Custom Gaming Rigs

If you follow the hype and have come to believe online video and social networking are huge, consider this: Through last year, the number of U.S. consumers taking part in online gaming was almost double that of video or social networking, according to research firm Parks Associates.

And with hardware margins under constant pressure as a way of life in the commercial IT industry, and with fertile ground so evident in gaming, CRNtech decided to ask the question: What does a traditional system builder or VAR have to do to succeed in a market that includes "World of Warcraft" and "Halo"?

The answer has nothing to do with capturing weapons, energy pods or wielding a fast sword (well, not for the most part, anyway).

So far this year, the Test Center has reviewed new quad-core processors from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., new motherboards designed for performance and efficiency from companies including AsusTek Computer Inc., and new graphics and video technology from the likes of Nvidia Corp. and others. The net result: Moore's Law is alive and well, and putting more power than ever into the hands of individuals. Pricing competition between Intel and AMD has been fierce, too, giving system builders an opportunity to deliver greater customization and price/performance in a PC gaming system than name-brand platforms like PlayStation 3, Wii or Xbox.

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But how do system builders or VARs translate throughput and multithreading into value for customers and growth and profit for their businesses?

Two industry and channel veterans who have made it work provide some clues. Jon Bach, president of Puget Custom Computers in Seattle, and Thomas Glen, of Uberclok Gaming PCs LLC in Chicago, offered insight into how it's worked for their companies.

With Puget, the "custom" part of custom systems has led to this: There is no "Buy" button anywhere on the company's Web site. After configuring their desired system, customers save it to be reviewed by a Puget representative. In this way, Puget can ask buyers all the relevant questions to make sure the system they want is really the system they need, Bach said. By finding out the customer's budget, what games they play and what resolution they plan to use (which, Bach adds, is more important now than in the past), the representative can better help select the best components for the PC. Puget speaks with the customer about every single PC it sells.

The first question Uberclok asks potential customers is about the size of the monitor they will be using to game with. "Resolution is the big, hidden secret of gaming," Glen said.

"and#91;Resolution ofand#93; 1,680 x 1,050 will directly affect what video card they should use."

He explained that a game like "F.E.A.R: First Encounter Assault Recon," a survival/horror game, by default will launch into 1,440 x 900 resolution. If a gamer is playing on a 24-inch monitor that has a higher resolution than the game's default, "performance issues arise," Glen said. And when you're fighting for survival, that counts.

Uberclok has preconfigured machines designed to address this very issue: The company's Ion system is designed for 22-inch monitors or smaller, while the Reactor model is designed for 24-inch monitors or larger. "No one talks about and#91;higher resolutionsand#93; because they just don't want to get into the complexity."

Next: Custom Customer System

Although Puget doesn't only sell gaming rigs, it has become a big part of the company's focus. Bach credits this to the fact that they build each system individually "as the customer would." He said that the company's customization and customer service tend to "attract enthusiasts that gravitate toward high-end machines and that would build their own if they had the time."

Since Uberclok focuses intensely on overclocking, Intel is a "clear choice," Glen said. "AMD saves a lot of money, but does not offer as much in performance." Puget's preconfigured (but still customizable) models only offer Intel CPUs. The option for AMD also is available when building a custom system totally from scratch.

When asked about quad-core processors, Glen was nonplussed with their importance in gaming. "Games are not optimized to use multiple cores. Two cores are useful, one for the game and the other for all other tasks," Glen said. "But two cores are not really utilized, maybe into next year." Still, Uberclok actually sells more quads due to customer demand, Glen said.

Glen and Bach both agree on the relative importance of the operating system. All 32-bit operating systems, including Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista, have a limitation of only being able to address a maximum of 4 GB memory in total, including video card memory. The only way to include more usable memory is to switch to a 64-bit OS. Until recently, this was of major concern because the 64-bit version of Vista has had notable driver issues. Now that these problems are fewer and farther between, it is a more viable option and opens the door to adding more memory (which is never a bad thing). Although most games don't yet take advantage of the more robust OS, that is expected to change with future releases.

Speaking of memory, both solution providers currently offer DDR2 as the only option. According to Glen, DDR2 has a proven track record of performance and is "good on memory frequency, excellent in timing and pricing." He admits though that DDR3 is the future.

When it comes to cooling, liquid-cooling systems carry more risks. Puget normally reserves the suggestion of liquid cooling to those hard-core enthusiasts who also insist on the quietest PC possible, Bach said. He also pointed out that in midlevel computers, liquid cooling can actually increase the noise level of the system and is not recommended.

For hard drives, the current gaming champ is Western Digital Corp.'s VelociRaptor. While most nonserver drives max out at 7,200 rpm, the VelociRaptor spins at 10,000. Glen cautions against the RAID setup so popular in gaming culture, though: two hard drives configured with RAID 0. With such a configuration, Glen said, data is written across both disks, so any corruption on one disk can write over to the other, resulting in a complete system failure. Plus, "We really don't see a performance benefit," Glen said. "The risks outweigh the performance."

A quick look on Puget's Web site shows that most of its motherboards are from Asus. While Uberclok also offers an Asus board (as well as from Gigabyte Technology Co. Ltd.) on their low-end model, Glen would go with EVGA Corp. as the manufacturer, though he noted that Foxconn Electronics Inc. is a leading industry contract manufacturer for many of the boards.

Because Uberclok concentrates on overclocking, it offers a little more limited component set. These components are chosen based on the repeatable and reliable amount of safe overclocking they can offer.

Puget offers a preconfigured overclocked system: the Deluge Gaming Platform. This is the only system it sells that cannot be customized. All the components have been "overclock certified" and fine-tuned specifically with gamers in mind.

Puget's entire business model is about working with customers (be they gamers or business users) to make sure they get exactly the type of computer that they are looking for and making sure the system meets expectations. By using quality components and offering quality service and support, Puget is able to build solid machines that sell themselves, "no hype needed," Bach said.

Finding out how customers intend to use the product and spending the time to offer them what they expect can go a long way in gaining repeat business as well as attracting new customers by word of mouth. When it comes to gaming PCs, system builders need to know which components work in harmony with each other. In addition, if overclocking is involved, a little trial and error to find component limitations will reduce future customer service and repair headaches.