Interview - If you are looking into the ultimate PC platform there, there’s little that can touch an Intel Skulltrail in terms of performance, price and bragging rights. After a much hyped introduction and less than flattering reviews, the talk about Skulltrail has calmed down, but the dual-socket platform is establishing itself as the Ferrari engine for PC. We talked to Josh Smith, chief executive of BioHazard Computers, one of the very few boutique PC builders that is offering Skulltrail PCs at this time to find out who is buying these expensive machines and what works for Skulltrail and what does not.
Josh Smith is one of those guys you want to talk when you have a small fortune to spend on a new PC. There is very little Smith and his team won’t do to make your PC unique. If you are looking into a Skulltrail system, plan on spending at least $11,000 and as much $26,000, excluding a custom paint job. Of course we were interested to find out what experience Smith had with Skulltrail so far and if these systems deliver on the promise of being the ultimate computer system out there. Read the transcript of our conversation below.
TG Daily: What is your overall impression of Skulltrail so far?
Smith: Skulltrail is definitely a different breed, but there is no doubt that it has its place in the high-performance eco-system. Our initial thoughts of Skulltrail, I’m sure, echo those of many consumers: We had hoped for better multi-card/GPU support, such as three-way SLI. The FB-DIMM performance versus standard desktop DDR2 does leave a lot to be desired. If you see a Skulltrail getting bruised a little in some benchmarks, you can generally point fingers at the memory, but the choice of FB-DIMMs is a necessity when looking that the platform server genealogy.
TG Daily: Who is buying Skulltrail systems today?
Smith: The bulk or our Skulltrail customers are prosumers, the blend of the professional and consumer markets, many of which are in the content creation field. Most of our power users fall into this category. Inside this category, we generally see two subcategories or usage models. Group 1 is typically looking for an office workstation at home. It gives them the horsepower they need to run their professional applications at home without the need to return to the office to do additional work on their projects. Group 2 is similar to group 1, and is represented by the SOHO-style customer. To this person, the home and the office are one in the same. Skulltrail hands them the power they need to run professional grade apps necessary for their business while at the same time doubling as a standard PC when not working.
TG Daily: Like a Catchall?
Smith: Yes. The value they see in these Skulltrail systems is that of investment. They do not have large corporate accounts to pay for multiple systems. Instead, they are looking for more of a Swiss-Army PC. Many will argue that Skulltrail is an expensive setup, but that point is really relative. Compared to a standard gaming desktop, Skulltrail is definitely more expensive, but compare Skulltrail to a fully blown 3D rendering/non-linear editing workstation and Skulltrail can look downright cheap. This is where we have seen Skulltrail find it’s niche. The largely unrepresented gap between desktop PC and big workstations.
TG Daily: So Skulltrail is not really the gaming PC many expected it to be?
Smith: Beyond just the prosumer market, we actually do sell quite a few Skulltrail rigs to gamers, but these are the flight sim guys. To them, SLI or Crossfire is not as much of a concern as total monitor output, and when you can slap four video cards into a single system, it makes for a pretty sweet flight experience. Beyond that, with recent updates and packs for Flight Sim X, the sim has become much more multi-core friendly, to the extent that when it is loading objects it can start to pull on all eight cores.
TG Daily: What is the feedback of customers buying these systems?
Smith: Our customers are thrilled with the systems. I believe this is due in large part to our internal sales policies. We work hard to educate our customers and ensure that the system they are ordering is one that will best fit their needs. It makes no sense to sell them a fully equipped Skulltrail if they have unrealistic expectations of what the system will do. Sure, you get a big sale in the beginning but you end up with an unhappy customer. I don’t think I am too far off in estimating that we probably steer just as many customers away from a Skulltrail system compared to the number of Skulltrail systems we sell. But again, it goes back to educating the customer. Eight cores and 16 GB of memory sounds like awesome power for gaming but the benefits Skulltrail provides will be a moot point for most customers if they never plan on multi-tasking or running multithreaded apps. They can choose one of our other high performance desktops for a great gaming experience and put the money they saved back into their pocket or invest it in such things like a 30" LCD or speakers.
TG Daily: Do you think that the scope of Skulltrail is to narrow?
Smith: No, I just think Skulltrail’s scope is misunderstood and many reviews have been somewhat off base in the comparisons they have made.
Read on the next page: Is one processor for Skulltrail enough and is Skulltrail a gaming platform - or not?
"Gaming doesn’t begin to tap into Skulltrail’s resources"
TG Daily: Is one processor for Skulltrail enough?
Smith: Well, it makes the configuration process a little simpler, doesn’t it? But seriously: It is not. Customers crave variety and I think everyone always wants to have that Good-Better-Best option. Additionally, I think Skulltrail could benefit from multiple performance offerings as it could broaden its audience somewhat. I don’t think that Skulltrail will ever be a "budget" solution, but lower CPU price options do allow for greater spending on additional components.
TG Daily: You talk about putting cheap Xeons on a Skulltrail board? Does that make sense?
Smith: I believe so, for the reasons mentioned above. Again this can be an issue for marketing support, to better illustrate the options available.
TG Daily: From your perspective, what is the difference between Skulltrail and AMD’s QuadFX?
Smith: I think QuadFX suffered from multiple flaws. QuadFX seemed rushed and half-baked. I remember that I was at Nvidia’s launch party for the 680i/8 Series GeForce and there was a QuadFX setup there and this was a pre-release at the time. They had the system setup with multiple monitors and they were trying to demonstrate the multitasking capabilities of the system and how you could encode MP3 while ripping a DVD and playing a game. But the system was unstable and kept crashing. A journalist-filled is not exactly the best place to have your hardware go down. In my opinion, QuadFX seemed desperate. It was almost as if AMD was publicly saying ’well, we don’t have a quad-core and we have no idea when we will get one working. So, in the meantime, here’s a stopgap product’. Beyond that, there were design flaws. The CPUs ran hot. Especially for AMD chips, they were power hungry and to top it off, they couldn’t compete with Intel’s single-chip quad-core offering. We chose not to offer the QuadFX option as we honestly didn’t believe in it.
TG Daily: Does Intel do enough to support the technology of Skulltrail to make the platform a success?
Smith: Intel has been solid with the support we have received for Skulltrail. We have worked closely with many of the key engineers involved with Skulltrail and the teamwork has been great. Just wait until you see our upcoming Rapture system configured for Skulltrail, now that’s a powerhouse! I think there can be some improvement on the marketing side, but without a captive audience, it can be hard to educate beyond preconceived notions.
TG Daily: What about the consumer perception of Skulltrail? Is there a marketing problem?
Smith: The key with Skulltrail is to educate the consumer. If the platform is pushed solely as a gaming platform, it will get trounced. Skulltrail’s extra power is simply not tapped by current games and the use of FB-DIMMs slow it down when compared to standard desktop systems running much faster memory. That being said, it is still a very powerful gaming system, but most of what Skulltrail offers is overkill for current games.
TG Daily: So you wouldn’t recommend Skulltrail as a gaming system?
Smith: Well, I did not say that. The power of a multi-core system is in its flexibility and multi-tasking. Much the same on the standard desktop side, a QX9770 quad-core CPU is a great processor, but if used solely for gaming, it is not the best option. Most dual cores still bench better for gaming when compared to their quad-core counterparts. Where the QX9770 (and QX9775) really shine is in the real world of gaming, not on a gaming benchmark. In a real world scenario, while you are gaming you have antivirus running in the background, perhaps you are also downloading a torrent. The benefit of quad-cores in gaming is that you can do more while you are playing. It wasn’t too long ago that to enjoy a game you had to turn off every other app running on your system to free up resources. Now, gaming can be more transparent, just start the game and play, no prep period of readying your PC for the game’s demands. Take this idea and extrapolate it to 8 cores and you can see why Skulltrail is definitely a powerful gaming rig. But used only as a gaming rig, it doesn’t begin to tap its resources. I think it is unfortunate that for the most part many reviewers still choose to review multi-core systems the same way we used to review and test single core systems, running benchmarks sequentially.
TG Daily: Thank you for your time.