Intel's Prescott Pentium 4 chips have proved too hot for many music PC builders to handle, but Philip Rees have used them to build machines that are both powerful and impressively quiet.
The name Philip Rees will already be well known to many musicians, as he set up his eponymous company way back in 1986, designing and manufacturing a range of MIDI accessories. These are still available, but in recent years his main focus of activities has moved to building music PCs. His flair for design continues here, with custom electronics and metalwork forming the 'central airflow control system' fitted to most of his PCs, which is claimed to produce 'astonishingly quiet machines'.
Given that the review PC contains an Intel Pentium 4 Prescott processor, already notorious for high power dissipation and cooling issues, I'll say right at the start that Phil has achieved this claim with flying colours. When I first switched on this machine I wasn't even sure it was working, and only by placing my ear directly on its case could I hear any noise at all. After this impressive start I was keen to find out how well the Prescott 3.2GHz processor, 1GB of Corsair RAM, two 80GB SATA drives and CD rewriter performed.
I've always had a soft spot for Lian-Li aluminium cases, but this ePC6070 model (Phil has added the 'e' to stand for 'enhanced', due to its many internal modifications) is the most impressive I've seen to date. It features a hinged 'front door' that seals with a rubber gasket to keep noise from the CD drive and so on to an absolute minimum, and the cool air intake is located underneath rather than on the front panel, so the case is lifted up slightly on large feet to provide a suitable gap.
Inside this PC looks very different from most, with various additional metalwork panels and ducts customising the already unusual Thermaltake Silent Tower CPU cooler. This transfers heat from the 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 540 processor to a huge multi-finned aluminium heatsink that sits in a tunnel, at the front and back of which are cooling fans that pull cooler air in from the front and push out the warmed air towards the rear-case exhaust fan.
The Asus P5GD2 motherboard with Intel's 915P chip set features two traditional PCI slots, three short PCI Express x1 slots, and one PCI Express x16 slot fitted with a Gigabyte nVidia GeForce PCX 5300 graphics card, thankfully fitted with passive (heatsink) rather than active (fan) cooling. One of the PCI slots in the review model had been used to install an Emu 1212M soundcard, and one PCI Express x1 slot was obscured by the 1212M daughterboard, and a second by a backplate offering two IEEE 1394b ports supporting both Firewire 400 and 800 formats and an RJ45 LAN port plugged into motherboard headers. This leaves just one PCI and one PCI Express x1 slot for future expansion, although if you chose a Firewire or USB-based audio interface instead of the Emu you'd get two of each.
Like the case used in this system, the twin 512MB sticks of RAM were of the 'luxury' variety — Corsair brand memory may cost a little more, but regularly wins awards for its reliability and ability to be overclocked, alongside other quality products from Mushkin and Kingston.
Even the hard drive mountings were exotic: two 80GB Seagate Barracuda SATA drives had been fitted into a specially modified lower drive bay after first being bolted into Zalman ZM-2NC1 heat-pipe coolers, which use 10 copper heat pipes bolted to the sides of each drive to get the heat into the cooling airstream above, with the whole assembly floating on rubber posts to absorb drive vibration. These coolers are about the same price as the popular Silentdrive sleeves, but don't require modification for SATA cables, and let the drives run cooler for greater reliability. In front of these drives the two 80mm case intake fans had also been replaced with quieter Zalman ZM-F1 fans, as had the rear case exhaust fan, all being mounted on anti-vibration gaskets.
The 520 Watt SilenX PSU is incredibly quiet (the active Power Factor Correction model was chosen here to eliminate input choke noise), but as I stated in my PC Notes May 2004 review, it's only designed to cool itself, and Phil had thus added a duct so the PSU drew cooler air from lower in the case (and therefore closer to the intake fans) than normal. Meanwhile the Thermaltake Silent Tower had also been modified with quieter Zalman ZM-F2 92mm fans, improved mounting to protect the motherboard from flexing, and a removable transit bracket to hold the tower more firmly during its 'courier experience'.
All five fans (two CPU, two front case, and one rear case) were under the control of Phil's own custom 'central airflow control system' — a four-inch-square circuit board that's bolted to the bottom case panel, into which all the fans are plugged, and to which is also attached a central thermistor (temperature sensing component) glued directly to the bottom of the CPU heatsink.
The top, bottom and side case panels had been lined with acoustic material to reduce acoustic noise levels, while the empty drive bays and remaining front-panel cavities had been filled with acoustic material to both quieten acoustic noise and to encourage the cool air to instead pass over the hot components. Finally, a series of 5mm holes had been drilled in the motherboard tray, to encourage airflow to and from the rear of the motherboard, as well as at the very top rear of the case itself, to release hot air that naturally rises to the top of the case and would otherwise be largely trapped.
The remaining PC components seemed positively mundane by comparison with this powerhouse of invention, but comprised an Asus CD writer featuring Quietrack acoustic noise reduction (which seemed to do its job well), a silver 1.4MB floppy drive, a Genius Netscroll optical mouse, and Logitech black Internet keyboard. Completing this particular review system were an AOC LM702A 17-inch TFT monitor, Emu 1212M soundcard, and Cubase SX 2.2, although of course you can specify a wide variety of other options if you wish. The Asus CD rewriter performed admirably during the review period, but anyone who would prefer a DVD writer can upgrade to a Sony DWU18A DVD+/-RW drive for just £36 including VAT.
- Case: Lian-Li PC6070A with enhanced acoustic damping, internal metalwork, three 80mm Zalman ZM-F1 case fans, proprietary central airflow control system, and SilenX 520 Watt Pro iXtrema Active PFC power supply.
- Motherboard: Asus P5GD2 Premium with one LGA775 socket for Pentium 4 or Celeron processor, Intel 915P chip set running 800/533MHz front side buss, four 240-pin DIMM sockets supporting up to 4GB of 533/400MHz DDR memory, one PCI Express x16 slot, three PCI Express x1 slots and two PCI slots.
- Processor: 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 540 (Prescott) with 1MB cache, 800MHz front side buss.
- CPU heatsink and fan: Thermaltake CL-P0025 Silent Tower with 92mm Zalman ZM-F2 fans.
- System RAM: matched pair of 512MB sticks of Corsair XMS2-5400, running at 400MHz.
- System drive: Seagate Barracuda ST380013AS, 80GB, 7200rpm, Serial ATA.
- Audio drive: Seagate Barracuda ST380013AS, 80GB, 7200rpm, Serial ATA.
- Graphics card: Gigabyte GV-NX53128D PCI Express nVidia PCX 5300, with passive cooling and 128MB RAM.
- Floppy drive: 3.5-inch with silver bezel.
- CD-R/W drive: Asus CRW-5232AS Quietrack, ATAPI Ultra DMA 2 interface, 52x CD-ROM, 52x CD-R, 32x CD-RW, 2MB buffer.
- Active system ports: PS/2 mouse and keyboard, two RJ45 Gigabit LAN and one Wi-Fi-g wireless LAN (all disabled on music partition), eight USB 2.0, two IEEE 1394b and one 1394a, MIDI/Game port.
- Keyboard & mouse: Logitech black PS2 Internet keyboard, Genius Netscroll optical wheel mouse.
- Installed operating system: Windows XP Home Edition plus Service Pack 1.
For this particular system:
- AOC LM720A LCD monitor, black/silver, with 17-inch diagonal, 1280 x 1024 native resolution.
- Audio interface: Emu 1212M with version 1.02 drivers.
- General software: Symantec Norton Ghost backup utility, Symantec Norton Internet Security, Open Office office suite.
- Music software: Steinberg Cubase SX 2.2.
A quick check in the BIOS showed that most parameters remained at their default settings, although the HD Audio controller had as expected been disabled (as its audio quality would be considerably worse than the Emu 1212M), as had both the ITE8212F and Silicon Image RAID controllers, the Speech Post Reporter (occasionally useful if you want vocal acknowledgement of system faults when for any reason your monitor won't work), and the serial and parallel ports (few people use these nowadays, especially now that USB has taken over as the preferred printer interface).
However, Hyperthreading had been enabled, as had the onboard Game/MIDI port, with its socket appearing on an extra backplate along with two extra USB 2.0 ports. With the four on the main motherboard rear panel, plus the two at the bottom of the front case panel, this brings this system to a healthy total of eight USB ports and two Firewire 800 ports, which will endear it to anyone with lots of modern peripherals. The monitor supplied with the review system was set to its best resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels and gave a sharp image on its analogue connection, although the nVidia GeForce graphics card does provide a DVI-I connector for monitors with digital inputs, and an S-Video output for connection of a TV.
Both drives had been NTFS formatted, but while the audio drive had been left as one huge storage device, the other had been sensibly partitioned into an outer (fastest) Data partition of 42GB, and smaller 14GB System Music partition and inner (slowest) 19GB System General partition. Into these two latter partitions two instances of Windows had been installed as a dual-boot for General and Music use, using XP's standard boot menu to chose between the two at startup, allowing music-specific tweaks to be implemented in the Music partition and left alone in the General one. The popular Nero Express CD burning software had been installed in both partitions, while Wavelab Lite and Cubase SX 2 had been installed in Music, and Norton's Ghost 2003, Norton's Internet Security 2004 and the capable 'open source' Open Office suite installed in General. Even the desktop background was different for each boot, to remind the user which one was currently in use.
I was pleased to see that all the recommended Windows tweaks had been carried out in the Music partition, and some Services had been switched from Automatic to Manual to fine-tune performance — the full printed checklist of BIOS and System tweaks, software installation, updates performed, hardware tests, Service tweaks, and system and verifying engineer's signatures runs to a full five A4 pages for each customer's machine.
I've already given the game away about how silent this PC was at switch-on, but of course all temperature-controlled systems have the tendency to start slow and speed up as internal temperatures rise, so final acoustic noise levels can only be judged after an hour or two. After several hours of idling the review system stabilised with a CPU temperature of 52 degrees Centigrade, and while fan noise was now audible it was still at a very low level — far quieter than I was expecting from a machine featuring the notoriously hot Prescott processor. After running the Prime95 utility in Torture Test mode the temperature rose to 65 degrees, slightly higher than the 60 degrees adopted by Phil in most of his other systems, but still well within safe limits for a Prescott. Even then, acoustic noise levels were still a gentle purr, with the only noise coming from the rear case and PSU fans. If, like most people do, you were to place this PC on the floor under a desk, I doubt that you'd even know it was running under most conditions.
I discussed Intel's new 915P and 925X chip sets, along with the Socket LGA775 Prescott processors, in some depth back in PC Notes September 2004, so I don't intend to go into a lot of detail again here. Suffice it to say that both the chip set and processor range have been plagued with excessive heat dissipation problems, and to date the only quiet PCs using this technology have tended to be from manufacturers like Sony who have designed entirely new cases for models like their Vaio RA104. For Philip Rees to produce a machine this quiet starting with an off-the-shelf case is therefore something of an achievement.
Using Sisoftware's Sandra, memory bandwidth was 4628MB/second for both integer and float — a fairly typical ballpark figure for most recent desktop Pentium 4 systems, and significantly beaten in my reviews to date only by Inta Audio's Opteron-based system (SOS December 2004) at about 5320MB/second. Meanwhile, CPU Arithmetic results for the Prescott 3.2GHz processor were 9329 MIPS (Dhrystone), 3828 MFLOPS (Whetstone), and 6547 MFLOPS (iSSE2), while Multimedia benchmarks were 22718 it/s (integer) and 30340 it/s (floating point). Looking back at my previous system results, this places the Prescott a few percent behind the Northwood core in most tests, although interestingly the Whetstone test is some 15 percent better.
However, as usual, the most appropriate test for musicians is to run a music application and see how a system's performance compares with others, so I launched Cubase SX 2.2 and ran the Fivetowers 2.0 test. At latencies over 20ms this gave a Stop reading (ie. with only processing and effects plug-ins active) of 24 percent CPU, and a Play result (ie. with instrument plug-ins also active) of 42 percent, while once the latency had been dropped to 3ms I repeated my tests and got values of 31 and 52 percent respectively.
These results definitely stuck out as being different from the norm. At the higher interface latency of 23ms, the Play result was some 10 percent better than that of the Carillon Northwood 3.4GHz system using exactly the same Emu 1212M soundcard — a significant increase, and well worth having. However, the 3ms Play result for the Prescott reversed this trend, by being nearly 2 percent worse than the Northwood 3.4.
Even so, both these results suggest that this Prescott 3.2GHz system can roughly equal the Cubase plug-in/soft synth performance of a 3.4GHz Northwood (the next clock speed up) at low latency, and exceed it if like most musicians you're working at latencies of 6ms or above. This flies in the face of some mainstream benchmarks, but my results were totally repeatable, and may be connected with the Prescott's double-size L2 cache.
As this is the first PC system I've received from Philip Rees, I thought I'd give a few details on the service and support available to customers. As with most specialist retailers, you can either order on-line or by phone, and each system comes with a one-year collect-and-return warranty covering both parts and labour, with courier collection and delivery charges paid by the company and a normal turnaround of less than five working days. During years two and three labour charges are still covered, but not failed parts or carriage. Monitors are also covered by their manufacturer's warranty, which is generally three years' free on-site replacement. There's also a one-year email and on-line technical support service, where Phil and his staff aim to respond to all queries within one working day. You can extend this support period at a cost of £25 for each subsequent year.
All systems are stress-tested using Passmark's BurnIn Test for at least 12 hours before being shipped to the customer, and the review system came with Norton Ghost backup software installed, plus three CD-ROMs containing a full backup of the General partition, and a further three for the Music partition.
If possible Phil Rees prefer to supply a complete turnkey system, with all the hardware and software installed and tested together, but of course they're happy to sell you any combination of hardware and software that you choose using the on-line system configuration page if that's what you prefer.
I've been really looking forward to trying out some radically new PC designs, and like Inta Audio's Opteron system reviewed in SOS December 2004, this Prescott-based one was a real eye-opener, this time proving that it is possible to design a PC slightly quieter than many Northwood-based machines, even when it has to dissipate significantly more CPU heat than usual. It contains the most technologically advanced cooling system I've reviewed to date, and Phil Rees has included some very clever engineering twists of his own. This is also the first PC I've reviewed featuring the latest PCI Express slots, and although at present there are few peripherals to plug into them, I suspect this standard will become the future for us all in a year or two, so this is a system that should have a long life ahead of it.
The fastest Socket 478 Northwood Pentium 4 now widely available seems to be the 3.2GHz model (Phil Rees also builds budget systems using this CPU option), and contrary to my expectations, the similarly clocked Socket 775 Prescott processor in this system seems to outperform it slightly with audio software. As I finish this review CPU prices are such that paying just £40 more would get you a 3.4GHz Prescott system (with performance roughly similar to that of a Northwood 3.6GHz model), so this might be a wiser choice.
If you're keen on buying an Intel-based PC then this Phil Rees system proves that 'going Prescott' is a valid option, although AMD's Athlon 64 3700+ and 3800+ processors are turning in even better performances in many benchmark tests. Unfortunately, while the Prescott range was once heralded as the great hope in pushing clock speeds to 4GHz and beyond, Intel have just announced that a 4GHz model is being abandoned in favour of other methods of improving processor performance. With this in mind, perhaps a Prescott-based PC may not offer as much long-term upgrade potential as expected, although as always, no-one really knows what's around the corner.
Anyone for whom cost is paramount should perhaps consider a system featuring an Intel P4 Northwood or AMD Athlon 64 processor, just because any Prescott-based machine will always require more exotic and therefore expensive cooling components. However, I'm extremely impressed by the high standard of engineering and build quality of this Phil Rees PC, its luxury case and fans, proprietary central airflow control system, quality RAM and drive cooling, and the attention to detail evident in features like the multi-boot install and bundled office suite. Whatever your views on Intel's Prescott processor range, this review system is an excellent advert for Phil Rees and his company.