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Review: Expensive Gaming PCs Blow Away Dedicated Home Consoles

The new video game consoles already look pretty wimpy compared with the latest gaming PCs. The Wii? Whatever. The Xbox 360? No match. The PlayStation 3? You can't find one, anyway.

Featuring water-cooled microprocessors, beefy graphics cards and gigabytes of memory, current high-end gaming PCs are light years ahead of the latest consoles from Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Nintendo Co. or Sony Corp. (SNE) However, they come at a hefty price, however.

Together, two new systems I tested cost nearly $16,000 — as much as a new Honda Civic. But a new car can't run video games, and that's where the Mach V from boutique computer maker Falcon Northwest ($9,621.83 as tested, including a 30-inch display, wireless mouse and keyboard) and Alienware's Area-51 7500 ($5,419) excel.

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These two screamers are among the fastest, most capable machines money can buy for all your video gaming needs.

So what exactly do you get for that much cash? Each system includes fairly similar innards: two gigabytes of memory and an advanced 3-D graphics card from Nvidia Corp. (NVDA) that alone retails for $600 — as much as a high-end PlayStation 3.

Perhaps the most significant feature is the new microprocessor from Intel Corp. (INTC), known as Core 2 Extreme, which acts as the computing brain of each system.

Sporting four tiny processing engines on a single chip instead of just one or two, it means you can play online games like "World of Warcraft" and "work" programs like Microsoft Office without skipping a beat.

The consoles, on the other hand, tend to use customized chips tuned especially for games, and for the most part that's still the case.

The Xbox 360's CPU was designed by IBM Corp. and has three cores compared to the four cores found in the Mach V and Area-51 7500. The Wii uses a much less advanced processor also created by IBM.

The exotic processor in the PS3 is nothing to sneeze at: called Cell, the chip packs so much power that it's being used in an upcoming supercomputer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Keep in mind, however, that the technology in the consoles is locked and unlikely to change in the next five years or so, when the Xbox 720, the PS4 and the Wii 2 arrive. PCs, meanwhile, can constantly be upgraded.

The current technology in the Mach V and the Area-51 7500 meant I could frag opponents in ultrahigh 2,560-pixel-by-1,600-pixel resolutions — effectively double that of high-definition TVs — in games like "Quake 4" while maintaining a silky-smooth frame rate.

The recent strategy game "Company of Heroes" was simply amazing, as WWII battles were waged with stunning clarity in real time.

As with most new technology, however, today's crop of games are not yet programmed to tap the full potential of the advanced processors and graphics cards.

At this point, more cores aren't necessarily faster. That should all change next year with Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system and a slew of snazzy new video games like the upcoming first-person shooter "Crysis" due later in 2007.

Interestingly, neither the Area-51 nor the Mach V included a next-generation Blu-ray or HD DVD drive for high-definition movies, something now available for the PS3 and the Xbox 360. Instead, both had standard DVD drives.

The Mach V was so new, in fact, I experienced some bugs such games that froze up and stuttered at times. The problem vanished after I downloaded newer software drivers for the video card.

Beyond the shiny parts, these two PCs have a sense of style that's a huge departure from the normal boring beige, black or silver computers. (Alienware is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dell Inc. (DELL))

The Mach V is a hulking tower with hand-painted blue flames around the entire case. There's a clear plastic panel on one side of the machine so fellow geeks can gawk at the system's snazzy circuit boards. For added effect, the interior is lit up by a blue neon light.

The Alienware system was even more bizarre. The curvaceous, glossy black case was encrusted with colored lights and logos that look like small alien heads, and the case itself is actually shaped like the head of some alien from "The X-Files."

The Area-51 7500 would certainly look right at home in Darth Vader's office. (One cool feature is a software utility that lets you adjust the colors of the exterior lighting.)

If there's one complaint with these new PCs (and all PCs, for that matter), it's that they don't play the massive variety of games available for the consoles.

On the flip side, these are computers that can be used to surf the Internet, edit videos, download music and process words in addition to games. Try that with your Wii.

And really, you can't call yourself part of the wealthy computer geek club until you've edited a spreadsheet on a 30-inch screen with one of these monsters.

Deciding between the two? I'd have to give the edge to the handcrafted, fine-tuned Mach V, but really, it's like choosing between a Ferrari and a Lotus sports car.

It's largely a matter of personal preference between two distinctly different designs — and either way, you'll have to spend a small fortune.