Can a PC this small be that powerful?
- By John Breeden II
- Jan 14, 2013
Computers have reached the point where a well-designed, modern system today is almost light years ahead of anything built even a year ago. And the distinctions between desktops and workstations have all but been erased, at least at the high end.
Consider that the highest scoring workstation computer that the GCN Lab had ever given until 2011 was a 2,200 on the Passmark performance benchmarks. Then in July of 2012, that record was shattered by the Genesis Pro workstation from Origin Systems, with a score of 5,618, a number we didn’t think we would see for another 10 years.
Enter the rather unassuming Tiki desktop from Falcon Northwest. This is a desktop PC for sure, not a workstation. The Genesis Pro was a huge monster with water-cooling, multiple fans and a 25-inch deep housing. The Tiki is a tiny desktop, just four inches wide and 13-inches tall. A block of granite is bolted to the bottom to prevent it from being tipped over by a careless user. Well, the granite is optional, but our test unit had one, and we really liked it even if it added six pounds, doubling its weight.
The Tiki, as unassuming as it looks, is actually quite a powerful system. It scored 5,646 on the Passmark benchmarks, making it the new king of speed in the lab. But how did Falcon Northwest pack so much power into such a tiny space?
Lots of space is saved by features such as a top-mounted disk drive slot, which is similar to the way some gaming consoles are set up. There is no drive door. A disk slipped into the DVD-writer gets pulled in automatically and is ejected by software.
Another cool feature is that while it has a network port, it also has integrated wireless, much like a laptop. So in tight spaces, all it needs is a power connection, and it can grab the local wireless connection to get online or to connect to a corporate network. This is the first time we’ve experienced a desktop PC with wireless (Apple iMacs, of course, have had wireless capability for years), and this handy feature made setup of the Tiki a breeze. It’s literally just plug and play.
And the specs are impressive, too. Its heart is an Intel Core i7 3770K processor running at 3.5 GHz. But the processor can be over-clocked using Tiki software to perform even faster. Somehow, Falcon Northwest managed to hide a water-cooling system inside the case, which makes over-clocking the processor possible.
Memory is provided by two 8G sticks of 1,866-MHz DDR3 from Elite Semiconductor, for a total of 16G. For graphics, our test unit had an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 processor, which was more than enough for any graphically intensive application. There are cheaper options for video, but given that the overall unit as configured for our testing was only $3,473 prior to any government discounts being factored in, we see no reason to skimp in the graphics department.
Companies like Falcon Northwest make their bread and butter, and their names, in the gaming industry, where performance is everything. That knowledge serves the company well as it branches out into providing systems for business and government. A perfect example is the way hard drives within the Tiki are handled.
First, there is the main drive, where the Windows 8 operating system lives along with all of the most often-accessed drivers. That is a 512G solid-state drive, so its access times are almost as fast as when pulling something out of memory, according to the Passmark performance testing. And the 512G size means users can add other features as well, such as Adobe Photoshop or any application that needs as much of a speed boost as possible.
Most data and programs, however, will use the secondary storage disk, which is still pretty fast, but limited by the fact that it’s a more traditional magnetic media-type drive with moving parts. The storage drive is a Western Digital Caviar Green model, offering 3 terabytes of space for data in an environmentally friendly setup that uses about 40 percent less power than most drives of similar size.
Users who really want to squeeze even more performance out of a Tiki, can get clever and install main programs on the system drive and set up the data to reside on the storage drive, although at these speeds, it’s doubtful users would notice much of difference. We were able to open a 300M Photoshop file, along with the program itself, in under three seconds. Both the program and the data file were sitting on the storage drive at the time.
We were also impressed with how quiet the Tiki is, even when running at full power. The onboard controls do a good job of cycling down the cooling elements when not needed, only turning up the main fan when needed, as when we opened the aforementioned Photoshop file. The water cooling system inside the Tiki is almost silent, and the fan runs fast only intermittently. Even so, it’s well-shielded inside the housing, so there's hardly any noise even when it’s briefly running flat out. There were many times when the only indication that the Tiki was powered on was the brightly lit Falcon cutout, which sits on the front of the box of the standard design.
Falcon offers almost unlimited customization options too, for agencies that may want their logo on the case.
The Tiki has a 450-watt power supply, which in our system handled everything inside the box with plenty of room to grow. It’s nice to see expansion room with any power supply, especially if it’s in a system like the Tiki where power management tools mean that extra overhead isn’t draining juice needlessly. It’s just there if needed.
We were really looking for something negative with the Tiki, and thought that when we cracked open the case we would find a mess of wires. But while it’s certainly compact inside, it reminded us of a highly efficient apartment in Tokyo where everything is neat and out of the way, leaving a surprising amount of room to work if components need to be added. The liquid cooling system and the main fan sit at the bottom of the case, while memory cards and extra slots are arrayed up top. Not only does this provides a clean work environment, but in conjunction with generous side vents, allows for great airflow through the entire system.
The Tiki has quite a few options for ports. On the top of the box, which is likely going to be the most accessible area, there are two USB 3.0 ports, as well as a headphone and microphone jack. This is also where the disk drive slot is located. Around back, there are four more USB 3.0 ports and a bank of four USB 2.0 ports. For graphics, our system had both an HDMI and a DisplayPort and two DVI outputs that would support a dual-monitor setup. There is also an optical audio-out port in addition to the standard audio ports, in case a user's setup doesn’t allow for sound to be carried by the HDMI or DisplayPort cable.
When using the Tiki, everything ran incredibly fast. We didn’t realize how slow our “normal” systems in the lab seemed until going back to them after a day working on the Tiki. There is literally nothing we could throw at it that even remotely taxed the system, and we tried everything from bleeding edge games to an AutoCAD of the Space Shuttle Endeavour [OV-105].
The Tiki technically is a desktop, but it offers better-than-workstation performance -- proof positive that the lines between those terms are gone forever. And it’s able to do that in a form factor not much larger than a laptop, or at least a couple laptops stacked together. Few could argue that the $3,473 price tag isn't a good bargain.
It’s rare that we are so impressed with a piece of equipment, but Falcon Northwest’s Tiki inspired awe from everyone who used it. For government offices that need blazing performance in a tiny package, it’s a perfect choice.
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.