- Review Price: £1070.00
Laptops might be taking over from desktops for most consumers, but for gaming you still can’t beat good old clunky towers. Especially not in the case of Wired2Fire’s HellSpawn ALC Gaming PC, which is driven by a water-cooled Core i7 processor overclocked to an impressive 3.8GHz – that’s 600MHz faster than the Core i7 965 Extreme which costs almost £900 on its own! Wired2Fire complements this blazing CPU with a decent 6GB of DDR3 RAM and a Radeon HD4890, so there ought to be very few games this monster can’t chew up and spit out into the eternal abyss.
Not that you’d think this PC anything special from the outside, mind you. Antec’s Three Hundred might be a very good case in the budget arena, but it’s not exactly one that shows off a PC’s innards and is seriously low on the bling factor many gamers crave.
There’s nothing wrong with a more understated approach – in fact it’s one I prefer myself – but the problem here is that the case’s lack of a side-window means you have to remove a panel to be able to read the water-cooling system’s LCD display. You see, CoolIT’s Domino A.L.C. features a rather nice 3in black-on-blue screen that shows handy information such as fan speed, pump speed and coolant temperature. Quite aside from wanting to show it off to friends this is genuinely useful information, especially if you tend to indulge in a bit of dynamic overclocking (though to be fair the CPU is probably already clocked as high as it will safely go).
Thankfully Wired2Fire allows you to upgrade individual components before ordering, so an extra £41 will set you up with an Antec Nine Hundred instead (which has more in common with the Twelve Hundred) featuring a windowed side panel that should show off the display nicely. An additional advantage is that its 200mm top fan offers better noise and cooling performance than the 140mm model found on the Three Hundred.
Getting back to the case our review sample came in, in every other regard the Three Hundred is more than adequate. It’s a mostly steel construction with plastic ‘pillars’ on either side of the mesh metal front, and is finished in a durable matte black.
It offers three external 5.25in drive bays, the top one of which is filled with an LG GGC-HL20 combined Blu-ray and HD DVD drive which will of course also write to DVDs and CDs. Below the drive bays are twin 120mm fans with washable air filters that can be easily removed by un-clipping the front of the case.
Above the optical drive reside neat power and reset buttons, two USB ports plus headphone and microphone jacks. Unfortunately, there’s no sign of an eSATA connector here, which nowadays is a bit stingy and yet another reason to upgrade to the Nine Hundred, though the Three hundred is more compact at just 45.8 x 46.5 x 20.5cm (H x D x W).
At the HellSpawn ALC’s rear you’ll find two PS2 ports, optical and coaxial digital outputs, standard and mini FireWire ports, eight USB ports, a Gigabit Ethernet connector and six analogue 3.5mm audio jacks, all courtesy of Gigabyte’s EX58-UDR3 motherboard which we’ll examine in a bit more detail later on. Notice a striking absentee on the above list? Again there’s no sign of an eSATA connector, meaning that this powerful and not exactly cheap Core i7 PC built towards the latter half of 2009 has no external SATA connectivity at all, which is a very sorry state of affairs. However, for some it won’t be an issue, and you can always buy an eSATA bracket or, as mentioned before, upgrade the case.
Opening the PC up is simple: just remove two thumbscrews and the panel twists out. The inside is roomy with no sharp edges, but there’s no sign of tool-free installation or any other extras, with even the hard drive being screwed in using plain old screws – no grommets or fancy noise-absorbing suspension here.
As mentioned before, the motherboard is Gigabyte’s EX58-UDR3, which looks pretty good with its blue PCB and fancy metallic blue heat-sinks. However, despite its good looks it resides at the ‘budget’ end of the socket-1366 motherboard spectrum, and another cost-cutting limitation to complement its lack of eSATA is that this board only sports four memory slots.
What this means for you is that – while the provided 6GB of triple channel RAM (in three sticks of two) may be enough to last as long as the rest of the system – if you ever did want to upgrade you couldn’t just throw in an extra 6GB as with most six-slot Core i7 motherboards. Instead you would need to replace the installed DIMMs with 4GB ones to bring the total to 12. Wired2Fire doesn’t offer the chance to configure more than 6GB either, though as mentioned that’s already more than most gamers will need. Our system came with three DIMMs of Corsair’s XMS 3 running at 1333MHz and sporting attractive silver heatsinks.
More permanent storage is provided by a Samsung 1TB (1,000GB) 7,200rpm SpinPoint F1 hard drive with 32MB of cache. You can upgrade this to a 2TB WD Caviar Green drive, but the outrageous £196 Wired2Fire demands for the privilege is considerably more than buying a standalone drive would cost you, so you’re better off sticking with the 1TB option and upgrading yourself later on.
The HellSpawn’s PSU is a modular Thermaltake Toughpower, which provides up to 600W of power to the system: plenty to handle all the components with enough left over for a second graphics card. Power supplies with higher wattages are overkill for most consumers, unless you’re planning on building a quad-GPU monster which with the EX58-UDR3’s twin 16x PCIe slots is not an option anyway.
As any tech-savvy gamer will know the most important part of any gaming rig is the graphics card, and Wired2Fire has chosen to go with a Sapphire AMD/ATI Radeon HD 4890 with 1GB of DDR5 RAM. Like the CPU, the GPU has been overclocked, but since we’re dealing with the card’s stock cooler here rather than an advanced water-cooled one the increases are fairly modest.
Core clock will be up from its original 850MHz to 930MHz, while memory should be at 1050MHz – an improvement of 150Hz. We say will and should because results may vary when the Wire2Fire team are setting up your machine. You may in fact get even higher overclocks on the machine you receive. Keep in mind that this kind of overclock can easily be achieved with a single button press in ATI’s Catalyst driver so it’s nothing to get excited about, but it’s still a nice touch for less tech-savvy consumers and means you won’t have to waste time on stability testing that could be spent gaming instead.
Despite the overclock a 4890 is a slightly disappointing choice considering the amazing CPU processing power it’s being paired with, but aside from value considerations it’s worth keeping in mind that Wired2Fire offers a second 4890 card option (at a very reasonable £152) so you can opt for a seriously impressive CrossFire setup. Still, I can’t help but wish the company had included some nVidia options like the top-end GeForce GTX 295 – after all, more choice is never a bad thing.
Returning to the CPU, Intel’s Core i7 920 normally runs at a relatively sedate 2.66GHz, but thanks to the talents of CoolIT’s Domino A.L.C. water-cooling system this is overclocked to 3.8GHz (20 x 190MHz). While this is no better than what we’ve managed with standard air cooling, instead of the 80 degrees plus that kind of overclock results in (which is getting dangerously close to the 90 degree safety limit at which you start reducing your CPU’s lifespan), the Domino A.L.C. ensures that temperatures never exceed 50 degrees.
An additional benefit is that the fan cooling the CoolIT’s radiator is quieter than most air cooling systems, and while we’re on the topic of fans it’s worth noting that all the Antec Three Hundred’s fans are controlled through the Domino too, so that pressing its single button affects the cooling capacity and noise levels of the entire PC (except for the fans on the power supply and graphics card).
As far as cable management goes, it must be said that Wired2Fire does an exemplary job: everything in our HellSpawn ALC was neatly and cleverly routed, bound up or tidied away, insuring a clean look and maximum airflow. Just make sure to check the box marked “Wired2Fire Cable Management” when ordering your Wired2Fire system. It’s a free option but is unselected by default.
Also worth mention is Wired2Fire’s ‘box of bits’. The box for its motherboard is included with the PC, containing a full colour Wired2Fire manual, other manuals, Vista disc, driver CDs and all the spare cables, adapters and other bits from the PC’s various components
When it comes to software, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Premium can take full advantage of the 6GBs of RAM. With the launch of the far superior Windows 7 imminent though, we’d recommend the extra £12 Wired2Fire wants for the upgrade option.
On booting the machine you’re greeted by a very clean desktop with a nice custom W2F wallpaper. There are no extra apps, no bloatware, no widgets; essentially, nothing to detract from gaming performance, which is just the way we like it. Just make sure to have a few basics like a decent text editor/productivity suite and antivirus program to hand, since the only additional software options Wired2Fire provides for are games (Far Cry 2, Race Driver GRID, Assassin’s Creed and Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts for £10 each – not a bad deal).
Now that we’ve covered all the hardware, software, and how the whole lot is set up, it’s time to see how the HellSpawn ALC performs in what it was created for: games. Initial impressions were certainly favourable, with the 64-bit DirectX 10 version of Crysis never dipping below 30 frames per second (fps) at 1,920 x 1,200 with two samples of anti-aliasing on High detail. However, notching the settings up to Very High caused the system trouble, and especially during large shootouts it would plod along at around 20fps.
Keeping in mind that Crysis is still one of the most graphically demanding games out there, the HellSpawn ALC should be able to run most games at high detail without breaking a sweat (over 100fps in Call of Duty 4 at 1,920 x 1,200 on maximum detail). But the Crysis results at maximum detail do show again that once you have a reasonable processor – any dual or quad core CPU running at more than 2.5GHz – the real bottle neck for gaming is graphics.
Nothing demonstrates this better than Cyberpower’s Gamer Infinity Crossfire. Even though we reviewed it over a year ago and it uses both a CPU and GPUs that are a whole generation older, it beats the Wired2Fire system in every single high-resolution gaming benchmark thanks to its dual Radeon 4870s and despite only having a dual core CPU – though this being overclocked to 4GHz obviously helps. Just to rub salt in the wound it was cheaper when it came out too.
Of course this comparison isn’t exactly fair. As you can see in the PCMark Vantage results, the overclocked Core i7 outperforms Cyberpower’s overclocked Core 2 Duo in almost every other scenario, and if you do more than game with your PC it’s already the undisputed winner here – especially since it’s quieter, cooler and less power-hungry into the bargain.
To truly make Wired2Fire’s HellSpawn ALC into the gaming monster its title suggests though, you’ll need to either configure that second Radeon 4890 when ordering or add one after you’ve bought the PC, which should set you back about £150.
For those who think the water-cooling means a quiet PC, just as with the CyberPower Gamer Ultra Perseus you’ll be disappointed as the HellSpawn can get slightly noisy when under stress. This is mainly due to the video card, and there’s no obvious way to avoid it since Wired2Fire doesn’t offer a card without the stock AMD/ATI cooler. Noise is a problem with most high-performance gaming PCs that aren’t completely water-cooled though, and thus hardly something to be held against the HellSpawn ALC.
Finally in terms of value £1070 is a great price for what you’re getting. Though the HellSpawn ALC’s mix of components (including the Domino water-cooling) can be found for around the same money elsewhere, this doesn’t include the guaranteed overclock which lets the Wired2Fire’s processor outperform a Core i7 965 Extreme.
Even factoring in our recommended upgrade to the better Antec Nine Hundred case (which would bring the price up to £1111) and second graphics card (£1263) it’s still an enticing deal. However, if you don’t demand the future-proofing of Core i7 (which isn’t completely foolproof with socket 1156 and new Core iX CPUs on the horizon anyway) you can get a far cheaper Core 2 Quad system that will give you similar performance in most games.
The all-conquering performance of the HellSpawn ALC’s water-cooled, overclocked Core i7 CPU isn’t matched by its single Radeon 4890 graphics card, but its excellent value means that even with a few upgrades such as a second 4890 it’s still a great deal.
Score in detail
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