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Update 10/15/08: Falcon Northwest informs us that it has no plans to bring Core i7 to its FragBox PC family. You might wait for Core i7 to come to standard desktops, but this FragBox is likely one of the fastest small form factor PCs we'll see for a while.
With Intel's new processors just a few short weeks away, it's hard to get that excited about spending $4,000 or so on a high-end gaming PC now. That doesn't mean that we can't appreciate what Falcon Northwest has done with its highest-end FragBox 2. Thanks to a pair of Radeon HD 4870 X2 graphics cards, Falcon has crammed four graphics chips inside this pared-down box. That makes the processor almost secondary compared with the sheer amount of graphics horsepower inside. You may want to wait until Falcon Northwest has incorporated Intel's new chips into its FragBox configurations, assuming it will. But anyone shopping for a small, superfast gaming PC will be more than happy with the performance this high-end FragBox 2 delivers today.
We've already written about Falcon Northwest's $1,500 FragBox 2 config, and the $3,995 model has many physical similarities. Both use the same small form-factor case that Falcon has relied on for years for its FragBox systems. The measurements (9.75 inches high by 10.25 inches wide by 15 inches deep), the handle, and the laser-etched, blue LED-lit skull design on the front panel are all identical. Under the hood, and as you may expect given the price leap, the two are very different.
As we mentioned, the $3,995 model comes with a pair of dual-chip Radeon HD 4870 X2 graphics cards. That puts four GPUs in this system, hence the Quadfire nickname on Falcon's Web site. The advantages on our gaming test are apparent below, but we'll point out here that no other vendor offers anywhere near that level of graphics horsepower in a small form-factor case. That feature alone makes this system distinct, and it's largely why we recommend it regardless of its processor.
|Falcon Northwest FragBox 2||Shuttle XPC P2 4800X|
|CPU||3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650||3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650|
|Motherboard chipset||Intel P45||Intel X48|
|Memory||8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM||2GB 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Graphics||(2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4870X2||512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850|
|Hard drives||1TB 7,200 rpm||250GB 7,200 rpm|
|Optical drive||dual-layer DVD burner||dual-layer DVD burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11g WiFi, Bluetooth|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)||Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (32-bit)|
To help us illustrate that point we'll direct you to the configuration of the Shuttle XPC P2 4800X. That $3,200 desktop is designed to compete with Falcon's FragBox line. We didn't find that system attractive compared with the $1,500 FragBox 2, largely because it uses the 32-bit version of Windows Vista and only comes with 2GB of RAM. The $3,995 FragBox 2 comes with 64-bit Vista and 8GB of memory.
The Shuttle system also uses Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650, Intel's second-fastest desktop CPU, and a $1,000 part if you were to purchase the chip by itself. The Core 2 Quad Q9650 in the Falcon costs $550, and the clock speed, L2 cache, and front-side bus speeds are all identical. The primary difference between the two is that the Shuttle's Extreme chip has an unlocked clock multiplier, which means you can overclock it. Shuttle hasn't elected to do that here, which makes the $550 version in the FragBox 2 look like an exceptional deal.
This is not to say that you won't be able to get more for your money once Intel's Core i7 chips ship in a few weeks. That's a very real reason to hold off on any high-end PC purchase right now. Still, there's no guarantee Falcon will be able to fit a new, potentially hotter, potentially more energy-hungry chip in its small case, much less find an appropriate motherboard for it. We suspect it will iron those issues out eventually, if not at launch, but typically new CPU releases focus on mainstream desktop designs first, so it could be a while before the FragBox 2 becomes Core i7-capable.
In the meantime, and based on its benchmark results against a variety of high-end systems that have come out this year, the FragBox 2 is a more-than-able gaming powerhouse.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
First, we'll put the Shuttle out of its misery. It can't even compete well against the $1,799 Velocity Micro Edge Z15. Instead we'll turn our attention to the Alienware Area-51 ALX, a $7,750 monstrosity with no 64-bit Windows option. Shame on Dell for not keeping its gaming shop up-to-date. And from its scores, the Alienware pays a very real price for lagging behind. Forgetting the fact that the FragBox 2 beats it on two of our four application tests, that the Falcon system is even close on the other two is a testament to both the power of 64-bit Windows and the fact that it can put more RAM to work. Paired with a reasonably fast CPU, the FragBox 2 will handle any task you throw its way with ease.
|1,920 x 1,200||1,280 x 1,024|
|1,600 x 1,200||1,280 x 1,024|
As impressive as we find its application results, the FragBox 2 truly shines as a gaming system thanks to those four fast 3D cores. The 1,600 x 1,200 Crysis score is the most impressive indicator, and owners of large 24 and 30-inch LCDs should take heed. Normally, as you'll see with the other PCs on the Crysis chart, we see a significant drop-off between the 1,280x1,024 and the 1,600x1,200 tests, an indicator of the grueling nature of the Crysis test. But with so much GPU horsepower (and we suspect so much RAM), the FragBox 2 loses comparatively fewer frames per second on the higher resolution benchmark. That means smoother play with better image quality. Any $1,500 system can post a decent Unreal Tournament 3 score, but maintaining a respectable frame rate on our higher-end Crysis test makes an argument for this FragBox 2 as one of the best gaming PC's we've seen this year.
Along with all that power, you also get the typical expansion limitations inherent to the small form-factor case design. The two, double-wide 3D cards take up all of your card expansion room, so sound cards, TV tuner cards, and other internal feature upgrades are out. The single 1TB hard drive offers a respectable amount of storage, but it's also the only drive you can fit inside. If you demand fast external storage, you'll also be disappointed to know that there's no FireWire 800 or external SATA port on the unit, although you do get 8 USB 2.0 ports and a single FireWire 400 input.
We're also sad to see that there's no wireless networking or media card reader in this system. The lack of Wi-Fi, especially in a PC that's ostensibly portable, hurts in particular. Basic onboard audio provides you with 7.1 analog outputs and optical and coaxial S/PDIF outs. You also get two S-Video and four DVI outputs via the graphics cards, although there's no DVI-to-HDMI adapter in the box, a shame. The lack of an HDMI adapter as well as the fact that it's very noisy hurt this system's suitability for the living room.
Falcon Northwest's service and support policies are among the more robust in the industry, even among boutique vendors, of which there are few remaining. The one-year parts-and-labor warranty is standard, and its in-house, toll-free phone support number is available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., PT, seven days a week. What's unique about Falcon's coverage plan is that, upon approval, it will pay for you to ship your system to and from Falcon's offices for repair. It's not onsite service, but it also guarantees the Falcon Northwest's own techs will be the one who repair your PC.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Alienware Area-51 ALX
Windows Vista Home Premium; 4.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (overclocked); 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2 graphics cards; (2) 160GB 10,000rpm Western Digital hard drives, 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.
AVADirect Core 2 SLI DDR3 Gaming System
Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit; 3.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 (overclocked); 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX graphics card; (2) 500GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drives; 150GB 10,000 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Falcon Northwest FragBox 2
Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit; 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650; 8GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4870X2 graphics cards; 1TB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive
Shuttle XPC P2 4800X
Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 (32-bit); 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics card: 250GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive
Velocity Micro Edge Z15
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 (overclocked); 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850 graphics cards; 750GB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive