HP's Blackbird 002 is the first product from the collaborative design and production minds of HP and its year-old boutique acquisition, Voodoo PC. The result is a system that makes an unexpectedly large dent in what we expect from high-end gaming PCs. In addition to its unique appearance and a Mac Pro-quality interior design, HP and Voodoo have done for $5,600 what would cost significantly more from other vendors. They've also managed a technical innovation with this system that expands your graphics upgrade options, and that could also benefit DIY upgraders in general. The Blackbird 002 will satisfy any well-off gamer looking for a unique, expensive showpiece desktop. For the rest of us, let's hope that future, more affordable products from the HP/Voodoo team-up show so much polish and creativity.
The angled lines of Dell's XPS 700 series systems tweaked the idea of the typical desktop case. HP's Blackbird 002 takes that reinvention even further, with its design that looks like an accordion floating on a cantilevered base. Two slot-loading DVD burners and a spare 5.25-inch bay hide between the ridges that run down the front of the Blackbird, and a row of ports and a media card reader pop up from a cleverly concealed, spring-loaded mechanism on the top.
Aesthetically, the Blackbird 002 probably lacks universal appeal. It's imposing, a quality that doesn't always work in, say, the living room. On the other hand, fat-walleted gamers willing to pay a lot of money for high frame rates might appreciate what HP and Voodoo have going on here. We like it mostly for technical reasons; by pushing air through the bottom-side vents made possible by its elevated case, the Blackbird 002 gains more cooling and airflow.
As unique as we find the exterior, the inside is where the Blackbird 002 truly separates itself, starting with the latch. Rather than requiring you to turn the massive case around to remove its side panel screws, HP and Voodoo installed a latch on the side panel's front side edge. You simply pull the latch and the side panel swings open on a set of hinges. Once you get a look inside the case, the Voodoo influence becomes instantly apparent--and not just because of the "Voodoo DNA" label.
The first thing that becomes apparent about the inside of the Blackbird 002 is how clean it is. The graphics cards, power supply, hard drives, and their attendant cables are for the most part concealed behind a series of removable plastic walls (the graphics cards sit behind their own secondary hinged door). This segmenting, which we've seen before from Voodoo systems, benefits overall heat management, and because the internal partitions are removable--including the graphics card door--you can clear the way when you want to add more memory or another expansion card.
As the Blackbird 002 looks as tidy inside as the Mac Pro, it also incorporates the modularity we like so much in Apple's desktop. Each of the five, outward-facing hard drive sleds glide in and out with ease, and they're aligned so that the hard drives match up perfectly with the data and power supply connections. That means you don't ever see or need to deal with those cables. Similarly, the spare 5.25-inch drive cage is locked in place by a plastic pull tab. Pull on the tab, and the entire cage slides out the front of the system. The Blackbird 002 couldn't be easier to expand or upgrade, and it outdistances every other high-end gaming PC in this regard.
The closest system, specs-wise, we've seen to the Blackbird 002 is a Falcon Northwest Mach V, released earlier this summer. The two have one key configuration difference:
|HP Blackbird 002||Falcon Northwest Mach V #1|
|CPU||3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850 (overclocked to 3.69GHz)||2.93GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6800 (overclocked to 3.63GHz)|
|Motherboard chipset||Asus Striker Extreme (NForce 680i)||Intel BadAxe II 975X|
|Memory||2GB 1,066MHz DDR2 SDRAM||2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(2) 1GB DDR4 ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT||(2) 1GB DDR4 ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT|
|Hard drive||(2) 160GB, 10,000rpm hard drive, 750GB 7,200rpm hard drive||150GB, 10,000rpm hard drive, 750GB 7,200rpm hard drive|
|Optical drives||(2) 16x HP SuperDrive dual-layer DVD burner w/LightScribe||20x dual layer DVD burner, 16X DVD-ROM|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit||Windows Vista Ultimate 32-bit|
If you're scratching your head at HP matching two ATI cards in CrossFire mode on an Nvidia NForce 680i SLI motherboard, we did too. We can confirm that it works, and even with older versions of ATI's Catalyst video drivers. Voodoo's Rahul Sood told us that he worked with ATI and Asus to make this cross-standard strategy possible. He wouldn't reveal exactly what changes were made, but the good news is your upgrade options are doubled due to this innovation, as this system now support both ATI's Crossfire and Nvidia's SLI dual-graphics cards. That benefit could also trickle down to the average DIYer. Pending approval from the various vendors involved, the tweaks present in the Blackbird could become publicly available via a software download. What's also great about this hybridization is that it lets HP offer both ATI and Nvidia graphics cards, but with only one motherboard to support. Every other vendor out there either forces you to switch to a different board depending on your 3D card choice, or, like Dell, only offers one brand of graphics card to begin with.
Aside from that tweak, Rahul also told us that another one of the key advantages to the Blackbird is that HP will be using no proprietary hardware in its systems. That's essentially a direct shot at Dell and its XPS 700-series systems, whose custom motherboards and other Dell-exclusive parts can make DIY upgrades difficult and have also slowed Dell from adding the most up-to-date hardware components. Dell would argue that it runs its custom hardware through rigorous testing and standardization to ensure stability. Perhaps, but we'd counter that knowledgeable gamers who are willing to pay top dollar for a desktop would rather have the best parts around, and might even accept a few hiccups here and there in exchange. At the very least, the ability to support both CrossFire and SLI gives HP's Blackbird 002 a major leg-up in terms of its ability to offer customers more options.
All the customizability in the world is meaningless, though, if you can't deliver on performance. We're happy to say that the Blackbird 002 is an overachiever in this arena as well. Thanks largely to its overclocked processor, the Blackbird 002 turned in the fastest ever times on our application tests. It also set records on our two lower-resolution Quake 4 tests, and trailed just behind the more-expensive Falcon Northwest Mach V on Quake 4 at a demanding 2,015x1,536 resolution setting.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)