HP FireBird (VoodooDNA 803)
We suspect many hard-core PC gamers will be turned off by the HP Firebird 803 ("with VoodooDNA", according to the official product name) because it lacks upgradeability. Fair enough. For everyone else who might consider spending $2,099 on a gaming desktop, you will find it awfully hard to turn away from what this PC has to offer. The spiritual kid brother to HP's Blackbird 002, the Firebird brings some of that high-end system's modular design elements down to a more refined scale. It also makes a statement of its own with remarkable power efficiency and strong performance and features for its price. Assuming you can get past the restricted upgrade path, the Firebird 803 will meet or exceed your expectations for an upper midrange gaming PC.
If you're unaware of the meaning behind "VoodooDNA" referenced above, the Firebird is the product of HP's 2006 acquisition of boutique PC vendor VoodooPC. Since then, VoodooPC's CEO Rahul Sood (now HP's CTO of Global Gaming) has been charged with reinvigorating HP's game PC efforts, the first product of which was the high-end Blackbird 002. The Firebird is the second.
Like the Blackbird, the Firebird features a unique, accordion-style chassis, with the main body supported by a cantilevered base. The benefit of this design is increased airflow to the inside of the system by allowing air to come up from the bottom. This feature is no longer unique to HP's PCs, but no other desktop chassis that we've seen uses the same dramatic design.
Even though the Firebird is similar in design language to the Blackbird, this new system is much smaller and easier to maneuver. In part, HP reduced the bulk of the chassis by planning for a smaller set of internal components and sticking with more plastic and lighter metal on the Firebird's exterior than that of the Blackbird. But HP also opted for a 350-watt external power supply for the Firebird, which helps keep the system weight in check.
In addition to its smaller profile, the Firebird also maintains a minimalist aesthetic on its front and rear panel. The Blu-ray drive slot, a hidden media card reader, and the power and reset buttons are the only features on the front of the case. The back is covered in ports that all sit flush with the back panel, each in a purpose-cut spot accompanied by the appropriate symbol, with no color-coding. While the Firebird might lack some of the user-friendliness of color-coded ports and front-side USB inputs, we can't deny the polished, Mac-like visual effect of the simplified design.
We mentioned the lack of upgradeability right at the start of this review, and when you pop open or remove the Firebird's hinged side panel and get a look inside you'll see what we mean. The memory and hard drives are both easily accessible (although you only get two slots for each), but instead of even a single 1X PCI Express, the motherboard presents you with a pair reflective metal blocks, each connected to its own liquid cooling tube.
These blocks are in fact the Firebird's graphics cards. Rather than use a traditional expansion card design, HP opted for Nvidia's MXM graphics card packaging, most common to laptops and all-in-one PCs. The benefit of MXM is that it's a much smaller design than traditional expansion cards, and geared for power and cooling efficiency. The trade-off is expandability. If you're brave enough, you can go digging on sites like MXM-Upgrade for DIY upgrade kits, but for the most part MXM never took off as a consumer-side upgrade path. You aren't likely to find an MXM-format card for sale at Newegg, and the alternatives are daunting for all but the most dedicated enthusiasts.
|HP Firebird 803||Dell XPS 625|
|CPU||2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550||3.0GHz AMD Phenom II X4 940|
|Motherboard chipset||Nvidia MCP7A||AMD 790X|
|Memory||4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM||4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(2) 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800S graphics cards||512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850|
|Hard drives||(2) 320GB 5,400 rpm hard drives||500GB, 7,200 rpm|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray drive/dual-layer DVD burner||dual-layer DVD burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n/ wireless, Bluetooth||Gigabit Ethernet|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit SP1||Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit SP1|
We haven't reviewed a gaming PC right at $2,099 lately, so we've opted to compare the Firebird directly against the most recent one we've covered, Dell's XPS 625. Given the $600 price difference, we obviously expect more from the Firebird, and it delivers in features and in performance, as you'll see below. The key thing to point out is that there's very little in the Firebird 803 that we'd want to change out of the box. Even though it's small, it's not really a living-room PC, so you may not have any interest in the Firebird's wireless networking or Blu-ray capabilities. The $1,799 Firebird 802 lacks those extras, but it also has a slower quad-core CPU and smaller hard drives.
|Rendering Multiple CPUs||Rendering Single CPU|
As you can see from our performance charts, the Firebird 803 is a completely capable desktop. It sits exactly where it should compared to other PCs in its price class, outperforming the less expensive Dell, and falling behind the Acer, Maingear, and Velocity Micro systems that all cost more. The multitasking test puts the Firebird behind its competition most dramatically, but considering that those systems are aggressively overclocked, the Firebird 803 has nothing to apologize for. We were afraid the 5,400rpm laptop hard drives might adversely affect its performance, but instead this system will handle every mainstream application you throw at it.
|1,920 x 1,200||1,280 x 1,024|
|1,600 x 1,200 (high, 4x aa)||1,280 x 1,024 (medium, 4x aa)|
|1,920x1,200 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)||1,440 x 900 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)|
Our gaming tests do a better job of showing the Firebird's limitations. On even our high-resolution Unreal Tournament 3 test, the Firebird scored well above 100 frames per second. This indicates that for most current and near-future generation gaming titles, you should expect playable performance with decent image quality. For more demanding games, particularly more recent first-person shooters, you may have to compromise on the image quality, especially at high resolutions. We're not surprised this system had difficulty on our Crysis benchmark, and the Far Cry 2 test is probably more indicative of higher-end titles, even if it is more forgiving. On that game you can see that the Firebird came in right under 50 frames per second on our 1,440x900 test, so if you have a 19-inch LCD or smaller, you're in luck. Go up to a 24-inch display at 1,920x1,200 and things get choppier. Dropping the anti-aliasing, the overall image quality, or both, will usually improve the situation, but we'd expect better gameplay in general at lower resolutions.
Hard-core PC gamers will likely scoff at the idea of sacrificing frame rates for power efficiency, but given the general capabilities of the Firebird 803, its power consumption compared with other gaming PCs in its price class is nothing short of amazing. Whether the system is powered on but idle, or struggling to get through our Crysis benchmark, its power consumption was almost half that of the Dell XPS 625, and more than three times less than Maingear's most recent X-Cube desktop (the Velocity Micro and Acer systems both went back to their respective vendors before we could test them). If you swap this system in for a traditional upper-mainstream gaming rig, we expect you'd see a noticeable drop in your annual electric bill. And as added bonus, in addition to its great power efficiency, the Firebird is also whisper quiet.
We went over the internal expansion limitations earlier, but you actually get a minor reprieve in that regard by way of an Express Card slot on the back of the Firebird. Again relying on laptop standards, by providing an Express Card slot, HP opens the door to adding a TV tuner, a sound card, or other extras not included in the system's core configuration. For the ports next to the card slot, highlights include an HDMI out, two eSATA ports, an optical S/PDIF output, and six USB 2.0 jacks. Of some concern is the single stereo audio output. If you have digital speakers, a digital receiver, or you intend to run the audio out from the HDMI port, you're fine for surround sound, but analog 5.1 or 7.1 speaker owners are out of