A decade ago, boutique PC builders weren't much of a bargain. They offered good-looking boxes with clear panels and case lights, along with some performance gains -- a modicum of overclocking, better speakers and higher video resolutions -- all at prices that were well above what their mainstream counterparts charged.
They were an alternative to the cookie-cutter models that others sold, providing components that were not necessarily on anyone else's shelves. However, most of the boutique PCs I tested at the time didn't offer enough performance differences to merit their stratospheric costs.
Today, though, boutique PC builders offer a wider selection of performance enhancements and, as a result, can provide their customers with a truly custom PC. Not only are processor speeds and core counts greater than ever before, but overclocking has become an art form -- with simple water-cooling options available to keep processor temperatures down. In addition, memory has faster response times, graphics cards can deal with more pixels more quickly, and even storage is faster thanks to SATA 6 and SSDs.
It may seem odd that these boutique builders are able to survive in light of the bad economy and the sky-high prices of the PCs they build. The trick is diversification. Most sell their products globally as well as maintaining off-the-shelf preconfigured systems just as mainstream builders do.