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It is a market that is shifting from cool looks to hot performance as users spend more of their money on the latest processors and graphics cards, less of it on bells and whistles, and next to nothing on new operating systems.
That shift comes in response to games that require increasing performance, forcing gaming PC builders to expand their skills to meet demand.
For example, some of the top gamers are pilots playing Microsoft Flight Simulator, said Glen Coffield, president of Cheap Guys Computers, a Longwood, Fla.-based custom system builder.
"With the last version, we couldn't build a system to run it full-bore," Coffield said. "These guys have multiple 42-inch screens, cockpit chairs and multiple computers to do the scenery rendering. They spend tens of thousands of dollars on it."
While not all gamers need, or at least can't afford, such an expensive setup, they tend to spend top dollar on their systems compared to other users.
The customers who spend the most are men in their 30s and 40s who typically spend over $2,000 for a system, Coffield said. And they are not averse to spending more as needed. "Games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest need performance," he explained. "When expansion packs come out, it drives the need for new video cards."
New games push customers to upgrade, said Marty Haske, co-owner of AddictPC, a Vancouver, Wash.-based custom gaming system builder. "But it's hard to predict when," he said. "It's when they buy the game, or get a demo or a beta, and see they can't run it."
That need for extra edge means that gamers are not loyal to particular brands, but instead seek performance.
For processors, loyalty is currently with Intel's quad-core family, with most of Advanced Micro Devices' gaming customers tending to be more cost-conscious, system builders said. But that may change as AMD's new Phenom multicore processors become available late this year.
Intel today is the ultimate choice for gamers, while AMD keeps customers who are already in its community, said Darren Su, vice president of iBuypower, a Monterey Park, Calif.-based custom system builder.
"AMD still has the cost advantage, but they've had nothing new since their dual-core processors of 18 months ago. Hopefully, that will change in December with the Phenom."
Sometime during the fourth quarter, AMD will release its quad-core and triple-core Phenom processors, said Ian McNaughton, AMD's senior product manager for graphics products.
Which models gamers will use depends on the game, McNaughton said. "When you look at the Xbox 360, you see a three-core architecture," he said. "Games are designed for three cores. ISVs look at that, and then when they port games to the PC, it becomes a three-thread game. We will be taking advantage of that ... with the Phenom."