Hot rod PCs: Chic and unique

SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - When a decent PC from a reputable company costs just US$550, why should anyone be willing to spend ten times that for a desktop computer? For the same reasons that some people buy a Lamborghini instead of a Corolla: power, performance, and prestige.

Recent launches by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp. of ultra-high-end processors--along with forays by Dell Inc., Gateway Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co. into expensive performance PCs--illustrate a trend that specialty PC vendors such as Alienware Corp., Falcon Northwest Computer Systems Inc., and Voodoo Computers Ltd. have cashed in on for some time: Offer a product that's unique and fast--and maybe even cool-looking--and some people will pay top dollar for it. "There is a class of users out here that wants the best our industry has to offer," says Mark Vena, director of marketing for Dell's Dimension Desktop Transactional Products Group. "We have legitimized the category."

Serious money buys technologies you simply won't find in the average PC. Voodoo's new Fury F1 desktop, for example, uses a proprietary liquid-chilling system to keep its AMD Athlon 64 FX-51 CPU and its NVidia Corp. GeForce 5950 Ultra graphics card supercool, allowing the vendor to overclock each for top performance. The price premium over what you would pay for a plain air-cooled Fury system is $500. Average wait time for a Voodoo system: 30 days. Average price: $5800.

Big money also buys the "oooooh" factor--the reaction your rig elicits when your buddies come over to see it. Falcon Northwest's custom chassis paint jobs alone run from $400 for a standard car-type color to $700 for a hand-painted flag case, complete with 19 layers of detail.

But the beauty of these custom machines isn't just skin deep. They're typically outfitted with the latest, most powerful processors and plenty of fast memory. Our first three Athlon 64 FX-51 systems--averaging a record-setting 142 on PC WorldBench 4--were produced by Alienware Corp., Falcon Northwest, and Voodoo.

The small but influential group of enthusiasts who buy exotic PCs know technology and are willing to pay to stay on the cutting edge, says Roger Kay, director of client computing at IDC. Typically they are gamers, but other PC buyers often look to these early adopters for advice, which gives them considerable industry clout. "It's in this gaming PC market that some of the mainstream trends for tomorrow are forged," Kay says.

Falcon Northwest president and founder Kelt Reeves concurs, noting that avid gamers helped bring PCs with RAID hard-drive configurations into the mainstream. Next up: 64-bit computing. "Our enthusiast audience loves this sort of stuff," Reeves says.

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