Custom Built Laptops - Alternatives to buying in UK stores

Getting the best Laptop you can

Browsing around in a big computer store with no intention to buy a laptop (while my gf was away doing…whatever it is that takes women so long to obtain a pair of socks) I was ever so slightly smug to see that give or take, the cheap gaming laptop I bought two years back at PC Specialist is still better than most of the laptops on offer, in terms of both price and performance.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find the Laptop hardware and prices on offer in high street stores to be pretty ridiculous. At the bottom end, they’re ok, you can get cheaper – but not by much. It’s the mid market from about £600 upwards that’s bad. Anybody who dares to sell a laptop with onboard graphics and a price tag of £800 should be had up for fraud! (That’s an opinion by the way).

In the Beginning

I wanted a laptop that was relatively inexpensive, could play games at a modest rate and still have an extra little bit of oomph should I need it. I quickly abandoned the inexpensive bit and set a tag of no higher than £900 (that’s a lotta money to me :-). I trawled through shops both online and off, trying to find something that looked vaguely enticing. Not only did nothing catch my eye but I almost completely despaired of finding a laptop at any price! My absolute-highest-price-no-higher-well-maybe-a-teensie-weensie-bit-more crept up and up, ….£1000… £1100…£1200.

Trouble was they never made an even spread of hardware. They’d pair a 2.6ghz cpu with onboard graphics, or Mega 4gb RAM (!) with Celeron that couldn’t add its way past 10 (not to mention the 32 bit OS that can’t use the full 4gb), and heaven forbid getting a discreet graphics card in anything smaller than a 17” behemoth (without being particularly powerful).

Bespoke machine

with the power of a million butterfly wings
with the power of a million butterfly wings

Windows Shopping

After viewing literally thousands of laptops online and about to surrender and go live in a cave, I happened upon the Dell website. If you’re wondering why in my grand tour of computing why I never made it to Dell before this, the answer is my recollection of them being a bit pricey. This still appeared to be the case but with my slightly increased ceiling, a basic XPS was suddenly, magically, a vague possibility. I read reviews and agonized, before finally getting as far as the payment window before being thwarted by Tiscalli and my lack of internet for 6 hours.

In that 6 hours I came to my senses and realized that although very nice, the XPS (brand new at the time) was a little out of my range with the hardware I’d selected. Then I got my thunderbolt – I’d selected the hardware, custom built my machine – sort of. Some of it was fixed, the graphics card, peripherals, but I’d had an option on a surprising amount of it.

The Specialist

Cue PC specialist! One Google away and I was hooked. I spent hours configuring my machine, my ideal machine, my budget machine, and somewhere in between, my actual laptop. I read reviews of course, more than I’d like said don’t touch with a barge pole, but there were less bad ones as the reviews got more current. I looked around for other companies and while there are others, there aren’t all that many who do laptops, (if you want a custom build desktop, there’s a lot of choice).

I took the plunge and bought one. It arrived in less than two weeks, better than the build time I’d been advised of. It roundly beat any of the laptops available from high street stores, both in price and configuration. It had way more power than I needed at the time. In short, ideal!

Your own custom made machine

The laptop performed and has performed for more than two years without a hitch. I’ve got vista 64 and that’s been fine. I can play all the games I want to (even Crysis), most of them at top quality. I didn’t pay as much as I was willing to. I still get to laugh and be superior when viewing high street shop laptops.

Is there anything wrong with it? Yes. The most noticeable thing is the frame. The laptop is a generic compal IFL90 frame and it’s very plasticy and feels quite frail. On the other hand, I’m not a light typist and I tend to be quite careless with my laptop and it hasn’t broken yet. It seems at the moment, a purely cosmetic problem, because the hardware inside is top notch.

The only other thing is the heat issue. I selected fairly high (for the time) level hardware and this creates quite a bit of heat. It has switched off once or twice from heat although it could also have something to do with the quarter kettle-full of boiling water I managed to tip over it. (I dried it out and it’s been fine so far – three months and counting!).

The Contenders

Are there any others? Yes there are. I didn’t buy from them so I have no idea what they’re like.

  • The closest to PC Specialist seems to be Rizeon. They sell similar level hardware at similar prices. At the time I bought mine, the price in PC Specialist was fractionally better. Add Dec '10 - Unfortunately Rizeon are no longer trading.
  • Dell: a bit on the expensive side (although you can often get vouchers, I know somebody who managed to get about £300 off all told). Sometimes less option available on customising, though has the benefit of being a highly recognised brand.
  • Finally the daddy of all custom build computers – Alienware. If you have the dough (lots of it!) I’d go there. They pretty much do the best computer hardware available in custom gaming rigs and if you go for the whole shebang, you can probably get more than £3000 worth of hardware without batting an eye. Dual graphics cards in a 15.4” laptop? they do it.
  • There are undoubtedly others (I would be interested if anybody knows of any other UK laptop specialists), but those were the four I looked at.

Cost

At the time I bought, the custom build was only worth it from about £700 upward. That level of price was where you got much better hardware for a much better price, not to mention the hardware you want. Nowadays, Both PC Specialist and Rizeon seem to cover a whole range from about £400 to £1600 for hardware. You’re still stuck with little or no choice of graphics cards once you select a machine but there’s a range of different lines which you can then customise. If you're looking to play games get a discreet graphics card (i.e. not onboard graphics). There’s a fairly wide range of CPUs, hard drives, RAM etc to select from as well. If you want a good machine but don't want to customise it yourself, Novatech seem to do excellent specs at reasonable prices!

Final Analysis

If you want some advice, don’t go bananas, there’s no point in getting a super gaming rig if all you do is check your emails on it, assess what you’re going to use it for! You can check almost all graphics cards and how good they'll be against others on this site: http://www.notebookcheck.net.

It really is very good, no bs and easy to understand. Learn a little of the tech spec, fsb’s and gb and ghz are really not that hard to learn a tiny bit about, it’ll help no end! Invest in a laptop stand as well, it’ll make the machine run better when it’s on and maybe keep it from breaking down sooner. Finally, remember, the higher the level of hardware, the shorter your battery life will be.

(Small disclaimer, I’m not particularly recommending anyone of the mentioned sites, merely listing the ones I know about. Buy from anywhere you want at whatever price you want!)

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