I built my previous desktop PC in 2008 and it gave over six years of service before it started to show signs that it was time to replace it. I currently don't have the time to order a dozen hand-picked components and build a PC myself, so I decided to pay a small premium to get one assembled and delivered by an online vendor.
After looking at several options I settled on PC Specialist. They let you choose from a number of desktop system templates (based on your pick of Intel or AMD processor) and a good range of component options with which you can customise your chosen template. Importantly they also allow you to opt out of paying for an operating systems. I already own a boxed version of Microsoft Windows 7, so why would I buy a desktop from someone like Dell who forces you to pay for a new Windows licence (and loads the installation with junk software in the process) when I can just uninstall Windows from my old machine and install it on the new one myself? You can also choose from a good mix of desktop cases, or even choose to send in your own desktop case for them to use for the build.
After a little online reading I settled on the following configuration:
Total price came to £1,104.66 including tax. I reckon buying the components separately would have saved me between £100 and £150, so having someone else build the machine applies a premium of ten to fifteen percent. If you have the time, patience and technical savvy, you might well be better off doing your own build. It gives you more control over the components that go into the machine, but it also means that you have to do the diagnostic work yourself if nothing happens when you hit the power button for the first time.
The only thing I noticed which did irk me was that PC Specialist offer, on the highest end machines only, the option to pay an extra £9 to request that they use Arctic Silver when installing heatsinks. Any serious builder of high specification gaming machines should be using Arctic Silver as standard, not making it an expensive optional extra. A tube of the stuff costs less than six pounds, and contains enough for several installations. So this seems like skimping.
Once the order was placed, PC Specialist sent me emails to keep me informed of the build status. Build was completed after four working days, went into testing and configuration the next working day, and was announced as ready for dispatch the morning of the working day after that.
As promised, the new machine was delivered on the morning of the first Saturday after build and testing was complete. PC Specialist sent me the tracking details for the delivery, and I was pleased to see that I could follow the exact location of the delivery van once it had started its round. This made it very easy to work out roughly how long remained before arrival.
I was less impressed when the DPD courier lugged the heavy box to my door in his arms and then simply dropped the thing from waist height onto the concrete floor, the wrong way up. This despite the fact the box had been thoroughly covered in "FRAGILE" tape and "This way up" notices. On inspecting the box in front of the courier (who muttered "you can reject it if you don't want it") I found that the side he'd placed on the ground had a large hole in it. It looked like someone had put their foot through it. So I scowled at the indifferent courier, then signed "BOX DAMAGED" on his handheld delivery computer and shifted the huge box into my home myself.
Opening the box I found that there was no padding between the cardboard box and most of the PC case; the case was simply floating within two foam inserts that went at either end of the case. On closer examination the hole in the box was by the front door of the case, but no damage seemed to have occurred to the case itself.
To protect the internal components from shocks (such as a DPD courier dropping the thing sideways onto the ground) PC Specialist use a shaped bag of stiff foam to fill the cavity inside the desktop case, and attach a printed note to the side of the case warning that this bag must be removed carefully before the PC is connected and powered. The note also advises that if the case had a side fan then it might be necessary to reconnect this after removing the bag.
I have no idea what tests PC Specialist conduct before shipping a new PC, but I wanted to detect any problems myself before going to the trouble of installing and configuring my chosen operating systems. So I burnt the latest copy of Ultimate Boot CD to a CD and used it to run Memtest86+ for six hours (three complete passes of the full 16GiB of RAM), then several hours of CPU torture tests. No errors were reported, which is a good sign. If a single error had been found then I would have sent the machine back to PC Specialist for remedy.
I did try to run the Seagate hard disk diagnostic tool but it simply reported that no hard drives were found. However, I discovered that the new machine had a test installation of Windows 7 already installed on it, so I used Windows to check both hard disks for errors and found none. I also used this test installation of Windows to install 3DMark and run that a number of times to test the graphics card. (A machine I built years ago would get about ten seconds into a 3DMark test and then freeze or crash every time.) No problems, and the graphics in the latest 3DMark demo look incredible at 1920x1200. Though the Palit graphics card does make an awful, electronic squealing noise when the framerate gets very high (in excess of 100 frames per second) during the simpler benchmark tests, so I'll try to use the vsync graphics setting (to limit framerate to 60 frames per second) whenever it's offered.
The only problem I found with the hardware was that the front and rear case fans were not spinning at all. So I had to open up the case again and hunt around to find the cause: the Fractal Define R4 Black Pearl case comes with a simple fan voltage switch with the ability to put 5V, 7V or 12V through the case fans. The case fans were correctly wired, but I found that the connector inside the frame of the case which joins the cable to the voltage switch had come free and was hanging nearby to the switch socket. I initially thought about simply connecting the case fans to the motherboard, which would be preferable because the Gigabyte Z97X Gaming 3 is able to control fan speed automatically. However, I realised that the fans in the case are the cheaper three-pin models without speed control lines. Which means that the motherboard would not have been able to vary their speed at all. So I gave up on that idea and spent twenty minutes cursing and swearing as I tried to get the connector into the voltage switch socket in a very confined space too small for fingers to reach. (I used a pair of tweezers, but I'm sure a better tool exists for this sort of task.) With the connector in the socket, I powered on the machine and both case fans started spinning as expected.
I didn't order a pre-built PC with the hope of spending time finishing off the assembly, so I was not impressed to find this problem with the fan voltage switch. Either the connector was loose all along and PC Specialist failed to spot it, or the delivery company handled it so roughly that it came loose in transit. Either way, I was displeased, and I do wonder whether the average customer would have found this problem at all, let alone be able and willing to fix it.
The tedious bit. Installing my own copy of Windows 7 from a DVD which is four years old, then having to download updates, install updates, reboot (with update configuration before and after) and then repeat the cycle. Over and over again. This ridiculous process took nine hours to complete, finally reaching the point where Windows 7 had patched itself with Service Pack 1 and all of the latest security and stability updates. And I had to increase the Windows 7 main partition from 5GB to 7.5GB because the initial size was too small to handle the stupid number of update downloads taking place at once. I do wish that Microsoft would allow genuine customers to download the latest build image from their website, the way that every Linux distribution does.
But before all of that there were other problems. The driver CD which comes with the motheboard is garbage. The network driver installation is tied to an installer for a piece of bloatware called Qualcomm Atheros Killer Network Manager. The terms and conditions attached to this piece of unwanted software made me very angry, particularly section 5 which said plainly that the software might monitor all of your network communications ("for technical support reasons") and that the software offers no guarantee of confidentiality whatsoever. So I spent an hour hunting for a way to get the network drivers without the software, and the only way I found was to install the unwanted software, then copy the drivers out of the directory where it is installed, then uninstall the unwanted software, and finally tell Windows 7 to install the network card using the copy you took of the drivers. This nonsense should not be necessary to get hardware to work without unwanted software being installed.
Also, the drivers which come with the motherboard CD did not work for the onboard audio chip. Windows 7 would simply report that the audio system was not enabled. I uninstalled the useless audio drivers and went to the Realtek website to download the latest drivers for the ALC 1150 chipset. But before I could install the new drivers, Windows 7 Service Pack 1 had installed and after a reboot the audio worked fine. So I'm guessing that the update to Windows came with drivers which work.
Something I didn't expect was that Windows 7 does not support the new UEFI Secure Boot protocol. (Turns out support for Secure Boot was not introduced until Windows 8.) So I had to disable Secure Boot in the UEFI configuration interface (a graphical display which has completely replaced the old text-only BIOS with which most desktop power users are familiar). That aside, Windows 7 was now setup and ready for use. So it was time to install Linux.
Installing Linux with a bootloader which offers a menu allowing you to choose whether to boot into Linux or Windows has been very easy for what feels like a long time. However, that statement applies to a BIOS system using a Master Boot Record. The Gigabyte Z97X Gaming 3 motherboard comes with UEFI and I was determined to achieve a Windows and Linux dual boot setup using the new UEFI boot mechanism, without resorting to the CSM (Compatibility Support Module, which allows a UEFI system to boot from disks configured with a Master Boot Record).
Turns out Fedora 20 is a waste of time (and I don't mean because of the awful GNOME 3 desktop it uses by default). Its installer kept giving cryptic complaints about no boot device being selected, no matter how many times I pointed it to the drive on which Windows 7 had installed a UEFI boot partition. Eventually it did install, after I allowed it to choose its own partition structure, but the result was that Fedora had simply created a second UEFI boot partition which somehow hid the existing Windows 7 boot partition. So Fedora would boot happily, but attempting to boot Windows would cause an error message about the necessary files not being found in the EFI partition. I spent a couple of hours trying to fix this problem, even trying to copy Windows boot files from the first EFI partition to the second, but it did no good. On top of this major problem, Fedora seemed unable to show me the LUKS volume decryption screen at startup, so I had to type my decryption password into a blank screen each time I booted into Fedora, and hope I wasn't too early for the typing to register. Fedora also had a problem with the Realtek ALC 1150 onboard sound chip, with audio being incredibly quiet, and attempting to get it to an audible level caused serious popping and tearing noises in the audio output.
So Fedora Linux was tossed into the bin for now. My next shot was with Linux Mint 17. Using the Linux Mint installer I deleted all of the partitions that Fedora had created (including the second EFI boot partition) but made sure to leave all of the partitions created by Windows 7 untouched (especially the first EFI partition). With that done, attempting to boot Windows 7 took me to the Startup Recovery feature, and from there I selected a DOS console and typed:
D: was the drive letter the console had assigned to the main Windows system partition) to repair the boot entry for Windows (though I'm not sure whether this repair was actually necessary). After that both Linux Mint and Windows could boot successfully from the bootloader menu. I noticed that Linux Mint 17 had installed its boot record into the existing EFI boot partition, as I had expected. Why Fedora 20 creates a second boot partition and ignores the first, I don't know. However promising things seemed, I found that audio was still broken in Linux Mint 17 and I was disappointed that the installer did not offer me the chance to create a LUKS-encrypted RAID 1 volume (something which Fedora 20 does at least offer).
Hoping to get around these problems I decided to give Kubuntu 14.10 a try. Again it managed to install alongside Windows 7 in the EFI boot partition without causing any problems, but the Kubuntu installer is almost identical to that of Linux Mint and does not offer the creation of a LUKS on RAID volume. The best I could do was to put a tick in the checkbox which said "Encrypt my home directory". But this is a long way from the full disk encryption protected by RAID redundancy which I was hoping to achieve. On the plus side the audio does work, but only if I boot into Linux after powering on the machine. If I reboot the machine after using Windows then the audio in Linux has the strange quiet/crackly problem seen previously.
As is usually the case, Linux showed that it's not great at dealing with new hardware. But, to its credit, all three flavours of Linux immediately worked with the network card without having to install unwanted bloatware. And all three flavours were installed from the latest available image downloaded from their project website, so there was no need to update/install/reboot through nine hours' worth of security patches. I know that installing Linux on UEFI hardware will get easier soon enough. But I doubt very much that Microsoft will improve the design problems in Windows before they pull out of the desktop market in the next few years.
The Fractal Define R4 Black Pearl case has foam-lined panels which do a reasonable job of damping the modest noise coming from the disks and the numerous cooling fans. The CoolerMaster Hyper 212 EVO cooler on the CPU doesn't seem to generate much noise, nor does the Corsair CS Series Modular 650W power supply. And the 120mm case fans are very quiet when run at 5V, slightly noticeable when run at 7V, and clearly audible (though with a fairly inoffensive type of noise) when running at their maximum 12V.
The Palit GeForce GTX 970 graphics card makes a noise which is not loud (at least not when sealed within the Black Pearl case) but which has a slightly irksome whirring quality even at idle, and becomes quite whiney when at maximum output. But I'm fussy about noise and I suspect that most people would barely notice it. (I have known people work with desktop PCs which sound like a high powered vacuum cleaner all day long.)
The machine has plenty of USB ports, including two USB 3.0 ports on the front and another two on the back. I have to say I'm not keen on the position of the power switch and the front ports on the Black Pearl case, as they've been put on the top surface rather than the front surface, and the power switch is nestled right between the audio output jacks (which are poor quality and don't actually appear to have been connected) and the USB 3.0 ports, and connecting and disconnecting things to and from these front ports risks pressing the power button unintentionally.
Audio from the onboard chip is fine (once you can get it working with your operating system). Graphics performance is excellent in current gaming titles. The hybrid hard disks, which use a solid state memory cache to speed up access to files which the disks deem important, can boot Windows very quickly if you boot Windows twice in a row and there have been no updates in between. Boot speed is slower if you flit between Windows and Linux, presumably because the cache stores the boot files for one operating system only for you to then ask for the boot files for the other.
Given the hours spent testing the hardware, reconnecting the fan connector, installing and updating Windows 7, and getting Linux to dual boot with Windows using a UEFI boot partition, it could be argued that I'd have spent barely more time building the whole machine from components myself. But I'm still glad that I saved myself the time that would have been spent waiting for half a dozen deliveries and then assembling the parts into a whole.
I'm still not decided on whether I would recommend PC Specialist. They did a good job of communicating the order status in the pre-delivery phase, and the machine turned up when I expected it to based on their build time estimates. But the suspicion that the case fans were overlooked during their testing of the machine concerns me, and they have so far not replied to an email I sent to them about this.