Posted by: theovalich | December 10, 2008

Biohazard Annihilation F.A.T.E.: Life with a Ferrari

I never understood people who owning supercars. 11 years ago, I had such luck of driving one, and it was a thin line between awesomeness and “holy cow, how in the world did they manufacture this PoS”. In my case, the car in question was Ferrari 348TS with manual gearbox. Yes, the one that had issue with 2nd gear just like every freaking’ Ferrari until they introduced the F1 gearbox on the 355 F1. What issue? Google it out… or get a any pre-F1 ferrari and pay couple of grand once that you find out. But even today, supercars aren’t perfect. You can’t get an F430 that will drop the windows completely into the aluminum body, they just stay half an inch above… annoying at tollbooths and drive-ins. Still, driving the supercar matters.

When it comes to computers, analogy of supercars applies to high-end computers. People that criticize high-end computers mostly do so because they can’t afford one, instead of putting in an effort to acquire one. After assembling the computers for the better part of my life, I wanted to see how it is to get the final thing, assembled by well-trained professionals. Reviewing a system is quite a big difference compared to evaluating just one system component. We judge everything, from packaging, how easy it is to set it up, and look for issues each and every step of the way. Regardless are you buying system for $600 or $6000, everything has to work.

We have heard quite a lot about enthusiast PC vendors that overclock their machines, but at the end of the day, one question remains – is the system stable? With all kudos to enthusiast overclockers who will shed no tear when a graphics card or a CPU gives up the ghost after being soaked in gallons of LN2, purpose of this article is to see can a boutique vendor deliver on its promise and deliver 100% stable operation on a part that costs several thousand dollars.

Enter Biohazard’s Annihilation F.A.T.E. – this machine features Intel Core 2 Extreme processor and triple GeForce GTX 280. As you can guess, price is heaven’s high – but is it really worth that money?

The System
We have received the system based on following components:

Intel Core 2 Quad QX9650 – 3.8 GHz clock, based on 45nm Harpertown core
EVGA 790i Ultra SLI – motherboard based on nForce 3 790i Ultra SLI chipset
2GB OCZ DDR3-10666 – OCZ’s Reaper memory proved its quality, but only 2GB?
3x EVGA GeForce GTX 280 1GB – Stock clocked cards 
Western Digital RaptorX 150 GB – Oldie but Goldie… one of fastest hard drives out there
PP&C Turbo Cool 1.2 KW ESA – Monster of a power supply that feeds the whole system
LG SuperMulti Blu-ray SATA Rewriter – DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray in one place
Lian-Li PC-V1110B – Aluminum case polished to perfection
SilenX 120mm fans – Fast spinning series
Windows Vista Ultimate – we had 32-bit version on our hands.

 

 

Taking a look at components, we can see that Biohazard did not save a dime – every component in the system just calls for one thing – speed. We spoke with Josh Smith (CEO), who explained to us that the guys at Biohazard Computers tweak their systems using S.H.O.C. This is abbreviation for Stable Hyper Over-Clock, series of steps that ensures achieved clocks are sustainable in a 24×7 period throughout life of the system. As of November 2008, Annihilation F.A.T.E. features Core i7 platform, so motherboard and memory were changed.

Biohazard guarantees that the delivered system will work in temperatures that are “worst case scenario”, such as 100% load in a room with air temperature at 100+ degrees Fahrenheit. Given the demands, we were not surprised to see modifications that Biohazard did on the case in order to ensure uninterrupted airflow inside the system.

 This setup was equipped with F.A.T.E. cooling. FATE stands for Forced Air Thermal Exchange is their name for designing the system with not “as much fans as possible”, but putting fans in optimal places to ensure top cooling. For instance, Graphics cards are cooled with two fans that are discretely placed, and 3-Way SLI works with no problems. For the record, I’ve experienced a lot of instabilities with 3-Way SLI and CrossFireX setups in cases from other system vendors. Seeing a GPU at 100degC is just too much – and it looks like Biohazard nailed this one.

How we test
In order to see how this system will breathe, we tested the system using series of synthetic and real-world benchmarks. We separate our testing to “everyday” and “gaming” application suite, and comparing it to our reference platform.

Our “Everyday” section is consisted out of audio encoding, video transcoding, rendering action and two synthetic benchmarks: Everest and PCMark Vantage. Encoding audio is based on using iTunes 7 to transform CD audio into AAC format. Video section is covered by transcoding a 1080p MPEG-2 video clip into MPEG-4 and from AVI to WMV-9. For transcoding the video, we’re relying on Adobe Premiere, while AVI to WMV-9 is being handled by Windows Media Encoder 9. Rendering tests are handled by Cinebench R10, which became benchmark of choice for this purpose.

Gaming suite is consisted out of optimal mix between different genres. Age of Conan is our take on world of ever-popular MMO genre, Crysis represent shooters, Company of Heroes: Opposing Forces takes the role of strategy genre, while Race Driver: GRID is something we all love to do: speedy driving. In all cases, we maxed out in-game details and see can you play the game or not.

Our target resolution is 1920×1200, and we expect that high-end systems work flawlessly in this resolution. If you use computer for gaming or movies, there is a good chance that you will connect it to a 24/27″ display or 1080p capable projector/LCD/Plasma.

Here comes the culprit. If you’re wondering why a 1920×1200 resolution, and not 2560×1600 on oh-so-many 30″ displays out there, the reason is simple. Dell 3008WFP will set you back for $1999 and yeah, it is awesome display. But for equal amount of money, you can buy a gigantic 52″ Sharp AQIOUS LCD TV screen. This screen supports 120Hz resolution, and this is very, very important feature in 2009.

Nvidia is set to launch its 3D technology next year, and this technology requires 120Hz displays. Secondly, if you want ultimate gaming experience, don’t settle for second best and sit by the computer. Biohazard Annihilation is actually an ideal computer to showcase games to friends in the living room, and the feeling of playing Fallout 3 or racing in Race Driver GRID in 1920×1200 with 16xAA and 16xAF is priceless.

Our reference platform is based upon following components:

Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850 – 65nm Clovertown at 3.00 GHz
EVGA nForce 680i – brilliant old-school motherboard using nForce 680i chipset
2GB Corsair PC2-9136C5D – DDR2 running at 1066 MHz
PALIT GeForce GTX 280 1GB – the non-squealing GTX280
Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 250 GB – yep, I know it’s only 250GB, but I kinda like it. 64/64GB config for WinXP/Vista and 114GB for stuff
Thermaltake TR2 900W PSU – excellent power supply
Sony BWU-100A BD-DL Burner – Two years down the line, still the best Blu-ray burner on the market.. I wish I had SATA model
CoolIT Freezone Elite – No questions asked, this is by far the best TEC water-cooling setup that appeared on the market. Simple, and works like a charm

This platform was recently updated with GeForce GTX 280 graphics card, but in essence represents a high-end system from 2006 and just proves just how awesome job was delivered in Santa Clara – both Intel and Nvidia created a platform that is able to take on any computer manufactured today. This is also an answer regarding Annihilation. Our configuration was launched in May 2008, and it is well capable of providing a compelling gaming experience for years to come.

Experiences
Biohazard installed latest drivers on the system, and it was good to see ESA interface in action. Nvidia System Utilities were filled with details, since even the power supply supports ESA. Your geeky soul will die a little every time you see at all the gory details at how this machine works.

Bear in mind that this system emits a lot of heat, since three GTX 280 cards and quad-core CPU at 3.8 GHz can melt the polar ice. Thus, it is highly recommended that you keep this system in a room that is able to sustain decent room temperature. Having quality AC will help you out. But even with AC, this system was cooled down by fans, and even though their name alludes to silence, system was significantly audible. Thus, ideal companion for this system are either good headphones such as one by Audio-Technica or Logitech/Klipsch 5.1 surround system.

When it comes to our tests, we started off with iTunes and decoding the Audio CD. Not so nice part is the question are we going to use an actual CD or mount an image? In real world, you will not have hundreds of CDs mounted on your system and then using the power of CPU to encode the audio, but you will take a CD or a DVD and put it in the drive. In our test, we took the CD, placed in LG SuperBlu burner and saw that 94 seconds are needed to encode the whole CD. In comparison, our reference system equipped with Sony DWU-100A Blu-ray burner took 98 seconds. Advantage: Biohazard. If we would cheat and just mount the CD image from a hard drive, it would take just 24 seconds compared to our 33 seconds, clearly showing advantage of 3.8 GHz clock over our reference 2.93 GHz.

On the other hand, transcoding video was quite fun – our version of Premiere was enhanced with Elemental Technologies GPU plug-in, meaning  that our scene was encoded in just 32 seconds. This is quite impressive, since it took 4min37 seconds using Biohazard’s CPU. Our reference machine took almost six minutes.

But the biggest evidence how Biohazard’s 45 nanometer CPU demolished our old 65nm Core 2 Extreme is Windows Media Encoder 9. It took only 36 seconds to do test file encode, while our 2.93 GHz CPU took 73 seconds. This is almost twice as fast, so if transcoding is your thing, this baby ran our testbed to the ground. Sadly, GPU-accelerated plug-in does not recognize more than one GPU, so our 3-SLI setup was not exactly loaded. Elemental Technologies recently stated that they’re working on a multi-GPU support, meaning that the three GTX280 cards will eat up any transcoding in the future.

When it comes to games, we have nothing but words of praise for this system. Age of Conan was playable at 1920×1200 with settings maxed out. That includes visibility of 3500 meters and grass all the way to 1000m. You could leave VSync on and enjoy in 60fps with no major glitches with 8xAA and 16xAF. Sadly, at 16xAA, we saw framerates dipping down to mid-40s. 45 fps is still enough for a smooth gameplay in MMOs, but our target was average of 60fps and above. And this is the first time we saw a 2GB bottleneck.

Company of Heroes was quite enjoyable. In 1920×1200, you can turn AA all the way to 16xQ, leave Anisotropic Filtering at 16x and still have framerate at 130fps. Of course, we’re talking about DirectX 10 mode. Just for kicks, we loaded the game at 2560×1600, and at 16xQ/16x settings, the game barely dipped below 100fps (97.5 fps).

On the other hand, Crysis showed to us that even 3-Way SLI is not enough to get 4xAA working flawlessly at 1920×1200 with all the details on Very High. With details on High, you can freely push the game to 4xAA/16xAF and even turn the VSync on – you will have stable 60fps. Please note that our Crysis testing is actually a timedemo of last level of the game, thus it is pushing graphics cards to their maximum. Here, we have to complain about the fact that system was delivered with only 2GB of memory. We’re certain that 4GB would help this game a whole great deal, since system has more video than system memory (3GB vs. 2GB).

Race Driver: GRID gave out high framerates all the way to 1920×1200 with 16xQCSAA/16xAF, when framerates finally dipped under 60fps. If you play the game with regular 16xAA/16xAF – you will enjoy 71.11 fps at 1920×1200. At 2560×1600, we could enjoy average of 51 fps at 16xAA/16xAF.

We also tried titles such as Call of Duty 4: Warfare, Mass Effect and Unreal Tournament III. In every case, Annihilation ran the games in 1920×1200 with highest settings at comfortable VSync 60Hz and 120Hz levels.

 

Do the scores justify price difference... it all depends on how you look. One thing is certain - they both don't have enough RAM.

Do the scores justify price difference... it all depends on how you look. One thing is certain - they both don't have enough RAM.

 

 

When it comes to GPGPU performance, I decided to check Folding@Home. Recently, Stanford changed the packets for Nvidia cards, and they’re now folding much more complex packets. These 511-point packets decreased the performance by roughly two packets a day, so you’re looking at around 7000 PPD from a single card. In the case of Annihilation F.A.T.E., we measured 23.350 PPD using old 480-point packets and 21.100 PPD on the new ones. This is highest number of points I’ve seen in a shipping system – and it is a very impressive number by any account. With this system, you can simulate two miliseconds in a life of a protein (per day). Hopefully, with next generation hardware, every card should be able to do a mili-second… or just order Cryosphere system and achieve that today (with three vapor-chamber chilled GTX280 cards).

Stability
For our temperature torture, we put the system in a chamber with air heated to 44C (110 degrees Fahrenheit). Then, we started anti-virus running in the background, loaded GRID and played for the next 60 minutes. System did not crash, even though the temperature of GPU2 and GPU2 went to 94 and 98 deg Celsius (201-208 degrees F). With we concluded that the setup will survive such a torture without crashing.

During our three weeks of evaluation, we saw no crashes.

Conclusion
At the end of the day, we have to say that we were extremely satisfied with the system. It passed all the tests with flying colors, and seeing that gaming with 16xAA / 16xAF at 1920×1200 became a reality for Call of Duty and GRID. Seeing playable settings in Age of Conan only makes us feel warm at heart.

However, at a price tag of around $6500, seeing a system with 2GB of memory and 32-bit operating system leaves a lot of question marks above our heads. Biohazard recently updated the system specs with Core i7, but the 2GB memory is just slowing the 3-SLI setup. 

In closing words, Annihilation F.A.T.E. is a great system, but if you decide to go for it, make sure you pick 8GB of memory and 64-bit operating system. One thing is certain: if the money was no object to us, this baby would end up on my desk, that’s for sure.

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  1. Is there a better way to send this site to someone without having to copy and paste into an email?


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