Profile: HP's Blackbird 002 and the Ideal of the PC

It seems an eon has passed since the PC could be considered a thing of beauty. Even two decades ago, during the rise of Macintosh and the highly animated duel between the artful Commodore Amiga and the 8 MHz Atari ST, the computer itself, sitting there on the desk turned off, wasn't expected to be something of awe. Its beauty was in its function. Back then, "PC" was a brand whose very meaning was practicality, frugality, conservativeness. The personal computer may or may not be an art medium, but it has rarely in its history been an art form.

Still today, the computer is not universally recognized as something that elicits emotion, like a sports car or a tailored suit or even a simple sculpture. Even Apple restricts an iMac's beauty to its "interface," and hides its central components behind its widescreen monitor. When we emote about computing, more often than not, it's about how it aggravates us - or rather, how its manufacturers and software publishers aggravate us. Our feelings remind us constantly not of what the computer has evolved into but what we wish it could be.

The ascension of the motherboard as a consumer item unto itself has, in only the last few years, given rise to a class of computer user who cares as much about the machine as its function. While a great majority of computer users care as little about the box that crunches numbers on their desk as the one that keeps the Jell-O cold in their kitchen, a few have come to appreciate the craftsmanship, the engineering, the achievement of being able to calculate so much in so little space. The motherboard helped provoke users to care again, even more so than the CPU or the graphics card. Like shadetree auto mechanics who come to appreciate the beauty of the piston engine, computer builders take pride in the engines in which they invest. And so they care as much about the chassis in which their motherboards are encased, as in the devices themselves.

Rahul Sood came to prominence as a system builder - someone with as great a passion about a computer's form as its function. One day a few decades ago, Rahul's parents made an investment in his future, purchasing him an Apple IIc. It immediately became his pride and joy. He began demonstrating that pride by painting it some color, any color, other than beige.

RAHUL SOOD, Chief Technologist, HP Gaming: In the past, up until Blackbird was launched, what you would have is a box with technology inside and stickers on the outside saying what technology was on the inside. And I refer to that as "sticker marketing."

For example, you've got two different companies. Each company is building a box - I hate that word, by the way, but that's what they're building - and they might have "Intel inside" and they might have an ATI sticker, and another company might have an AMD sticker and an nVidia sticker, and at the end of the day, there's two different boxes with different stickers, and they're competing on price and sort of commoditizing themselves, and not thinking about anything else that the customer wants other than the price.

Blackbird - specifically, the HP Blackbird 002 - is the pinnacle creation of Canada's foremost system builder. Rahul and his team were responsible for the Voodoo Omen, one of the gaming community's most highly praised premium models, still seen today most often clad in a most resplendent orange.

But painting systems was what Rahul was doing since he was a kid, and it was getting old.

RAHUL SOOD: Performance is important, it's a factor, but it shouldn't be about 100% performance. And that's exactly what was going on with the industry; the industry was so fixated on performance that all we were doing was building boxes, putting stickers on the outside, and slapping a price on them, and maybe doing a bit of overclocking here and there. In the gaming business it was a little bit different. We were painting them, coming up with cool paint jobs on the outside. But I got so sick of that, thinking, you know, there's only so many ways you can paint a system before you get sick of it. I was thinking to myself at one point, what the hell am I doing here? We're painting these systems, and there's nothing really crazy that we're doing anymore. Even though we were the first to introduce automotive paint to this sort of thing, doesn't mean anything. We were the first - so what, who cares? Three years later, everyone else is doing it. We've got to do something different.

Next: Something completely different

[All photography courtesy HP Gaming Division]

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