Big boxes, small niches

Big boxes, small niches

Right up at the pointy end of the market, mega laptops are providing mega margins so long as resellers can target the right customers.

Every year, thousands of Australian PC gaming enthusiasts unplug their systems and lug an impressive array of hardware across town (in some cases across the country) in order to attend LAN parties.

Currently working on the upcoming console and PC Gamer convention, AVCom 2008, Grant Moritz has spent a good part of the last decade organising and participating in gaming events, especially LAN parties. "People carry their PCs in with them from home and then connect them up; it's just a mass of cables everywhere," he said

While console gaming events continue to grow in popularity, Moritz said the number of attendees at LAN events dipped as broadband access became more widespread, although they have subsequently stabilised. "The popularity of LAN parties has been dropping off since broadband made it possible to participate in multiplayer games at home, but we still get hundreds of people turn up each year," he said.

It would seem a natural environment for portable computers to stake a claim but, when given the choice between power and portability, gamers continue to opt in favour of the former.

"In general, laptops are more popular for school or university, especially if the price comes down under $1000," Mortiz said. "But when it comes to gaming, at these LAN parties there would be maybe one laptop for every 10 PCs."

This, he suggested, was because there were still a number of drawbacks to laptop technology so far as gamers are concerned. Not only are portable computers more expensive than desktops on a spec-by-spec comparison, they also offer a fixed configuration, unpopular in a segment of the market that thrives on periodic system upgrades.

"If you want to get a laptop up to standard for gaming, you need to invest in an external video card, and maybe even plug it into a larger monitor," Mortiz said. "And not being able to open up the chassis and upgrade to a new video card has always been a drawback." While high-powered laptops might look flashy at a LAN party, Mortiz argued gamers were unlikely to spend the premium to get a mobile machine when they could get a desktop PC with similar specs for a fraction of the price.

"You'll find a lot of gamers are in their mid-teens or going to university, and while they may have a part time job, they aren't going to invest their money in a laptop which will be quickly outdated when they can buy a desktop much cheaper and get regular upgrades," he said. "A high-end gaming laptop will cost you anywhere up to $5000. If they can get that price down, and make it possible to upgrade the technology, there would be a good market."

Laptop vendors are doing their utmost to respond to these concerns, bringing out large-screen high-end laptops largely to cater to the potentially lucrative PC gamer market.

In the last 12 months a raft of high-spec 20-inch laptops have become available, first in the US and now in Australia.

Making the pitch
It all started in May 2006, on the other side of the Pacific. Colourful US-based OEM, Liebermann, announced the 20-inch Olympus notebook. Reportedly running on an Intel Pentium D dual-core CPU, the Liebermann Olympus 20-inch was an all-out gaming and audio-visual beast, featuring both Blu-ray and DH DVD optical drives, 1GB of RAM and a built-in 3 mega-pixel camera.

Far from portable in the traditional sense, the laptop was aimed at high-end multimedia junkies who were willing to pay for the privilege of having a machine to run everything from high-end games to high-resolution movies.

With appetites whetted, and imaginations inspired, hard-core gamers were sadly misled by the premature announcement. A name long associated with groundbreaking vaporware, Libermann's beast was largely mythical, although it served to foreshadow what was to come.

By December 2006, CompAmerica came out with the 20-inch TigerShark 9500 featuring AMD dual-core processing, built-in speakers, and the latest in SLI video card technology. Fellow OEM PC, Microworks, followed suit, with a high spec 20-inch portable design, before the international vendors jumped on the megascreen bandwagon to bring out their own versions of this technology. At the same time, game-machine specialists Alienware hit the market with a high-spec 19-inch laptop also aimed squarely at the gaming space.

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