Alienware: VR isn’t a hardware war
Alienware’s Frank Azor talks gaming, VR, why he doesn't use an Alienware laptop and why we need bones.
At CES 2017, I had the opportunity to chat with Frank Azor, co-founder of Alienware and manager of the Alienware and XPS brands within Dell. While Alienware started life as a boutique gaming PC manufacturer, it was acquired by Dell back in 2006 to operate as an inhouse gaming brand.
PC gaming, especially in the laptop space is a booming area, with multiple brands making aggressive pitches, such as Samsung with its Odyssey brand or Lenovo with its Origins laptops. I asked Frank how Alienware (and Dell more generally) competes against such brands just after its laptop and desktop product launch.
"It depends on which product you’re talking about. On the Alienware side it’s really quite easy. A lot of folks are getting into gaming, but not a lot of folks are getting into premium gaming, and that’s where Alienware has been focused for 20 years, premium gaming solutions.
"And we’ve done it for longer than anyone else has, and we’ve done it, I’d say, very successfully over that time period. We’ve built a reputation for ourselves and our products, and we’ve built a community of folks who can trust in that brand and that reputation. They know that with our products they’re going to get the absolute best of what’s available out there.
"Sure, you can get good graphics and a good CPU in any gaming laptop that’s out there, but what makes a premium gaming notebook premium are around the quality of the build, the type of keyboard construction, the comfort of that keyboard, the tried and true testing and customer feedback that you’ve had for 20 years as to what the right keyboard is to put inside a product like that.
"How do you design it so that it’s not only going to perform well on day one, but also preform well four years after that? Because we warranty our product for that long.
This is not something that we think of quarter to quarter, how many gaming systems are we selling. This is a question of how many customers are we bringing into the ecosystem and the family, and how are we ensuring they have a brilliant customer journey. We have to warranty that product for a period as well. So if we design something in there that isn’t going to stand up over that period of time, it’s going to end up costing us, not only in the course of repairing that machine, but also in our reputation."
Dell also used CES to launch its Inspiron Gaming lineup of laptops. These are less powerful systems than their Alienware cousins. So how do you differentiate them?
"When you look at the things that have made Alienware successful over the years, and then you look at what we’re doing with the Inspiron Gaming product, when you look at the price point, there’s a limitation as to how much you can bring over to those products. But the sharing of knowledge, the sharing of the by-customer-for-customer type of culture that we have, the experience that we have, all of these things are translating over into how we design the Inspiron Gaming products.
"There’s no leverage of components by any means. The motherboard is completely different, the architecture, the thermals, everything is different between an Alienware and Inspiron gaming. But the people, the thought process, the leadership -- those things are being very much shared.
"It’s translated into a high quality, high performance product that just doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that Alienware’s products have. But I think people are smart and recognise that a product like that, being designed and defined by a company that knows gaming better than pretty much anyone else out there, that’s totally a higher confidence purchase than a company that’s just jumping into this to capitalise on the opportunity. We’re seeing a lot of success because of that."
Was there ever any consideration of simply branding Inspiron Gaming as Alienware products?
"Absolutely. We debated it for a very long time. Heated debates at the highest level within the company. Not because any one individual thought that we should go down one path vs another path. Think through the consequences of all the different scenarios. Ultimately what we ended up with was that we wanted to stay true to the brand tenets. In order for us to excel, it’s an investment required to do so.
"In the price points we want to compete with, and that we need to compete with quite honestly, in order for us to make gaming systems more affordable and accessible to gamers, which is what Inspiron Gaming is going for, we weren’t going to be able to preserve some of those tenets in that price point. It wouldn’t be representative of Alienware.
"So we had to make some compromises. The keyboard has a different architecture. It doesn’t have as much overclocking headroom as the Alienware products. The use of materials is different as well; a lot more premium materials are used on the Alienware than they are on Inspiron Gaming products. So we felt that if we put the Alienware name on those Inspiron gaming products, customers would expect it to be like every Alienware they’ve ever seen from us. That would hurt the brand promise over time."
VR was the hype technology in gaming in 2016. How important do you think VR really is?
"PC gaming is in the period right now where it is benefitting right now from more success than it has ever had for a multitude of different reasons. One of the key reasons is that it offers the most immersive VR experiences available out there today. We look at VR as the next generation of immersive gaming.
"But what’s really interesting is that we believe VR will be disruptive to not just gaming, but it’ll be disruptive to how we communicate, how we learn. Very similarly to how the internet has changed how we do all three of those things over the last 20 years. So as a natural extension of focusing on delivering the most immersive gaming experiences possible, if you believe VR is going to be an evolution of immersion, of entertainment, we have to be focused on it. Because we’re committed to focusing on immersive entertainment.
"Last year, we shared the stage with Oculus, and we announced our commitment to VR certified systems, VR-ready systems. We announced our discount at that time for anyone who had pre-ordered an Oculus to get a discount on one of our systems. We made the commitment that by the end of 2016, every Alienware computer would be VR ready in one way or another. We delivered on that.
"In June, we introduced 3 new desktops, from our Area 51 down to our Alpha, all of which had VR capability within it, whether it was the Alpha with the use of the external graphics amplifier, or the Area 51 wiht internal graphics in.
"Around September, we launched our new notebooks from the 13 all the way up to the Alienware 17 as well. We’ve also since then brought VR capability into our XPS products. Our XPS desktop, the 8900 has VR capable configurations, and we just launched the XPS 27 here at CES, and we’ve announced that we’ll have VR capable configurations for it, starting in March.
"We also made VR capable workstations available in 2016. We’re one of the few, if only, companies that have made that commitment on the VR creation side. So within a year’s time, we went from having one VR capable platform to the entire Alienware product portfolio, the entire desktop portfolio from XPS being VR capable, and even having VR capable workstations.
"So we’re not only saying it’s important, but we’re making the investments and we’re feeding the market with it. What we’ve seen since then is that, even though the number of head mounted displays hasn’t met expectations within the industry, what we have seen is our business boom since we made this commitment to VR.
"Our research tells us that the vast majority of our customers, over 50% of them intend to purchase a virtual reality head mounted display within the next 12 to 24 months.
"So what we’ve seen in 2016 is people making the investment in the PC first, one that’s going to be VR capable, planning, we believe in 2017 and 2018 to invest in the HMD. Unfortunately it’s an expensive purchase, and we know it’s easier to save a thousand dollars twice than it is to save two thousand dollars once. We believe people saved that money in 2016, made the PC purchase, and then the HMD purchase will come along."
Within that HMD space, there’s only a few hardware players of note. Why is that?
"I think there’s a lot of players in Head Mounted Displays. There’s over 50 companies in China making HMDs.
"But ultimately, this is not an HMD war. This is a platform war. There’s really 4 platforms that are emerging or have emerged. There’s Google with Daydream, there’s Oculus, there’s Steam VR and the Vive supporting it, and we’re seeing Microsoft coming into the fray as well.
"There’s going to be a multitude of head mounted displays out there, but ultimately I think the only one that can successfully make inroads is going to be the one that aligns itself closely to a platform and enriches that platform and enriches the experience of that platform. These independent HMDs that aren’t tied to a platform. I struggle to see how they’re going to be able to take off. They’re just so codependent.
"When you look at what’s happened in the PC technology space, when you look at the smartphone space it tells you pretty much that this record is playing all over again, just a different tune."
In the broader gaming space, consoles are just moving into the 4K gaming space, and making a lot of noise about it. These kinds of resolutions have been available for PCs for years now. Why hasn’t the PC side of gaming made more noise in this regard?
"I don’t think we need to, honestly. I think when you look at the success of PC vs Console in recent years, people get it. The world is a lot smarter about technology than it was 20 years ago. We don’t necessarily need to explain everything to everybody.
"Consumers are smart. They know tech. They know what they’re looking for. They know that if they want 4K, they’ve been able to get it for years now. If they genuinely want 4K gaming, they won’t find that on a console, despite what their claims may be. And if they don’t know that, well, now they know. Because the resolution that a lot of these games are running at outside of the PC platform, despite being advertised as 4K, are not genuine 4K resolution. So I think those games are working against some of those companies.
"The genuine transparent nature of PC, where you can’t cheat the system that way, and you have more flexible options around upgrading and investing over time versus having to make a big purchase up front is really helping to fuel the success of the PC industry right now."
In the PC space, market share figures suggest that desktops are on the decline compared to laptops, but in gaming it’s not quite so. Why is that?
"We led the charge over 10 years ago when we launched the worlds’ first gaming notebook, bridging the gap between notebook performance and desktop performance for gamers. Over time since then, those gaps have gotten smaller and smaller to the point where we are now. NVIDIA’s graphics between notebook and desktop are almost indistinguishable, they even share the same brand names. We couldn’t be prouder of those accomplishments.
"But the desktop still has a lot of benefits to offer. We remain fully invested and committed in building and producing gaming desktops. Those benefits are primarily around upgradeability, longevity as a result of that upgradeability, and quite frankly price to performance. You can still get a better price to performance ratio out of a desktop compared to a notebook. You can still get more than you get on a notebook.
"Now again, we’ve tried to bridge those gaps. Two years ago at CES, we announced the Alienware Graphics Amplifier, the first of its kind, allowing customers to use a desktop graphics card to upgrade their notebook. It allowed notebooks released in 2015 to have VR capabilities before VR was really a thing. So we’ve done a lot. But we still see our desktop business being huge, and growing every year.
"So I think for gamers especially, while the performance is still a key factor, the ability to personalise and differentiate, and the ability to have a fixed destination. For a lot of folks, the way we do our gaming, we game through the Internet, so we don’t always need a laptop to do that. The desktop may be a better destination.
"For me, I absolutely love our notebooks. But I travel with an XPS 15. At home, I exclusively play on my Alienware desktops. I don’t actually use an Alienware laptop at this time. I travel so much, that I need something that’s lightweight and gaming capable, and the XPS 15 runs Overwatch just fine for me, and that’s what I’m playing right now.
"But when I go home, I want to play on a Dell 4K curved monitor. I have zero need for my system to be portable in any way. I leave it on all the time. That way my updates are always done by the time I get to the system, I’m never waiting for an update to come in. I can count on my machine resuming from sleep in 2 or 3 seconds with my game updated because my client is running in the background.
So they haven’t given you the new Dell 8K monitor yet?
"The new 8K Dell monitor is absolutely gorgeous, but I use an Aurora at home, not an Area 51. I think I’d have to upgrade to an Area 51 with two or three graphics cards to get 60fps out of that 8K display. I’m not even sure that we could still do it then. So I’m going to be a little slow on upgrading to 8K. Plus it’s a $5,000 monitor."
For gaming laptops, a common complaint is that the best gaming laptops are huge and impractical. What’s stopping you putting the premium components into smaller frames?
"The primary differentiator at the 15 and 17 inch sizes is the additional real estate, and what that affords us to be able to put in it. So we have more graphics horsepower inside the 17 inch Alienware laptop; a 1080 that operates at a full 150 to 180 watts.
"In the 15-inch we have a 1070 that goes up to 100 watts. If we supported the 1080 operating at full frequency, we’d have to make the notebook significantly larger, almost to the size of the 17. Actually, a little larger than the 17, because we have less horizontal real estate to work with. You need to get the volume somewhere, so you just make it thicker.
"Or you make a 17-inch notebook with a 15-inch screen, which is what some other guys do, which is ridiculous. We’re not going to do that. The other big differentiator there is the Tobii eye tracking technology. The thickness afforded to us on the 17-inch model gave us the space to fit the Tobii module within it in a way that wasn’t an overall impact of the product.
"But aside from that, everything else is very similar around both products. We’re very focused on optimising around thermal profiles based on the experience difference that we want to give the customers. We feel that in the 15, having the combination of a 45W processor and a 100W graphics card is the right balance for a customer who wants something that’s a little bit more mobile than a 17 but a little more performance capable than a 13. On the 17 inch, that’s kind of balls to the wall, you want the best of everything that’s out there. We’re putting the highest performance single graphics card we could put in there, the highest performance mobile CPU we could put in there, and that results in a 45W CPU and 180Watt combo."
And a lot of weight...
"Yeah, it comes with some weight. The reality is that you can always shave pounds off, kilograms off. And it comes with a cost.
"And that’s either going to come with pure cost that translates over into price, which is why you see some of these really thin notebooks that are two or three times more expensive than Alienware, or it’s going to come at the cost of quality. You’re going to sacrifice materials that make up the construction of the overall product and those reinforcement of the notebook. The skeleton of the notebook. You can always reduce that, but it’s going to come at the cost of rigidity.
"Imagine our bodies if we didn’t have bones in them. What’s the easiest way to shave weight off your body?
"Just remove all your bones, right?
"That would be an easy way to shave off weight... but what would the consequence be?"
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Alex Kidman travelled to Las Vegas for CES 2017 as a guest of Dell.