I was just watching a video of the Bugatti Veyron at its top speed of a mind blistering 253 mph. That is faster than any racecar in Nascar, the Champ Car series and even F1 can go. Anyone who enjoys driving cars, probably would have a hard time watching that video and not want to sit in that Bugatti and experience the thrill of relentless acceleration, at least once.
Parallels are often drawn between cars and PCs and this video made me think. Think about times where I would look at the pictures PCs and lust after the case and the product. But I don’t seem to do that much anymore. Where is the magic ? Why is it that performance just doesn’t seem to matter anymore ?
Performance doesn’t matter
This is true, right ? What’s the point of buying a fast personal computer when all you need is something that will do Word, browse the Web, do IM and email ? Of course, that’s kind of like saying what’s the point of a car that can do 253 mph when the speed limit is well under 100 mph ? And really, shouldn’t we all be driving a Toyota Prius anyway ?
The car market doesn’t seem to have this problem. You can rent Shelby Mustangs. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche have been hitting record sales year after year and even Mercedes and Audi are pumping out supercars, with Acura and Lexus currently preparing their entry into this segment. The Corvette remains a U.S. favorite and the Viper has just received an upgrade to 600 hp. (Yes, I admit this is a U.S. phenomenon, as the rest of world is focusing on more environmentally friendly cars.)
Performance cars are hot these days, no doubt about it. It isn’t the performance you can’t use but what they say about the driver and no, they aren’t just purchased by those trying to overcome their physical shortcomings.
There is a certain pride and exclusivity that goes with these products. A sense that, if you can afford such a car, you are successful and perhaps just sorta wild. There are also moments when driving one of these cars you can feel a sense of being special, a sense of standing out in a positive way and being admired and perhaps even envied.
It is the exclusive side of performance, the sense that you have something that others can’t have that buys this class of car. This is a key aspect of the purchase decision of a car that really does not make a lot of sense in your daily commute.
Performance, even though it isn’t applied performance (in most cases), does matter in cars. So, why doesn’t it matter as much in PCs ?
PCs hide performance
If I’m in a performance car, both the look of the car and the sound it makes broadcast the performance I’ve paid for. But, with a PC, if it is in your home under your desk, few will see it. If it is a laptop, many designs are relatively dull and we actually spend a lot of time making quieter and quieter ; and generally, performance and quietness do not go well together.
Now, not all PCs are dull, certainly not those made by Alienware, Voodoo, and Dell’s XPS team. These systems stand out visually but they don’t broadcast their performance to the user or to anyone actually seeing the box. You could take a flashy case and put the lowest performing processor and graphics system in it and no one, except the suffering user, would likely know the difference. At least with Desktop PCs you can get transparent sides so you can show off the performance you’ve purchased. This is much like they do with some high-end cars like the Bugatti with a transparent cover over the engine. Corsair put LEDs on their high end DIMMs to showcase they were working but there is virtually nothing done with either the processor or the graphics card to showcase performance physically. (we used to be able to buy a converted automobile tachometer that would do this, but when we moved to dual-core processors that became impractical and few did it in the first place anyway).
The problem with performance PCs
I have both an AMD Quadzilla and an Intel V8. The Quadzilla has more graphics headroom and the V8 is a processing monster. Both are in hot looking cases the Quadzilla is in a Thermaltake Armor case and the V8 is in a Coolermaster Cmstacker 832 case. The Armor case has a window, the Cmstacker has a lot of quiet fans. The V8 has a huge "V8" on the front and the Armor really has no external logo that identifies it as a Quadzilla. They are both cool, but I don’t feel the lust I have for a hot car like the Corvette, Viper, or a Veyron.
Of course, the only way you’d see any of this is if you came to my house or if I lugged one of these to a LAN Party and unless someone figures out how to put an engine in one of these puppies I’m not lugging it anywhere, the V8, in particular, is a chiropractor’s dream come true.
If I go on-line and play a game or drop into a virtual world like Second Life no one knows what I’m using unless I tell them and, if I bragged, there would be no way for them to know if I was telling the truth and no way to really demonstrate the benefits of my superior performance easily.
I can go to Futuremark and benchmark my machines and watch as some guy with more guts than sense over-clocks his box to beat mine but there is no practical aspect to that while there is a little bit of envy. This is like putting your car on a dyno and pumping in Nitrous Oxide and cold air to get a high horsepower number. Who cares what your horsepower is if you can’t show it off on the street ?
Anyone who plays games knows there are advantages to performance, but with on-line games often that performance advantage is really hard to see and often your network connection speed is what causes your primary performance problems anyway.
Clearly there is potential for using an ultimate machine for gaming. You can run multiple characters, you can have a number of automatic widgets that tell you things you might otherwise lose track of (like if a defensive power is expiring) and you can more easily multi-task (for instance if you want to watch TV while gaming, transcode video, or, gasp, while working).
But few actually do this and, particularly for the in-game tools, the level of expertise needed can be daunting.
You can also turn up the game visuals higher, see greater distances with greater clarity and, assuming you don’t bottleneck at the network, you get not only a richer experience in some ways you may actually be more competitive. But, unless someone is looking over your shoulder, no one else is probably going to know you were able to do this and that makes it difficult to get the same reward you get from driving a hot car.
Putting the "Kick" back into "Kick Ass"
One easy thing that could be done is for on-line games to show details of the machines the other gamers are using. Particularly, if you are seeing someone zone more quickly or die less often, seeing that part of the reason may be the fact they have more memory , a faster processor, and better graphics carries the message that there really is a benefit to performance. It would most certainly open up conversations during game play that don’t occur that often now.
Conversely if you see someone getting killed a lot, who can’t seem to change zones in the same day, and is having a lot of lag issues you may be able to connect that behavior to their low cost hardware (or their horrid network) and actually make some good suggestions how to improve their own game play and your willingness to play with them.
I do think there needs to be some additional effort to visually connect the performance you are using to something on the PC. One that reminds you that the performance you are paying for is going to good use and it tells others just how much of a kick ass machine you actually have.
Among the more available machines that has this lust factor is the Dell XPS H2C Edition. I am hearing rumors that HP has something coming out that could outdo the H2C. With both Dell and HP looking hard at this space, a number of firms are chasing the opportunity but I’m not convinced that any really get the need to showcase the purchased performance.
Imagining the Bugatti Veyron PC
So, let’s be creative here : I think a Bugatti Veyron PC would have to be a laptop, it would need at least four cores and you’d need a visual reminder of all that power. It might be larger than the average notebook, but it would be visually distinctive and the design would cause you to catch your breath whey you saw it. Everything about it was a combination of luxury and unbridled performance and the feeling you got when using or being seen would be at least admiration. In short, the Veyron PC would be an event in a box. It should have the equivalent of the 253 mph key, which is the key in the Veyron that puts it into high performance mode. In the car, this causes it to lower, drop the spoiler, adjust the engine for maximum gas use, and visibly put the car into battle mode.
On a laptop, the accent colors could shift to red, the configuration would change to high performance mode, and there could be some visible indicators that airflow had been increased to address the added heat. It might even lift off the table a little to increase cooling and heat warning lights could come on at strategic locations. For a desktop, the components that are affected would light red ; you could see in the side that the machine was reconfigured for maximum performance and similar, though perhaps larger, warning lights would result. Secondary displays would shift to battle mode, red light with key performance metrics like temperature and processor speed would flash by.
The secondary benefit would be that, while not in "battle mode" the machine could be optimized for power efficiency giving it longer battery life and keeping Al Gore from having a heart attack. And you wouldn’t feel as bad about leaving it on all night.
What do you think ? What would the PC equivalent of the Bugatti Veyron look like in your view ?
Or, more important, how should we showcase the PC performance you are paying for ?
Of course you could just save your pennies and buy the Bugatti ; I mean it’s only $1.3 million. You’ll want to drive it more carefully than this guy did. Then again, maybe a hot PC is a better way to spend our money than a hot car, you and I will probably live longer and lord knows we’ll have a little more to spend on weekends on our significant other, I know that, in my case, she’d like that.
Rob Enderle is principal analyst for the Enderle Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.