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Hot-rod PC guns for gamers

A second-tier computer maker creates a hot-rod machine as it tries to make a name for itself among hard-to-please PC addicts.

A second-tier computer maker has created a hot-rod machine in an effort to make a name for itself among hard-to-please PC addicts.

Systemax is targeting the niche market of PC junkies and ardent gamers with its Double X desktop computer. Double X features dual hard drives, "overclocking" potential, a snakelike water-cooling system and a clear case to show off the innards bathed in the glow of a green or blue LED.

Such a machine doesn't come cheap, though. The top-of-the-line version of the Double X costs $4,000.

"In the ultra-extreme market, most people want the latest and greatest components," said Sean Aryai, a marketing director at Systemax. "But gaming is moving more into the mainstream now, so we think it's a market we can capture."

Indeed, a handful of PC makers are making a living selling computers to a small group of consumers who demand the best-performing machines that money can buy. Double X will compete in this area with machines from niche manufacturers such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest and Voodoo.

Port Washington, N.Y.-based Systemax is itself considered a second-tier PC maker, but the company has become a common sight on the QVC shopping channel.

Analysts, however, are skeptical that Systemax can find many buyers for the machine.

"It's hard to fathom that there's a large audience out there for (Double X), particularly in today's market," said Toni Duboise, an analyst with ARS. "But, on the other hand, it could appeal to those kinds of buyers who look at Sony and Apple...and those people who are willing to spend more on a stylized version of a PC."

The Double X offers a customized user interface that sits on top of Windows, along with a choice of an Advanced Micro Devices Athlon XP or an Intel Pentium 4 processor, paired with dual hard drives and Nvidia's top performing graphics board.

It also ships with a clear panel that can be installed to let people see inside the PC. The panel opens a view on the machine's water-cooling system and other high-end internal components, which are illuminated by a green or blue LED--AMD machines have green lights and Intel machines have blue. An external gauge panel depicts the temperature inside the PC case as well as the processor's temperature, voltage and clock speed.

Overclock but keep your cool
It's the water-cooling system and the attention to temperature that could win over extremists.

The cooling system uses a series of water pipes and fans, along with a radiator, to remove heat from critical components, such as the processor, the chipset and the graphics chip. The cooling setup lets people boost performance even more by enabling them to overclock, or push a processor or other component to speeds higher than those named in factory ratings.

"I'll never say you can safely overclock," Aryai said. "We don't recommend overclocking, but we provide you with a system that, if you plan to...is the safest way to do it."

In its labs, Systemax claims, it pushed the 2.8GHz Pentium 4 to more than 3GHz and also cranked up the Athlon XP 2200+ chip, which runs at 1.8GHz, to 3GHz.

Systemax does offer a one-year warranty for parts and labor that can be extended.

The company has already begun selling the set configurations of the Double X via TigerDirect.com. The PC maker will begin taking direct orders on custom-configured Double X machines in October, Aryai said.

The Double X will start at about $2,400 from TigerDirect.com, where it can be purchased configured with an Athlon XP 2200+, 512MB of 333MHz double data rate SDRAM, an Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4600 graphics board, a CD-rewritable drive and a DVD drive, as well as Creative Technologies' Audigy sound card. The machine also includes 240GB of hard drive space, consisting of two Western Digital 120GB hard drives linked via RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks), which is a technology used to pool several hard drives.

Systemax will offer a similar version of the same machine, dubbed the XX A22+, with 1GB of memory, a faster 48X CD-RW, a gigabit Ethernet controller and better speakers for $3,599. Its AMD systems use Asustek Computer's A7V333 motherboard.

Meanwhile, a Pentium 4 version of the Double X, dubbed XX U28+, will pair a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of Rambus DRAM, and Asustek's ASUS P4T533 motherboard for $3,999. It is otherwise the same as the A22+ model.

Systemax is also hedging its bets a bit by offering a cheaper and more pedestrian version of the Double X, minus the cooling system. These PCs have a smaller chassis but still include software that lets people overclock. They also have a built-in rev limiter that shuts the system down before a person can do damage. The Athlon XP 2000+-based Ascent XXA20+ and the 2.4GHz Pentium 4-based Venture XX U24+ each start at $1,299.