A look at TR’s new GPU test rigs

As I mentioned on the podcast this week, I have been working to re-fit Damage Labs with new hardware all around. Since I test desktop GPUs, desktop CPUs, and workstation/server CPUs, I have a number of test rigs dedicated to each area. Our desktop CPU and GPU systems have been the same for quite some time now. Heck, my massive stable of 30+ CPU results dates back to the Sandy Bridge launch. However, as time passes, new hardware and software replaces the old, and we must revamp our test systems in order to stay current. Oddly enough, we’ve just hit such an inflection point in all of the types of hardware I test pretty much at the same time. Normally, these things are staggered out a bit, which makes the change easier to manage.

Fortunately, though, I’ve been making solid progress on all fronts.

The first of my test rigs to get the treatment are my two graphics systems—identical, except one is dedicated to Nvidia cards and the other to AMD Radeons, so we can avoid video drivers for one type of GPU causing problems for the other. Also, I can test two different configurations in parallel, which really helps with productivity when you’re running scripted benchmarks and the like.

The old GPU rigs were very nice X58 systems that lasted for years, upgraded along the way from four cores to six and from hard drives to SSDs. They’re still fast systems, but it was time for a change. Let me give you a quick tour of our new systems, and we’ll talk about the reasons for the upgrade.

Behold, the new Damage Labs GPU test rig. Innit pretty? In the past, our open-air test rigs have sat on a motherboard box, with the PSU sitting on one side and the drives out front. This system, however, is mounted in a nifty open-air case that the folks at MSI happened to throw into a box with some other hardware they were shipping to us. I was intrigued and put the thing together, and it looks to be almost ideal for our purposes. I’m now begging MSI for more. If we can swing it, we may even give away one of these puppies to a lucky reader. That may be the only way to get one, since this rack apparently isn’t a commercial product.

Here are a few more shots from different angles.

Nifty and pretty tidy, all things considered. Even takes up less room on the test bench.

Now, let’s talk specs. I had several goals for this upgrade, including the transition to PCI Express 3.0, a lower noise floor for measuring video card cooler acoustics, and lower base system power draw. I think the components I’ve chosen have allowed me to achieve all three.

CPU and mobo: Intel Core i7-3820 and Gigabyte X79-UD3 – The X79 platform is currently the only option if you want PCIe 3.0 support. Of course, even after Ivy Bridge arrives with PCIe Gen3 for lower-end systems, the X79 will be the only platform with enough PCIe lanes to support dual-x16 or quad-x8 connectivity for multi-GPU rigs.

Obviously, the conversion to PCI 3.0 essentially doubles the communications bandwidth available, but that’s not all. The integration of PCIe connectivity directly into the CPU silicon eliminates a chip-to-chip "hop" in the I/O network and should cut latency substantially, even for graphics cards that only support PCIe Gen2.

The Core i7-3820 is the least expensive processor for the X79 platform, making it an easy choice. Yes, we’ve dropped down a couple of cores compared to our prior-gen GPU rigs. That’s partly because I didn’t want to get too far into exotic territory with these new systems. With four cores and a Turbo peak of 3.8GHz, the Core i7-3820 should perform quite similarly to a Core i7-2600K in cases where the X79 platform’s additional bandwidth is no help.

We did want to be able to accommodate the most extreme configurations when the situation calls for it, though. That’s one reason I selected Gigabyte’s X79-UD3 mobo for this build. Even some of the more expensive X79 boards don’t have four physical PCIe x16 slots onboard like the UD3 does. Those slots are positioned to allow four double-width cards at once, making the UD3 nearly ideal for this mission.

Cramming in all of those slots and the X79’s quad memory channels is no minor achievement, and it did require some compromises. The UD3 lacks an on-board power button, a common feature that’s only important for, well, open-air test rigs like this one. Also, the spacing around the CPU socket is incredibly tight. With that big tower cooler installed, reaching the tab to release the retention mechanism on the primary PCIe x16 slot is nearly impossible. I had to jam part of a zip tie into the retention mechanism, semi-permanently defeating it, in order to make card swaps easier.

Still, I’m so far pleased with Gigabyte’s new EFI menu and with the relatively decent power consumption of the system, which looks to be about 66W at idle with a Radeon HD 7970 installed. That’s roughly 40W lower than our prior test rigs, a considerable decrease.

Memory: Corsair Vengeance 1600MHz quad-channel kit, 16GB – If you’re going X79, you’ll need four fast DIMMs to keep up, and Corsair was kind enough to send out some Vengeance kits for us to use. Setup is dead simple with the built-in memory profile, supported by the UD3.

PSU: Corsair AX850 – Our old PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W power supplies served us well for years, but they eventually developed some electronics whine and chatter under load that interfered with our acoustic measurements. It was time for a replacement, and the wonderfully modular Corsair AX850 fit the bill. Although 850W may seem like overkill, we had some tense moments in the past when we pushed our old 750W Silencers to the brink. I wanted some additional headroom. It didn’t hurt that the AX850 is 80 Plus Gold certified, and I think the nice reduction we’ve seen in system-wide idle power draw speaks well of this PSU’s efficiency at lower loads. (In fact, when the 7970 goes into its ZeroCore power mode, system power draw drops to 54W.) Even better, when load is 20% or less of peak, the AX850 completely shuts down its cooling fan. That means our idle acoustic measurements should be entirely devoid of PSU fan noise.

CPU cooler: Thermaltake Frio – The original plan was to use Thermaltake’s massive new Frio OCK coolers on these test rigs, but the OCK literally would not fit, because the fans wouldn’t allow clearance for our relatively tall Vengeance DIMMs. That discovery prompted a quick exchange with Thermaltake, who sent out LGA2011 adapter kits for the older original Frio coolers we had on hand. Although the original Frio isn’t that much smaller than the OCK version, we were able to shoehorn a Frio in a single-fan config into this system. The fan enclosure does push up against one DIMM slightly, but that hasn’t caused any problems. With a cooler this large, we can keep the fan speed cranked way down, so the Frio is blessedly quiet, without the occasional pump noise you get from the water coolers often used in this class of system.

Storage: Corsair F240 SSD and some old DVD drive – The F240 SSD was a fairly recent upgrade to our old test rigs, and it’s one of the two components carried over from those systems, along with the ancient-but-still-necessary DVD drive for installing the handful of games we haven’t obtained digitally. The biggest drawback to the SSD? Not enough time to read the loading screens between levels sometimes.

That’s about it for the specs. I’m very pleased with the power and noise levels of these new systems. The noise floor at idle on our old test rigs, with the meter perched on a tripod about 14" away, was roughly 34 dB. I’m hoping we’ll be able to take that lower with these systems, although honestly, driving too far below that may be difficult without a change of environments. Our basement lab is nothing special in terms of acoustic dampening and such. We’ll have to see; I haven’t managed to squeeze in a late-night acoustic measurement just yet.

For what it’s worth, we have considered using a system in a proper PC case for acoustic and thermal measurements, but that hasn’t worked out for various reasons, including the sheer convenience for us, typically rushing on some borderline-abusive deadline, of being able to swap components freely. We also have concerns about whether a case will serve to dampen the noise coming from the various coolers, effectively muting differences on our meter readings that the human ear could still perceive. We may still investigate building a dedicated, enclosed acoustic/thermal test rig in the future, though. We’ll see.

Now that the new Damage Labs GPU test rigs are complete, I’m sadly not going to be able to put them to use immediately. I have to move on to testing another type of chip first. I’ll get back here eventually, though. I still need to test Radeon HD 7900-series CrossFire, and I understand there are some other new GPUs coming before too long, as well.

Comments closed
    • DarkUltra
    • 7 years ago

    How about some overclocking and low resolution to see how future proof a 3D card is? Test that geometry throughput!

    • RemoteControlAxe
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]The UD3 lacks an on-board power button, a common feature that's only important for, well, open-air test rigs like this one.[/quote<] So how [i<]do[/i<] you turn it on? Attach it to a power button on a case on initial setup and then leave it on forever? Will it to be on? Go all mad scientist and touch wires together?

    • dashbarron
    • 7 years ago

    That’s so beautiful. I’ve always wanted to make an open-case and I’d a think it would provide better cooling (unless the vacuum of the case provides better airflow).

    • Jigar
    • 7 years ago

    I think i am in love …

    • Welch
    • 7 years ago

    I need that test bench from MSI. Scott any freaking clue why they don’t offer something similar to consumers? It seems to be perfect for my needs too (in home office/shop), but no other brand seems to make one that is quite that nice in construction (from the looks of it) or well laid out. Too many of them try to use gimmicks to make their open air platforms look hip and cool!

    • chuckula
    • 7 years ago

    Did TR already do a review of the Frio?

      • DeadOfKnight
      • 7 years ago

      They haven’t done a cooler or power supply round-up for a good long while. I’d say it’s about time they had one.

      I wanted to get myself a Frio awhile back but I decided against it because I was unsure if it would have clearance issues with my RAM; there weren’t any reviews stating otherwise.

    • XTF
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]For what it's worth, we have considered using a system in a proper PC case for acoustic and thermal measurements, but that hasn't worked out for various reasons, including the sheer convenience for us, typically rushing on some borderline-abusive deadline, of being able to swap components freely.[/quote<] Could you at least compare this open air rig to a normal rig at least once to document what differences might occur? Otherwise noise- and thermal results might be meaningless.

    • Game_boy
    • 7 years ago

    Even though the rigs are made identical, might there not be a few percent drift that will bias one vendor’s results above another?

      • indeego
      • 7 years ago

      Let’s not bring psychology into this completely objective establishment!

        • Game_boy
        • 7 years ago

        Psychology? Just slight differences in construction or ambient conditions could cause the results to be a few frames different. Without a way to make sure they’re identical first (cross testing a single card on both before each bench set would be possible?), there’s no way to tell if a systematic error exists and thus AMD vs Nvidia comparisons will be invalid.

          • Firestarter
          • 7 years ago

          Construction? Ambient conditions? I have no idea what you’re getting at. I can’t find any reason to think that 1 or 2 degrees degrees difference in ambient temperature is going to make a measurable difference in performance that biases some GPU versus another.

            • Game_boy
            • 7 years ago

            No, not biases one KIND of GPU, biases anything you put in the rig slightly lower, but the rig is ONLY used for one kind of card so all cards of that kind will look lower compared to the other kind.

            • Firestarter
            • 7 years ago

            I still don’t get a word you’re saying.

          • indeego
          • 7 years ago

          I was thinking [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere_exposure_effect<]the mere exposure effect[/url<] because MSI is plastered on the test rig. You could apply several other small biases as you see fit.

      • Arag0n
      • 7 years ago

      While I agree that there can be difference in performance from the environment, I remember reading somewhere that people shouting and hard-drive bays of servers decreased performance enough to be able to measure it, don’t expect tech report to be able to take scientific level results.. they can’t have a completely isolated room that isolates the systems from the world, neither should be required… indeed environmental can change benchmarks 1 or 2 frames, up/down 2-3% results, that’s why you have to apply this in your mind… 10.04 vs 10.05 frames it’s a tie, not a win, as well as it’s a 96 vs 99 frame rate… differences lower than 5% can be cause stadistical deviation of the benchmarks…. just remember that every time you read a review of anything.

      • Game_boy
      • 7 years ago

      I’m fine with that kind of standard deviation on a single result, but this will be a systematic difference: ALL AMD cards will be 3 frames faster than Nvidia of the same performance, or vice versa. Could lead to incorrect conclusions, e.g. “AMD was slightly ahead in every test”.

        • Arag0n
        • 7 years ago

        And thta’s why you need to read at least 2 or 3 different reviews results, compare and get your own conclusion and not do what the techreport though was the most logical conclusion or the fairest…. everyone has bias, even if it’s just psyco, I’ve seen people compiling code for iPhone coming from Android, see a performance drop and think that it’s because it’s iPhone, just to realize some hours later there was a compilation optimization issue… but in their mind, it was “normal” that the iphone performed as bad as they saw…

        Same may happen to any website, they have their own pre-conclusions, and if everything fits to what they expect, they won’t double check results, the only way to have a full picture it’s to compare different results from independent websites.

      • zqw
      • 7 years ago

      No, and a simple SSD swap could show that. Worry more about that particular mobo/bios 🙂

        • Damage
        • 7 years ago

        Yeah, since the hardware is identical (and even the software installations come from the same base image), we can swap drives between the systems at will. We’ve done swaps and performance testing in the past during the initial setup of our test rigs, and I expect to do the same this time, to confirm that the performance matches.

        The sort of performance drift you describe could potentially happen on a single system over time, too. The thing is, I’ve simply not seen much inconsistency in properly configured, non-broken hardware over the many years I’ve been testing. Newer CPUs with more dynamic power management do tend to exhibit a little more performance variance, but even then, the results tend to cluster around a mean pretty tightly.

          • Game_boy
          • 7 years ago

          Thanks Damage, glad to hear you will check for that,

    • Jambe
    • 7 years ago

    [url<]http://www.highspeedpc.com/[/url<] Those look nice. wrt installing from a DVD drive: can't you image the games you use and install them from a faster source? An external eSATA or USB 3.0 drive — perhaps an SSD? Some insidious DRM woo in the way?

      • Generic
      • 7 years ago

      Thank you.

      I was just about to beg the TR folks for dimensional drawings.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 7 years ago

      Oh, there’s a totally awesome expansion slot cover with power/reset switches. That would make these rack PCs much easier to deal with, rather than cannibalizing them from cases or using a screwdriver to short the connection.

    • Vivaldi
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<] ... this rack apparently isn't a commercial product [/quote<] A damn shame... I'd buy a few myself, as I'm sure others would. MSI, if you're reading this, release this product to the sheeple!

      • thedosbox
      • 7 years ago

      I’d like a case with that layout. A square case would be less obnoxious on a desktop than tower turned sideways (aka “classic desktop”).

      • Pez
      • 7 years ago

      Danger Den do a similar (although Acrylic) product:

      [url<]http://www.dangerden.com/store/dd-torture-rack.html[/url<]

    • flip-mode
    • 7 years ago

    66 watts at idle with the 7970 plugged in and 4 DIMMs is amazing.

      • gyrfalcon1
      • 7 years ago

      ^^This. I just looked and my i5-2500 system is pulling 73W at idle and I’m running a Radeon 4850. I am powering two normal hard disks in addition to my SSD but all the rest of the hardware is heads and shoulders faster than mine. Impressive.

        • Farting Bob
        • 7 years ago

        My 2500k / HD4850 computer uses 87w at idle with just one HDD, blu-ray drive and a gold rated PSU. Guess my ASUS board isnt as good at idle as yours.

          • Plazmodeus
          • 7 years ago

          With what software does one monitor the wattage of their system?

    • allreadydead
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]I'm now begging MSI for more. If we can swing it, we may even give away one of these puppies to a lucky reader. That may be the only way to get one, since this rack apparently isn't a commercial product.[/quote<] IF it ever happens, will it be US&Canada only, again ?

      • Farting Bob
      • 7 years ago

      Obviously. Its a giveaway on the internet, Europeans can go screw themselves!

        • TheBulletMagnet
        • 7 years ago

        Its revenge for your consumer protection and universal healthcare. See, it evens out.

    • cygnus1
    • 7 years ago

    Scott, if MSI doesn’t come through, I could probably be talked into ordering something like one of these for you:

    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811353002[/url<] [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811112287[/url<]

      • cygnus1
      • 7 years ago

      This one even has the nifty look posts for locking down expansion cards:

      [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811353001[/url<]

        • indeego
        • 7 years ago

        Man all these years I had no idea these were a thing.

      • Damage
      • 7 years ago

      Just took delivery of one of these:

      [url<]http://www.amazon.com/MYOPENPC-Transparent-Acrylic-Stackable-Capability/dp/B004TZAU1Q/ref=pd_cp_e_0[/url<] The stacking capability doesn't make sense for systems where I'm swapping CPUs and graphics cards constantly, but the price is right for an open-air case. I think I like the MSI thing better, though.

        • cygnus1
        • 7 years ago

        yeah, for an open bench system i think i prefer the ones that are slightly taller and narrower, with the psu on the bottom under the mobo instead of up along side it. i’m not worried about stacking them right on top of each other, i want as many side by side as possible on a bench.

    • hechacker1
    • 7 years ago

    [quote<]We may still investigate building a dedicated, enclosed acoustic/thermal test rig in the future, though. We'll see.[/quote<] Yes please. At least have a separate rig for purely thermal testing so we can get a sense of how much heat these GPU and processors dump into the case. It can and does affect overclockability, and it also means the case fans have to spin up higher to provide sufficient cooling. That's why I'm always wary of purchasing GPUs that don't expel the heat out the back. That's only going to make the rest of the cooling system work harder to remove heat from the hottest part in the whole build. As for acoustic tests inside a case, it would be a nice bonus. You could probably get a rough idea by just reporting the fan RPM numbers of the cards inside a case, and outside.

    • arbitmax
    • 7 years ago

    The assembly is damn cool . The black-red-grey combo of cooler coupled with graphics card and rack itself is beautiful !!
    I wish I could get one.

      • NeronetFi
      • 7 years ago

      I agree this does look very nice

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This