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In something that approximates console-size, Alienware has released an intriguing little machine that also manages to be a high-powered PC. If you want a powerful PC but can no longer justify the size, time and effort in building one yourself, it's a tempting option.
The X51 will happily sit in portrait or landscape orientation, and just like the PS3 it allows you to rotate its front-mounted logo so it's always upright. Its aesthetic is typical Alienware, with bits that light up, and the user being able to change what colour those bits are.
The alien head rotates to match the orientation, and glows.
The X51 owes its diminutive size to two factors: firstly, Alienware has split the power supply out of the box, providing one of the hugest power bricks we've seen (330W for the SKUs that carry the GTX 555, 240W for the GTX 545). The second conceit is something that has been employed in servers for a long time: using a riser board to change the orientation of the graphics card from vertical to horizontal. Pair this with a Mini-ITX board, and things start making a whole lot of sense.
The riser board flips the graphics card orientation 90 degrees.
The standard parts mean that there's some wiggle room for upgrading your CPU, wireless card, RAM or optical drive; however, you're limited to the 330W power supply (if you order one of the higher-end SKUs), something that really can't take more than a 150W GPU. GPU length is also limited, and although you could possibly set up a solid-state drive (SSD) plus mechanical hard drive solution, you'd have to find some adhesive to attach the SSD as there's no dedicated mounting point for it. In saying that, there is a gap above the optical drive that a 9.5mm SSD could fit in if it were taped down.
The HTPC question
There's going to be a few folk immediately thinking "home theatre" with this one. It could certainly do that job, although you may have to customise it to minimise noise.
The CPU fan is by and large quiet enough to not distract from movie watching, but it does have the potential to hit howling level if it needs to. The fan and baffle are a custom job, taking advantage of the X51's tightly packed internals — so finding something low profile and quiet enough to replace them may be a challenge. It's certainly quieter than an original Xbox 360 when gaming, but some may still consider this too loud.
Also, the 1-terabyte Seagate drive included with our review sample (and indeed, all SKUs of the X51 in Australia) isn't the quietest of drives. At 3 metres away we could still hear it grinding away, and the lack of SSD option means you'll have to supply your own if you want total silence.
The included keyboard and mouse are wired, which is more inhibitors to home theatre PC (HTPC) use. Both are passable efforts usability-wise, but they feel a little cheap for an Alienware product. There's no media remote bundled at all.