Herald Ivy Bridge
New product launches often provide the necessary catalyst for an uptick in the sales of pre-built computers. The last month has seen NVIDIA roll out the impressive GeForce GTX 680 graphics card and just this week Intel launched a range of 3rd Generation Core chips, imbued with Ivy Bridge magic.
Now, take these two together and you have the basis of a barnstorming PC that'll provide spades of performance for practically all applications and games. We're adamant that system integrators are to re-launch PCs with these upgrades in place, and the first one we've come across is the PC Specialist Vanquish XT-680.
Priced at £1,399, including VAT and delivery, the XT-680 base unit houses high-end innards within an imposing Cooler Master Storm Trooper chassis. Weighing close to 15kg on its own and outfitted with an integrated rubberised handle for LAN-friendly transportation, the design appeals to gamers more than folk looking for a minimalist enclosure that fits neatly out of the way. Supporting up to 14 hard drives, XL-ATX motherboards, as many graphics cards that you care to throw at it and provision for watercooling, expandability is a definite plus.
Rather than spoil the aesthetic on the front, Cooler Master incorporates the various peripheral connectors on the top, situated just underneath the power button and fan-speed controls. But this isn't a review of a chassis of course, and the first indication that this is a pre-built system comes from the inclusion of a 12x Blu-ray reader (not writer) from LiteOn.
Removing the side panel brings us to PC Specialist's handiwork. A stock-clocked GeForce GTX 680 2GB takes pride of place in the middle, sitting on top of an entry-level Z77 chipset-based motherboard from ASUS, the P8Z77-V. It has three PCIe x16 slots though, due to electrical lane restrictions, we'd only use two graphics cards. The good news is that it supports both NVIDIA's SLI and AMD's CrossFire, if the supplied GTX 680, for some reason, doesn't tickle your fancy.
Kingston provides 8GB of DDR3-1,600 memory, which is standard fare, but the cooling is better specified than we've seen on equivalent 2nd Generation Core-equipped machines. You see, PC Specialist uses an Intel Core i7-3770K 'Ivy Bridge' processor as the beating heart of the system. It's overclocked from its native 3.5GHz to 4.6GHz, and while such an overclock is easily achievable with the 'last-gen' Core i7-2700K cooled by a regular fan-and-heatsink combination, these new Ivy Bridge chips run hot, especially if you shove 1.325V up their backside - the necessary voltage to keep the chip operating at 4.6GHz on all cores. PC Specialist employs the CooliT ECO II ALC Fat Boy - a liquid cooler allied to a thick radiator that's cooled by push-pull 120mm fans.
Additional cooling is provided by two 120mm front-mounted intake fans and a 140mm exhaust at the top. Interestingly, the chassis, as standard, ships with the 140mm set to rear exhaust and a 200mm exhaust at the top. We wonder why PC Specialist hasn't left the larger fan in place. Fundamentally, we believe the Vanquish XT-680's design to be a suitable prototype for most Ivy Bridge systems going forward; basic air cooling simply won't cut it when tasked with keeping a near-5GHz, over-volted Core i7-3770K chip at reasonable temperatures.
A capacious interior and liberal use of cable-routing holes means the Vanquish XT-680 is a tidy, if not immaculate, build, and there's clearly lots of room to play with if the specification needs updating. Corsair's TX850 non-modular supply has enough grunt to take in a second graphics card, no problem, while the storage, hidden from view, is composed of a 120GB Kingston HyperX SSD - to be 'upgraded' to the 3X model as soon as arrives, according to PCS - and a 1TB HDD for general data storage.
Boot it up and the Vanquish XT-680's installation of Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit is nice and neat; there's no unnecessary bloatware littering the build. All the latest updates are installed and a full version of CyberLink's PowerDVD and Office Starter 2010 are included. We believe it's worth mentioning that PCS also provides a handy 'welcome pack' that guides the novice user through basic PC usage and offers various support options should matters go awry.
The system ships with a three-year warranty whose cover reduces year on year. The first year has a full parts-and-labour collect-and-return service and the subsequent two years cover labour costs only; you'll have to foot the bill for the to-and-fro postage and cost of parts. Bear in mind that PCS offers lifetime hardware technical support via an 0844 (5p/m) number. The warranty is flexible enough to allow you to upgrade parts yourselves without voiding it, subject to any physical damage resulting from deliberate mishandling.
A decent build whose individual components and software, sans warranty, tot up to around £150 less than the asking price from PC Specialist. Let's now get to the benchmarks.