Hardware

How to buy a high-performance computer from a boutique builder

Buying a high-performance PC from a boutique builder requires upfront research and know-how. We outline what you must know and how you can prepare for the buying process.

Consumers spent $8.47 billion on digital entertainment across all platforms in August 2018 alone, according to SuperData. That figure represents an increase of 7% over the previous year. By contrast, according to Box Office Mojo, the total gross box office revenue for the movie industry in August 2018 was $850.7 million. There is no doubt about it: Digital entertainment is a booming business.

Of course, purchasing equipment that is VR-ready or that can handle the latest gaming titles may require more effort than a simple trip to the local Best Buy. Whether you are buying a new powerful computer for personal use or for business use, finding specific hardware, built in a specific configuration, can be challenging when dealing with mainstream computer manufacturers. In many circumstances, your best bet for acquiring a high-performance machine will come from a boutique seller specializing in building PCs to order.

As you might imagine, an industry generating billions of dollars in monthly revenue has also generated considerable interest from enterprising businesses. Boutique PC builders easily number in the double-digits and choosing the builder that works best for you will take time and effort. This how-to tutorial lists some guidelines to follow as you compare boutique PC vendors and suggests features and configurations you should consider when buying a powerful VR-ready, game-ready PC.

SEE: Hiring kit: Game tester (Tech Pro Research)

Expense

Before you start researching hardware components and before you begin considering the various boutique computer builders, you'd better come to grips with one unavoidable fact: High performance computers cost more than traditional PCs—sometimes much more.

Computer gaming is considered an enthusiast's leisure activity, which translates into an activity that customers are willing to pay extra to participate in. If the total budget for your entertainment PC is running $1,500 or less, you probably don't need a boutique builder, and a mainstream traditional vendor may be all you need. If your budget is under $1,000, you definitely don't need a boutique builder. In 2018, a high-performance PC from a boutique builder is going to cost $1,500 minimum and likely much more.

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Image: iBuyPower PC

Boutique builders

The primary characteristic that sets boutique computer builders apart from traditional computer manufacturers is choice. Some boutique vendors offer dozens of choices for each component of the PC, which in turn translates into thousands of potential combinations. Depending on what choices are presented, the magnitude of potential decisions can be overwhelming for the unprepared.

It is extremely important that you research all of the component parts you would like in your custom-built PC before you start visiting boutique builder websites. Choosing between 50 motherboards is much simpler when you already know which motherboard brands offer the features you want.

On the other end of the spectrum, some PC builders will offer a few less choices on some key components so they can provide more assurance that the components you choose will work well together. For example, instead of 50 motherboards, a boutique builder might offer only five tested and trusted choices. Such selective choice limitations may provide an additional level of confidence when you make the rest of your configuration decisions.

This leads to another area where boutique builders can distinguish themselves from the competition—support. The best vendors will have website interfaces that provide links to specifications and detailed information about each of the components they offer. The more detailed data they can provide, the more likely you are to make a good choice of component.

You should also look for boutique PC builders that offer enhanced customer support in the form of extended warranties, frequent progress updates during the building of your custom PC, and easy return policies when something goes wrong. Keep in mind that you're ordering a custom computer, so it may not be possible to rebuild a PC exactly as originally configured after a few months have passed. It is also likely that returning a PC you don't like after receiving it will not be an option.

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Image: Color case painting - Origin PC

If the idea of having a uniquely designed case or custom paint job appeals to you, look for one of the boutique PC builders that offer those services. Since your PC is being custom built to your specifications, you may request special LED lighting, nontraditional colors, and even laser etched images to adorn the case of your new computer. Those services cost money, of course, but you can have a PC that is uniquely yours.

Lastly, keep in mind that building your PC is going to take time, and the time it takes can vary wildly depending on the boutique builder you choose. Some builders may be able to deliver your PC in as little as five days; others may require several weeks to complete the project. This aspect may be important to consider when ordering a custom-built PC as a holiday gift, for example.

Features and configurations

Regardless of the boutique PC builder, when choosing the features and the configuration of a new high-performance computer there are seven distinct hardware components to consider. There will generally be at least a few choices to make in each category, so researching beforehand is going to save you time and possibly a few headaches.

SEE: PowerShell scripting: Seven tips to reduce errors (free TechRepublic PDF)

1. Case

The case size and configuration are the first decisions you have to make. A mid-tower or full-tower case gives you the most room and allows for better airflow. Those larger sizes also allow you to more easily access internal components if you plan to self-upgrade hardware at a later date. Smaller cases can be moved more easily and will fit in tighter spaces. Case styles may play a role if you are matching the decor in your living room, etc.

2. Motherboard

While it may be tempting to assume all motherboards are essentially the same, that is not true at all. As the basis that determines how well every other component will perform in your new high-performance rig, your choice of motherboard is among the most important decisions you must make. It is one of the components you should research thoroughly, as the investment in time and effort will reap the most rewards.

You are looking for a motherboard that supports your choice of RAM, CPU, and graphics card. A motherboard will also include features like Wi-Fi, Ethernet, USB, and Bluetooth support, which can all play important roles in your decision making depending on your preferred peripherals and accessories. If you are going to overclock your new computer, the motherboard's firmware interface is also going to be a vital consideration.

3. CPU

Of all the various components that will make up your new computer, the CPU offers the most direct set of choices. The first choice is between Intel or AMD. The second choice is which version of those two chipsets you want. For Intel, the options are i5, i7, or the newer i9 chipsets. For AMD, the choice will be one of the Ryzen chipsets.

If you spend a few more dollars and get a higher-performing CPU, you can increase the useful life of your new PC considerably. However, spending the tremendous amount of money Intel is currently demanding for the latest i9 chips, for example, will likely blow your budget. A general rule of thumb is to buy the best CPU from the generation before the newest generation. For Intel in 2018 that is the 8th generation CPU.

4. Graphics card

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NVIDIA

If your custom-built PC is going to be used for gaming, especially VR-gaming, you will need to purchase a high-end GPU and graphics card. Once again, your first choice is between the two main competitors in the market: NVIDIA and AMD. For NVIDIA, you do not want to consider any graphics card with less than a GeForce 1060 GPU. A GeForce 1080 would be better, and one of the new GeForce RTX 2080s would be ideal. For AMD, you should consider a graphics card with a Radeon RX 560 GPU or better.

Similar to CPUs, buying the newest graphics card with the fastest most powerful GPU, while desirable, is not usually the best use of your budget. However, if you are going to blow your budget anyway, it is better to spend it on a higher-performing graphics card than on the faster CPUs.

5. RAM

Of all the component choices you will be asked to make for your custom-built PC, RAM is the most straightforward. The absolute bare minimum for a desktop PC in 2018 is 8GB. Opting for 16GB would be better. You will need more than 16GB only if you plan on capturing or editing videos.

Some boutique builders will offer you the opportunity to buy fancy name-brand RAM with large heat sinks that are guaranteed to work faster and stay cooler. Unless you plan on overclocking your new computer to very precise levels, trying to inch out that last bit of performance, paying extra for fancy RAM makes little sense. Higher performing graphics card or CPUs is a better place to spend your budget.

6. Storage

With the widespread availability of cloud services, hard drive storage is a debatable component. In the past, more capacity was better. But for modern high-performance PCs, speed is what you're looking for. You will want to buy as much capacity and as much speed as you can afford.

The standard basic combination of capacity and speed is a 128GB SSD boot drive coupled with a 1TB mechanical hard drive—that is your minimum desirable configuration. Opting to expand the SSD drive to 256GB or 500GB are your next options, and if you can afford it, opting to go all SSD at 1TB is even better.

For most applications, RAID configurations, which were all the rage not too long ago, have gone out of style. Unless you have a specific need for RAID setups, you should avoid the extra cost and hassle of those configurations.

7. Networking

One component many individuals fail to consider when purchasing traditional computers is the networking interface. However, that is a grave mistake when purchasing a high-performance computer. Modern gaming in particular often requires multiplayer interaction, and poor Ethernet connections and Wi-Fi speeds can absolutely wreck your ability to play effectively.

You should look for Ethernet connections rated at 1Gigabit or better with 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi wireless networking rated at 750Mps or better. Some builders will offer specialized wireless networking interfaces that guarantee even higher-performing connections. You should opt for those if you can afford it.

Accessories

In addition to the hardware components, many boutique vendors will offer accessories and peripherals. In many cases, these accessories are offered for free or at greatly reduced prices as an enticement to get you to buy now, rather than later. You should definitely take advantage of any of these offers.

Well-designed gaming mice, keyboards, and controllers can make all the difference in the world if you plan to use your new computer for competitive multiplayer games. Even the mouse pad can make a difference in your final scores. This is also where you can get some swag, such as hats and T-shirts.

Competition

There is one other aspect to consider as you make your choices—competition in the industry. With a dozen or so boutique computer vendors all vying for your attention and your dollars, deals, sales, and special promotions are a weekly occurrence. Once you decide which components you want inside your new PC and which one to three vendors you want to buy from, you should be patient and look for a great deal.

Periodically, vendors will offer free upgrades to RAM or graphics cards that could shave hundreds of dollars off your initial cost. In many cases, that savings in an upgraded component could be all you need to upgrade a different component, allowing you to get the computer you thought you couldn't afford.

SEE: Vendor comparison: Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, and Google Cloud (Tech Pro Research)

Major players

There are too many boutique computer builders to list at one time, but Table A presents a sampling of some of the major players in the industry. The vendors are not listed in a particular order, nor are they rated. The only criterion required to make the list is that the vendor offers more than one choice for each of the seven components discussed above.

The sample base configuration shown in Table A: mid-tower case, Intel i7, 128GB SSD boot drive, 1TB hard drive, 16GB RAM, GeForce 1070Ti or 1080 graphics card.

Table A

Boutique Vendor Allows component choices Cost of base configuration
iBuyPower PC Yes $1,866.00
CyberPower PC Yes $1,590.00
Origin PC Yes $2,529.00
Xidax PC Yes $2,170.00
Falcon Northwest PC Yes $2,854.00
Maingear PC Yes $2,354.00
Velocity Micro Yes $2,544.00

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Your thoughts

What's your favorite boutique computer builder? Share your experiences and opinions with your peers at TechRepublic in the discussion thread below.

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Image: iStock/gorodenkoff

About Mark Kaelin

Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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