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Boutique PC builders: When you want the very best

By Bill O'Brien
November 16, 2010 06:00 AM ET


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.

Boutique Builders
Maingear Shift

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

Maingear Inc.

Phone: 1-888-MAINGEAR
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

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