System Builder Marathon, March 2011: $1000 Enthusiast PC

Assembly And Overclocking

The Android case might look unique, but installing hardware into it is a simple affair. There’s a lot of available space and the tool-free add-in card and drive-mounting mechanisms work well. There was only one hiccup worth mentioning, though: the 220 mm fan on the side of the case is so thick that it interferes with the Hyper 212 CPU cooler. This is surprising, since the large fan is mounted in a recess, in order to give the internals breathing room. Nevertheless, the 220 mm fan has to be removed to make way for the cooler, which is unfortunate because the large fan is one of the reasons we found the Android appealing in the first place.

Fortunately, the three remaining 120 mm fans do a fine job, and temperatures remain quite low as you’ll see in the benchmarks.

From a software perspective, installation went flawlessly. The ASRock P67 Extreme4’s UEFI-based BIOS interface is simple and intuitive. With nothing else to report, we’ll move on to overclocking.


Overclocking the multiplier-unlocked Core i5-2500K is a simple proposition compared to its Core i5-700 predecessors. No fiddling with bus speeds is required. Simply increase the CPU voltage and increment the multiplier. We find the 45x setting to be a hard limit for this particular CPU; at 46x, it no longer boots.

We do suffer an odd multiplier throttling issue that we can’t seem to get around using this motherboard. Despite BIOS tweaks like disabling Turbo Boost and SpeedStep, disabling CPU throttling, and increasing the core current limit, the processor throttles down to a 44x multiplier under load. Now, 4.4 GHz is fine by us and the CPU never exceeded 65 degrees Celsius during stress testing. At the same time, we can’t help but wonder if we’re being held back by a throttling mechanism. Regardless, 4.4 GHz with cool temperatures is a fine result as far as we’re concerned.

Graphics Card Unlocking

Now let’s get to the real fun stuff: seeing if we can enable the dormant shader processors in our Gigabyte-based Radeon HD 6950 in order to squeeze Radeon HD 6970 performance out of the card. Thomas used similar cards in his $2000 build, which preceded this one. As a builder, it was his prerogative to recognize the dangers involved with trying to flash the 6950's firmware and opt not to take the risk. We're going to give it a shot here though, hopefully showing enthusiasts what is possible when you go out on a limb.

You might assume that all we have to do is flash the Radeon HD 6950 2 GB (note that this doesn't work with the 1 GB card) with a Radeon HD 6970's BIOS. Certainly, some folks have had success with this method. But others have found their 6950 generates artifacts under load after the procedure. There’s really very little risk involved, since the Radeon HD 6900-series cards have a backup BIOS switch to recover from a bad flash.

Artifacts might not mean the operation is hopeless, though. The Radeon HD 6970 BIOS uses different memory timings and faster memory speeds than the Radeon HD 6950. So, a better approach is to modify your card’s native BIOS to enable that sleeping hardware, and then overclock the card separately. Fortunately, W1zzard at Techpowerup has made a tool to do just that. (Props!)

First, we copied our Radeon HD 6950’s BIOS to a file using ATI Winflash. Next, we ran W1zzard’s tool on the file, and it spit out a modified copy of our BIOS. Finally we flashed this modified BIOS to our Radeon HD 6950 and, voila! We went from 1408 functioning shader processors to 1536, just like a Radeon HD 6970.

With a fully-functional Cayman GPU, our next concern was raising the clock speeds as far as we could take them. For this, MSI’s Afterburner is the superlative tool of choice. We used the 2.1.0 Beta 7 version (the official version was released before publication) and modified the MSIAfterburner.cfg file in order to overclock past the limits in Catalyst Control Center, disable PowerPlay, and unlock voltage control and monitoring.

Raising the voltage to 1.175 V (the same as a stock Radeon HD 6970), we took our Radeon HD 6950 from a stock 1408 shaders at 800/1250 MHz core/memory to 1536 shaders at 880/1300 MHz core/memory. This brought us to Radeon HD 6970's exact GPU specifications, and a mere 75 MHz short on memory speed.

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  • americanherosandwich
    That is one funky looking case. Great $1k system!
  • toxxel
    That case is a behemoth.
  • dirtmountain
    After seeing that case i was afraid for Princess Leia.
  • cangelini
    dirtmountainAfter seeing that case i was afraid for Princess Leia.

  • Darkerson
    Crazy looking case, but nice system overall!
  • _Pez_
    for 1k usd seems to be a cheap system.. hmm nice review, is good to see that new processors are really efficient even when overclocked bad about the 22cm cooler of the side panel of that funny case. My Armor+ has exactly the same issue with a V6gt cooler and I decided to go back to my hyper212+ :D.
  • ava__
    you forgot to add the cost of your beloved Windows
  • Crashman
  • Mark Heath
    Anonymous said:

    Good to see the Tom's team is on the same page XD
  • AkIRA_22
    that has to be the ugliest case I've ever seen in my life. At the end of the day the case is 100% taste, to 'recommend' a case is futile.
  • skora
    Just for testing purposes, could that 220mm fan have been mounted on the outside of the case, to see if its worth buying a slimmer fan with that extra $24 in the budget?
  • gti88
    Strange results in games. 460 1gb SLI is equal to gtx580 in Crysis, but in this article two 460gtx show the same performance as 6950...
  • Luay
    Amazing value. This machine can do rip trough anything @ 1920x1200. I like how you're keeping your eyes open on mobos yet to appear;
    Asrok P67 Extreme4, MSI P67 GD45, Intel Boxdp67bg, Asus P67Pro, Gigabyte P67UD4: Cheapest SLI/CF x8 w/3slot-for-each-card-boards out there. Only one can be the best. My bet is on Intel.

    6950 all the way and nothing less, not even to fit in a SSD.

    For $10 more, I would pick the Inwin Dragon Slayer for bigger size, 4 fans, meshed covers (Princess Leia's daddy).

    Another $10 for the Corsair TX650 Version 2.0, but that was just released 3 weeks ago.
  • iam2thecrowe
    i think i said this in the last build....modular PSU please, especially since you had a bit of money you had left over. OCZ do some good ones.
  • eddieroolz
    I saw the case, and it made me instantly awaken. Not quite sure how to explain it - though it does come down to personal taste anyway.

    As for some of the gaming benchmarks, it's really a mixed bag. Sandy Bridge/6950 rules at 1080p & lower but anything higher seems to be in the domain of the dual Nvidia cards. Though the Core i3 was a really extreme compromise.

    Now waiting for the AMD build to show up!
  • JohnMD1022
    UGGGGGHHHHH-ly casr
  • pelov
    eddieroolzI saw the case, and it made me instantly awaken. Not quite sure how to explain it - though it does come down to personal taste anyway.As for some of the gaming benchmarks, it's really a mixed bag. Sandy Bridge/6950 rules at 1080p & lower but anything higher seems to be in the domain of the dual Nvidia cards. Though the Core i3 was a really extreme compromise. Now waiting for the AMD build to show up!

    That has to do with the way certain games are programmed and made to prefer certain architecture over another. it's not exactly the fault of the video cards.
  • JohnMD1022
    I have to learn to spell 'case'... lol

    Seagate drive? No way... pure junk.
  • dalta centauri
    JohnMD1022I have to learn to spell 'case'... lolSeagate drive? No way... pure junk.

    Nothing wrong with a seagate an external HDD. Never used one as an internal though.
    The case itself looks real good, and hopefully efficient at cooling. Although I must say, it looks like a 'gaming' case that was first built around early 2000. I personally like it though, it looks quite unique.
  • luis1
    Just pulled the trigger on this system.. trumps your 1K system..
    For 820.00 shipped..