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the way resolution is measured. For example, the benchmark for full high-definition is 1,080-pixel (1080p) vertical resolution. Depending on who does the measuring (not everyone gauges this exactly the same way), 4K resolution offers double or quadruple the density of full HD screens. “Imagine four 1080p monitors stitched together and displaying one screen,” Santos says. “That’s what 4K is.”
While the makers of custom PCs say they can build machines that run 4K content smoothly, they question when rival devices will catch up. “In the console space, 4K gaming is seven years away,” Santos says. “The new consoles [Xbox One and PlayStation 4] won’t do native 4K games.” (Native 4K games have yet to hit the market).
Reeves also sees 4K content pushing the custom market forward. Falcon Northwest, with its Mach V line, is regarded in many circles as the progenitor of custom PC gaming machines; it was founded in 1992. Reeves says that casual games run just fine on tablets and phones, but the advent of 4K video represents a substantial evolution for the medium. “For 17 years, resolution increased gradually, then the TV industry went crazy for 1080p,” he says.
The introduction of the high-end liquid crystal Retina Display in Apple products, he says, pushed the technology further. Reeves says Hollywood studios should be able to switch relatively easily to 4K resolution for video content on future Blu-ray players and Ultra HD televisions. The gaming market though will need hefty hardware, by his assessment, to achieve that level of resolution. “It takes a lot of PC horsepower,” he says. Two $800 video cards working in tandem would be the minimum to run 4K games, he says though more expensive graphics processing power is necessary to play the content smoothly. “This is the biggest leap in PC technology in a while,” he says.
Origin PC’s Piedra also says 4K gaming may elevate awareness of the custom PC sector. “These next generation consoles like to say they are 4K-ready—for video, which is very different,” he says. “A cell phone can do video playback in 4K. You don’t need a lot of processing or GPU for that.” Getting 4K resolution in a game, especially with fast-paced action, requires hardware in a machine that easily costs $4,000 to $5,000, he says. “There’s no way any tablet or console could ever do 4K gaming without heavy-duty graphics cards or CPUs,” Piedra says.
Eventually 4K will be the norm for video resolution, he says, but for now pricing will be a limiting factor for consumers. Piedra says a recently announced 31-inch 4K gaming monitor costs $3,500. “Just for a monitor alone, that’s expensive,” he says, especially when added to a computer system powerful enough to render graphics at that level.
Of course putting together a monstrously powerful PC rapidly increases the cost. Santos says his company’s average customer is in his or her mid-30s, looks to gaming as another form of entertainment, and is willing to pay for an extremely powerful PC. “It’s a hot rod,” he says. “There are people who will spend $100,000 on a car and there’s people who’ll spend $30,000 on a PC.”
Santos says a machine from Maingear’s uppermost tier, such as the gargantuan Force line equipped with nickel-plated water blocks and multiple pumps for the cooling system along with a ton of other premium components, can cost $25,000. Many of the high-end desktop computers he builds though range from $8,000 to $10,000. “You’re not going to get much more if you go beyond that,” he says. At that level, the PC already has three or four powerful graphics cards, the fastest processor money can buy, 64GB of memory, and a couple of solid state drives.
Maingear sees repeat customers buying new high-end models every two to three years, Santos says, even though they can still outperform off-the-shelf computers. “A five-year-old Maingear desktop is still faster than what you can buy at Best Buy today,” he says.
At Falcon Northwest, Reeves says some customers order machines that range from $8,000 to $15,000 at the upper end, though an extreme purchase of $30,000, which included enough backup parts to completely rebuild the PC, is not unheard of.
Piedra says Origin PC, founded in 2009 by former employees of Alienware, builds machines that start at the lower end around $1,300 but can scale up to more than $8,000 with quad graphics cards, liquid cooled towers, and custom paint for the case. “Our average selling price is $4,000,” he says. The company’s Big O machine literally is a humongous fish that devoured another fish—it can be equipped with an Xbox 360 slim console built directly inside its chassis.
“I don’t think people would play Angry Birds on our computers, Piedra says. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”
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