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Are blue screens contagious?

Airing some dirty laundry from our recent high-end gaming desktop testing.

"Right now we're the only vendor with a review up because our system got through your testing and another three weeks of use as a comparison system. But we're the ones with the 'unstable' scarlet letter on the review as well."

Update: Since this post went live, Falcon Northwest resubmitted a Mach V with full production-level hardware and BIOS software. It has showed no signs of instability after enduring another set of performance and stability tests and idling for three days. Accordingly, I have removed the editor's note the review.

That's what Kelt Reeves, CEO of boutique PC maker Falcon Northwest, wrote to me in an e-mail yesterday in regard to his Mach V, a gaming desktop I reviewed before Thanksgiving.

The "scarlet letter" Kelt is referring to is the editors' note I added to his review earlier this week explaining the crashing issues. Regarding his complaint, though, he's right. The vendors whose PCs failed before I had a chance to review them are getting a free pass by going unnamed.

Falcon Northwest's recent Mach V ran into trouble shortly after I reviewed it.
Falcon Northwest's recent Mach V ran into trouble shortly after I reviewed it. Dan Ackerman/CNET

As it happens, the Mach V was one of four other PCs in our lab with Intel's new Core i7 3930K CPUs. While all of the systems passed our CPU and memory stability testing and successfully completed our benchmark testing, after another week or so of light-duty use they all started blue screening.

All of these PCs came in to the lab with preproduction motherboard software, and in some cases preproduction hardware. They also all came overclocked, to various degrees. A volatile recipe, to be sure, but in eight years of reviewing high-performance desktops, I've never seen such widespread instability.

Reviewing undercooked products isn't ideal for anyone, of course. For desktops, though, the hardware is usually locked in several weeks before launch. You might see a BIOS or a driver revision, but in general, the early systems represent what will ship to customers.

Origin (far left, partially obscured), and Digital Storm (top right) both had similar blue screen issues.
Origin (far left, partially obscured), and Digital Storm (top right) both had similar blue screen issues. Dan Ackerman/CNET

In the interest of fairness, then, know that Digital Storm, Origin, and Velocity Micro all submitted overclocked Core i7 3930K systems for review.

The Velocity Micro review actually posted today, and its 4.7GHz overclock was the most stable of the bunch. It crashed once after idling for over a week. We rebooted, reran our stability test, then let it sit at idle for a few more days. We never saw another blue screen. Publishing only took this long because I needed to sort out the issues for the comparison systems.

Origin submitted its Genesis system with every core locked in at 5.0GHz. After finishing our testing successfully, it wouldn't stay up for more than 5 minutes. Origin sent us new memory, and an updated motherboard BIOS. We also tweaked the BIOS settings with Origin's help. Ultimately the system never recovered, and we sent it back for a replacement unit.

Digital Storm's system, overclocked to 4.8GHz, exhibited the same symptoms as the Origin. Digital Storm asked us to send it back to cook up a replacement rather than troubleshoot. We obliged.

It's possible that the aggressive overclocking contributed to the issues for all of these systems. But the 4.4GHz Falcon Northwest Mach V and the 5.0GHz Origin Genesis crashed just as frequently, and the 4.7GHz Velocity Micro system crashed only once. I'm particularly interested to see what Origin sends as a replacement. Origin actually advertises overclocks on its shopping site up to 5.2GHz. If anyone reading this receives a system from Origin clocked to 5.0GHz or greater, I'd love to hear about your experience with it.

I expect the crashing we saw is because of a combination of factors, from the overclocking, the early motherboard BIOS, and perhaps the memory controller or other elements of the early CPU samples. It could also be a failure from the cumulative load generated by our tests and the testing each vendor conducted before submitting.

Regardless of the particularities of this batch of reviews, I still believe that Falcon Northwest, Velocity Micro, Origin, and Digital Storm can all build fast, stable gaming desktops. Blue screens happen, particularly with early hardware. Just know that I will reconsider how we test late-breaking, high-end gaming desktops going forward, with extra emphasis on longevity.