The Making of a Boutique Gaming PC (Part 2 of 6): Falcon Northwest
Q: The new X79 platform has caused quite a stir for high-end system builders. Tell us about what you've been able to achieve with this new platform.
A: Ludicrous speed! X79 is simply the new fastest thing ever and we’ve been able to make our entire desktop line faster with it. We have X79-based options in our largest Mach V class systems, all the way down to our shoebox-sized FragBox systems. We’re liquid cooling the new i7 CPUs so we’re getting more than 1 GHz of extra speed out the six core processors. And the new chipset combined with the motherboard options we’ve selected have given us 8 slots for quad-channel memory. That means that 64 gigs of RAM is now achievable for home users, and 32 gigs is actually cheap to do. Add in 40 PCI lanes and PCI Express 3.0, and they’re ready for future generations of graphics cards as well.
Q: Almost all of your X79 systems are built with two or more GeForce graphics cards in SLI. Why is this? How do these two technologies complement each other?
A: X79 is Intel’s highest-end platform and priciest consumer CPUs, and that amount of CPU power really needs to be matched with an equivalent GPU power to properly balance the system. The CPU is important to every PC user, but GPU power is even more important to gamers. A very general rule of thumb is to spend at least as much on your GPUs as you do on your CPU. No matter what intensive game or application you are running, its top speed or framerate will be limited by memory size, CPU power, or graphics processing capability. Running out of memory is fairly application-specific and usually limited to apps like photo and video editing software. But games are almost always “CPU-bound” or “GPU-bound” as the reason they can’t create a faster framerate. Some games like Skyrim crave CPU power, others like Battlefield 3 are almost completely dependent on GPU power. And GPU power demands skyrocket as you increase resolutions. With a 30” monitor at 2560x1600 resolution, you’re pushing almost 4 times the resolution of a high-def 1080P television! At those resolutions SLI isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. An X79 system with a high-end SLI setup provides the best of both worlds and keeps CPU and GPU power in balance so neither needlessly holds back your top framerate. If you load up an i7-3960K with triple GTX 580s, there won’t be a game made in the next 3 years you won’t crush at maximum detail settings at any resolution.
Q: Of all your gaming PCs, which model are you most proud of? Please give us a rundown of how it's built, from the component selection, construction, to testing.
A: It would have to be our flagship Mach V system. The Mach V is the name of an ever-changing custom model, and we’ve been building them for almost 20 years now. I believe it’s the longest running personal computer model in history, except the Apple Mac. This year we finally launched our new ICON2 case for the Mach V series, and it is the culmination of years of design and testing work. There’s so much to this chassis that we dedicated an entire page to what goes into its vertical airflow design, but the short version is this case was designed from the ground up to support the cooling needs of high-end triple and quad SLI setups. It has a dedicated airflow zone for graphics with a 180mm fan directly under the graphics card intakes, pushing a huge volume of air at low fan speed and low noise. A curved metal divider focuses the air that would normally kick off at an angle from the fan into a smooth, laminar airflow over the backside of the primary graphics card. We worked with NVIDIA to create a graphics card retention system that holds the cards solidly during shipment, while blocking almost no airflow from the fan as well. I could go on for pages about the other features of this new case, but that’s what we did on our website so I’ll cut this short. Suffice to say the ICON2 case is the basis for our most exotic systems, and when you see one completely painted up... I think Maximum PC said it best, “It’s more a work of art than a PC”.
Component selection in the Mach V is ridiculously flexible because it’s so big and so cold. Liquid cooling, triple and quad-SLI, 64 gigs of memory, 4 terabytes of SSDs (yes we really do that, more often than even I can believe), 4 optical drives, any color automotive paintwork ever made, custom airbrushed picture of your favorite game character... the Mach V has almost no limits to what you can build in it or exterior looks you can give it.
Testing on all of our systems is extensive. They’re built by hand, not on an assembly line, and each one undergoes 3 days of “burn-in” torture tests – more if the customer wants it overclocked. 24 hours of that is dedicated exclusively to beating up the graphics card configurations at the maximum heat they can generate. If the parts aren’t 100% perfect, we want to find that out here at our factory so our client gets a bulletproof system worthy of our Falcon Overnight warranty.
Q: When people buy a multi-GPU PC from you, what percentage choose SLI? What are the main reasons why people go with SLI?
A: Month after month, more than 90% of our multi-GPU systems ship with NVIDIA SLI vs. competing multi-GPU technology. That’s by customer choice - we offer other brands. Our clientele just prefers SLI because of its great track record of solid drivers, the quickest support with SLI profiles for new titles, and the ease of integration of SLI into their gaming environment. NVIDIA has done fantastic work in making SLI a nearly-seamless experience for the end user. We as the system builder need to do more work on our end in designing a system for the power and thermal requirements of a multi-GPU system, but to our customers they almost never even need to think about SLI. It just works, and their gaming experience is smoother because of it. That’s how the best technology should be.
Q: Many of our readers are avid system builders themselves. What are your top three tips for someone looking to build a high-end gaming PC?
- Buy the best, and you’ll never regret it. Many people go with budget components, especially on graphics, and end up being happy with their speed improvement for about 6 months before they start thinking their system seems slow again. Go with the best and you’ll not only go longer between upgrades, but you’ll enjoy smoother gameplay the whole time.
- Build a PC because you enjoy building PCs, not because your friend told you anyone can do it and you’ll save a ton of money. PC building is a fantastic hobby for those that don’t mind being their own technical support, but there’s a lot of pressure on the net for non-techies to build their own and it rarely ends well.
- Your monitor is the part of your PC you look at, and they deserve more focus in a system build than they’re getting these days. Cheap 1080P displays are starting to dumb PCs down to look like consoles. If you haven’t seen your games running at 2560x1600, or in triple monitor surround, or with 3D Vision, you’re missing out on one of the biggest advantages PCs have over consoles: they can produce MUCH better graphics. You’ll probably keep your display through a couple of PC upgrades, so invest in a good one.
Q: Finally, there are quite a few vendors building high-end gaming PCs. What makes you special? What's your philosophy when it comes to building systems and taking care of customers?
A: We’re the oldest of the boutique PC builders, going on 20 years now. We didn’t invent the idea of gaming on a PC, but we were the first company to build and market PCs specifically designed for gamers. These days it’s taken for granted that gaming PCs are a legitimate product category, but that’s because we were cutting trail for this market for more than a decade before most of these other vendors existed. When I started Falcon in 1992, no one bragged that you just bought a $3,000 personal computer and all you really did was play games on it. We had been building gaming PCs for 5 years before our first (now long dead) competitor even showed up. No one even considered this a legitimate market until the late 90’s. We were the first PC maker to incorporate 3D graphics as standard equipment in our PCs. We were here long before 3Dfx made 3D graphics a must-have for gamers, and have outlived countless wannabe boutiques that weren’t around long enough to honor a 3 year warranty. Our long tenure gives us a uniquely “long-term” view of PC hardware in an industry known for fast-paced, disposable technology.
What does that mean for our customers? We know what brands work and which just have flashy marketing. We don’t sell certain brands because we know corners the manufacturer cut 5 years ago, and their management hasn’t improved. We know our supplier’s histories and we still always test the products ourselves before we go to market with them. We’ve spent years developing our own custom PC cases that were designed to run our systems quietly and with a unique sense of style. There are very few companies willing to put in that R&D money into developing their own cases these days. Most are just using off-the-shelf cases you could buy and build in yourself, slapping their logo on it, and they’ll be on to a different case in six months. Some PC makers will build you anything you want with any part, brand – even in any chassis you want. While that may seem like ultimate flexibility to the new buyer, it really just shows a lack of knowledge of what components work well together and which don’t. It’s more important to us to sell configurations our clients will love than to offer every part on the market.
Lastly, my philosophy for building our systems and taking care of our customers is one that’s served Falcon well for two decades: we’re the company for people that expect more from a PC. If you just want a simple box for your Mom to run Farmville, a PC made on an assembly line in China with tech support outsourced to India is going to save you a lot of money and is probably all you need. But if you’re an enthusiast and what’s in your PC matters to you, if who built it and how matters to you, and whether the people supporting it are in the same country and speak the same language you do matters, then the company you buy your PC from - matters.