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The end of expensive gaming laptops?

Gateway's P-7811FX makes most expensive gaming laptops obsolete.

Gateway's P-7811FX.

We've just crowned Gateway's P-7811FX the favorite $1,000-plus systemin our Back-to-School roundupof laptops available on retail store shelves. Its particularly strong showing reminds us that every once in a while, a new product comes along that forces you to reconsider the conventional wisdom about what computer hardware should cost. (A prime example being how the new netbook categoryhas redefined small, low-power laptops from $2,000-plus executive toys to sub-$500 impulse purchases.)

PC gaming, despite the lack of action on the software side lately, has been the one reliable area where manufacturers could get away with charging premium prices for premium products. Gaming rigs easily hit the $5,000 mark, but were stuffed with high-end components that delivered unbeatable performance.

Earlier this year, we saw a few 17-inch gaming laptops that managed to offer a decent gaming experience for a lot less than we'd been used to paying. Gateway's 6860FX and the 6831FX both included the then-new Nvidia GeForce 8800 graphics card for around $1,350 -- which we found more than a little mind-blowing at the time. Of course, there were some serious compromises to be made. The older CPUs in those systems were far from high-end, and even the 17-inch displays were cheap -- using a lower 1,440x900 resolution.

We expected more of the same from the latest budget Gateway gaming laptop, the $1,449 P-7811FX, which was just released (and reviewed) this month. Instead, we found that most of our issues with the previous models in the series had been fixed.

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Besides sporting a new Nvidia GeForce 9800 graphic card, the processor has been upgraded up to a Centrino 2Intel Core 2 Duo P8400--not the very top of the line, but close, and more importantly, the screen resolution has been bumped up to 1,920x1,200. Taken as a whole, that makes this new Gateway an excellent value for even high-end PC gamers (it pumped out around 60 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III at 1,920x1,200).

This leads us to wonder if there's room for high-end expensive gaming laptops any more. Are marginal increases in frame rates worth paying three or four times as much?

The only system we've looked at recently that comes close as a gaming rig is one we're testing right now. The new Alienware m17x, at well north of $5,000, pulls out all the stops, going for twin GeForce 9800 cards, the very top-of-the-line Intel Core 2 Extreme X9000 CPU, and two 500GB hard drives. But beyond that, you're mostly paying for extras such as a light-up keyboard and fancy flush touchpad.

To be fair, the Alienware m17x topped 100 frames per second in the same test, and also beat the Gateway (and everyone else) in our other benchmark tests (but not by a huge margin). But can most gamers tell the difference between 60fps and 100fps at 1,920x1,200 resolutions? Do they even care? Or are specialty gaming laptops doomed to become rare, ultra-expensive status symbols, produced in extremely limited numbers?