The Double-Stuff Workstation
Because more is very often better
The Editor's Choice is a nice step up from the Sweet Spot, but it's a small step, all things considered. The Double-Stuff represents more of a leap in both hardware and budget.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3930K||$569.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P9X79 Pro||$304.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$78.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition||$454.99|
|Storage||Corsair Force Series GT 480GB||$439.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$159.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$159.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$82.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
Ivy Bridge may rule below $320 or so, but for those who can afford it, Sandy Bridge-E remains the crown jewel of Intel's desktop lineup. The processor and its associated platform offer more memory channels, more PCI Express lanes, and more importantly, higher overall performance. Those advantages do come at the cost of higher power consumption, though.
We haven't tested the Sandy Bridge-E-based Core i7-3930K, but it's a very small step down from the thousand-dollar Core i7-3960X we reviewed. The cheaper offering features the same six Hyper-Threaded cores, four memory channels, unlocked upper multiplier, and 130W thermal envelope. The only changes are a small step down from a 3.3GHz base clock and a 3.9GHz Turbo peak to 3.2/3.8GHz, and from 15MB of L3 cache to 12MB. The performance of these two CPUs should be almost identical, despite the $400 price difference, and both have unlocked multipliers to ease overclocking.
Sandy Bridge-E requires motherboards with LGA2011 sockets. We looked at a few of those last November, and Asus' P9X79 Pro struck us as a solid performer with a very complete feature set. We did chastise the board for silently ramping up Turbo multipliers when the memory clock was set manually, but that impudence can be rectified by changing a firmware setting. The UEFI firmware interface is really slick, as is Asus' Windows tweaking software. Since none of the other X79 mobos we've tested is perfect, the P9X79 Pro gets our vote—for now.
A note to video editing buffs: despite its loaded port cluster, this board lacks a FireWire port. That probably won't bother most folks, but users who need FireWire connectivity will want to check our alternatives section on the next page, which includes a PCIe FireWire card.
We're outfitting the Double Stuff with a kit that features four of the Corsair Vengeance modules we included in our earlier builds. We need four modules to populate all of the Core i7-3930K's memory channels, and the price difference between 8GB and 16GB amounts to a drop in the bucket with a top-of-the-line system like this one.
Since we want this high-end build to include an appropriately spiffy graphics card, we've decided to equip the Double-Stuff with XFX's "Double D" version of the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition. As we saw in our review, the 7970 GHz Edition has allowed AMD to recapture the single-GPU performance crown. This GPU is faster than Nvidia's GeForce GTX 680 overall (even Zotac's souped-up AMP! edition of that card) in our 99th percentile frame time metric.
As icing on the cake, this card comes with the same game bundle as the Radeon HD 7950 Boost from our Sweet Spot and Utiliy Player builds. That means you get free copies of Sleeping Dogs, Hitman: Absolution, and Far Cry 3, plus a 20%-off coupon for Medal of Honor Warfighter Deluxe Edition. That's a pretty sweet deal, even if you're already shelling out $2700 for a PC.
Why not two of these cards instead of one? Reading our article, Inside the second: A new look at game benchmarking, should answer that question to some degree. Multi-GPU setups can certainly produce the highest frame rates, but they don't necessarily churn out the lowest or most consistent frame times, which can mean a somewhat choppy experience that isn't necessarily better than what you'd get from a single-GPU solution.
Multi-GPU configs can also present problems when new games come out in quick succession. AMD showed last year that supporting two new releases (Battlefield 3 and Rage) on single-GPU cards was a challenge, so we're not terribly confident that a dual-GPU rig will serve you best as fresh titles roll out.
Of course, multi-GPU configs have advantages that trump the aforementioned inconveniences, particularly if you're trying to run games across multiple displays or enjoy stereoscopic 3D graphics. We've singled out a couple of multi-GPU options in our alternatives section on the following page.
We recommended a 256GB drive for this build last time, but let's face it: with a top-of-the-line PC like this one, you don't want to have to pick and choose what to put on the SSD. Ideally, you want to have your entire Steam library on solid-state storage—without having to uninstall older games to make room for new ones.
Samsung's 512GB version of the 830 Series is a little pricey for our taste at $529.99. Thankfully, still-blazing-fast SandForce drives with 480GB capacities are available for around a hundred bucks less. Corsair's Force Series GT 480GB is one of the fastest (if not the fastest) representatives of that category, so it's a great fit for the Double-Stuff.
For mechanical storage, a couple of Western Digital's 2TB Reds arranged in a fault-tolerant RAID 1 array should do the trick. (You could go for a striped RAID 0 array for extra speed, but that's playing with fire, and the array would still be much slower than the SSD.) The Reds are better suited to RAID configurations than other 2TB drives like the EcoGreen F4, because they offer a Time-Limited Error Recover function designed to accommodate the error-correction schemes built into RAID controllers. Without TLER, a drive can spend too long trying to fix errors on its own, causing the RAID controller to think the drive has failed and drop it from the array.
Our LG Blu-ray burner almost feels a little too pedestrian for a system as exotic as the Double-Stuff... but good luck finding a more exciting alternative in the world of optical storage.
The Xonar DX offers the best of both worlds: excellent analog signal quality combined with the ability to encode multi-channel digital bitstreams on the fly. It also has Dolby Headphone support, which provides surround-sound virtualization for stereo headphones. Given the price of this build, we think Dolby Headphone support is worth the extra $30 over the Xonar DSX.
Oh my, a downgrade?
After much reflection and gnashing of teeth, we came to the conclusion that the Cooler Master Cosmos II formerly recommended for this build is just a little too... extravagant. Humongous $350 cases might have made sense back when the Double-Stuff had dual graphics cards and quad hard drives, but this config doesn't look like that. An equally premium but more reasonably sized enclosure like Corsair's Obsidian Series 650D has more than enough space for our system, and it's much more manageable—not to mention cheaper.
If you'd still like a giant case, we've included the Cosmos II in the alternatives section one page over.
We're gonna need a potent PSU to handle everything that's been packed into the Double-Stuff. Corsair's flagship 850W unit looks like just the ticket. The AX850W serves up 80 Plus Gold certification, modular cabling, a whopping seven years of warranty coverage, and certification for multi-GPU schemes from AMD and Nvidia. It doesn't get much better than that. We've been running multiple models from the AX series on our test rigs for months now with no complaints.
We usually leave it up to our readers to choose whether or not they want an aftermarket CPU cooler—we've actually got a number of recommendations on our peripherals and accessories page at the end of the guide. The thing is, Intel's Core i7-3930K doesn't come with a stock cooler. This build therefore isn't complete without some sort of aftermarket device.
Considering our budget for the Double Stuff and the tight fit around the LGA2011 socket, we'd be remiss not to opt for a quiet, self-contained liquid cooler like Corsair's H80. This beast features a beefy radiator that can be sandwiched between a pair of 120-mm fans. Sure, it costs a few bucks more than aftermarket air coolers, but we think the H80 is worth the premium in a system like this one.
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