It's hard to call out a single winner when there are numerous factors that deserve consideration. Furthermore, the original intention of this article was to highlight current gaming PCs in the $2,000 range as offered by two of the most well-regarded boutique PC makers and along with those test the latest Acer Predator, which is one of the few remaining gaming PCs offered by a major OEM.
In terms of sheer performance, our benchmarks show that the high overclock and dual GTX 460 graphics cards gave Maingear an edge over its competition when it came to gaming. Puget wasn't too far behind, but while it uses a more powerful single card, it's impossible to upgrade with a second card down the road as its microATX board only features one full-size PCIe slot. Meanwhile, Acer didn't exactly disappoint though it did come triumphant in just a single benchmark.
As for actual hardware and presentation, Maingear and Puget's systems were leaps and bounds ahead of the Acer Predator. While the latter features a fancy outer shell, in reality it is still built using a basic ATX chassis. Both Maingear and Puget offer quality aftermarket cases that are easy to work with and will likely appeal to a more diverse audience. Furthermore, removing and reinstalling the Predator's side panel proved quite troublesome to deal with.
The same story carries over to the internal hardware, as both the Maingear and Puget systems used higher quality components from the likes of Asus, Corsair, Kingston, Crucial and SilverStone. Each company spent considerable time routing cables inside the system for a very clean and professional look. The same can't be said about the Predator and most manufactured systems that use non-meshed power supplies and don't prioritize cable management.
That's not to say the Predator is a poorly designed machine, though. Acer uses a water cooling system for the processor that's very similar to the one employed by Puget and also features 12GB of DDR3 memory -- a bit overkill for a gaming system but could go a long way with tasks like photo and video editing. The cooling system certainly trumps the Intel heatpipe cooler provided by Maingear, which was a bit worrying considering the high overclock.
I performed a temperature test on Maingear's F131 system and found that the CPU reached 89 C under full load using Prime 95 with an ambient room temperature of 23 C. Although I personally wouldn't be too comfortable with temperatures this high, Maingear seemed confident when I expressed my concerns to them that the system will remain stable with this overclock. Furthermore, they believe that most gamers will not be running their CPU 100% stressed over an extended period of time -- unless they run something like Folding@Home or SETI@home.
Temperatures were not an issue on the water-cooled Puget and Acer systems. In terms of noise output, all three remained very quiet during normal operation. They were fairly louder during gaming when the graphics cards' fans began speeding up, but not to a level that was overly annoying.
When it comes to customization and customer service Maingear and Puget are neck and neck. These companies pride themselves on offering a first class experience, guiding you through the buying process and offering timely post-sale assistance on whatever enquiries you may have. Both companies also supply personal binders with detailed information about your system as well as quality control documents and benchmark results.
I personally enjoyed Puget's online status updates as your system is being built. You can follow the step-by-step process and they even post benchmarks and photos of your system online before it ships. It's this type of service that you will never get from a big name manufacturer.
Outside of the included personal binders with data and discs, the Acer Predator actually has the better bundle as it comes with a Logitech G11 keyboard and G5 mouse. Sure, both of these peripherals are a bit dated at this point, but they are still quality products, especially considering Maingear and Puget systems didn't come with any input devices.
Both Maingear and Puget systems were priced right under the $2,000 mark, while the Acer Predator is a bit more conservative at just $1,849.99. All three are very capable gaming machines so the decision boils down to priorities. The Acer system offers a good combination of hardware and bundled peripherals but there's no option of configuring the machine at the time of purchase and right now the GeForce GTX 470 wouldn't be our top graphics card choice.
If you are already spending this much on a gaming rig, in the long run it might pay off going with a system from Puget or Maingear, which offer higher quality components and unrivaled customer service -- their satisfaction rating over the last six-months at Resellerratings is 10 and 9.71 out of 10, respectively, which says a lot. Although both offer plenty of configuration options during the buying process, from the builds tested here today we liked Maingear's hardware selection better due to the use of dual-GTX 460 SLI graphics cards, room for expandability and available ports.
Finally, we can't avoid pointing out that for the experimented do-it-yourself PC builder going with a pre-built system is not going to be the most cost-effective alternative. Our fully-loaded Enthusiast PC, for example, includes comparable hardware plus a solid-state drive, monitor and peripherals for around $2,000 (factoring in the cost of a Windows 7 license and shipping). But there's certainly a market for pre-built gaming rigs; whether a console-turned-PC gamer, or simply someone without the time to research and purchase every item, assemble it, and troubleshoot any issues along the way. For them, top-notch customer service and the possibility of tailoring each aspect of the system to their liking with a few clicks might seal the deal.