NZXT uses Apple’s playbook to reinvent PC design

Desktop computers made by a small California company demonstrate that it’s possible to build a Windows computer that works well and isn’t an eyesore

January 29, 2022, 3:30 p.m.

Last modification: January 29, 2022, 3:30 p.m.

NZXT challenges the idea that Windows-based desktops can’t look as good as Macs. Photo: Bloomberg

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NZXT challenges the idea that Windows-based desktops can’t look as good as Macs. Photo: Bloomberg

Upon returning to Apple Inc. in the 1990s, Steve Jobs launched what would become one of the most legendary corporate turnarounds in history. The key to the comeback was refocusing the iconic tech company on its original DNA: combining beautifully designed, high-quality products with a streamlined, user-friendly customer experience. While Mac users have benefited from Apple’s return to form, the roughly 9 in 10 computer users who rely on Windows machines have generally not.

But at least one company is challenging the idea that consumers who want an affordable Windows PC have to settle for clunky design and suboptimal performance. NZXT, based in Southern California, started as a small manufacturer of hardware components and accessories and has been manufacturing full-featured desktop computers for only about four years. In an industry where giants like HP Inc. and Lenovo produce more than 70 million computers a year, NZXT is a very small player. Yet the brand’s growing popularity among gamers, designers, engineers, and others who tend to have strong opinions about technology suggests that the computing market isn’t inevitably locked into two extremes, Apple or an interchangeable range of bland Windows machines.

Founder and CEO Johnny Hou started NZXT in 2004 to sell a colorful robot-themed computer case he designed when he was an engineering student at the University of California, Irvine. In an interview earlier this month, the entrepreneur explained how the company brought together his lifelong passions for gaming, design, and technology.

Desktop computers are popular with gamers because they can run with the most powerful chips, producing the best image quality. But Hou also noticed that the community cared about how their computers looked from the outside, which for PCs usually meant a beige or black plastic casing. Starting the business with his own funds and money borrowed from his parents, NZXT created a thriving business selling sleek glass and metal computer cases. The company then added components, including cooling machines and power supplies.

Yet NZXT’s big business evolution didn’t come until 2017, when Hou decided to test the market’s appetite for full-featured desktop systems that broke the mold of bulky, mass-market PCs.

Dominated by a handful of companies, the PC industry has long outfitted consumer machines with cheap power supplies, bland cases, and substandard chip coolers that often overheat. Another downside is “bloatware”, unnecessary software that comes pre-installed and can slow down processing speed. While Dell Technologies Inc. and HP have bought high-performance gaming PC makers in the past, the acquired operations — including Alienware and VoodooPC — have stagnated under their parents.

Like Apple, NZXT focuses on customer experience. Its PCs are sold exclusively through the company’s website. Apart from a monitoring application to adjust the color settings of its coolers, NZXT does not install any additional software. Instead of showing shoppers a list of confusing tech specs, the website asks gaming-focused customers simple questions about what games they want to play in a certain price range before recommending a system configuration. Most importantly, every PC comes with NZXT’s high-quality cases and cooling systems.

It is unclear whether the NZXT model is financially viable. The company declined to say whether it was profitable or release details of its revenue or sales. It announced its first large-scale capital injection last month, raising $100 million from private equity firm Francisco Partners and several tech entrepreneurs, including the co-founders of Twitch and Fitbit. Hou said the funds were needed “to grow into a billion-dollar-plus business and scale up.”

NZXT now has 450 employees, having doubled in size in the last 18 months. By comparison, PC giant HP has around 50,000 employees.

Curious about alternatives to consumer PCs, I bought an NZXT machine last month. NZXT allows for more customization than systems with similar specs from HP or Dell, a feature I’ve appreciated as a gamer and PC enthusiast who wants the most reliable components. The machine I eventually purchased cost $2,434, hundreds to thousands of dollars less than those offered by other PC manufacturers such as Falcon Northwest or Corsair. The NZXT desktop is quiet and fast. Design enthusiasts will appreciate the neat cable management design.

NZXT has built a passionate fanbase. Whether it can make money while making high-end machines and keeping prices affordable remains to be seen. It’s possible that, as with other niche manufacturers, its success makes it an attractive acquisition target. But for now, NZXT’s arrival in a market that for years has left consumers with mostly unappealing choices shows that mediocrity isn’t inevitable.

Tae Kim/Columnist. Illustration: TBS

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Tae Kim/Columnist.  Illustration: TBS

Tae Kim/Columnist. Illustration: TBS

Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

Warning: This article first appeared on Bloomberg and is published by special syndication agreement.

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