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INQ takes a dive and finds Black Pearls

Exclusive A look inside EVGA
Wed Apr 11 2007, 13:11
BLACK PEARL IS the peak of EVGA graphics products and the product portfolio just expanded with water-cooled motherboards as well.

We heard about the process of selection for Black Pearl graphics cards and motherboards, so we decided to pay a visit to the European arm of EVGA's operation, in Grafelfing bei Muenchen. As it goes in Germany, this small city is reachable via a highway with no speed limit, even though the German government is thinking of dulling down with more and more speed restrictions.

We came to EVGA's European HQ to meet the team and sometime-controversial MD of EVGA Europe, Mr. Hans Wolfram Tismer. Tismer has been in the industry for ages and his beginning is tied with Hercules, later Guillemot and then Gainward and EVGA. The goal of EVGA as a company is to offer top service to the high-end market worldwide, and to have the same level of service for the lower-segment markets.

What makes EVGA different is the size of European operation. The office in Grafelfing is also an assembly line for all water-cooled products and high-end ACS3 boards, so these products can be considered as "Assembled in Germany". When it comes to water-cooling, German Innovatek AG stands as one of pioneers of water-cooling on personal computers, and EVGA's Black Pearl series is manufactured exclusively with Innovatek water-blocks.

Since Nvidia does not allow its partners to manufacture high-end boards, but only sells them in their final retail shape, every once-manufacturer-now-sticker-maker is put in a tough position if it wants to be anything different than a sticker-sticker.

Selling complete boards enabled many R&D-less companies to start selling Nvidia products, which is great from a price standpoint, but kills the differentiation and creates shortages on the other end.

According to folk from EVGA, they are making several levels of customisations that differentiate them from rest of the bunch and we managed to see those customisations live.

The Sauna Room
Entrance to The Sauna Room does not leave much to doubt what is happening here...

The creation of The Black Pearl and ACS3 boards at the place we call The Sauna Room - a part of the office where yours truly found himself in a short-sleeved T-Shirt in no time at all, even though the temperature in other, normal, air-cooled rooms was much more European. The temperature inside this part of the office is usually 34-36degC, and the room is filled with computers, as you can see for yourself.

This test stresses complete boarda to 100 per cent load for around 20 minutes, which is enough to see any possible stability issues... If the board fails here, show's over.

Only a very small amount of boards make it into the The Black Pearl bracket, but those that do are ready for hundreds of hours of gaming

This is also the reason why water-cooled EVGA boards come at a price premium - EVGA is not getting cherry-picked boards from Nvidia, EVGA is cherry picking themselves.

Every Nvidia 8800GTX board that comes into the office finds itself placed on a testbed and submitted to torture testing at the different clocks, which form EVGA's line-up. The clocks are 621/2000 for the SuperClocked variant and 626/2000 for the ACS3 or the Black Pearl one.

Black Pearl also goes through another set of tests to see if the card has real potential or not. If the test ends with a fail for Black Pearl, ACS3 or SuperClocked cards, the board is returned to the box and shipped to the channel or e-tail as regular 8800GTX. However, even a failed board at such high clocks will probably work in a air-conditioned environment, this is only a question of filtering out the very best hardware.

The cooler is being stripped and stored for maintanance, but theboard needs to be cleared of all of the low-quality thermal goo...

The guys told us that the yield for ACS3 cards is around 20 per cent, while Black Pearl is even less than that. EVGA's Team is also putting together different versions of firmware, to be able to achieve more performance and stability. They did not disclose what they actually change, but we feel it might be increasing the memory latencies in order to be able to squeeze higher clock, since graphics chips are less prone to latency issues than CPUs are.

How to create a Black Pearl?
Curse you Jack Sparrow, I want these to be mine!

The biggest problem with Nvidia's new manufacturing and sales attitude is the fact that not much can be customised. All of the coolers replaced from the boards are stored away for duration of two years, or until the warranty expires.

The guy in charge for physical creation of Black Pearl series is Peter Tersluisen, who worked with Tismer back in his Hercules and Gainward days. Daily production is usually around 15-30 boards, depending on the demand. This may be a low figure, but with ASP of around 1000 US dollars, it certainly makes an interesting number at the bottom line.

Artic Ceramique is being applied precisely to every component that is touched by the Innovatek Cool-Matic-G80 waterblock

After all the testing and flashing has been done, Peter will start to dismantle the existing cooler and clean the board of any thermal goo that was placed on by Nvidia's contract manufacturers - I always found weird that manufacturers don't put the highest-quality thermal paste on the top-end cards. They cost a ton of money, so saving couple of cents would not kill the bottom line. It takes a lot of time to clean the board in total - everything is cleaned to the state of factory cleanness and then new paste is applied.

Cooler is placed into position and then cleaned, so that a sticker can be applied.

EVGA will not skimp on any premium product and will put premium Artic Ceramique paste on each and every component that is cooled by Innovatek's water-block (or ACS3, but that's a different story).

As you can see on the pictures, GPU, NVIO1, memory chips and power regulation components get their treatment with a touch of Ceramique, and after that card will be placed on an Innovatek water-block and mounted with screws. The water-block is a combination of copper and aluminium, but rather than talking about materials used, the matter is how this block is designed. The inner part of the GPU cooler is the actual XX-Flow/G-Flow water-block for the CPUs, and then the cooling NVIO1 chip, video memory and the power monitoring components. In order to avoid possible leaks in this copper-aluminium combination, the water-block is tested by submerging into water, blowing air at two bars - in order to find any leaks.

After mounting the waterblock, sticker is being placed

Once the water-block is mounted, the top of the block will be cleaned with gasoline, and a shiny EVGA sticker will be applied. Sadly, due to packaging issues, Tersluisen will have to dismantle fittings for the tubing connector, but the connector comes inside the box with simple instructions of how to mount it again. After this, the only thing that remains is packing in retail boxes and shipping to a very lucky (wealthy) customer.

This baby goes to packing and then to one lucky guy... me!

So far, of all the cards manufactured under the Black Pearl moniker, there have been zero returns. Yup, you've read it correctly - zero per cent of 8800GTX boards came back, and previous generations bear very similar percentage numbers. In comparison, two per cent of all 8800GTX boards are returned for repairs or replacement (RMA).

In the end, we were very impressed with the amount of work put in to the creation of Black Pearl graphics cards and motherboards, and seeing that prior to every product launch, even the Managing Director will walk around the office and pack products alongside the whole team of people and interns. A German approach indeed.

We would recommend to EVGA to bundle an empty single-slot S-Video/DVI/DVI bracket with future products, so that enthusiasts can put the single-slot bracket on their own, if that would eat up too much time. The competition already offers single-slot water-cooled cards. Yes, you could put whatever card(s) you want between the water-cooled boards. On EVGA's 680i motherboard that would free up one PCI and one PCIe x8 slot. This would be one of key bonuses over the air cooling ones, but we have to see how the future unfolds. µ


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