|Introduction and Specifications|
|Gaming PCs come in all shapes and sizes, but the small form factor gaming rig is not one that you see all that often. When it comes to tablets, notebooks and small form factor PCs, “thin and light” may indicate the latest and greatest in design and mobile components, but when it comes to gaming, a lithe chassis can be indicative of deep compromises on the performance inside.
Digital Storm has tackled the task of building a system that offers both high-performance parts and a small chassis with the Bolt series of custom PCs. Indeed, they nailed it on the compact size; the Bolt’s case measures just 3.6"(W) x 14"(H) x 15"(D), and while the components inside the Bolt we tested aren't the highest-end parts that money can buy, they're still fairly impressive.
Digital Storm Bolt dimensions and layout - click for high res.
There are four levels of Bolt systems, from the Level 1 starting at $999 up to the Level 4 at $1,949. Digital Storm sent us the Level 3 to test out ($1,599), and this version includes an Intel Core i5-3570K (overclocked to 4.2GHz), 8GB DDR3-1600MHz of Corsair Vengeance Series memory, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 Ti (2GB) graphics card.
Digital Storm paired a 60GB Corsair SSD with a 1TB hard drive (7200 RPM) for a nice one-two combination of speed and storage capacity, and the optical drive is a slim DVD/CD 8x Multi drive.
All of the above is connected to a Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI motherboard, which features a fine assortment of rear I/O ports including a PS/2 port, two HDMI ports, DVI-I, two USB 3.0 and four USB 2.0 ports, a pair of Gigabit LAN ports, an optical S/PDIF port, two antenna connectors, and five audio jacks.
There are also two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and mic/line in jacks mounted on a side panel. Typically, these are mounted on the front of the case, but Digital Storm made the interesting design choice to tuck them off to the side.
Normally, you’ll get an “accessories box” and a Digital Storm Binder with documentation and installation discs, but because we have a media test unit, Digital Storm didn’t send us all those goodies. So it goes.
Before we dive into our benchmark testing, let's take a closer look at this rig.
|Overall Design and Layout|
|Let it be said right off the bat that the Digital Storm Bolt is beautiful. The all-metal case is predominantly glossy black with smart-looking metal glossy battleship gray grills for heat dissipation and a striking fire engine red base for sexy-looking stability. There’s a matching red Digital Storm logo gracing the front of the case, whose profile otherwise eschews any front-panel ports and is interrupted only by the vertically-oriented optical drive.
Aside from the excellent paint job and color scheme, the case’s angles are it’s most attractive feature; in profile, it looks like the whole system is being blown back a bit, sitting at a slight angle and resulting in rear fins reminiscent of early-model Corvettes. The rear section of the base sticks out slightly, calling to mind a Flying V guitar shape.
The chassis is completely unique, because when the Digital Storm crew was looking for a case to house a slim gaming PC, they didn’t find one to their liking, so they just designed their own.
Further, although we appreciate that Digital Storm built the Bolt with off-the-shelf parts to facilitate easier future upgrades, there is no room inside that chassis for error. If your cable routing is anything but professional-grade (from the factory it was wrapped fairly well), for example, you’re going to have a terribly difficult time wrestling the case back together and will likely have to deal with bulging side panels.
One notable design feature is that the system's 500 Watt power supply actually resides inside the system itself, unlike other recent SFF designs we've looked at that rely on a somewhat limited and large power brick. Digital Storm's custom 500 Watt PSU (manufactured by Sparkle) is 80 plus certified and offers plenty of headroom for upgrades in things like GPUs.
Otherwise, the all-metal construction is solid as a rock, and the excellent paint job is a sight to see.
The interior, as you can see, is a feat of creativity and engineering, akin to your mother inexplicably being able to pack everything for your summer camp adventure into a single suitcase. Hats off to Digital Storm for finding a way to fit all of these parts into so small a form factor.
Finally, we'd like to note that the Bolt ships with no bloatware, which is always nice to see, and they also opted for a cool custom desktop background to boot.
|PCMark and 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.
The Digital Storm Bolt absolutely smoked the competition in PCMark Vantage. Granted, these other systems are all packing last-generation processors and graphics cards, but with the exception of the Alienware rig, these are all mid- or full-tower gaming systems, not small form factor PCs.
In 3DMark 11, the Bolt falls back to earth somewhat, although it does handily beat out all but one of the other systems.
The scores for PCMark 7 are essentially identical to those for PCMark Vantage, with the Bolt clearly out in front and by roughly the same percentage.
The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically targeted at Windows 7-based systems due to its DirectX 11 requirement. 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, which uses a resolution of 1280x720 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.
|SiSoft SANDRA and 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).
The Bolt's SANDRA CPU scores are unimpressive here. It lags behind two other systems on the multimedia side--barely edging out the iBuyPower system--and also comes in third with processor arithmetic. Those Sandy Bridge processors are impressive, and although Intel's new Ivy Bridge chips are great as well, it looks like the higher-end previous generation Core i7 CPUs in the other systems still pack a wallop.
The 8GB of 1600MHz memory running inside the Digital Storm Bolt helped deliver a strong memory score commensurate with other gaming rigs in our lineup, and the hard drive setup with SSD cache held its own by beating out the field by a wide margin.
In Cinebench, we see numbers that jibe with what we’ve seen with Ivy Bridge versus Sandy Bridge CPUs, which is that single-thread performance is comparatively very strong in the former. Thus, the Bolt’s multi-thread Ivy Bridge Core i5-3570K performance actually outpaces a couple of the Core i5 Sandy Bridge systems. Its single-thread performance was even stronger however.
|Gaming Benchmarks: Far Cry 2 and Lost Planet 2|
|And now begins the round of gaming benchmarks. First up is Far Cry 2 and Lost Planet 2
Gaming benchmarks are where the rubber really meets the road for these systems, as many users will be using them for gaming, and wouldn’t you know it, it looks like the Bolt can more than deliver on that front (at least on DX10 titles like this one). Its scores at all three resolutions blow away the rest of the field.
Same song, second verse: the Digital Storm Bolt owned Lost Planet 2, registering more than twice the FPS of even the second-best system in this test, the Alienware X51.
|Gaming Benchmarks: Metro 2033, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Batman: Arkham City|
|Next, we run the Bolt through Metro 2033, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. CoP, and Batman: Arkham City.
In Metro 2033, the scores are almost a joke. Most of the other systems can barely eek out playable framerates in this game while the Bolt hit 51.67 FPS even at 1920x1080.
The bottom line is this: did the system achieve playable framerates? Yes indeed, and with plenty of room to spare. You won't be able to choke the Bolt, even in games like this one with all settings cranked to the max.
The story is the same in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., where the Bolt again posted the best scores-this time by an even wider margin. Even at a high resolution, this rig didn't break a sweat.
Though we didn't have many reference numbers to compare it to, we figured it made sense to run the Digital Storm Bolt over various resolutions and settings with Batman Arkham City. We even turned on NVIDIA PhysX in the game engine, to ramp up the visuals and work the little alien speedster a bit harder.
|Power Consumption and Noise|
|Before bringing this article to a close, we'll take a look at power consumption of the Digital Storm Bolt Level 3 versus the other systems we tested. We let each system boot and sit idle before measuring idle power and then loaded down each system with both an instance of Prime95 (to load down the CPU) and Furmark (to load the GPU) before taking our full load power consumption measurements. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling on the desktop and while under a heavy workload. Keep in mind that this is total system power consumption being measured at the outlet.
At idle, the Bolt is the best in the group; at just 47.5W, it pulls just a bit less than the field--even more than the Alienware system that uses an external power brick as opposed to an interior PSU. When under a full load this machine sucks 270W, which is about on par with the other systems.
While the Bolt's power draw is definitely satisfactory, noise, on the other hand, is a different story. Look, we love a lot about this machine, but the noise that the Bolt emits is simply hard to take. It’s grating enough when the thing’s idling, but at full bore it sounds like a tiny airplane is about to take off from your desk.
However, considering some of the Bolt’s better qualities, that’s one annoyance that users may be able to live with.
|Performance Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: The Digital Storm Bolt Level 3 delivered slightly uneven performance. In some tests it absolutely dominated the rest of the field, while in others in limped in around the middle. Some of that was due to the act that a couple of our reference rigs had Core i7-2600K processors inside, which perform exceedingly well, even against a next-gen CPU like the Ivy Bridge Core i5-3570K inside the Bolt. In any case, gaming tests were where the Bolt was more impressive, delivering stunning scores in both DX10 and DX11 titles. The incredible amount of noise that this rig emits is a significant downside, but in terms of energy efficiency it delivers.
The Digital Storm Bolt Level 3
Although Digital Storm didn’t pack the Bolt Level 3 full of all the highest-end components--if you want to upgrade a notch and consider a Bolt Level 4--there’s plenty of good hardware inside. On the whole the system we tested as configured performs well where it counts. One downside to the small form factor, though, is that upgrades will be tricky. Even though Digital Storm wisely built this rig with off-the-shelf parts so that you can upgrade any of the components, the space inside the chassis is so limited that you’ll have to work fairly hard to keep your cabling clean and tidy enough that it will all fit. Further, the PSU is only rated for 500W, which limits the upgrade potential we suppose. That said, stuffing more power hunger components in a system this size may not be all that practical anyway.
Digital Storm did a brilliant job of designing the look of the Bolt’s custom chassis. The red accents pop against the glossy black finish, and you have to love an all-metal case with a flawless paint job. However, we weren’t keen on how both sides and the top of the case all come off as a unit. Trying to get at the interior components is an ungainly act, as you have to wrestle with it a bit all while the mesh grills threaten to fall off. However, we really like the placement of the USB ports and audio jacks on the side of the case instead of the front.
We’re always looking at the price-for-performance balance with these custom systems, and we’d say that the Digital Storm Bolt Level 3 is priced about where it should be at $1,599. Compared to the rigs we pitted the Bolt against, that’s a decent deal. Although there are some excellent full-sized custom gaming machines to be had for around the same budget level these days, The Bolt's footprint make it attractive where space is a concern or for blending into a home theater setup.
No doubt, part of what you’re paying for with the Bolt is that svelte small form factor and good looks. Don’t let the pretty face fool you, though; this system can game.
Update 5 Nov 12: Digital Storm reached out to us to let us know that they've "made changes to the design of the chassis to reduce the noise of the machine on full load drastically". Presumably, then, Bolt systems shipping now will not suffer from quite the same noise issues.