Introduction

I knew a man once that always liked to say, "dreams are free." What he basically meant is that it's okay to talk about things that you will probably never have; that you can still have hopes of achieving great things in life regardless of your current situation. That's a good introduction to this article, because the simple fact of the matter is that few of us are likely to purchase a Falcon Northwest computer, just like there are few people that will buy (or even sit in) a Lamborghini during their lifetime.

Falcon Northwest has been in the business for almost 15 years (since 1992), always catering to the high-end enthusiast. In fact, high-end enthusiasts are a step below what Falcon offers, as many of us might actually purchase a high-end system. What Falcon Northwest offers is better classified as exotic systems, and if you want to go there they can create truly unique looking designs for you. Custom paint jobs that can cost over $1000 are available - you can even send in the pictures that you want painted on the case!

The cheapest systems start at around $1500 for just the system (i.e. no keyboard, mouse, monitor, or speakers), and prices can reach over $10,000 if you want to go all out. We really do mean "all out" for such a system: Quad-SLI, 30" LCD, 2x400GB RAID 0 HDDs, custom paint - the works. Do you need something like that? Almost certainly not. Would you lust after such a system, though? Some of you might not, but most of us geeks dream of having that much computing power at our fingertips.


Kelt Reeves, president of Falcon Northwest, likes to describe his company as the "anti-Dell". Dell sells millions of computers each year at pretty reasonable prices, all offering decent performance for the home and business user but usually nothing truly stand out. Dell systems are basically cookie-cutter designs: if you and hundreds of other people all go out and buy the latest Dimension system for $1000 from Dell, they'll all be close to identical - only their internal components might differ. Falcon Northwest on the other hand doesn't look to sell millions or even thousands of computers per month. Their goal is to offer a fully customized, ultra high performance computer that qualifies as something of a status symbol. Their target market is fundamentally limited, as they're looking for people that want the best money can buy, with cost being a distant concern.

Needless to say, it's pretty exciting to open up the packages from Falcon Northwest, and the all-black boxes with silver logos already start to give you the impression that you're opening something out of the ordinary. It's not every day you get to test a system that costs over $5,000, even if you write for AnandTech, and while most of us are more than capable of building a super high performance system on our own, we're still interested to see how one of the top boutique system builders does when it comes to putting together a dream computer. $5,000!? Yes, this is a very expensive system, and we certainly don't recommend that most people go out and spend that much money on a computer. You could build two great systems on your own for that much money, or you could build five moderate systems for the same price. The thing is, there are plenty of people with money that don't have the time to build or inclination to learn how to put together a hot rod computer. That, in a nutshell, is the target market of Falcon Northwest.

The unit that they sent for review is their latest FragBox SLI offering, and it's similar to the Monarch Hornet Pro that we reviewed a couple months ago. In fact, the two systems share the same motherboard. The primary difference is that Falcon Northwest has upgraded several parts, due mostly to the recently launched NVIDIA 7900 GTX. The goal of the system is to offer all of the performance that you can get in a regular desktop system, only put it in a smaller case. Ideally, if you were to call up Falcon Northwest to place an order, the only major difference between the FragBox SLI that we are reviewing and their Mach V offerings is going to be the size of the case and motherboard - which also means the expansion options. We'll run some benchmarks against a desktop system (not from FNW) to see whether or not they succeed in that goal.

Beauty…
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  • poohbear - Thursday, May 04, 2006 - link

    maybe it's just me, but a big part of my computer hobby is actually putting it together and fine tuning all the components myself. if someone else put it all together for me, it'd ruin the fun portion for me.:/ Reply
  • PeteRoy - Thursday, May 04, 2006 - link

    Daquing Oilfields is the most graphic and memory intesive map in Battlefield 2, it also has the most vehicles in the game.

    Next time, make a demo for Battlefield 2 using the daquing oilfields map.
    Reply
  • AaronAxvig - Thursday, May 04, 2006 - link

    I was under the impression that the harddrives were still a bottleneck at times. Why are 15k SCSI drives never used. Surely two of them and a controller wouldn't put the price over $10,000. And there are a few that would pay that much out there somewhere.

    2x 147GB 15k Maxtors: $2000
    1x Controller Card: $200

    And those are rounded up prices.
    Reply
  • fatpipes - Thursday, May 04, 2006 - link

    15K drives are not very nice for home use. Loud, lots of vibration, shorter lifespan, smaller capacity. A raid array is much nicer for this purpose. 15K drives are almost exclusively SCSI (haven't seen a SATA one yet), which would be essentially impossible for this form-factor and purpose. You would need a board with integrated SCSI, which is not available on any nForce4 boards. Or you would need to drop a video card to free up a PCI slot for a SCSI card. Reply
  • fatpipes - Thursday, May 04, 2006 - link

    Basically, you'll be forgoing SLI for SCSI either way (either non-nForce4 with integrated SCSI or nForce4 with a SCSI card). In the tower chassis, this is possible, but still not very sensible compared to SATA RAID. Reply
  • phusg - Thursday, May 04, 2006 - link

    Yeah there are a few, and after receiving their PC with 15k HDDs they will realise that the Raptors are silent by comparison and send the box back complaining about the high pitched whine... Reply
  • CrystalBay - Thursday, May 04, 2006 - link

    Thanks, that was fun... Reply
  • fatpipes - Wednesday, May 03, 2006 - link

    The CPU heat sink fan is _directly_ below the PSU bottom-intake fan. There's just one problem... the CPU fan pulls air DOWN into the fins while the PSU fan pulls air UP into its enclosure. This is worthless for CPU cooling! They'd be better off with a tall passive heat sink.

    The hard drives could use some shock mounts with a fan bolted directly to the metal frame of the drive cage.

    However, their cooling strategy for the GPUs is novel, especially in such a tight space.

    Forgive me for being highly critical of SFF PCs, the pressure zones in this case have to be very messy. It looks to me like the airflow moves in a downward spiral starting at the GPU cooler fan and coming out from the back of the power supply after looping over the hard drives and the "front-top" of the motherboard.

    However, a warning about placing a positive and a negative fan side-by-side (PSU output, GPU input, 1" apart), they can actually recycle each others' air lowering the efficiency of the fan. You can even see this if you have a single high-speed fan, it actually recycles some of its own air if it isn't enclosed for at least an inch to each side of the opening.

    High performance computers don't belong in a box that small.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 03, 2006 - link

    I did notice the layout issue with the CPU/PSU fans opposing each other. It certainly looks less efficient than having both fans moving air in the same direction. One option is to reverse the direction of the CPU fan, which shouldn't be too hard for FNW to accomplish. Why didn't they do that? Probably because they don't need to.

    The bottom line is that the system ran stable through all sorts of testing over several weeks of use. Ambient temperatures in my house ranged from 60 F to 80 F depending on time of day, and I was constantly running all sorts of benchmarks and stress tests. No system crashes or BSODs occurred, and the worst thing that happened was a few game "illegal operations". Those pretty much always happen at some point or another during normal use - one of those "Windows is like that" things. A few games exiting once or twice over weeks of use doesn't worry me - it happens on my own PCs as well, and is more likely to be caused by software bugs than anything else. (I had similar periodic application crashes on the DFI system as well, in case you were wondering. There was no pattern or repeatability to them.)

    There are about five potential "hot spots" inside high-end comptuers. GPU(s) are the major one these days, followed by CPU, HDD(s), RAM, and chipset(s). Of all the hotspots, the only one I'm really concerned about long-term with the FragBox is the HDD cage. I've had a couple HDDs die on me after a year or so due to heat, and making a "hard drive sandwich" is always a bit of a risk. The cables above the HDDs also limit air flow for the area. However, I can say that the 150GB Raptors do run quieter and cooler than the 74GB Raptors, so hopefully no one has issues. (Short of stress-testing dozens of systems for a couple years, though, there's not an easy way to find out whether or not the system really works well in every possible way.)

    "High performance computers don't belong in a box that small"? I disagree. High performance should be available anywhere people want it, and there's definitely a market for SFF computers. There are also laptops that have an even smaller volume than the FragBox and yet they pack in FX-60 chips and dual video cards. The market dictates what products get created, and while the FragBox certainly targets a niche market, it still fills a "need" that some people have.
    Reply
  • Pirks - Wednesday, May 03, 2006 - link

    All this quad-sli stuff is good, and definitely has its market. However, after reading so many reviews of Voodoo, Alienware and such, I still have one unanswered question - is there at least ONE PC builder/vendor that creates monolithic Apple-like software/hardware combo with full integrated support and such?

    Let me explain. When you get a mac you get a box which has one central manufacturer and software supplier, and they are also your central source of updates. The deal is: get the box, plug it in and forget the rest. The box will updfate itself, ALL THE HARDWARE DRIVERS/FIRMWARE, all the software, everything. Mac users in general never ever go out and search a driver or something. They got the box, the box works, zero administration and trouble.

    Now look at windows. They have online updates, right, but what about drivers, bios and such? What puzzles me here is that there's nothing preventing anyone to become an Apple clone. All you have to do is just prebuild your PCs, ship them with a custom WinXP with all updates integrated and provide one central site where the system quietly goes and downloads all the updates/drivers/bios/software patches/etc, and user NEVER EVER goes to search a driver or a patch or something.

    There's even more - such a PC OEM could also do the work of finding reasonably good hardware and sell it to its customers. Wanna get a nice slick video which runs Doom 3 the best? There you go, here's the OEM site, click a button, choose a card rated by game FPS (for example), pay with your CC or PayPal, get the card next day, plug it in, XP goes to OEM site, gets drivers, lock, stock, done! The only thing you do is 1) choose the card 2) pay 3) plug it in 4) and reboot XP when it gets the drivers from OEM. AND NOTHING ELSE!

    Well, there could also be a custom XP DVD or something. Say your XP is dead for some reason. You say ah what the hell, pop a DVD, it boots, you say - gimme OS back, it installs over just like Mac OS X (preserving all your old settings/software), or in some similar fashion, doesn't ask you questions (!) and that's it.

    OEM could mail out those OS DVDs on request, or whatever... let ppl download them for a small fee.

    I mean, this is a golden opportunity people! I've been beaten in Mac forums like hell, they all say the same - go prick yourself with your drivers/bios/chinese hardware and virii/worms. WE SMART MAC FOLKS HAVE OUR FIRE'N'FORGET BOXES which you stupid Windoze moron will NEVER GET because Windoze is a legacy ancient OS that _STINKS_, your custom PC is a pile of chinese bullpuke and blah blah blah...

    I mean, not taking into account a crowd of crazy people in those forums (some of them DO require a help of specialist) they say very reasonable thing. PC is excellent for enthusiast, Mac will suck forever at that. But for the stupid Joe, for the guy who doesn't know where the floppy slot is - why there are no PC OEMs who provide anything that at least distantly resembles this special "fire and forget" experience of Macs?

    There are many OEMs like Voodoo and FNW who specialize in ultra fast machines. The question is - is there at least ONE PC builder that specializes in ULTRA-CONVENIENT and ZERO-ADMINISTRATION machines, similar to Macs? If there is none, then WHY???

    Gimme some fresh thoughts on that, I need nice good rest from those Mac forums. Maybe they right, PC is really $h1t, but there must be some serious reason why PC OEMs can't or don't want to provide similar "everything in one fire'n'forget box" experience like Apple provides. If I got some bags of gold in my vault, I'd established my own cmpany right away. If noone has this feature of providing "Mac-like" friendly and easy to setup/use PCs, I could become the next Dell! Just need some startup capital first, hehe :)
    Reply

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