Technology

A Custom PC Made to Wow


Falcon Northwest's computers pack the power and speed that gamers love. But the price isn't for the faint of heart

Buying a "beige box" PC is interesting only if you're a large company buying thousands and wanting to save on costs or if you're buying one for yourself and on a tight budget.

But what if you're not on a tight budget and want the works? Is your computing experience generally going to be any better than that of the person who sticks with the beige box?

That's what I sought to find out when I put in a call to Falcon Northwest, a small custom-PC outfit based in Medford, Ore. Its specialty is building custom computers. And when it says custom, it means custom, from all the myriad parts on the inside to the color of the paint on the outer case. If you've been fantasizing about a computer and know exactly what you want, then Falcon is the kind of PC boutique that's worth a call.

KNOW THY NEEDS.

Falcon President Kelt Reeves wouldn't discuss exactly how many machines the firm sells a year -- he put the number at fewer than 10,000 units a year. But what they do sell tends to cost a lot more than what you'll find from the usual suspects of the computing world, such as Dell (DELL), Gateway (GTW), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).

I took a Falcon Northwest Mach V machine for a run to see how much of a better computing experience a few thousand dollars can buy. The short answer: Paying more means a lot more fun -- but it's important to know what you want before you buy.

Falcon doesn't have a set of preconfigured models in stock. When you call to place an order, expect to spend a lot of time on the phone with a specialist who will walk you through more options that can you can possibly shake a joystick at.

SPEED THRILLS.

The machine Falcon provided came in at a price of $5,185, not including a monitor. Its specifications were certainly impressive: It had an Athlon 4800+ dual-core processor from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and two Nvidia (NVDA) GeForce 7800 graphics cards.

That's a lot of computing horsepower right there. But the AMD chip was overclocked -- or made to run faster than its manufacturer intended. This is common in the gaming-enthusiast and hobbyist world, and also among custom-gaming boutiques, such as Falcon Northwest, that cater to them. In this case, the chip was rated to run at 2.4 gigahertz, but was pushed just a bit to 2.58 GHz. When done poorly, or pushed too far, overclocking can shorten the life of the CPU chip, and therefore the life of the machine.

But Reeves is so confident in his firm's ability to do it right -- and in the overall quality of the machine -- that each Falcon Northwest computer carries a three-year warranty. Plus, all technical support calls are handled in-house and not farmed out to third parties.

WELL-HEELED SHOOTERS.

Aside from the three-year warranty, the machines can often be upgraded over the course of time as technology improves. Reeves says he doesn't guaranteed fully "future-proof machines," but customers often send their machines back to Medford for new parts.

Overall, my computing experience was excellent. I focused most of my attention on gaming, and took a crack at Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2004, and Civilization IV. The first two are first-person shooter games, which I'm never terribly good at. Despite my lousy game-play, I found the graphics to be excellent and smooth, coupled with an amazing level of detail.

I've become accustomed to a PC-gaming experience on lesser machines that was always frustratingly halting in appearance and execution, possessing audio that's out of sync with the video and commands that never seem to keep up. So I had always wondered what it would be like to play a game on a more powerful machine. Now I know, and can finally see the appeal of such machines to high-end first-person shooters. A quality gaming machine makes a good deal of difference.

COVER STORY.

The inclusion of a Logitech (LOGI) wireless mouse and keyboard, and a set of speakers from Creative Technology (CREAF) -- the I-Trigue L3500 -- were both nice touches that added to the game play. It was also surprisingly quiet. Sound-dampening foam on the inside of the case reduced the whirr of the fan considerably.

Falcon is also known for its custom cases. This particular machine was painted a dark blue intended to match exactly the color on a car -- a 2005 Acura MDX to be exact. (Acura calls the color "Sage Brush Pearl.") Ordering your own custom color or logo can add to the price. A basic logo can be about $400. However, one customer's order of a case that was an interpretation of a favorite painting took up $1,500 worth of an artist's time. Falcon's Reeves says a number of regular customers at an aerospace company like to order machines with the American flag painted on each side.

Certainly, a machine like this one isn't for everyone. If your computing needs amount to typing away on a keyboard and surfing the Web, you're better off with a simple beige box that comes at a much lower price tag. But if you're a power user and heavy gamer, and you spend a lot of time using applications that require a lot of horsepower, the appeal of a powerful machine like this is clearly worth the price.


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