Review: Monarch Gamer PC With Athlon 64 FX60 Dual-Core Processor

Monarch Computer Systems’ Nemesis Custom Gaming PC packs a wallop with the brand-new dual-core Athlon 64 FX60, a CPU that continues AMD's domination of the gaming marketplace.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 10, 2006

9 Min Read

AMD's Athlon 64 FX60, released today, shouldn’t exist. Chips in the FX series are gaming chips and dual core does little for gaming, according to AMD. So why is there a dual core FX60? I took a look at Monarch Computer Systems’ new Nemesis Custom Gaming PC to find out.

AMD Dominates
First, though, a bit of background. AMD has dominated the gaming market ever since its Athlon processors first appeared. Whether it’s because of some inherent superiority in the chip that gives it an advantage over Intel’s Pentium 4, or even if it's just some clever trick of program compilation that uses an optimization that favors the Athlon and not the Pentium, this means that Athlon is definitely the frontrunner. And the FX line has always been the crown prince of Athlons.

It certainly wasn’t the jump to 64-bit that gave AMD its edge. That was a near non-starter. The whole “you’re buying the surety of fast 32-bit processing now with the capability to handle 64-bit applications when they arrive,” was a great piece of marketing. If 64-bit applications arrive, and if your operating system is 64-bit, it might become true. But 64-bit Windows XP has gotten off to a flying stop and there’s nothing else in sight that would bring true end-to-end 64-bit computing (processor/OS/application) to the desktop.

Shortening Data Paths
What AMD did with the FX series (FX51, FX53, FX55, and FX57) was to develop a process of getting data into and out of the CPU as quickly as possible. It moved the memory controller and the HyperTransport bus controller inside the chip, and then added a construct called a crossbar switch so that the majority of the arbitration needed to send data where it needs to go is done inside the processor at CPU speeds, not outside at slower bus speeds.

This cut down considerably on latency — the time it takes to arbitrate data priorities and routing. AMD also upped the amount of L1 cache and, in the FX57, shrank the size of the processor die from 130nm to 90nm. Even if none of the other design improvements helped to speed data throughput in the FX (and they all did), just the downsizing of the die would have done it.

Think of it in terms of walking from Point A to Point B. Suppose it takes you an hour to do that. Then the distance between A and B is shortened by 30 percent. Now it only takes you 40 minutes to make that same trip, and you won’t break a sweat because you haven’t increased your walking speed at all. In terms of a CPU, that means an immediate performance boost without needing to raise the CPU’s clock speed — and that equates to more performance without additional heat.

Punted Into Dual Core
According to everyone in the know, the next processor on the drawing board was supposed to be a single-core FX59. That would have made sense, given the numbering progression thus far. Why did AMD jump to a dual-core FX60? Probably one of the main reasons was — because it could. Figuratively speaking, the Athlons, including the FX versions, have always had a blank spot inside that was just waiting for a second core. It was just a matter of “writing” it into the die. That’s how AMD got the jump on Intel in the dual-core arena in the first place.

For the FX60, however, dual core means a compromise. While the older FX57 is clocked at 2.8GHz, the FX60 has been backed down to 2.6GHz. Technically, that means the FX60 should be slower — and it is, when gaming. The truth of the matter, however, is that is the type of “slower” that’s the result of counting benchmark numbers. If it’s noticeable at all in real life, the operative word would be “hardly.”

In exchange, AMD’s move to dual core has let it retain its title as a great gaming processor and also allowed it to take on Intel’s dual-core desktop audience in the productivity arena. It might even be apropos to call the FX60 the world’s first Swiss Army processor. The only trick is building a system around it. Monarch Computer Systems has taken up that challenge and built its Nemesis Custom Gaming PC to the hilt. The FX60 is housed in ASUS’ top-of-the-line A8N32-SLI motherboard, and 2GB of OCZ PC-3200 dual-channel DDR is included. A 74GB Western Digital Raptor (10,000rpm) hard disk is used for system chores while a pair of 400GB Western Digital Caviar SD drives in a RAID 0 configuration have been added for data chores. (Splitting drive chores is important for optimal performance. No matter how fast a hard disk might be, simultaneously reading and writing to the same drive slows things down as the read/write head does a jitterbug across the platters so it's positioned correctly for the current operation.)

Two Plextor PX-716AL DVD burners are included as well. These are slot-loading, not tray, drives that are dual-layer, 16x, and dual format (+/-). They’re very cool, as is the Creative Labs X-Fi Platinum sound card with its front panel “drive panel” containing all of the connections you might need to access daily --without the need to hunt them down on the back panel, through the dust bunnies on the floor. And while floppy drives may be on the way out, a floppy drive with a 7-in-1 card reader is included with the Nemesis.

The Monarch Nemesis wrapps the AMD FX60 dual-core processor up in a gamer's delight of a tower enclosure. Click on Picture to Enlarge

The jewels in the crown of this system, aside from the FX60 processor itself, are a pair of eVGA GeForce 7800 GTX KO SLI graphics cards. Each carries 256MB of DDR3 and can handle dual DVI in their SLI (Scalable Link Interface) configuration. These cards are fast on their own but, tied together through their SLI, they can deliver graphic frames faster than you could ever use them. These are top-tier SLI boards

These components are all packaged in a Thermaltake Shark tower enclosure that has a custom Fire Pearl paint job on the front panel. It's accompanied by a matching custom-painted version of Logitech’s LX700 cordless keyboard and mouse. If you’re a gamer, you’ll put this system on top of your desk so your friends can drool when they see it. If you’re more the SOHO type, you’ll probably tuck it under your desk but look down and smile at it a lot. Best of all, the Monarch Nemesis is built to work, taking advantage of all of its leading edge components. Tested with the COSBI OpenSourceMark (OSMark) benchmarking tool, the Nemesis, clocked at 2.6GHz, scored 1,802. In comparison, a single Intel Pentium 640, overclocked to 3.55GHz, could only manage a 1,270. On the dual core side, a Pentium D 840 Extreme-based computer (3.2GHz) managed 1,498. In fact, it wasn’t until I tested Intel’s latest, the Pentium D 955 Extreme with a 3.46GHz clock speed, that I found parity. That system scored 1,794 — a virtual dead heat with the Nemesis, given the nominal margin of error.

However, because the OSMark doesn't load all subsystems equally, especially the hard disk, it's often a better indicator of a computer's strength with applications that mimic the types of operations it does stress — games or graphics. It is not necessarily a good indicator of a computer's strength with database or video-rendering applications.

That's where the video rendering test comes into play, for which I use Ulead's VideoStudeo 9.0, a video editing and rendering package. Starting with a 1 hour and 6 minute MPEG 2 video captured from TV, I exclude the commercials, creating six clips that total 42 minutes and 39 seconds in length. For the first run-through, I simply render these clips into a final MPEG 2 video using the exact same parameters found in the clips themselves. Typically, this is a fast task for VideoStudio, because it’s simply cutting the original video at the marked spots and stitching the cuts back into a single MPEG 2 video file.

The Nemesis ran through this test in 124 seconds. Its closest competitor was the Pentium D 955 Extreme at 161 seconds. The Pentium D 840 Extreme and overclocked Pentium 640 were also-rans at best, scoring 235 and 410 seconds, respectively. The amazing results are a tribute to the FX60’s data throughput capability.

But wait, there’s more

For the second version of the test, I change the parameters for the final video, modifying video and audio bit rates, frame style, and compression rates. Not only does this provide more work for the CPU, but it also causes VideoStudio to display the video as it’s rendering. It’s a system-wide stress test that no Athlon to date has been very good at. The FX60 was no exception.

Despite the ultra-fast Raptor drive and the high-performance SLI graphics subsystem, the Nemesis plodded through this formatted rendering in 46.3 minutes. Even the single core Pentium 640 managed a somewhat more respectable 37.3 minutes, and the dual-core Pentium D 840 Extreme trotted along at 31.1 minutes.

The champ of this heavy-lifting test, however, was the Pentium D 955 Extreme, which completed the task in 26.8 minutes. That’s nearly 20 minutes faster than the Nemesis — and the computer containing the 955 Extreme had only a single RAID 0 drive for reading and writing and a moderately competent (compared to the Nemesis’ powerhouse SLI setup) X800 GTX graphics card.

Given these test results, it’s obvious that AMD retains its gaming crown without serious challenge, and that the FX60 is heir apparent to the throne. Monarch’s implementation of the chip in its Nemesis Custom Gaming PC is flawless in all respects and an easy recommendation for serious gamers.

What’s also apparent, however, is that AMD still hasn’t broken through the productivity barrier at the top end to the same extent as Intel has managed to do. Depending on your intentions, that’s not necessarily a minus. The Nemesis scores high as an ultimate gaming PC, but, unlike many computers built for games, it has a sincere work ethic as well.

Bill O'Brien is the author of Desktop Pipeline's regular Best Bits column and can be blamed for more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology topics.

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