Budget Gaming Desktop: WarFactory Sentinel

I often feel like the number one most underserved market in pre-built desktop machines may very well be the budget gamer. If there were ever a market that needed "that friend who builds computers," this is almost always it. Mainstream vendors like Dell, HP, and Acer are notorious for skimping on graphics hardware even in their high end desktop machines, to say nothing of anything south of a large. Meanwhile, boutiques find their margins increasingly strapped when producing less expensive desktops. A fast video card is always the easiest thing to cut (though you can certainly add one later). I liked WarFactory's Sentinel because I like configurations that feel balanced, that address a target market fairly surgically and maximize the price and performance without waste.

While games like Skyrim and StarCraft II are going to be heavily CPU bound, WarFactory's decision to go with an AMD Phenom II X4 for the Sentinel remains a smart one. AMD's aging Deneb core may lag well behind Sandy Bridge in terms of clock-for-clock performance, but the extra two physical cores do help make up the difference in an era where games are increasingly taking advantage of quad-core architectures.

Component choices are smart all around; if the Puget Systems Deluge A2 was the desktop I'd order for myself if I wasn't a builder, the WarFactory Sentinel is the desktop I'd be most apt to build for someone else. I'm not a fan of the high $1,200 price for the recommended configuration (clearly not exactly budget), but a couple of tweaks to the configuration will net you a far more reasonable system.

Recommended Configuration: Reduce storage to a single 500GB Western Digital Caviar Black and reduce GPU to an AMD Radeon HD 5770.
Available from WarFactory starting at $755


LAN Machine: AVADirect Mini Custom

As far as miniature monsters go, I haven't personally dealt with a single boutique as willing to experiment with shrinking powerful hardware as AVADirect has been. To date I've played with Micro-ATX builds from both CyberPowerPC and DigitalStorm, but AVADirect is the only one I've seen go straight up Mini-ITX. Making a tiny gaming machine isn't as cut and dry as some of these bigger rigs are, but the two I've tested have both been interesting and impressive in their own right.

When you get this small, engineering starts to matter a lot more. These are circumstances where I have a harder time recommending a specific configuration; AVADirect is crazy enough to cram two AMD Radeon HD 6990s in a tiny Micro-ATX case, so they're obviously going to be able to handle whatever you ask of them.

This is a situation where I'd actually advise talking directly with their customer service about tailoring a system, something they really excell at in my personal experience. You're going to be playing a balancing act between heat, noise, heft, power consumption, and performance, and what I might personally prefer may not be suitable for you. I can't stand a computer that generates a ton of noise, but if you're going to be at a LAN and wearing headphones, that may be less of a factor for you. Either way, AVADirect is definitely the place to go for custom built LAN machines.

Talk to an AVADirect representative about tailoring a LAN machine.

Midrange and High End Desktops Conclusions
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  • ckryan - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    Concerning the opening disclaimer, often times it's just a better idea to recommend a pre-build system for friends and family (especially lower-end systems for your less technically-inclined family members). And when geography gets in the way, that goes double.

    Fact is, when you add in the Windows license, it's sometimes hard to actually build lower-end systems cheaper. Even if price weren't a factor, building and shipping systems and then supporting them for your distant family members is just not worth the trouble. I learned that lesson the hard way recently, as even the most ridiculously simple problems quickly spiral out of hand. True, a budget system might have a much more generous warranty on each part than the manufacturer's paltry P&L offering, but try explaining that to your lil' sister 450 miles away when her system that you built her just died.

    Obviously, if you're building something more than a dual-core and IGP system you may wish to consider your options. But I for one have come back around to the idea of buying pre-built systems for family and friends as the situation arises. I outfitted a family member with a slimline HP Llano system (the system I built for her died from a motherboard failure -- which is now my fault apparently) so I wouldn't have to FedEx a system back and forth.

    When the HP dies, she can take it up with them.

    Totally worth it.
  • Eugene86 - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    Yep, did the same thing a few times now except that I ordered a Dell for them. As much as I love building systems, it's not worth the hassle if something goes wrong because it's automatically YOUR fault...
  • Grandpa - Thursday, December 1, 2011 - link

    Exactly! I always recommend a few and suggest they check the reviews. Been burned by the "it's your fault" too many times. I won't even try to help people any more. Most of the time they don't listen to good advise either.
  • jamyryals - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    I too learned this lesson the hard way.

    It's a lot of fun to do the research, comparison shopping to get the most for your money, and ultimately end up building a machine. However, the support expectations placed on you when something goes wrong is extremely taxing on both your time and the personal relationship.

    The business environment dictates components are not over-engineered and are not designed to last for 5+ years. They are designed for a price point with as many features and reliability they can attain at that price. Something will likely fail. If it does not, then you are an outlying data point.

    TL;DR - Always recommend other people buy from a system vendor. If you can convince them to get a warranty.
  • freezervv - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    "Fact is, when you add in the Windows license, it's sometimes hard to actually build lower-end systems cheaper."

    You probably aren't getting your Windows licenses in the right way for home use, then. ;)

  • mrseanpaul81 - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    I always learn something new on here... I mean I heard about technet but never bothered to find out how it really works. I am about to sign up for the subscription right now, ITS AWESOME!!! (I was thinking about building a rig for the living room flatscreen tv... so something with a small form factor but maybe a discrete graphics card too. The cost of hardware + windows license made it like above my budget. But with technet, it is definitely possible)
  • puttersonsale - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    wait a sec....im sorta confused after looking at this. This is just a subscription to evaluate and test so you can deploy with more ease. For 200 bucks a year i could see why some people would need it but for home use?

    Am i missing on something here? sorry for being little slow but i sorta wanna know so maybe i'll subscribe if i need it....I actually own small business and we may need this....Might help me save on work...seems like i am always fixing someone's computer.

    Worse thing is even after training people....they have to listen to best practices or else its all for naught.
  • meorah - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    You're not missing anything.

    Technet subscriptions aren't intended to be used as permanent licenses and are only legally valid for that 1 year (after that you are supposed to uninstall the software and reinstall new software if you renew your subscription). That being said, the software doesn't self-destruct after a year, all your updates continue to work properly, and your software capabilities never really expire... you're just running software that used to be legal and isn't anymore.

    If you own a small business its worth getting the professional subscription just for the 2 free support calls.

    Really the intended purpose is self-paced training on the majority of products that MS makes for back-office and data-center IT workers, so you can evaluate a beta product or a server platform without having to worry about it self-destructing after a 30 or 60 day trial *cough* VMWare *cough*.

    Its a great deal if you always have to keep up with the latest software and do lots of compatibility testing for new versions of products you rent under their volume licensing with SA.

    The CE credits are kinda nice, too.
  • vanadiel - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    Just a couple of things I wish to clear up concerning Technet subscriptions.

    "Only one user may install the software on your devices and use the software only to evaluate it, even if you obtained a server license. You may not use the software in a live operating environment, in a staging environment, or with data that has not been backed up. You may not use the evaluation software for software development or in an application development environment."

    So you will be breaking the license agreement if you use it in a business environment, or a live operating environment, or if you use it for training purposes for IT workers.
    If you want to use it for that purpose you have to upgrade to an MSDN subcriptions, or volume licensing.
  • Penti - Thursday, December 1, 2011 - link

    It's not intended or licensed for production. It is that simple. It's pretty much like all the other MSDN subscriptions. Except that your allowed to use MSDN software to say test your apps on as a developer. A real MSDN subscription is probably what most needs. http://goo.gl/gaVJE

    This pretty much regards to both though.
    "Software is licensed for evaluation purposes only-not for use in production environments. TechNet Subscriptions include the most recent Microsoft software version. Visit Microsoft Software License Terms for details on your use rights for evaluation software and other components of the TechNet Subscription product."

    Your pretty much paying Microsoft to be a betatester that can't use the software in production.

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