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.
In Video: How to Build Your Own PC, Part 1
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.
Alienware is one of the Titans of boutique builders. Established in 1996, the company specializes in desktop and laptop performance computers for both business and gaming.
Originally, Alienware was in a neck-and-neck competition with Voodoo PC, which preceded Alienware to the marketplace by five years. The two battled each other for nearly a decade until 2006, when HP purchased Voodoo PC and Dell acquired Alienware. While HP has since folded Voodoo under its corporate wings, Dell still maintains Alienware as separate product line.
Currently, Alienware has two principal desktop series, the Aurora and the Area 51. Each features a distinct case design (although they share the Alienware "Alien head" logo). While both systems can be expanded, the Area 51 series represents Alienware's performance models, while the Aurora offers an enhanced gaming experience on a less stratospheric budget -- at least to start. I found it remarkably easy to power-configure a base $2,499 Area 51 system into a $6,672 performance behemoth.
The company's laptop lineup currently includes the M11x, M15x and M17x models; the numeric designation indicates the screen size. If you don't think there's much you can do to specialize a laptop, think again -- I was able to quickly jump up a base $2,199 M17x to $6,193 by customizing hardware options such as the CPU, memory, graphics and hard drives for more aggressive performance. I was also able to add service and support options aimed at making my life easier (no wait times, and North American-based support).
Alienware offers one-, three- and four-year basic warranty plans along with extended in-home warranties. However, keep in mind that getting someone to show up at your house may not be easy. According to the Alienware site:
Remote Diagnosis is determination by online/phone technician of cause of issue; may involve customer access to inside of system and multiple or extended sessions. If the issue is covered by the Limited Hardware Warranty and not resolved remotely, a technician and/or part will be dispatched, usually in 1 or 2 business days following completion of Remote Diagnosis.
This is similar to the terms and conditions of a plan that Dell -- and many of the other "at home" service providers -- has offered on its computers for years.
So if you think that its acquisition by Dell has "institutionalized" Alienware, you might be correct to a small degree. However, when you talk to anyone there, you'll find the same thing I did: the same level of enthusiasm and spirit that existed before the two companies bonded.
At a Glance
Business start date: October 1996
Desktop lines: Aurora, Aurora ALX, Area 51, Area 51 ALX
Laptop lines: M11x, M15x, M17x
Warranty: 90-day, one-year, two-year, three-year or four-year limited product warranty
Refund policy: 30-day money-back guarantee; 15% restocking fee
In Video: How to Build Your Own PC, Part 2
Next page: More boutique builders