High performance memory has come a long way from its early incarnations. In the DDR2 days 800MHz was the norm with 1066 for the wealthy or performance hungry. With the move to DDR3 for a long time prices were such that performance was almost a secondary consideration compared to how much you could get for your money. However, times have moved on and as DDR3 became more affordable manufacturers started to produce high-performance kits.
These were still in the enthusiast bracket mainly due to the early X58 speed limitations requiring some fine tuning and tweaking to obtain the speed advertised. The introduction of the P55 chipset and LGA1156 socket have greatly altered the landscape.
Firstly with the move back to dual-channel that's one less DIMM straight away and so prices naturally reflect this. Secondly with only two sticks the margin for error thanks to a slightly less clockable chip is greatly reduced allowing manufacturers to reach higher yields, and finally the natural evolution of the on-chip memory controller has led to speeds going through the roof.
Still however for a lot of people their primary consideration is how much RAM they get for their money, as opposed to how fast that RAM goes. 4GB of medium speed memory will always sell over 2GB of extreme performance memory.
Enter G.Skill. Formed in 1989 they are celebrating their 21st anniversary as a company and their 7th year as producers of quality memory products. One of the highlights of their product line is that they produce exceptional quality and performance, but at a far more affordable price point than a lot of their competitors. This brings insane memory speeds within the pocket of the amateur enthusiast , and with G.Skills lifetime warranty and exceptional technical support they are a popular choice.
G.Skill PIS F3-17600CL7D 4GB
Today we are looking at their latest premium product, the Pi Series. As a dual-channel kit it is mainly aimed at the LGA1156 userbase, with this particular model proudly stating that it is especially tuned for the i7 860 and 870 processors.
|Capacity||4GB (2x2GB) or 8GB (2x4GB)|
|Speed||DDR3-2200 (PC3 17600)|
ASUS Maximus III Series
The first thing that makes you sit up and take notice is the 2200MHz speed. For a long time now 2000MHz has been the zenith of extreme RAM performance, but the G.Skill Pi happily blasts past that.
Time to take a closer look.
Most of you will be used to memory coming in a blister pack or some similar piece of vacuum formed plastic. The G.Skill Pi comes in a very sturdy cardboard box, the reasons for which will be clear on the next page, or above if you pay attention.
Subtlety is absolutely the watchword here. So often manufacturers, especially with memory, like to shout their product loud and proud with glossy images and big numbers. For a product that is among the fastest DDR3 kits on the planet, G.Skill have wisely decided the product speaks loud enough without needing to over-egg the pudding. A quiet G.Skill logo in one corner and a small detail sticker in the top right are the only elements visible.
Turning the box to the side we can see the obligatory specifications. Once again though this is done with class and subtlety, G.Skill solely replicating the stickers that appear on the DIMMs themselves. Although your average user wont have a clue what these numbers mean this is most definitely not the kind of kit you'll find on the shelves of your local hardware emporium. It's wonderful to see a company accept that enthusiast products are just that, and we already know the benefits of latencies and the like.
The close-up of the sticker leaves no doubt the target audience for the G.Skill Pi.
Taking the DIMMs out of the box and their protective foam wrapping we can see the truly immense heat-spreader they come with. It's nearly as tall as the sticks themselves and should ensure that even at the blistering 2200MHz they are rated at, they will remain cool.
Flipping of them over reveals the Pi Series logo. Having seen a huge amount of black and red hardware recently it's nice to see G.Skill separating the Pi series from their other high-end RAM such as the Ripjaw, buy giving the Pi a blue hue. Slightly disappointing is the use of a green board, but thankfully once installed it's all covered up. Still for such a premium product it would be nice to see RAM boards follow the motherboard trend and switch to black for their extreme products.
The heat-spreader itself is a unique design. Most companies choose to have vertical fins to obtain the surface area necessary for good heat dissipation, but G.Skill have gone for a very nice infinity/figure-eight look. This has the dual-benefit of making the sticks stand out from the crowd, but also due to their hollow nature there is plenty of room for air-flow.
A couple of comparison shots between the size of a standard stick of RAM and the Pi Series demonstrate how much extra surface area is available to cool these super-fast chips. At 597mm tall it's no shrinking violet but due to the subdued hues it's also not in-your-face loud and proud either.
Finally you can see how well the design gives a lovely balance between the equally important surface area and air-flow.
Time to see why this comes in a big box, rather than the de rigueur plastic package.
Cooling fans for RAM are nothing new. We've seen offerings from a few companies over the years but all of them have suffered from the same problem. To keep the cooler compact enough to not intrude upon other hardware in the already tight space around the DIMM slots, the fan size has to be kept very small. Anyone who can recall the days of 40mm fans being the standard knows how loud they can be, and with even the rabid enthusiasts requiring a little quiet from their rig I had the ear-plugs ready.
Thankfully however G.Skills designers have really pulled out all the stops. Firstly this is a totally tool-less installation system. No more fiddly brackets and grub screws. Secondly by understanding that the cooling performance is everything and so reducing the extraneous parts to a bare minimum they have managed to install a larger fan, which should hopefully ensure that the noise is kept to a minimum.
The fan itself is 55mm in diameter and has rated specifications of 7.75cfm @ 21.2db. Considering that it spins at 3200RPM and we all know that fans are always over-rated in cfm and under-rated in db, it remains to be seen if this stands up under testing.
The retention mechanism itself is outstandingly simple. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's flawless. You pull the "arms" of the cooler out slightly, place it over the DIMM latches and let go. Couldn't be simpler. It's as easy to remove as it is to install too, and a far cry from all the other methods we've come across.
If there is only slight caveat it's that space is extraordinarily tight on the bottom side of the cooler. You will definitely need to remove your graphics card to install it, and once replaced it's a squeeze indeed.
Finally we all like a little bright and shiny and the LED equipped fan glows a lovely blue, nicely matching the sticks themselves. It's a bit of a contrast to the otherwise subdued nature of the G.Skill Pi, but still a nice touch. Also it's not as bright as this photograph makes it appear, so don't worry that your entire case will glow a soft blue.
Enough of the pre-amble, does the performance live up to the excellent design?
As you could see from the first page specifications the amount of motherboards this is officially supported by is quite small. Luckily here at the OC3D bunker we've still got the Maximus III Extreme to hand and so it is with that we will be testing the G.Skill Pi. Our other test kit is as follows :
Motherboard : ASUS Maximus III Extreme
CPU : Intel Core i7 870
Graphics : ASUS GTX275
Cooler : Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus with Arctic Cooling MX3 Thermal Compound
PSU : Cougar 1000CM
OS : Windows 7 64
RAM : G.Skill PIS 17600CL7
The RAM will be tested using our standard memory benchmarks and a selection of games to see if there is a benefit to having such blazing speed.
To begin with we ran the memory using the XMP settings, which gave us the following timings :
Luckily as we're using an 870 it enables us to keep the processor running at the same speed all the time, so any benefits in performance will be purely RAM speed related. Once in Windows 7, CPUz confirmed that the rated 2200MHz @ CL7 is definitely accurate. It might seem an obvious thing to say, but we've tested some high-speed kits that weren't too happy running at their rated timings, so thumbs up to G.Skill for obtaining a blazing speed at rated timings. Of course 7-10-10-28 is a good CAS but very lax on the other timings.
As if to demonstrate how right at the very edge of performance these chips are, over-clocking was a frustrating exercise. It was impossible to tighten the timings and remain remotely stable in the time scale we have, and I'm not sure if given an age it would be possible to get them any tighter.
Further more, the best stable overclock we managed was from 2200MHz to 2322MHz and this forced us to use timings so slack that they should be a college student. Still, nonetheless it's an overclock, which is more than we expected considering the already insane speeds this G.Skill kit runs at "out of the box" and that we remained using the recommended 1.65v.
Let's see if the extra cost for these speeds is justified. Benchmarking time.
To run our benchmarks, both Synthetic and the Gaming ones on the next page, we took advantage of the unlocked multiplier on the i7 870 to overclock the G.Skill Pi Series RAM whilst still keeping the CPU locked to the same speed. So any differences between the stock and OC results are purely about the RAM overclock.
Lavalys Everest is a wonderful benchmarking suite that provides a plethora of information regarding your system. Kudos needs to be sent to Lavalys for providing a rebuilt beta in 5 hours that enabled it to fully recognise our pre-release Maximus III.
As this is a pure memory benchmark and almost unaffected by our CPU or Windows build we have also compared it against the tests we ran for Fridays Maximus III review. That used G.Skills own Trident memory running at 1333 by default. As you can see the test scales nicely to pure RAM speed irrespective of the latencies used. For anyone who read the Maximus III Extreme review and how it just scraped past 20000 MB/s in the copy test, here is the difference in genuinely fast memory. Nearly 21000 and more to come.
Speaking of latencies, here is a wonderful test that truly demonstrates how lax timings can be overcome by pure speed. 0.8ns (as near as makes no difference to nothing) separate the CL7 @ 2.2GHz and the CL10 @ 2.3GHz. To be honest I'm surprised at how close they are. The Tridents CL9 can't be overcome by the 1GHz speed difference. Will these clear results translate through the rest of our tests.
Now we move on to some of the synthetic tests that are affected by the rest of the system and freshness of install, and so we'll stick with our G.Skill Pi Series tests. There is a little difference to be seen here. Enough to show up in a graph but given the margin of error in such a tightly timed test it's not enough to put the flags out for.
Considering this is the G.Skill Pi Series, we couldn't let the chance slip past to run Super Pi. Usually Super Pi is a very good reflection of pure CPU clock speed but here we can see that the extra bit of speed with the overclocked RAM has improved matters. Even at stock though this is no slouch at all. With a CPU overclock to go along with it we could see some truly stunning times from the combination of 870 and G.Skill RAM.
PC Mark Vantage
Futuremarks PC Mark Vantage uses a set of inbuilt applications to ensure a very real-world benchmarking process and results that should translate across to actual application results. As today we're testing the memory we are utilising the Memory Suite of tests.
Despite the much slower latencies the Pi in its overclocked state showed a 300 point improvement over the stock version. The capabilities of this RAM in either the XMP based low-latency 2200 mode or manually clocked to 2322 it shines.
Video encoding results show how purely CPU based encoding is. With such a small throughput the RAM settings matter little and the graph reflects this.
As we move into some Windows application based tests, in this case Video Editing with Windows Movie Maker and Picture Importing into Windows Photo Gallery. Because they are involving the whole subsystem too the ability to store and retrieve information for writing to disk etc comes under close scrutiny and it's easy to see how the extra 100mhz grunt of the overclock helps.
I feel a little gaming coming on...
All of our 3D tests were run at 1680x1050 with the settings maximised in game. Anti-aliasing is mentioned when applied.
3D Mark Vantage
Anyone who has read my reviews for a while now will know I'm not the biggest fan of the 3D Mark suite of programs. Unlike the excellent PC Mark the results bear almost no relation to any game I've ever come across. Nonetheless it's as big a part of hardware reviews as the text. In fact some people would probably be happy just getting a p-score and not reading anything else.
Anyway, here is the result with the score difference being within the margin for error. This G.Skill RAM certainly is impressive so far, but not here. So let's move on.
Modern Warfare 2
With the system being identical to the setup we used for the Maximus III Extreme tests we've included the Trident DDR3 1333 results from those tests here because we know that most people use their PCs almost exclusively for gaming and if fans are to be won or lost it's in the ability of a piece of hardware to give those extra frames per second that really add something to a wanted list.
Firstly, wow. Ok the minimum doesn't change much but that's a CPU/GPU related thing, whereas the average and maximum results comprehensively backup the maxim that bigger, better, faster, more is something to strive for. The overclocked G.Skill Pi giving a result parallel to the 4GHz CPU run! Combine the two and minds indeed will be blown.
Cryteks venerable old engine shows no signs of ever finding a computer able to run it properly and so it's always a great test of new hardware. The slightest increase in power gives a good end result.
Yet again we have a wonderful situation in that the extra speed the G.Skill Pi Series RAM gives us really makes a difference, and in its overclocked state it is sufficient extra grunt to give a result akin to the 4GHz test from the ASUS Maximus Extreme review. The best part of 3FPS from a 100MHz memory overclock is amazing, if not slightly perplexing given that it's about 50% of the performance increase 1GHz extra memory speed gave us over the Trident. The tests were run and re-run and the results are correct.
The latest effort from Codemasters really shines in graphical and gameplay terms, and the engine itself provides good scaleability and performance on even low-end systems.
If our Crysis Warhead results were impressive, Dirt 2 shows an even more jaw-dropping improvement both over the G.Skill Trident RAM and the standard G.Skill Pi Series we're reviewing today.
The actual gaming results here nicely back up what I was saying about 3D Mark Vantage, with all of them showing a good improvement at all levels.
We've got the numbers, should you buy this?
Often getting to a conclusion about something is a balancing act between the four Ps. Price, Performance, and then to a lesser extent Potential and Packaging. Having insane performance is pointless if it costs more than your house. If it is good value but has limited overclock ability it will find a limited audience, and so on.
The G.Skill Pi 17600 4GB Kit is fabulous in that it has undeniable performance. At times the results we obtained just from having faster RAM was quite staggering. Admittedly some of the more comprehensive results were as a result of comparing to much slower RAM, but given the official speed limit for the 1156 platform is much more around the Trident speeds than the Pi it's definitely a big tick in the G.Skill Pi performance box. The single most impressive results we saw were in the gaming tests where the overclocked Pi and standard i7 870 produced a similar performance gain to a 1GHz CPU overclock with the 1333 RAM. Outstanding.
Special mention must be made of the Turbulence cooler than was almost inaudible in operation, rendering any noise concerns we had moot, and also provided good cooling performance. The best dedicated RAM cooler we've tested.
The packaging is very sturdy and aimed squarely towards the performance audience. Items such as memory definitely are all about the product rather than glitzy packaging because even people who would class themselves as average tend to not understand the importance of memory and it's only ahead of CPUs and Motherboards as the item least likely to be changed in a PC.
Potential is a tough one to gauge. 2200MHz is definitely at the extreme edge of RAM performance and so we wouldn't expect much extra performance. As it was we obtained over 100MHz overclock, in excess of pretty much every other site and more than we thought we'd achieve. This is doubly impressive given how new the BIOS for the motherboard is, and our limited time available to find the peak overclock. So it has some potential, but it's not something you'll buy because it's a mental overclocker, but rather because it's already insanely fast.
By now you must be expecting this to be the part where I explain how it's mind-blowingly pricey and only for the wealthy. Well you're wrong. The G.Skill Pi 17600 4GB Kit retails for around an outstanding £150. Much cheaper than many 2000MHz kits and not much more than some quite slow ones. For this you're getting an exceptionally good 4GB RAM kit with an amazing cooler and phenomenal performance.
There really isn't a down side. Often if you want the best you pay through the nose for it, or have to buy something that's good value and spend ages getting good performance out of it.
This is extreme speed for the plug and play generation.
Many thanks to G.Skill for providing us with the Pi 17600 for review. Discuss in our forums.