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Motherboard, Graphics, And Hard Drives

System Builder Marathon: $2,500 Enthusiast PC

Motherboard: EVGA X58 3X SLI

Our choice for this month’s high-end graphics took precedence over motherboard selection, simply because we’re using 3-way SLI. While most Intel X58 chipset motherboards support 3-way SLI in theory, the EVGA X58 was the only available model with each of its slots in the proper location.

Read Customer Reviews of EVGA's 132-BL-E758-A1 Motherboard

Most competing X58 Express models only have a single space between two of the slots, eliminating any chance of using three double-thick cards. Remaining models such as Asus’ P6T Deluxe and Rampage II Extreme, Biostar’s TpowerX58, and Gigabyte’s EX58-UD5 put the third slot in the lowest position, forcing double-slot cards to hang below the case’s bottom slot. New models such as the Asus P6T6 workstation and DFI’s X58-T3eHS were not yet available when we placed our order.

Sold under part number 132-BL-E758-A1, the X58 3X SLI is the first motherboard EVGA has ever produced. The firm formerly sourced its products from an Nvidia manufacturing partner (Foxconn, Palit, etc.) or, earlier still, from Jetway. But while any manufacturer’s very first product is usually its worst, we had enough faith in EVGA’s high standards and the skills of its recently acquired engineering team that we had to give it this chance. 

But as previously noted, with three double-thick graphics cards going into a standard case, we really had no other choice than to give EVGA this chance.

Graphics: 3x EVGA GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked Edition in SLI

The best thing about pre-overclocked graphics cards is that buyers know they will run at least as fast as the company set them or else the company will replace them. With the discounts available at the time we placed our order, EVGA’s Superclocked Edition GTX 260 Core 216 was within $10 of the cheapest model Newegg had in stock. For a 4% difference in price, it’s hard to argue against the performance advantage of cards that are overclocked over 8% at the GPU and 5% at the memory.

Read Customer Reviews of EVGA's GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked

The newer Core 216 version of the GTX 260 graphics processor falls between the original GTX 260 and the high-priced GTX 280 in performance, but many readers will still be surprised that we didn’t simply install two GTX 280 cards. EVGA and Nvidia would certainly prefer its buyers to choose two GTX 280s, as the GTX 260 cost nearly as much to produce but is priced far cheaper.

The problem for us is that two GTX 280 graphics cards cost more than three GTX 260s while offering less performance potential. We plan on following up this month’s SBM with a comparison between these two configurations, so you can look forward to this proof of concept.

Hard Drives:  3x Samsung Spinpoint F1 1.0 TB in RAID 5

Our SBMs are certainly performance shootouts, yet the systems we build are designed to represent something readers would use on a daily basis. For example, our overclocks are done at relatively safe voltage levels and our cooling systems are designed for low noise. In a similar manner, a Level Zero array would squeeze out the best performance from our three 1.0 TB Samsung F1 drives, but the associated risk of data loss would have been unappealing for a daily-use machine. We thus chose RAID 5 for its redundancy.

Read Customer Reviews of Samsung's Spinpoint F1 1 TB

Samsung’s SpinPoint F1 series provides a great balance of performance at a very low price, with several variations targeted at different markets. Newegg only had the standard version in stock when we placed our order, but it’s hard to fault a 2 TB RAID 5 array using three 1.0 TB drives for slightly less than $300.

We were a little concerned about CPU overhead when using a software RAID controller, in the form of Intel’s ICH10R southbridge, to calculate parity bits. These concerns were somewhat put to rest as testing revealed average CPU use of only around 4% on a single processing core while the system was re-validating array integrity. The only real question then is whether or not RAID 5 will offer reasonable transfer rates. Our PCMark results will provide at least a partial answer.

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