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Game on: Alienware's 20-year affair with gaming helps drive the future of VR

Agam Shah | Oct. 13, 2016
Alienware blew away the notion that gaming PCs interest only hobbyists, and plans to do the same for VR

"Nelson's perspective was, we're going to build the most bad-ass, cutting-edge PC as we possibly can. We tend to think of aliens having superior technology to us," Azor said.

Alienware's early gaming PCs sold for more than $3,000, which was crazy at a time when the goal was to bring down PC prices.

A few small gaming PC companies like VoodooPC (now defunct) and Falcon Northwest were competing with Alienware on price and features. Over time, Alienware excelled on design, while desktops like the expensive Mach V from Falcon Northwest stepped ahead in performance.

Alienware started the "color revolution" in gaming PCs, noted Kelt Reeves, founder of Falcon Northwest. Gaming desktops mostly were dull, beige boxes, but Alienware added several ColorWare cases to desktops in 2000.

Bright, colorful gaming PCs are now commonplace. Ironically, Alienware is now conservative on color, and offers systems mainly in black and silver, Reeves said. That is more in line with Dell's PC lineup.

Alienware's first gaming PCs were made of off-the-shelf components and cases that were validated, personalized and sent to customers. A major breakthrough was the unconventional Predator desktop chassis, which was the company's first product designed in-house.

"We hadn't created a product from ground up and that really challenged us," Azor said. The Predator desktop took company officials to Asia to source components and learn about tooling, parts and manufacturing. 

Alienware in 2003 delivered another breakthrough product with the Area-51M laptop, which was one of the first laptops dedicated to gaming, with graphics that could be upgraded. It had impressive specs -- a 15.4-inch screen, 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1GB RAM, 60GB hard drive and Nvidia's GeForce FX Go5600 GPU.

The biggest milestone was Dell's acquisition of Alienware in 2006, an event that legitimized gaming PCs as a major market.

"Before Dell's buyout, gaming PCs were thought of as niche products offered only by small independent companies to a few enthusiasts. A couple of big-box PC company attempts to make gaming PCs years earlier had flopped, like the NEC Power Player system," Falcon Northwest's Reeves said.

At the time of Dell's acquisition, Alienware had annual sales of about $172 million and around 800 employees. Dell's acquisition inspired HP to buy Voodoo, which failed and was ultimately shuttered.

Ten years after the acquisition by Dell, Alienware has expanded its gaming offerings, experimented with new designs and started targeting its PCs at an audience beyond avid enthusiasts.

Dell has continued to invest in Alienware, encouraging the development of unique products like the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, an adapter chassis to hook up the latest GPUs to laptops and desktops.

Alienware is also coming out with risky products like the Steam Machine, which is a console-like Linux gaming PC based on a design from Valve. Steam Machine has a committed user base, though it's nowhere near as popular as Windows PCs for gaming.

 

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