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Falcon Northwest überconfig foiled by Asus motherboard plans

Falcon Northwest überconfig foiled by Asus motherboard plans

Oh, the woes of new technology reviews. When Falcon Northwest offered to send us a Mach V with AMD's new Athlon 64 FX-62 chip in it, we jumped at the chance. Turns out the proposed $8,195 Mach V it sent us is not a configuration you can actually buy: Falcon included a preproduction Asus motherboard, and the final version has a different set of expansion slots. Even if you aren't in the market for a Mach V, that final Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard is likely the go-to motherboard for most system vendors and enthusiasts looking to build a high-end SLI gaming PC. But its expansion slot configuration will force gamers who choose new, Socket AM2-compatible NForce 590 SLI Deluxe chipset motherboards into a difficult choice: sound card or physics card?

The preproduction Mach V we tested included AMD's new Athlon 64 FX-62 CPU (overclocked from 2.8GHz to 3.1GHz, no less). Falcon threw in 2GB of 400MHz DDR2 SDRAM. It also came with two speedy 150GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000rpm hard drives in a RAID 0 config, for 300GB total. Falcon provided a Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Music card for audio, as well as BFG's PhysX Accelerator card to cover new and exciting game physics. This is where the story with the preproduction motherboard gets interesting.

The prefinal Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard that came with this system has two 16x PCI-Express slots and four standard PCI slots. Falcon also sent two double-slot 512MB BFG GeForce 7900 GTX OC 3D cards. By double-slot we mean each 3D card overlaps the PCI slot adjacent to the PCI-Express slot it's actually plugged into. That leaves you two PCI slots left over for expansion. Any self-respecting gamer would add a discrete sound card. A forward-looking gamer might also add a PhysX card. That's precisely what Falcon did. Problem is, Asus won't actually be selling a motherboard with four PCI slots. And from what we hear from the system vendors, neither will anyone else.

Instead, if you want a full, dual x16 NForce 590 SLI chipset board, your only option will be a board with two 16x PCI Express slots, three PCI slots, and a single 4x PCI-Express slot. That means that not only the Mach V but any new, fully loaded gaming PC with a pair of double-slot graphics cards will force you to choose between a sound card and a physics card.

Tough dilemma. Onboard sound is arguably "good enough," so the physics board looks tempting. But few games really put Ageia's PhysX chip to work yet. Sure PhysX cards will soon move to PCI-Express (meaning you could use the PCIe slot on the Asus board), but rumor has it Creative will be doing the same with its sound cards so you could still have to choose. Perhaps by then someone will have a motherboard out with more 4x PCIe slots, but for now, you're stuck. If we had to choose, we'd take the PhysX board. And yup, we know physics acceleration isn't really mature yet. Call us optimistic.

Falcon and the other system vendors we've talked to about the motherboard problem told us that the production Asus motherboards don't vary performance-wise from the preview boards. Assuming that's correct, a Mach V you purchase that's similar to this one will give you record-setting SysMark 2004 scores, thanks to the new AMD CPU and aggressive overclocking. Its 339 on the SysMark Overall test outpaces the old winner, a Mach V with an Athlon 64 FX-60 chip, by nearly 10 percent. We ran into some stability issues with the factory-overclocked BFG GeForce 7900 GTX cards, so we clocked those down to get more stable 3D performance. Even then, the system set records on Doom 3.

Application performance
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  

3D gaming performance (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Half-Life 2 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF  
Half-Life 2 1,024x768 4xAA 8xAF  
Doom 3 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF  
Doom 3 1,024x768, 4xAA 8xAF  
Cyberpower Gamer Ultra X1900 XT
125.9
137.8
59.8
106.1
Falcon Northwest Mach V
124.3
132.5
106.8
191.1
**Velocity Micro Raptor 64 DualX
106.3
120.1
132.4
188.1
Polywell Poly 939N4-SLI2/FX60
94.1
107.2
130.4
158.5
ABS Ultimate M6 Sniper
79.1
112.5
98.4
155.8
Note: ** Indicates overclocking

Find out more about how we test Windows desktops.

System configurations:

ABS Ultimate M6 Sniper
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; Nvidia Nforce4 SLI X16 chipset; 2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GTX (SLI); two 74GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000rpm Serial ATA hard drives, one 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive; integrated Nvidia Nforce4 RAID class controller (RAID 0)

Cyberpower Gamer Ultra X1900 XT
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; ATI RD580 (ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200) chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 512MB ATI Radeon X1900XT (PCIe CrossFire); two 74GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000rpm Serial ATA hard drives; one 250GB Western Digital, 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive; integrated ULI SATA/RAID controller CM1575/N1697 (RAID 0); integrated Nvidia NForce 5 RAID class controller

Falcon Northwest Mach V (Athlon 64 FX-62)
Windows XP Professional SP2; 3.1GHZ AMD Athlon 64 FX-62 (overclocked); Nvidia NForce 590 Deluxe SLI chipset; 2,048GB DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz' two 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7900 GTX; two 150GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000 rpm Serial ATA hard drives (RAID 0).

Polywell Poly 939N4SLI2/FX60
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.8GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; Nvida Nforce4 SLI X16 chipset; 2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GTX (SLI); two 74GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000rpm Serial ATA hard drives; one 250GB Western Digital 7,200 rpm Serial ATA hard drive; integrated Nvidia Nforce4 Serial ATA RAID Controller (RAID 0)

Velocity Micro Raptor 64 DualX
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.9GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; Nvidia Nforce4 SLI x16 chipset; 2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GTX (PCIe); two 500GB Hitachi 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive; integrated Nvidia Nforce4 Serial ATA RAID controller (RAID 0)