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PC makers put on their game face

Gateway is the latest company to aim custom PCs at hard-core gamers who want the latest and greatest machines.

Game on.

That's the message computer makers, which are increasingly looking to hard-core gamers to make up for a lackluster PC market, are sending. Gateway is the latest to try to take advantage of the trend. The company plans to release this week customized versions of its midrange and high-end desktops, which it aims specifically at gamers.

"We are definitely seeing gaming growing," said Rick Schwartz, Gateway's senior product manager for digital solutions. Schwartz added that the expected debut of action game "Half-Life 2" at the end of September could spark existing game players to upgrade their machines.

Hewlett-Packard said last week that it, too, will offer a PC aimed specifically at gamers. In doing so, HP and Gateway are targeting niche players such as Alienware that have focused on that segment of the market. Dell also has entered this market with its Dimension XPS.

One of the reasons PC makers like gamers is that they tend to need the latest and greatest machines, which often have higher profit margins than the typical desktop. "Obviously, these are higher ASP (average selling price) machines," Schwartz said.

Gateway's high-end gaming PC is a specialized version of its 700 series, a line of desktops already fairly popular with gamers. With the 700X Gaming PC, Gateway is adding a faster graphics card with more memory--Nvidia's GeForce FX 5900 Ultra with 256MB of video memory.

The machine, which includes a 2.8GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of 400MHz DDR memory, a 160GB Serial ATA hard drive, a DVD burner and a 19-inch CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor, will sell for $2,099.

Gateway also is trying to carve out new territory with a midrange gamers' PC. The company is offering the 500S Gaming PC for $1,149, including a 128MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5200G graphics card, a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of 333MHz DDR memory, an 80GB Ultra ATA hard drive, a 17-inch CRT monitor and a drive that can play DVD movies and burn CDs.

"Most of the gaming PCs out there are in the $2,000 to $3,000 range," Schwartz said.

The move is somewhat of a return to its roots for Gateway, which was known in its early days among gamers as a good place to get the most powerful PC at a decent price.

Both of Gateway's gaming PCs come with the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 soundcard with FireWire ports and a set of Boston Acoustics BA745 speakers with a subwoofer. The new models include three popular games: "Battlefield 1942," "Need for Speed Hot Pursuit 2" and the "Madden 2004" football game, which debuted last week.

The gaming PCs will be available starting Thursday by phone and through Gateway's Web site. Gateway also plans to stock the machines in its stores, where they should be available shortly, Schwartz said.