Most people purchase their PCs from popular vendors such as Dell or Lenovo. However, power users who want something more -- or who have very specific ideas of what they want without the time to actually build it themselves -- may turn to smaller, independent vendors who can accommodate high-performance, individually designed systems. These vendors are popularly known as boutique builders.
A decade ago, boutique PC builders weren't much of a bargain. They offered good-looking boxes with clear panels and case lights, along with some performance gains -- a modicum of overclocking, better speakers and higher video resolutions -- all at prices that were well above what their mainstream counterparts charged.
They were an alternative to the cookie-cutter models that others sold, providing components that were not necessarily on anyone else's shelves. However, most of the boutique PCs I tested at the time didn't offer enough performance differences to merit their stratospheric costs.
Today, though, boutique PC builders offer a wider selection of performance enhancements and, as a result, can provide their customers with a truly custom PC. Not only are processor speeds and core counts greater than ever before, but overclocking has become an art form -- with simple water-cooling options available to keep processor temperatures down. In addition, memory has faster response times, graphics cards can deal with more pixels more quickly, and even storage is faster thanks to SATA 6 and SSDs.
And, of course, while Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) is the default OS option for these systems, any version of Windows 7 can be configured online as needed.
It may seem odd that these boutique builders are able to survive in light of the bad economy and the sky-high prices of the PCs they build. The trick is diversification. Most sell their products globally as well as maintaining off-the-shelf preconfigured systems just as mainstream builders do.
During a long career as a reviewer, I've dealt with a lot of boutique builders. In this article, I describe five of the best that I've found: Alienware, Digital Storm, Falcon Northwest, Maingear and Origin PC.
Unless you're looking to buy a stock system off the shelf just for the logo, the main reason to go to one of these sites is to get exactly the type of high-end system you want for gaming, for video development, or just because you like the bleeding edge. In that case, it's best to configure a system at two or more of these vendors, so you can decide which builder comes closest to the configuration you want (not all will install components that they normally don't stock or sell), and which offers you the best price/performance ratio.
If you're wondering whether the builder you're thinking about is on the up-and-up and not just some fly-by-night sleaze looking to pocket your cash, the easiest way to find out is to look at the company's track record. This is where online social networking can actually come in handy. The users of these companies tend to be very active online, both complimenting and dissing the vendors they've used. If there's no buzz about a company, you might want to step back for a while -- the company may be too new to judge.
And remember: The devil is in the details. After you've configured your ideal system at two or more of these builders, also compare the warranty and support each company offers. It's unlikely that you'll be able to get a highly customized PC reliably diagnosed and repaired anywhere but where you bought it.
Alienware is one of the Titans of boutique builders. Established in 1996, the company specializes in desktop and laptop performance computers for both business and gaming.
Originally, Alienware was in a neck-and-neck competition with Voodoo PC, which preceded Alienware to the marketplace by five years. The two battled each other for nearly a decade until 2006, when HP purchased Voodoo PC and Dell acquired Alienware. While HP has since folded Voodoo under its corporate wings, Dell still maintains Alienware as separate product line.
Currently, Alienware has two principal desktop series, the Aurora and the Area 51. Each features a distinct case design (although they share the Alienware "Alien head" logo). While both systems can be expanded, the Area 51 series represents Alienware's performance models, while the Aurora offers an enhanced gaming experience on a less stratospheric budget -- at least to start. I found it remarkably easy to power-configure a base $2,499 Area 51 system into a $6,672 performance behemoth.
The company's laptop lineup currently includes the M11x, M15x and M17x models; the numeric designation indicates the screen size. If you don't think there's much you can do to specialize a laptop, think again -- I was able to quickly jump up a base $2,199 M17x to $6,193 by customizing hardware options such as the CPU, memory, graphics and hard drives for more aggressive performance. I was also able to add service and support options aimed at making my life easier (no wait times, and North American-based support).
Alienware offers one-, three- and four-year basic warranty plans along with extended in-home warranties. However, keep in mind that getting someone to show up at your house may not be easy. According to the Alienware site:
Remote Diagnosis is determination by online/phone technician of cause of issue; may involve customer access to inside of system and multiple or extended sessions. If the issue is covered by the Limited Hardware Warranty and not resolved remotely, a technician and/or part will be dispatched, usually in 1 or 2 business days following completion of Remote Diagnosis.
This is similar to the terms and conditions of a plan that Dell -- and many of the other "at home" service providers -- has offered on its computers for years.
So if you think that its acquisition by Dell has "institutionalized" Alienware, you might be correct to a small degree. However, when you talk to anyone there, you'll find the same thing I did: the same level of enthusiasm and spirit that existed before the two companies bonded.
At a Glance
Business start date: October 1996
Desktop lines: Aurora, Aurora ALX, Area 51, Area 51 ALX
Laptop lines: M11x, M15x, M17x
Warranty: 90-day, one-year, two-year, three-year or four-year limited product warranty
Refund policy: 30-day money-back guarantee; 15% restocking fee
Digital Storm is a nine-year-old company whose name fits its mission: to cater to the extreme gaming crowd. It's what has helped catapult the company from start-up status to the 10,000-square-foot facility it occupies today.
The basic inventory includes the high-performance Black. (which includes the Assassin and Hailstorm models) and the value edition Special. lineup of desktops. The Assassin offers an unusual heat flow/cooling design, while the Hailstorm is touted as one of Digital Storm's most upgradeable models.
I recently encountered an Assassin with a $3,400 price tag attached that Digital Storm was trying to pass off as a "mainstream gaming computer." And the Lincoln Memorial is just a statue of some dead guy. In testing, that PC bumped benchmarks with systems costing twice as much, and while it never quite bettered them, I wondered why anyone would pay so much more for just a tiny bit better performance.
If you're interested in the corporate version, Digital Storm also offers workstations. The Protus C20, C40 and CX (with starting prices of $2,699, $4,715 and $5,690, respectively) come in a variety of configurations; for example, the Protus CX is available with dual Intel Xeon processors and an Nvidia Quadro graphics card. While the sky is not quite the limit (depending on how high you think the sky is), I racked up enough upgrades on the CX (better Xeon CPUs, four times the 12GB available in the base configuration and a better Quadro graphics card) to supersize the price to almost $11,000.
Digital Storm's laptop array includes five models ranging from 15.6 to 18 in. Interestingly, the X18, an 18-in. gaming laptop with a an Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M, is not the most expensive laptop it carries -- the big-ticket item is the 17E, a $2,982 desktop replacement laptop with an Intel Core i7 980X six-core processor. Adding some more storage and memory will get that to $5,672 without breaking a sweat.
Digital Storm provides an online technical support resource that could easily qualify as the mother of all FAQs. Its desktop products, including its workstations, have three-, four- or five-year labor and one-, two- or three-year parts warranties, while the laptop group is offered with a one-year warranty. Lifetime phone support is the norm for all its products.
All this points to an older era of service when owners were expected to actually know something about the computers they purchased. It appears that Digital Storm adopts an old-school method of offering support by addressing the needs of the hard-core geek who wants the extreme performance PC experience.
At a Glance
Business start date: January 2002
Desktop lines: Black|O.P.S. Assassin, Black|O.P.S. Hailstorm, HAF X, 690 II Advanced, DF-85, Elite 430, HAF 932, HAF 922, Ironclad, Maelstrom, Raven 2, Raven 1
Laptop lines: xm15, x15, x17, x18, x17E
Workstation lines: Protus C20, Protus C40, Protus CX
Warranty: Depending on system, three-year labor/one-year parts, four-year labor/two-year parts or five-year labor/three-year parts.
Refund policy: None
Another elder of boutique builders, Falcon Northwest was founded in 1992. In those days, games such as flight simulators placed tremendous demands on a PC's CPU and graphics card. Falcon picked up the ball and has been running with it ever since.
The Mach V brand has been in production since 1992. With a 3-GHz Intel Core i7 850 processor, 6GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce GTS 450 graphics card and a 500GB hard drive, the base $1,903 unit is hardly a slouch. You can bump it up to a Core i7 Extreme processor, 12GB of memory, dual ATI HD 5970 graphics cards, two hard drives and an SSD; the grand total for that is $6,897.
To really impress your buds, you can add a full-on custom paint job or one of Falcon's own designs. The cases are hand-painted using high-quality automotive paint. For example, the Flames motif will set you back another $1,250. My favorite, the Red Rain paint scheme, almost looks three-dimensional and costs $900.
According to Falcon Northwest founder Kelt Reeves, the company recently completed a customized FragBox -- a small form-factor PC measuring 8 x 10.75 x 14.75 in. -- with a purple flame paint scheme and a price tag of $17,000.
Falcon's laptops come with displays measuring 17 (DRX), 15.6 (TLX) and 13.3 (I/O) in. Size and heat restrictions limit the base $1,459 I/O, a 13.3-in. notebook that's the "baby" of the group, to hard drive upgrades (up to a 500GB hard drive or 256GB SSD).
The 17-in. DRX, however, which starts at about $4,200 for a Core i7 950 (3.06-GHz) CPU, 6GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive, lets you upgrade to a Core i7 Extreme CPU and as much as 12GB of memory for about $5,400 in total. It's a power-hungry portable that will go through a 12-cell lithium-ion battery in about 45 minutes of DVD playback. A dual battery pack option ($169) will add another 45 minutes, for a total battery life of 90 minutes.
A 30-day money-back guarantee covers computer purchases. While the Talon and the laptops have only a one-year warranty, the Mach V and the FragBox come with coverage for three years. In addition, the Mach V, the FragBox and the laptops come with one year of overnight service, including parts, labor and overnight shipping on the systems for the duration of the Falcon Overnight service period.
At a Glance
Business start date: April 1992
Desktop lines: Mach V, Talon, FragBox
Laptop lines: EDRX, TLX, I/O
Warranty: Mach V and FragBox: three-year parts & labor; one-year overnight shipping. Talon and laptops: one-year parts, labor and shipping.
Refund policy: 30-day money-back guarantee; restocking fee for special-order items
About a year ago, I reviewed Maingear's then-new Shift computer. Nearly 70 lbs. of case and components, the then-$7,100 Shift bettered every benchmark result I'd seen to date. Even a year later, with the overall level of technology raised and component costs lowered, I haven't found any machines that have surpassed those scores.
The Shift is still available. The base unit, at $2,318, includes a 2.8-GHz Intel Core i7 930 processor, 6GB of memory, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 470 graphics card and a 750GB hard drive, but it can be pumped up to near supercomputer status for a tad more than $9,000 -- which includes a custom exterior paint job and a matching interior finish for $599 and $349, respectively.
One of the smaller (15 x 19.2 x 8.2 in.) models Maingear Offers is called the Vybe; at a base price of $775, this minitower is inexpensive for a boutique PC.
Although the base version -- with an AMD Athlon II X3, 4GB of memory, integrated graphics and a 640GB hard drive -- represents a capable PC for most mainstream productivity tasks, you can build it up to premium levels. I configured a Vybe with a Core i7 875K CPU, 8GB of memory, two 256MB SSDs, a GeForce GTX 470 graphics card, a 23-in. monitor, DVD and Blu-ray burners, a Razer keyboard and mouse, and a few software amenities. In less than three minutes, I had an almost $3,800 minicomputer in a desktop form factor.
Like the other boutique builders, Maingear has branched out into the notebook market. It has two offerings, the EX-L15 and EX-L17, both geared toward the gaming market and expandable from their $1,899 base models.
Maingear calls its support system "Angelic Service." That may seem like hyperbole, but what it amounts to is a return to the service and support principles of an earlier day, before PC pricing became cutthroat and support was sacrificed on the altar of margins. Among its provisions: You'll be able to talk to the person building your computer; phone support and labor (should you return your PC to Maingear for service) are free for the lifetime of the product; and virtual on-site support is available via an internal remote-desktop setup program. (Maingear swears that your privacy is preserved.)
This mix of old-fashioned values and extreme configurations -- as well as being able to speak with your own personal geek -- are definite assets and can make the difference between purchasing at Maingear and another site.
At a Glance
Business start date: August 2002
Desktop lines: Shift, Quantum Shift, F131, The Vybe, Access HD
Laptop lines: EX-L 15, EX-L 17, Clutch 13, Clutch i5
Warranty: Free lifetime labor/phone support; free parts shipping for first 30 days; remote diagnostics
Refund policy: 30-day money-back guarantee; 20% restocking fee
Apparently, not all Alienware staffers were happy with the Dell purchase. Former employees Kevin Wasielewski, Richard Cary and Hector Penton broke away to form their own boutique builder company: Origin PC.
Origin PC was established in May 2009 and launched its Web site in November that year. In the interim, it developed its basic lineup of desktops (called Genesis) and laptops (EON).
The site is a bit unconventional and can be confusing at first. For example, after you select an option, you have to follow up by accepting it manually -- an extra and unnecessary step. You get to select every detail about the PC you're buying, from case to mouse, in the process.
I had no trouble running up a $9,206 tab on a $1,300 base Genesis PC that I overclocked to 4 GHz, housed in a Level 10 enclosure and stocked with 12GB of RAM and three 1.5GB GTX 480 graphics cards, to which I added a 23-in. monitor.
Origin PC sells three basic laptop units: EON15 ($1,651), EON17 ($2,499) and EON18 ($2,297); the numeric values indicate the screen size. I pushed the price of the EON18 to just over $6,000 with a processor upgrade, multiple hard-drive RAID storage, a Blu-ray drive, a 23-in. desktop monitor, and a three-year replacement warranty, among other options.
But if you really want to talk about being over the top, you need only look at one of Origin's latest desktop offerings: the Big O. The system features dual Intel Xeon X5680s overclocked to 4.3 GHz and Nvidia's Quad SLI EVGA GTX 480 FTW video cards -- all liquid-cooled. It also contains a fully functional liquid-cooled Xbox 360. The basic configuration for the Big O, touted as a "one of a kind system, customized to its owner's desires," is $7,699. Origin has a dedicated sales team to handle system configurations at this level.
Origin offers personalized service that keeps you with the same support team that knows what your system specs are. The company has a lifetime phone and service guarantee that even includes free parts shipping if something needs to be replaced. There's also a lifetime labor guarantee that applies to systems returned to Origin for repair.
In short, Origin has an in-depth understanding of the combination of exaggeration and performance that are hallmarks of the boutique PC genre.
At a Glance
Business start date: May 2009
Desktop lines: Genesis, Big O
Laptop lines: EON15, EON15 3D, EON17
Warranty: Lifetime phone and online service; dedicated support team; lifetime labor; free replacement shipping
Refund policy: 30-day money-back guarantee; 15% restocking fee
Customers of boutique builders now have a choice. They can keep costs near-to-reasonable by purchasing prebuilt computers (while still acquiring the cachet of using a boutique builder) or they can go all-out, raid their bank accounts and create their own built-to-order high-end systems. Either way, these vendors offer a great alternative for tech enthusiasts who know exactly what they want and don't want to deal with the limited selection offered by most consumer-directed vendors.
Bill O'Brien has written a half-dozen books on computers and technology. He has also written articles on topics ranging from Apple computers to PCs to Linux to commentary on IT hardware decisions.