Gateway has recently revamped its FX line of gaming desktops – internally at least. Though it looks the same as other older FX machines we’ve seen from Gateway, this one is easily the most powerful Gateway ever assembled, and even includes a factory-overclocked quad-core processor running at a steamy 3.66GHz. Though its performance is generally excellent, we think Gateway has pushed this machine’s CPU a bit too much, as the BTX induction fan is way too loud and we were able to make it blue screen on cue. It’s also puzzling to us why Gateway builds “gaming” rigs and then loads the exact same OS image it uses on every single Gateway PC, treating it like any run-of-the-mill machine. The Gateway FX540XT has a base price of $3799.99 USD.
Features and Design
The FX540XT is the top-of-the-line gaming machine in Gateway’s FX lineup. There are less-expensive variants, the cheapest being the $1,279 USD FX540B. None of these systems have customizable hardware, as they are pre-designed configurations you cannot change. You can add or remove accessories and software, but the hardware is locked in when you buy.
We were surprised to find out this rig is overclocked. And we’re not talking about some dinky little 200MHz either. They’ve cranked the Intel QX6850 from 3.0GHz all the way up to 3.66GHz, which is ambitious given how hot these chips can get. Even more surprisingly, Gateway doesn’t use any special cooling either, but continues to employ the standard BTX chassis and cooling setup it’s used in all the previous FX machines, even though this PC uses an NVIDIA 680i LT chipset.
Overclocked GPUs Too
Gateway didn’t just overclock the processor and call it a day. They took it to the next level and overclocked the machine’s dual NVIDIA 8800 GTX cards too, cranking them up from the stock clock speed of 575MHz to 600MHz. Memory speeds are also tweaked from 900MHz to 925MHz. Powering the cards is a proprietary Gateway power supply that pumps out 700w.
Even though HD DVD is not long for this world, the FX540XT has all the HD bases covered with a combo HD DVD/Blu-ray optical drive. It can read both HD and Blu-ray formats but cannot write to them. It can write to DVD and CDs, however. The disc can also create LightScribe labels on special media.
The FX540XT includes two 500GB 7,200rpm hard drives that are striped into a RAID 0 array. This setup theoretically increases transfer speeds since both drives divvy up the duties and work in tandem. The only downside to this approach is exactly half of all the data resides on each drive, so if one fails all data is lost.
OS and Security
The FX540XT comes with Windows Vista Home Premium, and versions with SP1 pre-installed should be available by the time you read this. Security is handled by a 60-day subscription to Norton Internet Security. You can continue to use the program after 60 days, but you cannot get updates from Symantec, which effectively makes it useless.
Image Courtesy of Gateway
Use and Testing
This PC is very heavy, and to assist customers in removing it from the box Gateway has implemented a clever set of cardboard wrap-around handles. You just grab the handles, pull it out of the box, and set the whole thing down on the floor. The handles then naturally fall away and the PC is free and ready to be hooked up.
Upon arriving at the Windows desktop for the first time we were disappointed to see, once again, that this “gaming” machine has the exact same software build as every other Gateway we’ve reviewed, from notebooks to desktops. It has the same “employee photo of a river somewhere” desktop wallpaper, the same apps installed, and the same peripherals. It doesn’t differentiate itself from other Gateways at all. We’ve complained about this before. A gaming machine isn’t just two videocards and a fast CPU, it’s about much more than that, and the fact that Gateway chooses to ignore little details like the desktop wallpaper, pre-installed software and the design of the peripherals is disappointing. We’ve also seen this chassis a number of times before as well, and would advise Gateway to ditch it in favor of something sexier.
Since gaming rigs usually push the envelope in terms of performance, we always perform a rudimentary torture test on them – especially if they’re overclocked – to make sure they are stable. Sadly, the Gateway was not stable at all. We began by simply taxing two of its four CPU cores and looping 3DMark06, but it crashed and rebooted after a half-hour or so.
Sensing the overclock wasn’t stable, we then loaded up all four cores with the toughest test around – Prime95. (link: http://www.mersenne.org/freesoft.htm). This program will stress out a CPU and memory worse than any program we’ve ever come across, and is great for checking stability on an overclocked system. And sure enough, within ten seconds of loading the fourth iteration of Prime95 the FX540XT Blue Screen’d.
The FX540XT went BSOD on us after ten seconds of Prime95
We did this Prime95 experiment a few times and it reliably crashed every single time. Though we figured the FX540XT was just overclocked a bit too high, we reasoned that sometimes bad memory can also cause blue screens, so we rebooted and ran Memtest. This program runs patterns on memory to determine if RAM is bad or not, and the scans can take hours to finish. Luckily for us, within a few minutes the screen was filled with errors, meaning the RAM was having some issues.
Within a few minutes of starting Memtest the screen was filled with errors
Just out of curiosity, we then downclocked the system to stock speeds and sure enough, all our stability problems vanished. We even ran MemTest again and it reported no errors, so the overclock must have done something funky to the memory, which is odd since it was a multiplier overclock and not a FSB overclock (which also overclocks memory).
We left the system downclocked at 3.0GHz throughout testing to make sure there wouldn’t be any issues, and there weren’t any. We gamed for hours and experienced zero issues. However, we must note that even at stock speeds the intake fan on the BTX cooler was way too loud, and would spin up for no reason at all. It would even spin up when we began installing applications, loading a web page or just sitting at the desktop! It is so loud, in fact, that we could hear it from the next room. We’ve seen plenty of overclocked systems that were rock solid and dead quiet, so Gateway has no excuses in this department.
Once we had gotten the FX540XT to a stable state by downclocking its processor, we ran a series of benchmark tests to give us an indication of its overall performance. First we ran PC Mark Vantage, which tests all aspects of a PC’s performance including 3D gaming, image editing, web surfing and productivity, etc. The FX540XT scored 5,237 PC Marks, which is the highest score – by far – that we’ve seen thus far. We also ran 3DMark06, which is a well-known gaming benchmark. The FX540XT scored 15,329, which is very good. Not surprisingly, with its 3.0GHz quad-core processor and dual 8800 GTX cards, it’s an understatement to say this machine is good for gaming.
Looking at the FX540XT’s Windows Experience Score, we saw that it was listed as 5.9, which is the highest score possible. This is the first time we’ve ever seen a system top this chart, as there’s usually a weak link somewhere (usually RAM) that ends up lowering the score. Needless to say, the FX540XT was very fast in Windows and we never experienced any slowdowns or hitching whatsoever.
Upgrading and Expanding
Though a machine this powerful will likely not need any upgrades for a long, long time, it’s still worthwhile to note its expansion options. Removing the side door is pleasingly simple, as all you have to do is unscrew a thumbscrew and pull a lever to get the door to pop out of its hinges. Inspecting the interior we noted that both optical drive bays are full, and the drives are held in place by small levers that slide to lock the drive into place or to free it. The same tool-less mechanism is used for the hard drive cage, which has one free bay. Gateway has even left a SATA power cable dangling in front of the empty bay to make adding a drive easier, but you’ll still have to run the SATA cable over to one of the three free SATA ports. Gateway also provides little clamps that hold down the SATA cables, which is a nice touch. There are no free PCI slots at all, however, as the dual 8800s take up four slots, and the XFi soundcard takes up the final slot. There are two free 3.5” internal bays as well.
Obviously, we had some issues with this machine. The overclocked CPU wasn’t stable and the machines’s fans were way too loud, even when the machine was just idling at the desktop. Plus, this chassis has always looked a little bland to us, and now that it’s been around several years it’s beginning to look downright moldy. If we were in charge at Gateway, we’d jettison this chassis and the BTX standard and move in the direction of the newer FX machines, namely the FX7020 desktop and P171XL FX notebook . We loved both of these machines, and thought they not only offered great value but were a marked improvement over the old FX machines in terms of style and aesthetics. The FX540XT offers great performance for sure, but it’s too loud, too old, and too unstable to recommend in its current condition.
• Great gaming performance
• Overclocked processor
• Plays HD movies
• Fans are too loud
• Overclocked CPU was not stable
• Typical Gateway PC despite “gaming” branding