Fans of videogame consoles often dismiss PC gaming as being the realm of "beige boxes" - a reference to the omnipresent off-white systems which sat beneath or beside lumbering CRT monitors to provide the PC gaming experiences of much of the 1990s. Filled with whirring fans, built from unimaginative 90 degree angles which looked far more suited to Word and Excel than to compelling adventures in alternate universes, and coloured in a manner apparently calculated to show off coffee cup rings as well as possible, PCs didn't start out life as attractive beasts.
As for portability? Not a hope. For years, laptops, themselves often blocky and unattractive, offered only a fraction of the performance of their desktop brethren and such luxuries as decent 3D acceleration were completely out of the question. Even simple features like DVD drives took a long time to arrive in laptop computers - and screen sizes, refresh rates and resolutions have remained a barrier to playing games on a laptop for a long time.
In the desktop PC market, much has changed in the past five years. Arguably spurred on by the vocal legions of case modders - people who modify their PC cases to look better with the same level of technical wizardry and creative artistry witnessed in the best car mods - but almost certainly more with an eye to capturing the fashion-conscious mass market, PC manufacturers have abandoned the beige box image almost entirely in favour of colourful, curvaceous and innovative designs. Even firms like Dell, which shift countless boxes a year into faceless offices, have switched to black as their standard colour and begun building attractive design features onto their machines.
In the laptop arena, things are changing as well - albeit that these changes are more recent. Innovative and desirable laptop designs like Apple's PowerBooks and Sony's VAIO range have spurred fresh consumer interest in laptops, which were seen for years as the preserve of stuffy corporate executives who spend too much time looking at spreadsheets in business class transatlantic flights. Once consumers became interested, a whole new opportunity arose in the market - laptop gaming devices.
Several companies have sprung up to the challenge, assisted by rapidly spiralling mobile processor speeds and the advent of high-end graphics chips with low power consumption and heat output. Mainstream companies like Dell and Acer offer gaming laptops as part of their ranges; gaming PC maker AlienWare has a selection of high-end laptops to complement their award-winning desktops; and right here in London, high-end computer specialist SavRow is building stylish laptops that pack more punch than most gamers' desktop machines.
Founded in London in 2002 by entrepreneur Ali Raissi-Dehkordy, SavRow now has offices in New York as well as in London, and styles itself as a provider of bespoke technology - building systems to specification not only in terms of components, but also down to fine details such as the paint job (the firm can deck its systems in a unique and eye-catching paint that changes colour as you look at it from different angles) or the application of a logo or design to the case.
It's a level of attention to detail that has won the company fans not just in the specialist press - where it has received awards from the likes of PC Pro and Custom PC - but also from mass-market publications wowed by the company's powerful and attractive products. The Financial Times and Business 2.0 liked SavRow's laptops; Esquire, FHM and International Smart House thought them easily worthy of inclusion in their painfully style-conscious pages.
Keen to see what it was about SavRow's products that was creating such a stir, we took delivery of one of the firm's new Blade75 laptops - ultra-powerful systems which sport a massive 17-inch display and, crucially, NVIDIA's new GeForce 7800 GTX graphics chip, bringing the performance of the system well beyond that seen in most laptops to date.
First impressions of the Blade75 as we unpacked it were mixed. On one hand, the Blade75 is a very attractive piece of kit, sporting a silver base unit and a shiny black screen enclosure and keyboard. Optionally, the system can be decked out with the SavRoyal paint jobs to make it even more customised and attractive, but as it stands the lines of the laptop are very sleek indeed. One interesting feature is that the screen is not the same dimensions as the base unit - instead, the widescreen display (more on that later) is slightly shorter than the base, leaving a sliver lip protruding when shut which has controls on it for a CD player built into the unit, so that you can play music even when the laptop is powered down - not an uncommon feature on modern laptops, but a nice touch nonetheless.
However, the attractive design of the system must be considered along with another pair of factors - this laptop is both large and heavy. The size is inevitable - after all, you can't have a 17" screen without, well, 17" of diagonal space - but the weight was still slightly surprising. At somewhere around 3.6 kilograms in weight, the Blade75 comes in half a kilogram heavier than Apple's 17" PowerBook - not a back-breaker, or a deal-breaker even, but certainly heavy enough to make it clear that this isn't a laptop designed for being carried down to your local coffee shop or out into the park. This is a desktop replacement machine; owning one will allow you to ditch your desktop PC and monitor entirely if you so desire, but you'll only ever want to carry it between desks, which would be a major culture shock for anyone coming from smaller, lighter laptops to this hefty beast. The battery on the system is also a concession to the lack of portability - when actually using the system for heavy applications or games, we recorded little more than an hour of time before the battery indicator slid into the red. Just as this isn't a system you'll want to balance on your lap, it's also not one you'll want to use too far from a power socket.
Once you power on the Blade75, however, the system's credentials become clear. The first thing to strike you after hitting the power button is that the screen on the laptop is absolutely astonishing - incredibly crisp, clear and bright, with a fantastic 1920x1200 widescreen resolution and great response times, it's easily a rival for any desktop TFT screen you care to mention. It's arguably the system's most visible asset, and certainly drew appreciative noises from anyone who happened to stroll past the unit as it was being tested in our office.
In terms of standard usage and media functionality, the Blade75 is easily up to any task you care to throw at it. The laptop sports a powerful Pentium M 2.0Ghz processor and a gigabyte of RAM, allowing it to speed through standard desktop tasks such as web browsing, email and office applications, and the screen is ideally suited to high quality video - and plenty large enough to allow you to enjoy watching movies or TV on the system. A gigabit Ethernet port for wired networks is provided as standard - it took a little fiddling in software for ours to recognise the 100mbit network to which it was connected, but it seemed fine once it was hooked up - and the system also has Bluetooth for connecting to external devices and a solid Intel chipset based wireless networking system, which got great reception even quite a distance away from our base station.
The range of hardware packed into the box is impressive even despite the size of the unit. Above the screen is mounted a fairly passable webcam, which provides a megapixel image at a refresh rate which should be good enough for most internet video applications, and packed into the sides of the system are a DVD+/-RW drive capable of burning at 8x speeds, a four-in-one card reader, USB and Firewire ports and, of course, a DVI output for hooking up a monitor, an S-Video output for a television, and an SP/DIF audio output which would allow you to hook into a home cinema sound system should you so desire. There's even a coaxial cable connector on the back which links into an optional TV tuner in the system.
The keyboard - which takes advantage of the size of the laptop by coming with a numeric keypad, an oft-overlooked luxury on portable machines - has a light and responsive touch and was very comfortable to type on for extended periods of time, while the touchpad - a Synaptics model - was very responsive and had an easily perceptible but nonetheless silent action on its buttons. Of particular note were the built-in speakers. Hooked up to a four-channel sound system inside the laptop, the stereo speakers were better than any we've heard on a laptop before, offering great sound with little of the tinny distortion you often associate with laptop speakers.
Like much of the system, however, the speakers really came into their own when playing games - and once you boot up a modern PC game on the system, it's obvious what the Blade75 was built to do. The size of the screen and quality of the speakers show off new games like FEAR, Quake 4 and Half-Life 2 fantastically, but perhaps what was most impressive was how well the components inside the machine handled even the most punishing modern titles.
All three titles ran at superb frame-rates even at high resolutions - although manual tweaking of settings was required, since all three recommended settings far below what the laptop was capable of, perhaps due to the deceptively low clock speed of the Pentium M processor, which is actually far more powerful than it appears. Playing Quake 4 continuously for several hours showed no major performance problems with the system, with each section of the game running smoothly - even load delays were short, thanks to the speedy hard drive in the laptop.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is how cool the Blade75 remained throughout all of our testing. Even running three of the most demanding new FPS games on the system for several hours didn't make the surface of the laptop warm up more than you'd expect from simply resting your hands on it, and where most other laptops get uncomfortably hot on at least one part of the body during use, the Blade75 kept its cool all over. Admittedly, the trade-off is that the fan in the system is quite noisy, but it's a small price to pay for a laptop which can play the most recent games without any heating issues.
In the final analysis, the Blade75 is a perfect example of the type of laptop gaming system that is challenging the perception of desktop PCs as being the be-all and end-all of PC gaming. It holds its own admirably in every game currently available on the market, offers a truly amazing screen and great audio - and while you're unlikely to want to bring it with you to use in transit, it's a system you'll be proud to put on any desk you happen to be working or playing from.
The Blade75 is priced at between GBP 1100 and GBP 2400 depending on the specification of the system and the options selected, such as the SavRoyal paint options. For more details visit www.savrow.com.