Polywell's $2,656 Poly 939N4X2 single-3D-card configuration can't match the performance of the latest overclocked SLI powerhouses, but it comes darn close. A true overachiever, the Poly 939N4X2 scores well due to the vendor's old-school hard drive-formatting choice, which trades features for performance. If you traffic in large data files, we don't recommend the Poly 939N4X2, but if you're looking for a fast gaming box at a great price, this unassuming PC fits the bill.
Our review system came housed in a modest black-and-silver midtower case, but Polywell offers several chassis designs and color choices if you want to jazz things up. The Evercase 4292 enclosure we received is relatively tool free. You can remove the side panel by depressing two tabs, and the drive bays all have quick-release mechanisms, although the drives came screwed in for secure shipping. Expansion-board installation and removal also requires a screwdriver. Polywell's technicians tried to organize the cables inside, but their efforts fell short of the craftsmanship we've seen from companies such as Alienware and Velocity Micro. Worse, we found the Polywell noisy, despite its supposedly quiet 120mm exhaust fan.
The Poly 939N4X2 comes with a full complement of removable storage devices, including a double-layer DVD burner, a DVD-ROM drive, and a media-card reader/floppy drive combo. The system also gives the average user plenty of flexibility for upgrading and adding peripherals. The front panel has room for one more 3.5-inch drive and three additional 5.25-inch drives, but both hard drive bays are occupied. With three PCI and two memory slots available, you still get plenty of upgrade potential. Two x1 PCI Express (PCIe) slots are also open for future use. Two USB 2.0 and two FireWire ports sit on the lower front of the case along with microphone and headphone jacks. At the rear of the system, you'll find four more USB 2.0 ports, jacks for the integrated eight-channel audio, and a Gigabit Ethernet port.
Our Polywell Poly 939N4X2 test system uses a ChainTech VNF4 motherboard based on Nvidia's Nforce-4 chipset with AMD's dual-core Athlon 64 X2 4200+, a 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX graphics card running on the x16 PCIe bus, and 1GB of 400MHz SDRAM--a powerful, if not over-the-top combination of hardware. If you're worried because the X2 4200+ processor is only AMD's fourth-fastest dual-core CPU, don't be. Polywell's FAT32 hard drive formatting helps the make up for any clock-speed shortcomings in the chip. There are trade-offs, however, to using FAT32.
The two 74GB, 10,000rpm Western Digital hard drives in the Polywell Poly 939N4X2 are already primed for speed, regardless of format. But because Polywell uses the lean FAT32 file system and a small 19GB main C: partition, the Poly 939N4X2 can access data faster than it could using the more feature-rich NTFS. Digital-media mavens, especially those involved with digital video, will want a system formatted with NTFS, which provides features such as metadata searching and imposes no limits on file size beyond the capacity of the hard drive itself (FAT32 limits you to individual files that are 4GB and smaller). Gamers, however, will love the speed FAT32 brings, as well as the value.
The Polywell Poly 939N4X2 ran 4 percent faster than the Alienware Aurora 7500 on CNET Labs' BAPCo SysMark 2004 benchmark. That's a small difference, to be sure, but considering that the Aurora 7500 costs $1,000 more than the Poly 939N4X2 and has a theoretically faster AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ CPU, the benefit of using FAT32 becomes clear. Similarly, our Half-Life 2 test reveals that the Polywell and its single Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX 3D card can even beat out a system as powerful as the ABS Ultimate X8, which uses two identical 3D cards and Intel's current top-of-the-line chip, the Pentium Extreme Edition 840. The Poly 939N4X2 also fared well on our multimedia tests, scoring among the best of a number of recent high-end dual-core CPU systems on our iTunes and PhotoShop benchmarks. We attribute the Poly 939N4X2's slower video-encoding times to the system's slower-clocked CPU.