Gamers Get Going!

To meet rising demand, gaming PC builders must constantly increase their capabilities

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Gaming enthusiasts looking for the best PCs on which to pursue their hobby are forcing custom system builders to push the technology envelope. Their mission? To come up with the fastest systems using the best components regardless of cost.

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."

Next: Processor Cores

Randy Stude, director of the gaming program office at Intel, said AMD's triple-core Phenoms are actually quad-core processors on which one of the cores has a problem, and AMD will sell them because it does not want to throw them away. An AMD spokesperson said that Intel is taking a poke at AMD's Phenom because Intel only has dual-core processors, and no triple-core or quad-core processors except for its quad-core processors that actually comprise two dual-core models.

AMD can test each processor die on a wafer, and each core on each die, and produces triple-core Phenoms from quad-core Phenoms that either have one core not functioning, or which has one core at a different clock frequency from the other three. In either case, the spokesperson said, the fourth core is "fused" off, but the other three share the full cache memory.

Stude challenged AMD to prove developers will make games specifically
for three cores. "When developers recompile their games, they don't
recompile for three cores," he said. "They recompile for four or more cores. [The gaming crowd] doesn't want almost as good. They want the best. The three-core Phenom is good for someone locked into the AMD socket."

Not necessarily, McNaughton said. "It's also great for people who don't want to fork out for a quad-core CPU, but are finding dual-core performance being hit by things like antivirus software," he said. "We can't talk prices yet. But you can make the leap that a triple-core is cheaper than a quad-core."

Intel is also helping builders overclock game systems for their customers with software tools to go with its new X38 core logic, Stude said. Motherboard maker Asus is shipping such solutions, and others will follow, he said.

"We provide the tools to help resellers to overclock," he said. "And we include information on the risks involved, as well as the benefits. Some resellers will send out overclocked systems, while some will send them out unlocked so customers can overclock them."

On the graphics side, the battle between graphics processor (GPU) developers Nvidia and ATI is changing thanks to AMD's acquisition of ATI in July 2006. The change is due to AMD's plans to combine parts of the traditional CPU, chipset and GPU solution into an integrated solution.

"AMD/ATI is bringing to market in the fourth quarter groundbreaking platform products," McNaughton said. "We are the only company in the world that can do CPUs, chipsets and GPUs. Enthusiasts want the highest performance parts, parts that work well with overclocking, while AMD doesn't condone overclocking."

Because the AMD/ATI solution still requires two chips, a better approach might be to integrate the GPU on the motherboard as Nvidia partners are doing for entry-level solutions, said Jason Paul, senior product manager for GeForce graphics at Nvidia.

In the near future, Nvidia will work with motherboard partners to offer a hybrid solution featuring its nForce chipsets with integrated GeForce GPU and its SLI technology, which allows the simultaneous use of two SLI-ready PCI Express graphics cards, Paul said.

Such motherboards will have an integrated GPU and allow users to purchase a stand-alone SLI graphics card, with both combining to increase gaming performance on entry-level systems, Paul said. The solution will also help cut power usage. "Users can turn off the discrete card and run everything off the motherboard GPU," he said. "Then when they play games, they can turn on the card. It results in power savings when they don't require the 3-D power."
However, custom game system builders are not impressed with either offering, noting that true gamers shy away from integrated GPUs in favor of discrete graphics cards.

For now, most of the high-end game systems are built using Nvidia GPUs rather than ATI GPUs, builders said.

Coffield said he knows of very few gaming enthusiasts that buy ATI-based solutions. "Nvidia has the jump on ATI with its DirectX 10 support," he said. "But very few games use it. Historically, Nvidia drivers have been more stable than ATI's."

AddictPC's customers are also far more likely to use Nvidia-based solutions, Haske said. That is despite severe issues Nvidia had earlier this year when used with Windows Vista. "Nvidia released its card a year ahead of time," he said. "And Vista is not ready. Customers are saying, 'Why waste my time when I can get a gaming console?' " They are also not impressed with the new Windows Vista operating system, Haske said. "No games support it," he said.

Cheap Guys still builds systems mainly using Windows XP, Coffield said. "There is a performance hit with Vista," he said. "However, there are games that work with 64-bit systems, and they can load more memory with Vista. So there is a transition for some players, as long as they can run their games."

While gamers are spending as much as possible on their CPUs, GPUs and extra money to get as much performance as they can afford, they are now spending less on other components such as fancy cases and lighting, system builders said.

"Gamers are focusing more on usage," Su said. "The lights and the case
windows are still there. But why spend $40 on a light when you can spend $40 for an extra Gbyte of memory?"

Haske has also seen spending on nonessentials fall over the past couple years. "They want sleek, nice-looking systems," he said. "But they don't want anything they don't need."

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