System builder Palicomp specialises in producing some seriously overclocked machines for enthusiasts and gamers. Earlier this year we were very impressed by its i5 Sniper, and the i5 Z68 Warrior is the next step up when it comes to the firm’s Sandy Bridge range.
Heart of the warrior
The system is built around the current gamer’s favourite processor, the Intel i5 2500K, which hits the price/performance sweet spot when it comes to fluid frame rates. As with the Sniper, this CPU has been boosted with a major overclock to 4.8GHz. The Warrior is also housed in the same Coolermaster CM690 II Advanced case, but that’s where the similarities between the two machines end… and the upgrades begin.
Inside the case are three case fans to keep the innards cool and an 850W power supply. The PSU brand is Powercool, not one we’re familiar with, but it’s a quiet model, an ample wattage, and the machine remained completely stable throughout the review period. A ThermalTake ISGC-3000 is the choice of CPU cooler, a quality air cooling solution.
Where the Sniper has a VTX Radeon 6950 graphics card, the Warrior takes a step up to the 6970 with 2GB of onboard memory, the processor having been overclocked to a core speed of 950MHz. The system memory has been quadrupled to a whopping 16GB of Corsair DDR3 1600MHz RAM. While that’s overkill for gaming – you only really need 8GB – it’s certainly future-proofed.
Cache in hand
The optical drive is a Samsung Blu-ray combo, and the motherboard is an Asus P8Z68-V, which features the Z68 chipset referred to in the Warrior’s full name. The Z68 chipset boasts one particular neatly feature which Palicomp has exploited here – Intel Smart Response Technology, also known as ‘SSD caching’.
The Warrior’s main hard disk is a 2TB Hitachi drive, but it also has a Kingston V+ Now 64GB solid state disk (SSD) set up as a smart cache. What Intel smart caching does, in basic terms, is keep your most frequently accessed files on the SSD. In other words, the applications and games you use the most will end up having their primary files cached on the SSD to make them quicker to access, and the system far more responsive in operation. Should you stop using something, its files will eventually be shunted off the SSD cache in favour of files you’re making regular use of.
Thus, you constantly have nippy performance where it matters the most, without having to worry about what’s installed on the SSD – everything just goes on the capacious main hard disk. Given the increasingly large install sizes of games these days, you’d need a large and very expensive SSD if you were looking squeeze this kind of improved performance out of a solid-state drive alone if you wanted to fit a decent amount of them on. Smart caching is a great budget alternative, in which a smaller SSD suffices.
That’s the theory, anyway, and Smart Response Technology works pretty well in reality. It’s easy to observe the effect because the first time you run a program, it loads off the main HDD. The second time, it has been cached on the SSD, so loads much more quickly. Testing out the loading times of a few games produced some impressive results.
The time Starcraft II took to load up was halved by the SSD cache. The very slow loading IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover took 55 seconds to boot up first time, which was reduced to 35 seconds after caching. In general, everything felt very snappy and pretty much as if the games were actually fully installed on the SSD. The 64GB solid-state drive provided is the maximum allowable size for a cache, and gives you a good amount of space to speed the operation of numerous programs and games.
On to the gaming benchmarks. One of our favourite visual stress tests, the IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover ‘black death’ benchmark on maximum detail levels saw the Warrior record an excellent average frame rate of 52 frames per second (fps). Even during the busiest and most explosive fight scenes – where most machines are brought down to single digits – it never dipped below 20fps.
The Warrior loaded the benchmark file in six seconds flat, too, as opposed to 16 seconds without SSD caching. The i5 Sniper hit 47fps when it tackled this benchmark, so the Warrior proved itself 5fps faster. That’s mostly down to the Radeon 6970 graphics card against the Sniper’s 6950.
Other benchmarks saw a slightly greater improvement, with Stalker: Call of Pripyat’s most intensive test generating a very fluid average of 64fps, a 15 per cent increase on the Sniper’s 55fps score. Frame rates felt buttery smooth, and for example playing Brink online was an absolute joy, as was turning every single visual option in every game onto maximum.
Smooth and quiet operator
One of the criticisms we levelled at the Sniper was its noise levels, and we’re happy to report that the Warrior is considerably more stealthy (ironic, given their names). The CPU cooler is quieter, and the Blu-ray drive makes less noise than the Sniper’s DVD drive. Even when running games at full pelt, this PC keeps the noise down to palatable levels.
All aspects considered, this is one seriously smart machine. We do have one minor criticism, however, and that’s the time taken for a cold boot. It took the Warrior 45 seconds to boot up, not a particularly impressive time. The actual boot to Windows was pretty swift, as aided by the SSD caching, but the Asus motherboard spent around 25 of those seconds at the Post screen.
This was obviously holding the system boot time up, and we’re really not sure why it was doing this. 45 seconds still isn’t an awful long time to wait for booting, and it didn’t really bother us much as we don’t cold boot often, anyway. But it’s still a slight niggle to know the system should load up faster when switched on.
As for trimmings, along with the PC base unit you get a basic Xenta wireless mouse and keyboard, a set of Logitech 2.1 speakers and a 24 inch monitor. The display is the Samsung SyncMaster B2430, a quality gaming monitor that renders colours vibrantly with no ghosting. Should you alrady have a display you’re happy with, you can drop the B2430 and knock £100 off the Warrior’s price.
Contact: Palicomp on 01270 898104
- Extremely fast and responsive machine that dominates games.
- Slightly slower than expected system boot time.
The i5 Sniper is an excellent machine in its own right, but if you can push to the extra £190, the Warrior is well worth the extra outlay. It's extremely fluid when it comes to graphics frame rates - between 10 and 15 per cent faster than the already quick Sniper - plus the SSD cache just makes everything feel that much snappier in terms of general performance and loading times.
It's also a quieter machine, and has Blu-ray on board along with more system memory, not to mention a bundled pair of Logitech 2.1 speakers. The only blot on the Warrior's battlefield was its slightly slow boot-up time - but that's not so hard to live with.