Alienware: Game PCs need more than faster chips

Never mind the hardware race. The Dell unit sees today's 32-bit software environments putting a crimp on PC-based gaming and puts in a plug for 64-bit optimization.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

Fast silicon is hitting a wall in game PCs, according to Alienware, which is looking for ways to boost game PC performance.

Parent company Dell vowed on Tuesday to pour more resources into the game PC unit and invest in "product development, design, and engineering."

Alienware Area-51 m9750 notebook
Alienware Area-51 m9750 notebook Alienware

Alienware's Marc Diana believes optimizing systems for the 64-bit world would allow game PCs to make big strides in performance. In effect, today's 32-bit environments are putting a crimp on PC-based gaming.

"So many people are caught up in this hardware race. Dual-core, quad-core this and that," said Diana, who is Alienware's product marketing manager for desktops. "If these companies--Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, ATI, and AMD--if they'd just sit down and realize the performance benefit of optimizing their drivers and software for 64-bit."

"I think that would make sense now," Diana said emphatically.

Much of the software in the PC world is still 32-bit, including most copies of Windows XP and Vista. In fact, Diana said Alienware doesn't offer 64-bit operating systems because "we don't feel comfortable shipping a system to a customer with the 64-bit driver support that's out there in the industry."

The most obvious limitation of 32-bit operating systems and applications is a cap--4GB--on how much memory an operating system can use. And some applications can't even use the entire 4GB. "Who cares about DDR3 memory? What about giving me 4GB?" Diana asked.

"They're building (software) for something that is inherently very old technology," he said. "We (need) drivers that are very healthy in the 64-bit space. I'm not saying that 64-bit drivers don't exist. I'm just saying there's not enough software development and support on that end to warrant companies like us to move to 64-bit operating systems."

He also talked about other factors--beyond faster processors and graphics chips--that affect system performance, particularly for consumers who have limited budgets. "If I was looking to invest in one component over another," Diana said, "I would probably invest in a really good motherboard," and after that, a dual-core processor and a midrange graphics card such as Nvidia's 8800GT or ATI's X2 card.

New DDR3 memory is also becoming more of a factor. DDR3 memory is offered in two Alienware platforms. "It is the highest-performing memory now on the market. But I'm not so sure it's quite there yet. The cost is very high," he said. "Six months from now it will start making a lot more sense (economically) than it does right now." Because of this, DDR2 memory is still widely used.

DDR3 memory modules use less power and double the data prefetch buffer to 8 bits from 4 bits per cycle. DDR3 also operates at higher clock rates (1600 MHz), among other improvements.