Hot Rod PCs Blend Speed, Style

CHICAGO TRIBUNE – David Mechnic wanted to play “Half-Life 2” on his computer. But the video card in his PC was too feeble to handle the game’s high- powered graphics.

So the engineer from Mundelein bought a better card, which in turn required a bigger power supply and a bigger case to hold the computing gear. Then his stock motherboard no longer fit so he bought a new one, followed by a new hard drive and a few neon lights to show off the new parts.

There are only two original components left: the memory and the processor, said Mechnic. “The memory will go next and then I’ll be adding water cooling. A $300 video card turned into $1,100 in upgrades.”

The video game plays just fine now, too.

Spending all that money to upgrade the speed, performance and style of a home computer may seem silly to some when simply purchasing a new computer–for about the same price–would suit the needs for more power for most people. But that would be missing the point.

Mechnic is a self-professed computer modder–short for modifier– a growing class of enthusiasts that enjoys revving a PC’s performance and dressing up their computer cases much like an auto enthusiast would customize a car.

The modding fad began as a way for computer gamers to one-up each other at gaming parties–gatherings where gamers would connect their computers to play against one another–but has grown into a half- billion-dollar-a-year industry, according to IDC Research in Framingham, Mass.

Now the trend is influencing mainstream computer-makers and retailers like Dell, Best Buy and CompUSA to stock modding parts and accessories.

One of the leading makers of aftermarket computer parts, Fremont, Calif.-based Antec Inc., has seen double-digit growth in the past five years. The company has sold half a million of its Sonata Quiet- PC cases, which retail for $129. In comparison, a plain case can sell for $29.

“It doubled the size of our company,” said Scott Richards, worldwide vice president of sales and marketing. The firm initially targeted hobbyists but its products now can be found in Office Depot and Staples stores.

Modding has been a tough sell to retailers like Best Buy, who serve broad markets. “Every time we’ve stepped into a larger stage, they’ve been skeptical,” Richards said. “They’ll say stuff like, ‘You better know what you’re talking about.’ Now our products can be seen on the front page of newspaper advertising circulars.”

IDC analyst Roger Kay said there is plenty of growth potential because modders are not as price-conscious as average consumers and profit margins are much fatter.

Hard-core modders, who are a fraction of buyers, will cut into cases, fabricate parts, airbrush designs and easily spend $3,000 to $4,000 to outfit their PCs. Kay calls them Tier 1 modders.

“The Tier 2 guys may want a lot of power but don’t go under the hood as much. They’ll swap a card and upgrade memory and spend in the $2,000 to $2,500 range,” Kay said.

“Then you have the 5 million mainstream performance buyers in Tier 3. They buy whole systems. They’re wannabes. They don’t have the technical savvy. This is where the big vendors come in.”

Alienware Corp. of Miami was among the first PC manufacturers to target the gaming/modding niche. It first sold a case made by Cooler Master to customers who wanted to upgrade their PC’s appearance. It was a big seller.

Alienware then started to design its own cases. The result was the Predator with its unique air intakes and bezels, which are the frames that mask the front of the computer case. The case resembles the creature from the “Predator” movie series.

“The Predator was a milestone” for a computer manufacturer, said John Phillips, editorial director for Future Publishing, a publisher of high-tech magazines including Maximum PC. “We’ve been covering case modding for over three years now. Our response to readers sending pictures of mods in progress was big. That’s when we realized this is more than a fad.”

Mainstream manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell, have stepped up with powerful gaming-specific systems that feature brushed aluminum cases and lighted bezels.

Those machines are “a bit tricked out,” Kay said. “It’s got heavy specs so you can brag about it, but it’s not a monolith.”

Entry-level modders often start by adding a fan illuminated by LEDs and USB cables that glow. That can lead to an avalanche of modifications inside and outside the case.

Items like cold cathode tube lights, which came from the custom car market, are cheap, easy to install and can dress up an otherwise boring beige case.

The Mutant Mod brand (, a subsidiary of computer-parts retailer and manufacturer, sells lower priced modding parts that appeal to entry-level buyers.

The most popular item is a $10 blue LED fan, said Ben Bednarz, product manager for StarTech.

“People often need a replacement fan and go into the store, and they see these, which are competitively priced, so why not?” he said.

All of this combining of different parts, known as bashing among modders, can create problems, and it has spawned a number of helpful forums for modders.

One site,, boasts 100,000 users and millions of hits each month. Mechnic spent hundreds of hours researching his purchases on the site.

At least one modder has turned his hobby into a full-time job. Paul Capello wrote the recently released book “Maximum PC Guide to Extreme PC Mods” by Que Publishing, a project guide for beginners and experts. Capello, a former carpenter from Brooklyn, builds elaborate machines for big clients like Intel and ATI.

“It’s for companies that want to show the latest hardware at trade shows,” said Capello, who has spent as much as $12,000 on his personal modding projects.

“I don’t usually look at the numbers,” said Capello, who admits to losing himself in his projects. “It can get quite pricey. My wife is making me keep better tabs on everything.”