Interview: HP’s Rahul Sood Talks Gaming With NotebookReview

by Reads (9,641)

by Perry Longinotti

What happens when you combine a PC gamer, a brilliant entrepreneur, and HP’s industry muscle? You get Rahul Sood, one of the biggest names in the world of PC gaming and now the man raising HP to new levels in the world of luxury and gaming computers.

Rahul Sood is the chief technology officer of the HP Voodoo Business Unit (VBU), part of HP ‘s emerging businesses group. Sood oversees the technical strategy and product vision for Voodoo’s cutting-edge products, including the Voodoo Omen and Envy product lines, the award-winning HP Blackbird 002 and other products with the "Voodoo DNA" brand.


Rahul Sood. (view large image)

Sood joined HP in November 2006 after it acquired VoodooPC, a gaming computer company he founded in 1991. As founder and CTO of VoodooPC, Sood was the first to bring liquid cooling and active liquid chilling to the high-performance gaming PC market. These innovations helped VoodooPC’s Omen desktop earn the coveted Ziff Davis Editors’ Choice award in the Ultimate Gaming Machine competition for five years in a row.

Since joining HP, Sood was instrumental in the design and architecture of HP Blackbird 002, the VBU’s flagship product.

NotebookReview.com contributor Perry Longinotti spent some time asking Sood some serious questions about notebook gaming, Voodoo, and HP’s plans for the future. Here are a few highlights:

Two segments of the notebook market that seem to be generating a lot of interest right now are Gaming Notebooks and Ultra Mobile PCs.

Let’s start with Gaming Notebooks first as that is a VoodooPC forte:

I had a chance to interview Ravi a couple of years ago during a factory tour article – this was before the HP acquisition. At that time, he mentioned that Voodoo was pursuing its own notebook chassis design. Can you update us on that?

Yes. One of the biggest hurdles we faced in the past was getting the ODMs to take us seriously based on our volume commitment, distribution channel, and market size. Even though almost all of them were familiar with the Voodoo brand and believed in us, they couldn’t get past the other issues. So this is simply another reason why we merged with HP.

It’s amazing how quickly things have changed since. People are calling on us to introduce us to new technologies on a daily basis. ODMs are no longer asking a billion questions, they are excited to work with us, and we now have a team based in Taiwan working for the Voodoo Business Unit (VBU). It seems that everyone is stoked about our future.

Several folks in the NBR forums asked questions along similar lines, how does Voodoo deal with the perception from some people that your notebooks are simply re-branded Clevos? On the desktop side you can point to extensive in-house fabrication as the differentiator, it must be a lot tougher on the notebook side.

Well, for the most part your community is right. How can I argue that? The notebook business, especially in the channel, is bloody challenging.

Prior to the acquisition Voodoo always did our best to differentiate our notebooks by modifying thermals, software, and adding different levels of personalization. In fact, we were the first to offer gaming notebooks with custom high quality automotive paint jobs. Then others came into the market and the space became very competitive and extremely stale. Let’s face it; there are only so many ways you can paint a product before you ask yourself what the heck you’re doing in the business.

Joining HP has taught us a ton about notebook development. The mainstream notebooks that HP have created feature some cool long lasting imprint designs, quality finishes, and quickplay innovations. Although Clevo notebooks look appealing from a feature set standpoint, from a reliability and engineering standpoint you just cannot compare them to any of the tier 1 companies.

There is a significant difference in engineering and testing that goes into HP notebooks. It’s somewhat unreal to me, the development cycle tries our patience, but the results speak for themselves. The bottom line is we are in the business of selling notebooks, not hand grenades.

Comparing Voodoo pre acquisition to today is like comparing a Lamborghini from the early years to the ones of today. Audi brought in significant R&D and engineering resources to Lamborghini allowing them to create some of the best cars they have ever created including the Gallardo and Murcielago. On the flipside Lamborghini brought in some style and edge which allowed Audi to create the new award winning R8 (car of the year in Robb Report Magazines).

What’s my point? Tell your community to stay tuned. We’re working on some obvious holes in our portfolio.

Are there any plans to develop Voodoo notebooks using existing HP chassis as a starting point rather than more commonly available ODM units?

That’s a great question. The 20" HP HDX consumer notebook (aka the Dragon) is an incredible system for gaming, yet we haven’t gone ahead and used the same chassis. The fact is HP has afforded us the resources and time to dream up the ultimate portfolio which will be authentic to the Voodoo brand.

We also renamed our business unit from "The Gaming Business Unit" to "The Voodoo Business Unit". This quiet announcement, while seemingly small, has profound implications on our charter.

Mainstream notebooks makers seem to be targeting gaming-capable notebooks as a growth category with some offering high end features such as Nvidia 8800m GPUs at the $1200 price point. How does this trend affect Voodoo’s pricing strategy?

In the past Voodoo branded products have never put price ahead of everything else, however "customer value" continues to be (and always has been) very important to the team. I’ll say it again, value is huge, and without it we’d be nowhere today. That said, the definition of a good value always changes, and if you don’t spent time to revisit it over and over again you’ll never be successful at this business.

HP scale has made it possible for us to ensure that we can deliver a killer value in our systems. For example, if you compare a high end Blackbird 002 with our competition, there is no comparison. Blackbird is built better, engineered better, and includes a much better out of box experience — and you absolutely get what you pay for. You can assume that as we fill out our portfolio we’ll keep this in mind.

Why does Voodoo use AMD processors in high end notebooks when Intel products perform better?

Indeed Intel processors currently perform better in most instances. However, HP is agnostic; we offer both AMD and Intel processors in many of our machines including those that fall under the Voodoo Business Unit. That said, as we move forward into our own "grounds up" designs, you can rest assured that we’ll use nothing but the best technology in our flagship devices.

On the subject of Ultra Mobile PCs:

Andrew asks: What are your thoughts on this new push for budget $300 / $400 laptops such as the Asus Eee PC and Everex Cloudbook? We know that HP is planning to enter this segment; will Voodoo bring a high end companion device to market?

Though I cannot discuss future HP product possibilities, I do think the ultra mobile is an interesting space. We are actively pursuing new attractive markets in our business unit.

Some general questions:

You are well connected in the industry, where do you see notebook technologies going in the next couple of years.

I’d love to share our vision with you; however this industry is way too competitive. Over the years (especially in the last year) we have found that our competitors look to us for leadership — so personally, I would rather surprise them with our view of the market.

What non-Voodoo computing products are you most excited about recently? Outside of HP and Voodoo whose products do you respect the most?

Easy answer, respect Apple immensely — I really like their complete ecosystem view. Their undivided focus on the customer should be a wakeup call for everyone in this industry. If "boutique companies" ignore Apple they might as well shut their doors now.

Is Voodoo planning any entry level products, or will the focus remain strictly high end?

This question requires a bit of background to answer.

At HP we created Blackbird 002 with Voodoo DNA. It’s an HP branded product with the Voodoo DNA ingredient brand. It’s build by the team at Voodoo in Calgary, and meets the stringent HP standards of engineering excellence. Borrowing from the automotive industry, a similarly tight combination of engineering and design is the creation of the Audi R8.

We really believe in what we’re doing currently. That said, even though HP Blackbird is a premium performance PC, the price point in many instances is significantly less than our competition. From a value standpoint there is no comparison, you really have to see it to understand.

As far as Voodoo exclusive products, we plan to refresh our entire portfolio. You’ll have to wait and see, but let’s just say no matter what you buy – whether it’s Compaq, HP, HP with Voodoo DNA, or Voodoo – you will receive value for your money.

As I said before, Blackbird is a start, and it’s our pace car, we still have a portfolio to fill.

How has the HP acquisition impacted Voodoo sales?

We don’t discuss our sales numbers externally – however, as a result of the HP acquisition we quadrupled the square footage of our facility in Calgary, hired more than 100 people, and expanded office space in Cupertino, Calgary, Taipei, and recently Houston.

We just finished scaling our Calgary facility to accommodate a much larger professional downdraft paint booth. The paint facility now includes three booths, one of which is dedicated to mixing custom colors. It features a clean room which eliminates all dust, and ensures that any personalization you order from us will remain absolutely flawless.

We also ordered some really cool equipment which we’re not going to talk about just yet – but let’s say that that the investment is going to put us further ahead of the competition in the high-end and performance PC space. HP is clearly committed to this space and based on our expansion on the customer care, sales, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, and business side we’re not stopping

I understand you have expanded your facility, is that primarily a result of the HP acquisition? Is the extra space for construction and fabrication or have you added more support and product development capacity too?

Good question. We actually put a higher proportion of resources in our customer facing departments in anticipation for our pending growth.

How has the Blackbird performed for HP? What was Voodoo’s role in that project?

Blackbird has been a great success for HP, and is a product which was created from the ground up by our business unit, the Voodoo Business Unit. HP started the Blackbird 001 project prior to the Voodoo acquisition but it was canned before we joined.

All said, I have never been involved in a more successful product launch, ever. We started with Blackbird, and took some time to scale the business while we prepare to fill the portfolio around it. Now that our expansion is complete we’re ready to launch new products and initiatives.

Will we see Blackbird notebooks?

Wouldn’t that be the most insane thing ever?

Will there be more HP products that have Voodoo DNA contributed to them? When can we expect to see them? Any hints to what they may be?

Not only will you see products with VoodooDNA which feature our core heritage of performance gaming and second-to-none build quality and engineering from HP, but you’ll also see Voodoo dedicated products which will continue to tap the luxury and highly personalized market. In the process we will still take full advantage of the engineering, scale, leverage, and quality strengths that HP has brought to the table.

Are there plans to leverage HP’s presence in retail to sell more Voodoo PCs? Will we ever see your products at Best Buy?

HP is a huge company with some incredible long-standing relationships in the retail channel. We have not publicly discussed our retail strategy, but you can assume that we will continue to scale our business while delivering the best experience possible to our customer.

The HD optical format war is over, when can we expect to see Blu-Ray in Voodoo notebooks?

We will offer Blu-Ray in our notebooks sometime in 2008.

K-TRON, owner of a couple of Voodoo PCs asks: when is the Vootique is coming back, and when are the new forums supposed to be up?

I’m not sure about the Vootique, but the new community is on the way. It will be hosted by both Kristin Reilly and Greg Vederman so needless to say it should be a pretty cool place to visit. Both Greg and Kristin are currently contributing to my blog at www.rahulsood.com prior to the transition to our new community so it’s definitely getting closer. Tell K-Tron I said hi.

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