We first saw Alienware's new P2 case on its Area-51 7500, a desktop we reviewed a few months ago in conjunction with our coverage of Intel's Core 2 Duo launch. Not surprisingly, Alienware has rolled out the new case to the rest of its Area-51 and Aurora desktops as well (the ultra-high-end ALX series still awaits a case redesign). What caught us off guard, however, is what a good deal the Area-51 5500 is. The baseline model costs $1,599, and our powerful $2,539 review unit outperformed more expensive PCs on a few of CNET Labs' tests, and in general, this gaming system will deliver smooth frame rates, with room to grow. The gamer-oriented case, as usual, is not for everyone, and we're still waiting on Alienware to deliver some promised features to its custom software, but minor gripes aside, we like the bang-for-the-buck the Alienware Area-51 5500 provides.
Intel's pricey Core 2 Extreme X6800 chip isn't an option on the midrange Area-51 5500; our review unit's Core 2 Duo E6700 chip is the fastest offered. The cost-effective measures extend throughout, including 2GB of DDR2 SDRAM, a single 250GB 7,200rpm hard drive, and a single DVD burner. Alienware also sent this system just as it added ATI's new 512MB Radeon X1950 XTX graphics card to its configurator. The CPU aside, you can upgrade all of those features for added cost, including adding a second graphics card, but we think this configuration in particular strikes a strong balance between price and performance. You'll be gaming, watching and burning DVDs, and doing pretty much whatever you want with your computer.
For the few things this config can't do (for example, wireless networking, which you can add on Alienware's site), you get plenty of room for upgrading. Alienware's case can accommodate up to three more hard drives, another optical drive, and two more memory sticks. The system's 700-watt power supply gives you the muscle needed for future upgrades and hardware additions. You also have two spare PCI slots, as well as two extra PCI Express slots, one of which can accommodate another graphics card for ATI CrossFire powerhouse gaming. With next-gen 3D cards coming down the pike, we don't recommend spending money on a pair of current cards now, but it's nice to know the Area-51 5500's motherboard is ready.
Even though it's imminently upgradable, we think you won't need to add many parts to see fast performance. On all but CNET Labs' Microsoft Office productivity test, the Area-51 5500 either met or exceeded expectations. We're at a loss to explain the cause of the slowdown on the Office test. According to its specs, its time on that test should have been faster. And since it lived up to its specs on the other tests, we think the Office slowdown is not the result of Alienware doing something wrong. We'll chalk it up to a mystery for now, but we're going to keep playing with it.