Gearheads, Rejoice!

Not everything is strictly standard design, however. The motherboard might be an ASUS Striker with an NVIDIA 680i chipset, but it does appear to have a customized BIOS. Besides the HP logo when the system boots up, there appears to have been some behind the scenes work in order to enable peer-to-peer writes on the PCI-E bus. Why is that important? Well, ATI CrossFire requires peer-to-peer writes in order to function, and ATI has always maintained that support for this feature is the only thing preventing CrossFire from working on other chipsets, like NVIDIA's SLI chipsets. Whether the work was done by ASUS, NVIDIA, HP, and/or AMD, the fact of the matter is that CrossFire and SLI both work on this motherboard. The version we were shipped includes two HD 2900 XT cards running in CrossFire as proof of this fact. That means that regardless of who takes the graphics performance crown in the future, users will have the ability to upgrade to the latest CrossFire or SLI configuration.

Getting back to the chassis, HP has also created a predominantly tool-less design. All major components can be upgraded without the use of any screwdrivers or other tools, although HP does include an Allen wrench as well as some extra bolts inside the case, apparently for mounting other motherboard sizes. Accessing the CPU socket and some areas of the water cooling system will also require tools, but the rest of the design is tool-less.

The case comes with a hinged door that easily opens, and due to the heavy-duty construction of the case, it swings easily and you never feel like it's going to bend or break. Installing/upgrading expansion cards and/or hard drives can all be done without ever having to lay your hands on a tool. The hard drive mounting cages in particular are pretty cool; designed for SATA drives, you simply install the hard drive into the cage and slide the cage into an appropriate bay. A board at the back of the hard drive bays includes all of the data and power connections for SATA drives - no messy cables! The handle on the front of the drive cage serves to individually lock the cage into place.

Dealing with expansion cards is similarly straightforward. A hinged plastic door helps to separate the internals of the case into various heat chambers, so for example the CPU and chipset aren't contaminated by heat from the graphics cards. Given that the system we have is water cooled, that might not be as big of a concern, but for the air cooled versions it could prove useful. The expansion slots have sturdy plastic-and-metal clips that individually lock each card into place.

Taken alone, all of these above features are interesting additions to any system, but simply having a lot of cool features doesn't mean a system is worth purchasing, especially when it carries a high price tag. The system we were sent for testing apparently will sell for around $5500 (Updated price), definitely putting it out of reach of many enthusiasts. However, the base model Blackbird 002 will apparently sell for around $2500, making it a lot more viable. Unfortunately, we don't know what the exact differences between the setup we were sent and the $2500 configuration are, and without such information it's difficult to determine whether or not there's enough value to warrant consideration. The custom chassis is certainly worth a decent amount of money on its own, at least for those looking to get a case that sets itself apart from the cookie-cutter designs. The Blackbird 002 will officially go on sale on September 15, and we will provide a follow-up article that takes a closer look at the options available at that time.

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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    You have to do a bit more accurate math on the cost. Yes, it's still expensive, but it's not at all a 2-3X mark up.

    Crazy ATX Case: I'd say this is easily a $500 case. Not that most people need it, but this is not some flimsy plastic thing.
    1100W PSU: It looks like this might be a TOPOWER 1100W PSU (it says "TOP-1100W DVT" on a sticker). The 1000W TOPOWER at Newegg costs $330 shipped, so call this on $350.
    QX6850: $1200, not overclocked
    ASUS Striker: $300
    2 x 1GB 2900 XT: $1000
    2x1GB Corsair Dominator 8500: $210
    160GB Raptor: $190 (technically 10GB more than the normal 150GB Raptors)
    750GB Seagate: $210
    Logitech G11: $55
    Logitech G5: $60
    Asetek cooling: $400 for this particular kit seems likely
    Blu-ray/HD drive: $880 (Yup, look up the GGW-H10NI - crazy!)
    DVDR slot load: $40

    Total for parts alone: $4200, and that's going by cheapest online prices.

    Still expensive, still a ~50% markup, but then the factory overclock with warranty is worth at least something, right? Anyway, I'm not saying it's a great deal, but if someone told me they wanted me to build them a system like this? Yeah, I'd probably charge at least $1000 to do it, just because I'd want to have some extra for the invariable support costs. "My OC'ed computer just crashed...."
  • jonnyGURU - Friday, September 14, 2007 - link

    Actually, the Blackbird's 1100W is based on Topower's 1200W platform. Tweak and guideline requests (OCP settings, efficiency at different loads, etc.) from HP put the continuous output rating at 1100W. So that's another $50 we need to add for the PSU. FWIW, it's based on the same unit as the ABS/Tagan 1300W (looser standards than HP) which sells for $400.
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    OF al lthe OEM system manufactuers HP probably has one of the better warranties, or so I have been told. Since I do not personally OWN a HP machine, I have to go by word of mouth here. Anyhow, I would venture to say that the warranty on these blackbird system would probably have to be close to Dells Gold service plan.

    What does this mean ? It means you do not have to play the idiot on the phone for some E. India 'technitian' who probably has less of a clue what is wrong with your system than you do, but rather get to deal with stateside technitians who can actually be helpfull . . . It also means you do not have to wait for some lowly tech to wade through the 'chain of command' to get things replaced/fixed.
  • Slaimus - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    Is it true that for this system HP somehow got CF to work on a SLI motherboard? If so, does it need special modded drivers like the ULi "GLI" motherboards?
  • wolfman3k5 - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    I doubt that, I will do some research on that and post back. Raul Sood said that they didn't do it with NVidia's help, so if anything was moded, it must be special Catalyst drivers that are being made available only to HP. Sooner or later the "secret" will come out. But I don't imagine that it's something that difficult to do, since ATI uses two CF bridges, and they transfer all rendering data over those, hence, they don't have to rely on the chipset.
  • RamarC - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    but the blackbird line is shipping with at least two motherboard options since there's an amd x2 based blackbird. so two additional mobos could be available for cf/sli.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    No need to do any research:

    "ATI CrossFire requires peer-to-peer writes in order to function, and ATI has always maintained that support for this feature is the only thing preventing CrossFire from working on other chipsets, like NVIDIA's SLI chipsets."

    If the BIOS is updates so that peer-to-peer PCI-E writes work, CrossFire should work. SLI of course is a given, and getting SLI on non-NVIDIA chipsets is what usually requires hacked drivers. I'll let you know if the stock 7.9 drivers work properly later today when I've had a chance to verify.
  • n7 - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    I was excited to see this review, mainly because i wanted to see how well their cooling system worked.

    But there's not a word in this review about the cooling setup, what temps were, was it better than others for OCing etc...

    And as for the system itself, sure, it looks nice, & getting SLI or CF working is nice, but 2 GB of RAM?
    That's just a big joke when many of us already run 4 GB in our "lowly systems"...
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    For a 32-bit OS, there's not much need to go beyond 2GB of RAM. Users will almost certainly get the option to install 4GB in the online configurator - and they might even be able to select a 64-bit OS; I don't know yet because the system isn't officially on sale for a few more days.

    As for the water cooling setup, I haven't tested any other water cooling configs so I can't say whether the Asetek unit in the Blackbird is better or not. It appears to deal with a fully stressed Core 2 Quad @ 3.66 GHz, though I can't be 100% sure that the overclock didn't cause a crash or two. I can look into temperatures for the follow-up, but honestly I think stability is far more important. If a system can manage to run Folding@Home SMP without excessive failures and/or crashes, that's usually a pretty good indication that the overclock is "safe".
  • wolfman3k5 - Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - link

    HP should have known better than installing a 32 bit OS on such a system, because the OS will never be able to address all the video memory. It's about the same as installing 4GB Ram on a 32 bit OS, except that in this situation with 2GB system RAM and 2GB Video Ram, the OS will be able to address closer to 4GB Ram. Other devices also take away some of the 4GB addressing space.
    As far as CrossFire is concerned, it's not so miraculous that it works on a Striker Motherboard. After all, native crossfire will transfer all data over the two bridges, so it can be chipset agnostic.
    It looks like the high performance PC market is pretty profitable, and HP and other companies are going after the boutique manufacturers to try and take away what business is left. But if I want this kind of computer, I'd rather buy from Falcon NW, Puget or build my own. Sorry, not my cup of tea.

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