Ask any hardcore gamer what parts he or she would use today to build the best bang-for-the-buck gaming system, and the final product would most likely closely resemble the Systemax Venture VX2. The company has hit the value and performance sweet spot with a system that is powerful, relatively affordable, and able to play all of todays, and tomorrow’s games, at ungodly resolutions.
Features and Design
Anyone can build a $5K gaming machine. Just grab the top-of-the-line parts in every category, wedge them into a chassis, paint some flames or dragons (or flaming dragons, for added affect) on it, and ship it. Building a mid-range system, however, where bang-for-the-buck is the primary purpose, is much more difficult. If you made a line graph of several components’ prices and their respective performance, there’s always a sweet spot in between the high-end and low-end where the best performance for dollar exists, and it’s always a moving target. Systemax is attempting to hit this target with its Venture VX2, and on paper it looks darn good.
Under the hood
We love our dual-core processors, but we love quad-core processors even more. Systemax is aware of this situation, and is shipping the VX2 with the currently reigning champion of price and performance in the CPU world – the Core 2 Quad Q6600. It’s a 2.4GHz quad-core CPU with 8MB of L2 cache (2MB per core), and it delivers truly mind-bending performance in multithreaded applications, of which there are few. The truth is, most people will never use all those cores, today. But some day, perhaps in a year or two, as multi-core becomes the norm, this processor and others like it will become increasingly effective, so it never hurts to have more cores than you might need currently. The only downside to this processor is that it runs hotter than Texas asphalt in July, and exotic cooling is often not only a good idea, but required to keep it chilly.
Any serious gaming machine these days is going to be running an NVIDIA 8800 card, and Systemax has gone with the 320MB GTS version which in our opinion is the best, sorry to say it again, bang-for-the-buck card a gamer can buy. The card is fully DirectX 10 ready, even though most games aren’t. But hey, someday they will be; or at least that’s what Microsoft keeps telling us. Regardless of the DX10 situation, the card offers smoldering performance in DX9 games and is a stunningly powerful piece of hardware, especially for its relatively low price.
Ever since Battlefield 2 came out, it’s been fashionable to have 2GB of system memory, since that game sucked up 1GB or more. Now that Windows Vista is out in the wild, it’s more important than ever to be running 2GB of RAM, because Vista alone will gulp down 1GB or more. The VX2 takes it to the next level with 4GB of PC2-6400 (aka PC2 800), which is more than sufficient for BF2, Vista, and anything else you might want to run. Astute readers will point out that since Vista is a 32-bit OS, it cannot address all of that RAM because some is reserved for PCI Express devices, and they are right. But still, 3.32 gigabytes of RAM is more than sufficient for anything you’ll be doing this year, and next year, and probably the year after that.
Almost every gaming system shipping these days comes with Windows Vista, and this is either a blessing or a curse depending on how you feel about the operating system. We’re warming up to the OS, and hear that a lot of the initial bugs that plagued gamers have been resolved. The VX2 ships with the top-of-the-line version, dubbed Vista Ultimate. It offers every single feature Microsoft could think of when designing the OS, and also the promise of future goodies that will be free to Ultimate users. So far the company has release several of these, and plans to release many more over the next few years, including the much-anticipated Windows DreamScene animated desktop thingamabob.
Mobo and chipset
The VX2 uses the trusty Intel “Bad Axe” 975X motherboard, which is highly regarded for its stable operation and superior performance. The board sports dual x16 PCI-Express graphics ports, but does not support SLI (only NVIDIA boards offer this feature). We don’t mind not having SLI, as it doesn’t work in all games, is costly, and is not always a good upgrade option (buying a second card that is). The board offers Matrix RAID, which is the ability to run RAID 0 and RAID 1 on just two drives, onboard HD audio and cool blue flame-shaped heatsinks around the CPU area.
Thanks to Bit Torrent, and pr0n, people need not just gigs of storage these days, but terabytes. The VX2 offers up a terabyte of storage (that’s 1,000 gigabytes) thanks to two 500GB Seagate 7200.10 drives in a RAID 0 striped array. Though the setup is very speedy, we do not understand why every “gaming” system that ships these days has to have a RAID 0 array. It’s like an unwritten rule from the year 2002 that says a gaming PC must run RAID 0 in order to be “ultra fast,” but real-world benchmarks have debunked the myth of RAID 0 advantages, and the risk you take by putting all your eggs in one super-huge basket is just not worth it, in our opinion. We would have much preferred a RAID 1 array, or simply two 500GB drives – one for data, and one for backup. Call us crotchety old men, but we like to keep our data safe, and running a single striped terabyte array is not safe, nor is it smart.
We should note there is room inside the chassis for two more hard drives, but since there is no cooling for the drives, you would most likely burn the drives up in no time by stacking four of them and keeping them running all the time.
The VX2 include two 500GB drives in a 1TB array
The cool new hotness these days in the optical world are HD drives that can burn and read Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, but they are prohibitively expensive right now. Plus, since the format war is still brewing, nobody wants to drop that kind of cash ($400-$1000 USD) on something that might go the way of the dodo bird in the near future. The VX2 plays it safe with dual optical drives of the DVD-R/RW variety. One is a 20X dual-layer drive, which can burn discs up to 8GB or so in size. The other is a trusty 16X DVD reader and 52X CD-R/RW. The pair will burn every possible type of media, HD not included.
The VX2 comes with both a 20X DVD burner, and a 52X DVD CD-reader
Ports and Connectors
The VX2 has more than its share of new and old ports and connectors, so it should be able to handle anything you throw at it. In the front are two USB ports and a FireWire port, as well as a very handy 9-in-1 media reader. There are also microphone and headphone jacks.
In the back there are four more USB ports, another FireWire port, audio connections and – get this – legacy Serial and Parallel connectors! We haven’t seen these in ages, and will no doubt please those still rockin’ old school dot matrix printers.
The VX2 offers plenty of new, and old, connectors
Mice and Keyboard
With a system built on a strict budget, you have to cut corners somewhere, and Systemax clearly did it on the mouse and keyboard. Both are PS/2 units (shudder), and are “value” to the very core. At least the mouse is optical, instead of roller ball, but we didn’t think either unit deserves to be plugged into such a powerful PC. The company also threw in a cheapo foam mousepad that is totally generic.
Toss the keyboard and mouse in the trash, if you have any self respect.
Gamers are usually big on a gaming PC’s aesthetic, but are equally interested in how both the inside and outside look. The all-black mid-tower in use here is decent, but nothing that will raise your blood pressure or impress the ladies. The interior is similar, and Systemax made a clear attempt to route the wires out of the way, but did so by bundling them into a huge cluster with a zip-tie. It doesn’t look too hot, but since the system does not include a case window, most people will never know. Still, cluttered wiring can make upgrades difficult, but in this case, where upgrades would be few and far between, we’re willing to cut Systemax a little slack.
The chassis isn’t groundbreaking, but is functional.
Setup and Use
Pulling the chassis out of the box we were surprised that it was relatively light. Newbies should be able to get up and running fairly quickly due to the included fold-out set up guide, which shows all the ports and what goes into them. Our only complaint about the setup guide is it’s awfully dense, and packed with text and pictures, making it a bit difficult to read.
Also in the box is a System Resource Kit that includes the Vista Ultimate disc and a restore DVD, which is appreciated in case things go sideways at some point.
Once we were up and running the system hummed right along, as we expected it to given its pedigree. We ran the Vista performance index and the VX2 scored 5.9 (the highest score possible) in every single category, except RAM, where it scored 5.5. For some reason, this brought the system’s final score down to 5.5 as well, which seems goofy to us. We’re not math majors, but one would think that on average it would be like a 5.8.
The installation of Windows was very sparse and clean, which is just the way we like it. There were only two icons on the desktop (one for Viiv and another warning you not to install an anti-virus program without uninstalling the bundled CA Internet Security Suite) and no extra icons in the system tray, which is perfect.
Since this is a gaming machine, and Bioshock had just been released, we were curious to see if it could handle the gorgeous underwater world of Rapture. Since we were using a 24” widescreen display for testing, we figured why not crank it all the way up? We set it to run at 1920×1200, with DirectX 10 detail enabled, and it ran surprisingly well. Framerates hovered in the 30s, and when there were a lot of fire and explosions on screen it got a bit choppy. We ended up disabling post processing, and framerates jumped to the high 40s and low 50s, which is just fine for a slow-paced game like Bioshock. We also installed Doom 3, and naturally it ran like melted buttah.
One problem we did encounter in testing was the CPU ran very hot. Now, this is somewhat common with quad-core processors, as they run hotter than any other CPU on the market due to their design. However, this processor, which is cooled by a very quiet heatsink/fan from Foxconn, is bordering on nuclear. We saw idle temps of around 68C, and load temps of 92C.
Quad-core CPUs run hot, but the VX2’s CPU ran a bit too hot for our tastes
That is way, way too hot, and if this were our PC we’d invest in an aftermarket cooler, or maybe even water-cooling to bring the temps down to where they should be. We also removed the cooler, re-applied some thermal paste and looked at the temps again, just to make sure it was properly installed, and saw no change in temperatures. We even looked up the thermal info on Intel’s website and according to the site the max temp for this processor is 71C, but we ran it beyond 90C and never saw any signs of throttling at all.
We have to wonder why Systemax would ship the unit with such a sub-standard cooler, and our only guess is that it does the job and most users would never look at the temps. To the company’s credit, the system was rock-solid throughout testing, and despite the high temps it never crashed or showed any signs of trouble. We even ran four instances of Prime95 overnight, and the system never shut off or displayed any weirdness.
One of the reasons the system is so quiet, aside from the quiet CPU cooler, is that Systemax did not provide any cooling for the hard drives, and they were hot to the touch. Though hard drives are usually okay with a little heat, we prefer to have some air flowing over them since excessive heat can shorten their life span (and we speak from experience on this).
Heat issues aside, the system is very fast, responsive and seemingly always ready to open a program or to execute a command. With four processor cores ready and waiting, it’s difficult to actually stress a system like this, and it’ll be some time before a lot of multithreaded software hits the market, including games.
Boot times in Vista Ultimate were a scant 1:09, which is pretty normal for a “fast” desktop system. It’s about what we expect with a Vista system. The system shuts off in 18 seconds, which is decent.
We’d love to discuss upgrading, but seriously – what are you going to upgrade? You’ve already got two optical drives, all the RAM slots are full, you shouldn’t add another hard drive due to heat issues, and the CPU and videocard are top of the line. If you did want to upgrade, some time in the distant future, it should be relatively easy since Systemax took the time to route most of the cables out of the way. The wiring is not elegant at all, but since there’s no case window it’s not that big of a deal.
The wiring isn’t the cleanest job we’ve seen, but there’s no case window to reveal this dirty secret.
Systemax has built a very solid mid-range gaming machine with the VX2. In fact, if you ask most hardcore PC enthusiasts what parts they would pick for a “bang for the buck” machine, we imagine most would settle on the same parts Systemax chose. The system offers tremendous power, is very quiet, and looks decent too. Systemax even backs it up with an impressive 3-year, onsite warranty, which is rare these days. We have issues with the system’s cooling, however, and Systemax really needs to address that. If the company does, this will be a system that’s hard to fault, especially for the gamer on a modest budget.
Very powerful; surprisingly quiet
3-year onsite warranty
Multiple cooling issues
No backup options