Factory Overclocking Juices Up Gaming PCs
Even business PC stalwarts like Dell and Gateway now sell exotic gaming machines with CPUs that they've overclocked for you. In our tests of Dell's new XPS 720 gaming desktop, benchmarked with and without Dell's factory tweaks, we found that the system's overclocking boosted its performance by 6.5 percent.
Each of the desktops ranked in our chart--which also includes new PCs from Alienware and Gateway--boasts an overclocked CPU. The key benefit of buying such a machine: Left at its stock settings, the revved-up chip is covered under the system's warranty--a safety net you don't enjoy when you overclock the CPU in a gaming rig you've built yourself. Our Best Buy, CyberPower's Gamer Infinity Ultimate, is equipped with a quad-core 2.66-GHz Core 2 Extreme QX6700 processor (set to 3.46 GHz). The system earned a score of 129 in WorldBench 6 Beta 2, the highest result achieved by any PC we've tested to date. The Gamer Infinity Ultimate may lack the customized touches you'll see from boutique vendors such as Alienware and Voodoo, but it packs a lot of value for gamers and power users who need speed, storage, and the ability to upgrade.
Polywell Computers' Poly 580CF-2900 (the least expensive system we tested at $3399, and one that doesn't come with an overclocked CPU) missed the chart because of its WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 93, a result roughly 26 percent behind its rivals' average of 126.
Quad-core popular, but not yet vital
Photograph: Marc SimonOf the systems on the chart, only the Xi MTower IGE-SLI lacked a quad-core CPU (four processor cores on a single chip), the design that currently provides the most gains in complex video editing and 3D rendering. Dell's stylish XPS 720 has Intel's newer QX6800 quad-core CPU overclocked to a relatively conservative 3.2 GHz, coupled with 1066-MHz memory. If price isn't an issue, you may find more appeal in Dell's XPS 720 H2C (for which liquid cooling and a QX6800 processor overclocked to 3.46 GHz are standard specifications). However, a quad-core processor won't be of true benefit for gamers until game developers can fully harness the multicore capabilities of such CPUs.
Though a system's configuration accounts for 20 percent of its overall PC World Rating, pixel-pushing power is the essence of a gaming PC. As such, 50 percent of our rating considers the system's performance--namely, a combination of its WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score and its results in our Doom 3 and Far Cry gaming tests. (In our regular power-PC evaluations, performance is just 30 percent of the rating.)
Gaming Under Vista
These high-performance systems each shipped with, and were tested under, Windows Vista (mostly Premium or Ultimate). If you want to squeeze every last drop of performance from your games, however, you can opt to have your new gaming machine configured with Windows XP. With some vendors, you can also request that your PC be able to dual-boot between both operating systems. But DirectX 10--the Windows technology that's set to allow games to appear visually richer--is exclusive to Vista. All of the nVidia GeForce 8800-series graphics boards that the PCs on our chart use are DX10-capable, and the SLI (dual-card) technology that our top two systems employ now has vastly improved support under Vista. You can expect both nVidia and its rival, ATI, to ensure that their respective dual-card technologies support hot upcoming DX10 titles like BioShock, Crysis, and Hellgate: London. The bottom line is, it could almost be time to leave Windows XP behind for good.
The best performer in our Doom 3 test run at 1280 by 1024 resolution (with antialiasing turned on) was the Alienware Area-51 7500. Equipped with dual 768MB EVGA GeForce 8800 GTX graphics boards (which together cost at least $1200 on their own), the Alienware PC achieved an average frame rate of 165 frames per second, versus the rest of the gaming-desktop field's average of 143 fps. The Xi MTower IGE-SLI (which uses a single, roughly $280, 320MB EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS graphics board on an SLI-capable motherboard), lagged behind at 133 fps.
Though it too had just a single graphics board, a 768MB nVidia GeForce 8800 GTX, the Dell XPS 720 led the way in our GPU- and CPU-intensive Far Cry game script, which we run at 1280 by 1024 with antialiasing turned on. It averaged 202 fps, easily besting the Alienware and Gateway PCs, which achieved 187 fps and 181 fps, respectively.
Photograph: Marc SimonThe futuristic styling of the Dell XPS 720's big, red, aluminum case is both attractive and practical. The large grilles on the front and the rear offer plenty of ventilation, and extra-large fans move air through the very spacious case. Three LED lights illuminate the USB 2.0 ports at the rear, while eight lights shine on the drive bays on the front of the system. Dell's QuickSet software lets you adjust the lighting colors and effects.
The Area-51 7500 has Alienware's signature imposing black case. We liked that the fans in the case's removable side are connected by touch contacts instead of wires, so you can easily remove the side panel without the hassle of having to unplug the fans first.
Though high-end gaming systems usually sport huge, heavy cases, Gateway's FX530XT packs its muscle into a more standard yet still stylish case that stands just 16.5 inches high. It's a little cramped compared with the massive cases of the other systems we reviewed, however. Meanwhile, the Xi MTower's black midsize tower case has a large window on one side that reveals the system's innards bathed in an eerie blue light. The CyberPower Gamer Infinity Ultimate uses a Cooler Master CM Stacker 830 tower case.
Our CyberPower and Alienware test systems also came with the Logitech G15 keyboard, which has an LCD screen for displaying game stats plus 18 programmable buttons for in-game command shortcuts.
The online version of our gaming-PCs chart has the latest on these pricey but enviable systems. Keep an eye out too for gaming PCs using Intel's Penryn and AMD's Phenom quad-core desktop processors, which are set to ship by year's end.
Find the Very Latest Desktop PC Charts
Click on the links below for the latest online Gaming desktop PC rankings or a comprehensive list of all desktop PCs we've tested.