HP gets in the game with Blackbird

The souped-up and flashy new gaming PC is the company's fledgling effort with its Voodoo unit. Photos: Blackbird sings a gaming tune

Hewlett-Packard is looking to cast a spell on the PC gaming industry with its first product developed with Voodoo PC.

The is the first joint effort with Voodoo, the Canadian enthusiast PC maker that HP purchased a year ago. HP is expected to unveil the souped-up PC at a special event in New York on Wednesday evening.

The Blackbird is an all-black, all-aluminum gaming machine that can be configured however the customer wants. The BIOS (basic input-output system) is completely open, and none of the inner components are proprietary, meaning the customer can buy replacement parts off the shelf of any PC supply store.

The shape of the machine should catch some eyes too--the chassis hovers on an aluminum foot. Though it's a flashy design, it's actually a utilitarian measure: it's a sixth side of the box for air to flow out of, which helps combat one of the biggest problems with enthusiast PCs--overheating. The Blackbird also uses a full liquid-cooling system and isolates each of the PC's heat sources in their own thermal chambers to further reduce the temperature output.

The Blackbird is a bold first move from HP, as it takes a step into the ring with other high-end PC makers, particularly Dell, which has the popular XPS line and scooped up Alienware earlier last year.

The gaming market has ballooned in recent years. The worldwide market for PC gaming-influenced hardware purchases will produce $10 billion in revenue annually by the end of 2007, according to Ted Pollak, senior game industry analyst for Jon Peddie Research.

In a computing niche that leans heavily on design, the Blackbird shows careful attention was paid to detail both inside and out, industry observers say.

"Inside, very few products have that level of fit and finish--polished metal and solid aluminum is typically something you see in a high-end automobile--even than you'd see in the most expensive gaming PCs," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "This approach is at the Lexus (or) Mercedes quality level and build level."

The car analogy is actually quite germane. The outer aluminum casing for the Blackbird is made by a Chinese manufacturer whose specialty isn't consumer electronics or computers, but car doors.

Then, each is configured top to bottom in Voodoo's newly expanded Calgary production facility by the same engineer, said Mark Solomon, HP Gaming's creative director. But you don't have to be a mechanic or even nominally adept with the contents of a toolbox to swap out parts and make your own upgrades. Blackbird is intentionally designed so that any of the components--CPU, GPU, hard drive, optical drive--can be swapped out.

HP hopes that touches like these will lure creative and gaming types with plenty to shell out on a custom performance PC. Priced between $2,500 and $6,500 depending on the configuration, it's firmly within the company of other high-end performance PCs.

"The pricing is pretty aggressive at the lower end for an elite system," Pollak said. "It's surprisingly affordable."

For a certain segment of the market anyway. But paying up to five figures for a gaming machine is not unusual in this relatively small segment of the overall PC market, where the margins are considerably higher. So HP is putting a lot of resources into the performance and the aesthetics. The design and manufacture process is much pricier than the average HP notebook or desktop PC.

"HP almost had a heart attack when the design team came up with this," said Rahul Sood, Voodoo co-founder and CTO of HP Gaming.

Blackbird has been in the works between both the HP and Voodoo teams for about a year. The result is the HP logo on the outside, and what the company is calling "Voodoo DNA" on the inside. The effect is a gaming PC that's not quite as high-end as Voodoo models on the market, but above the capability and feel of a consumer or business HP desktop.

The resulting product shows that the integration of Voodoo into HP's newly formed Gaming division is going well, Enderle said. "It's the wish list of Voodoo tied to the technology of HP."

Voodoo actually had input on the original version of Blackbird ("Blackbird 001") before it was official that HP would acquire Voodoo, said Phil McKinney, vice president of HP Gaming. HP was already in talks with Voodoo and decided to have the smaller company weigh in on HP's idea for a gaming PC. HP killed the product after hearing Voodoo's input.

"It wasn't enough," Sood said in a recent interview. "We wanted a product that would completely bring innovation back to the desktop."

So the two companies got together the first week after the merger was official, and version 002 was born.

And it's not just for gamers. HP hopes to attract other creative types with Blackbird's capabilities. McKinney says only a quarter of Voodoo's customers play video games with their PCs. The vast majority are actually using them for video, photo and music editing, he said.

High-end features like localized heat chambers and liquid cooling are great if you can afford them--but it seems that HP's intention here is not to keep those features walled off from mainstream consumers. The company plans to eventually have some of Blackbird's technology trickle down into mainstream PCs, according to McKinney.

Perhaps the design will eventually, too. As Sood noted, the desktop PC market "has lacked innovation for years. There's only so many times you can paint a system before thinking, 'What am I doing here?'"