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The Falcon Northwest Mach V is among the first systems based on AMD's recently announced Athlon 64 FX-60 dual-core processor, and it turned in some of the highest benchmark scores to date. At $6,462 (not including monitor and speakers), it also carries the dubious honor of being one of the most expensive PCs we've seen; you can get virtually the same computer from Velocity Micro and save nearly $1,000 in the process. Further, both systems ran into trouble with our high-end Doom 3 test, a problem we tracked back to a power supply issue. We recommend the Velocity Micro over the Falcon Northwest PC due to the massive price differential, but buyers and builders should take heed of our experience with these systems. Now more than ever, high-end parts and overclocking are putting the squeeze on PC power.
The Falcon Northwest Mach V system we reviewed comes housed in a large, spare silver aluminum chassis; the only embellishment is the backlit Falcon logo etched into the upper drive-bay door. (Falcon offers automotive-quality paint jobs with a clear-coat finish to those willing to pay an extra $545.) Behind the etched door panel, you'll find a double-layer DVD burner, a DVD-ROM drive, and a floppy drive/multicard reader, along with room for three more front-accessible drives. And as per the norm with upper-tier gaming PCs, the interior cabling in the Falcon Northwest Mach V is impeccable, maximizing airflow and simplifying upgrades.
A lower panel hides a 120mm intake fan, four USB 2.0 ports, and a FireWire port. A second 120mm fan points out the top of the system for exhaust, and two 90mm fans draw air from the rear of the chassis. A sealed Sanyo Denki water-cooling unit helps prevent the processor from overheating, and a heat pipe on the motherboard redirects heat away from the chipset. The system is by no means loud, but the fans and the cooling unit make a noticeable amount of noise, even through the case's sound-dampening foam.
Rear connections include dual S/PDIF outputs, four additional USB 2.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, an external Serial ATA port, and jacks for the integrated eight-channel audio (disabled in favor of the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi card). Two 7,200rpm Maxtor 300GB Serial ATA hard drives set to RAID 0 give you ample storage (you have to ask for those models specially; they're not listed in the company's online configurator). Our test system also featured 2GB of 400MHz PC3500 DDR Corsair XMS ProSeries memory, which took up two of the four memory slots.
The Falcon Northwest Mach V uses an Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard (based on Nvidia's Nforce-4 SLI X16 chipset), which boasts dual x16 PCI Express slots that run at full speed in SLI mode. For gaming at very high resolutions, this high-end feature lets you take advantage of the expanded graphics bandwidth (standard SLI motherboards provide each slot with only half the bandwidth when two cards are installed). You also get one x4 PCI Express slot and three PCI slots, one of which was occupied by a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Music sound card on our review unit. Due to the massive 3D cards, only the x4 PCI Express slot remains unobstructed.
Not content to let the dual-core Athlon 64 FX-60 chip run at its native 2.6GHz, Falcon bumped the processor up to 2.9GHz by increasing the frontside bus speed (a feature you can request at checkout). This tweaking also gave the system memory a boost. The Mach V's 3D gaming prowess comes from a pair of factory-overclocked 512MB BFG GeForce 7800 GTX graphics cards in SLI mode, a much-coveted configuration that has been hard to find at retail.
While the Performance section of this review delves into some issues that may affect all high-end gaming systems, including this one, the bigger problem with the Falcon Northwest Mach V is its price. It's simply too high. For $5,400, Velocity Micro gives you nearly the exact same PC, down to the Logitech MX5000 Laser Desktop mouse-and-keyboard set. The only major advantages we see to the Mach V are its factory-overclocked BFG graphics cards, which hold a minor clock-speed edge over the Velocity's eVGA cards, and its large Mach V case, which is easy to work inside. Velocity sent us its smaller enclosure, which makes it harder to swap parts, but for $50, you can upgrade to Velocity Micro's larger case.
Velocity Micro offers a better software bundle, too, with a complete version of Far Cry and a 12-month subscription to McAfee AntiVirus. Falcon gives you only Nero's OEM Suite for disc burning, CyberLink's PowerDVD 5 for movie watching, and and Zone Labs Internet Security Suite, but no games.
The Falcon Mach V's SysMark 2004 scores of 396 (Internet content creation) and 236 (office productivity) are the highest we've seen to date. The two other FX-60 systems we've tested so far--one from Polywell and another from Velocity Micro (the latter overclocked in the same manner as the Mach V)--come close, but neither kept up in the end. And just as it set records in SysMark 2004, the Mach V also stomped the competition with its gaudy 205.1 frames per second (fps) on our Doom 3 1,024x768 gaming benchmarks. The next closest was the Velocity Micro Raptor 64, which came to us with an older Nvidia graphics driver and posted 188.1fps. This brings us to the complicated part of the story.
|BAPCo's SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
While the Mach V ran faster on Doom 3 at 1,024x768, it couldn't complete our 1,600x1,200 Doom 3 test, crashing in the middle every time. The Velocity Micro and its older drivers, however, did complete both Doom 3 tests. Wondering if our custom Doom 3 script was corrupted, we tried simply playing Doom 3 on the Mach V at 1,600x1,200. At high quality with 4X antialiasing (AA) turned on, it was fine. Once we set it to 8X AA, it crashed, like it did while running our test script. We tried the same thing on the Velocity Micro system and, to our surprise, saw the same result. The Velocity Micro system completed our Doom 3 1,600x1,200 test, but it crashed within 30 seconds of regular gameplay at the same resolution and settings.
We tried clocking the CPU in each system down to its stock speed and then updated to Nvidia's most recent 3D drivers, but we still saw the same instabilities, leading us to believe overclocking wasn't to blame. AMD was able to replicate the problem, and its testing suggested that the power supply wasn't providing enough juice to all of the high-end parts. When we removed one of the graphics cards and played Doom 3 again, the resulting gameplay was smooth and stable.
|Doom 3 1,600x1,200 4XAA 8XAF||Doom 3 1,024x768 4XAA 8XAF||Half-Life 2 1,600x1,200 4XAA 8XAF||Half-Life 2 1,024x768 4XAA 8XAF|
Further digging by all the parties involved tracked the problem to the power supply, although it doesn't appear to be a total wattage issue. Falcon Northwest's power supply vendor SilverStone said it saw the crashes as well. The current theory is that the individual power connector to each graphics card isn't getting enough juice to power the card at high antialiasing settings. We can't say if this issue is inherent to all power supplies, since we've seen only two systems with this specific problem. Both the Falcon Northwest's modular SilverStone power supply and the Velocity Micro's EnerMax 701 model are SLI-certified parts, which means that Nvidia's program for guiding people to SLI-compatible parts should have caught the crashing problem. Ultimately, however, the responsibility for the problem lies with the system vendors.
Nvidia has told us that it's working on the issue with these and other power supply manufacturers and that it might change the SLI-recommended power supply specs for two 512MB GeForce 7800 GTX cards as a result. For right now, Falcon Northwest says it has worked with SilverStone to refine the load balancing required to appease its specific SilverStone PSU, and Velocity Micro added a 1-kilowatt supply to its online configurator (which it sent to us as well), which also solves the problem.
Falcon Northwest Mach V
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.9GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; Nvidia Nforce-4 SLI X16 chipset; 2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (PCIe, SLI); two Maxtor 68300S0 300GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA 150; integrated Nvidia Nforce 4 RAID class controller (RAID 0)
Maingear F131 SLI-AMD
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+; Nvidia Nforce-4 SLI chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (PCIe, SLI); two 74GB Western Digital Raptor 10,000rpm Serial ATA; one Maxtor 300GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Overdrive PC Torque SLI
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.8GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-57; Nvidia Nforce-4 SLI chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (PCIe, SLI); two WDC WD740GD-00FLA2 74GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA, one Seagate ST3200826AS 200GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA; integrated Nvidia Nforce RAID class controller (RAID 0)
Polywell Poly 939N4-SLI2/FX60
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.8GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; Nvidia Nforce-4 SLI X16 chipset; 2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (PCIe, SLI); two Western Digital WD946D 74GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA, one Western Digital WDC2500KS-00MJB0 250GB Serial ATA II; integrated Nvidia Nforce-4 Serial ATA RAID Controller (RAID 0)
Velocity Micro Raptor 64 DualX
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.9GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; Nvidia Nforce-4 SLI X16 chipset; 2,048MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (PCIe, SLI); two Hitachi 500GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA; integrated Nvidia Nforce-4 Serial ATA RAID controller (RAID 0)
Falcon Northwest provides comprehensive coverage for the Mach V, but this is another area where Velocity Micro takes the prize. Both have well-developed online resources, including FAQs, prominent contact information, easy-to-find driver downloads, and other features. Falcon has slightly superior phone support. Both companies take support calls in-house, but Falcon takes calls on Sunday; Velocity Micro doesn't. (Falcon's hours run from noon to 9 p.m. ET, seven days a week.) We also give Falcon Northwest credit for its standard three-year parts-and-labor warranty, but Velocity Micro guarantees 24/7 onsite service for the first year, whereas Falcon asks you to ship the system out (although it will pick up the cost both ways).