Digital Storm Bolt: Mini tower review

Can a last gen Chip keep the Bolt in Contention?

Digital Storm Bolt: Mini tower review
Given our experience building Dream Machine every year, we know how meeting a strict deadline invariably leads to compromise. Indeed, sometimes you build a PC with the hardware you have, not the hardware you wish you had.

That’s how Digital Storm might have been feeling when the Bolt was boxed up and sent in for this showdown of the fastest micro-towers on the planet. We say this because, of the four boxes that hit our Lab benches, the Bolt was the odd man out in hardware.

Rather than include the current state-of-the-art in Intel processors — the new Haswell fourth-gen parts—the Bolt is packing a Core i7-3770K chip. Yup, Ivy Bridge, my friends. This might be good news for folks in the Haswell Haters Club, but for the majority of enthusiasts who like to get the latest and greatest, well, this won’t make them happy. More on this later.

The Bolt itself is little changed from the previous versions we’ve tested. It’s the thinnest of the bunch by a hair. We’re also fans of the angled pedestal. It’s a pretty nice aesthetic and it doesn’t have the same weight penalty as the Falcon Northwest’s granite base. We’ve bitched in the past that we want the ability to lay the Bolt on its side for use in home media centers, and Digital Storm has since responded with a pretty clever solution. Rather than making every unit lay flat, the company now offers an optional bracket for $29 that attaches to the side. Simply unscrew the base, mount the optional bracket, and the Bolt can run on its side with adequate airflow to keep its components cool.

The Bolt’s outer shell slides off to give you easy access to its guts, and there’s even a cutout in back for the motherboard.
The Bolt’s outer shell slides off to give you easy access to its guts, and there’s even a cutout in back for the motherboard.

To get your hands dirty with the Bolt, you undo four screws in back and slide the entire cover off. That effectively gives you open access to the RAM, CPU, SSD, and PSU. Besides the Falcon North-west Tiki, the Bolt probably ranks as having the easiest access to parts. Well, except for the GPU, of course. If you intend to pull the GPU, you’ll need to do some graphics card yoga as well as probably removing the auxiliary PSU fan and maybe even the PSU. It’s not impossible, but also not a five minute job. We should note that the Bolt is the only system here with an exposed cutout tray to access the backside of the CPU. This makes pulling the Zalman CNPS8900 Extreme air cooler an easy affair.

Speaking of the air cooler, we should also mention that under heavy CPU loads, such as video encoding, the Bolt stands out as the loudest. It wasn’t horrible, but it was definitely noticeable. You can’t blame this on the Zalman CNPS8900 Extreme alone. When it comes to overclocked CPUs, it’s pretty hard to ask an air cooler to try to compete with liquid coolers. The Falcon Northwest Tiki uses a 120mm liquid cooler from Asetek and the iBuypower Revolt uses an even bigger 140mm NZXT Kraken X40 liquid cooler, and they rank accordingly in acoustic output. Under CPU chores, the iBuypower Revolt is the quietest. The Falcon Northwest Tiki has the Bolt beat, but keeping a Haswell Core i7-4770K cool and quiet at 4.7GHz is no easy task.

If the Core i7-3770K in the Bolt were stock, it might not make as much racket, but clocked up to 4.35GHz, it’s going to put out some heat. Speaking of Ivy Bridge vs. Haswell, most of you will want to know how the Ivy Bridge does here in a crowd of Haswell parts.

The Alienware X51 R2, with its 3.2GHz Core i5-4430, stands no chance. It doesn’t have the clock speeds nor Hyper-Threading to compete. The Falcon Northwest Tiki at 4.7GHz — that’s right, 4.7GHz — was early ruled Most Likely to Beat Everyone Bloody, before we even finished the benchmarks. No, to really represent the He-Nerd Haswell Haters Club, we turned to the iBuypower Revolt and its stock-clocked 3.5GHz Core i7-4770K. The winner between Ivy and Hassy? We’re calling it for the Ivy part. It’s not a complete victory, but for the most part, the Core i7-3770K comes out on top in the CPU heavy tasks. In GPU-on-GPU action, it’s mostly a tie, as it’s just Titan vs. Titan there. That is, with the exception of the Tiki, which has an overclocked GPU, too.

The Digital Storm also takes second place to the Tiki in storage, but is clearly more practical and affordable. Its configuration reflects modern tastes and usage, with a 240GB Corsair Neutron GTX SSD and a 2TB WD Black drive. That’s far better than the iBuypower, which uses a 120GB SSD and 1TB HDD, or the Alienware’s sole 2TB hard drive configuration.

What you think of the Bolt ultimately depends on how much you really want top-of-the-line parts in your rig. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Ivy Bridge is still a really great CPU. If we had an Ivy Bridge box, we sure wouldn’t spend the money to upgrade to Haswell.

But — and you knew that was coming — if we were building or buying a new box, Haswell offers the best upgrade path, an actual (albeit evolutionary) performance upgrade, and full SATA 6Gb/s across all ports. We’ll admit that the latter point doesn’t really matter so much in a micro-tower that will max out with two SSDs, but we think the other points are still relevant and ultimately hurt the Bolt’s score, regardless of its very good performance.


Intel Core i7-3770K@4.5GHz
Mobo Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe
RAM 8GB DDR3/1600 dual-channel
Videocard GeForce GTX Titan
120GB Corsair Neutron, 1TB 7,200 HDD
OpticalSlot-fed DVD combo drive
Case/PSUCustom / Sparkle 500W


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Wednesday, October 02, 2013 ×

It's a very nice little rig. Sounds like it could be loads of fun to play with if I had that much money to throw around.