January 17th, 2007

The Next Generation of ATHENA

The Next Generation of ATHENA

In a world of 3.7GHz dual-core processors and quad-GPU rigs, finding a new way to capture the essence of “pure PC power” grows more difficult.  This time I’ve outdone myself; I haven’t just built the fastest rig I’ve ever tested—I’ve built a refined beauty, suitable for a place of honor in your living room.  A truly dream-worthy PC.

            I’d never sacrifice power to build a beautiful rig—without the juice, this PC would just be another pretty face.  If you have any doubts, dig the hardware.  My ATHENA sports a so-new-the-silicon’s-still-warm Core 2 Extreme processor, a pair of overclocked GeForce 7900 GTX videocards, almost two terabytes of storage, and a Blu-ray recorder that can slap 25GB of data onto a single disc.  And did we mention that it’s the fasted rig I’ve ever tested—by a huge margin?  A computer this fast should require a license.

Under the Hood

ATHENA’s beauty is more than skin deep!  Beneath it’s fancy exterior are the exact components it needs to power past the competition.

The Empire Strikes Back

Yeah, I’ve been raving like AMD fanboys since the Athlon 64 snatched the performance crown from Intel two years ago, but I’ll be the first to admit that the Athlon has s stump where its lightsaber hand was.  Intel’s new 2.93GHz Core 2 Extreme X6800 is simply heads, shoulders, knees, and toes above the Athlon 64 and the Pentium 4 when it comes to performance.  Hell, I can’t find a benchmark that the Athlon 64 FX-62 wins.

The nForce is Strong in This One

What were you expecting, CrossFire and an Intel chipset?  With all due respect to ATI and Intel, I wanted a chipset that supported two x16 PCI Express connections to the GPUs, with the potential to upgrade to quad SLI.  The nVidia nForce 590 Intel Edition chipset, paired with XFX’s hyper-clocked XXX GeForce 7900 GTX graphics cards in SLI, delivers the best performance.

Blu-ray Blues

One day, I expect to be able to actually watch a Blu-ray movie on ATHENA, but the way the industry is moving, that may not be for the better part of a decade.  In the meantime, I can still use my Pioneer BDR-101A to make nice fat backups of my important files, 25 gigs at a time.  The drive, of course, also supports old-world DVD discs—including both double-layer varieties.

Think of it as a Rapcuda

Paleontologists will make a shocking discovery in 35 million years when they unearth this generation of ATHENA: the fossilized remains of Raptors living with Barracudas!  ATHENA includes two 10,000rpm, 150GB Western Digital Raptor X drives in RAID 0 for speed, paired with three 750GB Seagate Barracudas running in RAID 5, to create a 1.5TB redundant array.

Fire in the Hole!

Today’s multi-GPU setups put out enough heat to cook a bratwurst.  Fortunately my Silverstone case features a mid-ship intake that lets the case suck in cool exterior air and blow it past the videocards via a 12cm fan.  I would almost call it a BTX-like design, but that would inflame the ATX fanboys.

Behold the Hardware!

I give you a part-by-part breakdown of every component in ATHENA


Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800

The new Conroe CPU delivers in a big way, with plenty of horsepower to spare.

            Years ago, when Intel was invincible and held the performance crown with an iron fist, we used to hear conspiracy theories that the company secretly had access to extraterrestrial technology.  You’re heard tales of the agreement between Intel-founder Robert Noyce and then-President Truman over the Toswell tech, right?

            OK, as hooky as that sounds, Intel’s new dual-core CPU—the Core 2 Extreme X6800—seems pretty otherworldly.  It’s that spooky-cool and scary-fast.  Running at its stock 2.93GHz clock speed and under full load, the processor simply doesn’t get hot.  I thought I had it wrong, so I unplugged the power to the heatsink fan, loaded up the proc again, and it still ran for hours.

            The part that’ll make you most believe the MiB angle, however, is this proc’s performance.  We’re not talking about the little 5 percent clock bumps and performance “jumps” that we’ve all become accustomed to over the last few years—this is significant.  In fact, prepare to create some new superlatives for this processor because the ones we just don’t do justice to the new architecture.  Think “fastiest” or “stupenderifficier.”

            I’m not kidding.  When I was still debating my CPU pick for ATHENA, I fired up the C2E with the same videocard, hard drive, and drivers that I used to benchmark AMD’s AM2.  The result?  The C2E posted an unheard of 32 to 70 percent performance increase on CPU-bound tests.  Let’s say that again: 70 percent!  In other words, this suckah is so fast, it should have its own theme song and an entourage that will push you to the curb if you get too close to its black C2E-style Escalade.

            The CPU wars haven’t seen this kind of all-out ass-kicking in the last decade.  The original Athlon 64 FX-51 was fast when it launched, but it didn’t put the hurt on Pentium 4 like this.  The performance of the Core 2 Extreme X6800 is so outside the box, I wonder if Intel’s found a new cache of fastier, post-Roswell UFO technology from which to fashion this CPU.

            Publicly, Intel attributes the stellar performance to several factors in the new Core microarchitecture, which is an evolutionary offshoot of the Pentium M core.  The Core 2 Extreme features a slightly longer 14-stage pipeline (versus 12-stages in the Yonah core used for the Core Duo and Pentium M).  The Core microarchitecture is also “wider” with the ability to crunch four instructions at the same time, versus three in the Core Duo and Pentium 4.  The C2E is also able to process a single 128-bit SSE instruction in one cycle, whereas the Athlon 64 and Pentium 4 take two.

            Unlike Presler in the Pentium Extreme Edition 965, which used two independent CPU cores adjacent to each other, C2E is a “monolithic” chip with both cores residing on the same die.  Because the two CPU cores in Presler were separate, the chips could not share information between their L2 caches without having to cross the slow front-side bus.  With the monolithic C2E, both cores have full access to the L2 cache, which can be allocated on the fly depending on the task.  If just one core is busy, it can use the entire 4MB cache while the other processor naps.  The prefetching routines in this CPU are also greatly improved, so the chip’s L2 caches are constantly churning the needed data and rarely have to reach out to slow main memory.  According to Intel, the prefetch routine is so good that it effectively ameliorates main-memory latency and bandwidth issues.  The company also claims that a survey of the front-side bus activity shows that it’s very difficult to saturate the FSB with enough data to impact performance.

            The CPU comes in the familiar LGA775 package, runs on the standard 1066MHz bus, and fits in most standard Intel boards.  However, you cannot assume it will work on older boards.  Because the Core 2 Extreme uses less power than the Pentium 4, Pentium D, and Pentium Extreme Editions, the motherboard’s voltage-regulation circuits have to support the lower voltage of the new chip.

            I’ve been recommending that people hold off on purchasing a LGA775 mobo without Core 2 Duo/Extreme support and I’m glad I did.  This chip truly makes everything that came before—be it Athlon or Pentium—seem sluggish.


Zalman CNPS9500 LED

            I had a badass water-cooling kit from Danger Den locked and loaded for ATHENA, but the fact of the matter is, Conroe doesn’t need water-cooling—it just doesn’t get that hot.  Instead, I went with Zalman’s CNPS9500 LED heatsink, which keeps my Conroe chip chilly at all times, whether idle or under load.

            Wazzat?  You heard right: Using this cooler, I was unable to get the Conroe’s temp to increase one iota under load.  Incredible, no?  Well dig this: I eventually unplugged the CPU fan and ran the processor at 100 percent load via Nero Recode, and the CPU temperature rose only three degrees Celsius.  I repeat: I encoded an entire DVD, with both CPU cores at 100 percent, and with the CPU fan unplugged, and the machine ran stably for hours.  Conroe’s thermal performance is incredible to say the least.


nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition

There’s only one way to run Core 2 Extreme with SLI, and I have it.

            ATHENA has always had a touch of exclusivity to it.  I’m pretty certain, for example, that you’ll have a hard time finding an individually packaged Core 2 Extreme X6800 at your local screwdriver shop.  Likewise, Blu-ray burners are pretty damned rare (not to mention painfully expensive).  And it doesn’t get any more exclusive than my nVidia nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition motherboard.  What?  What?  What?  That chipset isn’t even out yet!

            I’m so enamored with the nifty tricks nVidia added to the new chipset that I had to have it.  Of course, SLI support was essential, so I wheedled an engineering sample motherboard out of nVidia for my ATHENA.  This engineering board ain’t pretty, and it’s the very definition of a beta product, but it’s also the only thing in town that’ll let me run SLI with Conroe.  (SLI is the only game in town for dual-GPU configs, as far as I’m concerned.)

            This motherboard lets me run both my videocards while at the same time giving me all the other goodness that nVidia has jammed into the nForce 590 SLI chipset.  If you haven’t been keeping up with current events, the nForce 590 SLI Intel Edition board can combine both Gigabit ports into a single two-Gigabit pipe.  It can also prioritize your game packets so they don’t get bogged down in the outgoing torrent traffic.  And if you use SLI-Ready Memory, the info in the custom Enhanced Performance Profiles (EPP) makes overclocking a snap.

            What’s the main weakness of this motherboard?  I couldn’t get a damned I/O shield for it—you know, that metal plate that covers the PS/2 and USB ports.  But, that’s a small price to pay for getting early access to this sweet chipset.


Corsair DDR2/800

            Corsair and nVidia’s push to include extra timing and clock-speed info with new DDR2 memory will be a great boon to the casual overclocker.  As the co-creator of the Enhanced Performance Profiles that allow “SLI-Ready Memory” to work on the nForce 500 series platform, Corsair was my natural pick for RAM.  At this early juncture in time, there aren’t any fancy LEDs or nifty displays on the modules—just plain black heat spreaders.  But that’s OK by me—I’ll take performance over bling any day.

            I had a dilemma when it came to configuring my RAM.  Intel claims that using four double-sided DIMMs gives Core 2 Extreme a healthy memory-bandwidth boost, but I don’t think it’s enough to make a difference.  For ATHENA, I decided to go with future upgradeability; filling all the available slots with smaller DIMMs just seems like a bad idea.  So I used two 1GB DDR2/800 Corsair DIMMs rated for operation at 1066MHz, instead of four 512MB DIMMs.  If the last generation ATHENA packed 8GB, why did I drop to 2GB and forego running the maximum of 4GB?  I’m being more pragmatic this time around: There can be a lot of challenges to getting desktop motherboards to work with 4GB of RAM, and to be honest, it doesn’t yield any performance increase for the cost.


Two XFX GeForce 7900 GTXs in SLI

For raw speed, the only GPU choice is a pair of GeForce 7900 GTXs—overclocked and ready to burn!

            I toyed with the idea of fueling ATHENA’s video engine with nVidia’s dual-GPU, single-slot GeForce 7950 GX2.  After all, it’s the first videocard to support HDCP, which is a likely requirement for watching Hollywood movies on HD-DVD and Blu-ray.  But in the end, I concluded that the part just wouldn’t deliver enough octane; after all, I’m not building a dream home-theater PC.

            One look at the benchmark charts from my recently completed videocard roundup yielded the answer: My choice had to be nVidia’s GeForce 7900 GTX.  But not all 7900 GTX cards are created equal, so not just any implementation would do.  Based on my experience from the roundup, I knew that a pair of XFX’s monstrously overclocked XXX Editions would send the generation of ATHENA rocketing down the highway.

            In creating the 7900 GTX, nVidia basically respun my GPU of choice from ATHENA’s last generation: the 7800 GTX.  Both chips feature 24 pixel-shader units, eight vertex-shader units, and a 256-bit memory interface, but the new part redlines at much higher core and memory clock speeds: 650- vs. 430MHz for the core and 800- vs. 600MHz for the memory.  It’s also designed to handle twice the video memory: 512MB.

            And then XFX stepped in to see just where it could take this category killer.  Tuning nVidia’s 7900 GTX like Dinan does MBW’s M3, XFX supercharges the core and memory clock speeds to 700MHz and 900MHz, respectively.  If that doesn’t blow your hair back, babe, nothing will.

            With the cards set to my Dell 2407WFP’s native resolution of 1920x1200, the dual 7900 GTX XXX Editions smoke their collective tires to deliver my gaming benchmarks at smooth-as-Bentley-leather speeds.

            And when you’re ready for leisure pursuits beyond gaming, nVidia’s latest PureVideo MPEG-2 decoder delivers exceptionally high-quality video performance—without the hassle of manually disabling SLI.  Bring it on!


Two Dell 2407WFPs

            It might surprise you that I’m not pairing my monster machine with the largest available desktop LCD.  But I have my reasons for eschewing a 30-inch screen from either Dell or Apple.  The 2560x1600 native resolution of the 30-inchers requires quad-SLI to draw that many pixels in modern games.  And even with quad-SLI, the current 30-inch screens aren’t optimal game displays: Many games don’t even support the native res; and frankly, these panels just aren’t that fast—they’re prone to redraw errors and blurring that you won’t find in a much-faster 24-inch LCD.

            And when it comes to 24-inch LCDs, the only thing better than a Dell 2407WFP is two of these babies working in tandem.  Indeed, ATHENA deserves nothing less than this pair o’ 1920x1200 crisp, colorful screens that make even the most mundane applications look spectacular.  Plus, I doubled up on all the spicy extras the 2407WFP offers—a component input, four USB 2.0 ports, two media readers, et al.

Hard Drives

Two WD Raptor 150GBs, three Seagate 7200.10 750GBs

ATHENA’s storage config went through several iterations before I adopted the final “best of both worlds” approach.  I originally considered six 10K Raptors in RAID 5 for 750GB of redundant storage.  Sure, it’d be fast, but let’s be honest—it doesn’t pass ATHENA muster.  This is the ultimate rig.  The Big Boy.  El Jeffe Muchacho.  Mere gigabytes ain’t gonna cut it: I need terabytes, with a T.  So I considered running six Seagate 750GB Barracudas.  But that would have exceeded the 2TB volume limit in 32-bit Windows.  Harumph.

            So, finally, I decided to run a mix of both drives.  The 10K drives for my boot sector, and the fatties for storage.  The Raptors are configured in RAID 0 as a boot drive, and I’m running three 750GB Barracudas in RAID 5 for 1.5 terabytes of redundant storage (we lose one of the drive’s capacity to parity).

            The final config is totally righteous.  My boot drive reads at 140MB/s, and I’ve got more than a terabyte of hellaciously fast storage.  What more could you ask for?

Power Supply

PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750

            Even with the Core 2 Extreme X6800’s electricity-sipping ways, I couldn’t skimp on power with five hard drives, two videocards, and a Blu-ray drive to feed.  I wanted power that’s reliable, powerful, and quiet, so I turned to the go-to company for PSUs: PC Power and Cooling, and its new Silencer 750.  This PSU gives me confidence that I won’t smell the acrid scent of blown components on boot, or experience the power dropoffs and transients that have haunted lesser power supply companies.  The best feature of the Silencer 750 is its silence, though.  By lengthening the case of the PSU slightly, PC Power and Cooling says it was able to eliminate much of the cavitation noise of air being sucked over the components.  And it did this without sacrificing the PSU’s power rating.  When the company says its PSUs hit a rating, dognab it, they do.

Optical Drives

Pioneer Blu-ray BVR-101A and Plextor PX-750UF

            Recordable DVD is old and busted.  High-definition optical storage is the new hotness.  There’s just one problem: You have to pick between the two competing standards, HD-DVD and Blu-ray.  Because there will inevitably be differing alliances among movie studios, the only way I could ensure that my ATHENA is fully high-def compliant would be to run both next-gen formats.  Sadly, my fanciful vision didn’t come to pass.  I was able to procure a highly sought-after Blu-ray drive from Pioneer, but the HD-DVD drive I coveted was a no-show.  Bummer.

            At least I’m rolling like next-gen archivists, able to burn 25GB to a Blu-ray disc.  Sure, there are drawbacks to being this close to the cutting-edge: the $1,000 price tag is about as easy to swallow as ipecac, especially since the drive doesn’t read from or write to CDs.  To counter this flaw, I augmented the BVR-101A with an external Plextor PX-750UF 16X DVD-R for my CD-ripping and game-installation duties.


Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro

            What would ATHENA be without a soundcard?  One day I may have to answer that question, as more powerful features are offloaded to multicore CPUs, but today, I’m not ready to give up the soundcard for onboard audio.  Even as host-based audio gets more powerful, I can’t abide audio integrated into the motherboard—there are just too many mobos that let the data moving across the board contaminate the audio signal.  To get the cleanest audio available, I reached for Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro.  The über version of the X-Fi is more than a glorified break-out box.  Creative actually redesigned the board and uses higher quality codecs to achieve a signal-to-noise ratio of 116dB—a healthy boost over the pedestrian X-Fi’s already-excellent 108dB.  The Elite Pro also includes a full 64MB loadout of onboard RAM (XtremeMusic includes just 2MB), which is supposed to increase the speed of gaming.  Vinyl lovers also get a boost from the Elite Pro, which includes a circuit to compensate for the “RIAA” curve you run into when you try to digitize your album collection.  Without compensation for the curve, your recordings would otherwise sound lifeless.


M-Audio Studiophile LX4 5.1

Compromise in anathema when it comes to ATHENA, and that’s why even the best high-end multimedia speakers didn’t make the cut this time.  There are speakers more powerful, there are speakers with more features, and there are speakers more consumer friendly; but there are no speakers more accurate than these.

            Why does accuracy matter?  ATHENA is the fastest machine I could build.  Placing these speakers in the audio chain renders my PC as powerful for games as it is for home-studio, video-editing, and ripping-and-encoding applications.

            The LX4’s amp delivers 60 watts to the eight-inch subwoofer and 27 watts to each of the five satellites, which are equipped with 4-inch polypropylene midrange drivers and 1-inch Mylar tweeters (no paper cones here!).  The bad news is that M-Audio has decided to discontinue these speakers without naming a replacement; the good news is that they remain widely available at retail—at least for now.

Case and Paint

Silverstone TJ09 and Smooth Creations

One luscious chassis decked out to the nines, to make any geek’s mouth water.

            You don’t put Puff Daddy and his entourage up in a one-room studio for the night, and I sure as hell ain’t going to put ATHENA and all its glamorous hardware in anything less than the baddest, bitchin’est enclosure available.  This time, that enclosure is the soon-to-be-released Silverstone TJ09 full-tower.  And even though the case was positively striking in stock trim, I went ahead and sent it to the wizards at Smooth Creations for a custom paint job.  The result is a case so seductive it could easily be the centerfold in one of Bender’s magazines.

            The TJ09 has big shoes to fill, and it fills them admirably.  I used its predecessor, the TJ07, for my last generation ATHENA, and it swallowed over $10K of hardware without flinching.  The TJ09 is just as capable, despite being a tad smaller than its predecessor, and it’s the only full-tower on the market that’s new enough, big enough, and sexy enough to take on ATHENA.

            Naturally, it has all the dreamy requisite extras, including a slide-out motherboard tray, the copious cooling of five 12cm fans, and room for six hard drives, a PSU of any dimensions, and all my sundry other gear.  The most interesting aspect of its design is the large ventilation chamber in the lower portion of the case, which allows cool air from outside to be sucked into the case’s gapping maw via a 12cm fan positioned at the gap’s entrance.

            And the paint job?  Well, what’s to say other than it costs $800 and is worth every cent.  You truly have to see a Smooth Creations paint job in person to appreciate its profound wow-factor.

            It all amounts to an enclosure that’s as audacious as its innards.

Keyboard and Mouse

Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 and Logitech G5

            Comfort, reliability, and precision are what matter when it comes to ATHENA’s controllers.  Microsoft’s new Ergo 4000 has finally usurped the classic Natural Keyboard Pro as my favorite typing plank.  It’s down-slanted design, padded wrist rest, and near-perfect layout make it truly worthy of ATHENA-level decadence.

            The Logitech G5 has a slightly different pedigree.  Sure, its bulbous design is comfortable for marathon gaming sessions, but its secret sauce is entirely sensor-based.  The G5’s laser sensor offers pixel-smooth motion at three different resolutions.  For fine movements—like sniping or photo editing—you can use the lowest setting.  For twitch action, like aiming a tank turret in Battlefield 2, the high setting is perfect; and there’s a third in-between setting for day-to-day use.  The braided cord wrap, five-button design, checked rubber grips, and modular weight system make this the perfect precision mouse.

What Does It Cost?

Perfection doesn’t come cheap.  This generation isn’t my most expensive ATHENA ever, but it’s certainly not the cheapest either.




Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800




nVidia nForce 590 Intel Edition Reference Design




2x XFX GeForce 7900 GTX XXX




2x 1GB Corsair DDR2/800



Hard Drives

2x Western Digital Raptor X 150GB




3x Seagate Barracuda 750GB



Optical Drives

Pioneer BDR-101A




Plextor PX-750UF




Zalman CNPS9500 LED



Power Supply

PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750




Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro




Silverstone TJ09 Prototype




Smooth Creations Custom




2x Dell 2407WFPs




M-Audio Studiophile LX4




Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000




Logitech G5



Operating System

Windows XP Professional



Total Cost