "the surface treatment is similar to what Apple does now with their aluminum bodied computers, but with an extra step of black dye application"), three of which snap into place. You have to take extra care when picking up or unboxing the system, as it doesn't take a ton of pressure to remove any of the panels, sending the Potenza on a crash course with the ground courtesy of Mr. Gravity. It's a bit awkward to transport in that respect, but manageable if you scoop your hands underneath any two of the four feet that surround the bottom of each panel.
Aesthetically, the Potenza adopts an unassuming design that could easily be mistaken for a small subwoofer, at least from a distance. Maingear says the system is 76 percent smaller than its mighty SHIFT, which we reviewed in March, and a full 46 percent smaller than Maingear's redesigned F131. Maingear's assessment that "the Potenza looks great from any angle" is spot on.
Like Maingear's 46 percent larger F131, the Potenza employs "VRTX Cooling Technology" to take advantage of hot air's natural tendency to rise. Cool air is sucked in from the bottom of the chassis, travels up and over the motherboard, and is expelled from the top of the case. Heat producers like the power supply and graphics card are positioned towards the top, the latter of which sits vertically. Both belch hot air directly out the top panel, never having a chance to travel over any of the other hardware, like the CPU, RAM, and motherboard.
This vertical orientation means that the rear I/O panel now sits at the top as well. A plastic cover pops off to reveal the motherboard's assortment of USB and eSATA ports, and it doesn't require any tools to remove it like the SHIFT does; it snaps right off with a little tug. On either side are narrow pathways that slide cables in and out of (like your mouse, keyboard, and power cord), along with a smaller groove in the front.
For quick access to things like USB thumb drives or to remove pictures from a tablet or digital camera, the Potenza offers access to a pair of USB 3.0 ports on top without having to ever remove the plastic panel. There are also head and microphone jacks on top, and a physical power and reset buttons.
A slit in the front panel affords access to the slot-loading optical drive. The configuration Maingear sent us included an 8X dual-layer DVD burner, though you can also opt for a 6X Blu-ray reader. Unfortunately, the only way to get a Blu-ray burner is by forking over $179 for an external optical drive built by Asus.
Here you can see the tight confines Maingear has to work with. Building a full fledged PC, let alone a gaming system capable of being overclocked, in a form factor that's as tight and vertical as the Potenza is no easy task, and things are bound to get cramped. Remarkably, Maingear is able to fit a high-end graphics card, water cooling, HDD and SSD storage, and an optical drive into the Potenza. Technically, it's also possible to upgrade components on your own -- these are off-the-shelf parts, after all -- but you're best served by ponying up for the fastest hardware you can afford from the get-go and staving off the upgrade bug as long as possible.
|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.
It's obvious from the benchmark results that PCMark Vantage puts very little emphasis on GPU performance, hence why the single-GPU Potenza is able to hang with the Maingear's three-GPU SHIFT X79 system. Lack of GPU consideration doesn't tell the whole story, however. The Potenza is a well-equipped SFF system with potent parts, particularly the Corsair Force GT solid state drive, which gives the compact rig some all-around muscle. The performance benefits of an SSD, along with an overclocked Ivy Bridge processor, are reflected the PCMark Vantage results.
We see the same situation reflected in Futuremark's updated PCMark 7 benchmark, which again relies heavily on SSD performance. The Potenza only falls a few hundred points behind Maingear's monstrous X79 SHIFT system, which is a credit to how much power the boutique builder was able to cram in such cramped confines. The combination of fast RAM, an overclocked CPU, and SSD + HDD combo results in a system that's well ahead of performance curve and ready to tackle everyday chores with aplomb.
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.
As we switch our focus to 3D performance, we see the Potenza (predictably) fall behind modern multiple GPU systems. Notice, however, how the Potenza creeps past last generation game systems equipped with dual graphics cards. It's also leaps and bounds ahead of Alienware's X51 (not shown in graph) machine, which bench 14,666 in the same test. Both are SFF systems, only the Potenza slaps the Alienware rig around like a little brother.
Cranking things up to the Extreme preset in 3DMark Vantage knocked the score in half, which isn't at all unusual. These are big-time performance metrics despite the Potenza's less-than-big dimensions.
It's pretty clear the Potenza isn't going to flex the same gaming muscle as systems with three videocards, so it does us no good to keep comparing them. When we level the playing field, the Potenza jets to the top, getting barely beaten by Digital Storm's dual-GPU Enix.
At a glance, 3,371 doesn't seem like much, but it's actually a very good score for a single-GPU machine using 3DMark 11's Extreme preset. To put it into perspective, Dell's XPS One 27 all-in-one (AIO) machine based on Ivy Bridge scored 630 points in this test with a GeForce GT 640M GPU. That's hardly comparable to a GeForce GTX 670, but it underscores how unforgiving the Extreme preset can be.
|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).
Intel's Core i7 3770K is a fast processor to begin with and boasts four processing cores (eight threads) clocked at 3.5GHz to 3.9GHz, along with 8MB of cache. Combined with Maingear's Redline overclocking option (or you can take matters into your heads via Asus' AI Tweaker), it's no surprise to see the Potenza put up numbers like these.
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.
We used to point out how ridiculously brutal Cinebench can be on a system, but that's rarely the case these days, at least for gaming systems. Today's GPUs, like the GeForce GTX 670, pack enough firepower to hold their own in Cinebench. The benchmark is still tough on the CPU and favors multiple processor cores.
|Gaming: Far Cry 2, Lost Planet 2, & S.T.A.L.K.E.R.|
Far Cry 2 is a far cry from being a cutting edge title these days, but we've built up an extensive repository of benchmarks with which to compare. In doing so, the Potenza falls behind dual-GPU systems just like we would expect (albeit not by a whole lot), and is nearly four times faster than the Alienware X51 system.
*The Alienware Area 51 was benchmarked at 1920x1080.
Is it really possible to game at 2560x1600 with a compact system running a single GPU? The answer is a resounding yes, at least with the Potenza, and in many cases you needn't worry about making many sacrifices to visual quality settings. In Lost Planet 2, for example, the Potenza managed a very playable 56.1 frames per second on our 30-inch panel using the benchmark's High preset and 4xAA.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gives us another opportunity to see the Potenza flex its muscle at a 2560x1600 resolution, this time while processing DirectX 11 visuals and using the benchmark's Ultra preset. That type of performance has traditionally been reserved for high-end, multiple GPU systems, some of which we included in the above graph. However, the Potenza proves its possible to game at a high resolution without investing in a hulking system that requires taking out a second mortgage.
|Gaming: Aliens vs Predator, Metro 2033, & Batman: Arkham City|
Aliens vs Predator is one of the more demanding DX11 benchmarks, and here too the Potenza was able to keep things somewhat playable at 2560x1600. Few gamers frag at such a high resolution, and at 1920x1080, the Ponteza benched around 60fps, offering plenty of headroom for those times when framerates take a temporary dip.
Metro 2033 proved more of a challenge on a 30-inch panel with the eye candy turned up. Things are playable, but also prone to stutter if there's a ton of action on the screen. At 1920x1080, the Potenza is able to keep things even keeled.
Still to this day, Batman: Arkham City hasn't figured out how to take advantage of multiple AMD cards in a Crossfire configuration (or AMD has figured out how to write a proper driver for the game), and the result is that the single-GPU Potenza comes within striking distance of systems like the Maingear X79 SHIFT with three Radeon HD 7970 graphics cards. Whereas the Potenza benched 40fps at 2560x1600, the X79 SHIFT managed just an additional 8fps (48fps total).
On it's own the Potenza again proves a capable gamer that's able to handle high resolutions and with the graphics detail turned up.
|Power Consumption & Noise|
|Power supply options in general are limited in the SFF sector, and even more so when you whittle down the available options to reliable makes and models. The one Maingear chose for the Potenza is SilverStone's ST45SF 450W, an 80 Plus Bronze certified PSU with a single +12V rail that can deliver up to 36 amps.
A 450W PSU seems rather pedestrian by today's standards, but a high quality unit shouldn't have trouble delivering power to a system like the Potenza, which is strictly a single GPU system. Still, does it have enough juice to accommodate overclocking and multiple storage solutions? In a word, yes.
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.
Loading up a system with Furmark (GPU) and Prime95 (CPU and RAM) isn't the wisest thing to do if you're shooting for system longevity, but it gives us an overview of what end users can expect in an absolute worst case scenario. In doing so, the Potenza peaked at 396W after the power supply got good and toasty. That leaves a fair amount of headroom, and even more when not pushing the system to the brink of meltdown. At idle, the Potenza only pulled 65W from the wall (system only, not including monitor).
In terms of noise, the Potenza is, for the most part, a polite addition to the family. Things start to whir and swirl at full bore, but even then, the system never sounds obnoxiously loud.
UpdateSilverstone contacted us to point out that while the ST45SF power supply's rating is 450W, it's actually capable of pulling more from the wall under load. The company explains it like this:
"Since ST45SF is an 80 Plus Bronze certified PSU, it is capable of 82% efficiency at full load of 450W so that means it will pull around 548W from the wall, not 450W."
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Maingear's Potenza proved without a shadow of a doubt that you can build a luxury game system in a compact case and still enjoy high end luxuries, like gaming at 2560x1600 and overclocking. Small form factor (SFF) systems are first and foremost about saving space. While the Potenza is small in stature, it's big on performance. Time and again, it pushed playable framerates on our 30-inch monitor, including DirectX 11 titles like Aliens vs Predator and Batman: Arkham City. It's a perfect example of shrinking the desktop without compromising performance.Just because you have a couple grand to spare on a gaming PC doesn't mean you want a machine with a size that's as large as your budget. Maingear's Potenza is pricey as configured, no doubt, but it's also stout and muscular, able to play games on high resolution displays while sitting tucked underneath your desk, in the corner of your home theater, or anywhere else you choose to stick a system that's barely larger than a bookshelf speaker.
Maingear's system is also unique in how it handles airflow. Like the company's F131 system, the Potenza turns the typical desktop form factor on its head and utilizes vertical space to great success. The power supply situated near the top of the case, expels hot air up and directly out of the case before it has a chance to tamper with the motherboard or CPU, and the same is true of the GeForce GTX 670 graphics card, which is mounted vertically. It's precisely this design that allows Maingear to pack so much performance into a small system, and then overclock it.
The design also has its tradeoffs. For one, getting at the motherboard's assortment of USB ports isn't all that convenient. Maingear provides just two USB 3.0 ports at the top (along with mic and headphone inputs), and if you need to access more than that (or plug in an Ethernet cable), you have to pop the plastic cover off the top. That's easy enough to do -- it pops right off -- but it's not quite as convenient as reaching around the back of a system and plugging things in.
We're also not completely sold on the removable panels. We absolutely love Maingear's thought process, but we wish the three removable panels were secured a little better. The panels snap into place, and if you're not extra careful, you could end up dropping the system, like we did. If Maingear could somehow implement a carrying handle on the top, it would go a long way towards alleviating any potential mishaps. At the same time, we don't want to make a mountain out of a mole hill, as it's easy enough to carry from place to place by scooping your hands underneath and lifting.
So, what do we think overall? In a way, Maingear's Potenza is a technology metaphor, offering more performance than yesterday's systems while leaving a smaller footprint. As technology marches on to smaller, more powerful pastures, Maingear made sure the desktop didn't get left behind.