Commodore marked the 25th anniversary of the C64 by announcing its re-entry to the U.S. market with a new line of gaming PCs. Fortunately for fans of the Commodore brand, this isn’t the same management team that augured the old Commodore into the ground (destroying my beloved Amiga in the process). These folks are focusing strictly on building gaming PCs.
Commodore Gaming, based in the Netherlands, has been selling PCs in Europe for some time. They’ve partnered with some major brands for their push into North America, including Asus, Corsair, Nvidia, and—most significantly—Microsoft. I met with CEO Bala Keilman while I was at E3 and came away impressed with most of what he had to say; but I also observed a couple of missteps that lead me to believe that the management team has a lot to learn about doing business in the U.S.
The company had just one machine to demo during our meeting because the rest had been detained in customs. They could have avoided this problem by using the services of a freight forwarder and customs broker, but Commodore apparently wanted to save a buck by using an express delivery service, instead. That’s a common mistake made by companies based outside the U.S. (and a common excuse for why review product doesn’t arrive when promised). Painting mushroom clouds on the cases couldn’t have helped matters.
The shipping lesson is easily learned, and I wouldn’t have given it too much thought had they not offered this explanation as to why U.S. Customs retained the product for further inspection: “The computers were clearly labeled as gaming PCs,” Commodore’s rep told me while managing to keep a straight face, “but the Customs agent told us that the components inside the boxes were just too powerful to be just gaming PCs.”
If you can swallow that, I suggest you join the International Federation of Competitive Eating.
Commodore encountered difficulty getting their new PCs through U.S. Customs. Painting the cases with mushroom clouds probably didn't help.
But it was Bala Keilman’s comments about the company’s partnership (Keilman described it as “strategic marketing alliance”) with Microsoft that really floored me: “We’ll be the ones who talk to the PC gamer,” he said, “because most PC gamers are not fans of Microsoft.”
Uh, Bala, let me clue you in to something: Most PC gamers aren’t fans of Vista, either; and based on my conversations with my contacts at Microsoft, the value of Commodore’s partnership to Redmond is that you’ve committed to shipping Vista machines exclusively with DX-10 videocards and a Vista-compatible game (Capcom’s Lost Planet) in every box.
Commodore’s biggest challenge, however, could be getting into retail distribution in the U.S. market. As of E3, the company had no commitment from any brick-and-mortar retailer. The Microsoft deal might gain them some leverage, but retailers typically plan their holiday offerings in the aftermath of January’s CES, not during the doldrums of summer. The barrier to entry when it comes to selling direct and online, on the other hand, should be much less formidable.
Commodore's chicken-head logo conjures fond memories for some.
Okay, so they won’t be teaching Commodore’s launch strategy to MBA candidates. Let’s look at the product the company will be shipping. The company announced four SKUs during E3: Model G, GS, GX, and XX, all of which will be outfitted with Intel quad-core processors, Asus motherboards, and Nvidia videocards. Keilman told me he expected the entry-level model G to sell for around $1,700. It will be based on a Core 2 Quad Q600 CPU, 2GB of Corsair XMS2 800MHz memory, an Nvidia 8800 GTS with a 320MB frame buffer, an Asus P5N-E motherboard (Nvidia nForce 650i SLI chipset), a 500GB hard drive, and a 550-watt FIC Ice Cube power supply. Entry-level systems will ship with Vista Home Premium.
Commodore didn’t disclose anticipated pricing on the other three models, which will feature the same components as the model G except as noted below:
All components will ship with stock clock speeds, but Keilman told me that Commodore would encourage overclocking and would even provide users’ guides to the process. The company will not, however, honor warranty claims on user-overclocked systems (a reasonable position, considering just how many factors Commodore cannot control in such a situation).
I didn’t spend much hands-on time with the one prototype Commodore had to show, but I had a favorable first impression of the minimalist case design and the cooling features (the CPU cooler features both a fan and a Peltier-like heat exchanger, with a dew-point sensor to prevent moisture formation). Every case will be insulated to reduce noise.
Thanks to Commodore’s C-Kin (it’s pronounced “skin), buyers will be able to customize the exteriors of their new machines with what looks very much like a custom paint job. In reality, the design is printed on a membrane that is then baked on to the surface of the case and then covered with a clear protective varnish. If you grow tired of having Hello Kitty, or any other unfortunate decorative choice, you can snap the panel off and trade it for your kid sister’s Transformer design.
I wish Commodore the best of luck in their endeavor. It’s great to see new competition in the marketplace, and the skin idea is new and innovative. But as Maximum PC readers know, it takes a lot more than a pretty case to score a great verdict in our pages.