ZaReason combines Sandy Bridge CPUs and screaming-fast graphics cards to make a serious powerhouse computer.
About a month ago, I was contacted by Earl Malmrose of ZaReason, who wanted to know if I'd like to review ZaReason's new Linux-based desktop computer, built around the new Intel 6-Core processor and quad channel memory. I told him I'd be thrilled to review it, and asked if he'd also include a snappy ATI video card so I really could push the system to the limit using one of my favorite side hobbies, namely cryptocurrencies.
I start with a review of the system itself and finish with a bit of fun—I run the numbers and see what sort of CPU and GPU-hashing power I can get from it. Whether you think cryptocurrencies are a brilliant take on alternative economics or a dumb idea that wastes electricity, I can assure you no one knows how to overclock hardware quite like a Bitcoin miner. (I don't actually overclock this system, since I'm sure ZaReason would like it back in full working order, but I push it to the max with stock settings.)
Generally, if you want a case that a regular human can change parts on, you build your own machine. That's more of a guideline than a rule, but it seems most big computer companies like to make their cases as proprietary as possible. Sure, you might be able to fit your computer system into a size 4 shoebox, but good luck if you ever want to upgrade your hardware. ZaReason, on the other hand, includes a standard CoolerMaster brand mid-side tower case. I use the term “mid-size” rather sheepishly, as it's the quite large “G-Lite 430 Black” (Figure 1).
ZaReason has nicely branded the case with its company name, but otherwise left it the standard CoolerMaster unit—refreshing, no? To be fair, the case itself is a bit more flexible than I'd like, but it doesn't feel cheap by any means. Part of its flexibility is due to the massive amount of ventilation it boasts (Figure 2). Because the X79 is meant to be a powerhouse, the cooling consideration is greatly appreciated. In fact, it comes with an additional case fan installed on the side to help keep the beast within on the cool side.
On the front panel, the case sports a power button and reset button, as one would expect. It also has the following:
Two USB 2.0 ports.
Headphone and microphone jacks (analog).
The back of the case provides quite a generous set of connections (Figure 3), including:
Six USB 2.0 ports.
Two USB 3.0 ports (clearly marked).
One PS/2 port.
Gigabit Ethernet port.
8 channel, 7.1 analog jacks.
One 1394 port (400Mbit).
External CMOS reset button.
Of course, all those ports really tell the story of the motherboard more than the case, so I cover that next.
The specifications on the Valta X79 don't specify a brand name for the motherboard, so I won't focus on the name printed on the board, but rather the features it boasts. First off, in order to handle the 3930K second-generation Sandy Bridge i7 CPU, the motherboard has the Intel X79 chipset and LGA-2011 socket. (More on the CPU in a bit.) Adding to the CPU itself, the X79 has:
Three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots.
Four PCI-E x1 slots.
Four DDR3 Quad-Channel RAM slots.
16GB DDR3 RAM @1600MHz (4x4GB).
Another pleasant surprise was the power supply included with the Valta X79. Because this build included a sizable GPU along with the zippy CPU, ZaReason installed an 850 watt PSU. Although the wattage is about what I'd expect, I was happy to see the power supply was an 80 Plus Gold-rated unit. Often when building a machine for brute horsepower, little thought is given to efficiency. Thankfully, that's not the case here. 80 Plus Gold certification means the power supply is 87% efficient at 20% load, 90% efficient at 50% load, and 87% efficient at 100% load. As it happens, when this system is running full bore with both the GPU and CPU maxed out, it's using almost exactly 425 watts. Whether it was a coincidence or not, it means the PSU was sized exactly right for maximum efficiency. Well played, ZaReason.
The graphics card shipped with my unit specifically was chosen with Bitcoin mining in mind. Thanks to an architecture difference between NVIDIA and ATI GPUs, the higher number of Arithmetic Logic Units (ALUs) in the ATI cards means they perform better watt for watt and dollar for dollar when it comes to the pure brute force needed for Bitcoin mining and password cracking. NVIDIA GPUs aren't subpar, they're just different. They tend to have a more-advanced onboard memory system, making them ideal for different sorts of mathematical calculations. The differences are actually rather fascinating, but because I may be alone in my fascination, I'll just leave it at that. ZaReason happily will ship either an ATI or an NVIDIA graphics card. This review unit has the ATI Radeon HD 6970.
If the ATI 6970 is a Cadillac amongst video cards, the 6-core, second-generation 3930K i7 CPU running at 3.2GHz stock in the Valta X79 is a Ferrari amongst processors. I put the CPU through its paces mining a CPU-based cryptocurrency (Litecoin to be specific), but everything CPU-intensive was just lightning-fast.
It's often difficult to find a day-to-day task that actually puts a modern CPU to the test. Thankfully, as Linux users, we still compile quite a bit of our software, and compilation takes CPU. I took it upon myself to compile a few programs. Granted, none of the programs I compiled were enormous, but I think it's telling that when I finally typed make, I thought there was a dependency that configure missed. I got the command prompt back so quickly, that I didn't even consider the possibility the compilation had completed!
I realize I make it sound like a magical CPU, and you're thinking how adorable that Shawn guy is for being impressed by a fast CPU. The thing is, my personal PC is an AMD 6-core monster overclocked to almost 4GHz. I've compiled the same programs, and I've never been fooled into thinking there was an error when really it just finished that fast. Perhaps it's raw CPU horsepower, or perhaps it's a combination of the CPU plus the quad channel RAM. The bottom line is this CPU is fast!
Linux. 'Nuff said (Figure 5).
Seriously though, ZaReason is a company that sells Linux computers. When configuring your system, you get to choose from the most common distributions. By name, they offer all the 'buntus, Debian, Fedora, Linux Mint, no operating system and my favorite, “tell us what kind of Linux you want.”
Earl, being a Linux Journal reader himself, knew my feelings regarding Ubuntu's Unity interface. For the review unit, ZaReason installed Ubuntu 11.10, but instead of the default Unity interface, they installed GNOME 3 with extensions to look much like my beloved GNOME 2 (Figure 6). You may think the review unit got special treatment, but Earl actually told me this interface is what they ship to many customers, especially those uncomfortable with Unity.
It's easy to look up benchmarks on specific CPUs and GPUs. Because ZaReason sent me this unit after reading my article on cryptocurrency, it seems only fair to benchmark it using that method. Before I delve into hashrates and profits/losses, however, let me define a few terms for those not familiar with cryptocurrencies:
Mining: cryptocurrency is something I've written about in past months, but basically, it's a form of virtual currency. That currency is created and secured by a large network of folks donating processing power to cryptographically verify transactions. In return for that donated processing power (aka “mining”), virtual coinage is produced and distributed to the miners. This both introduces the currency fairly into the economy and gives people an incentive for donating their processing power.
Hashrate: this is the speed at which miners can verify transactions, or more precisely, the speed at which they can solve the math problems that verify transactions. The faster the processor, the higher the hashrate.
Bitcoin: the most widely accepted and traded cryptocurrency. The algorithm used to verify transactions is SHA256 and is most efficiently mined with GPUs, specifically AMD/ATI-brand GPUs.
Litecoin: created to be the silver to Bitcoin's gold, Litecoin uses the Scrypt algorithm with the intent of being more efficient to mine with a CPU. Scrypt is more memory-intensive than SHA256, so CPUs have an easier time verifying the transactions.
Another important thing to understand about cryptocurrency is that the speculation market for individual currencies is extremely volatile. Bitcoins have traded for as little as fractions of a penny each, all the way to more than $30 each. Litecoins peaked at about a nickel, and at the time of this writing, they are selling for about a half-cent each. Cryptocurrencies are fun to play with, but I certainly don't recommend investing more than you can afford to lose.
Let me start with the graphics card. First, the AMD 6970 is an incredibly fast gaming card. I know that's not what I'm reviewing, but it's worth noting I couldn't get this thing to drop a frame no matter how hard I tried.
When it comes to Bitcoin mining, the 6970 is no slouch either. Running at stock clockrates and voltages, I was able to mine Bitcoins at around 375 million hashes per second, or MH/s. Using my Kill-A-Watt meter, I measured the difference in wattage at about 225 watts versus the idle GPU. Using the profitability calculator at allchains.info, given the current Bitcoin difficulty and trading price, it turns out I can mine about $1.10 worth of Bitcoins every day. Keep in mind, however, that my electricity costs about $0.11 per kilowatt hour, so while I might make $1.10 in Bitcoins, it costs me $0.59 in electricity. At current rates (end of March 2012), that means this computer will make about $0.51 per day in profits, along with quite a bit of noise and heat.
The second-generation i7 processor, with its new AVX instruction set, is the fastest Litecoin miner I've ever seen. Running all six cores (12 with hyperthreading), the Core i7-3930K uses right around 200 watts according to my Kill-A-Watt. That's actually a little lower than some benchmarks I've seen, but nonetheless, it's what I recorded. The impressive part is that the CPU was able to sustain about 72 thousand hashes per second (KH/s), which is more than twice as fast as my AMD 6-core CPU can muster. Using the same profitability calculator from allchains.info, this CPU can mine around 42 Litecoins a day. Since the price of Litecoins is so low, that equates to only around $0.23. Unfortunately, at 200 watts, it costs around $0.53 per day to mine, so if I were to mine Litecoins today, I'd lose around $0.30 a day.
That is where the speculation comes in. Just a few short weeks ago, Litecoins were selling for 3–4 cents each, which means it was profitable to mine. Depending on your cost for electricity, perhaps it never will be profitable to mine Bitcoins or Litecoins. Again, I stress not to spend more money than you can afford to lose. Still, if you're into cryptocurrencies, it's a neat way to stress-test a computer!
The Valta X79 is a screaming-fast computer. To be honest, if I were going to build a powerhouse computer from scratch, it's the exact type of system I would build. I think that's what I like best about it. ZaReason has taken the essence of building your own computer, using standard parts, and done the testing to make sure everything works well together. Then ZaReason assembles it, configures it and, most important, supports it. If you've ever wanted to build a custom system, but wished you didn't have to give up a warranty and tech support, you'll love this Linux beast from ZaReason. The price for the unit as reviewed is $2,396. To configure and price your own custom Valta X79, head over to www.zareason.com.