The Double-Stuff Workstation
Because more is very often better
The Sweeter Spot is a nice step up from the Utility Player—but it's a small step, all things considered. The Double-Stuff is more of a leap in both hardware and budget.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz||$314.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z68-V Pro/GEN3||$199.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$51.99|
|Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$51.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 570||$339.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 240GB||$369.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB||$219.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB||$219.99|
|LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$72.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 800D||$279.99|
We won't pretend the six-core Gulftown chip isn't capable of outrunning even the fastest Sandy Bridge CPUs, because it is. Miss Sandy, however, offers a more compelling value proposition with a state-of-the-art platform to go with it. Just look at our performance-per-dollar scatter plot, in which the Core i7-2600K trails the old Core i7-970 by a relatively small margin despite its much lower asking price. The new Core i7-980 isn't much faster, and neither are "Extreme" editions of Gulftown, even though they cost over $400 more.
Miss Sandy also happens to sip wattage where Mr. Gulftown chugs it, as evidenced by our latest batch of power numbers. Part of that has to do with the platform, but the i7-2600K does have a thermal envelope of just 95W, compared to 130W for the hexa-core Core i7-970 and i7-980. While the Double-Stuff will be a fairly power-hungry system anyway, the i7-2600K should be more amenable to quiet cooling than something like the i7-980.
Pairing Miss Sandy with the right motherboard also presents one more advantage: an upgrade path to Intel's 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors when they come out next year. Gulftown's LGA1366 socket, by contrast, has already reached the end of its run and will soon pass the torch to LGA2011.
It was the arrival of Intel's Z68 Express chipset that really tipped the odds in Sandy's favor. The Z68 may not match the sheer number of PCI Express lanes served up by the X58, but it supports dual x8 PCI Express 2.0 links, which suffices for screaming-fast dual-GPU configurations. Don't forget the Z68's built-in support for newer technologies like GPU virtualization, Serial ATA 6Gbps, and an SSD caching scheme dubbed Smart Response Technology.
The Z68's GPU virtualization capability enables discrete graphics cards to be used alongside QuickSync, the video transcoding acceleration hardware built into Sandy Bridge processors. When we tested it on a slower Core i5-2500K processor, QuickSync cut encoding times almost in half compared to a regular software encode. Smart Response, meanwhile, pays dividends if you're planning to pair solid-state and mechanical storage in the same system, as we are.
Our vessel for bringing the Z68 into the Double-Stuff is the fully loaded Asus P8Z68-V Pro/GEN3 motherboard—a PCI Express 3.0-fortified version of the model that earned our Editor's Choice award not too long ago. This board has it all: a great UEFI implementation, fast onboard peripherals, ports and slots out the wazoo, Bluetooth, and gen-three PCIe lanes ready for Ivy Bridge. No doubt about it: this is a mobo worthy of the Double-Stuff.
We're outfitting the Double Stuff with two of those Corsair Vengeance kits we featured in our earlier builds. The price of that second kit is a drop in the bucket when you're building a high-powered workstation worth over two grand.
What's that? No dual-GPU setup in the Double-Stuff?
A look at our recent article, Inside the second: A new look at game benchmarking, should shed some light on our deliberation process. 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 jumpy and somewhat choppy experience for the end user. Not everybody notices, but those who do may find themselves regretting their purchase of a second graphics card.
Multi-GPU configs can present other problems in times like these, when new games are coming out in quick succession. AMD showed earlier this month that supporting two new releases on single-GPU cards was a challenge, so we're not terribly confident that a dual-GPU rig will serve you best as titles like Battlefield 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Batman: Arkham City roll out over the coming weeks.
Rather, we're more comfortable recommending a very fast single-GPU card like the GeForce GTX 570, which should be your best chance to enjoy a smooth, hassle-free experience with new and upcoming releases. This EVGA version of the GTX 570 has reference clock speeds and comes with a free coupon for Arkham City.
Of course, multi-GPU configs have advantages that trump the aforementioned inconveniences, particularly if you're trying to run games across multiple displays or to enjoy stereoscopic 3D graphics. We've singled out a couple of multi-GPU options in our alternatives section on the following page.
As in the Sweeter Spot, we're tentatively recommending one of OCZ's Vertex 3 drives—a 240GB model, to be exact. The Vertex 3 family delivers outstanding performance for the money, and the recent 2.15 firmware release will hopefully spell the end of the stability issues some users have encountered. If you'd still rather play it safe, check the next page for our SSD alternative.
On the mechanical storage front, we're sticking with a duo of Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 drives, which squeeze 3TB of storage capacity onto platters that spin at 7,200-RPM. These Deskstars provide plentiful mass storage and solid performance.
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. Audiophiles with fancy headphones might want to consider indulging in our alternative sound card, though.
Our second-favorite workstation enclosure, the Cooler Master Cosmos, has gone out of stock at Newegg. That leaves no question that Corsair's Obsidian Series 800D is the best case for the Double-Stuff. This beastly tower has something for everyone, including hot-swap drive bays, an upside-down internal layout, loads of cable routing cut-outs, and that all-important access panel to the area on the backside of the CPU socket. With three 140-mm fans, the 800D should have plenty of airflow to keep this loaded rig cool, and you can add more fans or liquid cooling if you'd like.
More than anything else, we love how easy it is to build a system inside the 800D. The case's cavernous internals were made to accommodate multiple graphics cards, hard drives, and the mess of cabling that goes along with them.
Note that, although the 800D we reviewed didn't have USB 3.0 ports out of the box, Corsair tells us it has been shipping an updated version of the 800D with USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA connectivity since the summer. If you happen to get one of the original 800D cases, you can still get SuperSpeed goodness via $15 front-panel upgrade kit Corsair sells on its website.
We're gonna need a beefy PSU to handle everything that's been packed into the Double-Stuff. Corsair's flagship 850W unit looks like just the ticket. The AX850W delivers 80 Plus Gold certification, modular cabling, a whopping seven years of warranty coverage, and certification for both AMD's and Nvidia's multi-GPU schemes. It doesn't get much better than that, and we've been running 650W versions of the AX series on our storage test rigs for a couple of months now with no complaints.