HP Blackbird 002
“...we'd take a Blackbird over any other pre-built PC available without a second thought.”
- Incredible design inside and out; blistering performance; cool and quiet
- Price tag matches performance; out-of-the-box issues
The HP Blackbird 002 is the first lovechild to spawn from the marriage of HP and Voodoo PC, and there’s been a lot of hype about this particular PC. After putting it through its paces, we have to say: believe the hype. This is an incredible machine that is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. In fact, it’s the first high-end rig we’ve seen in a long time that made us consider shelling out our own hard-earned money to buy one.
Features and Design
The chassis is clearly the most intriguing aspect of the Blackbird, so let’s discuss it first. The chassis is a custom-made tower that is gigantic and extremely heavy. We don’t have a scale on hand, but it almost requires two people to carry it. It’s quite heavy, around 80lbs to be exact, so it won’t be seeing a lot of LAN party action, that’s for sure.
The case has a wedge shape and stands on a silver “foot” that elevates the chassis up about four inches from the ground to allow for air to enter from below. It looks rather menacing in person, as the back of the case narrows to a slimmer front, and there’s also a V-cut in the top of the chassis as well. The entire case is made from cast aluminum and reeks of quality, strength and bad-assedness.
The Blackbird chassis is truly one-of-a-kind and looks amazing in person.
The chassis is completely tool-less. A small lever on the front slides open with minimal effort, revealing the interior of the PC. From there, another easy-to-open latch releases the plastic covering the PCI expansion cards. There is one more piece of plastic hiding the PSU cables at the bottom of the chassis, and it too slides out with ease. The door itself even comes off just by lifting it out of its hinges.
Flip the little metal latch on the bezel and the side door swings open with ease.
On top of the case there is a pop-out bay that holds a media reader, USB and FireWire ports, and headphone/mic jacks. When you’re not using the media reader bay, you can just press it down and it rests flush inside the chassis.
A slick card reader/USB hub pops out of the top of the Blackbird’s chassis.
The case has lights too, but they are very soft and subtle. When running, a light blue glow emanates from the top of the chassis, there is white light behind the front panel where the power button resides, and there is a soft white light coming from underneath the chassis as well. There is also a light above the rear I/O ports, which makes plugging in devices much easier.
The front of the case features five hot-swappable hard drive bays that are pre-wired to the motherboard, so you just put a drive in the cage and pop it into a bay. We hate fussing with hard drive cables and are huge fans of this approach. In fact, we think it’s probably the most useful feature of the chassis.
A machine this gnarly should have a burly CPU, and the Blackbird does not disappoint. This model features Intel’s new QX6850 CPU, which is a quad-core CPU that has been overclocked from 3.0GHz to 3.3GHz. If you’ve read reviews of the quad-core CPUs, you’ll know that they can run extremely hot, even at stock speeds, but HP has addressed the heat problem with a custom water-cooling setup that is made by Asetek. It features a large internal radiator and is cooled by two 120mm fans. The unit is totally self-contained and requires no maintenance. In this configuration, just the CPU is water-cooled, but there’s an option to water-cool the GPU as well.
The water-cooling kit is made by Asetek and cools just the CPU, but GPU cooling is available as an option.
The motherboard is listed as an HP Gaming motherboard on the spec sheet that came with it, and that’s because it’s an Asus Striker Extreme that has been tweaked by HP to run both Crossfire and NVIDIA SLI. It’s one of the most well-known “money is no object” gaming motherboards in existence, with switchable perimeter lighting, on-board controls for CMOS reset, restart and power on/off. It’s also a great overclocker, and uses the fantastic NVIDIA 680i chipset. It also has three PCI-E slots, so you can run SLI and a PCI-E PhysX chip, if you’re into that.
HP offers a wide array of storage options on the Blackbird, including RAID 1 and RAID 0 arrays. The unit we received had just the necessities: A 160GB Raptor for the boot drive, and a 750GB drive from Seagate for data storage. All in all this is an acceptable package, as the Raptor is blazing fast and 750GB is enough for most people’s “multimedia” collection. However, it should be noted that just dumping all your “data” onto a single cavernous hard drive is a recipe for disaster.
The Blackbird includes five pre-wired drive bays. Just drop a drive in, push it into the slot and it’s connected.
Voodoo is a long-time proponent of Corsair RAM, so it’s no surprise the Blackbird comes with 2GB of 1066MHz PC2 DDR2 memory. And this is no ordinary memory either, but the 1337 Dominator RAM with built-in heatsinks. Some may gripe about it not having 4GB of RAM but anything over 2GB on a 32-bit OS is a waste of money, period.
As a gaming rig, you’d expect the Blackbird to have a good videocard, and the model we received certainly does. It includes a single NVIDIA GeForce 8800 Ultra. The $800 videocard is the pinnacle of 3D performance these days and is the only card in the system despite it being SLI-ready. The card is air-cooled with a stock cooler, but liquid-cooling is an option.
Since this rig has just a single videocard, it has but a mere 900w power supply that is SLI capable. That is, the PSU features two six-pin PCI-E adapters, and both of them are used up by the 8800 Ultra. If we won the lottery and wanted to add a second Ultra card to the mix, we’d have to upgrade the PSU.
Rather than using the industry standard Sound Blaster X-Fi card, HP has opted for the included soundcard that comes with the Striker Extreme motherboard. It’s not “onboard” in the typical sense since it uses an actual ad-in card that fits into a PCI-E X1 slot. It supports 2, 4, 6 and 8 speaker configurations, as well as support for DTS. A Sound Blaster X-Fi card is available as an option however.
Naturally, the Blackbird ships with Vista Ultimate. What else would you expect from the ultimate gaming machine? Some people might take umbrage to this decision and insist that XP is still the superior gaming system, but a system this powerful should be able to run games in DX10 mode at good frame rates.
The Blackbird has two optical drives. One is a slot-fed multi-drive, so you don’t see it when you look at the chassis (it’s behind the white button at the top of the chassis). It can read and write to CDs and DVDs, and supports Lightscribe technology. Then there’s a second optical drive that can read and write Blu-ray discs, and read HD DVD discs. So, whichever way the format goes, you are covered.
We sure hate bloatware, and evidently so does HP as the Blackbird ships with just two pre-installed software packages: AVG anti-virus, which is the same anti-virus package we use on our home computers, and DVD-watching software in case you want to use the HD optical drive. There is no trial software, no bloatware, and nothing aside from Windows pre-installed on the PC.
Use and Testing
We almost threw our back out taking the Blackbird out of its box. It’s a huge PC that is extremely heavy but it looks amazing in person. Pictures from the Internet do not do it justice.
The chassis is enormous and if we had to describe it one word we’d choose the word, “menacing.” That’s because it’s angled “wedge” shape looks cool and sleek, but also kind of threatening since it’s a bit pointy with its wide rear portion narrowing towards the front of the chassis. There’s also a V-shape to the top of the chassis that accentuates the sloping nature of the chassis from the back to the front.
It’s made entirely of cast aluminum and is very thick and sturdy. Even the silver foot that hoists the chassis up off the ground is incredibly sturdy. We sat on the front of the chassis, all 150lbs of us, and it did not flex at all.
The chassis is entirely tool-less. To look at the inside we had to just flip a latch on the front bezel and the door swings open. Then there’s another latch that opens the door covering the PCI add-in cards. There are two more pieces of plastic; one on top of the video card and one at the bottom of the case, that just slide out if you need access. There’s also an allen wrench pushed into some foam at the top of the chassis, but ours fell out in shipping apparently and we were never able to locate it. You can also remove the optical drives by pulling a small lever.
After our initial inspection we plugged everything in only to have a very poor out-of-the-box experience, as they like to call it. We pressed the power button and it began booting, and then went to a screen that told us we might be a victim of counterfeiting. We were then asked to input our Vista product key, so we had to go rummage through the bag that came with it to find our product key. Once we entered it, the system continued booting and eventually we arrived at the Vista desktop. “Alright, so let’s install Crysis,” we thought. Unfortunately, when we clicked on the EXE file on the disc we got an error saying “directory is invalid.” We moved the disc to the other optical drive but got the same error. Confused, we downloaded a random program tried to install it, but got the same error message.
After we booted to Windows for the first time, we were peeved to find we couldn’t install any applications.
After we employed our Google-fu, we discovered that Vista’s idiotic UAC was the culprit. We disabled it, rebooted, and were able to actually install a program on the computer. Why was this computer set up this way? We have no idea. One would think that it would be setup so that one could install programs on a $5K computer, but apparently that’s not the case. And it was not a fluke either, as after we restored the PC from the recovery partition at the end of testing it was exactly the same way.
So once we had moved beyond that hurdle, we were able to actually use the system and holy cow, was it fast. The combination of such powerful hardware and a clean installation of Vista made it run faster than we’ve ever seen it run before. We ran the Windows Experience Index and the Blackbird received the highest score possible (5.9) in every category except RAM, where it received a score of 5.2. This gave the machine an overall score of 5.2.
For some reason Vista awarded the Blackbird’s RAM a score of 5.2, with everything else getting the highest possible score.
Once we had installed Crysis we reveled in cranking up the game’s graphics as high as they could go. We found we were able to play at 1280×1024 with everything set to Very High, and it was amazing. On a widescreen display, we were able to play at 1600×1200 with everything set to High. Our own system has a Core 2 Duo @ 3.0GHz and an 8800 GT and suffice to say the Blackbird ran Crysis much better, obviously. We also ran 3DMark06 on the Blackbird, and it returned a scintillating score of 13,098.
Even more impressive than the performance, for a cooling geek, was how well the CPU water-cooler functions. The last time we reviewed a system with a quad-core CPU, it was air-cooled and ran extremely hot idling at 70C and running at 92C under load. And that was at stock speeds. The Blackbird’s processor is overclocked to 3.3GHz and yet we found it idled at around 40C and never went above 57C under load. That is amazing performance, and goes to show the amount of headroom available in the kit for including the GPU in the cooling loop.
The Blackbird’s water-cooler does an amazing job of keeping the overclocked quad-core CPU chilly at all times.
For non-gaming tasks, using the Blackbird is like using a Ferrari to go grocery shopping. It’s amazingly fast and responsive, and also very quiet as well. The interior fans are audible but not what we would call “loud” by any means.
HP has also included a recovery partition on the Raptor drive, so we took it for a test drive and it was an okay experience. When you boot you’re given the option of booting into Vista or the recovery partition. You would think it’d be a one-click affair but instead it’s just like installing Windows. You’re asked what partition to install the OS to and from there it does its thing. Once it finished installing, which took about a half-hour, we had to re-activate Windows.
When Alienware bought Dell we weren’t sure what would happen. As it turns out, nothing really changed for Alienware, and Dell released the XPS 710, which is a decent machine but nothing too ground-breaking. With the Blackbird, we now know that HP is taking a “no holds barred” approach to PC design, and is clearly letting the Voodoo team do whatever they want, and that’s fantastic.
Over the years we’ve reviewed numerous high-end PCs from every boutique maker on the planet, and the Blackbird one of the first to make us actually excited. It’s literally like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The chassis is of course amazing, but we also love how Voodoo uses off-the-shelf parts (except for the water cooler, of course) as it makes upgrades easier than when dealing with proprietary parts.
All in all, despite a few quirks, the Blackbird is the real deal. It’s a PC that is not only stunningly powerful but also incredibly easy to fiddle with and tweak. It’s a shame it’s so expensive, however, as few people have the means to experience such an incredible machine. But we’re not surprised at its sky-high price tag. If we had the means, we’d take a Blackbird over any other pre-built PC available without a second thought.
• Incredible design inside and out
• Blistering performance
• Cool and quiet
• Price tag matches performance
• Out-of-the-box issues