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Archive for March, 2014

A dual R9 290X card isn’t here yet, but the 7990 is the next best thing

The ongoing war between Nvidia and AMD for supremacy over the PC gaming landscape has been like the Hatfields and the McCoys of enthusiast computing: long, bitter, and deeply entrenched. Contrary to rumors, AMD hasn’t revealed a dual R9 290/290X card yet, but the Radeon HD 7990 is the next best thing, combining two HD 7970 GPUs onto one card. It didn’t come out until spring 2013, though, which was long after Nvidia’s own dual-GPU behemoth, the GeForce GTX 690, had dug in its heels. And it wasn’t until mid-summer that AMD began to address the stuttering issues that marred its multi-GPU setups. With AMD’s R9 series arriving late last year, this crown jewel didn’t really have much time to shine. Today, we’ll try and change that, pitting this Cadillac of a card against nothing less than Battlefield 4, with everything maxed out and running at 1920×1080. With the previous Battlefield regularly favoring Nvidia cards, this might seems like enemy territory. But this time, AMD is working closely with the developer to make sure nothing goes awry. 

Note: This article was originally featured in the Holiday 2013 issue of the magazine.

Gathering the Troops

We’re not working with a tight budget this time, so our roughly $750 video card will have some appropriately fancy company. With two 8-pin power connections, the 7990 draws a lot of juice, so that’s our first consideration. We went with an 800-watt Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold. As its name indicates, it’s a “gold”-rated PSU, so it will work efficiently, and it has some other nice features that we’ll get into later. We also wanted a nice motherboard and CPU that could handle all the bandwidth that a dual-GPU card needs—that led us to the Asus X79 Deluxe and a Core i7-4960X. This is the LGA2011 platform, which gives us up to 40 PCI Express lanes, while LGA1150 boasts just 16 lanes. Since LGA2011 uses quad-band memory architecture, we’ll be using four sticks of RAM. That’s not critical for gaming, but the extra bandwidth is great for video encoding. For storage, we have a speedy 240GB SanDisk Extreme II SSD to boot with and run games from, and a 3TB Seagate Barracuda for media storage.

Our favorite item, though, has to be the case in which everything gets crammed. That would be the Silverstone FT04 mid-tower. It’s not the easiest case we’ve ever worked with, but the end result is pretty cool, in more ways than one. You’ve probably noticed that the picture on the opposite page appears to be reversed. That’s not an optical illusion. The inside of the case was designed on Opposite Day, and that has some neat side effects that we’ll dig into soon.

INGREDIENTS
PART Price
Case Silverstone FT04

$230

PSU Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold 800W $160
Mobo Asus X79 Deluxe $350
CPU Intel Core i7-4960X $1,000 (street)
Cooler Phanteks TC14PE $80 (street)
GPU AMD Radeon HD 7990 $550 (street)
RAM 4x 4GB Corsair Vengeance LP $150 (street)
Hard Drive 240GB SanDisk Extreme II $225 (street)
SSD 3TB Seagate Barracuda $135 (street)
Fans Samsung SH-S223 $15 (street)
OS Windows 8 64-bit OEM $90 (street)
Total   $2,985

1.  The Guest of Honor

The HD 7990 is about 12 inches long, so it’s not for the faint-hearted builder. Our case officially has 13.3 inches of room, so it’ll work. We wanted to use the case’s bundled VGA bracket, which prevents the card from sagging, but it obstructed our jumbo CPU cooler. Fortunately, the HD 7990 has a metal backplate to keep it from bending, so the bracket’s not critical. (Water-cooling the CPU would allow use of the bracket). The card needs two 8-pin cables, which can be challenging to route in a traditional case layout, but here the power supply is installed right above the card, in the top of the case, so the cables don’t need to do anything complicated to supply juice.

2. Power to the Tower

The top of the case is no longer a common location for a power supply, but Silverstone is shaking things up. In ye olden days, the practice fell out of favor, as PSUs ended up sucking in heat rising off the CPU cooler and the video card, which was bad for long-term reliability. In the FT04, however, the power supply has a meshed vent right above it to aid cooling. Just remove a few thumbscrews in the back to slide off the case top and get the PSU inside. The top of the case has a built-in bracket to support the PSU’s weight. Minimal heat comes off the GPU right below because the intake fans have been reversed, since the motherboard is flipped. The overall thermal design is much improved from earlier implementations. The side panels has tabs on the back that overlap with the top panel, so you have to remove the sides before taking off the top, then do the same in reverse.

3. Features for Creatures

The X79 Deluxe (not to be confused with the older P9X79 Deluxe) has a number of interesting features. We like the beefy voltage regulators, integrated dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, eight SATA 6Gb/s ports, DTS audio, push-button USB-based BIOS updates, and even dual LAN ports and a stainless-steel I/O plate (pictured). The black-and-gold theme is also rather pimp. As an added bonus, the board recognized our Ivy Bridge-E CPU right away. This Intel chip is not a huge upgrade from the Core i7-3960X, but it performs moderately faster and generates a lot less heat. It’s a hexa-core chip with Hyper-Threading. Games don’t usually make much use of HT, but Battlefield 4 hungrily chews up every available processing thread. So it’s nice to have 12.

Click the next page to continue.


 

4. The Drive to Survive

Ordinarily, there isn’t a whole lot to say about installing a couple of storage devices in your average case, but the FT04 is anything but average. It has two cages at the bottom and one large cage in the front, all of which are removable. On the bottom, one cage gets an integrated SATA and power-connection bracket, while the other has a mini-jack for holding up a large air cooler. We said, “por qué no los dos,” and put the bracket and the jack on the same cage, since we didn’t need both cages. The FT04 has mounts for screwing up to four SSDs directly into the bottom of the case anyway, so the extra container would just take up space. To remove it, you lay the FT04 on its side and remove the cage screws from underneath, five in all. Being able to remove the screws from within the case is easier, but this will do in a pinch.

5. Air to the Throne

You may wonder why we went with an air cooler in this system, since we’re not really holding back in other areas. There are two reasons. One, we wanted to check out the case’s built-in heatsink kickstand. It was just too neat of a widget to discard. Two, the FT04 doesn’t have many case fan mounts. To put a 240mm radiator in the front, you have to remove two 180mm “Penetrator” fans, which are cool-looking and pre-connected to independent fan controllers. It seemed a shame to take those out of the picture, because they create some excellent airflow while keeping noise levels down. (In fact, the entire case is layered with sound-absorbing foam panels.) Since there are no fan mounts on the top, sides, or bottom, the only other alternative would be the 120mm mount in the rear, which we’re already using as an exhaust port. We’d have to replace that with a radiator and fan, blowing outward. Not as thermally efficient as an intake, but you don’t have much choice.

Regardless, we opted for air. The FT04 does not ship with a rear fan, so we pulled our Scythe Gentle Typhoon from a box of Dream Machine parts. Waste not, want not.

6. Cable Commentary

Like the Fractal Design Define R4, the Silverstone FT04 is a wide case for its mid-tower form factor, so we have a lot of room to route cables behind the motherboard tray. Some excess power supply cabling can be tucked in the top of the case, as well. We needed the full length of the PSU’s 8-pin CPU power cable, but we had overly long cables elsewhere. We used a piece of tape to secure the wiring of the Scythe Gentle Typhoon fan because its cabling is surprisingly stiff and prone to popping out otherwise. A pre-installed sleeve would be nice, considering the relatively high cost of this fan. The Silent Pro Gold’s cables are flat and very flexible, so we had no trouble connecting them to the HD 7990 in a presentable way.

Into the Fray

Once we got the system up and running, it was pretty smooth sailing. We had the 13.11 beta Catalyst drivers for the video card, and we were able to keep Battlefield 4 solidly at 60fps at 1080p, with all visual effects cranked to max settings. There were occasional dips into the single digits, but this could be the result of network congestion or unfinished optimization (we were playing the beta version of the game as this issue went to press; and the Mantle version of BF4, which replaces DirectX, is not scheduled for release until mid-December, so we can’t test that yet.)

Also of note, BF4 seems happy to take as many CPU processing threads as you can give it, including Hyper-Threading (HT). Six appears to be the magic number; less than that, and the cores get pegged at 100 percent utilization. In addition to this system, we also tried the game on a Core i5-4670K system with dual GeForce GTX 770s, an i7-4770K system with a single GTX Titan, and an AMD FX-8350 system with dual GTX 780s, and then the HD 7990. Enabling HT bumped up performance about 10 percent. However, the FX-8350 could not hit 60fps even with the HD 7990, while an i7 with Hyper-Threading disabled stayed comfortably above that mark when using a GTX 780. Like we said, the game was in a beta state as this issue went to press, so some performance optimizations may have arrived by the time you read this. But right now, the gap between Intel and AMD CPUs is consistent and noticeable (although Premiere Pro spat out some odd results, despite repeated tests).

Temperature-wise, dual 180mm intake fans bring in a lot of external air, and the Lab is temperature-controlled around 70 degrees F. Leaving a single 120mm fan to remove heat didn’t seem to be a problem, though the Gentle Typhoon is admittedly very good at air displacement. Still, it seems like a $230 case should offer more options. The top has an intake for the power supply, and it looks like there’s plenty of room for a fan mount up there, as well. The similarly priced Thermaltake Level 10 GT has a 230mm fan in the top and on the side, and a bonus mount on the bottom of the case. Of course, its aesthetics are much different. The FT04 is obviously designed to look sleek. But it may sacrifice too much in the process.

Nevertheless, this build felt like a success. We got the performance we wanted, and the system felt very solid and stable. It was also fun to see a game use more than four CPU cores.

Benchmarks

ZERO

POINT

Premiere Pro CS6 (sec) 2,000 2,020  (-1%)
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 831 744 
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 1,446 1,309
x264 HD 5.0 (fps) 21.1 24.2
Batmans Arkam City (fps) 76 93
3DMark11 Extreme 5,847  5,684 (-3%)

The zero-point machine compared here consists of a 3.2GHz Core i7-3930K and 16GB of Corsair DDR3/1600 on an Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard. It has a GeForce GTX 690, a Corsair Neutron GTX SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.


Go to Source

A dual R9 290X card isn’t here yet, but the 7990 is the next best thing

The ongoing war between Nvidia and AMD for supremacy over the PC gaming landscape has been like the Hatfields and the McCoys of enthusiast computing: long, bitter, and deeply entrenched. Contrary to rumors, AMD hasn’t revealed a dual R9 290/290X card yet, but the Radeon HD 7990 is the next best thing, combining two HD 7970 GPUs onto one card. It didn’t come out until spring 2013, though, which was long after Nvidia’s own dual-GPU behemoth, the GeForce GTX 690, had dug in its heels. And it wasn’t until mid-summer that AMD began to address the stuttering issues that marred its multi-GPU setups. With AMD’s R9 series arriving late last year, this crown jewel didn’t really have much time to shine. Today, we’ll try and change that, pitting this Cadillac of a card against nothing less than Battlefield 4, with everything maxed out and running at 1920×1080. With the previous Battlefield regularly favoring Nvidia cards, this might seems like enemy territory. But this time, AMD is working closely with the developer to make sure nothing goes awry. 

Note: This article was originally featured in the Holiday 2013 issue of the magazine.

Gathering the Troops

We’re not working with a tight budget this time, so our roughly $750 video card will have some appropriately fancy company. With two 8-pin power connections, the 7990 draws a lot of juice, so that’s our first consideration. We went with an 800-watt Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold. As its name indicates, it’s a “gold”-rated PSU, so it will work efficiently, and it has some other nice features that we’ll get into later. We also wanted a nice motherboard and CPU that could handle all the bandwidth that a dual-GPU card needs—that led us to the Asus X79 Deluxe and a Core i7-4960X. This is the LGA2011 platform, which gives us up to 40 PCI Express lanes, while LGA1150 boasts just 16 lanes. Since LGA2011 uses quad-band memory architecture, we’ll be using four sticks of RAM. That’s not critical for gaming, but the extra bandwidth is great for video encoding. For storage, we have a speedy 240GB SanDisk Extreme II SSD to boot with and run games from, and a 3TB Seagate Barracuda for media storage.

Our favorite item, though, has to be the case in which everything gets crammed. That would be the Silverstone FT04 mid-tower. It’s not the easiest case we’ve ever worked with, but the end result is pretty cool, in more ways than one. You’ve probably noticed that the picture on the opposite page appears to be reversed. That’s not an optical illusion. The inside of the case was designed on Opposite Day, and that has some neat side effects that we’ll dig into soon.

INGREDIENTS
PART Price
Case Silverstone FT04

$230

PSU Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold 800W $160
Mobo Asus X79 Deluxe $350
CPU Intel Core i7-4960X $1,000 (street)
Cooler Phanteks TC14PE $80 (street)
GPU AMD Radeon HD 7990 $550 (street)
RAM 4x 4GB Corsair Vengeance LP $150 (street)
Hard Drive 240GB SanDisk Extreme II $225 (street)
SSD 3TB Seagate Barracuda $135 (street)
Fans Samsung SH-S223 $15 (street)
OS Windows 8 64-bit OEM $90 (street)
Total   $2,985

1.  The Guest of Honor

The HD 7990 is about 12 inches long, so it’s not for the faint-hearted builder. Our case officially has 13.3 inches of room, so it’ll work. We wanted to use the case’s bundled VGA bracket, which prevents the card from sagging, but it obstructed our jumbo CPU cooler. Fortunately, the HD 7990 has a metal backplate to keep it from bending, so the bracket’s not critical. (Water-cooling the CPU would allow use of the bracket). The card needs two 8-pin cables, which can be challenging to route in a traditional case layout, but here the power supply is installed right above the card, in the top of the case, so the cables don’t need to do anything complicated to supply juice.

2. Power to the Tower

The top of the case is no longer a common location for a power supply, but Silverstone is shaking things up. In ye olden days, the practice fell out of favor, as PSUs ended up sucking in heat rising off the CPU cooler and the video card, which was bad for long-term reliability. In the FT04, however, the power supply has a meshed vent right above it to aid cooling. Just remove a few thumbscrews in the back to slide off the case top and get the PSU inside. The top of the case has a built-in bracket to support the PSU’s weight. Minimal heat comes off the GPU right below because the intake fans have been reversed, since the motherboard is flipped. The overall thermal design is much improved from earlier implementations. The side panels has tabs on the back that overlap with the top panel, so you have to remove the sides before taking off the top, then do the same in reverse.

3. Features for Creatures

The X79 Deluxe (not to be confused with the older P9X79 Deluxe) has a number of interesting features. We like the beefy voltage regulators, integrated dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, eight SATA 6Gb/s ports, DTS audio, push-button USB-based BIOS updates, and even dual LAN ports and a stainless-steel I/O plate (pictured). The black-and-gold theme is also rather pimp. As an added bonus, the board recognized our Ivy Bridge-E CPU right away. This Intel chip is not a huge upgrade from the Core i7-3960X, but it performs moderately faster and generates a lot less heat. It’s a hexa-core chip with Hyper-Threading. Games don’t usually make much use of HT, but Battlefield 4 hungrily chews up every available processing thread. So it’s nice to have 12.

Click the next page to continue.


 

4. The Drive to Survive

Ordinarily, there isn’t a whole lot to say about installing a couple of storage devices in your average case, but the FT04 is anything but average. It has two cages at the bottom and one large cage in the front, all of which are removable. On the bottom, one cage gets an integrated SATA and power-connection bracket, while the other has a mini-jack for holding up a large air cooler. We said, “por qué no los dos,” and put the bracket and the jack on the same cage, since we didn’t need both cages. The FT04 has mounts for screwing up to four SSDs directly into the bottom of the case anyway, so the extra container would just take up space. To remove it, you lay the FT04 on its side and remove the cage screws from underneath, five in all. Being able to remove the screws from within the case is easier, but this will do in a pinch.

5. Air to the Throne

You may wonder why we went with an air cooler in this system, since we’re not really holding back in other areas. There are two reasons. One, we wanted to check out the case’s built-in heatsink kickstand. It was just too neat of a widget to discard. Two, the FT04 doesn’t have many case fan mounts. To put a 240mm radiator in the front, you have to remove two 180mm “Penetrator” fans, which are cool-looking and pre-connected to independent fan controllers. It seemed a shame to take those out of the picture, because they create some excellent airflow while keeping noise levels down. (In fact, the entire case is layered with sound-absorbing foam panels.) Since there are no fan mounts on the top, sides, or bottom, the only other alternative would be the 120mm mount in the rear, which we’re already using as an exhaust port. We’d have to replace that with a radiator and fan, blowing outward. Not as thermally efficient as an intake, but you don’t have much choice.

Regardless, we opted for air. The FT04 does not ship with a rear fan, so we pulled our Scythe Gentle Typhoon from a box of Dream Machine parts. Waste not, want not.

6. Cable Commentary

Like the Fractal Design Define R4, the Silverstone FT04 is a wide case for its mid-tower form factor, so we have a lot of room to route cables behind the motherboard tray. Some excess power supply cabling can be tucked in the top of the case, as well. We needed the full length of the PSU’s 8-pin CPU power cable, but we had overly long cables elsewhere. We used a piece of tape to secure the wiring of the Scythe Gentle Typhoon fan because its cabling is surprisingly stiff and prone to popping out otherwise. A pre-installed sleeve would be nice, considering the relatively high cost of this fan. The Silent Pro Gold’s cables are flat and very flexible, so we had no trouble connecting them to the HD 7990 in a presentable way.

Into the Fray

Once we got the system up and running, it was pretty smooth sailing. We had the 13.11 beta Catalyst drivers for the video card, and we were able to keep Battlefield 4 solidly at 60fps at 1080p, with all visual effects cranked to max settings. There were occasional dips into the single digits, but this could be the result of network congestion or unfinished optimization (we were playing the beta version of the game as this issue went to press; and the Mantle version of BF4, which replaces DirectX, is not scheduled for release until mid-December, so we can’t test that yet.)

Also of note, BF4 seems happy to take as many CPU processing threads as you can give it, including Hyper-Threading (HT). Six appears to be the magic number; less than that, and the cores get pegged at 100 percent utilization. In addition to this system, we also tried the game on a Core i5-4670K system with dual GeForce GTX 770s, an i7-4770K system with a single GTX Titan, and an AMD FX-8350 system with dual GTX 780s, and then the HD 7990. Enabling HT bumped up performance about 10 percent. However, the FX-8350 could not hit 60fps even with the HD 7990, while an i7 with Hyper-Threading disabled stayed comfortably above that mark when using a GTX 780. Like we said, the game was in a beta state as this issue went to press, so some performance optimizations may have arrived by the time you read this. But right now, the gap between Intel and AMD CPUs is consistent and noticeable (although Premiere Pro spat out some odd results, despite repeated tests).

Temperature-wise, dual 180mm intake fans bring in a lot of external air, and the Lab is temperature-controlled around 70 degrees F. Leaving a single 120mm fan to remove heat didn’t seem to be a problem, though the Gentle Typhoon is admittedly very good at air displacement. Still, it seems like a $230 case should offer more options. The top has an intake for the power supply, and it looks like there’s plenty of room for a fan mount up there, as well. The similarly priced Thermaltake Level 10 GT has a 230mm fan in the top and on the side, and a bonus mount on the bottom of the case. Of course, its aesthetics are much different. The FT04 is obviously designed to look sleek. But it may sacrifice too much in the process.

Nevertheless, this build felt like a success. We got the performance we wanted, and the system felt very solid and stable. It was also fun to see a game use more than four CPU cores.

Benchmarks

ZERO

POINT

Premiere Pro CS6 (sec) 2,000 2,020  (-1%)
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 831 744 
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 1,446 1,309
x264 HD 5.0 (fps) 21.1 24.2
Batmans Arkam City (fps) 76 93
3DMark11 Extreme 5,847  5,684 (-3%)

The zero-point machine compared here consists of a 3.2GHz Core i7-3930K and 16GB of Corsair DDR3/1600 on an Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard. It has a GeForce GTX 690, a Corsair Neutron GTX SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.


Go to Source

The basics of building an open-air test bench

While we typically follow a standard formula for our Build It section every month, sometimes it’s nice to deviate a bit from the norm and explore different types of systems that are a bit more unconventional. One such system is the type of build we use at Maximum PC HQ for testing hardware, known as the open-air test bench. We have several of them deployed throughout the office alongside our standard-issue desktop PCs, and both types of machines serve an important purpose. The standard desktops are great for YouTube and Reddit, and occasional “work,” while the open-air test benches are used for most of our component testing since they let us swap a video card, CPU, SSD, RAM stick, or even the entire motherboard with minimal effort. When you’re using an open test bench setup on top of a desk, you’ll never again have to dig through the guts of your computer while on your hands and knees, with a flashlight clenched in your teeth. All you need to set up one  for yourself is a basic set of spare parts, and it will let you operate like a civilized gentleperson, from the comfort of a chair, without breaking a sweat. With that in mind, we thought we would show you how to build an open air test bench PC 


Thinking Outside the Case 

There are a lot of reasons any died-in-the-wool hardware enthusiast would want to have a test bench up and running at all times. The most obvious is that it’s great for quickly testing a stick of RAM, a malfunctioning piece of hardware, or benchmarking hardware outside of a system that needs to be used for productivity. At Maximum PC, our bench of choice is the Top Deck Tech Station Kit made by HighSpeed PC ($140, www.highspeedpc.com). This is a two-tier workbench, where the motherboard sits on the upper tray, and the power supply and storage devices (or other external bay items) sit on the lower tier. The station’s legs, rails, and PCI-card support brace are all made of sturdy and nonconductive materials, and the kit supports a decent amount of hardware, too. The top of the tray looks just like a standard motherboard tray in that it has rubber standoffs for clearance. A nylon guide post helps you align add-on cards with their slots in the motherboard, and a bundled neoprene mat helps prevent items in the lower tray from sliding around. In place of your case’s power and reset switches, there are switches you plug into the board’s front-panel connectors that allow you to turn the machine on, reboot, monitor drive activity, and hear the PC speaker. Yes, they are pricey, but very durable and able to accommodate hardware not even conceived of yet, due to their open-air design and flexibility. As always, there are several things to consider before diving in, so let’s take a look at what’s involved in letting your hardware go commando. 

1. On the Rails 

Storage devices slide into rails pre-installed on the underside of the upper tray, and they only accommodate 3.5-inch drives. The rails also have no holes for drive screws, by design—you just slide the drive in, then slide it out when you’re done. If you want to install an SSD, you’ll need to order a 2.5-inch rail kit separately at HighSpeedPC.com. Or you can skip the adapter, since SSDs don’t need to be near the 120mm fan that cools the devices in that area, and since they have no moving parts they don’t need to be stabilized at all times like a spinning hard drive. The rails are long enough to support two 3.5-inch drives, and we put SSDs on the lower tray dangling from their SATA power cables.

2. More Able Cables

A modular power supply is extremely useful when trying to keep your cables organized in an open test bench. If you’re not using an optical drive, there’s plenty of space in the lower tray alongside the power supply to store the bag that contains the unused cables. Orienting the power supply can be a little tricky, since the 8-pin CPU power cable has to go to the top of the board, the 24-pin motherboard cable goes to the side, and the SATA power cables go to the bottom. Therefore, our preferred setup is to have the cables going toward the top of the motherboard, and the AC power plug facing the “bottom” of the motherboard. We also recommend using a stock CPU cooler since it makes accessing the area around the CPU easier, and if you can, just use the CPU’s integrated graphics since it gives you one less PCI Express power cable to deal with. If we’re testing a CPU without integrated graphics, we just use an old GPU that doesn’t require PCIe power.

Click on page two for the rest of the instructions on how to build an open-air test bench PC.


 

3. Pushing Buttons

The buttons and lights on the front of an ATX case are very useful, and allow you to turn on your system, reboot it, and watch CPU and hard-drive activity. Open-air benches have similar buttons and lights—on this model it’s called the ATX control kit and features a set of buttons and LEDs that plug into the motherboard’s front-panel connectors. It even comes with a PC speaker, so you can hear beep codes in order to help you diagnose hardware issues (unless your motherboard has a debug LED on it, making the speaker redundant). You could always short the power-on circuit yourself with a knife blade, but this is more… dignified.

4. Feeling Pinched

The top tray has an array of standoffs that accommodate ATX, eATX, Mini-ITX, and microATX motherboards. The standoffs sit inside rubberized feet secured with Phillips screws, so you can easily pop them out of one spot and stick them into another. No screws actually touch the motherboard, of course; it just sits on top of the rubber feet. Again, this is by design, to make it easier to swap one board for another. It does complicate plugging in power cables though, as pressing down on one edge of the board can raise the other side. When the connector is large, like with the 24-pin power cable, you have to pinch the top and bottom of the board at the same time, sandwiching the connector, as shown in the photo. When the connector is small, like a USB 2.0 cable, you can just support the board from below with your hand, right underneath where the connector is going in.

5. Getting Some Air

Thanks to the open design of this workbench, there are no limitations to the length of PCI cards (handy when Nvidia and AMD deliver the latest 12-inch monsters). Cards are slid into their expansion slots and secured to the support bracket with the included plastic screws. The support brace is supported by metal posts but is made of plastic to help prevent static discharge. There are a total of seven screw holes in the bracket, which should be more than enough for any mobo configuration.

Once a video card, hard drive, or RAID controller is installed, you may want to add additional cooling that would normally occur by virtue of a case’s airflow, but is lacking in this setup. Your best bet is to just place a 120mm fan on the top tray to move air across the components — jerry-rigged, maybe, but effective. Since the fans are easily accessible, we like being able to control fan speeds with a fan mate, which is an inline fan speed controller. HighSpeed PC also sells extension kits for mounting additional fans on the rim of the upper tray, but we’ve never felt the need to add that much cooling.

6. Dat Masscool

The workbench comes with a pre-installed 120mm Masscool fan with a grill that is mounted in between the bench’s two tiers, so it blows air over the top and bottom of the tray, hitting the motherboard and any storage devices sitting in the rails below. The fan is universally compatible too, sporting both a 3-pin and a 4-pin Molex cable, so it’ll work with any setup you have. That single fan should provide more than sufficient cooling for a basic workbench. It’s surprisingly quiet, but we also use the onboard fan control in our system BIOS to make sure it’s silent.

The ATX control kit is not bad, either. Each of the widgets has an embossed triangle indicating the positive wire, so connecting them is simple. It won’t damage anything if you install them incorrectly; they simply won’t work. Things got a bit tight on our test board when we tried to plug in the semi-stiff PC speaker widget, so we left it off. The workbench also includes an expansion bracket with both power and reset buttons, but it’s really cheap and its wires are a rat’s nest.

Final Thoughts

It probably takes longer to assemble the workbench than it does to install all of its hardware, but once you remove a conventional case from the equation, building goes 10 times faster. You have superior lighting and there is minimal cable management to work out. We also love not having to worry about feeling crowded or lacking in space when building these rigs. There are some downsides, though. This workbench doesn’t really allow liquid cooling, as there’s nowhere to mount the radiator. It would also be nice to have a couple of fasteners to pin down the motherboard, and we’d love to have an SSD rail included instead of it being an expensive add-on. Also, $140 is a lot of money, but HSPC also sells a smaller ATX bench for $80 that will be fine for most users.

Probably the biggest problem with these setups is the exposed fan blades on the CPU, GPU, and chassis. We can already see a small child or a pet getting in trouble around this thing, so be sure to take precautions before deploying one in your home.


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