Souping up their PCs

Serious gamers stop at nothing to give their PCs an advantage

News Business Reporter

Chuck Shevlin Jr., who has installed a water-based cooling system on his computer to enhance performance, and his friends meet in his garage weekly to discuss ways to modify their PCs.

Out in Hanover, about 10 hardcore computer gamers gather every Wednesday in the space Chuck Shevlin Jr. has created for them above his garage.

They're not your average gamers, and the computers they hook up to the in-house network aren't your typical beige and black boxes. Window panels on nearly every case reveal colored lights, blinking fans and, in one case, a battle between various Lord of the Rings characters.

That's just the start of it. Ask people in the area who know their computers, and you'll hear about car heater fans put to creative use, tachometers keyed to a processor's usage, and water-based cooling systems that look like they were pulled from some futuristic Honda.

Like the car-minded gear-heads of a previous generation, some gaming enthusiasts take "custom-built computers" to the extreme, giving their computers enough cooling capacity to handle state-of-the-art games and, more often than not, little extras that grab attention at a gaming event. And Western New York has no lack of enthusiasm for those bells and whistles.

Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems, the Lockport-based unit of Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Corp., unveiled their new "XMS HydroCool 200 Xtreme Water Cooling System," in March, a liquid cooling system specifically targeted to gamers who increase the running speed of their processors - or "overclock" - and need extra thermal protection.

While "ultimate gaming computers" and their components have until now been available mainly through specialized mail-order companies, some larger retailers have begun catering to a growing market of users looking for more than just the latest video card.

Dell, the second-largest manufacturer of personal computers, recently began offering the Dimension XPS, which it promotes as "built for the hardcore gamer," with upgraded thermal and power controllers, high-end video and sound cards, and a blue and silver chassis. While not exactly cutting edge in the world of "modding," it is a step away from Dell's traditional black and gray cases for home and office computers.

Lionel Menchaca, a Dell spokesman, said the XPS is the result of consumer demand for machines designed for gaming. The company, however, is treading carefully into the market.

"The XPS is different enough to get attention, but without some of the features you'll see in serious users' computers. It's the first generation of something that we see as a growing market," said Menchaca.

CompUSA has also been turning heads in some of its stores, with a "Custom-Built Computers" section that lets customers upgrade individual components of a computer and puts them in customized cases.

At the store's Amherst location on Niagara Falls Boulevard, one of a handful of stores testing out the idea, the big hit is a jet-black case with two tubes on the front, filled with air bubbles and constantly changing color. One dentist loved the look so much, she recently bought three of them for her office.

"It's mostly young people, kids going to college that pick these out, but there are some older people looking at them," said Frank DeAgro, store manager. "By now, they've already had one computer, and maybe now they're looking for something different."

Steve Gornick, tech services manager for the store, said that while after-market modifications remain mostly a do-it-yourself market - and the store caters to it, offering an increasingly wide line of fans, kits and other accessories - some veteran builders are starting to take the bait.

"There was a point in time where building your own system could be a pretty good savings. But with us, you're getting a two or three year warranty, and you're assured that we use quality parts," said Gornick.

At the Game Players Anonymous den in Hanover, the roots of members' love for thinking outside the beige box doesn't fit neatly into any one category; it's part envy, part showmanship, and a large part having nothing else to do.

"Boredom leads to a lot of the things we do," said Greg Maze, a Wednesday-night regular whose case utilizes cut-up plastic soft drink bottles for air intake. "It's also like, "Wow, look what he's got,' but that can actually help. When one of us gets an upgrade, we pass the old part on to someone else, and it keeps feeding itself."

Some modifications require only fitting another fan in place, or attaching a light somewhere in the case. Once users move to installing water-cooling systems such as Shevlin's, or attempting to overclock their CPU, they begin moving into less innocuous territory, sometimes with costly results.

Aaron Kondziela is a former technician at Parkside Computing and chief information officer at Cyberjocks, a computer gaming center in Amherst that opened in March. When gamers bring in their cases for all-night network parties, he sees the full spectrum of cases, from exquisite briefcase conversions to deliberately shoddy-looking setups made entirely of duct tape and cardboard.

From his years of experience taking parts in and out of computers, he hopes their owners aren't making the same mistakes he's made in the past.

"It's great to see kids come in, look at each other's cases and come up with crazy new ideas," said Kondziela. "But for the most part, they don't know what they're doing."

At one training session, Kondziela saw that just moving a foot around a regular carpet can generate 700 to 800 volts of static electricity; the first damage to computer components can occur at around 20 volts. As such, he recommends either doing work on a workbench with hard floors, or using static-free mats or wristbands that attach to the case and ground the person working on it.