A few months ago, when we saw the $8000 Altech NRG system, it took us back to the good old days when we reviewed $8000 systems regularly. The performance gains for an $8000 system these days are nothing like the gains you could achieve by spending double or quadruple your budget back in 2002.
It's tough out there on the bleeding edge. And yet Core i7 brings out the show-off in a number of manufacturers, if our labs are anything to go by. We've seen both the extreme i7 system and the extreme-budget i7 system, and both have points to recommend them.
Which brings us, in a very longwinded fashion, to the NIRV Pro SLI. The first thing you notice about the NIRV is the imposing-looking Antec "1200" case. Our chums over at Atomic were impressed with its ability to fit an astonishing twelve 5.25in bays.
The interior is spacious with excellent cooling - mostly fans installed into the space provided by those 5.25in bays. The NIRV Pro SLI setup involves lots of blue LEDs and it glows in the dark like a 3-eyed fish. But shade your eyes from the glare through the case-window, and you can see how cleverly the system is put together.
Take the hard drive arrangement, for example. Nirv has rigged up a 300GB Velociraptor drive - at 10,000rpm it's far and away the fastest platter drive out there - to use as the main system drive. Boot times and application loading times definitely fly.
But for additional storage, you need something not quite as fast - and certainly not as pricey - but more capacious. Nirv has solved this with a 1.5TB Seagate Barracuda.
We weren't surprised that Nirv included two of the best drives out of our recent roundup, even though we received this rig before those results were published. It's confirmation of the careful construction.
Beyond the hard drives, the rest of the system is also outstanding. 6GB of high performance G-Skill RAM ensures good performance on the installed Windows Vista 64-bit OS - it's a shame it's only Home Premium, but it's the only corner that's been cut.
The included Core i7 920 has had what Nirv calls "NirvTuning", essentially overclocking the system for retail sale. Windows mistakenly believed the system to be running at stock speed, but a dip into the BIOS told us that it runs at 4GHz..
The risk with pre-overclocked systems is that you may have reduced system stability and increased heat - which also leads to a shortened system lifespan.
Our intensive multi-application test generally reveals instabilities that might cause you problems during routine use. We also measure heat output, but even with all the fans on minimum speed, the GPU temperature was 85º, 70º for the CPUs. That's a great result, and speaks to the superior airflow of the 1200 case.
But enough about the design: the NIRV Pro SLI is an impressive performer, too. Not only did we see a phenomenal 2.84 result with our performance benchmarks - second only to an i7 965 - but the combined might of two GeForce GTS 295s achieved an astonishing 69fps on Crysis Very High settings with all details turned on.
That's the first time we've seen a system with Crysis full detail frame rates higher than the average monitor refresh rate. There's no doubt this system will handle games capably.
The two GTX 295s in SLI also mean masses of connectivity - try 4 DVI ports and two HDMI on for size. Eight USB ports in total (2 in front, 6 at rear), FireWire, 2 eSATA ports and a selection of audio connections round out the options. Gigabit Ethernet is included, but no wireless.
There are some downsides. The two graphics cards both take up double-slots, meaning that there's little room left to add components to the existing package. GTX 295s are high- performing cards, but they're poor bang for buck. Their inclusion adds a hefty $2000 for what amounts to a couple of dozen fps.
The other sticking point is the pre-overclocking. Given the amount of tuning in the system, there's little headroom to improve performance further. An alternative choice of motherboard, such as Gigabyte's EX-58-Extreme - which has more overclockability - might provide a little more wiggle room for the enthusiast.
Still, this is a system that is at the top of the i7 920 performance tree, and probably the most powerful air-cooled system you can buy.
Even with our caveats, we're impressed at the thoroughness of the build, from the tidy cabling and G-skill high performance RAM through to the cool-running case, and monster Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme heatsink for the 4GHz CPU. The only stickler is that price, but if you have the budget for it, you can't really go wrong.