Leveling Up

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been playing PC games a lot lately, including World of Tanks and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. Disappointingly, even though these games weren’t the most demanding out there as far as their system requirements, it just seemed like my 2 1/2 year old Alienware M11x was struggling to keep up. I had to run these games at fairly low settings, and even then they didn’t run all that smoothly.

Here is my new gaming rig, in the office at our new house in Suffolk.

So, this started me on the path of looking for another computer. The first choice I made was that I would go for a desktop this time around instead of a laptop. There were two main reasons for this decision:

  1. Easier Upgrades: In order to pack a reasonably powerful gaming computer into a laptop form factor, just about every part has to be custom-made. This means that options for replacing a video card, upgrading a processor, or adding another hard drive are extremely limited.
  2. Higher “Power to Cost” ratio: Partly because of the specialization mentioned above, a gaming laptop tends to cost more than a desktop with comparable specifications.

Another thing I should point out is that I had originally started down the path of gaming laptops with the idea that they could be taken underway with me on a submarine, since they are more portable than a desktop. However, as I discovered during my first tour there is precious little time for such things, and I never actually used my laptop for this purpose.

Alienware vs Doghouse

The next decision I had to make was which company to go with. Alienware seemed like an attractive option, since I had good experiences with two of their laptops. However, after doing some comparison shopping, I came to the conclusion that I could get the same or better system for less elsewhere. This is what got me on the track of looking at Doghouse Systems, a custom gaming computer company that I had first heard about a few years ago thanks to their adds on the D6 Generation podcast. I was able to find consistently good reviews of their systems and, more importantly, their customer service. From what I was able to gather, there has been a steady downward trend in Alienware’s customer service since the company was acquired by Dell. The key difference in price came mainly with the warranty; Alienware wanted hundreds of dollars more for the same warrenty protection that was included in the base price of the Doghouse rig. Sold!

Specifications

I decided to go with an Armor ES system, which is the mid-range desktop offering. Based on my discussions with the Doghouse staff, we determined that this system would meet all my current gaming needs, while being easy to upgrade in the future. I can’t emphasize enough how pleasant it was working with these guys; they were very helpful, and at no time did they pressure me to upgrade to a system that was too powerful for my needs.

Here is the list of specs for my rig as ordered:

[Armor ES – GPU:1 x NVIDIA GTX 670 Video Card]
[Memory Armor ES:8GB DDR3-1600 Kingston HyperX Memory]
[Armor ES – Bay 1:Default 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black SATA Drive]
[Armor ES – Bay 2:120GB Intel 520 Series Solid State Drive]
[Optical Drive – Bay 1:Default DVD +/- RW Drive]
[Optical Drive – Bay 2:10x Blu-ray Reader DVD-RW Drive]
[Accessories:20-in-1 Card Reader]
[Operating Systems:Windows 7® Home Premium 64 bit]
[Software:Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Business – Retail]
[Preloaded Software 4:Starcraft II – Fully Patched]

Of note, I opted for a solid state hard drive that I could use to install the operating system and a couple of games on. The advantage of a solid state drive is that it loads data much more quickly, reducing load times when playing games or opening programs. Another neat feature is that Doghouse pre-loaded Starcraft II for me, so that I didn’t have to download and install it myself.

Setup

Unboxing and setting up my new computer was easy. The system came well-protected inside a large cardboard box, and there was even a foam insert inside the case to prevent components from becoming unseated during transport. One of the things that I was very happy to see was the sheer number of USB  ports on this thing; I lost count at a dozen! This is a night and day difference from my previous laptops, which had at most 4, necessitating the use of multiple USB hubs to make up the difference. Also impressive was the materials included with the computer; every little bit and gubbin associated with the hardware, down to the front plates that had been removed for the hard drives and optical drives, was present.  I had no trouble getting the system up and running within 15 minutes of unpacking everything. And let me tell you, running is precisely the right word!

System Performance

Right from the start, I could tell this computer is a quantum leap ahead of anything I’ve used before. The OS started up incredibly fast, within about 10 seconds of pressing the power button. Likewise, opening programs and windows was practically instantaneous, with very little of the lag time I had come to associate with my m11x. I really noticed the power of this system when I started playing games on it, however. Using World of Tanks as an example, on my laptop I had to use minimal settings (low detail models, low resolution textures, etc), but even the best I got was about 25 FPS (frames per second). This low frame rate made it really hard for me to compete with certain types of tanks. With my new ES, though, I’m able to crank all the graphical settings up to maximum, and the game still runs at a smooth 60 FPS! Bottom line, the Doghouse blows my M11x out of the water.

Conclusion

There you have it; my (not too) technical review of my Doghouse  Armor ES. I’m a very happy customer; dealing with Doghouse Systems has been a great experience from beginning to end. While their computers are expensive, I do believe they represent a good value for a gamer who, like me, is looking to get a great PC gaming experience along with knowledgeable and helpful customer support.

 

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