In years past, the portable PC gaming arena has often boiled down to a two-sided rumble between the Acer-backed Predator range and Dell’s Alienware brand. However, at this year’s PAX Australia, that race escalated to a new stage with HP launching a major marketing offensive to entrench their new OMEN range in the minds of potential notebook-buyers.
Where the previous year’s event saw virtual reality gaming isolated to small enclosures, this year saw the technology permeate every corner of the Melbourne convention hall. In the minds of many attendees, this served to close the gap between the potential of VR gaming and the PC required to realise it – and every major brand in PC gaming took advantage of that to promote their VR-ready notebooks.
Only debuted a few short months ago, HP’s OMEN range had a very big presence on the show floor. Their notebook range comes in both a 17 and 15-inch variation, each equipped with top of the line Nvidia or AMD video cards and a streamlined aluminum chassis coated in a slick black finish. Simply put, it’s easy to see why attendees swarmed the HP booth to get their hands on and spent some time with the machines.
The displays on these notebooks might lack the touch functionality in that of competitors, but HP told us they are leveraging the lack of touch functionality to provide customers more bang for their buck when it comes to display quality. At least, to a point – they told us they looked at taking the display 4K but kept things FullHD in order to ensure better performance overall. This methodology guided HP’s corporation of the fast-charge tech you might find in an Oppo or Samsung phone to the range. That said, the laptops can be customized with a 4K IPS display if ordered directly through HP.
The crown jewel of HP’s Omen range is the OMEN X VR backpack. They told us that where competitors were pushing to miniaturize laptop components, they were pushing to bring desktop-quality fidelity and performance. They told us that after seven years of research and testing behind it, the backpack would be making its way to Australian retailers early next year.
It’s an impressive coming out for the company – but it isn’t one that has Joe Olmsted, Alienware’s head of PC development, worried.
He welcomes the competition, saying it grows the industry and “just means more people are in PC gaming. The rising tide raises all ships.”
“We have been a company focused on gaming our entire life. We weren’t a mainstream company that made beige boxes and got into the gaming industry whenever it seems cool.”
The focus for Alienware this year is their new 15-inch and 17-inch notebooks.
There are “a lot of changes this year for us. We had two new desktops, three new notebooks, updated every other product we have [and] added VR-capability to every one regardless of whether you use HTC or Oculus.”
Olmsted isn’t afraid to reflect on the past year. He says last year it felt like the industry was just dipping its toes into VR but this year he’s seeing it everywhere. I asked which of the players in VR he finds that Alienware consumers are gravitating towards and he noted that while HTC’s alliance with Valve Corp has impressed them, it ultimately comes down to “which gaming ecosystem do you want to get into.”
When I spoke to Joe about finding a balance with specs and price when it comes to the notebook market. He said that price guides specs and it’s a matter of delivering a device that leverages what can and can’t be upgraded later.
“It’s easy to say $400 twice than $800 once,” he says.
He’s also quite proud of the company’s efforts in making their laptops VR-ready.
“I think back to a year ago – everyone thought they’d need our highest-end desktop [for VR] – and this year you can get a 5.7 pound laptop and have the same minimum VR experience”
He says “I don’t know why anyone would purchase a gaming laptop and not have it be VR-ready. It’s going to change everything. It’s going to change gaming and it’s going to change cinema.”
“The last twenty years have allowed us to figure out what the best kind of games is in the 2D world. The next ten will be teaching us how to make the best kinds of games in the 3D world.”
I ask what he makes of Microsoft’s recent offensive into a prospective mid-tier of VR, set to launch April 2017.
“The one thing we’re not interested is becoming a content provider. We would absolutely embrace the content ecosystem of Microsoft if our customers want it.”
“The content is what drives my business and I’m not going to invest time and energy in something that doesn’t have content.”
While VR-ready has quickly become a common bit of industry branding, Alienware says they take that term seriously and work with Oculus and HTC to ensure maximum compatibility and efficiency when it comes to the way they built their laptops. Joe says that even small component incompatibilities or issues can trickle down into a negative experience when it comes to VR and that Alienware are working to stamp that out from the top down.
I asked how the company’s range of external GPU ‘Amplifier’ products has been faring in the market and Joe told me he’s confident the category is here to stay. He said that it very much succeeds where efforts to capitalize on the the promise of modular notebook graphics and upgradability failed back in 2006.
“This end-to-end thing just never happened. So we gotta figure this out and what better way to make your laptop upgradable than to just stick a desktop [graphics] card in there,” he says.
Finally, Joe confirmed that the company’s latest gaming notebook – the new Alienware 13 – would be coming to Australian retailers on January 2nd.
He says the new version of the notebook will still be the thinnest VR-ready laptop on the market but feature new parts that they hope will allow them to push the price lower.