AVA Direct builds custom gaming systems to order, and our review sample turned out to be the computer equivalent of a 22-ounce filet mignon paired with a $500 bottle of merlot. Not surprisingly, the $6,200 amalgamation of high-end hardware blew nearly every game we could throw at it out of the water, with build quality and attention to detail from this manufacturer to match. This specific system build doubles as both a workstation and a gaming PC which explains why Xeon processors were used.
Peeking under the hood on a $6,200 gaming machine is a lot like peeking into a box of the last six months of product announcements piled into one place. Everything is top of the line. Our machine came equipped with:
• Dual Intel Xeon X5450 Quad-Core processors clocked at 3.0GHz
• 16GB Kingston PC2-5300 RAM
• GeForce GTX 280 Graphics Card with 1GB DDR3 RAM
• Triple 1TB Seagate Barracuda SAS 7200RPM Drives
• LG 6x Blu-ray Burner
• Silverstone Sugo SG04B-H Mid-Tower Case, mATX
• Silverstone Strider ST1000 Modular Power Supply
Call it overstatement, but Silverstone’s Sugo case may be one of the most beautiful and understated desktop cases we’ve ever laid eyes on. The anodized black exterior didn’t call out for attention or attract fingerprints like glossy black cases, and all of the mating panels fit together tightly. Even the side window, usually an obnoxious look-at-me feature, used a matte black grille to play down the glitz inside and act more as a functional cooling element. The billet aluminum carry handle up top not only felt solid enough to have been pulled off a Navy destroyer, and came in handy when lugging this heavy beast around.
Inside, the AVA build team did a top-notch job installing this system’s heavy load of hardware into a very tight case. Cables were tied together and neatly routed through the tiniest channels of the case as if they were custom cut and bent to fit there. Fasteners were snug, but not overtorqued, and we saw no signs of dings, scratches or other assembly mishaps. Overall a job well done by the assembly folks at AVA Direct.
When buying a custom PC, you’ll need to keep in mind that you’re not going to get the same shrink-wrapped box and glossy manuals that you’ll pick up with a computer from a big box store. Every computer is a one off deal, and the packaging reflects that. All of our AVA Direct computer’s accessories were tightly packed into computer’s motherboard box, which shipped along with a binder full of discs and documentation as well. It’s the type of utilitarian approach a friend might take after selling you a home-built computer, but we expected slightly better when dropping $6K at a legitimate builder.
However, if you don’t place much emphasis on looks or organization, it works, and the included documentation was extremely thorough. You’ll find everything from benchmark scores for your machine to operating temperatures and the initials of the guy (or gal) who built it. This sort of paperwork definitely helps build up the impression that your machine was built with care, and it’s the “extra mile” that sets some boutique builders apart.
The inside of the AVA Direct gaming PC workstation
AVADirect built this machine without many hardware compromises under the hood, so when we sat down to fire up a few games with it, we expected corresponding performance. Not surprisingly, it delivered in almost every respect.
The main mountain for any watt-suckling gaming PC to climb these days seems to be Crysis, a game famous for breaking even the mightiest of rigs with its absurd system demands. Naturally, we used it to push our system as far as it could go.
Initial results with the default system settings for the game looked promising. The system produced smooth frame rates and no hiccups in performance, regardless of what was going on onscreen. But without anti-aliasing, high texture settings, or even full resolution on our 1680 x 1050 monitor, we wanted more, so we began to tick boxes and slide sliders. We were able to crank every feature to high and anti-aliasing to 4X before the system began to shudder. Putting all settings to “very high,” or anti-aliasing to 8X, slowed it to an unplayable chug. Fortunately, the improved graphics were barely noticeable, and we felt more than satisfied with the settings that produced a playable frame rate – it looked nearly cinematic in quality.
In less demanding games, like BioShock and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, the PC allowed us to slide every setting to maximum without so much as flinching. Framerates remained sky high even as enemies and explosions piled up on screen, and we could take in all the graphical niceties the games had to offer without worrying about whipping the mouse around and getting the inevitable judder. It was, in two words, gaming nirvana.
The front of the system
Imagine a system that truly works at the exact same speed you do: think about opening a window and it’s there almost as fast as you can double-click on it. That about summarizes the experience of working with our AVADirect machine, which – with a total of eight cores humming along inside and 16GB of RAM – has to be the most utterly capable multi-tasker we’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
As the only real-world test of Windows we could devise to possibly snag such a capable machine, we opened the start menu and started launching everything. Amazingly enough, it barely seemed to notice the start bar getting packed full of memory-sapping apps, and continued to pop open new windows without hesitating. We tired of this game before the computer did, but we did manage to crash the machine when trying to shut it down with a dozen windows open, proving that all the performance hardware in the world can’t make up for inevitable software woes.
Boutique builders know their audience, and performance enthusiasts do not care for convenience applications and “free offers” cluttering up their desktops. For that reason, AVA ships these systems sparkling clean, aside from the benchmarking utilities used for burn-in tests. If it’s a clean slate you’re looking for, this is it.
That’s not to say the system came without extras – they were just on CDs where they belong. AVA Direct included full versions of Company of Heroes and Call of Duty 4, both newer, mainstream games that you might actually still pick up in a retail store. We much preferred this slim selection of quality games to the approach of some other builders, which load their systems up with worthless demo discs and third-rate games no one has ever heard of.
The back of our test system
Although we prefer to evaluate real-world performance rather than handing out scores based on synthetic benchmarks that don’t necessarily tell the real story about a system, we resorted to crunching a few numbers for this gaming machine. After all, a computer that can tear through nearly everything makes it tough to find its limits. Using 3DMark 06, our system produced a benchmark score of 15,875 3DMarks, which places it well above the “common system” that scores 11,600, but still far below the most tweaked-out rigs, which can reach above 30,000 3DMarks. While this means you won’t be king of the hill, if you’re out to compare specs with guys who have $10,000 PCs hooked up to liquid nitrogen IVs in their garages, in everyday usage, we wouldn’t assign the numbers too much importance. This machine hauls.
One of the most puzzling disappointments we ran across with this otherwise blazing system showed up as soon as we turned it on. And waited. And waited. Like a cold-blooded Camaro that needs a few stuttery laps around the block before it’s ready to roar, this machine startled us with its astoundingly slow boot time of 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Oddly enough, it also showed a completely black screen for long periods of the boot, leading us at first to believe we had hooked up the monitor improperly. If you’re the type who likes to leave a computer on all the time or in standby when not in use, the boot time probably won’t cause much of a headache. But environmentally conscious (or cheap) types who prefer to shut their systems off completely at night and fire them back up in the morning will have to grow accustomed to brushing their teeth, shaving, and maybe even regrowing a beard while this machine crawls to a start.
We take price into consideration on every product we review, but a system with a price tag over $6,000 warrants some extra discussion of that all-important factor. While it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison when you’re dealing with a completely custom-built machine, in general we found AVA Direct to be making fairly reasonable markups on the hardware for its machines. The 1TB Seagate Barracuda drives in our system, for instance, runs between $150 and $170 from retailers, while AVA Direct charges $212 to add one to a SATA array. Adding a Razer Lycosa keyboard – that will cost you $80 on your own, or $86 from AVA. Besides the convenience of buying everything assembled and running properly, these mark-ups also get you a three-year limited parts and labor warranty. Other boutique builders, including Alienware and Falcon Northwest (other than its flagship system), include only a one-year warranty. Make no mistake – custom gaming rigs don’t come cheap. But if you’re willing to spend the money, AVA Direct provides respectable bang for the buck.
That said, we believe the dollars on this particular rig probably could have been better spent on an SLI video card setup, or saved by skipping the outrageous levels of RAM and storage. But that’s a matter of buyer preference, and with AVA’s quite comprehensive selection of hardware and different system setups, you can easily tailor one to your budget. The most basic form of the system we ordered, including dual Xeon processors and a GeForce 8500GT, can be had for $1,452.36.
For the price, we probably wouldn’t recommend buying the exact outfit we reviewed here; It was solid, but we’re convinced similar results could be achieved on a lower budget using some different hardware choices. However, the overall fit, finish, and performance of this machine left us hankering for more from the modest Ohio-based builder. We would certainly make Ava Direct one of the first stops on your list when shopping for a custom-built gaming PC.
• Nearly unstoppable gaming performance
• Clean, functional Windows install
• Quality games included
• Superb assembly workmanship
• Amateurish packaging/presentation
• Price (as equipped)
• Slow boot time