Most hardcore enthusiasts will tell you it's better to build your own gaming system rather than getting one pre-built. If not for the enjoyment of putting all the components together yourself, then simply to ensure you're getting high quality parts at the best possible price.
Going the homebrewed route is not always an option however. Whether for a lack of hardware knowledge, or shortage of time to research and build their own system, many people opt to go the manufactured route. Pre-built systems from companies like HP, Dell, Gateway, and others seem to offer a good blend of components at an attractive price. At the same time, we are seeing an increasing number of custom PC boutiques that cater to enthusiasts who value customer service and customization over an off-the-shelf PC and may be willing to pay a few extra bucks for this level of service.
Today we will be looking at three different gaming systems from the likes of Puget Systems, Maingear and Acer. All three vary quite a bit in core components, cooling options and appearance, but maintain the same sub-$2,000 price tag per our request.
Puget Deluge Mini
Remember when the term "customer service" actually had some validity to it? It almost seems like a pipe dream these days, but there are still a few companies that pride themselves on providing top quality products with equally as good customer service. One such company is Puget Systems, a custom computer shop based in Auburn, WA. that has been in the business for nearly 10 years and has seen significant growth as a result of their well-known attention to detail.
Despite we were arranging a review sample, we were purposely given the full customer treatment, which allowed us to experience exactly what the buyer goes through during the ordering process as well as the building, testing, and benchmarking phase of it.
The base for our test system is the Deluge Mini, one of several pre-configured machines on Puget's website and the lowest priced model from its high-end gaming lineup. The Deluge Mini is essentially a small form factor, P55 version of the Deluge A2, which features a larger chassis and an X58 chipset, while the more exotic Deluge L2 pushes the envelope further with full system liquid cooling courtesy of Koolance. We stuck with the base Deluge Mini model and only upgraded the graphics card to meet our budget and offer a bit more bang on the gaming end. Needless to say, you can customize virtually every part of the system or even hire Puget to build one to your exact specification.
During the configuration process you can inspect every element and even get Puget staff member's honest opinion on each part available. It's clear that they are determined to help you build the system that is right for you and not just sell the most expensive product. For example, when I chose to upgrade the CPU cooler, a Puget rep suggested I only use this kit if I'm concerned about overclocking. Otherwise, he recommended I stick to an air cooled solution to save money.
Our build consists of an Intel Core i7 875K processor operating at 2.93 GHz, an Asus P7P55-M motherboard, 4GB of Kingston DDR3-1333 memory, a Radeon HD 5870 1GB V2 graphics card from Asus, Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB 6Gb/s hard drive, a Pioneer 22X DVD-RW SATA drive and a Corsair TX 650W power supply. All of this is housed inside an Antec Mini P180 case with a Puget Hydro CL1 Liquid Cooling System to keep the processor nice and cool.
In terms of expandability the Deluge Mini is somewhat limited due to its microATX board. Adding a second graphics card in CrossFire mode is not possible, for instance, but you get two free PCI Express x1 slots for adding an optional USB 3.0 + SATA 6Gbps card and TV Tuner. There are also two free DDR3 memory slots and room for additional hard drives.
A copy of Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit comes preinstalled and everything is backed by a lifetime labor warranty as well as a one-year warranty on parts. Our price as configured was $1,989.09. Each company called the shots when it came to configuring their respective systems. We can't complain about Puget's choice of hardware for this build as they've included quality components and left some breathing room for future upgrades -- sans CrossFire or SLI support.
Puget mostly uses off-the-shelf hardware so we made a few price searches to find out how much a similarly configured system would cost if self-built, just for the sake of having some perspective. In all, you'd be paying close to a $400 premium component-for-component, but remember when going the manufacturer route you get premium service and don't have to deal with building your rig. You'll have to decide how much that's worth to you.
Once your order has been placed, you can track every aspect of the build process and testing procedures by logging into your account at Puget's website. And by every aspect, I mean just that. Customers can see detailed benchmark results produced by their system, photos of the completed build (even thermal images) and captures of every BIOS screen.
The system arrived safely a few days after shipping out from Washington, bundled with all the literature from each part (motherboard manual, etc), a 2.5" to 3.5" drive adapter, power cable, graphics card adapters, a bag containing all of the spare hardware from each component used and a system information binder. This binder outlines all of the components in your system, all of the quality control checks, system benchmarks, and contains the drivers and Windows discs. It's nice to have all of this information bundled in a single place and not having to worry with creating your own recovery discs.
The case used by Puget really is top notch and looks better in person than it does in photos. If a simple minimalistic approach is something that appeals to you, the Antec Mini P180 will definitely serve you well. Looking at the front of the chassis with the bezel door closed, we find two USB 2.0 ports, headphone and microphone jacks, an eSATA port and a small LED activity light. Opening the door reveals the power and reset buttons, as well as the optical drive and two additional 5.25" expansion bays for future upgrades.
The two large vented areas in the middle are doors that open to reveal removable dust filters which can be cleaned and reused. Behind each vent users can install a 120mm fan -- our sample came with a single fan in the lower position. Ventilation to the cooling fan(s) is provided through the small holes in the door, the sides of the front bezel as well as an opening in the bottom of the bezel.
Each side panel shares the same no-frills metal look as the front bezel. Around the back we find the I/O panel with eight USB 2.0 ports, PS/2 port, serial port, FireWire port, Ethernet jack and onboard audio connectors, as well as DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort courtesy of the dual-slot ATI Radeon HD 5870. Here you'll also find a 120mm exhaust fan, 3-position fan controller, the Windows software key sticker and Corsair power supply mounted on the bottom of the chassis.
On top of the chassis is a ventilation system for the 200mm fan that is mounted to the roof. Two thumb screws hold the left side panel in place. Once removed, we get a good look at the interior of the case and see that Puget has done a nice job on the cable management front. Besides looking great, this provides optimum airflow. The large 200mm fan on the roof of the case should provide plenty of cooling while keeping noise levels at a minimum. I also noticed that Puget has used hot glue on the hard drive and optical drive connectors to ensure they don't accidentally back out.
Finally, on the software side, Puget has included nothing else aside from the necessary drivers and Windows updates. There was absolutely no bloat pre-installed -- as it should be -- which is one of the great things about a custom-built computer. Certainly a breath of fresh air after working with several manufactured systems over the past few months.