Isn't it surprising to see how certain editions of car magazines with reviews of cars like the Ferrari Maranello, Porsche 911 Turbo, Lamborghini Diablo or a tuned Dodge Viper are selling like crazy? It is obvious that most buyers of those magazines will never have the chance to own or even drive one of those super cars. Still the interest is immense. While flipping through the pages and looking at the pictures of those gorgeous cars your mind drifts off into imagination, picturing yourself as the driver of one of those cars. And what's so wrong with that? Dreams don't know any limitations and in most cases they are a lot more pleasant than reality. As long as you've got the ability to dream you know that you are still alive.
Tom's Hardware Guide is unfortunately not a car magazine (yet...), and I agree that PCs cannot possibly reach the big role that cars are playing in the minds of most guys. Still there seems to be a lot of interest in high-performing computers and computer components. If it wasn't so, I guess Tom's Hardware Guide wouldn't have so many readers. I decided to please those hardcore performance freaks amongst you and give you something to dream of as well. I checked out what I could use to make the most desirable PC-system on the planet, put it together and voila, here it comes, the Tom's Hardware Guide Power Box.
The Processor Of The Power Box
The first choice I had to make was of course the processor that I would use in the box. Right now there are two CPUs that come to mind, AMD's Athlon processor and Intel's Pentium 4. Those two are rivaling for the best performing PC-processor on the market and so I had to choose one of them.
My choice fell onto the Athlon processor for several important reasons. First of all it was clear that the CPU of the Power Box had to run at some super-high clock rate, higher than what you can realize in commercial systems. In other words, the processor of the Power Box had to be 'overclocked'. Intel's Pentium 4 can be overclocked, but the procedure is rather limited. Due to the fact that Pentium 4's clock multiplier is fixed, you need to increase the processor bus clock beyond the specified 100 MHz, which leads to out-of-spec clocks of the Ram-bus, the AGP as well as the PCI-bus. While a reasonably overclocked AGP is just about acceptable, a beyond-spec PCI-bus is paving the road for disaster. Once the PCI-clock goes beyond 39 MHz, the majority of sound, network or SCSI PCI-devices will either run very unreliable or not operate at all.
AMD's Athlon, however, allows you to actually change its clock multiplier as long as you fulfill two conditions. You need a motherboard that supports the adjustment of the multiplier and you have to close the famous L1-bridges on the processor package. Once you have done that, you can overclock the Athlon processor without jeopardizing the reliability of other devices of your PC. The AGP, the memory as well as the PCI-bus remain running 100% within spec and you don't need to worry about problems with your network, SCSI or sound card.
The second reason why I chose Athlon is its performance in today's applications.
The fastest Athlon that is available right now (1200 MHz) is already beating the fastest available Pentium 4 in the majority of benchmarks. Pentium 4 requires software that is specifically optimized to challenge Athlon, while the only widely used application in which Pentium 4 is able to beat Athlon without SSE2-optimizations is Id's Quake 3 Arena.
In summary you could say that Athlon is better suited for overclocking and at beyond-spec clock rates it is able to beat anything that is thrown against it.
I already mentioned that the Power Box is equipped with a processor running at a clock way beyond its current spec. This cannot be achieved without a special device. We know that semiconductors run a lot 'better' at low temperatures, which is why the Power Box requires a super-cooling device. Right now there is no better super-cooling solution available than Asetek's Vapochill, which is why it was chosen as one of the integral components of the Power Box. If you should not be familiar with the Vapochill, I suggest you read our extensive review from December 2000.
Thanks to Vapochill the Athlon in the Power Box is running at 1600 MHz. The usage of Vapochill is actually not as crazy as it might seem. If you realize the price difference between Athlon and Pentium 4, the $650 for the Vapochill don't weigh quite as much.
The Motherboard Of The Power Box
Right now the best performing core logic for the Athlon processor on the market is AMD's 760 chipset. It provides the 133 MHz processor bus clock of the new 'C'-type Athlons and supports DDR-SDRAM memory to supply the Athlon processor with high memory bandwidth. It was clear that the motherboard for the Power Box had to be an AMD 760 motherboard.
The best AMD760 motherboard I have tested to date is MSI's K7-Master S (MS-6341). It comes with
- AMD760 North Bridge
- VIA VT82c686B South Bridge with ATA100-Support
- Four DDR-SDRAM DIMM Slots, supporting up to 4 GB of memory
- 1 AGP Pro Slot
- 5 PCI Slots
- 1 CNR Slot (in case anyone cares)
- Onboard Adaptec AIC-7899 Dual-Channel SCSI-160 Adapter
In all my tests the K7-Master S has been performing flawlessly, providing top-notch reliability plus excellent performance. On top of that I found all overclocking requirements one could wish for in its BIOS setup, which are
- Adjustment of the core voltage up to 1.85 V
- Adjustment of the CPU clock multiplier up to x12.5
- Adjustment of the CPU bus clock in small increments.
There was no doubt that the Power Box would be equipped with this motherboard, which also allows the connection of super-fast SCSI-160 hard drives without the requirement of an additional adapter.
The Memory Of The Power Box
Intel is bitterly complaining about reviews that are using Athlon-systems with AMD760 chipset and then PC2100 CL2 DDR-memory, beating Pentium 4 platforms in virtually every benchmark. It is correct that right now there isn't any PC2100 DDR-SDRAM with a CAS-latency of only 2 available yet. However, I found out that Micron/Crucial's PC2100 CL 2.5 DDR-SDRAM runs 100% reliable at extremely fast memory timing settings, including a CAS-latency of 2. The Power Box is equipped with two 128 MB DIMMs of the above-mentioned memory, summing up to 256 MB in total. The memory timing settings in the BIOS of MSI's K7 Master S were 8-8-4-2-2-2-2.
The Graphics Card Of The Power Box
This decision was any easy one. As long as NVIDIA's upcoming new 3D-chip with the code name 'NV20' is not available, the fastest 3D-card is clearly equipped with NVIDIA's GeForce 2 Ultra. I was actually using a reference card, but any GeForce 2 Ultra card on the market would do. I also decided against the overclocking of this graphics card, because the system was supposed to be a solid and reliable performer.
The Hard Drive Of The Power Box
In this first Power Box article I thought it would be sensible to use an IDE hard drive. Right now our power box is equipped with IBM's DeskStar 75GXP DTLA-307075. With ATA100-support, a maximum sustained data transfer rate of 37 MB/s, an average seek time of only 8.5 ms and a capacity of 75 GB it is currently the best IDE-drive available. I can already hear the complaints why the Power Box does not come with a SCSI-160 hard drive although its motherboard has got an onboard SCSI-160 adapter. The second edition of the power box will be quipped with a 15,000 RMD SCSI drive and 'NV20', but until then the Deskstar 75GXP will do just fine.
In this edition I refrained from adding any other component to the Power Box, such as a sound card, DVD-ROM, CD/RW and more, because the benchmarks in this first Power Box article would not benefit from it.
To give you some kind of idea of the performance of the Power Box, I compared it to two top-notch systems that are available right now. The first is a system equipped with Intel's Pentium 4 1.5 GHz processor, Asus P4T i850 motherboard, 256 MB PC800 RDRAM and a GeForce2 Ultra graphics card. The other system comes with AMD's Athlon 'C' 1.2 GHz, Asus A7M266 AMD760 motherboard, 256 MB PC2100 CL2 DDR-SDRAM and also a GeForce2 Ultra graphics card.
You will see that the second half of this article is a feast for benchmark addicts. I ran as many benchmarks as I could think of to compare the three systems. You will see that the Power Box is as good as unchallenged.
||Pentium 4 System
||Athlon DDR System
||Athlon 'C' 1.6 GHz
||Pentium 4 1.5 GHz
||Athlon 'C' 1.2 GHz
||256 MB Micron/Crucial PC2100 DDR-SDRAM
||256 MB Samsung PC800 RDRAM
||256 MB Micron/Crucial PC2100 DDR-SDRAM
||NVIDIA GeForce 2 Ultra Reference Card
64 MB, Driver 6.67 (Win98/Win2k)
||IBM DTLA-307075, 75 GB, 7200 RPM
ATA100, FAT32 Win98, NTFS Win2k
|Desktop Resolution for BAPCo's Sysmark 2000 and Webmark2001
Timer Resolution 10 ms
Java enabled, 5.0
Adobe Acrobat Reader 4.05
Microsoft Agent 2.00.0.3422
Windows Media Player 6.4.09.1109
Windows Media Services 4.1.00.3918
|Quake 3 Arena
||Version 4.28 (patched)
||Downloadable Demo Version
T&L = On, trilinear filtering, high texture detail
||Rolling Demo v1.2 Build 944
Standard command line = -benchmark
Bump Mapped command line = -benchmark -dotbump
|Mercedes Benz Truck Racing
||Recommended GeForce2 Settings
||Downloadable Demo Version
command line = -timedemo
|3d Mark 2000
||Build 335, Default Benchmark
|SiSoft Sandra Standard
|Desktop Resolution for SPECviewperf 6.1.2
||Video Codec: DivX 3.11 alpha, Fast-Motion, keyframe every 10 seconds, compression 100, data rate 910 kbps
Audio Codec: audio not processed
Video Resolution: 720x480, 29.97 fps, interlaced
Resizing: Nearest Neighbor
You will see that the benchmark results are mainly speaking for themselves. The Power Box is winning almost each benchmark.
In BAPCo's Sysmark2000 Athlon is king, even though AMD is not even a member of BAPCo, while Intel is. The Power Box is able to score the mind-blowing result of 270!
Webmark2001 was run under Windows 2000 Professional. It is supposed to test the 'Internet-performance' of a computer system, whatever that actually means.
In Webmark2001, Intel's Pentium 4 is able to shine in a complete different light than in Sysmark2000. Still the Power Box is able to beat the Pentium 4 system here.
The Business-To-Business portion of Webmark2001 shows all systems much closer together, simply because the processor doesn't have as much of an impact on the scores. Still the Power Box is the leader.
BAPCo Webmark2001, Continued
The Business-To-Consumer part of Webmark2001 is not the strength of Pentium 4. The Power Box leaves both commercial systems far behind.
The final section of Webmark2001 is where Pentium 4 is able to score extremely well. I am still unable to explain the reason for this occurrence, because it seems very difficult to understand what exactly impacts the 'Business'-run of Webmark2001. Maybe BAPCo can help me out here. Be it as it may, this benchmark is one of the very few where the Power Box is unable to reach the highest score in the comparison.
3D Gaming - Quake 3 Arena
The Pentium 4 is known to score particularly well in Quake 3 Arena's Demo001-run. Still the Power Box is able to beat it.
At higher resolution and true-color, which represents a more realistic setting for the end-user, the difference between the three systems is negligible. The reason for this behavior is the fact that here the 3D-card is actually limiting the scores. GeForce2 Ultra is not able to score more than about 130 frames per second in this benchmark, regardless what processor is being used.
Quake 3 Arena, Continued
NVIDIA's complex 'NV15'demo is very hard on the processor. Tom's Hardware Guide's Power Box is able to beat the two competitors.
At 1024x768 and true-color the scores don't change much, proving that in this demo-run the processor is the limiter, not the graphics card.
Unreal Tournament is not as much of a friend of Pentium 4, but known to demand a lot of processor performance. While the normal Athlon-system is already beating the Pentium 4 system, the Power Box wins this competition as well.
At high resolution and true-color the picture hardly changes, because Unreal Tournament is not limited by the 3D-card.
MDK2 is another OpenGL-game, but surprisingly not generating the same kind of results as Quake 3 Arena. Power Box brings home another win.
Here is another example where the 3D-card is the actual bottleneck. All systems score alike.
The Direct3D game Evolva is able to score some whopping frame rates as long as the bump mapping is not enabled. Power Box comes out on top.
Once bump mapping is turned on and the resolution as well as the color depth is increased the systems score all the same results, because again the 3D-card is the limiter.
Mercedes-Benz Truck Racing
MBTR seems mainly impacted by the performance of the 3D-card used. Still the Power Box is leading the field.
At 1024x768 and true-color the picture doesn't change much.
I considered it nice to include the good old Expendable Direct3D game into the list of benchmarks. I was surprised to see that Intel won't like this benchmark at all, since it makes Pentium 4 look rather bad.
It seems as if only the Power Box is able to run into the frame rate limit of GeForce 2 Ultra. The scores are hardly different to the ones scores at low-res and high-color.
3Dmark2000 at the default setting of 1024x768x16 is mainly impacted by the speed of the 3D card. Still the Power Box comes out as the leader.
The Video2000 score depends mainly on the graphics card as well. The Pentium 4 system has got a tiny edge over the Power Box.
SisSoft's Sandra benchmarks are pretty popular in the overclocking scene, so I decided to add these scores as well.
It doesn't come as a surprise that the Power Box is winning the CPU-performance comparison here.
SiSoft Sandra, Continued
The Multimedia Performance benchmark of Sandra doesn't show much of a difference to the scores seen in the CPU Performance chart. The Power Box rocks!
Finally, the memory performance of the Pentium 4 system with its dual-channel RDRAM architecture is able to beat both Athlon DDR-systems. It only makes you wonder why Pentium 4 is not able to benefit from this huge lead in real world benchmarks.
SPEC's professional OpenGL benchmark viewperf is mainly depending on the performance of the graphics card used. Still the Power Box scores the best results in each of the six tests.
FlasK MPEG - MPEG4 Encoding
To be as fair as possible I used for each of the two processors the optimized code. Thus Pentium 4 is running the SSE2-enhanced code while the Athlon processors are running the 3DNow!-enhanced code.
With SSE2 enhancements the Pentium 4 is hard to beat. Even the Power Box isn't quite able to reach the scores of the Pentium 4 system.
In most applications Tom's Hardware Guide's Power Box was able to leave the high-end competition far behind. At the same time the Power Box is a real system, running quietly and reliably without making any headaches. Even the price of this box remains within reasonable limits. Basically, it's nothing else than a high-end Athlon-system, such as the Millennia XP boxes offered by Micron. The only difference is that we used Asetek's Vapochill and a specially selected Athlon-CPU. Vapochill goes for $650, but please don't forget that an Athlon 1200 plus Vapochill is not that much more expensive than a Pentium 4 processor.
The extensive benchmark comparison should also prove that one recent rumor about Athlon is false. Athlon is NOT scoring worse than Pentium 4 with GeForce 2 Ultra cards. In fact, it scores better than Pentium 4 in the majority of 3D-games, as my results clearly show. The myth that Pentium 4 is a great 3D-gaming processor is only true for Quake 3. Other 3D-games run better on Athlon and most certainly on the Power Box.
The next edition of our Power Box will include NVIDIA's upcoming 3D-chip 'NV20' and several other top-notch parts. If you enjoyed this article you should stay tuned for the next Power Box update.