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Digital Storm

Digital Storm is a nine-year-old company whose name fits its mission: to cater to the extreme gaming crowd. It's what has helped catapult the company from start-up status to the 10,000-square-foot facility it occupies today.

The basic inventory includes the high-performance Black|O.P.S. (which includes the Assassin and Hailstorm models) and the value edition Special|O.P.S. lineup of desktops. The Assassin offers an unusual heat flow/cooling design, while the Hailstorm is touted as one of Digital Storm's most upgradeable models.

I recently encountered an Assassin with a $3,400 price tag attached that Digital Storm was trying to pass off as a "mainstream gaming computer." And the Lincoln Memorial is just a statue of some dead guy. In testing, that PC bumped benchmarks with systems costing twice as much, and while it never quite bettered them, I wondered why anyone would pay so much more for just a tiny bit better performance.

If you're interested in the corporate version, Digital Storm also offers workstations. The Protus C20, C40 and CX (with starting prices of $2,699, $4,715 and $5,690, respectively) come in a variety of configurations; for example, the Protus CX is available with dual Intel Xeon processors and an Nvidia Quadro graphics card. While the sky is not quite the limit (depending on how high you think the sky is), I racked up enough upgrades on the CX (better Xeon CPUs, four times the 12GB available in the base configuration and a better Quadro graphics card) to supersize the price to almost $11,000.

Digital Storm's laptop array includes five models ranging from 15.6 to 18 in. Interestingly, the X18, an 18-in. gaming laptop with a an Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M, is not the most expensive laptop it carries -- the big-ticket item is the 17E, a $2,982 desktop replacement laptop with an Intel Core i7 980X six-core processor. Adding some more storage and memory will get that to $5,672 without breaking a sweat.

Digital Storm provides an online technical support resource that could easily qualify as the mother of all FAQs. Its desktop products, including its workstations, have three-, four- or five-year labor and one-, two- or three-year parts warranties, while the laptop group is offered with a one-year warranty. Lifetime phone support is the norm for all its products.

All this points to an older era of service when owners were expected to actually know something about the computers they purchased. It appears that Digital Storm adopts an old-school method of offering support by addressing the needs of the hard-core geek who wants the extreme performance PC experience.

At a Glance

Digital Storm

Phone: 1-866-817-8676

Business start date: January 2002

Desktop lines: Black|O.P.S. Assassin, Black|O.P.S. Hailstorm, HAF X, 690 II Advanced, DF-85, Elite 430, HAF 932, HAF 922, Ironclad, Maelstrom, Raven 2, Raven 1

Laptop lines: xm15, x15, x17, x18, x17E

Workstation lines: Protus C20, Protus C40, Protus CX

Warranty: Depending on system, three-year labor/one-year parts, four-year labor/two-year parts or five-year labor/three-year parts.

Refund policy: None

Falcon Northwest

Another elder of boutique builders, Falcon Northwest was founded in 1992. In those days, games such as flight simulators placed tremendous demands on a PC's CPU and graphics card. Falcon picked up the ball and has been running with it ever since.

Falcon's current lineup consists of the Mach V, Talon and FragBox desktops, accompanied by Falcon's portables: the DRX, TLX and netbook-esque I/O.

The Mach V brand has been in production since 1992. With a 3-GHz Intel Core i7 850 processor, 6GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce GTS 450 graphics card and a 500GB hard drive, the base $1,903 unit is hardly a slouch. You can bump it up to a Core i7 Extreme processor, 12GB of memory, dual ATI HD 5970 graphics cards, two hard drives and an SSD; the grand total for that is $6,897.

To really impress your buds, you can add a full-on custom paint job or one of Falcon's own designs. The cases are hand-painted using high-quality automotive paint. For example, the Flames motif will set you back another $1,250. My favorite, the Red Rain paint scheme, almost looks three-dimensional and costs $900.

According to Falcon Northwest founder Kelt Reeves, the company recently completed a customized FragBox -- a small form-factor PC measuring 8 x 10.75 x 14.75 in. -- with a purple flame paint scheme and a price tag of $17,000.

Falcon's laptops come with displays measuring 17 (DRX), 15.6 (TLX) and 13.3 (I/O) in. Size and heat restrictions limit the base $1,459 I/O, a 13.3-in. notebook that's the "baby" of the group, to hard drive upgrades (up to a 500GB hard drive or 256GB SSD).

The 17-in. DRX, however, which starts at about $4,200 for a Core i7 950 (3.06-GHz) CPU, 6GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive, lets you upgrade to a Core i7 Extreme CPU and as much as 12GB of memory for about $5,400 in total. It's a power-hungry portable that will go through a 12-cell lithium-ion battery in about 45 minutes of DVD playback. A dual battery pack option ($169) will add another 45 minutes, for a total battery life of 90 minutes.

A 30-day money-back guarantee covers computer purchases. While the Talon and the laptops have only a one-year warranty, the Mach V and the FragBox come with coverage for three years. In addition, the Mach V, the FragBox and the laptops come with one year of overnight service, including parts, labor and overnight shipping on the systems for the duration of the Falcon Overnight service period.

At a Glance

Falcon Northwest

Phone: 1-88-FALCON1

Business start date: April 1992

Desktop lines: Mach V, Talon, FragBox

Laptop lines: EDRX, TLX, I/O

Warranty: Mach V and FragBox: three-year parts & labor; one-year overnight shipping. Talon and laptops: one-year parts, labor and shipping.

Refund policy: 30-day money-back guarantee; restocking fee for special-order items

In Video: How to Build Your Own PC, Part 3

Next page: Two more boutique builders, and which to choose?

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