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Alienware Invasion

Alienware Area-51 Series m5550
Quake, Doom, and now Dell (DELL)? Are big computers catching the gaming PC bug?

Gaming PCs were once a strictly nerds-only corner of the personal computer market. Heck, you still can't even rent PC games at most Blockbusters.

But then no less than Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) bought game PC maker Voodoo Computers last month; Dell had already gobbled up fellow game PCer Alienware in March.

It's easy to see what attracted both H-P and Dell to their game-making quarries.

Game-playing computers are cool. They're the Porsche 977 Turbos of the PC market: fire-breathing computational monsters built with the speed and power to handle processor-taxing pastimes such as Doom III or Quake 4.

"Our machines have an aggressive contour and design that separates them from the mass market," says Mark Vena, vice president of marketing at Alienware.

But the deals got me wondering: Are Dell and H-P becoming serious gaming PC impresarios?

A quick look at Voodoo's and Alienware's product lines showed me the big computer makers are not going into gaming with a vengeance. Rather, it's the other way around -- Voodoo and Alienware are going to pump fresh blood into the otherwise lackluster general computer market.

The Laptop of Luxury

If you are a computer snob like me, the Calgary, Alberta-based Voodoo PC is for you.

The company's Envy line of laptop computers, for example, starts at $2,500. And trust me, you'll want to throw more like $8,000 into an Envy once you taste the blistering performance and excellent features.

These machines come in countless colors and configurations. The best part is the paint: The Envy I tested was finished with the same red epoxy used by Italian sports car maker Ferrari. Va-va-voom.

Miami-based Alienware tells a different, more varied product story.

Yes, the company sells ubergaming PCs with the similar bombproof performance and price as the Voodoo. But the company has also quietly developed about a half-dozen rather everyday business and personal laptop computers.

These machines are still game-friendly; all offer serious processors and memory. But the units proffer more modest features akin to a traditional mass-market laptop.

To get a feel for Alienware's more mainstream offerings, I spent a few weeks with the company's decidedly humanoid Area-51 Series m5550 laptop.

The m5550 is Alienware's value-oriented line. These machines start at $999, and the one I tested ran at about $1,684.

Pricing and comparing laptops is disgracefully complex -- yet another product line ruined by bait-and-switch pricing -- but I'd say on average an Alienware's price will run about 25% more than one for a comparable Dell, H-P or Toshiba.

What do you get for your 25%? Actually, quite a bit.

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