Going Big and Bad: Custom PC Makers Build Hot Rods for 4K Gaming

Sleek and slim maybe the way of the tablet world, but a niche of custom computer makers sees the market for big supercharged PCs growing as a new breed of high-end gaming content emerges. These monolithic, bespoke machines can top 27 inches in height, are loaded with multiple graphics processors, sport bright liquid coolant tubing, and frankly look like the crazed offspring of muscle cars and Doctor Who’s TARDIS.

Companies such as Maingear in Kenilworth, NJ; Falcon Northwest in Medford, OR; Origin PC in Miami; and others build these custom PCs for gaming enthusiasts who have cash to spare, as well as for design studios, government agencies, and the military. The custom PC market has been around for years, but these hardware tailors believe advances in high-definition video technology may further increase demand for their machines, which boast processing power that portable devices and even next-generation consoles have yet to match.

Wallace Santos, founder and CEO of Maingear, says his company markets largely to gamers. However, the machines can handle wide-ranging tasks. “A game really stresses out a PC,” he says, “especially the [graphics processing unit], the CPU, your memory, and hard drive activity.” Since custom gaming PCs are built to perform under extremes, some professionals want them for the workplace as well, he says. Designers can use such computers for video rendering, for example. Santos says some high-frequency traders in the securities world order computers from his company. Maingear, founded in 2002, also sells computers to aerospace and defense contractors Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, he says, who use the machines to run simulations and for other needs. “You can’t buy this type of performance from a tier 1 [brand],” he says, meaning off-the-shelf models from the likes of HP, Toshiba, and Compaq.

The diversity of clients who want custom high-end PCs is seen across the sector. About 40 to 50 percent of Falcon Northwest’s sales come from gamers, says president and founder Kelt Reeves, with other clients spanning organizations such as biomedical labs, universities, defense contractors, buyers for the military, and NASA. It is easy to see why: the ominous Mach V line of custom PCs from Falcon Northwest can be loaded with multiple graphics processors and CPUs, 64GB of memory and several solid state drives, each with a terabyte of storage capacity, Reeves says.

Origin PC also creates custom workstations in addition to gaming PCs, says marketing specialist Eddy Piedra, for clients including design studios and government agencies, who have specific security needs for their hard drives.

Competition for the high-end computer market can be found across the country, with companies such as Puget Systems in Auburn, WA; Digital Storm, in Fremont, CA; AVADirect in Twinsburg, OH; and Velocity Micro in Midlothian, VA all after a piece of this lucrative sector.

Do not expect these blazing fast PCs to become mainstream anytime soon. Players of casual games such as Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga are not likely to drop several thousand dollars on a custom PC, and even dedicated gamers may be content with top-of-the-line consoles such as Nintendo’s Wii U and the forthcoming Microsoft’s Xbox One or Sony’s PlayStation 4.

Not every PC requires three 6GB-graphics cards working in tandem and several terabytes of data storage capacity to run current games smoothly, Santos says. The high-end custom sector caters to users who insist on insanely fast performance. It’s like opting to buy a Bugatti Veyron supercar over a Ford Mustang sports car—an unfair comparison, but that is the point.

The guts of the Maingear Force (photo courtesy of Maingear).

The guts of the mammoth Maingear Force. (photo courtesy of Maingear)

A peek under the hood of most high-end PCs reveals a lot of pricey components that have been tricked out beyond their factory specs. If Intel puts out a processor that runs at 3.3 gigahertz, Santos says Maingear can “overclock” that processor to operate at 5 gigahertz. The overclocking process is comparable to tweaking a car engine to get more horsepower than specified by manufacturer. Computers with overclocked processors can run faster, but they also require more power, generate more heat, and are at greater risk of malfunctions. Elaborate cooling systems that pump water through tubes are often installed inside these PCs to compensate for the additional heat output.

Other components that customers often request, Santos says, include low-latency solid state drives and low-latency memory in order to speed up the reaction time of the computers. The end result may be a very large computer that cannot hide under a desk, so the cases are often trimmed with custom paint jobs, colored tubing for the coolant system, and internal lighting to boost the aesthetic appeal. “Our painting is done in-house; we setup a full downdraft automotive spray booth,” Santos says.

Custom PC makers such as Maingear anticipate demand for their services will spike as content for so-called 4K gaming hits the market. The 4K moniker, called Ultra HD in television industry terms, refers to video displays with about 4,000-pixel horizontal resolution. This marks a change not only in pixel density but in … Next Page »

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The Author

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth.

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  • Tom Bombadil

    Been thinking about buying a computer? Dont waste your money on something because it has a logo on the front of the box, buy a custom built computer, they will give you better performance for a cheaper price, check this out http://www.TheWizardPC.com