Digital Storm's Core i5 System Reviewed
Performance Summary: Once configured properly, the Digital Storm i5-750 was a great performer. The one-two punch of its high CPU overclock and dual GTX 275 cards performed well in light of the competition. The Digital Storm rig is an indirect advertisement for NVIDIA as well—dual GTX 275s competed relatively well against the Radeon HD 5870s in Crossfire of the Alienware system, and unlike the Radeon HD 5870, the GeForces actually available for sale right now.The system's high overclock, meanwhile, suggests that the only people who'd need a Core i7 are those with unlimited budgets, professionals using applications with a proven love of HyperThreading, or those who know, for certain, that the primary applications they run are actually limited by memory bandwidth. Even when the Core i5 can't match the i7, it's never far off, and the dual-channel DDR3-1600 delivers more than enough bandwidth for the vast majority of situations. While we had trouble with the overclocked GPUs, Digital Storm's 3.8GHz processor was absolutely solid, never crashing once in weeks of testing.
When the Digital Storm i5-750 is great, it's great. The company has clearly invested time and energy in certain places; the cable routing was done as neatly as we've ever seen and the system components struck a near-perfect price / performance balance. Customer service appears to be good, the OS image discs are intuitive, and the default OS installation isn't stuffed with lousy, performance-sucking bloatware. Evaluated on such merits, the DS i5-750 deserves nothing but praise.
It is, however, impossible to ignore the fact that the system only performed as well as it did after significant intervention. Evaluated individually, any one of the three problems we had—overly-agressive GPU overclocking, misconfigured SLI, and noise—are no big deal. Mistakes happen. Taken in aggregate, however, the situation changes. Based on our experience, we'd recommend Digital storm expand its repertoire of tests before it certifies video cards as "overclocked as much as possible with complete stability," as the Digital Storm customization documentation states.
Second, the company needs to ensure that the enthusiast, boutique-level systems it's selling are actually configured properly. The P55 FTW was a new board when this system shipped, but EVGA spelled out the proper configuration in both the manual and on the motherboard. This is the type of mistake that one wouldn't expect in a $399 white-box, and it has a substantial impact on 3D performance. That's another way of saying it has a substantial impact on the buyer's satisfaction level, should he or she go looking for comparative performance results. The entire rationale behind buying a custom-built system is that there's a certain degree of high-performance tuning baked in. If the end-user has to come along post-purchase and retune / rebuild the system properly, it rather kills the point of buying it in the first place.
At present, the only noise-related option Digital Storm offers on any of its systems is a $99 "Noise Supression Package," in which they install custom-tuned fans at specific speeds and add insulation material. For comparison, the various custom overclocking options start at $35. Fan upgrades are available on the fully customizeable systems, but these are identified as "Zalman Performance Fans," not quiet fans. Given the results of our decibel and thermal tests, there definitely needs to be more customization options here, and possibly a configurator notification if a customer selects a certain set of hardware that's been identified as cumulatively loud. A simple "the configuration you've selected may exceed XX decibels when gaming, we recommend x, y, or z" would do the trick.
Would we recommend it? That's tricky, as laid out in the pros and cons above. If the system Digital Storm delivered was identical to the one we received, it's tough to overlook the missteps. If, on the other hand, the system that dropped on your doorstep was identical to the review system as it is today, we would, in a heartbeat. If Digital Storm closes the gap between the two—and none of the issues are hard to fix—then we'd recommend it wholeheartedly.
Update - December 17, 2009: Digital Storm has provided some information regarding the issues we experienced during our review and the QA improvements the company has made to address them. You can read the company's response in its entirety right here.