Many years ago, I was one of those guys who would build my own gaming-oriented desktops from the chassis up (my first had a 3dfx Voodoo2 graphics card). But in recent times, I've been fairly satisfied by off-the-shelf gaming laptops, even with the compromises inherent in those systems.
With the component calendar page for both CPUs and GPUs flipping at about the same time, the introduction of new parts from Intel and Nvidia seems like an opportune moment to take another look at a dedicated gaming machine, in this case the FragBox from Falcon Northwest.
This is a small-chassis desktop, which means it's about the size of a bread box (to use a particularly dated reference). Full-tower desktops, gaming and otherwise, still exist, but I can't imagine carving out the space for one of those. This smaller size feels like the most appropriate compromise between power and semiportability.
The main reason we're looking at this particular FragBox is that it features one of Intel's new fourth-generation Core i-series CPUs, also known by the code-name Haswell. We used the FragBox, and its quad-core Intel Core i7-4770K CPU, in our initial performance testing of Haswell chips in June, and its performance was, as one might expect, very impressive. Note that in those earlier tests, we took the overclocked CPU back to its stock speed, but this time you'll see the overclocked performance scores in the performance charts below.
As an added bonus, the FragBox system also includes the very latest new Nvidia GPU, the GeForce GTX780. You can actually fit two of these cards inside in an SLI configuration, but for our test unit, we stuck with a single graphics card. Few PC games really need this kind of power, even to play at higher settings, but I admit I appreciated it when I connected the FragBox to a 2,560x1,440-pixel-resolution display, especially after topping out at 1080p in laptops for so long.
Of course, all this doesn't come cheap. The FragBox starts at $1,663, and our configuration cost $3,468. That's a lot, especially when PC prices are dropping steadily at the lower end of the field, and even Apple's flagship 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is under $2,500.
But the competitive landscape in gaming PCs seems to have transformed over the past few years into one where there are a handful of players at the very top end of the market (including Razer's new laptops), and some less expensive systems with entry-level GPUs, but fewer choices in the middle.
I can't imagine mainstream consumers wanting or needing this kind of power, and those shoppers are more likely to look for a laptop or all-in-one anyway. The FragBox isn't much interested in 2013 trends, from touch screens to Thunderbolt to NFC, although it does come with Windows 8 by default (Windows 7 is an option as well).
The hardest of hard-core PC gamers strike me as the kind of people most likely to want to build their own systems from scratch, but sourcing, assembling, and overclocking an increasingly complicated array of components is not a task for the faint of heart, or anyone with a time-consuming day job. That's where the FragBox really shines: with each unit hand-assembled and tested, you get the feeling Falcon Northwest is putting together each unit (which can take weeks to build) the same way you would if you had the time, talent, and tools to do so yourself.
|Falcon Northwest FragBox (2013)||Velocity Micro Edge||Razer Blade 14|
|Display size/resolution||n/a||n/a||14-inch, 1,600x900 screen|
|PC CPU||4.5GHz Intel Core i7-4770K||4.5GHz Intel Core i7-3770K||2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4702HQ|
|PC memory||16GB 1,800MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||16GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX780||2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 680||2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 765M|
|Storage||(2) 960GB SSD RAID 0||120GD SSD/1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Optical drive||BD/DVD writer||BD/DVD writer||None|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
The basic look and feel of the small desktop have changed little over the years. While once the much smaller cousins of traditional tower desktops, even "small form factor" systems look big and bulky compared with the laptops, hybrids, and all-in-one systems that make up the majority of PCs consumers are shopping for today.
The current version of the FragBox keeps the basic black metal frame of previous versions, but the front panel is new, with a slot-loading optical drive and a Falcon logo cut right into the metal face and backlit. There's a sturdy carrying handle as well (removable if you want to permanently install the box somewhere), and while you could definitely carry this with one hand if you had to, I wouldn't go for an extended walk with it either. Different component choices can affect the overall weight, but the configuration we have weighs 23.4 pounds.
More so than in any other Windows PC we've seen this year, Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system feels like a tacked-on afterthought here. With an emphasis on gaming and almost no chance that you've got it hooked up to a touch-screen monitor, you'll spend most of your time in the traditional Windows desktop mode. Falcon even offers a Windows 7 option if you're hard-core about hating Windows 8. On the plus side, the Windows 8 install on our test system was very minimal, with no spammy tile clutter.
|Falcon Northwest FragBox (2013)||Connections|
|Video||HDMI (x2), DVI (x3), DisplayPort|
|Audio||headphone/microphone jacks, surround-sound audio outputs, S/PDIF optical out|
|Data||6 USB 3.0, 4 USB 2.0|
|Optical drive||BD/DVD writer|
Connections, performance, and battery
As a gaming desktop should be, the FragBox is packed with ports and connections, including 10 total USB ports, and audio jacks for headphones, an optical cable, and surround-sound PC speakers. The exact number of video outputs depends on how many (and which) video cards you choose. The sometimes trendy extras we see on some laptops, such as NFC and Thunderbolt, are missing here -- this is essentially the same connectivity setup you'd see in any gaming desktop from the past several years. You can add a Wi-Fi dongle as an option, but I snaked an Ethernet cable over for big game downloads.
To say the FragBox is highly configurable is to undersell the concept. It starts at around $1,600, but for that you're getting an Intel Core i5 and Nvidia GeForce 650 video card. If those are the type of components you're interested in, then you're probably not in the market for a FragBox in the first place. Our $3,400 configuration traded up to an Intel Core i7 CPU, one GeForce 780 GPU, and two 960GB solid-state drives (SSDs). That latter addition really drives the price up, and you could go with a single traditional or hybrid hard drive and get the cost down.
This will shock no one, but the Intel Core i7 -770K in our FragBox -- which is one of Intel's new fourth-generation Core i-series chips -- gave excellent performance in our benchmark tests. As shipped to us, the CPU was overclocked to 4.5GHz, which Falcon offers as a no-cost option. We also reset the CPU to its stock 3.5GHz speed and it was still an excellent performer. Its closest competitor was a Velocity Micro desktop with an overclocked version of the previous-generation Intel Core i7 in it, which may be a reminder that the improvements in Intel's Haswell generation of processors are more about power efficiency than raw performance.