Boutique PC builders: When you want the very best

If you're not content with run-of-the-mill PCs, these vendors will give you the bleeding edge -- for a price.

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.

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