The problem with enthusiast platforms

Coupled with Radeon HD 3800 series graphics cards launched late last week, AMD’s new Phenom processors and 790FX chipset fill out the company’s Spider enthusiast platform. As I’m sure you know by now, Spider hasn’t exactly received rave reviews. All is well on the graphics front; the Radeon HD 3800 series offers pretty compelling value considering current card pricing. However, Phenom is largely slower than its Core 2 rivals and hampered by a delay in the 2.4GHz part. The 790FX has issues, as well, held back by a dated south bridge and dodgy motherboard implementations.

Perhaps launching an enthusiast platform wasn’t such a good idea for AMD after all.

Of course, everyone wants to do a platform. Tie products together across multiple categories and, in theory, you get to sell more stuff. Platforms have worked in the PC industry, too. Just look at the success of Intel’s Centrino platform. And, er, um, Intel’s Centrino platform.

So maybe platforms are hard to get just right. Centrino had it easy, too. Targeted at mainstream consumers who have little desire to sift through benchmarks, reviews, and product specifications, all Centrino had to do was provide a tidy bundle of components covering the basics of desired laptop functionality. And it did that very well.

Unlike Centrino, Spider targets enthusiasts. We’re an audience that knows what’s up with the latest hardware and what’s coming around the corner. To capture our attention, you have to do better than simply wrapping a handful of components together in a tidy package. They have to be the best components, because although there are certainly fanboys among us, most of us are quite happy to jump from brand to brand to get the best value. We’re savvy enough to know which components are best in a given product category, too, and we have no qualms about buying parts individually and putting together systems ourselves.

If PC enthusiasts are going to get really excited about a holistic platform, it has to be one that offers the best components in each category that it covers. In this extremely competitive industry, being a leader in one product category is challenging enough. Nailing two is even more difficult, and three, well, that’s more than just a little ambitious.

Realistically, presenting a platform that ties a processor, chipset, and graphics chip together asks that enthusiasts accept at least one, if not two weak links. We’re going to know exactly where those weak links are, too, because specifications and benchmarks will inevitably be leaked on some foreign-language forum weeks before the platform is officially unveiled.

Unless a platform offers the best options across the board, enthusiasts will see it as a compromise. Why would we compromise when we can easily swap a problematic component for something more competitive?

So how does one attract enthusiast to a platform that doesn’t offer the best mix of components on the market? Make the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, either through unique features that tie the platform together or meaningful performance benefits to keeping the platform intact. We’ve yet to see a platform offer significant performance advantages, but platform-specific features have been done before. Just look at how Nvidia ties SLI graphics capabilities to its nForce chipsets. Of course, Nvidia has caught flak for locking competitor chipsets out of SLI, so there are dangers to arbitrarily making certain features platform-specific.

In the absence of unique feature or performance benefits, the best way to get enthusiasts to overlook a platform’s weaknesses is to discount the total package. If you’re going to push a platform as a collection of components, bundle them together and cut the price. Make sure the price cut is more than just a token gesture, too; its magnitude needs to match what we’re losing by not getting the best possible mix of components.

Building a platform for enthusiasts presents a unique challenge because we’re really not the sort of audience that goes out and buys platforms. We mix and match parts, upgrade in stages, and are always looking for the best deal regardless of where our brand loyalties may lie. We’re savvy and skilled enough to select the ideal parts for our needs, giving us little reason to tolerate a platform’s weak link, or links. If manufacturers can’t build an enthusiast platform with no weak links, we’re going to need other incentives, financial or otherwise. And if those aren’t present, well, we’ll keep personalizing our own platforms with the best individual components on the market.

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