Maingear Quantum F1318 Jul, 2015 By: Alex Herrera
First Look Review: Deskside tower brings a unique form factor and high performance to the table.
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Given that they are responsible for shipping around 85% of all workstations sold worldwide, according to Jon Peddie Research, it's no surprise that a healthy percentage of the machines Cadalyst reviews come from three workstation vendors: HP, Dell, and Lenovo. But there's a tremendous amount of innovation going on elsewhere in professional computing, so when we get an opportunity to sample system designs from other players, we jump at the chance. Maingear's Quantum F131 was particularly intriguing, as the model represents a departure from the norm, demonstrating what's possible when designers forget some of the old "rules" and come up with a new take on what a workstation can be.
The Maingear Quantum F131's chassis is an unconventional form factor for a deskside tower: it's more of a square column than the rectangular box we're used to. The enclosure has a square-like base, measuring 9.25" x 11.25", and at 19", it is quite a bit taller than it is wide.
Maingear's Quantum F131 workstation is enclosed in an unconventionally shaped case.
Opening the enclosure is simple to do without tools. The front metal panel pops out, as does the top plastic grill. The front panel remains tethered to the chassis by the power cable running to power the Maingear logo LED on the front. The primary optical drive is accessible through a slot through the front panel (there is no button to eject discs; doing so requires selecting the Eject menu option through Windows with your mouse).
The two metal side panels slide up and out. Unlike some of its peers in the industry, the 27 lbs Quantum F131's chassis has no external handles, and the slide-out panels had us carrying the machine very gingerly, as the panels proved very prone to inadvertent release. They slid up and out almost every time we moved the machine, tempting us to grab the duct tape to fasten them in place.
Another issue with the case was the fact that the two side panels are mechanically interchangeable — the left mates to the right side and vice versa. Why is that a problem? Well, one has a critical vent for airflow (described below) and the other doesn't. A user could very easily put the wrong panel on the wrong side (we know, because we did it), in the process compromising airflow to the liquid-cooled CPU and DIMMs. We imagine thermal management software (e.g. OS, interrupts) would detect any rising temperature levels from in-chassis thermal monitors and throttle back or shut down the machine before any damage occurred, but regardless, it appears to be an accident waiting to happen.
The Quantum F131 partitions basically divides functionality into two halves of the chassis to help keep things organized, each facing the sides. On the viewer's left is a conventional Asus (Gryphon Z87) motherboard, and facing right is the storage subsystem, containing system drive bays. In addition to the aforementioned front-facing media drive, the Quantum F131 offers one 3.5" external bay, two 3.5" drive bays, and one 2.5" bay, all laid out flat rather than stacked. The Maingear F131 came with a 250-GB SATA solid-state drive (SSD) in the 2.5" bay and a 3-TB SATA hard drive — the former was our system's boot drive, taking the brunt of system testing, while in real-world use the hard drive would handle more of the user data. The external bay can be accessed from the top.
The right-facing side of the case in the Maingear Quantum F131 contains storage drive bays laid flat, rather than the more typical stacked bays.
On one side of the left-facing half of the case are the liquid-cooled Intel Core i7-4790K CPU and bordering it, two DIMMs comprising 16 GB of DDR3 -1,600 memory. On the other side are the Quantum F131's four PCI Express slots, one of which is occupied by the machine's ultra high-end NVIDIA Quadro K5200 GPU (with its own 8 GB of memory). Three of the slots are x16 mechanically, with one supported by only four electrical lanes, with the fourth a x1 slot. With three x16 slots, the Quantum F131 can support a dual-GPU configuration.
Why the liquid-cooled CPU? Some workstations use liquid-cooling systems to enhance reliability with nominally clocked parts (cooler parts being less likely to fail). And we've seen others that liquid-cool specifically to enable overclocking in the pursuit of higher performance, by more effectively dissipating the extra heat produced. The liquid-cooling specifically enables the Maingear F131 to be overclocked, with its liquid-cooled Core i7 driven to 4.7 GHz — 10% higher than its nominal 4.0 GHz rate. The cooling block sits on top of the Core i7, with hoses routing the hot coolant out to a radiator mounted on the underside of the chassis's top.
The CPU and DIMMs are cooled with air pulled primarily from the side by an angle-mounted fan, while the PCI Express slots (and inserted cards) are cooled with air pulled from underneath the unit. All of the airflow exits out the top, with help from a single large fan sitting directly over the cooling radiator to pull air through; it's an approach to cooling that's similar to that of the Apple Mac Pro. Maingear calls it VRTX (Vertical Exhaust) Cooling Technology.
The left-facing side of the case is designed with separate airflow patterns for slots (visible at left) and the PSU, CPU, and memory (right).
Maingear F131's power supply unit (PSU) is located at the bottom of the chassis, with the power cable plugged in underneath (there is adequate clearance, given the short legs necessary to allow air to flow as well). The Quantum F131's Corsair CX600M PSU is essentially fixed, though it should be extractable after removing the side panel and several screws. The CX600M is a middle-of-the-road PSU by workstation standards, capable of delivering 600 watts with 80 PLUS Bronze efficiency. Maingear also supports a higher-caliber PSU option for the Quantum F131: the Corsair AX860, rated for 860 watts at 80 PLUS Platinum efficiency. (For a high-performance dual-GPU configuration, we'd recommend the upgrade to the AX860, as two 150 W K5200s add up to about 100 W of CPU, and adding another 100+ of other system watts would approach the CX600M's limits.)
The Quantum F131's base I/O support is comprehensive and typical of the machine class: six USB 3.0, four USB 2.0, one Gigabit Ethernet, and analog audio I/O mini-jacks (though the Quantum F131 includes the less ubiquitous line-in and line-out). What is not typical is the location of the I/O connectors — all at the top, with all but the audio jacks and two USB ports located under the snap-on plastic grill top. Display and USB cables can be routed in a side cut-out so the plastic grill can remain attached.