- Fun case
- Expansive port selection
- Built-in handle
- Somewhat loud
- 123 watt idle power draw
When it comes to buying a computer, you can either build one yourself or buy one pre-made from a manufacturer. The former gives you choice, the latter constricts it in the name of convenience. Enter AVA Direct, a custom builder that lets you pick the components that they use. With a world exclusive case and a slim design, it sounds like the best of both worlds, but is it?
Our review unit came configured with the following specifications:
- Processor: Intel Core i7-920 @ 2.66GHz
- Memory: 6GB DDR3 SDRAM
- Hard drive: 500GB Western Digital Caviar Black
- Optical drive: 8X DVD+/-RW tray-loading drive
- Sound: Integrated HD audio
- Video card: ATI Radeon HD4850 w/ 1GB GDDR3
- Networking: Gigabit Ethernet
- Operating system: Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit
- Inputs: 2 PS/2 ports, 10 USB2.0 (4 front, 6 rear), eSATA, FireWire, Analog and digital audio out, DVI-I and
- TV video out
- Power supply: 350W (internal)
- Dimensions: 4.25″x12.5″x 15.6″ (WxDxH)
In this configuration, the GT3 is available from AVA Direct for just over $1268.40.
Build and Design
The most striking thing about this new desktop, obviously, is the case. While you can buy the case on your own, AVA Direct is the only manufacturer that is currently offering the case in a pre-built configuration; GTR Tech, the case designer, even links directly to AVA Direct’s configurator from their product page. GTR likes to call their design a ‘sport compact PC.’ What’s pretty revolutionary about the design is that despite the fact that it’s a relatively small form factor, you can use a full-sized ATX motherboard inside. That allows users substantial latitude regarding the choice of components and the relative performance of the machine. At only four and a quarter inches wide, it shows a lot of ingenuity that the companies have figured out how to offer high performance in such a small area.
To save on weight, the case is constructed entirely from aluminum, as opposed to a standard case’s traditional medium of steel. It shows, too; even filled to the brim with technology as it is, the computer weighs noticeably less than most gaming desktops we’ve had the chance to review. Most of that is thanks to to the case construction, but some of it is also thanks to the fact that since it’s so small, AVA Direct can’t shove too many big, heavy parts inside. Desktop optical drives are often big and heavy, needlessly, since the slim style laptop drives are just about as capable. The laptop style drive in the GT3 desktop also helps to shave off a little bit of weight.
The sides are blank aluminum panels, painted black. This brings us to one of the two downsides to this computer. The side of the machine scratches easily. We had our review unit sitting on a table against the wall, minding its own business, and when I picked it up to run the benchmarks, I found several scratches all along the side. They shine a silvery color, thanks to the unmolested aluminum below. It is metal, though, so you can almost certainly buff most of it out and recolor the case without too much effort. It’s still a lot nicer than a lot of the other manufacturers these days, who use glossy black plastics that scratch with a simple microfiber cloth; it just bears mentioning.
Since the sides are solid sheets with no venting holes, you might be wondering how the machine keeps from overheating, especially since it uses a big CPU and a big (ish) graphics card in such a small space. The hot air from the case is expelled through the rear through a couple of large vents as well as through the front, in a grated hole on the top of the case. GTR has done well integrated it into the design of the computer; it’s covered with the same faux carbon fiber appearance that the rest of the facade has. At the bottom of the front is a GT3 logo molded out of translucent white plastic; when the computer is turned on, it glows a bright blue. The hole in the middle of the silver power button matches.
By far one of the most interesting things about AVA Direct’s GT3 computers are their utter portability. Taking advantage of the relative lightness of the case, a handle folds out from the top of the computer, giving users an easy way to move the machine from place to place. Going back to your dorm from summer at home? Grab the GT3 and go. The handle actually looks fairly stylish, with black legs and the top covered with the same pattern as covers the front of the case. To keep the weight down, the handle is crafted from the same lightweight materials as the rest of the case. While it’s perfectly functional and poses no problem moving the computer around, it’s worth noting that it can bend fairly easily if you don’t watch how the computer is being carried. In other words, don’t swing it around.
Inputs and Expansion
When any computer is pushed into a small form factor, it costs, usually in terms of inputs and expandability. The GT3 is no exception to this rule, but GTR and AVA Direct have done an admirable job of putting ports where they could. On the front of the GT3, you can see the vertical tray-loading DVD burner. I prefer tray-loading to slot-loading drives because while the slot-loaders do look nicer, they’re not as easy to get access to if and when something goes wrong with your disc. Keep going down, though, and hidden within the design of the computer’s facade rests a little push button panel. Push it in and it slowly pops out, revealing microphone and headphone jacks as well as a whopping four USB2.0 ports. It’s nice to have so many USB ports on the front of the machine.
Turn it around to the back and you’ll find most of the machine’s easily accessible inputs, just like most desktops. There’s another six USB2.0 ports on here, bringing the total up to ten. There’s also one each of eSATA, FireWire and Gigabit Ethernet so you can get your fast data access on. Two PS/2 ports sit at the top, for keyboard and mouse; a little surprising on such a modern computer, especially since there are so many USB ports available. It’s definitely not a complaint, though, just an observation. Media-wise, there are a lot of options here, with 7.1 analog audio out as well as mic and line in jacks, optical audio out as well as S/PDIF. The included ATI Radeon HD4850 provides two more DVI-I plugs and ATI’s TV out between them. TV out will let users hook s-video up directly or use an adapter and get s-video, composite or component.
Inside of the machine, things are a bit cramped. This is hardly surprising, considering the high-end components that have been crammed into a case less than five inches wide. The GT3 really isn’t designed to be a computer that gets opened up all the time and tinkered about and around. Nothing about it is toolless, so if you want in, you’ll be breaking out the screwdrivers. Once you do, however, and pop the door off, you’ll see how clever the inside of the computer looks. The bottom half is obviously dominated by a silver metal framework. The framing provides both support and stability for the case as a whole and it serves as the mount points for the full-sized discrete graphics card. Traditionally, graphics cards are mounted perpendicular to the motherboard, and plug into a PCI Express slot. That’s clearly not possible here, so GTR designed a riser that lets the cards mount parallel to the mainboard and plug into a custom PCI Expression extension slot. The slot then gets connected to the motherboard.
The only real issue here is how complicated the process is for removing or changing anything. Everything is held down with a number of screws that are not all that easy to remove (it’s telling that the manufacturer has a number of installation guides on their website). You’ll definitely want to use a screwdriver with a magnetic tip to hold onto the screws so they don’t get dropped down between a couple of capacitors. That’s not too bad, though; this is set up to be built, filled with a number of powerful components and then sit and look pretty.
To the top you can see the rest of the components, like the petite power supply, processor, hard drive and optical drive. In terms of expandability, our configuration had six gigabytes of RAM, but only used half the slots; users could easily double that if they wanted. Apart from that, however, a choice has to be made. There’s room inside for either a second hard drive or a PCI card, but not both, since they’d occupy the same place. It’s possible you might be able to squeeze in both a card and a 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD, but there’s certainly no guarantee. Still, despite the difficulty in moving things around or getting them out without bending a frame or dropping all of the screws, it’s hard to deny that some clever work went into the design.