Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Is There A Future For Enthusiasts?

Face-Off: Does HP's PC Business Affect Us Enthusiasts?
By , Alan Dang

Alan: I disagree. You and I have desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. But we're techies. If you had Office on an ARM device, casual users aren't going to be buying PCs anymore. If the PC market shrinks, there's going to be less economies-of-scale or R&D investment. That's ultimately going to hurt enthusiasts.

Chris: But that's like saying if the same Zelda game showed up on the 3DS you wouldn't bother with the U. There's no way I could edit spreadsheets, write fluidly, or build a PowerPoint presentation without wasting tons of time on a small ARM-based device. I maintain folks will own both before they go one way or the other.

Alan: But they already own both. The question is if they're going to buy another PC "next time" or if they're happy with what they have spreadsheet, word processing, and PowerPoint-wise. If they're happy with the HP or Dell they just bought in the last couple of years, and they're not planning on buying another PC in the future, then HP is right for jumping ship. But it still means that enthusiasts lose because we become a niche industry. In the 70s and 80s, having an audiophile setup was common. You could get great equipment for not-a-lot-of-money. Nowadays, very few people are buying pure music setups. Could desktop PCs go the way of the compact discs to make room for thin clients, Quadro-in-the-cloud, etc?

Chris: So it sounds like you’re anticipating a bad situation for enthusiasts, no matter which way the wind blows? The thing is, we’ve been hearing that for years. And yet, AMD and Nvidia derive their entire product lineups from high-end GPUs. Intel’s CPUs are fast and overclockable enough to stay ahead of multi-GPU configurations, SSDs are simultaneously quicker and more affordable than ever, and you can find $600 motherboards if you really want such a thing. Just as there’s a demand for sports cars from the guys who can afford them, so too will there remain a market for high-margin, low-volume enthusiast gear. The key to success is taking that Formula 1 technology and using it to improve Honda-class components.

Alan: Funny that you used Honda as your example. Honda's F1 team ended when the company decided it couldn't support the team financially. Now look at what's happened to the NSX replacement.

Chris: Another unfortunate consequence of the economic down-turn. But hey, at least there's still rumored to be a successor in the works.

Alan: Most people think that HP hasn't done much for enthusiasts since the Articooler, and even then, HP detractors will say that it was really Agilent that decided to sell the cooler to consumers. Still, that set the stage for countless Thermaltake and Zalman coolers which, only now, are bested by Thermalright and Noctua-style heatsink designs.

But I think HP's experiments with VoodooDNA and Tom Szolyga's and Rahul Sood's concept-designs-as-reality still pushed enthusiast-level engineering, some of which we haven't seen trickle down to things that individual system builders can access.

The pedestal-based Blackbird still demonstrates solid system cooling principles and I think Rahul Sood still uses that chassis for his personally-built system, since it was ATX-compliant. You can actually see some of that HP engineering expertise in its current workstation line. The Z600 and Z800 workstations have the function-is-form design that comes from the BMW DesignWorks design, but the HP PSU design is something pretty awesome that replicates the old SGI Octane chassis, where the PSU spans the length of the case and gets its own supply of fresh air from the front.

The also short-lived FireBird lineup brought us a 350 W external PSU with a reasonably powerful (at the time) Core 2 Quad and GeForce 9800S.

In 2011, I'd love to build a small system like the FireBird. Three hundred and fifty watts doesn't sound like a lot, but it's plenty for a Core i5-2500K or i7-2600K, a Radeon HD 6870 or GeForce GTX 560 Ti, and an SSD or two. I'm not sure where I can find a cheap, reliable external PSU with that kind of power.

Chris: That "tier-one advantage" comes from the resources to build unique enclosures that wrap around hardware in a specific way, which is what the FireBird embodied. Incidentally, this is something becoming more available to the do-it-yourself crowd in 2011. Most people missed it, but the Intel DH61AG motherboard is actually intended to drop into empty all-in-one shells from companies like Gigabyte, ECS, and Mitac. We're not even close to achieving tier-one parity in that regard (with the powerful, external PSU, even), but you can go out and build a mainstream all-in-one with HD Graphics 3000, if that really tickles your fancy. Here's the thing: it takes a push from a company as big as Intel to set the gears into motion. You need an organization large enough to jump-start ODM production, to set up distribution, and to promote reseller awareness. That's not an issue when you're HP or Dell.

Alan: HP was much more aggressive than Dell in trying to push the envelope of PC power supplies. If you think about it, our PSUs really haven't changed in form factor since the 80286 era. Sure, we've gone from AT, ATX, ATX12V, EPS, etc. But PC power supplies are almost always a box at the back of the chassis with a bunch of wires that travel everywhere. Guys like SGI and HP were daring enough to try to develop better PSUs. If you look at what they did, it was all ultimately to improve airflow to the PSU and to the main motherboard compartment itself. SGI actually went further with its Octane, putting the GPU is a fully separate compartment, something that not even Thermaltake's BMW Level 10 replicates. SGI did this in 1997. On the enthusiast level, we have awesome power supplies like the Seasonic X series, but the best we've been able to do is sleeve the cables to limit turbulence and to have modular PSUs so that we can take out unused cables.

Both the Firebird and Blackbird were liquid-cooled. So are the HP Z400 and Z800 workstations. All of these systems were liquid-cooled by Asetek.There's no question that HP's investment in Asetek made a difference. Sure it was Asetek's engineers who did the heavy lifting, but with HP as its very first OEM design win in 2007, the company saw its venture capital doubled over the next two years. Now we have Corsair- and Antec-badged Asetek CPU coolers that go head-to-head against the best Thermalright and Noctua heatsink/fan combos.

People often think that the MacBook Air was the first product from a major corporation to push the idea of a SSD mainstream in January 2008. In fact, a week earlier, HP started building business desktop PCs with SSDs. I think SSDs would have caught on without HP, but it's worth noting that HP was among the first to recognize the potential.

HP rarely engaged in the high-end enthusiast market, but when it did, deeper pockets helped fund ideas that ultimately benefited enthusiasts. As the Honda/Acura NSX, Ford GT, Mitsubishi Evolution, Subaru WRX STi and Nissan GT-R have all proven, a company does not need to have an exclusive focus on enthusiast-products to do something special. Good engineering is good engineering.

Five years from now, we'll probably see the return of high-end case and power supplies being sold together as a bundle. What will change is that we will see the "new innovation" of having a non-standard ATX power supply, spanning the entire length of the chassis with dedicated airflow. When this comes out, remember that SGI was doing this in 1997 and HP was doing it with its Z workstations since 2009.

R&D by big corporations like HP affects system-building enthusiasts in ways that people cannot immediately see. If HP pulls out of the market, the major innovator with deep pockets is gone.

When HP becomes a pure software and services company, how much will it still invest in HP Labs? How much of the engineering resource pool will the spun-off or bought-out HP PC company have without access to the riches of the software and services division? That's the worry that I have when I hear that HP is backing out. Unlike IBM/Lenovo, there aren't a lot of buyers who can make the HP acquisition something worthwhile. I think Todd Bradley, one Mark Hurd's first recruits, is lobbying to become that buyer by getting HP to spin off the company.

Ask a Category Expert

Create a new thread in the Reviews comments forum about this subject

Example: Notebook, Android, SSD hard drive

Display all 52 comments.
This thread is closed for comments
Top Comments
  • 13 Hide
    AlanDang , September 3, 2011 5:47 AM
    Who is Alan Dang? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power.
  • 10 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 4, 2011 2:45 PM
    To sum it up: HP is drunk with silly ideas and therefore wants to jump ship. They said that iPad was successful... you know WHY? Because Apple spend a lot of money CONVINCING people that iPad is great! It's called advertisement! So do yourself a favor and advertise your product, otherwise of course no one will buy it!

    And you don't need to target an "enthusiast" market to make a good product. Simply stop using these crappy PSUs, ugly-looking chassis and faulty boards with locked BIOS. Is it really that hard? They keep mentioning how great and innovative their workstations are, but what about mainstream?

    HP mainstream computers represent everything that Mac users love to accuse PCs of: loads of bloatware (in case of pre-installed OS), unreliability and ugliness. YOU give PCs a bad name.

    And to address the subject of enthusiast PC becoming a "niche market"... I really don't care what they call them. Sure, the prices will go up, as they did with above-mentioned example of musical setups. But when the world will be tired of playing with toys, desktops will be there.

    There's a whole bunch of arguments for desktops dying for an average user. Let me address a few...

    1) Cloud computing. However, when you think of it a little, average user doesn't need it, because we have external storage that can be used with all your electronics. I've seen people saying that cloud storage will be perfect so that they can access their data from all their iCrap - sorry, you're a minority; the rest of us have USB on our tablets and whatnot.

    2) Tablets and smartphones. When you get tired of typing on the touchscreen and throwing birds at pigs, calling yourself a gamer, come back. Before you say "we're gonna hook up a keyboard and a screen to our tablet, and THEN!..", let me just tell you that you're coming back to desktop already.

    3) Technology gets better, and soon our tablets will be just as powerful as desktop PCs, blah blah blah. A foolish argument, because I don't see what prevents PCs using the same improvement and getting even better, still leaving mobile devices far behind.

    These "experts" keep complaining that the people don't buy new PCs every month, thus depriving them of profit... that's right, you greedy bastards. We won't buy new PCs just for the hell of it. Phones and tablets are made for that (though, if you get a really good one, it will serve you for years, unless you're into getting the most hyped device all the time), PCs are meant to be bought and used until you NEED an upgrade, not just WANT. For some, want = need, but not everyone can afford it. Just like they said, if a person already has a 2-year-old PC and it can do everything s/he needs, there will be no upgrade, and it makes sense.

    Tablets and phones are made to be changed all the time - just look at the OS support... old Android phones would often not support the newest Android, and I don't see a reason for it other than trying to force the consumer to upgrade. After all, even my 10-year old PC supports newest Linux and would support Win7 if it would have enough RAM.

    So, please quit acting like there's something terribly wrong with PCs. We know that you're simply unhappy with comsumers buying a device once and then walking away and not paying you regularly for some reason. So you want to force cloud computing, subscription-based games and streaming services... convert this one-time purchase into a money-sucking session, by all means. I understand that intention. It's perfectly healthy for business. It's not very healthy for a customer, though, but when did it ever stop you?

    All that trouble arises from general computer illiteracy of a common user. You don't need to be able to come up with a perfect desktop build out of your head or remember the list of all CPUs ever made. You just need a little bit of common sense to see what you are paying for. So, what do you want, a device that you buy once and that can do all your work for you (hell, it can be even portable, get a leptop, lol) or a much hyped shiny toy that will play Angry Birds but cost as much as small APU-powered laptop and that becomes obsolete within a few months? I know what I want and why I want it, what about you?

    P.S. Don't tell me "you're an enthusiast, hence you don't understand what non-enthusiasts want" - I know enough non-enthusiast PC users to assure you that tablets and smartphones won't cut it.
  • 10 Hide
    christop , September 3, 2011 3:47 PM
    Enthusiasts and H.P don't go together..
Other Comments
  • -2 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , September 3, 2011 4:55 AM
    who is alan dang?
  • 13 Hide
    AlanDang , September 3, 2011 5:47 AM
    Who is Alan Dang? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power.
  • -5 Hide
    tacoslave , September 3, 2011 6:39 AM
    AlanDangWho is Alan Dang? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power.

    calm down kevin spacey
  • 1 Hide
    cmcghee358 , September 3, 2011 6:46 AM
    Good analysis. The last bit really made me like HP, even though their consumer PCs are cheap enough to justify custom builds to my customers.
  • 6 Hide
    nevertell , September 3, 2011 8:49 AM
    Quote:
    Does HP's PC Business Affect Us Enthusiasts?


    No, it doesn't.
  • -4 Hide
    demonhorde665 , September 3, 2011 12:51 PM
    nevertellNo, it doesn't.

    cheers TO THAT , dumbesta rticle ehader i've seen on tom's todate

    NO real enthusiast buys name brand , they build thier own period. pfft , alien ware, lenovo HP just pffft only a wanna be enthusiast would bther with any of these
  • 2 Hide
    nerrawg , September 3, 2011 1:27 PM
    Good article on a topic that I think a lot of enthusiasts have been dreading. I find it interesting that you guys often metaphorically relate hardware development back to the automotive industry. If PC hardware is the cars, then software is the road network that people driving have to put up with. At the moment I believe that in both cases it is the roadnetwork/software that is the limiting factor. This decade has given us the most thrilling performance cars with incredible bang-for-buck such as the GTR, Corvette, Camaro, M3, Focus RS etc etc. However most of these cars are so fast that most people could never really use them to their potential on a day to day basis. The same can be said about modern PC hardware - its overpowered for the average user. Only the relative handful of consumers who take their GTR to the track on weekends/spend their weekend playing FPS games, can actually take advantage of these products. This in turn is severely limiting the market potential of what on the surface looks like such an amazing product base. People know that even though 0-60 in 3.5 and top 180 is incredible, it makes no difference when your stuck starring at fenders and red lights all day.

    Really, the development in hardware tech is amazing, but what we need to keep it moving is a new class of ubiquitous productivity software that demands better hardware. My suggestion for this is to create more advanced interfaces between the user and the PC - we need to replace the mouse and keyboard with motion detection devices and speech recog that actually works. Once the software can do this I believe we will see a drastic increase in performance demand for office software.
  • 5 Hide
    ZakTheEvil , September 3, 2011 2:55 PM
    If you buy HP computers you're not an enthusiast. PC enthusiasts don't give rat's ass about HP.
  • 10 Hide
    christop , September 3, 2011 3:47 PM
    Enthusiasts and H.P don't go together..
  • -4 Hide
    legacy7955 , September 3, 2011 4:48 PM
    This so called article sounds like "marketing" to me

    Clearly an agenda going on here, excessive greed by Leo Apotheker and his clown posse.

    Notice that "they" keep trying to "INFER" that the PSG division is NOT profitable without saying so, but then have to admit that it IS profitable.
  • 5 Hide
    bugo30 , September 3, 2011 9:36 PM
    Quote:
    The big difference is that, "back in the day," building your own computer was cheaper than buying a computer. In 2011, that's not true. The reason to build a computer is that you can get the parts you want


    I think it's more about the upgrade cycle, different parts need to be upgraded at different rates, so buying a whole new computer every few years is terribly expensive compared to just upgrading the parts as the need arises. (off the top of my head...) My keyboard and speakers are older than 10 years, my case is about 9 years old, my monitors are about 7 years old, my PSU is 5 years old, my three hard-drives range in age from 6 to 2 years old. When I upgrade later this year, the only parts I will be replacing will be the motherboard, memory, cpu, and graphics card, and for around $400-$500 I'll have a computer beats the pants off any $400-$500 pre-built. (the one thing it won't have will be a blu-ray drive, but I can't remember the last time I even opened my DVD-drive, so whatever).

    So if you think of it as a cycle, I think you'll find it is much cheaper to maintain a high-end computer (or even a mid to low end one) by continuously upgrading a custom build.
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , September 3, 2011 10:19 PM
    demonhorde665cheers TO THAT , dumbesta rticle ehader i've seen on tom's todateNO real enthusiast buys name brand , they build thier own period. pfft , alien ware, lenovo HP just pffft only a wanna be enthusiast would bther with any of these


    I'm just going to assume you didn't read it through (rather than completely missing the point).

    legacy7955This so called article sounds like "marketing" to meClearly an agenda going on here, excessive greed by Leo Apotheker and his clown posse. Notice that "they" keep trying to "INFER" that the PSG division is NOT profitable without saying so, but then have to admit that it IS profitable.


    And same here. It's pretty clearly spelled out in the story that HP's PSG is profitable. Nowhere does it claim otherwise.
  • 2 Hide
    marraco , September 4, 2011 5:13 AM
    Consider the entire number of x86 processors made by Intel and AMD each year.

    Then take the number sold by HP, Apple, or Dell.
    It a small, tiny percentage. Nothing.

    IBM made the PC. IBM left the business years ago, and nobody cares. They don't matter.

    It’s a lie to say that HP going out of business is “a change of paradigm”, “the end of PC”, or whatever. All those companies are meaningless.
  • 1 Hide
    eddieroolz , September 4, 2011 7:04 AM
    Though I believe HP's downfall probably won't affect the enthusiast market, the analysis stepped outside the box. If I understood it correctly, this article tried to explain the enthusiast market to the success of the consumer market, which was what I was not expecting.

    Oh, and it was a pleasant surprise seeing the NTT DoCoMo i-mode mentioned!
  • 2 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 4, 2011 1:53 PM
    Quote:
    The big difference is that, "back in the day," building your own computer was cheaper than buying a computer. In 2011, that's not true.


    BS. 'Nuff said.

    Quote:
    The reason to build a computer is that you can get the parts you want (which ultimately are cheaper than buying a pre-built computer and then upgrading it).


    THAT is the reason, and he contradicts his previous sentence with it.

    @all of you who thinks that enthusiasts don't care about HP, here's a good quote:

    Quote:
    If HP was using Asus motherboards, don't you think that the sales of HP motherboards helped Asus subsidize development of other high-risk, enthusiast-grade products?
  • 3 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 4, 2011 1:57 PM
    Quote:
    It even has reason to purchase webOS. That would be an excellent platform to run on its smart TVs, phones, and tablets. Samsung could do what HP couldn't by using Samsung memory, displays, and storage.


    Again, load of BS. Samsung already has Android and Bada. The hell would they do with another OS?!
  • 3 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 4, 2011 2:01 PM
    Quote:
    Intel still charges $1000 for its top-end enthusiast CPU…because it can. AMD would charge $1000 as well, if it had something competitive. The only reason we pay so much less for processors today is because AMD slots in between price point in Intel's lineup where it can offer competitive performance. Frankly, I think that if Intel wanted to charge more for its Sandy Bridge-based chips, it could (come on—$220 -2500Ks blow away even more expensive models in Intel's own LGA 1366-based lineup). But it's so afraid of getting burnt on anti-competitive practices that it pulls the bar down.


    This is another bunch of self-contradicting BS. First, he mentions i7-980/990X, then suddenly jumps to SB... And how is Intel keeping prices low just because they're afraid of "getting burnt on anti-competitive practices"?! They're doing it because otherwise nobody would buy Sandy Bridge, that's all!
  • 3 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 4, 2011 2:03 PM
    Quote:
    I disagree. You and I have desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. But we're techies. If you had Office on an ARM device, casual users aren't going to be buying PCs anymore.


    They think that people are gonna be better off typing on a tablet or something?!
  • 0 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 4, 2011 2:07 PM
    Quote:
    In 2011, I'd love to build a small system like the FireBird. Three hundred and fifty watts doesn't sound like a lot, but it's plenty for a Core i5-2500K or i7-2600K, a Radeon HD 6870 or GeForce GTX 560 Ti, and an SSD or two. I'm not sure where I can find a cheap, reliable external PSU with that kind of power.


    What. The. Hell. So he thinks 350W is enough for i7 plus GTX 560 Ti? This is final; I don't think that either of the two people in the interview know enough about PCs. Or am I missing something here? :D 
  • 1 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , September 4, 2011 2:13 PM
    Quote:
    But PC power supplies are almost always a box at the back of the chassis with a bunch of wires that travel everywhere.


    For hell's sake, stop trying to improve something that doesn't need improvement. The PSU is a box with a bunch of wires that travel everywhere because that's what a PSU IS!

    Quote:
    On the enthusiast level, we have awesome power supplies like the Seasonic X series, but the best we've been able to do is sleeve the cables to limit turbulence and to have modular PSUs so that we can take out unused cables.


    So far, I haven't seen a single mainstream HP desktop with a good PSU. They all crap out within a year or two. And it's always either a mess of unneeded cables (who the hell needs 10 4-pin power connectors in 2010?!) or so few cables that they're barely enough to connect everything that the PC had in it when it was bought.
Display more comments