The ultimate gaming rig showdown
Atomic takes a look at the pre-built gaming PC market. Does a retail PC beat a custom made machine?
The white box PC market has undergone a lot of changes in the last few years. Power has increased and component costs have dropped, meaning the days of $5,000-plus beasts are almost – with a few interesting exceptions – spent. On top of that, a lot more people have the skill to not only build their own PCs, but to customise, overclock and generally improve upon anything that you can get from either the big players (/me waves at Dell), or your friendly corner PC shop.
So where does that leave the big and small PC manufacturers?
Well, they’re certainly still plugging away. Despite rumours of downturns and the end of PC gaming, new PCs are still being built and bought and in all manner of configurations. For this Head2Head we’ve got five very different machines and specs, from four very different suppliers. It’s not a huge round-up by any means, but it’s a great snapshot of the state of the pre-built market today, and offers a good guide to what shoppers can – and should – expect, while also letting enthusiast PC builders know what the big and little boys of the market are up to.
So, in this modern age, what does a gaming PC have to live up to to cut the mustard in the Atomic labs? And why have only five PCs found their way into the labs? For these answers, and oh so much more, all you have to do is turn the page…
We’ll readily admit – this is a smaller round-up than we would have liked. That said, there is a reason, and it says a lot about the state of the PC industry.
When we were formulating our list of possible contenders for this review, we decided early on that it was far more important to have a good spread of different types of PC builders. We feel that we’ve at least succeeded on this count. But there were a few vendors who were unsure about submitting product.
Essentially, with the component market moving so damned fast at the moment – just look at the amount of new cards NVIDIA’s released in the last six months – it’s easy for upgraders to fall into the trap of forever waiting for that next big thing. It’s a trap, it appears, that even the manufacturers can fall into, as that’s the very reason some vendor’s wanted to hold product back. The launch of the new GTX280 and 260 from NVIDIA is also weighing on people’s minds, though there are some reports that it may be a more problematic card than first thought.
It’s a shame, as more machines would of course have made for a more competitive round-up. Still, what we have here does most certainly make for a true and representative snapshot of what the market has to offer. We’ve got machines from Enspire Digital, DCA Computers, Trinity Computers, and Altech – a pretty good spread of builders if ever there was one.
Another thing to note is that, where once the thought of buying a PC without a monitor or other external peripherals was alien at best, there is a growing trend these days to supply just the tower itself. Even asking for a monitor and keyboard is met with consternation. For some companies it’s just one more overhead that they don’t want to deal with.
We’ve got a mix of vendors in this round up who do supply everything you need for your machine and those who just deal with the PC itself. It’s not a deal breaker, by any means; the kind of people who are going to be shelling out money on machines of this grade will likely have a two or three monitors anyway, and monitors have always enjoyed a much slower upgrade cycle. But if you’re looking for a total solution with all the gear, just be aware that some vendors won’t play.
How we tested
There’s a mess of PC testing apps out there, but, as we always do, we’re going to keep it to a minimum. We’ll be rolling out our two usual testing apps – the Crysis demo and 3DMark06 – as we feel these, for gamers, are probably the most indicative of a machine’s relative power in that department. We’ve also hauled out 3DMark03, as that scales very well with multiple GPUs - something that most of these machines boast.
All of that will give us three very good figures, of course, but there’s more to a PC than just its performance. Build quality, from how well seated the components are to such ephemera as cable management and case design also comes into the picture. These are powerful machines, so how the vendors have chosen to keep their gear cool, and the efforts they’ve made in terms of clean air-flow, is of paramount importance.
Then, of course, there’s the budget angle, and to that end we’ll be coming up with a comparison of performance to price (that, of course, only compares the actual PC, not any peripherals like monitor or keyboard). This figure is a simple one to arrive at – we’ll simply divide each machine’s results in 3DMark06 by its cost in dollars. Call it DollarMarks, if you will.
There’s a range of price-points on test, so it may make for some uncomfortable comparisons. We intentionally did not set a price-point for this test, rather leaving it up to each vendor to play to their strengths. We also feel that this makes for greater insight into just what you’re paying for, and illustrates the performance differences between a sub-$3,000 machine and a $6,000 beast. In other words – is the extra performance actually worth the money?
All of these scores will go together, with the most weight going to a machine’s raw performance – this is a performance round-up, after all – to ascertain just how well each PC has performed.
All that remains now is to get on with the show!
Browse this article:
This Group Test appeared in the July, 2008 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine