In-depth: The enthusiast market

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In-depth: The enthusiast market



The enthusiast market for PCs is often overlooked by the business channel that sees it as dominated by teenage gamers with little money to spend. But the channel may be missing a trick: not only is the gaming market growing overall - the recently formed PC Games Alliance has reported that in 2008 it was worth $11 billion worldwide - it is leading to spin-offs in the business market.

While its true that the typical home computer enthusiast is male - in his late 20s and, if a true gamer, spending up to five hours a night playing first person shooter games - there is another market of business professionals who also want very fast PCs.

Specialised kit

Both gamer and professional want machines that use massive amounts of memory, the fastest CPU and graphical processor units (GPU), often cooled by specialised heat sinks or water cooling systems, as well as elaborate motherboards that allow further tweaking of latency, multiplier and voltage settings.

They buy their kit from online retailers and small, specialist extreme computing manufacturers. A wide range of peripherals serves the enthusiasts market: anything from £100 Nvidia 3D glasses to the £40 Razer 4000dpi gaming mouse or the £225 Renegade Ultimate Game chair, complete with 12 vibrating motors.

The business spin-offs include the predictable markets of sound, video production and photographic editing. But other markets are emerging: in financial modelling and in the study of fluid dynamics for the oil and gas industry. In a recent competition sponsored by Nvidia, the graphics card manufacturer, one of the top prizes was won by a Polish academic who is working on facial recognition software.

GPU success

Nvidia is having some success in suggesting that the graphical processing unit (GPU), as opposed to the long-established CPU, is a credible way of running complex mathematical models. 

Stanford University Medical School, for instance, has widened the reach of its Folding at Home protein modelling program, a distributed computing program that makes use of spare desktop computing on thousands of home PCs round the world. It found that the modelling program would run faster when it altered the protein program to run on GPUs as well as CPUs.

"One of the really exciting aspects about GPUs is that not only can they accelerate existing algorithms significantly, they get really interesting in that they can open doors to new algorithms that we never think to do on CPUs at all," reports the organisation's website.

Alan Johnson, chief technologist at Cryo Performance, a manufacturer of high performance gaming and professional systems, says his business customer are taking advantage of the massive parallel processing power available in GPUs.

"If you look at Adobe Creative Suite Version 4, for example, it now comes with a layer of code that runs on a GPU. They have an example showing post video processing: on a normal Dell dual core CPU the process would have taken 6 hours to run. Using a GPU gets the processing down to 40 minutes."

The market is at an exciting stage, according to Neil Castle, ValueRam inside sales manager for memory maker Kingston Technology. "We are selling more and more HyperX memory to the integration market. This is typically to niche white box manufacturers with specialist markets who want to differentiate their machines from the OEMs," he says.

The average selling price for specialist memory products is typically 10 to 20% higher than for standard memory products, with equally high profit margins. "We are now selling 6GB and 12GB memory kits - a 12GB memory kit costs from £600 to £700."

Overclockers

One market specialist manufacturers and component distributors address is that of overclockers, enthusiasts who compete among themselves to tweak the rated settings of CPUs, GPUs, power suppliers and mother boards.

Paul Watkinson, one of the UK's leading overclockers, is an electrical engineer.  He worked on major building projects in London until a serious road accident seven years ago put paid to his work on building sites and his budding career as a motorbike racer at Brands Hatch and Silverstone.

After a long recovery in hospital, Watkinson looked around for an outlet for his competitive instincts. He has found it in the global sport of overclocking, where teams from around the world run benchmarks based round square root calculations and graphics modelling.

He set up the BenchTec overclocking forum, and reviews motherboards, memory, power suppliers, graphic cards and processors on behalf of manufacturers like Intel, Asus and Nvidia. He works out of a small office in his house in Canvey Island, and his garage.

 "With every component I test it far beyond its stated limits," he says. "I carry out a balancing act, looking for performance bottlenecks that could be in the processor, graphics card, memory or even the power supply," he says. 

He will test components using a variety of methods, altering the bus speed of the motherboard, the multiplier or the voltage put through the processor.  Essential to his tests are cooling devices dissipating heat by air or liquid cooling.  Air cooling requires elaborate copper-finned heat sinks driven by fans cooling both processor and graphics unit.

Cooling

Liquid cooling is by far the more dramatic alternative: Watkinson has built his own three-stage cooling system in his garage to allow him to cool processors down to minus 130°C. For special demonstrations, he will use liquid nitrogen to reduce temperatures to minus 197°C.

For MicroScope, Watkinson used air cooling supplied by Akasa to run the popular benchmark Wprime, a test involving millions of mathematical calculations. He boosted an Intel Core I7 Extreme 965 processor to 4.0GHz, 800MHz faster than its stated rating of 3.2GHz.

In the second test, using his hand-built cooling device, he first cooled the Intel I7 processor to minus 124°C. The cascade cooling device is a large box about the size of a filing cabinet drawer. It contains three different refrigerant gasses, two large fans and several safety cut outs, since it operates at between 50 and 150 pounds per square inch of pressure.

After several tries, slowly increasing the voltage put through the processor from its stated rating of 1.15 volts to 1.48 volts, Watkinson boosted the I7 clock speed past the 5.0GHz barrier, to an impressive 5.023GHz - but only for ten seconds.

"You can spend all day making tiny adjustments to find the limits of a component," he says. "This kind of experimentation matters because I test the multithreading used in quad core processors. More and more applications will be multithreaded in the future."

Chip makers

Intel's Stephen Anderson, a senior systems engineer with the company, says overclocking has taken off since chip manufacturers started making processors that could be easily overclocked. He estimates that there are just 500 overclockers in the world who will carry out extreme overclocking, cooling components with liquid nitrogen.

Anderson, who is an overclocking enthusiast himself, recently released an Intel video on YouTube with Watkinson, showing efforts to overclock an I7. "We design all our processors to operate at their designed frequencies, in the case of the I7 Extreme Edition, 3.2GHz. We warrant our products based on those specification. For us to warrant a product at 5GHz would be an unbelievably expensive product to bring to market. We could not warrant a product at that sort of speed."

Asus component marketing manager Iain Bristow says overclockers like Watkinson are a useful part of the company's R&D effort. "They are key to ensuring our products are the best they can be. If anybody is going to find something wrong with a product, it'll be the overclocking community who push their equipment right to the edge. We do take note of the findings of overclockers and actively encourage feedback on our products to ensure that they remain the most reliable, stable and offer the best performance," he says.

More conventional gamers look on overclockers with awe. Some gamers will overclock their own systems, or buy them pre-overclocked.

Christian Sharp, by day a PR executive, is an ardent fan of the first person shooter games Far Cry 2, Clear Sky and Crysis Warheard. He runs a much-upgraded, 5 year old Dell 8400 single core machine, upgraded to 3GB Ram and an Nvidia 8600GT graphics card.

"A decent graphics card is an absolute must, as is a good monitor and a good mouse. An optical mouse is good, but if it dies, you can find your pointer suddenly flicking to the top of the screen uncontrolably. A lot of people still use ball mice, because you can clean them and whilst the tracking isn't as smooth, they last forever," he says.

Niche market

Neil Richards, technical director at Kobalt Computers, another specialist high performance manufacturer, says his games customers want over-clocked processors, but they must be stable. "We will send I7 processors out to customers rated at 3.8Ghz using air cooling. It isn't safe to send a system with a processor running at a faster speed than that," he says.

He sold a systems for £8,000 recently to a customer "who wanted the best of the best", he says. "He wasn't a gamer. He had money and wanted something that looked nice and was really fast," he says.

A more typical machine from the company's Apache range costs £1,889 as standard. Each of the system's components can be changed. The case can be painted in different colours for £400. Each colour is available in a different paint effect, the most expensive of which, "the fusion paint effect" costs another £750. A water cooling systems costs a maximum of £450. A 1,200W power supply another £103. Twelve GB of Corsair Dominator memory will add another £292 to the bill.

Attractive as the pricing seems to business resellers used to selling desktops for £500, Richards says it takes about three weeks to build and test a £5,000 system, and that the bulk of the cost is labour.
Like many of the specialist extreme manufacturers, Kobalt is a small business, employing 5 people. It sells 40 to 50 systems a month and only two or three of the very expensive systems.

Business model

Richards says his company is fortunate as it is able to offer high-end laptops, as well as desktops. "The average starting price for a laptop is £1,200, although we find that customers will always upgrade beyond the basic offered specification, and will often spend £1,600."

He says the company is about to start selling a laptop which includes an Intel I7 processor, normally only seen in desktop systems, as well as an Nvidia Quadro graphics card. "This will be huge mobile performance," he says.

"We are talking to a couple of distributors and two well known department stores about distributing our products, but we feel the sales we make rely heavily on personal contact with our customers," he says.

The market for specialist machines is a tricky one, despite the high prices on offer. Beast Computers and Vadim Computers, two extreme computing specialists, folded recently.

Vadim Chobanu, the owner of Vadim, says his company got into trouble last February, when consumers in the UK began to stop spending money. The company employed 5 people, and turned over £100,000 a month. "People think you must be making a lot of money as you can charge £5,000 to £10,000 a month. But you have high staff costs, product testing and normal overheads to meet," he says.

Mainstream players Dell and HP have both bought extreme computing specialists. HP bought VooDoo in 2006. Dell bought Alienware in the same year.

Harrods department store sells the VooDoo exclusively for £2,499, known as the HP Blackbird. The Harrods machine includes 64bit Vista, an Intel Core 2 quad procesor, 4MB of RAM, a 500GB hard disk and a liquid cooling system.
 
A referral to Harrods and a garage in Canvey Island sums up the extreme computing enthusiasts' market. It is a market where people will spend money to create their dream of the ultimate, winning system.

But they expect to be sold to in a very different way, and so far major vendors are not quite sure how to deal with enthusiast. Resellers who want a slice of the tempting upgrade and peripherals market, and are equally interested in niche market that make the most of GPUs are likely to make a better job of it.

This was first published in May 2009

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