Alienware Aurora ALX SLI
Editor's note: We have changed the ratings in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Find out more here.
The Alienware Aurora ALX SLI system uses the same menacing Alien-head case that we saw last year with the , but the Aurora adds one important feature in the form of a second graphics card. Developed by Nvidia, SLI (scalable link interface) lets you use two PCI Express graphics cards for increased 3D gaming horsepower. The Aurora ALX SLI's two overclocked GeForce 6800 Ultras offer a nominal 3D performance boost compared with the Area-51 ALX and its lone GeForce 6800 Ultra (also overclocked). We expected to see more of a jump in performance with SLI, but it's early yet. As SLI drivers mature, we wouldn't be surprised to see SLI offer a greater performance advantage over one-card systems. As it stands now, the Aurora ALX SLI is at the forefront of performance among the other SLI systems we've tested. And priced at $5,695 (without monitor or speakers), it had better be. Competing SLI systems such as the offer similar but slightly slower performance for roughly half the cost. Alienware justifies the exaggerated price with its handcrafted design and unique service and support.
With PCs shrinking all around it, Alienware's Aurora ALX SLI bucks the trend by being both big (24.0 by 8.5 by 21.0 inches, HWD) and heavy (50 pounds). It's not just a frivolous expansion of dimensions--well, not really. The system's ample dimensions are the result of the black-and-silver plastic cladding that covers an otherwise mundane box and gives the Aurora ALX SLI its sci-fi anime appearance. Hidden beneath its bulges and contours are the cooling fans and the top-mounted radiator. Alienware keeps the number of fans to a minimum, however, thanks to the PC's liquid-cooling system. For all its powerful parts, the Aurora ALX SLI runs quietly. Still, among ultra-high-end gaming PCs, we prefer the Voodoo Rage F:5's custom-painted case to the Aurora ALX SLI's plastic shell, which is available in only silver or black.
Not only does the liquid-cooling system keep the PC's acoustics in check, it also provides overhead for overclockers. The CPU on our test system, an AMD Athlon 64 FX-55 processor, ran at its factory default speed of 2.6GHz, but the two GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics cards were overclocked. When you order an ALX system--either the Intel-case Area-51 or the AMD-based Aurora--you work out the exact configuration and settings over the phone with an Alienware representative.
If you are bent on expansion after you get the Aurora ALX SLI home, the case is easy to open by removing two thumbscrews and flicking a latch hidden under a pop-up side hatch. You'll need to disconnect the panel's fan at the motherboard. Everything else is neatly tucked away, practically out of sight. With just one optical drive (a 16X double-layer DVD burner), a floppy drive, and a pair of hard drives, the enormous case leaves plenty of room for future growth. You have space to add three more 5.25-inch drives and one 3.5-inch drive, all of which will be accessible from the front panel. Also at your disposal are four free internal 3.5-inch bays. Since the two hard drives are of the fast-spinning 10,000rpm variety without cooling fans directed at them, we'd be hesitant to fill all of the hard drive bays without additional cooling. A call to Alienware support resulted in the recommendation of using no more than three hard drives--with an empty bay between each--unless you also add extra fans.
Two memory sockets are unfilled, but there's only one available PCI slot. External expansion possibilities take up the slack with eight USB 2.0 ports (four on the front, four on back), two FireWire ports at the rear, and a pair of RJ-45 Gigabit LAN jacks on the back panel, along with the usual legacy connectors. Our Aurora ALX SLI test system's Audigy 2 ZS sound card supplies the audio connections' 7.1 sound. Our test system didn't arrive with peripherals, but Alienware offers a decent selection of both CRTs and LCDs in addition to room-rattling speakers from Creative, Klipsch, and Logitech. We did receive a suitable high-end wireless, but for a system at this level, we'd trade the optical mouse for Logitech's superior , which, unfortunately, Alienware doesn't offer.
As with peripherals, our Windows XP Pro test system included little in the way of bundled software. The DVD burner comes equipped with Nero 6.3 for burning chores, while PowerDVD 5.0 handles DVD viewing. You can send Alienware your favorite games (or buy them from Alienware), and the company will install and optimize up to three of them for you free of charge. You also get access to Alienware's game servers, so you can test your skills against other ALX owners, as well as Alienware employees.
In addition to the already potent (and 64-bit capable) FX-55 processor and the pair of overclocked graphics cards, our Aurora ALX SLI boasts 1GB of PC3200 DDR memory and twin 10,000rpm, 74GB Western Digital Raptor SATA hard drives in a RAID 0 array. This assortment of high-end technology nudges the Aurora ALX SLI toward the top of the heap in our productivity tests. Its SysMark 2004 score of 226 was tops among SLI systems we've tested, but it still narrowly trails the 229 posted by the Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition-based, single-card Area-51 ALX system we reviewed last year.
In our 3D gaming tests, the Aurora ALX SLI took top honors on CNET Labs' new Half-Life 2 benchmark and on half of the Far Cry tests. Its score of 72.8 frames per second (fps) at a resolution of 1,600x1,200 placed it in the middle of the pack, but its 98.5fps on the 1,024x768 test was the best of the bunch. Compared with the SLI systems from ABS and Voodoo on Half-Life 2, the Aurora ALX SLI performed a clean sweep. We attribute its strong showing to Alienware overclocking its graphics cards (ABS uses 6800 GT cards at stock speeds) and using 400MHz memory (Voodoo uses 500MHz, which doesn't play nice with the Athlon 64 FX-55 processor). In addition, Alienware included beta Nvidia SLI drivers on the Aurora ALX SLI, which we believe include optimizations for Half-Life 2. The Voodoo Rage F:5's Half-Life 2 performance is held back because the company included publicly available but older drivers. In the end, the Alienware Aurora ALX SLI offers cutting-edge graphics performance, which should only increase as the SLI platform matures.
Service and support is where the rubber meets the road for the Aurora. The system is packaged with a one-year onsite warranty with additional plans, up to three years, available. Support is 24/7 and toll-free, with online chat support also an option. The Web site provides update downloads and has a comprehensive FAQ. Best of all, unlike most computer makers, Alienware will let you either upgrade your hardware yourself or receive free factory installation throughout the life of your warranty.
Beyond the normal support regimen, simply because Alienware is beyond the realm of the normal computer company, you get even more extras with the Aurora ALX SLI. The company walks you through the processing of your order, helping you choose the right mix of components and periodically keeping you apprised of how things are going. Once you're up and gaming, your one-year pass to the ALXOnly Gamehelper portal grants you access to a forum for ALX owners, plus gaming tips, downloadable patches, and discount offers on future games. Have we mentioned the briefcase of goodies? It's aluminum. Inside, there's a keychain, a personalized ID card, and a 256MB USB keydrive that doubles as a watch. If that isn't alien behavior for a computer company, we don't know what is.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
** Graphics card is overclocked
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).