Even though lots of vendors offer the capability, we've resisted reviewing a three-way SLI PC until now. Our hesitation had to do with a desire to keep the high-end PCs we reviewed at or around the $6,000 mark, hard to do with $1,800 worth of graphics cards alone. But last November our reservations were steamrolled by a crush of new technologies. Intel's expensive solid-state hard drives proved too enticing for gaming PC vendors, and by supporting triple channel memory, Intel's Core i7 chips invited loads of pricey high performance RAM. As a result, we agreed to review Falcon Northwest's $8,000 Mach V back in November, and it's also why we let Maingear submit this triple-SLI $8,798 Ephex desktop. That price makes this Maingear the most expensive desktop we've ever reviewed. Provided you have that kind of commitment to PC gaming, you'll find the Ephex delivers an exceptional entertainment experience.
By giving the Ephex a $4,600 price tag for its most basic configuration, Maingear seems to be making a distinct effort to put its flagship PC out of reach for most gamers. And as expensive as it sounds, even our $8,800 model lacked features such as a mouse and a keyboard, a monitor, or extras such as a Bigfoot Killer NIC, a Wi-Fi adapter, or speakers. On the flipside, you can shed $1,100 off the price of the system if you opt out of the fancy paint job and the transparent side panel. None of this is to say that value is a primary concern in reviewing this PC, but if all you care about is clean design and performance, you can get all of this configuration's core functionality for less.
Like most boutique PC vendors, Maingear pays special attention to the design and wiring of its systems, and if the build quality of this Ephex is any indication, Maingear has shown that it can rival the meticulousness of Falcon Northwest. The liquid cooling plates on the graphics cards hardware obstruct the free card expansion slots, but that's our only major complaint. Adding hard drives is simple with outward facing drive bays, and overall both the external and internal appearance of the system show that it was assembled with great care.
|Maingear Ephex||Falcon Northwest Mach V|
|Motherboard chipset||Intel X58||Intel X58|
|CPU||3.925GHz Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition (overclocked)||3.79GHz Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition (overclocked)|
|Memory||12GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||12GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(3) 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 280||(2) 1GB ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2|
|Hard drives||80GB Intel X-25M solid state hard drive; (2) 1TB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drives||80GB Intel X-25M solid state drive; 1TB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive|
|Optical drive||20x dual-layer DVD burner with LightScribe; 4x dual-layer Blu-ray burner||20x dual-layer DVD burner with LightScribe; 4x dual-layer Blu-ray burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet||Gigabit Ethernet|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 64-bit||Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 64-bit|
It's almost silly to talk about this system from a value standpoint given its price tag, but we'll do it anyway, comparing it with Falcon Northwest's recent Editors' Choice winning Mach V. One of the complications of reviewing PCs in this price range is that by assuming potential buyers have the means to spend near-unlimited funds to get the best hardware, it's easy for one vendor to trump another by simply ensuring that its rig has more features than the last high-end PC we reviewed, regardless of cost.
For the sake of making this an apples-to-apples comparison, we configured a Mach V from Falcon as closely as we could to the Maingear Ephex and came up with an $8,753 system with two GeForce GTX 295 cards (which are also an option from Maingear). Falcon has no tri-SLI option, and without testing we don't want to speculate which configuration would be faster. Suffice it to say, we find Maingear's asking price for this system right in line with similar configurations from other vendors.
|Rendering Multiple CPUs||Rendering Single CPU|
That brings us to performance. As you might expect, the more aggressive overclocking, the speedier memory, and the powerful graphics hardware serve the Maingear Ephex well on our benchmarks compared with the Falcon Northwest system. The Cinebench test provides evidence that you really do get more performance from the Maingear's more aggressive overclocking. Because overclocking is tied so closely to the specific tolerance of each individual CPU, the speeds on display here may vary from both vendors in any hardware you purchase. In either case, by overclocking Intel's already impressive Core i7 965 Extreme Edition chip, both Maingear and Falcon Northwest have produced some of the fastest benchmark scores we've ever seen.
|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)|
At this point our Unreal Tournament 3 test is laughably easy for these high-end PCs, and we're working on phasing it out in favor of Far Cry 2. Once we get enough test results on that game we can switch over, but for the moment, about all we can say is that you'll have no problem playing older PC games on the Maingear Ephex.
The Crysis test remains a bit more relevant, however, especially at higher resolutions. The Falcon Northwest system was the first desktop to hit 60 frames per second on our 1,600x1,200 DirectX 9 Crysis benchmark, and by hitting 73 fps, the Ephex demonstrates a significant speed boost. What we take away from that score is that the tri-SLI configuration in the Maingear system gives you a bit more headroom to play games at higher resolutions than the pair of two-chip Radeon HD 4870X2 cards in the Falcon. The Falcon Northwest Mach V will play anything you throw at it today at very high image quality settings, but as PC games get more demanding, we suspect the Mach V will falter before the Maingear will.
If the Maingear's current performance impresses, we always advocate taking the long view with ultra high-end PCs, and the coming release of Windows 7 might raise some concerns about timing. Chiefly, with Windows 7 comes DirectX 11, and in all likelihood new DirectX 11-compatible 3D cards that are not only faster than the three GeForce GTX 280s in this PC, but that also support new and improved gaming features. If the slow rise of DirectX 10-capable games is any indication (the excellent-looking Fallout 3 is still DirectX 9, for example) you can expect a similar gap between the dawn of DirectX 11 hardware and the release of games that actually take advantage of it. We might suggest waiting if we were only talking about a year, but in it will likely be two to three years before owning DirectX 11 hardware truly matters.
Looking over the rest of the Maingear Ephex reveals many features we expect to find given this price and configuration. The 1,200-watt power supply unit is a necessary evil of tri-SLI and quad-GPU configurations, so while you can bet this system will draw a lot of power, it's not any more power hungry than other systems of its kind.
We expect that solid-state hard drives will also become the norm in high-end PCs, which will continue to drive system prices up overall compared with equivalent best-of-the-best desktops from last year. The combination of the 80GB Intel solid-state boot drive and two 1TB 7,200rpm hard-data storage hard drives in the Maingear Ephex certainly gives you plenty of storage. If you want to add extra drives you have room for a few more inside, as well as USB 2.0, FireWire 400, and eSATA inputs on the system for any external hardware.
For multimedia use, Maingear includes a Creative SupremeFX X-Fi sound card as the default audio option for the Ephex. It provides you with the standard complement of 7.1 outputs, an analog line-in, and also both optical and coaxial S/PDIF inputs. There's no HDMI-output built into any of the three graphics cards, so you'll need an adapter if you want to use the system's Blu-ray drive to watch movies on a high-definition television. A media card reader and a second DVD drive expand your media input options. There's no wireless networking, but we also don't expect to find Wi-Fi in a large full tower desktop.
Maingear maintains an edge over its competition with a 14-month warranty covering parts and labor, rather than the traditional 12-month policy. That's a welcome advantage (although our self-centered suspicion is that the extra 2 months are mostly there to game review scores), and Maingear complements it with toll-free support from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, all EST. That's one day fewer than Falcon Northwest's tech support availability, although both companies profess to handle all support calls in-house. Each vendor also has a useful Web site, with various support resources and links to driver downloads. We have to give Falcon Northwest a slight edge for its shipping policies, however, as in the event that you need to send your system back for repair, Falcon will pay for overnight shipping both ways. However competent Maingear's phone support might be, it has no such shipping service.
Maingear Ephex (Intel Core i7-965)
Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 64-bit; 3.925GHz (overclocked) Intel Core Core i7-965 Extreme Edition; 12GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (3) 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 280 graphics cards; 80GB Intel X-25 solid state hard drive; (2) 1TB Western Digital 7,200rpm hard drives
Alienware Area-51 X58
Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit; 3.2GHz Intel Core i7-965; 12GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 graphics cards; (2) 128GB Samsung MLC solid state hard drives; (2) 1TB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drives
Dell XPS 730 H2C
Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit; 3.8GHz Intel Core 2 Quad QX9770; 2GB 1,600MHz (overclocked) DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 1GB ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 graphics cards; (2) 160GB 10,000rpm Western Digital hard drives, 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive
Falcon Northwest Mach V (Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition)
Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 (64-bit); 3.79GHz (overclocked) Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition; 12GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 1GB ATI Radeon HD 4870X2 graphics card: 1TB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive; 80GB Intel X-25 solid state hard drive
Velocity Micro Edge Z55
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.0GHz Intel Core i7-920; 6GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics cards; 750GB 7,200 rpm Hitachi hard drive