Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX1 review: Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX1

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The Good Excellent performance; uses Nvidia's top graphics card; TV-tuner card has PVR functionality; optical drive combo and removable hard drive offer versatility.

The Bad So-so monitor.

The Bottom Line The Poly 900NF3-FX1 delivers stellar performance for today's 32-bit apps and is ready to crunch the 64-bit apps of tomorrow.

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8.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Support 8

Review summary

Topping the Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX1's impressive list of features is AMD's new 64-bit processor, the Athlon 64 FX-51. Even with 32-bit apps, the system is amazingly fast. The first 64-bit processor for a Windows-based machine is certainly worthy of headlines, but that's not the only story here. Our $3,333 Poly 900NF3-FX1 offers a host of high-end features for a variety of power users: for gamers, there's the GeForce 5900 Ultra; for DV editors, two 10,000rpm hard drives, plus a removable 200GB hard drive and speedy DVD and CD burners; and for couch potatoes, a TV-tuner card with DVR software. No matter what your computing fancy, the Poly 900NF3-FX1 can satisfy it.

The Poly 900NF3-FX1's silvery-aluminum case gives it a clean, understated look. The only nod toward the ostentatious-gamer aesthetic is a blue neon light inside the case, which glows through the windowed side panel.

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Pair of aces: Nvidia's GeForce 5900 Ultra graphics card and Leadtek's WinFast TV-tuner card.
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The case gives the Poly 900NF3-FX1 room for two optical drives, a media-card reader, three hard drives, and space for more.

Opening the midtower case is easy: remove two thumbscrews on the back, unplug the cooling fan on the side panel, then remove the panel. You get copious expandability with four 5.25-inch bays, two 3.5-inch external bays, and five 3.5-inch internal bays. The Asus SK8N motherboard contains an AGP slot with four PCI slots below it and four DIMM slots above.

Multimedia mavens have as many reasons to like the Poly 900NF3-FX1 as gamers do. With two FireWire ports (one in front), DV editors have a fast connection for their camcorders and other devices. The front panel also gives you a six-in-one media-card reader, a USB 2.0 port, and audio ports. Four more USB 2.0 ports sit on the back panel. Because the system lacks a sound card, we had to connect the included 6.1 speakers to the onboard audio ports, which required installing a driver from the motherboard's driver disk and adjusting a few audio settings. The Leadtek WinFast TV-tuner card lets you watch TV and gives the system DVR functionality, along with an input for FM radio (an antenna is included).

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There...it...is...AMD's 64-bit Athlon FX-51 CPU under the veil of its cooling fan.

The Poly 900NF3-FX1's headline-grabbing component is its AMD Athlon 64 FX-51 processor--and rightfully so. This is the first 64-bit processor for Windows-based machines (Apple's Power Mac sports IBM's 64-bit PowerPC G5 CPU, which was announced in June and started shipping last month). Until the FX-51 can run a 64-bit OS (Microsoft says it will be ready to do so early next year) and 64-bit apps (Epic is one of the few companies that has said it's developing a 64-bit app with Unreal Tournament, due out sometime next year), you won't enjoy the full power of the FX-51; for now, you'll have to settle for stellar 32-bit performance.

Nearly every feature on the Poly 900NF3-FX1 is state of the art. Polywell included 512MB of 333MHz DDR memory instead of the faster 400MHz that we were expecting, but our tests showed that this didn't affect performance to any great extent. The two 36GB, 10,000rpm, Serial ATA Western Digital hard drives in a striped (RAID 0) array certainly help grease the skids. If 72GB sounds cramped, fret not: there's a removable 200GB hard drive in the top 5.25-inch drive bay. Gamers will enjoy the speed and power of our test system's GeForce FX 5900 Ultra graphics card. Sony's excellent 4X, multiformat DRU-510A DVD-recordable drive along with Plextor's speedy 52X/24X/52X CD-RW drive take care of audio/video burning.

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Get your burn on: 4X Sony DVD burner and Plextor 52X CD-RW drive.
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Have data, will travel: the system has a third hard drive that you can take with you.

Rounding out the Poly 900NF3-FX1's features are a 19-inch AOC monitor, Creative's Inspire 6600 6.1-speaker set, and a wireless Microsoft keyboard and mouse. The speakers delivered rich (but not terribly loud) 6.1 surround sound, and the monitor was only average.

The software bundle includes useful, if basic, apps. Small-office and home or student users will like Microsoft's Works Suite 2003. Gamers can put the GeForce FX 5900 Ultra to immediate use with one of the six included games (mostly older titles). Leadtek's WinFast PVR software is easy to use, letting you record and pause live TV as you would with TiVo.

Application performance
One of the first two systems we've tested with AMD's new 64-bit processor, the Athlon 64 FX-51, the Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX1 turned in blazingly fast SysMark2002 scores, particularly on the office-productivity portion of the test. Before we get into detail, we must explain that the Poly 900NF3-FX1 was using a 32-bit OS (Windows XP Pro) and running 32-bit apps on our benchmarks. Until 64-bit apps and a 64-bit version of Windows appear, the FX-51 won't realize its full potential. Some of its new features, however, offer immediate performance benefits.

Aside from its ability to process data in 64-bit chunks, the two most notable innovations on the Athlon FX-51 concern memory processing. First, AMD has moved the memory controller from the motherboard to the processor, removing the bottleneck between the memory and the CPU, known as the frontside bus. Now the speed at which data is transferred between the memory and the processor travels at the clock speed of the processor--2.2GHz in the case of the Athlon FX-51. Second, AMD has doubled the Level 2 (L2) cache found on Athlon XP processors to 1MB. The L2 cache essentially lines up instructions in memory before sending them to the CPU for processing; the more cache you have, the more information can be herded toward the CPU, thereby increasing performance.

The change in memory architecture alters the benchmark balance of power, and memory speed matters less. The other Athlon FX-51 system we tested, the iBuyPower Zillion-FX, uses 400MHz memory (PC3200), while the Poly 900NF3-FX1 uses PC2700 memory, which runs at 333MHz. In previous processors, this difference in speed would have resulted in a major performance hit. Instead, the Poly 900NF3-FX1 topped the Zillion-FX by more than 3 percent on SysMark2002. Some credit also goes to the fast hard drive subsystem, with dual 10,000rpm hard drives in a RAID 0 array. The bottom line is that the 900NF3-FX1 will perform well at anything it is asked to do.

Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark2002 rating  
SysMark2002 Internet content creation  
SysMark2002 office productivity   
Gateway 700XL (3.2GHz Intel P4, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
MPC Millennia 920i (3.2GHz Intel P4, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX1 (2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-51, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
iBuyPower Zillion-FX (2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-51, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
Polywell Poly 880NF3-3200 (2.2GHz AMD Athlon XP 3200+, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
Elite PC Titan 4 (2.2GHz AMD Athlon XP 3200+, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)

To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark2002, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).

3D graphics and gaming performance
Although the Polywell Poly 900NF3-FX1 finished second to the iBuyPower Zillion-FX on our 3DMark2001 and Quake III benchmarks, the difference between the two was minimal, especially when both sets of scores hit such astonishing levels. With Nvidia's latest high-end graphics card, the 256MB GeForce FX 5900 Ultra, the Poly 900NF3-FX1 will take on any game of today or tomorrow. And gamers will have to make fewer choices between image quality and gameplay; you can enable advanced settings for a rich gaming experience while enjoying smooth, fast frame rates. You can have your cake and frag it too.

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