Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6407/digitalstorm-bolt-gaming-system-review-its-little-but-its-fierce
DigitalStorm Bolt Gaming System Review: It's Little But It's Fierceby Dustin Sklavos on October 24, 2012 1:54 AM EST
Introducing the DigitalStorm Bolt
Since I've started reviewing boutique desktops I've been of the opinion that while they're not strictly for enthusiasts, the enthusiast market is one that boutiques can tap into by offering something that can't simply and easily be built. It's not just important for these small companies to differentiate from each other in a general sense, but there really does need to be something they offer that allows them to compete on something other than price.
Over the past year a number of them have started to produce systems with custom cases, and DigitalStorm in particular is now on their second custom chassis with the system announced yesterday and reviewed today, the Bolt. DigitalStorm is positing it as the thinnest gaming desktop available, a claim that has to compete with Falcon Northwest's 4"-wide Tiki and Alienware's 3.75"-wide X51. Just being a tenth of an inch thinner than the X51 isn't going to be enough, though. Is the Bolt worth your attention, or does it need to go back to the drawing board?
I've said it over and over again but it bears repeating: desktops are getting smaller. Full stop. As more and more connectivity, performance, and features are making their way into smaller form factor MicroATX and Mini-ITX motherboards, there just isn't as much of a need for a full ATX system. Hulking watercooled monsters are fine for show, but realistically don't offer a whole lot more than a smaller, more streamlined build. The fact is that these days, motherboards cover more bases, CPUs are more efficient than ever before, and even a $200 GPU and a 150W thermal/power budget is enough for a decent 1080p gaming experience.
With the Bolt, DigitalStorm is keen to produce a system that's fairly small and light but still offers excellent performance. If it had entered the market a year ago it would've been incredibly compelling just for showing up, but these days it has to contend with Alienware's stellar X51 and the fairly well-received Falcon Northwest Tiki, and most boutiques even have small form factor systems on tap as a matter of course. Even the custom chassis, unheard of for boutiques not too long ago, has to compete with similar designs.
|DigitalStorm Bolt Specifications|
|Chassis||Custom DigitalStorm Bolt|
Intel Core i5-3570K
(4x3.4GHz, Overclocked to 4.2GHz, 22nm, 6MB L3, 77W)
|Memory||2x4GB Corsair Vengeance LP DDR3-1600 (Max 2x8GB)|
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 Ti 2GB GDDR5 (eVGA)
(1344 CUDA Cores, 915MHz/980MHz/6GHz core/boost/RAM, 192-bit memory bus)
Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 1TB 7200-RPM 6Gbps HDD
Corsair Accelerator 60GB SATA 3Gbps SSD (cache)
|Optical Drive(s)||TSSTCorp SN-208BB DVD+/-RW|
|Power Supply||Sparkle Power 500W 80 Plus Bronze (Rackmount 1U)|
Intel Centrino Wireless-N 2230 802.11b/g/n 2x2
2x Realtek RTL8168 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Speaker, mic/line-in, surround jacks, optical out and S/PDIF for 7.1 sound
|Front Side||Optical drive|
2x USB 2.0
2x USB 3.0
Headphone and mic jacks
2x DVI-D (GeForce)
Speaker, mic/line-in, surround, and S/PDIF jacks
4x USB 2.0
2x USB 3.0
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1|
3.6" x 14" x 15.5"
(91.4mm x 355.6mm x 393.7mm)
Overclocked to 4.2GHz
|Warranty||3-year parts, labor, and lifetime support|
Starts at $999
Review system configured at $1,599
DigitalStorm offers four models of the Bolt that they dub "levels." We have the Level 3, which is the second fastest one they have. The Level 3 features an Ivy Bridge-based Intel Core i5-3570K overclocked to between 4GHz and 4.4GHz; ours is overclocked to 4.2GHz with a respectably low Vcore of just 1.2V. Ivy Bridge really shouldn't ever see more than about 1.25V, so it's nice to see how prudent DigitalStorm was with this overclock. It keeps heat down (not that that's a problem for the CPU cooler they're using), and CPU noise winds up not being much of an issue either. The Level 2 uses a stock-clocked i5-3570K while the Level 1 makes do with a lowly i3-2100; the Level 4 enjoys an overclocked i7-3770K.
The Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WiFi motherboard is a solid choice limited just to the Level 3; the Level 1 and Level 2 both employ ASUS' P8H77-I while the Level 4 goes up to an ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe. Connectivity is fine, and the two memory slots are populated by a pair of Corsair Vengeance LP DIMMs running at DDR3-1600; 8GB is the bare minimum, and only the Level 4 goes up to 16GB.
Where I feel like DigitalStorm loses me is in their choice of using a 60GB Corsair Accelerator SSD for caching a 1TB mechanical hard disk. At $1,599 we should be using at least a 120GB SSD system drive and 750GB of mechanical storage if not more. While benchmark results are alright (as you'll see), it just doesn't really compare to having a dedicated SSD and dedicated mechanical drive. I can see the pro's and con's of going with a caching solution instead of a more basic split, but ultimately I've been unimpressed with SSD caching thus far.
As far as graphics options, the Level 3 features an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 Ti 2GB, which is a very robust, very powerful card that's able to run at least as fast as last generation's GTX 570 if not substantially faster in some circumstances. DigitalStorm actually offers reasonably solid choices at each level; the entry-level system enjoys a GTX 650, the Level 2 a bog standard GTX 660, and the Level 4 goes up to a full-fledged GTX 680.
Powering all of this is a standard issue rackmount 1U power supply, an 80 Plus Bronze Certified 500W unit from Sparkle Power. It features a cumulative 48A on three 12V rails, and should definitely provide enough power for even the top end Bolt configuration. Consider that with a GTX 680 and an i7-3770K, at stock we're only looking at about a cumulative 320W of draw. Between overclocking and the remaining components of the system, we top out at probably around 400W. DigitalStorm has also recently certified an 80 Plus Gold unit for use with the Bolt.
I think when you look at a system like the DigitalStorm Bolt, it begins to sink in just how much power you can really cram into a tiny space. The Intel Core i5-3570K may not enjoy Hyper-Threading, but in every other way it's essentially one of the best gaming CPUs you can buy today and an absolutely killer value for enthusiasts. That said, DigitalStorm may have missed the boat a little bit by opting for an SSD caching solution instead of a dedicated SSD. We'll see in the benchmarks.
The Futuremarks are mostly kind to the Bolt, but it's clear there could've been a bit more oomph. DigitalStorm's shop page for the Bolt ranks the i5-3570K in this Level 3 configuration as being just as good for multitasking and general performance as the i7-3770K in the Level 4, but that's clearly not the case. In our charts, the i7-3770K is able to produce a very healthy lead during overclocking. You'll see that for gaming Hyper-Threading is basically pointless, but for media tasks the extra four logical threads can make a real difference.
Scores on the CPU-centric tests fare about as well. The i5-3570K in the Bolt is hampered both by the lack of Hyper-Threading and by its more modest overclock. However, I'm extremely keen to point out that the overclock on the i5-3570K is also both more manageable and more efficient; many of these other systems are using much more elaborate cooling and oftentimes push core voltages well beyond where I'd be comfortable with them. Performance of the i5-3570K is plenty by most measures, and you'd need not just Hyper-Threading but more cores and/or a potentially unrealistic overclock to get a substantial jump on it.
As I mentioned before, the Intel Core i5-3570K at the core of the DigitalStorm Bolt Level 3 is really a gaming chip first and foremost. The i7-3770K looks great in synthetics and multimedia work, but for gaming the i5-3570K is the best value and generally not worth moving past. Along the same lines, the GeForce GTX 660 Ti in our review unit may not be the fastest card on the market, but it's one of the best values and one of the most balanced, and it pairs well with the CPU.
While the crippled 192-bit memory bus on the 660 Ti makes testing at surround resolutions more or less pointless, the card positively shines at 1080p. It meets or beats last generation's champion GTX 580 under most circumstances (barring a loss in Civilization V, where Kepler in general has had a little more trouble pulling away from Fermi.) Most gamers on garden variety 1080p panels are going to have no issues enjoying the 660 Ti, with anything faster really only becoming relevant in Battlefield 3.
Build Quality and Noise
While I don't find the Bolt flimsy or chintzy by any stretch of the imagination, I do feel it's somewhat lacking both in aesthetics and in serviceability compared to Alienware's X51. The red stand and black shell are appropriate to DigitalStorm's styling, but the hard angles make the unit feel more boxy than anything. Aesthetics are going to be largely up to the individual user, though. I don't think it's unattractive, but I do think the glossy black finish was a poor choice.
Where I feel like the Bolt may have gotten away from DigitalStorm, however, is in serviceability. The shroud can be removed via four screws on the back, but the way everything is crammed into the case to hit that 3.6" width doesn't feel especially elegant or practical. You'll see cooling isn't a major issue for the CPU, but the GPU struggles a bit more. The RAM slots are completely covered by the CPU cooler, which would be a bigger problem if 8GB wasn't already plenty.
Interestingly I feel like the biggest problem child isn't the GTX 660 Ti (though it does get loud), it's the rackmount PSU. Server power supplies don't exactly need to be quiet, and the two small fans in the PSU are killers. That PSU is responsible for both the mess of cabling and part of the constant idle noise. It already idles at an uncomfortable ~38dB, start pushing it and it breaks 40dB.
Personally I feel like a redesign that tended towards an SFX power supply instead of using a rackmount would be the smarter play. SFX PSUs are going to be engineered more for consumers and by extension will tend towards being on the quieter side, though that kind of design decision would run the risk of robbing the Bolt of its "world's thinnest" moniker. Is marketing really worth the noise, though?
Heat and Power Consumption
As I mentioned before, if nothing else the Bolt at least does offer decent thermal performance. Intel and NVIDIA's advances with Ivy Bridge and Kepler benefit us all (the Scythe CPU cooler doesn't hurt); thermals in the Bolt stay within a comfortable range on the GTX 660 Ti and downright reasonable on the i5-3570K. You could probably argue for a little more voltage on the CPU to get an extra 100MHz or so, but try to remember that it really doesn't take much for Ivy Bridge to run face first into heat issues.
You can see from HWMonitor that if nothing else, the Bolt really doesn't have any trouble keeping the CPU cool. The GeForce GTX 660 Ti also runs relatively cool, but the fan speed is a little more problematic, topping out at 54% and essentially doubling under load.
Boy, it sure saves face when you look at power consumption, though, doesn't it? At both idle and load the Bolt is one of the most efficient systems we've tested, impressive given the substantial performance on tap. This stems from using a more power friendly GPU and opting for a moderate overclock on the i5-3570K. The Bolt also benefits from using an offset voltage, allowing the i5-3570K to undervolt comfortably low at idle.
Conclusion: Generally Good, With Major Caveats
It's an unusual feeling as a reviewer to look at a system and feel like many of your old pet peeves were addressed, to get the sense that maybe someone's paying attention. My pet peeves stem at least somewhat from good enthusiast sense, though: offset voltage, reasonable overclocks, don't push the daylights out of Ivy Bridge. DigitalStorm has done a fine job with the Bolt in producing a system that hits one of my major sweet points: balance. It doesn't run too hot, the parts are well suited to each other, and outside of the SSD caching the configuration at least feels somewhat sensible.
I think it's also important to note that the Bolt takes advantage of most of the technologies at hand to produce a machine that's incredibly efficient for the performance. You can argue that these are NVIDIA and Intel's achievements, but DigitalStorm still benefits, and they're careful not to rock the boat. As a result we see dynamite performance-per-watt from the Bolt. I've seen too many boutiques just shrug and effectively say "to hell with the client's power bill, to hell with longevity" not to single them out for finally doing what I've incessantly harped on boutiques to do.
Unfortunately, the Bolt has three major issues. The chassis itself may allow them to claim the thinnest gaming desktop available, but the glossy black finish is fingerprint and dirt prone, and the single large shroud is actually remarkably aggravating to remove and replace. That issue is compounded somewhat by the fact that the interior is essentially running damage control on the cable spaghetti coming out of the PSU. That PSU in turn leads to the second problem, which is noise. I can't help but feel like the PSU is at least partly responsible for the noise, definitely responsible for the mess of cables, and probably should've been replaced by an SFX unit, even if it meant rejiggering the interior.
Those two issues can be tolerable depending on the end user, but where DigitalStorm loses the race is the price tag. The Level 1 configuration at $999 just plain isn't competitive, full stop. It's a dual core i3 and GTX 650 Ti, when $50 more gets you the vertically smaller, substantially quieter Alienware X51 with a quad-core i5-3330 and an OEM GeForce GTX 660 with 1.5GB of GDDR5. The Level 2 configuration gets a bit better at $1,249 by introducing an i5-3570K and moving up to a consumer GTX 660 with 2GB of GDDR5, but I still think the X51 is a better buy. It's only when you get to the Level 3 at $1,599 that the Bolt starts to break away and starts offering components the X51 can't really match, with the overclock on the 3570K and the GTX 660 Ti. The problem is that when you start getting into these high prices, you're really paying for the form factor. The $1,949 Level 4 configuration is a beast to be sure, but the components themselves only total about $1,200 on the free market.
Ultimately I think the chassis needs a redesign and DigitalStorm needs to be more aggressive with their pricing. I like that they're going with a custom build and trying to do something unique, and credit where credit is due, while I think it's overpriced it still beats the tar out of Falcon Northwest's grossly overpriced Tiki. The Tiki starts at a ludicrous $1,689 for a much worse configuration than our review unit and only goes up from there. This isn't a bad first draft and if the noise isn't an issue for you and you're not planning on upgrading anytime soon, I can't complain too much about it. I'm just not sure the Bolt is worth the expense when Alienware of all companies is willing to sell you a quieter, slightly less powerful system for much cheaper.