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.
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 the way resolution is measured. For example, the benchmark for full high-definition is 1,080-pixel (1080p) vertical resolution. Depending on who does the measuring (not everyone gauges this exactly the same way), 4K resolution offers double or quadruple the density of full HD screens. “Imagine four 1080p monitors stitched together and displaying one screen,” Santos says. “That’s what 4K is.”
While the makers of custom PCs say they can build machines that run 4K content smoothly, they question when rival devices will catch up. “In the console space, 4K gaming is seven years away,” Santos says. “The new consoles [Xbox One and PlayStation 4] won’t do native 4K games.” (Native 4K games have yet to hit the market).
Reeves also sees 4K content pushing the custom market forward. Falcon Northwest, with its Mach V line, is regarded in many circles as the progenitor of custom PC gaming machines; it was founded in 1992. Reeves says that casual games run just fine on tablets and phones, but the advent of 4K video represents a substantial evolution for the medium. “For 17 years, resolution increased gradually, then the TV industry went crazy for 1080p,” he says.
The introduction of the high-end liquid crystal Retina Display in Apple products, he says, pushed the technology further. Reeves says Hollywood studios should be able to switch relatively easily to 4K resolution for video content on future Blu-ray players and Ultra HD televisions. The gaming market though will need hefty hardware, by his assessment, to achieve that level of resolution. “It takes a lot of PC horsepower,” he says. Two $800 video cards working in tandem would be the minimum to run 4K games, he says though more expensive graphics processing power is necessary to play the content smoothly. “This is the biggest leap in PC technology in a while,” he says.
Origin PC’s Piedra also says 4K gaming may elevate awareness of the custom PC sector. “These next generation consoles like to say they are 4K-ready—for video, which is very different,” he says. “A cell phone can do video playback in 4K. You don’t need a lot of processing or GPU for that.” Getting 4K resolution in a game, especially with fast-paced action, requires hardware in a machine that easily costs $4,000 to $5,000, he says. “There’s no way any tablet or console could ever do 4K gaming without heavy-duty graphics cards or CPUs,” Piedra says.
Eventually 4K will be the norm for video resolution, he says, but for now pricing will be a limiting factor for consumers. Piedra says a recently announced 31-inch 4K gaming monitor costs $3,500. “Just for a monitor alone, that’s expensive,” he says, especially when added to a computer system powerful enough to render graphics at that level.
Of course putting together a monstrously powerful PC rapidly increases the cost. Santos says his company’s average customer is in his or her mid-30s, looks to gaming as another form of entertainment, and is willing to pay for an extremely powerful PC. “It’s a hot rod,” he says. “There are people who will spend $100,000 on a car and there’s people who’ll spend $30,000 on a PC.”
Santos says a machine from Maingear’s uppermost tier, such as the gargantuan Force line equipped with nickel-plated water blocks and multiple pumps for the cooling system along with a ton of other premium components, can cost $25,000. Many of the high-end desktop computers he builds though range from $8,000 to $10,000. “You’re not going to get much more if you go beyond that,” he says. At that level, the PC already has three or four powerful graphics cards, the fastest processor money can buy, 64GB of memory, and a couple of solid state drives.
Maingear sees repeat customers buying new high-end models every two to three years, Santos says, even though they can still outperform off-the-shelf computers. “A five-year-old Maingear desktop is still faster than what you can buy at Best Buy today,” he says.
At Falcon Northwest, Reeves says some customers order machines that range from $8,000 to $15,000 at the upper end, though an extreme purchase of $30,000, which included enough backup parts to completely rebuild the PC, is not unheard of.
Piedra says Origin PC, founded in 2009 by former employees of Alienware, builds machines that start at the lower end around $1,300 but can scale up to more than $8,000 with quad graphics cards, liquid cooled towers, and custom paint for the case. “Our average selling price is $4,000,” he says. The company’s Big O machine literally is a humongous fish that devoured another fish—it can be equipped with an Xbox 360 slim console built directly inside its chassis.
“I don’t think people would play Angry Birds on our computers, Piedra says. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”
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