Games People Play

The last time I bought a desktop PC, I needed a big, fast, expandable system that could handle Microsoft Office by day and sophisticated combat flight simulations by night.

If you're a gamer, you know what I mean. It takes a special breed of computer to handle cutting-edge games. Titles like Doom 3, Far Cry, and Lock On: Modern Air Combat place incredible demands on every area of PC performance. CPUs and graphics cards must work overtime to splash realistic 3D graphics on screen while avoiding even momentary pauses in the action. Hard disks must pour out data fast so that missions load quickly. And systems must do all this while running background tasks like network communications during frantic multiplayer games.

The good news is that cutting-edge PCs offer more performance at lower cost than ever before. The bad news is, figuring out what you need for worry-free gaming can become a full-time job. Buyers face a range of choices, from CPU (Advanced Micro Devices or Intel) to case color (Martian Red or Cyborg Green). What's more, the best gaming PCs often come from companies you may not have heard of. They're made by so-called boutiques like Alienware and Falcon Northwest.

Here's the bottom line, though: If you want a no-compromise powerhouse of a PC, a system that will still make mincemeat of cutting-edge games two years from now, you'd better do your homework first.

Parts Ain't Just Parts

Nothing is quite so demoralizing as installing an exciting new game and realizing that your PC lacks the power to run it properly. To replace that aging warhorse with a fleet-footed thoroughbred, you need to know a lot more than simple processor speeds. For instance, so-called first-person shooters--games like Doom 3, Quake, and Unreal--live or die by the graphics card. You can have the fastest processor on the planet, but if the graphics card isn't up to snuff, the game will suffer. On the other hand, flight sims like Lock On: Modern Air Combat may be graphics-hungry, but these games demand processor power first and foremost.

So what should you look for in a gaming PC? Here's a rundown of key components that affect gaming performance, and what you may want to consider for each.

Processor: Faster is better, but the real question is: How much are you willing to pay for it? Intel's Pentium 4 Extreme Edition CPU amps performance with a bulked-up cache. The problem is that you'll pay $500 or more for the Extreme Edition of the 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 processor, and many games will get only an incremental boost from the expenditure. Make sure any Pentium 4 CPU uses an 800-MHz front side bus, since this helps keep things moving between the CPU and system memory.

On the AMD side, the current king of the hill is the Athlon 64 FX-53, an advanced CPU that can support next-generation software built for 64-bit computing. Clocked at 2.4 GHz, the Athlon 64 FX-53 nonetheless matches and sometimes exceeds the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 3.4 GHz in popular benchmarks.

Graphics card: The ATI Radeon X800 and the NVidia GeForce 6800 graphics card families are kings of the hill. Both run as much as $400, and both offer comparable performance in today's games. Studious buyers may opt for a card based on the NVidia 6800 graphics chip because it provides better support for emerging game standards, which is important if you want games purchased a year from now to play at full fidelity. For best performance, look for systems that let you plug graphics cards into a PCI Express slot, rather than the older AGP slot.

Memory: No gaming system should have less than 1GB of RAM. You need at least that much memory to ensure that the processor can keep things moving through the system quickly. Look for double data rate SDRAM rated at PC3200. If the system motherboard supports it, new DDR2 SDRAM offers even better performance.

Hard disk: Bigger may be better for hard disks, but the first mission in a gaming PC is performance. Shop for hard disks with a fast spin rate of 7200 rpm for quicker response, and also consider paying a bit more for a drive with 8MB of cache memory, which can help speed the loading of game scenes and large graphics. For peak performance, consider getting a pair of identical drives connected to a RAID controller using Serial ATA connections. By spreading data across two drives, systems reduce the amount of time spent waiting to find data on the disk surface. You'll see a noticeable performance boost in many games.

Display: Gamers for years have eschewed LCD flat-panel displays, complaining that the liquid crystals simply cannot change color fast enough to keep pace with the action on the screen. The resulting blurring and smearing can be distracting. But those times are changing. New 17- and 19-inch LCDs with rated response times below 16 milliseconds eliminate the refresh problems, while providing plenty of screen real estate for putting you right in the action. Be warned: LCD monitors operate at a single native resolution--such as 1280 by 1024 pixels--and don't look good running at other settings. If your favorite games run at 1600 by 1200, you may want to stretch for a high-end 19-inch LCD that supports that resolution.

Audio: The sound system won't affect game performance per se, but it can help you get the most enjoyment out of playing. The best gaming PCs come with a complete 5.1 speaker system for true digital surround sound. The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 is the most popular sound card for driving surround-sound games.

Think Outside the Beige Box

Where do you find a PC with what you need for serious gaming? Big-name computer makers won't give up the market without a fight. Companies like Dell, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard have figured out that gamers spend serious money on their rigs. But you don't necessarily want one from them.

At Dell's Web site, you'll find the Dimension XPS Gen 3, a gaming-specific system based on a high-end Pentium 4 CPU. The system offers extra ventilation, multiple cooling fans, and a bolstered 460-watt power supply. More important, it uses DDR2 SDRAM and the new PCI Express slot for higher-performance graphics cards.

Gateway, likewise, markets the 510G and 710G systems. These PCs lack the cutting-edge memory and graphics technology found in the Dimension XPS Gen 3, but they come with a bevy of bundled games and an impressive six-speaker system for surround sound.

Even HP has a gaming PC, the Compaq X series, but it's probably the least impressive of the big-name gaming systems.

While these name-brand PCs are certainly high-end systems suitable for gaming, none of them truly focuses on what gamers need. In my quest for the right system, I ran across the Web site of a company called GamePC. A boutique PC maker (for lack of a better term), GamePC is one of a handful of small PC companies that specialize in high-end systems tuned for the rigors of game play.

And they're up front about it. Companies like GamePC, Alienware, Falcon Northwest, and Voodoo offer obsessive details about every component going into your PC. Dell and Gateway let you choose among CPU speeds, a few graphics card models, and hard disk types. But gaming PC sites like GamePC let you select the motherboard model, choose from different RAM vendors and types, and specify a specific model of hard drive.

If you're serious about gaming, this is a big deal. To drive Doom 3 at peak fidelity and top frame rates, you need to clear every last bottleneck. Buy a Pentium 4 PC with a sluggish system chip set, or a fast Athlon-based system with a hard disk that tends to run hot and loud, and you're staring disappointment in the face.

What's more, these sites offer choices where big-name vendors provide none. For instance, the online configuration tool at Falcon Northwest let me select from among nine PC cases, three power supplies, and several cooling and noise solutions. Users can choose from quality components where mainstream vendors are prone to cut corners. For instance, the Falcon Mach V can be outfitted with a 450- or even 550-watt power supply rather than the standard 350-watt unit. GamePC sells an Enermax power supply rated at 660 watts. Most large vendors, by contrast, don't provide any power supply upgrades at all.

Another thing boutique vendors do well is deliver designer systems--PCs with lighted cases, artful designs, or unique form factors. The Falcon Systems FragBox line, for instance, features a small, box-like chassis with an integrated handle that makes it perfect for toting to network gaming sessions. They can even be ordered with custom artwork and etching on the case. Alienware provides distinctive boxes in a handful of case colors, including Martian Red, Nova Yellow, and Cyborg Green. Voodoo sells systems with cutouts on the case, which allow the haunting light from blue cathode tubes inside to shine through.

You'll also find attention to detail. GamePC provides a noise-level indicator for all of its standard configurations--a nice touch in an age when many high-end PCs roar like jet engines because of all the cooling fans. Falcon Northwest offers a $108 System Quiet Package that includes case foam for dampening fan noise, as well as three quiet cooling fans.

Don't get me wrong, these so-called boutique gaming systems will cost you--sometimes $1000 more than a similar system from Dell. But you can rest assured the PCs aren't all that similar. Tricked-out gaming machines come with the best of everything. It's a case of actually getting what you pay for.

Buy Versus Build

But there's another option. Most dedicated gamers will tell you in no uncertain terms that you can save hundreds of dollars by ordering the parts you need from a vendor like Newegg.com and then assembling the motherboard, case, and other components yourself. In fact, when I asked my brother--an avid gamer himself--to see if any of his gaming friends had purchased a system from a boutique vendor, he came back with a surprising answer. Out of five guys, not one had purchased his PC complete. All had built their gaming machines from scratch.

Small PC makers and component providers like Monarch Computer Systems and ABS Computer Technologies can be good options. You may get fewer configuration choices--and certainly fewer colors--but you could save hundreds of dollars over the price of a PC purchased at Alienware or GamePC.

Ultimately, the best reason to go with the smaller, niche vendors could be service and support. Large companies rely on call centers to field tech support queries, resulting in desultory, script-driven advice that can sometimes--in my experience--do more harm than good.

In the end, I bought my new system from GamePC, and when I've called the company for help, I've always received it. The people I've spoken to not only know their stuff, but they're often directly involved in building and designing the systems.

Find a rep at Dell who can say that.

Michael Desmond is a freelance writer living in Vermont. He also owns a PC Torque 8890 gaming laptop that poses a danger to small pets and children who might get trapped underneath it.
  
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