Boutique PC Builders vs OEM Pre-Built Gaming PCs
With the shortage of graphics cards, which are currently selling at several times their MSRP, even gamers who know how to build their own computers are looking for different ways to get capable gaming machines.
We recently compared a list of recommended build specs to what you can buy pre-built from the likes of HP, Dell, Lenovo and other big OEMs. Our conclusion was that building your own PC still makes sense with a mid-range graphics card, but pre-built systems are far more reasonable in the high end. For example, if you’re buying an RTX 3070 or above, pre-builts definitely have something going for them right now.
Granted, buying a pre-built PC from an OEM has its drawbacks, including upgradability and not knowing exactly what’s inside of the machine. The solution to that seems obvious: boutique PC builders like CyberPowerPC, Origin PC, iBuyPower, and many others who assemble systems out of well-known retail parts that can be easily upgraded.
Now, boutique stores usually do come at a premium that larger manufacturers are able to offset. If all you want is the cheapest PC that can run modern games adequately, you should assemble a $500 rig yourself and add a GeForce GTX 1660 Super, or just buy a standard pre-built.
Another problem with boutiques is shipping times, which are currently measured in weeks, and if you want one of the most sought-after graphics cards they can be even longer. So, does patience pay off when buying a gaming PC?
Among the stores we checked out for putting together this article were: Origin PC, Maingear, iBuyPower, Falcon Northwest, Puget Systems, Digital Storm, AVADirect, XoticPC, CyberPowerPC, Xidax and even NZXT’s BLD.
While all of them looked like legitimate options, we picked the three stores that offered the best combination of part selection, value and shipping times at the time of writing. Depending on when you are reading this article, each of those stores may offer the best deal for you, but our goal was to compare boutique builders in general to other means of getting a gaming PC.
DIY value gaming build vs. boutique builders
The first table below compares our DIY Value Gaming Rig, which is a decent value compared to pre-builts even with current graphics card prices, to the best-value offerings we could find at iBuyPower, CyberPowerPC and XoticPC.
Word of advice: alongside their computers, boutique builders offer many peripherals and accessories. If you want some of those, make sure you check whether you can get them for less elsewhere.
|Component||DIY Gaming Value||iBuyPower||CyberPowerPC||XoticPC|
|CPU Cooler||Wraith Spire||Asetek 550LC||A71C||Air|
|Motherboard||B550 Tomahawk||B550 Tomahawk||B550 Gaming Edge WiFi||B550 Bazooka|
|Memory||2 x 16GB DDR4-3600 CL18||2 x 8GB DDR4-3200||2 x 8GB DDR4-3200||2 x 8GB DDR4-3200 Vengeance Pro|
|Storage||1TB Sabrent Rocket 4.0||1TB SN750||1TB SN750||1TB 970 Evo Plus|
|Graphics||1660 Super||RTX 2060||RTX 2060||RTX 3060|
|PSU||SuperNova GA 650||Thermaltake 600W Gold||Thermaltake 600W Gold||600W 80 Plus|
|Case||400D Airflow||Versa 27||400D Airflow||400D Airflow|
Buying a PC from iBuyPower looks simple: you choose a configurator and get a default system that you can customize as you wish. It’s important to choose the configurator whose default system is the closest to what you are looking for, though, as the default system is discounted in a way that doesn’t apply to the changes you make. We don’t recommend using the site’s Easy Builder, as it will only show you a small number of options, and not always the best ones.
When we chose the 3rd-gen Ryzen R5 configurator, the default (and cheapest possible) CPU was the 4th-gen R5 5600X, which is technically better than the R5 3600X in our DIY system, although you won’t see the difference in most gaming scenarios with the current system. Asetek’s 550LC 120mm liquid CPU cooler was one of the cheapest options, but should be enough for that efficient processor.
MSI’s B550 Tomahawk is the motherboard we’d recommend for most people in this price range. We chose a 2 x 8GB memory kit with a 3200MHz speed from a “certified major brand.” Choosing a specific brand would add $30 or $45 to the price, a 3600MHz kit is $60 more expensive, and going with a 32GB kit would increase the price by $150 – about the price of a 32GB kit.
Western Digital’s WD_Black SN750 is one of the best PCIe 3.0 SSDs. Every PCIe 4.0 SSD on offer was much more expensive, and no other PCIe 3.0 one was much cheaper. iBuyPower does offer the GTX 1660 Super from our DIY system, but the stronger RTX 2060 was just $52 more, so we couldn’t ignore that. We opted to pay $12 for knowing where the 600W, 80 Plus Gold PSU came from (Thermaltake).
Thermaltake also makes the case that we chose – the Versa 27. Amazingly, it was one of the cheapest cases offered.
With current graphics card prices, this system is about $100 more expensive than our DIY system. The price includes Windows 10, so if you need to buy a license anyway, you can consider that a tie. In current games, iBuyPower’s system will perform better, at least when nothing heavy is running in the background. It also comes with a 3-year standard warranty.
Possible additions include premium case fans and thermal pastes, RGB strips, sound-damping foam, all kinds of internal cards, “professional” cable wiring (does that mean that by default, their cable wiring isn’t professional?), an advanced packaging system and (ironically, for the same price) one year of ground-shipping return coverage.
With the current configuration, the system is expected to ship within 4 weeks.
CyberPowerPC possibly offers more options than any builder that we checked, which is why it’s so annoying that if you try to add your selected system to your cart without enabling cookies first, your cart will remain empty and you’ll need to start over.
The EZPC feature is better than iBuyPower’s Easy Builder as it lets you customize your rig as you wish. We still don’t recommend using it, as it gives too many options, many of which are not great, with shockingly small SSDs or old and inadequate processors.
Using the Ryzen 5 configurator, the default CPU is the R5 3600. That CPU may perform identically to the R5 3600X from our DIY build with the right cooler, so that’s the CPU that we chose as the R5 5600X was $154 more. Cooler Master’s A71C, the cheapest cooler offered, should be enough for getting the most out of the R5 3600, but if you want to be sure, better coolers aren’t much more expensive. MSI’s B550 Tomahawk wasn’t on offer, but the MSI B550 Gaming Edge WiFi has basically everything that the Tomahawk has, plus Wi-Fi.
As CyberPowerPC’s memory pricing policy is identical to iBuyPower’s, we again chose 2 x 8GB of RAM from a “major brand.” For the sake of comparison we chose a 3200MHz speed, even though in this case going down to 3000MHz would save us $30. Our SSD of choice is once again the WD_SN750.
CyberPowerPC doesn’t have any GTX card, but it has the RTX 2060. If you want the faster RTX 3060 instead that would add 4 weeks of lead time, but the system will actually be $10 cheaper, not to mention that the lead time would automatically qualify the purchase for a 5% instant rebate if you enter the “NORUSH” code during checkout. At iBuyPower, the RTX 3060 would make the system $82 more expensive, in addition to the same lead time increase.
In this case, we had to add $21 for knowing that our 600W, 80 Plus Gold PSU comes from Thermaltake. CyberPowerPC doesn’t have the Versa 27 case, but it has the Cooler Master 400D Airflow from our DIY system.
The price includes Windows 10 and just one year of warranty, but 3 years of service and lifetime technical support. CyberPowerPC offers basically all of the additions that iBuyPower does, plus laser engravings.
CyberPowerPC offers a similar buying experience to iBuyPower’s, but in this specific case it generally falls short, as this system is more expensive despite having a slower CPU and a shorter standard warranty. It can become slightly cheaper than iBuyPower’s after rebate if you enter the “NORUSH” code during checkout, but that would delay the shipping in about a week.
If you stick with the RTX 2060 and don’t use the “NORUSH” code, the system will ship in between 4 and 5 weeks.
XoticPC’s buying process is different from those of the other two stores. First you need to choose one out of 4 vaguely defined series, then a case, and then a platform. In the Advanced series, we found the 400D Airflow case.
We chose the R5 3600, even though the faster 5600X was just $70 more expensive. The air cooler wasn’t named, but with the processor’s 65W TDP we didn’t think it would matter too much. MSI’s Bazooka was the only B550 motherboard available. It’s not as good as those in the other systems in terms of thermal performance, but it still has 4 memory slots and two M.2 storage slots.
In XoticPC, every RAM option over 8GB is from a specific brand, so we chose Corsair’s Vengeance RGB Pro 2 x 8GB kit at 3,200MHz, as it’s just $20 more expensive than the 2,666MHz 16GB kits (with no RGB).
XoticPC didn’t have the WD_BLACK SN750, but it had Samsung’s 970 Evo Plus, which is just as good and actually more expensive in the aftermarket, for just $20 more than the DRAM-less 980.
The main reason that we consider this system a decent value option is that you can get a GeForce RTX 3060 with no extra wait time, and for just $150 more than the vanilla GTX 1660. We’d need to add at least $69 for a specific power supply, so we chose to stick with the “600W 80 Plus” option.
The price includes an RGB kit, braided cables with 9 x 9 color options, Windows 10, custom foam packaging, lifetime technical support and 5 years of part-replacement warranty.
The estimated shipping time is between 10 and 20 business days. If you need your computer in the next month and gaming performance is your top priority, this system is a good option.
High-end pre-built vs boutique builders
Next we’ll compare offerings from the same 3 boutique PC stores to the MSI Aegis ZS series as we configured it to match our high-end PC build recommendation. The MSI seems to offer the best combination of upgradability and value in the high-end pre-built market, so how does the boutique do in comparison?
|CPU Cooler||Dragon 120mm||Castle 240X||Castle 240X||Air|
|Motherboard||B550||B550 Tomahawk||B550 Gaming Edge WiFi||B550 Bazooka|
|Memory||2 x 8GB||2 x 8GB DDR4-3200||2 x 8GB DDR4-3200||2 x 8GB DDR4-3200 Vengeance Pro|
|Storage||1TB SATA||1TB SN750||1TB SN750||1TB 970 Evo Plus|
|Graphics||RTX 3080||RTX 3070||RTX 3070||RTX 3080|
|PSU||650W Gold||650W Gold||800W Gold||
760W Ion+ Platinum
|Case||ATX||Versa 27||400D Airflow||400D Airflow|
($2,284 after rebate)
Stepping up to the R7 5800X processor from the R5 5600X makes the system $138 more expensive (when using the “Ryzen” configurator), and requires you to choose a 240mm liquid cooler. At that point it makes more sense to add another $90 for the R9 5900X, which performs similarly in modern games but up to 50% better in other tasks, including live streaming and recorded video editing. Our 240mm cooler of choice is DeepCool’s Castle 240EX.
We chose the RTX 3070 graphics card over the RTX 3080 because the difference in price is $463, and we don’t like the combination of paying more and waiting longer for the same gaming performance as the Aegis ZS. The RTX 3060 is another $281 less, but that’s not a high-end GPU.
Since MSI doesn’t mention the brand of its 650W, 80 Plus Gold power supply, we don’t feel obligated to pay more for a specific brand. The configurator does make sure that we choose at least 650W with the RTX 3070, though.
All in all, this is a solid alternative to the Aegis ZS at about $200 less. It has a slower GPU but a much faster CPU (with a better cooler), a retail motherboard, better SSD and case, and 3 years of warranty compared to MSI’s one year. With the RTX 3070, the system will ship in about 8 weeks.
At CyberPowerPC, the R9 5900X is again a better value than the R7 5800X at $100 extra using the “Ryzen 9X” configurator. We chose the Castle 240EX cooler again, even though the configurator didn’t tell us to upgrade the cooler.
At $500 less, the RTX 3070 was an obvious choice over the RTX 3080. For another $135 less, the RTX 3060 Ti is a good alternative. Although CyberPowerPC would let us get by with 600W, we wanted to at least match the other systems’ 650W. The cheapest way to do that was to step up to an 800W, 80 Plus Gold unit from no specific brand.
With its 5% instant rebates for systems with the RTX 3070, CyberPowerPC matches the iBuyPower pricing, despite including a more expensive motherboard and a better PSU (presumably). Your choice could come down to your case preference (including laser engravings), and to how much iBuyPower’s longer standard warranty means to you.
The shipping time for this system is between 8 and 9 weeks.
With XoticPC we once again chose to save on the CPU and go with the R5 5600X and an air cooler. An R7 5800X would make the system $240 more expensive (including a mandatory 240mm liquid cooler), and an R9 5900X would add another $120 to that.
By the time you are reading this, you may already be able to get an RTX 3080 with no extra wait time. As an alternative, the RTX 3070 is $330 cheaper, and already in stock at the time of writing.
The RTX 3080 requires at least a 750W power supply with XoticPC’s configurator. We chose Fractal Design’s 760W, 80 Plus Platinum-rated Ion+ model for just $10 more than an unnamed Gigabyte 750W, 80 Plus Gold model.
Compared to MSI’s pre-built, this system will cost more and perform similarly in realistic gaming scenarios, but has a retail motherboard, better parts (SSD, power supply and case), premium looks and a longer warranty. Assuming that the graphics card that you choose is in stock, the system will ship in between 10 and 20 business days.
A 3-way summary
Can you still get decent value for your money with a new gaming PC?
Yes, but not with $600 like you could in the recent past. If your budget is anywhere near that, perhaps you should try to get a console (please, don’t shoot the messenger!).
For $1,200 you can find several decent options in both the pre-built and DIY markets. The price point around $1,700 has great DIY and boutique-store options. For about $2,500 you can get a top-performing PC, either pre-built or from a boutique builder.