The first indication I got that this computer is unlike any other was the disconcerting yet familiar sound of liquid sloshing around inside as I wrestled it into place beneath my desk.
Out of the box, this machine -- VoodooPC's Omen a:121 Crossfire edition -- looks about as far removed from the boring beige boxes of PCland as possible. Of those tested for this series of high-end PC reviews, this one is the heaviest (about 50 pounds) and most difficult to move around. The black aluminum case had something to do with its heft, I'm sure.
But there's a lot going on inside this box. That wasn't water sloshing around, but liquid coolant -- basically water and glycol, carefully piped around the system to cool the central processing unit chip and the graphics card so they can run faster than their actual factory specifications. This is similar to what happens inside the Falcon Northwest (see BW Online, 02/09/06, "A Custom PC Made To Wow").
FAST AND FUTURISTIC.
In this case, the CPU is a dual-core Athlon 64 FX-60 from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), which comes out of the factory with a top speed of 2.6 Gigahertz. After some tweaking by the system designers at VoodooPC and a generous helping of that liquid coolant, the chip's performance tops out at a rocket-like 2.95 GHz.
This liquid-cooling system is pretty cool to look at too. In fact, the right-hand panel is made of tempered glass, revealing the machine's innards for all to see. And while there are prominent black tubes piping water to the CPU and to the two ATI (ATYT) Radeon XTX graphics cards, there is a suspicious dearth of wiring. It turns out the wires have been bundled together and wrapped with a black webbing to blend in with the coolant tubes. This helps give the appearance of a PC where all the internal components are, as a professional chef might say, mise en place.
This isn't just for looks, says VoodooPC president Rahul Sood. He says, "the air flow is better, the system is easier to upgrade, and generally we find that getting the wires out of the way contributes to building a machine that's more stable."
And one that plays a mean computer game. I ran tests with the graphically demanding F.E.A.R -- and got the most impressive results I've seen yet. With all the options set to the highest, I saw maximum frame rates as high as 229 frames a second, with the average between 93 and 96. If those numbers don't mean anything to you, imagine the most detailed graphics possible, all running smoothly. Then double the degree of detail. In a word, it's impressive.
That kind of a performance generates heat -- hence the liquid cooling. But most machines don't use liquid cooling, and instead resort to the old way of keeping their CPUs from bursting into flames -- they cool them with a few noisy fans.
This machine has three fans, two on the back and one on the front pushing air through the box. But they're specially designed to be quiet. Additionally, the case absorbs a lot of the sound. The result is a surprisingly silent machine. As I write, I see the fans whirring away, and yet I hear only the barest hum in a largely quiet office.
This machine pushes the extreme edge of the PC envelope in a way that nearly anyone who uses it would appreciate. But this premium computing experience doesn't come cheap. The machine built for my review costs about $6,000, making it the most expensive of our sample group (the Falcon Mach V we tested was priced at $5,185). With a price like that, you might expect the Omen to be encased in gold. Funny that: Voodoo PC does sell a machine with a 24-karat gold case that goes for about $15,500, but that's another story.
Overall, I loved this machine. Assuming money wasn't an object, I wouldn't blanche at buying one. But that's rarely the case for most people, and this is by no means a PC for someone who simply wants to type Microsoft (MSFT) Word documents and surf the Web. No, this is a machine for demanding power users and deeply serious PC gamers. There are few enough of those that Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based VoodooPC turns out only about 3,600 machines a year. Indeed, this isn't computing for the masses.