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AVADirect Custom Gaming PC review: AVADirect Custom Gaming PC

AVADirect Custom Gaming PC

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home | Windows PCs | Cooking (sometimes) | Woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
10 min read

A dirty secret of gaming PC reviews is that vendors frequently try to submit systems with aggressive overclocking that they won't actually sell because of poor reliability, but that will last long enough to score well on our benchmarks. Imagine our skepticism when this $2,900 AVADirect Custom Gaming PC showed up with a 2.66GHz Intel Core i7 920 chip overclocked to 3.88GHz, a roughly 50 percent boost. After hammering this system with our benchmarks as well as an added demanding stress test, we came away impressed. We don't suspect every system from AVADirect with a Core i7 920 chip will hit this clock setting, but we're confident that if you do order a system with these specifications from AVADirect, you'll get a fast, expertly built gaming PC for a great price.

8.4

AVADirect Custom Gaming PC

The Good

Ambitious, stable overclocking leads to outstanding application performance; polished cabling; a lot of customization options for tech-savvy buyers to choose from; lengthy three-year product warranty.

The Bad

Online shopping engine doesn't prevent configuration errors; current phone and Web support options lag behind the competition.

The Bottom Line

The AVADirect shopping experience can be daunting, but for the tech-savvy buyer willing to navigate the many options available for this system, you'll find that AVADirect's Custom Gaming PC is competently built, with options for blazing fast overclocking, all at an attractive price.

Design
Unlike its precertified configurations, AVADirect offers a multitude of options, including a motherboard and case, for its Intel X58 chipset-based Custom Gaming PC. Ours came with an Asus P6T Deluxe motherboard and a ThermalTake Element S chassis, but with roughly 100 case options, 14 different motherboards, and a vast catalog of memory, graphics cards, and other hardware options, the look, price, and performance of your AVADirect Custom Gaming PC can vary greatly.

While many tech-savvy shoppers will appreciate the degree of customization available, that freedom also comes with a degree of uncertainty. We're skeptical that AVADirect has truly mastered the technical ins-and-outs of every hardware combination it offers. We also wish its custom system shopping engine would prevent you from placing a physically impossible order (like both a CPU fan and a liquid cooler). According to AVADirect, it ensures its systems are stable before they ship out to customers, and that it will follow up on the phone with customers who make mistakes in their online orders. It also has what it calls its "Certified" systems that offer a more restricted option path, and thus less room for error. In general, and this applies to any vendor offering so many hardware options, we recommend these kinds of systems only to those with a certain degree of technical competence.

Features
But that's not to say that AVADirect doesn't know what it's doing. The cabling, overclocking, and cooling of this system were all expertly done, on par with the build quality of the likes of Falcon Northwest, Maingear, and Velocity Micro. The ThermalTake Element S case is attractive and straightforward enough. The top-mounted USB, eSATA, and audio ports are an easy-to-reach convenient touch; you'll find a Blu-ray, DVD burner, and media card drives behind the front-panel door. We don't find Blu-ray a necessity in a full-tower PC, but it also doesn't hurt. If you're not interested in Blu-ray you can always opt out, and save yourself about $235.

Inside the case you're met by a blue LED screen tied into the CoolIT DM-1000 Domino liquid-cooling hardware that displays the CPU temperature and the system fan speed. Despite this extra component, the interior of the Custom Gaming PC is easy to navigate. All of the cables are bound and secured out of the way for easy parts swapping, including the hard-drive cables, which are situated behind the drives, rather than in front. The drive cable inputs aren't anchored to a surface of any kind, so drive removal and reinsertion isn't totally seamless, but we appreciate both the visual appeal and the relative ease of removing a drive with the cables routed behind it.

  AVADirect Custom Gaming PC Velocity Micro Edge Z55
Price $2,900 $2,499
Motherboard chipset Intel X58 Intel X58
CPU 3.88GHz Intel Core i7-920 (overclocked) 3.0GHz Intel Core i7-920 (overclocked)
Memory 6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM (underclocked to 1,480MHz) 6GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 295 (overclocked) (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4870
Hard drives 1.5TB 10,000rpm Seagate hard drive, 147GB 15,000rpm Fujitsu hard drive 750GB, 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive
Optical drive Blu-ray drive, dual-layer DVD burner dual-layer DVD burner
Operating system Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit

AVADirect offers a fairly good deal for this Custom Gaming PC. Compared with a Velocity Micro system from a few months ago, AVADirect has more than twice as much hard-drive space, including a fast 15,000rpm Fujitsu drive (the first we've seen at that speed), as well as the Blu-ray drive and liquid-cooling hardware. We find those features worth the additional $400 or so, especially because the liquid cooling enables the aggressive overclocking to the Intel Core i7 920 CPU.

Performance
By all accounts the 2.66GHz Core i7 920 is a particularly overclockable CPU. We've seen systems come in at 3GHz and 3.2GHz, but AVADirect has shattered the record by amping the chip up to 3.88GHz. This setting was a red flag for us and it prompted more scrutiny that we traditionally apply to overclocked systems. To test the system, we laid hands on a copy of a program called Prime95, which enthusiasts and system builders use to stress test their PCs. Prime95 essentially pushes all eight processing threads on the Core i7 with a maximum workload for as long as you care to let it run. If the system is unstable, you'll see an error message, or it might crash altogether.

We let Prime95 run on this system for roughly 16 hours with no errors or crashes. That's impressive considering another Core i7 920-based PC we had in the lab, clocked to a more modest 3.8GHz, failed the test after a few minutes (which the vendor plausibly attributed to wear-and-tear given that we were that system's third review stop). We also saw all four cores running between 79 and 80 degrees Celsius, within acceptable margins (105 degrees C is when a system will shut down automatically). That suggests that not only is this system stable, but also that the overclocking isn't subjecting the CPU to an irresponsible degree of thermal stress.

AVADirect charges an extra $100 for overclocking between 20 percent and 50 percent beyond a chip's stock clock speed, and when you select that option on its Web site the drop-down message wisely acknowledges that the top speed will vary depending on the quality of the individual chip. The performance results below won't be repeatable for every AVADirect Custom Gaming PC that matches our unique review configuration, but we're comfortable saying that for the chips that can achieve such a high overclock setting, AVADirect knows how to make them stable.

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
90 

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
60 

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
310 

Cinebench
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering Multiple CPUs  
Rendering Single CPU  
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
22,315 
5,481 
Velocity Micro Edge Z55
17,055 
4,265 
Maingear X-Cube
14,791 
3,969 

As you might expect, AVADirect's large clock-speed advantage pushes this system ahead of its peers on every application test. If that result is unsurprising, it's still impressive. We'd expect that anyone who purchased this system for productivity would benefit from its speedy performance. Digital media editors in particular should take notice.

Unreal Tournament 3 (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,200  
1,280x1,024  
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
283 
456 
Maingear X-Cube
237 
267 

Crysis (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600x1,200 (high, 4x aa)  
1,280x1,024 (medium, 4x aa)  
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
62 
83 
Maingear X-Cube
40 
44 

Far Cry (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,200 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
1,440x900 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
98 
113 
Maingear X-Cube
69 
77 

The gaming scores are less of a sweep, but they are still impressive. CPU speed can only get you so much game performance, and even the overclocked GeForce GTX 295 3D card in the AVADirect system can't overtake the Falcon Northwest FragBox 2 and its pair of GeForce GTX 285 cards on our Far Cry 2 benchmark. Granted, the FragBox 2 costs about $350 more than the AVADirect, and the Falcon system also falls behind on every other performance test. On the other hand, you can also purchase an identical config to the FragBox 2 for less in an X-Cube from Maingear that would presumably also outpace the AVADirect on Far Cry 2. Regardless, our takeway from the AVADirect's gaming performance scores are that its scores are where they should be given its hardware and its price, and if its 3D performance isn't as dominant as its application scores, this system will play anything you care to throw at it smoothly, and with high-detail image quality at high resolutions.

Should you want more performance from the AVADirect Custom Gaming PC, you have room to add a second graphics card and more memory. The system's Intel X58 chipset will support both SLI and Crossfire multi-3D card configurations, with two extra PCI Express graphics card slots (at reduced bandwidth if you opt for three 3D cards) as well as the 1,200-watt power supply to give you the flexibility and the power consumption headroom to upgrade the 3D configuration at will. You also get six total memory slots in this system, with three currently unoccupied. The hard-drive cage also has room for two more drives.

The ports on the motherboard also provide all of the inputs and outputs we expect in a modern PC. You get eight USB 2.0 inputs, FireWire, and eSATA for various peripheral device and external storage formats, as well as the traditional digital and analog audio outputs. There's no Wi-Fi networking on this system, although it is available as an option. Similar to Blu-ray and the HDMI port on the graphics card, wireless networking is convenient, but we don't find it a necessity on a full-tower system.

Service and support
If you search for AVADirect on Google, chances are you'll come up with a history of vocal online commenters complaining about its customer service, and accusing AVADirect of gaming the comments at ResellerRatings.com, earning it a favorable score. We can't corroborate much of what's been written about AVADirect online (and some of it is the usual Internet conspiracy theory nonsense), but we did find this thread from the ResellerRatings forum interesting.

If you read through it, you'll find that the staff and forum administrator of ResellerRatings make a well-sourced, well-reasoned argument that AVADirect is perhaps not as bad as the online community suggests. On the second page of that thread, the forum moderator "nomaxim" also points out that while AVADirect's customer service is generally well regarded, according to the ResellerRatings scores, there does seem to be a legitimate trend of dissatisfaction with AVADirect's return policies. If AVADirect is manipulating the comments on ResellerRatings, it apparently has an unfavorable opinion of its product return department.

We're sure every vendor has its customer service horror stories. In fact, according to a recent Forrester Research report, the entire PC industry falls behind such customer service darlings as airlines and credit card companies in overall customer experience ratings. This doesn't mean that AVADirect should feel free to treat customers poorly (we're also not suggesting that it necessarily does), nor does it mean that no PC vendors provide consistently exceptional customer service. But the Forrester report does suggest that, in general, customers don't love the way they're treated by the PC industry. If AVADirect has room to improve some aspects of its customer service experience, it's certainly not alone.

We should also point out that from a review standpoint, customer service is notoriously hard to quantify. We don't normally rate phone-based interaction with a vendor because of too much variation in potential problems and the person on the other end. And short of purchasing systems and following through with the return process (for which we lack both the time and the budget), we can't reliably account for a vendor's return policy claims. We do know that 100 percent refunds, including shipping, are rare from any vendor.

Within the level, if slightly rundown, service and support playing field of the PC industry, we find AVADirect's on-paper policies both better and worse than those of its competitors. The most compelling component is a three-year parts-and-labor warranty that comes standard with the product. Most PC vendors provide only one year of coverage up front. AVADirect also tells us that 24-7 phone service and onsite support are in the works, but for now you'll have to rely on either its spare Web site or the limited phone service hours, which run from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT on weekdays.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
AVADirect Custom Gaming PC
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.88GHz Intel Core i7-920 (overclocked); 6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM (underclocked to 1,480MHz); 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 295 (overclocked); 1.5TB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive; 147GB 15,000rpm Fujistu hard drive

Falcon Northwest FragBox 2 (Intel Core i7 920
Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit; 3.2GHz Intel Core i7 (overclocked); 6GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 285 graphics cards; 1.5TB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive

Maingear X-Cube
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit; 3.7GHz (overclocked) AMD Phenom II X4 940; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 1GB ATI Radeon HD 4870X2 graphics card; 1GB Radeon HD 4870 graphics card; (2) 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drives

Velocity Micro Edge Z55
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 3.0GHz Intel Core i7-920 (overclocked); 6GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 4870 graphics cards; 750GB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive

8.4

AVADirect Custom Gaming PC

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9Support 6