Review: Serenity Gaming PC

system.serenity.jpgPuget Systems makes old-school boutique tower PCs for gamers. The last time I looked at one, it brought performance, heft, multiple video cards, and coolant tubing packed into a giant enclosure. It also came with something else: noise. Wired puts it so: performs like a Ferrari, sounds like a Mack Truck. Its latest, the Serenity gaming PC, fixes it for who hate the hum. On the outside, it's a classy, if nondescript Antec case. Inside, however, it's calmed with acoustic foam panels, dampered screws and other vibration-reducing handiwork. And while Puget's online configurator lets you change most components, it defaults to selections tested for quiet operation. The result is a pleasing murmur, if not complete silence -- the optical drive spinning up is by far the loudest thing in it.
But silence doesn't come cheap. Starting at $1,682, it's about $400-$500 more expensive than a standard, similarly-specced desktop from Dell or HP. And while buying boutique means you get better customer care (including a logbook of system construction, burn-in tests, gaming becnhmnarks, and even Robocop-vision thermographs of the completed system under load) it's also true that configuring the same stuff into Puget's own standard gaming PC configurator results in a similar discount, albeit on an AMD platform instead of Intel Quad Core. Tested at the base Serenity Gaming configuration, it has an i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and an XFX Radeon HD 5770 video card with 1GB RAM. A fanless video card option is available, but those defaults are already as modest as most gamers will likely want to settle for. Heading in the other direction, a faster CPU or more RAM shouldn't result in more system noise, but moving to a top-shelf video card will. It performs well enough, and has a nice clean Windows 7 installation, but the real plus to buying from a boutique retailer is getting a reliable custom machine without having to put the damned thing together yourself. Noise reduction is as much a time sink as squeezing an extra FPS or two from marginal hardware ever was, but with the added irritation of it always being hands-on process involving pads, washers, glues, icky thermal pastes, heatsinks, incantations... Envisage the woe-pregnant nightmare of building your own computer, but where labor's diminishing returns lie not in easily-diagnosable config issues but in inexplicable vibrations and weird noises emanating from nowhere in particular. Finding that last whining component is like when you have a dying battery in a smoke alarm, but there are eight smoke alarms inside a box and each one must be individually unscrewed before you can figure out which is making the infernal squeak, and ... you get the idea. So you get the point of the Serenity PC, for those who care about these things. The pros being clear, the cons for Serenity are its price, its heavy case, and (for those of you who still buy games on disc and don't NOCD) the whirry default optical drive. Get it if you want quiet, custom, upgradeable gaming without the hassle, but not if budget performance--or preserving desktop space--is your real priority. Here's an account of buying from Puget from a paying customer. Serenity Gaming PC [Puget]