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Quad-Core Core 2 Extreme - GeForce 8800 GTX SLI NF680i Ultimate Gaming Rig
Date: Nov 15, 2006
Author: Dave Altavilla
Introduction and Motherboard Platform

NVIDIA's two major launches last week marked a significant advancement in both 3D Graphics and PC Motherboard feature-set and performance.  The launch of NVIDIA's G80 GPU with their GeForce 8800 series of graphics cards was the advent of the first truly DX10 capable GPU architecture on the market.  Furthermore, upon its introduction, the nForce 680i SLI was widely acknowledge as the most feature-rich chipset for the Intel Core 2 dual-core and quad-core platforms to date; even more-so than Intel's own P965 and 975X Express chipsets.  In industry speak, there's no question these two launches smacked of PC tech-geek nirvana, not to mention that 3D graphics and gaming performance has once again been taken to new levels by NVIDIA. Still, some of you might ask, who cares?  Seriously, who cares about DX10, Shader Model 4.0, Stream Processors, and blah, blah, blah?  Well, we do actually.  We here at HH care so you don't have to.  But that's not the point.

We know you're out there.  Come out from behind the network switch panel now and fess up.  Step away from the stack of Red Bull empties and pull off your head-set.  You're thinking the same thing we were, frankly.  What can all this new-found horsepower do for me when we put together the fastest, most capable components money can buy?  Take a Core 2 Extreme QX6700, drop it into a bleeding edge nForce 680i motherboard, install 2Gigs of high performance memory, add not one - but two - GeForce 8800 GTXs in SLI mode, and overclock the stuffing out of everything -- shaken not stirred, thanks very much.  If you've got the coin to belly up to the bar, we've got just the concoction the doctor ordered.  Read on thirsty speed freaks.  This article is for you. 

 Quad Core UGR System Specs And Details
The Ultimate Gaming Rig Features & Specifications

Dubbed "The Ultimate Gaming Motherboard" by Asus, the Asus Striker Extreme, built around NVIDIA's new 680i chipset is nothing short of impressive when you look at the build quality and feature integration Asus brought to the table.  With a chipset heat-pipe cooling system that looks like something out of a distillery, this motherboard wanders about as far away from NVIDIA's reference design as we've seen to date.


For Starters - Asus Striker Extreme nForce 680i Motherboard
And Asus Silent Knight CPU Cooler

And you should see the BIOS menu options on this motherboard.  We'll have a full analysis and showcase of the board in the coming weeks, but for now we're just going to have a little fun with it.  Finally, we installed Asus' new Silent Knight all copper cooler on top of our quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX6700 processor.  This cooler does about as good a job keeping thermals in check as does a Zalman CPNS9500, though it is tad larger and thus theoretically has better heat dissipation characteristics.  Though we're not quite as fond of this sink's retention bracket mechanism, as we are of the Zalman cooler's version.  It doesn't seem to apply as much downward force and the mounting bracket itself actually bolts over the CPU socket door.  So once it's in place, there's no changing out CPUs easily unless you completely disassemble the bracket from the motherboard.  Regardless, it cools quite well and, as you'll see shortly, it allowed us to overclock our Kentsfield chip like there's no tomorrow. 

Add Killer Dual-GPUs, Awesome Memory and Beefy PSU

With what could be considered the "ultimate gaming motherboard" as our foundation, it's only fitting to configure our new beast with what is currently considered the ultimate 3D graphics setup -- a shiny new pair of NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI.

3D Graphics Subsystem - GeForce 8800 GTX SLI
You'll need a small nuclear reactor to power it but so what?

The Asus Striker Extreme has three full length X16 PCI Express slots at the ready and surprisingly enough, you can actually utilize a few of the other slots on the board, even with two double-slot GeForce 8800GTX coolers punched into two of its slots.


Asus GeForce 8800 GTX

Foxconn GeForce 8800 GTX

Since we didn't have a pair of one particular make of card, and also since NVIDIA's drivers allow mixing and matching of similar models between manufacturers, we decided to co-join Asus' GeForce 8800 GTX with Foxconn's version.  As you can see, both cards are identical and since NVIDIA is literally building all boards at one contract manufacturing site currently, for virtually all board partners at the moment, there is really not much difference between them, with the exception of decals and the blue LED assembly that Foxconn stuffed inside the top casing of their cooler.  As you'll note, there was manual patch-work done to get the LEDs wired up on the Foxconn board.  This is not something we'd say is retail-ready product just yet from the folks at Foxconn. 

System Memory And Power Supply
Tough And Dominant

For testing, we utilized the Striker Extreme's on-board integrated HD Audio, so finishing up our configuration was as simple as plugging in a couple GB of high-end memory, a top-notch PSU and a WD Raptor WD1500 hard drive.  And of course we didn't settle for just any set of memory sticks or just any power supply. 

Corsair XMS2 Dominator TWIN2X2048-9136C5D Memory

Thermaltake ToughPower 850Watt PSU

Corsair's Dominator TWIN2X2048-9136C5D kit is about the fastest set of DDR2 memory modules money can buy currently.  These sticks support a blistering 1142MHz (that's 1.141GHz) at latency settings of 5,5,5,15.  You can also dial down the memory speed a bit of course and run the timings a bit tighter around the 4,4,4,12 mark if you so choose. Either way, you're going to get great memory bandwidth from these modules.  We took a look at another lower-latency/lower-speed set of Corsair Dominator sticks right here, just for your reference.

Finally, Thermaltake's ToughPower 850 Watt power supply offers up an impressive 62 Amps across its four independent 12V rails.  It's also Dual GeForce 8800 GTX certified, so we knew it could handle two of NVIDIA's GeForce 8800GTX cards under load.  We were not disappointed either.  This PSU also comes with a quiet 14cm (140mm) fan and modular cables for neat and tidy Monster-Rig cable management.

Full System Specs And Vital Signs

For your Pavlovian drool response pleasure, below are our full systems specifications including some details on how we arrived at our final overclocked and custom tweaked system speeds.  Please keep our test setup specifications in mind when you consider the performance characteristics we'll show you in our upcoming benchmark runs.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Multi-Core And Multi-GPU - Light-Dimming Horsepower

Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700 Quad-Core Processor
(Overclocked to 3.33GHz)

Asus Striker Extreme Motherboard
(NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI - LinkBoost Enabled)

EVGA nForce 680i SLI Motherboard
(nForce 680i SLI - reference test-bed)

2x1GB Corsair Dominator Twin2X2048-9136C5D
CL 5-5-5-15 - DDR2-1142

GeForce 8800 GTX - In SLI
(Overclocked to 625/925)

On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD1500 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP2
NVIDIA Forceware v97.02
DirectX 9.0c

We achieved our heavily overclocked system setup with a few standard voltage tweaks, bumping the CPU core voltage to 1.5V (1.4V reported here is the variability of the health monitoring software) and setting various chipset voltages for the HyperTransport link, Northbridge and Southbridge to either 1.5 or 1.55V.  

We also bumped our core GPU and Memory interface clocks on the GeForce 8800 GTX cards to 625MHz and 925MHz (1850MHz DDR) respectively.  This was about the highest we could get this pair of cards to cooperate together and it did offer a measurable gain in performance over stock speeds.


And of course we had our GeForce 8800 GTX cards running in SLI mode.  On with the testing...

3DMark06 - Air-Cooled Record Setting Performance

Our first benchmarking effort was frankly a bit frivolous but with all this horsepower at your disposal, you can't help but get that way once in a while.  We'll ask for forgiveness someday but for now we were after some guilt-free 3DMark06 bragging rights.  We were looking to knock King Pin off his ORB perch and though we didn't break the 20K mark, here's a look at what we achieved on standard air cooling with the LN2 crutch, thanks very much.

Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06 v1.0.2
Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

3DMark06 is the latest addition to the 3DMark franchise. This version differs from 3Dmark05 in a number of ways, and now includes not only Shader Model 2.0 tests, but Shader Model 3.0 and HDR tests as well. Some of the assets from 3DMark05 have been re-used, but the scenes are now rendered with much more geometric detail and the shader complexity is vastly increased as well. Max shader length in 3DMark05 was 96 instructions, while 3DMark06 ups the number of instructions to 512. 3DMark06 also employs much more lighting, and there is extensive use of soft shadows. With 3DMark06, Futuremark has also updated how the final score is tabulated. In this latest version of the benchmark, SM 2.0 and HDR / SM3.0 tests are weighted and the CPU score is factored into the final tally as well.

Our stock Core 2 Extreme QX6700 rig is actually ranked about 1K 3DMarks faster than a similarly equipped Core 2 Duo X6800 setup.  Taking things up a notch further, our 3.33GHz overclocked QX6700 driving the overclocked GeForce 8800 GTX cards posts up a huge 3000 point gain.  As a side note, running our GPUs at their stock speed but keeping the rest of the system overclocked yielded a score in the 16800 range. 

Quake And Prey For Forgiveness

One of the most widely used and re-purposed OpenGL game engines on the market; Quake 4 is next.

Performance Comparisons with Quake 4
Details: http://www.quake4game.com/

Quake 4
id Software, in conjunction with developer Raven, recently released the latest addition to the wildly popular Quake franchise, Quake 4. Quake 4 is based upon an updated and slightly modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and as such performance characteristics between the two titles are very similar.  Like Doom 3, Quake 4 is also an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a ton of dynamic lighting and shadows, but unlike Doom3, Quake 4 features some outdoor environments as well. We ran this these Quake 4 benchmarks using a custom demo with the game set to its "High-Quality" mode, at a resolution of 1920X1200 with 4X AA and 16X aniso enabled simultaneously.

In real-world testing our Core 2 Extreme QX6700 is about on par with a higher clock speed Core 2 Extreme X6800 dual-core chip (2.66GHz stock versus 2.93GHz for the X6800), at least according to Quake 4.  As you can see, the two stock systems with GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI clocked in right on top of each other.  However, with the help of the Asus Striker Extreme and NVIDIA's GPU overclocking slider in NTune, our UGR test system put up a blistering 173 fps score and don't forget this is at 1920X1200 wide screen resolution with 4X Anti-Aliasing enabled.

Performance Comparisons with Prey
Details: http://www.prey.com/

After many years of development, Take-Two Interactive recently released the highly anticipated game Prey. Prey is based upon an updated and modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and as such performance characteristics between the two titles are very similar.  Like Doom 3, Prey is also an OpenGL game that uses extremely high-detailed textures and a plethora of dynamic lighting and shadows.  But unlike Doom3, Prey features a fare share of outdoor environments as well.  We ran these Prey benchmarks using a custom recorded timedemo with the game set to its "High-Quality" graphics mode, at a resolution of 1920X1200 with 4X AA and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled simultaneously.

Take-Two's Prey is a game based on the Doom3 engine. Like Quake 4, it also places a bit more strenuous demand on the graphics subsystem than many other titles.  Prey tends to be a bit less CPU-bound than Quake 4 is and as such, the only 8800 GTX SLI score that broke out from the pack was our overclocked UGR setup.  But just look at those SLI numbers compared to a single GeForce 8800 GTX or even the dual-GPU driven 7950 GX2.  If you've got the power supply to drive them, a pair of GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI will run virtually anything you can throw at it, at high resolution with AA enabled.


F.E.A.R. Peformance

F.E.A.R. is definitely a relatively taxing and impressive game engine, with a very realistic particle system and a great physics engine, in comparison to many other games currently on the market.

Performance Comparisons with F.E.A.R
More Info: http://www.whatisfear.com/us/

One of the most highly anticipated titles of 2005 was Monolith's paranormal thriller F.E.A.R. Taking a look at the game's minimum system requirements, we see that you will need at least a 1.7GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of system memory and a 64MB graphics card in the Radeon 9000 or GeForce4 Ti-classes or better, to adequately run the game. Using the full retail release of the game patched to v1.07, we put the graphics cards in this article through their paces to see how they fared with a popular title. Here, all graphics settings within the game were set to their maximum values, but with soft shadows disabled (Soft shadows and anti-aliasing do not work together currently). Benchmark runs were then completed at a resolution of 1920X1200, with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.

Since F.E.A.R.'s game engine places a bit of extra workload on the CPU in addition to being very demanding on the GPU, we see our Kentsfield/GeForce 8800 GTX Ultimate Gaming Rig combination push out an extra 16 fps over the Core 2 Duo X6800/stock GF8800 GTX SLI system, in our super high resolution F.E.A.R. benchmark run.  And it was almost twice as fast as the Core 2 Duo X6800 test system, with a single GeForce 8800 GTX installed. 

Half Life 2 : Episode 1 Performance

Valve's Half Life 2 engine has to be one of the more CPU-bound game engines on the market, especially when you consider the type of leading-edge graphics the game displays in its environments.

Performance Comparisons with Half Life 2: Episode 1
Details: http://www.half-life2.com/

Half Life 2: Episode 1
Armed with the latest episodic update to HL2, Episode 1, we benchmarked the game with a long, custom-recorded timedemo that takes us through both outdoor and indoor environments. These tests were run at a resolution of 1920 x 1200 with 4X anti-aliasing and 16X anisotropic filtering enabled concurrently, along with color correction and HDR rendering enabled in the game engine as well.

Even a single GeForce 8800 GTX with a fast Core 2 Duo processor, can score well over 100 fps in Half Life 2: EP1 at 1920X1200 resolution with 4X AA, 16X AF and HDR enabled.  This is an impressive testament to the power of the GeForce 8800 GTX in general.  Beyond that, the 165 fps score that our overclocked GF8800 GTX SLI quad-core UGS put up almost seems like over-kill.  However, dial the resolution up to 2560X1600 on an ever-gorgeous 30" Dell UltraSharp 3007WFP at well over 100 fps and you'll feel better about yourself, honest.

Price List And The Wrap-Up

Performance Summary: 
The benchmark scores our Ultimate Gaming Rig put up were easily the fastest we've ever seen in our labs to date, and in many cases by a large margin.  This system configuration, with its bleeding-edge GPU and CPU technology and heavily overclock components, scored the single fastest 3DMark06 score currently posted on Futuremark's ORB (online results browser) for an air-cooled setup, though the graphics drivers we chose (NVIDIA's 97.02 release) are not officially sanctioned by Futuremark.  Short of some crazy, over-the-top liquid nitrogen or water cooling-based machine, there isn't a faster UGR setup you could put together right now.  The gaming scores we've shown here today are proof positive of that.

We hope you enjoyed our fun, quick-take look into the world of the ultra high-end gaming platform, courtesy of the impressive new technologies NVIDIA has brought to market over the past few weeks.  There is little dispute at this point in time that NVIDIA has both the fastest high-end GPU on the market right now and the most full-featured chipset offering for the Intel platform.  Configured with Intel's undeniably impressive quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX6700 processor, 2 Gigs of Corsair Dominator DDR2 memory and a quality 850W+ PSU, you'll have more than bragging rights.  And you might not end up as Frag-bait the next time you go get your game on. 

While you're at it, why not go hog-wild an throw in a 30" Dell 3007WFP LCD?  All this top-shelf gear will cost you of course, but hey, life is short.  Live fast, die young, stay pretty, right? OK, we'll skip the die young part, but you'll be gaming pretty, that's for sure.

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