Maingear Prelude 64
The old saying goes, if one is good, then two must be better. Maingear's Prelude 64 makes a strong case for choosing two midrange graphics cards over one high-end card if you're after Doom 3 performance. However, more games use a 3D engine similar to Half-Life 2's, and the Prelude 64's poor scores on that test, combined with its relatively slow processor, lead us to believe that Maingear should have given more thought to this $1,999 configuration. Still, with prices ranging from $1,000 to over $7,000, the Prelude 64 is eminently configurable. We also can't complain about the construction; of the four systems in our sub-$2,000 gaming-PC roundup, the Prelude offers the quietest operation. That care, combined with the sturdy, expandable case, suggests that if you know what you're looking for in a PC, Maingear will provide you with an expertly built computer. We just would have made a few different choices in assembling a $1,999 Prelude 64.
The epitome of heavy-duty, the understated silver Lian-Li PC-6070 metal tower seems rugged enough to withstand a grenade blast. Its front door closes to create a seamless-looking exterior, though we wish it didn't cover the power button along with everything else. You can still access the system's pair of front USB 2.0 ports with the door closed, but they're at the very bottom of the tower--an inconvenient locale if the tower resides on the floor. Also inconvenient: the Prelude 64 lacks front-panel headphone and microphone jacks--a staple on most modern PCs. If you plan on using a headset while gaming, you'll have to reach around back.
Inside, the Prelude 64 looks clean and spacious. It has more drive bays and PCI slots than most users will ever fill, and just about everything is held in place with thumbscrews, making for easy access to items such as the hard drive cage. One gripe: a big frame-mounted fan blocks access to the expansion slots; you'll have to remove it if you want to add a card. Thankfully, the aforementioned thumbscrews simplify its removal and replacement. We're also thankful that this big tower, with its many fans, is relatively quiet. Other vendors in our sub-$2,000 gaming-PC story seemed willing to sacrifice acoustics in favor of features and performance.
Maingear outfitted our Prelude 64 review unit with an AMD Athlon 64 3200+ processor, 1GB of dual-channel PC3200 SDRAM, a Plextor double-layer DVD burner, and a pair of 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 GS graphics cards in an SLI configuration. However, we point to the success of the Velocity Micro Gamer's Edge DualX and the Alienware Aurora 3500 systems with their single cards (roughly $10 less from Maingear than the pair of 6800 GS cards) The Prelude 64's 66.9 frames per second on our 1,600x1,200-resolution Half-Life 2 test are certainly playable, so it's not like this configuration is any slouch. We should add that its Doom 3 performance is outstanding, and the fastest in this roundup. However, since Doom 3 uses an uncommon graphics-programming standard, it doesn't provide a representative example of the system's overall 3D-gaming capabilities. If you're hoping to play more demanding games, such as F.E.A.R. and others, you may need to tweak the configuration for more 3D and processing power.
And if you're looking for parts to cut, we might suggest that you begin with one of the Prelude 64's two 250GB hard drives. They're set up in a RAID 0 configuration, and it's certainly handy to have 500GB of storage space. Most sub-$2,000 PCs include just one drive, which is usually 200GB or smaller. But since gamers care more about performance than storage, Maingear's decision to include two large hard drives surprised us. As outfitted, the Prelude 64 is better suited to serve as a high-end home PC.
The no-frills, 17-inch BenQ FP71G LCD lacks a DVI input, but it delivers an impeccable 8ms response time--crucial for smooth, streak-free images in games and movies. And despite the analog-only connection, we found the picture extremely sharp--much better than those we've seen from other analog LCDs.