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Notebooks make a play as gamer machines

A number of brand-name PC manufacturers, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard, are planning to offer notebooks with Intel's gaming-oriented Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor over the next two weeks.

Meet the gamebook.

PC makers are gearing up to market notebooks more aggressively to PC gaming enthusiasts.

Although PC manufacturers have been selling game-oriented desktops for years, they're now bent on expanding their horizons via notebooks capable of handling high-clock speed desktop processors.

A number of brand-name PC manufacturers, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard, are planning to offer notebooks with Intel's gaming-oriented Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor over the next two weeks. The chip comes with extra onboard memory, or cache, which helps it offer higher performance than a standard Pentium 4, Intel has said.

In many ways, the gamebook is an outgrowth of the popularity of Pentium 4 desktop-replacement notebooks. Consumers have been buying these supersize notebooks to replace their desktops for years, but the trend toward them has picked up speed recently, and manufacturers have been more aggressively marketing such notebooks. The machines generally pack near-desktop performance, by pairing the fastest Pentium 4s with 15-inch or larger displays, and even at weights ranging between about 7 to 10 pounds, they're still more portable than desktops and can also be more easily stowed out of the way.

The move to gaming notebooks also shows PC manufacturers are following the money in the market, NPD Techworld analyst Steve Baker said. As computer users start thinking about going mobile, PC makers are moving to meet their expectations, leaving no niche unexplored, he said.

Dell, for one, is expected to deliver a game-oriented Inspiron XPS notebook on Thursday. The machine will offer Intel's Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor, a 15.4-inch wide-angle display and a top-of-the-line graphics card, sources familiar with Dell's plans said.

Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard will add the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition to its Pavilion zd7000 notebook, next week, although company executives said HP doesn't plan to market exclusively to gamers. When fitted with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4, a 17-inch wide-angle display, 512MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive and a DVD-ROM, the zd7000 starts at about $1,775 before rebates, according to HP's Hpshopping.com Web site. A version with the 3.2 Pentium 4 Extreme Edition will add $650 to that price, a company representative said, increasing its price to about $2,425.

But Alienware has already beaten them both to the punch. The Miami, Fla.-based company began offering its Area-51m Extreme with the 3.2GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition chip in late January. When configured with the chip, a 15.4-inch wide-aspect-ratio display, 512MB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive, an ATI Radeon 9600 graphics card with 128MB of onboard memory and a DVD-ROM drive, it starts at about $3,400.

Aside from consumer demand for larger, more powerful notebooks, a transition to new chip technology is also playing a role in the birth of the gamebook.

Although the 3.2GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition may sound like it could be a more power-hungry processor than a standard Pentium 4, its appetite is nearly equal to that of the latest desktop Pentium 4, dubbed Prescott. While Intel recommends that PC makers provide enough cooling to handle a 92-watt processor when using its 3.2GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, for example, its design guideline for a 3.2GHz Prescott chip is 103 watts.

As a result, for a company creating a notebook to fit the Prescott chip, accommodating a Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor isn't a major undertaking. Intel, however, doesn't recommend that notebook manufacturers use any of its desktop chips in their machines.

Notebook as status symbol?
The new gamebooks are likely to cause a stir with their design or their performance potential, but analysts say they're not likely to win large numbers of buyers, because they'll command premium prices.

Due to factors such as price, "It's a very small, niche market--a subsegment of the gaming desktop market," said Alan Promisel, an analyst with IDC. But, "Even if it is a niche market, the return for Dell or other companies would be significant--hence why they're getting into it."

Alienware's Area-51m Extreme, when configured with a 16.1-inch screen, 1GB of RAM, a DVD burner and wireless networking, tops $4,200, according to the company's Web site. But some people will pony up due to the cachet of owning such a high-end notebook, Promisel said.

"Someone going to a LAN party could grab their gaming notebook," Promisel said. "People that go to these parties would typically lug around their desktops. Taking a notebook would be much easier."

Ultimately the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition machines could make consumers more aware of the idea of playing games on notebooks in general. Thus, more buyers might skip a desktop and opt to configure an HP Pavilion zd7000 with a standard Pentium 4, or choose a machine like Gateway's M675. The M657 offers a 17-inch wide-angle screen but does not come with a Pentium 4 Extreme Edition chip. It starts at $1,499 before rebates.

Meanwhile, several desktop replacement systems offer Advanced Micro Devices chips in place of Intel's Pentium 4s. One such notebook, eMachine's M6805, is based on AMD's mobile Athlon 64 processor. It comes with a 15.4-inch display and starts at $1,549 before rebates.