Dual-Core CPUs promise a huge jump in performance at a modest price, while RAID disk arrays can provide both faster and more secure storage. Scan Computers' Athlon-based system features both technologies.
There's been a lot of talk about dual-core PCs over the last few months (including my own PC Musician article in SOS July 2005). By placing two processor cores into a single piece of silicon, manufacturers can provide significantly faster performance than a single processor, even when under-clocking them and running them at lower voltages so they don't run hotter than the single-core variety. You can now buy dual-core models from both AMD (the Athlon 64 X2 range) and Intel (in the Pentium D range), although AMD-based systems tend to be somewhat cheaper, especially as many existing Athlon 64 motherboards can have their BIOS updated to run the dual-core versions.
First off the blocks with a dual-core AMD Athlon music PC are a company new to SOS, although the Scan name will be familiar to anyone who knows the mainstream PC world. Scan Computers International, to give them their full name, were founded way back in 1989, and now employ 150 staff at their Bolton main office. Their 3XS brand name stands for Specification, Service and Satisfaction, and they provide PCs optimised for specific applications such as home, office, CAD, audio, video, gaming and servers.
When I visited their web site, www.scan.co.uk, there were 10 audio systems on offer covering starter studios, tracking and post-production, and catering for songwriters, guitarists and DJs. As with most specialist music retailers, each system can be further configured from its default specification by the customer if you want a different case, CPU, amount of RAM, hard drive, and so on. However, Scan take the options further than most, since for an additional £300 you can also specify one of eight custom paint schemes, although their list of Pro Audio Recording interfaces is currently restricted to models from M-Audio.
Housed in an attractive black Chenbro SR10569 Hi-End Workstation case, the review 3XS System sported a smart red latching front panel, although unlike some, it was not thick enough to reduce noise from the front-mounted drives when closed. A cutout about halfway up exposed the two front-mounted USB 2.0 ports, which are handy for dongles or flash drives, and the door concealed a Sony DW-Q28A DVD writer and 3.5-inch floppy drive in the upper two 5.25-inch drive bays, and a large air intake grille in front of the four hard drives (more on these shortly). Inside, this Scan PC was one of the tidiest I've seen. Round IDE and floppy cables had been fitted, and all the cables had been firmly attached to the chassis using ties, with any excess length carefully looped or folded to keep it well out of the way of the cooling fans for maximum airflow.
The vast majority of the motherboards launched specifically for dual-core processors use either the nVidia nForce4 or Intel 945/955 chip sets, which cater for expansion via the new PCI Express format, but as previously mentioned, dual-core Athlons can be slotted into most existing Socket 939 motherboards after a BIOS update. Scan have, perhaps wisely, decided to stick with just such an all-PCI-based motherboard, the Abit AV8 VIA K8T800 Pro, which as its name suggests uses Via's K8T800 Pro chip set and supports a single AMD Athlon 64 Socket 939 processor. This avoids possible PCI Express audio latency issues, as well as keeping the price down.
This motherboard has five PCI slots and one AGP 4x/8x slot, and supports up to 4GB of dual-channel DDR400 RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, plus two ATA133 IDE and two Serial ATA150 connectors. There are also six USB 2.0 ports and one IEEE 1394 Firewire port, and the passive (rather than fan-cooled) chip set heatsink is a plus point.
The most important component is the CPU, in this case an AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual-core 4800+ model with both cores running at 2.4GHz. A fast dual-core CPU like this takes some cooling, so I was pleased to see that an exotic Akasa Evo 120 cooler had been fitted, complete with copper heat pipes to draw the heat away, plus a huge aluminium heatsink and associated 120mm twin ball-bearing fan noise-rated at just 15dBA for its slowest speed. A fan-speed control on a dummy PCI backplate is also provided to adjust the optimum noise/heat setting, although if you slow it down too much you'll hear frantic beeping from the BIOS fan-speed alarm.
From the CPU fan, the cooled air is encouraged to leave the case via another Akasa 120mm rear-mounted case fan, while a third 120mm temperature-controlled fan is mounted in the 430 Watt Tagan PSU. It's a shame that the two Akasa fans aren't temperature-controlled, since this could reduce the overall noise level when idling, but larger fans are quieter anyway.
Scan had fitted two 1GB sticks of the well-respected Corsair low-latency PC3200 DDR2 RAM, and an NVidia GeForce 6200 graphics card, again with passive cooling. This particular review system was completed with one of M-Audio's Delta 66 soundcards, a 17-inch Neovo TFT monitor with a hardened glass panel mounted on top of the LCD panel to enhance image quality, plus a Logitech silver/black cordless keyboard with rechargeable cordless mouse.
- Case: black Chenbro SR10569 HI-End Workstation case.
- PSU: Tagan TG430-U15 430W PSU fitted with 'Silence Control Technology' and 120mm low-noise fan.
- Motherboard: Abit AV8 VIA K8T800 Pro with one Socket 939 for AMD Athlon 64 processor, Via K8T800 Pro chip set running 2x1020MHz front side buss and 2x204 MHz memory buss, four 184-pin DDR DIMM sockets supporting up to 4GB of PC3200 SDRAM memory, five PCI slots, and one AGP 8x/4x slot.
- Processor: AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual-core 4800+ with dual 2.4GHz clock speed, 1MB cache.
- CPU heatsink and fan: Akasa Evo 120 incorporating heatpipe, heatsink, and 120mm fan with 15dBA noise rating.
- System RAM: two 1GB sticks of Corsair low-latency DDR2 PC3200.
- System drive: Samsung HD160JJ, 160GB, 7200rpm, SATA II, 8MB buffer.
- Audio drives: three Samsung SP2504C, 250GB, 7200rpm, SATA II, connected to a three-port XFX Revo 64 RAID card operating in RAID 3 mode.
- Graphics card: NVidia GeForce 6200, passive cooling and 256MB RAM.
- Optical drive: Sony DVD RW DW-Q28A burner, 16x DVD and 48x CD read speeds, 48x CD, 16x DVD+/-R, 4x (DVD+R DL) write speeds, 24x CD-RW, 8x DVD+RW, 6x DVD-RW rewrite speeds, ATAPI Ultra DMA 4 interface, 2MB buffer.
- Active system ports: PS/2 mouse and keyboard, six USB 2.0 ports, one Firewire port, serial port, parallel port, LAN port.
- Keyboard and mouse: Logitech silver/black cordless rechargeable desktop system.
- Installed operating system: Windows XP Professional Edition with Service Pack 2.
- Also supplied with review system: AG Neovo E-17 monitor, black, with 17-inch diagonal, 1280 x 1024 native resolution; M-Audio Delta 66 interface; Steinberg Cubase SX 3.0.
As mentioned previously, a total of four hard drives were fitted in the review system, and their arrangement deserves special mention. All four were Samsung SATA II models from their Spinpoint P series which are claimed to be quieter than the competition, as well as running significantly cooler, which helps keeps overall noise levels down. The first drive was a HD160JJ model of 160GB capacity connected directly to a SATA port on the motherboard for system drive duties, while the other three drives were all larger SP2504C models with 250GB capacity, again with 7200rpm spin speed and 8MB buffers. However, this time they were connected to a three-port XFX Revo 64 RAID card operating in RAID 3 mode, creating a 480GB array.
Musicians investigating RAID invariably desire RAID 0, which splits reads and writes across two drives, thus doubling the sustained transfer rate and therefore the potential number of audio tracks or soft-sampler voices. The problem is that if one of the drives ever goes faulty you may not be able to access the data stored on either of them. Conversely, RAID 1 uses two drives in 'mirror' mode to provide greater security, but with no increase in drive speed. RAID 0+1 does provide the benefits of both, but requires four drives.
RAID 3, as used here, provides both additional speed and security. It employs one drive for parity, storing extra data that can replace any that is lost on the other two, so even if one drive fails altogether the other two should be able to carry on regardless until it's replaced. Most RAID systems require careful setting up in the BIOS as well as driver support from Windows, but this Revo 64 card is clever in that as far as Windows is concerned it looks like a standard IDE controller, with all the RAID aspects implemented in hardware. Apparently setup is also incredibly easy, requiring a single key-press to configure the three drives ready for formatting by Windows. This card makes using RAID far easier for the musician who requires a vast number of audio tracks or streamed instruments, the only down side being that you have the noise of four hard drives to contend with.
However, with such exotic cooling fans I wasn't expecting this Scan 3XS machine to be particularly noisy, and it isn't. It's not the quietest PC I've reviewed to date (that honour still goes to the Prescott 3.2GHz system from Phil Rees reviewed in SOS January 2005, closely followed by Inta Audio's Opteron 146 system reviewed in SOS November 2004), but it's as quiet as various PCs I've received from other specialist music retailers, despite including four hard drives and not having any acoustic material lining the case.
A quick look in the BIOS confirmed that the Sony DVD burner had been connected as IDE Primary Master, the Onchip Audio Controller had sensibly been disabled, and as far as I could see all other ports had been left at their default settings, with the serial, parallel, USB and Firewire ports all active.
I downloaded and installed Abit's uGuru utility software for Windows XP, and was then able to monitor temperatures, fan speeds and voltages while performing various stress tests. The BIOS had been carefully set up to sound continuous warning beeps on various fault conditions, including the temperature of the CPU reaching 75 degrees Centigrade or the CPU fan speed dropping below 1200rpm, so I set the rear-panel fan speed control to the minimum value that avoided the BIOS warning, when it was scarcely audible next to the case and PSU fans. After an hour or two the system CPU temperature was idling at just 31 degrees Centigrade, and when I ran my usual 'torture tests' to establish the highest temperature of the CPU under extreme load I couldn't get this to rise above a very safe 55 degrees Centigrade.
I'm impressed with these results considering the huge amount of processing power 'under the bonnet', but there are several other things that could further reduce noise levels. Providing a speed control for the case fan as well as the CPU one would help, while having both fans continuously temperature-controlled would optimise noise levels without the user needing to make manual adjustments (this was the main strength of the Phil Rees system). Those particularly interested in low noise might also like to investigate the various system options on the Scan web site — the Silverstone case with the more solid aluminium front panel might well reduce hard drive noise, as could some acoustic lining panels (Scan offer the Akasa Sound Proofing Kit as an optional extra).
All 3XS systems have a one-year on-site parts and labour warranty for UK mainland customers, which for many musicians will be more useful than the more typical RTB (return to base) warranty that forces you to repackage the system and be without it for at least several days. However, Scan do provide an additional two years' RTB service, with the first year covering the cost of return, parts and labour, and the second covering return and labour.
There's also an Extended Systems Warranty available for a further £115 that provides an additional two years of insurance-backed cover that you can take out at any time, offering on-site repairs from Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5.30pm, and which covers any internal, electrical, electronic or mechanical failure of any any desktop PC system valued up to £2000.
Tech support also seems very good, with a dedicated telephone support line where a support engineer will guide you through various technical solutions, and if a hardware fault is suspected, an on-site engineer can be sent out to examine your system and hopefully resolve the problem. If this doesn't prove possible, the system will then be returned to base for further examination. Once the fault has been rectified and the system fully checked it will then be returned to the customer.
The Dskbench utility measured 51.7MB/second and 51.1MB/second for the sustained write and read transfer rates on the 'C' system drive, along with a projected 144 tracks of 16-bit/44.1kHz audio with a low 2 percent CPU overhead, and I confirmed these figures with HD Tach. However, I was far more interested in the results for the RAID 3 audio drive 'D', which produced excellent figures of 91MB/second and 84MB/second for sustained write and read transfer rates, and a projected 320 tracks of 44.1kHz/16-bit audio (equivalent to 98 tracks at 24-bit/96kHz).
This doesn't quite reach the staggering 124 and 95 MB/second that I measured on Carillon's twin Seagate Barracuda RAID 0 array in SOS September 2004, but this time your data is a lot safer, as even if one of the three drives on this system fails altogether you can still carry on regardless. I did notice that the CPU overhead when Dskbench read its round-robin blocks from multiple tracks was around 10 percent, but while HD Tach produced a similar result for average read speed of 92.8MB/second, this time the CPU overhead was only around 4 percent, so I don't think this is anything to worry about.
Taking a closer look at the Windows settings relevant to audio performance, I was reassured that the most important, processor scheduling, had been correctly set to 'Background services', and although System Restore was still active, along with all the visual effects, I very much doubt that you'd notice any performance difference on such a powerful machine.
The various Sisoftware Sandra CPU benchmark tests turned in results that were almost identical to the reference Athlon 64 X2 4800+ model, proving that the review system was performing exactly as expected, and the memory bandwidth was an excellent 5800MB/second. However, for most musicians, the other important test is just how powerful this dual-core processor is when running plug-ins and soft synths. I decided to stick with Timo's Cubase SX Performance Test version 2, since although a version 3 is now available, version 2 is what I've run on all the other SOS review systems, so you get a direct comparison of how each one compares.
Initially I had a strange problem where the ASIO Multimedia drivers provided great performance at very high latency of several hundred milliseconds, but as soon as I chose the ASIO drivers the CPU overhead rose drastically, even at the highest 2048-sample buffer setting, and kept on increasing as I lowered the buffer size so that I couldn't run the test song at all down at 3ms. Re-installing the latest M-Audio drivers resolved this anomaly, and I began to get the results I was expecting.
When running at 44.1kHz and 23ms latency and above, the test song required just 11 percent CPU when stopped (thus measuring only the processors and effects), rising to 20 percent in play mode (with the soft synths also active). Dropping the latency to 3ms increased these two values only slightly to 13 and 24 percent respectively. This is significantly faster than any other PC I've reviewed, even beating by a considerable margin the dual Xeon 3.06GHz PC from Red Submarine that I reviewed back in SOS 2004.
We've all been waiting to see how much improvement dual-core systems would offer when running music applications, but even I found the truth startling. Back in July 2005 I said that 'Performance benefits for the musician are uncertain at the moment, but it seems that a dual-core Athlon X2 could provide more than 60 percent more welly than a similarly clocked Athlon 64.' In fact, this Scan system provides almost exactly double the raw CPU performance of the Dawsons Athlon 64 3700+ system reviewed in SOS March 2005, and by extrapolation you would need a single-core 7700+ processor to match it — if one existed!
Overall, this Scan system turns in a stunning performance, but not at the expense of a luxury price: £1762 is extremely competitive considering that the 4800+ CPU retails at over £600, especially as this includes a three-drive 500GB RAID array that should achieve 100 audio tracks at 24-bit/96kHz, 2GB of RAM, a DVD burner, and some exotic cooling options. Those who don't intend to run loads of audio tracks at 192kHz sample rates or streamed video alongside their music could abandon the XFX Revo 64 RAID card and two of the hard drives, knocking about £250 off the total price and bringing it closer to the £1500 mark — I think the other specialist music retailers have some serious competition on their hands.
Overall, this Scan system turns in a stunning performance for a very reasonable price. I think we can safely assume that dual-core systems are going to be extremely popular with PC musicians, and that Scan themselves should expect plenty of customers for their 3XS audio PC systems.
- Incredible amount of processing power!
- Huge 500GB RAID 3 array that provides both high performance and data security.
- Excellent value for money considering the specification.
- Slightly noisier than some specialist music PCs.
This Scan 3XS dual-core Athlon 64 PC is significantly more powerful in every respect than any other PC I've reviewed to date, yet its price remains extremely competitive. Only the acoustic noise level lets it down slightly for the musician who wants to record in the same room, and this could be lowered fairly easily with a few tweaks.
Basic system as reviewed without monitor, keyboard/mouse, music hardware or software £1762 including VAT.
Full system as reviewed including monitor, keyboard, mouse £1980.
Scan Computers +44 (0)870 755 4747.
+44 (0)870 755 4747.