There was a time when you could save a fortune by putting together the components yourself. Nowadays though, you wont be saving as much as you think. That's especially true if you start shopping around for the best prices; picking your components from a variety of online retailers is soon going to add a lot of shipping costs onto the final bill.
So putting your faith in a system integrator (SI) to build you a full-on gaming rig is no longer simply the route of the lazy PC gamer, and it will save you a lot of sleepless nights and frustrated days debugging a DIY build.
You still have a full range of customisation options, from CPU to GPU right through to chassis and other extra goodies like TV tuners.
We got nine of the top system integrators in the country to build us a gaming PC with a budget of £1,000 all-in. That includes the base unit itself, with Windows pre-installed so that you can pull it straight out of the box, plug in and play.
We've left peripherals out of our tests, so none of these machines come with monitors, or mouse and keyboard sets. We figured most people would already have their preferred devices from previous machines. We also really wanted to see what the different SIs deemed the most important parts to spend their £1,000 budget on.
Did they go for a flashy chassis? Did they spend as much as possible on the GPU hoping to hit the highest frame rates? Did they opt for an expensive SSD? In fact, what the SIs left out was sometimes as important as what they included. So, which SI nailed it, and which thought what every gamer really wanted was a Blu-Ray drive?
There are few things in geek life as satisfying as unwrapping a brand new component from its box. Opening a whole brand new PC then, with all those lovely new components sitting happily inside, eager to please you with silky-smooth frame rates and lightning-fast storage, is a total techgasm.
But why would you spend the money getting someone else to put your machine together when you've got all the know-how to create one yourself? Well, times have changed.
It used to be as much about saving money as it was about customising your own personal PC build, with maybe a little self-satisfaction at being able to say you did the whole job yourself, but the various system integrators out in the wild can offer you some compelling arguments as to why they should be the ones to make your rig for you.
Lets start by looking at the main argument that has always been brought to bear in the system integrator vs home build battle: price.
There used to be a serious premium added onto the bill of parts to cover the labour and bug-fixing that was a necessary part of any PC build. These days though, PC building is more or less like putting together an expensive and rather technical Lego set - and as any parent out there knows, modern Lego sets can get really technical. Okay, I guess it's pretty transparent that I'm talking about my own Star Wars Lego collection here.
Still, the fact remains that PC components are no longer the finicky parts they once were. There are no jumper switches any more, and you can generally boot fresh into a Windows install without going into the BIOS at all. Things just work now, and if they don't, most of the time it's a simple case of re-seating parts (we're looking at you, Mr GPU and Lady RAM) until they do. Otherwise it's just a relatively quick RMA away.
So system integrators can no longer claim exorbitant prices just for the pleasure of building your rig, and the sheer amount of competition out there in this space also means they can't afford to price themselves out of the market. And who wins in this competitive market? We do!
Made to measure
The price argument then is one we can pretty much discount (teehee). You will still be able to search around and find slightly cheaper components, which will total up to a little less than the price of a full build, but generally the savings will be negligible - especially up against the possibility of terrible frustration in trying to figure out why your build has gone wrong.
If you're shopping around you'll be ordering from different retailers and the extra shipping costs on top can start adding up. It also means that if something does go wrong you've actually got someone else to blame if you go down the SI route.
But what of customisation? We're not talking here of the custom case crowd with their Leela-from-Futurama inspired designs (look it up - it's truly disturbing). Those guys ain't ever going to a system integrator, except for a job.
What we're really talking about is being able to choose the exact components you want to go into your final machine. Again, we have to come back to the sheer number of competing system integrators out there - chances are you'll be able to find the exact specification you're after already on offer, pre-built and ready to go. If not, most SIs will offer a wide range of customisation options as you go through the process of ordering your machine.
If you're not the most technically-minded of buyers, this also takes any of the worry about picking components out of the equation. You don't have to be concerned about which components work with which others if you're pulling them from a system integrator's pre-picked drop down menu.
Can't get no satisfaction
The one thing that the SIs can't hope to replicate though is the sense of achievement born of putting together your own PC from scratch. The first time it breezes through a stress test, or the first time you boot your favourite game, or even just the very first time you get a successful POST screen will give any of us happy geeks a thrill.
There's also the masochist in me, who relishes the prospect of finding a solution to any bugs he comes across. But if the thought of bug-fixing a machine you've spent mucho moolah putting together leaves you in a cold sweat, the SI will take much of that worry out of the equation too.
Most builders will include a burn-in period where they test the stability of the components, and any overclocking that has been undertaken on any of the parts. This will usually catch any errors before the rig even gets to your desk.
You don't have to drop a grand to pick up a decent machine from an SI, though. The first full PC I ever bought after joining PCF, all those years ago, was a £500 CyberPower machine. By tweaking the spec I was able to put together a machine that matched my modest means and was targeted at what I use my PC for the most: gaming.
Shop around and you can uncover some bargains - especially if you start looking at last generation parts. A lot of the system integrators are still offering Nvidia Fermi cards at decent prices.
So how do you choose a system integrator to go to? Well, we've set nine of the top system integrators in the UK a challenge to put together the best £1,000 gaming PC they can. Each of them has built something a little different and where they have spent the money, and how they have assembled their rigs, should give you a good idea which SI should get your cash.
Whether it's lightning-fast boot times, eye-popping gaming frame rates or the peace of mind of a long-lived warranty, one of these rigs could be for you.
Desktops on test
1. Advance Technologies ATFX-XPredator
The very first thing to catch your eye on this AdvanceTec build is the striking XPredator chassis, all stormtrooper white with black grills getting all up in yours. It also has a huge Perspex side panel, which reveals the second thing to catch your eye - the water-cooling setup.
This isn't the only build in the test to feature liquid as an aid to chilling out your chips - the Cyberpower Infinity Apollo has a closed-loop water cooler - but this is the only one to use a separate pump and reservoir setup. That means the setup can be expanded if you decide you want to include a loop for the graphics card, or even stick another reservoir in between to provide extra cooling for both.
2. Chillblast Fusion Thunderbird
The Chillblast machine is one big, fat beastie. The chunky Zalman chassis gives it a real sense of presence on your desk, and the internal goodies match that sense of scale, with a heftily overclocked i5 CPU and similarly overclocked GTX 670 doing the graphical grunt work.
Sadly though, it's in the overclocking department that the Fusion Thunderbird gets a serious black mark. The Core i5 3570K gets a headline-grabbing 4.8GHz clockspeed - easily the highest clocked chip in the test. If it ran solidly at that speed, we'd be all over this rig like a cheap LED strip.
Unfortunately, while it boots happily with these settings and will allow you to navigate around Windows with impunity, as soon as you start stressing the chip it begins to throw a wobbly. We couldn't run through either Cinebench or X264 encoding tests without it crashing.
3. Cyberpower Infinity Apollo
Fans of the big green graphics company rejoice, Cyberpower is showing its love of all things Nvidia here with a rig that's ripe for the fanboys. The SI has put some decent parts together for your pleasure, all of which are bathed in the eerie, mushypea glow of the Cooler Master 690's LEDs.
We say 'decent', because we're not entirely enamoured with Cyberpower's choice of components. It's the choice of graphics card that really has us stumped. We know that it's a new graphics card, but the GTX 660 Ti really isn't the sort of component we'd want in a rig we'd just paid a grand for. That's especially true when we're seeing overclocked GTX 670s, GTX 680s and an overclocked HD 7970 in the other machines.
4. Dino PC Baronyx
Housed within the simple, diminutive form of the Corsair Carbide 300R, you'd be forgiven for thinking this Dino PC build doesn't really look like a £1,000 PC. But this is a gaming machine - not something built to sit looking pretty on a stand at some Taiwanese trade show.
To be honest, so long as it's not obstructive in any way, we're not very bothered what clothes our gaming PCs arrive in. Most of our machines sit beneath our desks, and once the game is loaded all our attention is on the screen. If you can save money on a chassis then you've got some more cash to play with and throw at the more important components sitting inside it.
5. PC Specialist Vanquish Eclipse 670 MKII
When you're talking about a balanced PC build, it's tough to look past this machine from PC Specialist. It really has got the lot, and it's difficult to see where any real compromise or sacrifice has been made.
Pretty much all the other machines here have dropped something, or opted for cheaper versions in order to push more performance elsewhere, but there's precious little evidence of that in the Vanquish Eclipse.
Core i5-3570K with a decent overclock? Check. Quality graphics card? Check. Copious amounts of RAM? Check. Decent capacity solid state drive? Check. See, everything you could want in a £1,000 gaming machine - it's even all enclosed in the Cooler Master HAF chassis.
There was a time not so long ago when pretty much every gaming PC that came through our labs was housed in one of those.
6. Scan 3XS Z77 Performance GTK3
When you're putting together a machine for a thousand of your Earth pounds, there are many options to consider and many different configurations. We don't have any identikit builds in this test, though there are threads that run throughout, like the use of Intel CPUs.
Balance is important, but the chances are you're going to have to make a compromise or a sacrifice somewhere. Like the Cyberpower machine, you can plainly see where the sacrifices have been made in this rig before even looking at the benchmarks.
We are, of course, talking about the decision to opt for a GTX 660 Ti in the graphics card slot. Where it differs from the Cyberpower is that we've got a lot more in return for giving up some straight-line graphics performance. That 240GB SSD is a real bonus, and something we'd be pleased to find in any rig.
7. Vibox Boss XS
Attention all you pigeons out there, let me introduce to you the PC-shaped cat from relative system integrator n00b Vibox. There are two rigs in this group test that have thrown all their eggs in the gaming performance basket: this Boss XS and the YOYOTech machine.
The top-end pairing of the Core i7-3770K and the Nvidia GTX 680 make this an incredibly formidable gaming PC. Starting with the overclocked Core i7 CPU, you have essentially the finest example of Intel's desktop processor pedigree.
With eight full Hyperthreaded threads of processing power, it puts the quad-core i5 to shame in any straight-line CPU test. In the Cinebench and X264 encoding tests, the Hyperthreaded i7 in the Vibox machine is over 20 per cent faster than the quickest overclocked i5 rig.
8. Wired2Fire Diablo GTX
The safe money option seems to be a combo of the Intel i5-3570K, clocked up somewhere around 4.6GHz, with a GTX 670 and a 120GB SSD. This Wired2Fire machine looks to be hitting a similar spec to the excellent PC Specialist rig though with half as much RAM and a much quicker SSD.
To be perfectly honest, dropping the RAM count down won't make a blind bit of difference to your experience with this rig unless you're the sort of person who spends a lot of time tweaking massive image files in Photoshop on their home rig. Even then, 8GB is a pretty sizeable chunk of RAM to be playing with. In terms of gaming the difference is negligible to the point of being inconsequential.
9. YOYOTech Fi7epower PCF
Not convinced by the necessity of low capacity solid-state storage? Then YOYOTech's latest Fi7epower machine might well be the right rig for you. Like the Vibox Boss XS, it has thrown its full weight behind the performance of the processor and graphics card, rather than the more ephemeral positives of running the machine from an SSD boot drive.
With the Core i7-3770K, arguably the finest processor that Intel has made in recent memory, doing all the raw processing shenanigans at the heart of the budget-oriented Asus motherboard it's right up there at the top of the CPU performance tree. It's not the quickest due to a slightly speedier overclock from Vibox, but at 4.5GHz compared to the 4.6GHz of the Boss XS, it's a close run thing, and still makes the Fi7epower a lot quicker than the competing i5-based rigs.
A whole lot of rigs and a whole lot of tests
When we're testing full PCs, it becomes trickier than when we're simply checking out individual components. With a full system we have to check performance in a whole raft of different situations.
These are gaming PCs first and foremost, so we've tested with a selection of games, plus the demanding Heaven 2.5 synthetic benchmark. As well as the graphics, we've also tested the CPU performance, storage speeds and general responsiveness with things like Bootracer and SiSoft Sandra.
It's only when you put all the results together that you can get a full picture of just how good a given PC setup is. Balanced performance is the ideal.
And the winner is… PC Specialist Vanquish Eclipse 670 MKII
This group test gave us a bit of a headache when it came to picking a winner. We had some rather heated debates in the office about the relative merits of different machines.
The biggest difficulty we had in this test was figuring out just where the Chillblast Fusion Thunderbird stands in the final reckoning. If it had shipped us the rig running at 4.7GHz (and we guess it might well do from now on), it would have been rock solid and won the lot. The overclocked GTX 670 runs like a dream and the CPU speed would still be excellent. Coupled with the huge 240GB Mushkin SSD it's almost the perfect £1k rig.
Sadly though, it's as much about the user experience as it is about the spec and performance, and we have to review these machines as if we'd just dropped a grand on them ourselves. Pulling this out of the box and finding programs hanging at full load would be frustrating, and unless you're in the habit of benching your rigs as soon as you fire them up, you may not have a problem until further down the line.
To be fair, we've never had a problem with Chillblast machines in the past, and its two-year collect and return warranty is one of the best, but we couldn't give it the win.
Sadly for Scan and Cyberpower, it was a lot easier to discount their machines due to their choice of GPU. The GTX 660 Ti is simply not the card for a £1k rig, as shown by the performance figures.
Where the big argument came about though was with the two Core i7/GTX 680 machines sans SSD. The straight-line performance of both rigs was excellent, and the benefits of having an eight-threaded monster CPU in the rig with an awesome graphics card were hard to ignore.
Luckily the GTX 670, especially in overclocked trim, is every bit as good as a stock GTX 680. The toss up between having the i7 or an SSD was a tougher sell though. An i5 at 4.6GHz is really going to be all the processing power the majority of us will need for a long, long while. With a relatively cheap upgrade path - a 120GB SSD is less than £100 these days - you could make either one into an unstoppable machine.
As they are though, the balance is just a little off. And that's where PC Specialist's Vanquish Eclipse 670 MK II comes in. It is a fantastically balanced PC, and while it doesn't win any of the benchmark battles, it comes out on top as the machine that we'd be the happiest spending a grand on ourselves.
Pulling this machine out of the box and plugging it in, you'd be more than happy with it for the next couple of years at least. The GTX 670 is an excellent GPU, the i5 is running at a healthy 4.6GHz clockspeed, and it comes with a 120GB SSD and a massive 16GB of RAM. There is nothing missing from the build, and none of it feels like a compromise.
When you're spending £1,000 on a PC, that's how you want to feel when you plug it in and play. To be fair, one of the things this test has shown us is that with the market being so competitive, there are very few dud SIs out there.
Each of the machines in this test was slightly different, and each was just one tweak or one component away from winning the whole thing. We wouldn't worry about buying a PC from any of them, but the PC Specialist rig lived up to its name and is a machine to be proud of.
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