Editor's note: We have changed the ratings in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Find out more here.
The ABS Ultimate M6, the company's high-end gaming PC line, received a shot in the arm recently with SLI (scalable link interface). Using Nvidia's Nforce SLI chipset, the Ultimate M6 now boasts two graphics cards for increased gaming performance. For such a powerful PC, our Ultimate M6 test system was reasonably priced at $3,199--less than half the price of the Voodoo Rage F:5, an admittedly beautiful PC, but one that's no more powerful than the more sedate-looking Ultimate M6. Inside the Ultimate M6 resides a high-end AMD Athlon 64 FX-55 processor, 1GB of PC3200 memory, and a pair of 200GB hard drives. Like the Pentium 4 600 chips that Intel just announced, the Athlon 64 FX-55 will let you migrate to 64-bit software when it begins to emerge later this year. For graphics professionals and hobbyists and especially for gamers looking to double up on graphics cards without doubling the cost, the ABS Ultimate M6 is a good place to start. ABS gives you a choice of five different cases when ordering the ABS Ultimate M6. Our review system came housed in a Cooler Master Cavalier 1 midtower chassis done up in brushed aluminum with the obligatory side window panel, along with a slightly curved front bezel and a cathode lighting kit that washes the interior with blue light and compliments the silver casing. We like that the front drive bay door can be reversed, making it easy to get to the optical drives and the memory-card reader regardless of how you position the system.
A decibel-level gauge with blue backlighting adorns the lower-front bezel, but it serves no practical purpose other than to let you see the needle jump around when attached to an audio source. A temperature gauge would be more useful here, especially for the overclocking crowd. On the lower-left side of the chassis sit two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire port, while the lower-right side contains speaker and microphone jacks, as well as a volume control for the aforementioned I/O card.
Around back, you'll find six additional USB 2.0 ports (two are on a daughtercard), another FireWire port, and two Gigabit Ethernet ports, plus jacks for the onboard eight-channel audio, including two S/PDIF connections. There's room inside for two x1 PCI Express (PCIe) expansion cards, and there are three unused PCI slots, but you'll have to remove the three daughtercards to use them (a third daughtercard controls the blue lighting option).
The Ultimate M6 has room for five external 5.25-inch drives, two of which are occupied by a Sony double-layer DVD-recordable drive and a Sony DVD-ROM drive, while the 3.5-inch bay contains a floppy/multicard-reader combo drive. Two of the four hard drive bays are empty, and there are two remaining memory slots. Although the Cooler Master case is designed to be tool-free, the side panel, the optical drives, and the expansion cards arrived fastened using regular hex-head screws that required a screwdriver to remove. The Ultimate M6 was remarkably quiet given that the processor, the chipset, and the video cards all have separate fans. Using a slower and quieter 120mm case fan helps keep the noise and heat to a minimum.The ABS Ultimate M6 is based on AMD's Athlon 64 FX-55 processor running on an Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe motherboard, one of only a handful of motherboards currently certified to utilize Nvidia's Nforce4 SLI technology. The SLI (scalable link interface) gives you the ability to run two identical video cards at once to deliver up to twice the graphics performance of a single card. A special connector links the two cards together at the top, acting as a traffic cop for data transfer between the two, and the motherboard is outfitted with dual x16 PCIe bus slots.
Our ABS Ultimate M6 test system came configured with two Nvidia GeForce 6800 GT graphics cards with 256MB memory each. (For an extra $250, you can upgrade to the top-of-the-line GeForce 6800 Ultra cards.) The GT cards performed quite well on our 3D gaming tests, and unlike with the Ultra cards, you won't have to sacrifice any expansion slots to accommodate their cooling fans. We certainly didn't see double the frame rates on our 3D tests compared with high-end, single-GPU systems, but SLI technology is in its infancy. We expect the performance to improve as SLI drivers mature (as it is, we tested the Ultimate M6 with beta drivers that ABS supplied).
Our system also came with 1GB of PC3200 Corsair XMS DDR memory but will support up to 4GB, if you don't mind dropping another $678 for the added muscle. Dual 200GB Seagate Barracuda hard drives spinning at 7,200rpm provide plenty of storage space and are set up in a RAID 0 configuration for optimal performance. The motherboard features integrated eight-channel sound, but you'll have to shell out more money for a good set of multichannel speakers if you want to rock the house. A decent monitor will also set you back another $400 or more. The Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse mean fewer cables cluttering up your desktop surface and are always welcome additions.
The Ultimate M6 ships with Windows XP Professional, or you can opt for the Home Edition and save a few bucks. ABS throws in a generous collection of bundled software, including Microsoft's , Flight Simulator 2004, and the Rise of Nations game, plus an Electronic Arts gaming bundle with five titles and NTI's DVDRW Maker Gold burning software. An AMD-sponsored promotion also gives you a coupon for a free download of Half-Life 2 Bronze Edition.Application performance
SLI systems have been tough to judge to date. We've seen only a handful of dual-GPU SLI desktops, and the results have been mixed. Plus, all of the SLI systems we've seen have used the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe motherboard, which has been very sensitive during testing. There's no doubt that these are all powerful machines, the ABS Ultimate M6 included, but with any new-technology introduction, the new hardware coupled with persistent driver updates produces a muddied picture initially. In terms of application performance, adding a second graphics card isn't going to create a speed increase. (Then again, Nvidia didn't make its SLI technology to boost your performance with office apps.)
The ABS Ultimate M6 SysMark 2004 score of 210 is one of the highest scores we've ever seen on this test, but it still trails the Alienware Area-51 ALX, a system that's overclocked but uses only one graphics card. The results on SysMark 2004 lead us to believe that in terms of application performance, Intel's 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition chip is superior to AMD's Athlon 64 FX-55. The Area-51 ALX is also helped by a 1GB dollop of speedy 533MHz memory to the Ultimate M6's 1GB of 400MHz memory. In the end, the ABS Ultimate M6 supplies more than enough oomph to run today's applications.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
* CPU and graphics are overclocked.
** Just graphics is overclocked.
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).3D graphics and gaming performance
The ABS Ultimate M6 turned in impressive 3D frame rates compared with its SLI competitors. Using two Nvidia GeForce 6800 GT cards, it topped the Voodoo Rage F:5 at every resolution on our new Half-Life 2 benchmark--an impressive feat when you consider the Rage F:5 is overclocked and uses a pair of GeForce 6800 Ultra cards. (The Ultra is a step above the GT.) Our Far Cry test ended in a split decision for these two systems: the Rage F:5 won the high-end 1,600x1,200 test, while the Ultimate M6 took the honors at 1,024x768.
We suspect that the ABS Ultimate M6's strong showing on Half-Life 2 was due, in part, to the drivers ABS included with our test system. Instead of the publicly available Forceware 66.93 driver Voodoo included on our Rage F:5 test system, ABS installed a beta SLI driver (Forceware 71.25) on our Ultimate M6, which we suspect includes optimizations for Half-Life 2. We wouldn't be surprised to see the Voodoo Rage F:5's scores go up when Voodoo moves to the next driver revision.
Still, we had high hopes for SLI, and we just haven't seen the performance boost we were anticipating. We didn't expect to see double the frame rates compared to single-card PCs right off the bat, but nor did we expect a single-card system--even an overclocked system such as the Alienware Area-51 ALX--to top an SLI system such as the ABS Ultimate M6 on our Far Cry test. Give Nvidia's drivers some time to mature, and you can expect to see more gains from SLI. If the ABS Ultimate M6 wasn't so affordable compared to its SLI brethren, we'd say take a pass for now. But ABS offers a compelling value with this machine--just make sure to keep atop of Nvidia's driver revisions.