Jon Bach, founder of boutique PC maker Puget Systems, is not always impressed by his suppliers' quality control.
"The deeper that we get into the computer industry, the more cynical I become about it," Bach says. "There's so much hype, so little regard for what's best for the customer."
To illustrate, he points to memory, where rapid innovation is just as rapidly commodified, and prices seem in perpetual freefall. Moving from one brand to another, Bach says, can result in profound differences in error rates. It's an offhand comment, but it expresses the animating principle of his business: building it yourself is fraught with risk. Puget does the research, assembles computers every day, and knows exactly what components will work well together.
"One of the deciding factors is the [sales] volume of a boutique," Bach said. "It takes a lot of volume to discern trends and problems. Four years ago, we saw enough volume to discern trends, and to gain a direct line to engineers at Asus and Intel and so on. Most of the time we figure [problems] out before they do."
Its latest product is the Puget Mini. It is like a small, dangerous sports car. Lavish customer service surrounds assembly and delivery. They overclock, benchmark and burn in it. Performance is stellar. On the other hand, it runs hot, and the $2,800 tag represents ostentatious expense in an age of tight budgets.
Puget sent one to us to review. As tested, it has 6GB of DDR3 RAM, dual Nvidia Gforce 285 video cards, and an Intel Core i7 quad-core 920 CPU. There is an Asus Rampage II motherboard, a 300GB VelociRaptor and 1TB secondary hard drives, Blu-Ray optical, and Puget's own Hydro CL1 cooling system. There is an external heat-monitoring dongle, which plugs into a special port at the back, should the already-aggressive overclocking turn out to be insufficient. Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit is installed.
This is mid-range, for Puget: models range to $10,000 and beyond, depending on your tolerance for the law of diminishing returns. As powerful within as it is bland without--the Antec P180 case is hardly a sex machine--the Mini's promise is of reliability and performance.
Planted on the desktop and run through a selection of titles, including Assassin's Creed, Fallout 3 and F.E.A.R. 2, Project Origin, there was little to analyse: the same smoothness resulted regardless of display resolution or settings. Without access to multiple high-definition monitors, you won't be challenging a 3-grand Puget Mini for a while yet.
The box was quieter than any heavily-cooled, overclocked system I've used, but spin-ups of its 6" case fan made themselves heard now and again. The only issue encountered was north bridge overheating with my home's A/C off. It shut down when the room was at about 85 degrees--hardly a fair environment for an overclocked gaming PC. Bach said that that production models include a fan, which the review model lacked, on the affected component.
That they'd noticed this unlikely circumstance and fixed it prior to launch is reassuring, but it's also noticeable that Puget is a small, 25-employee firm selling luxury items. With its 3-page burn-in performance reports, it looks like the sort of company recessions don't pass by. Bach, however, says orders remain steady throughout the downturn.
"It's changed things a little, but we haven't seen a difference in number sold," Bach said. "What everyone's tightening their belt on is what they're spending on each computer."
It's machines a little fancier than the one tested, for example -- $3,000 to $5,000 -- that they can no longer shift. This sort of machine represents more power than current games can even be configured to exploit, and those who buy them are now opting for configurations priced between $1,500 and $2,000.
At the "extreme high end" of $5,000-plus machines, however, Puget reports no difference in sales.
If you enjoy running tests as a hobby unto itself you might feel the need to verify the supplied benchmark data and tinker further with its cooling characteristics. For the rest of us, Puget's Mini is a strongman gaming PC not afraid to look humble on the outside: its true appeal is in reliability guarantees and customer care.