With its Area-51 ALX, Alienware sets a new standard for high-end gaming desktops--at least as far as customer service. A representative will call you within an hour after you place your order online, and the company will preinstall any game you want and work with you to overclock and tweak the components to your exact specifications. While we're impressed at the level of TLC, this system left us somewhat disappointed. Make no mistake, our overclocked Area-51 ALX test system boasted the highest-rated specs we've ever seen, and its test scores ranked among the upper echelon of elite desktops. The problem is that for $6,500 (with a 22-inch CRT monitor and 5.1 speakers), we rightly expected this PC to turn in the best performance we had ever seen. It didn't, and unfortunately, no amount of customer service can save a product that doesn't deliver the way it should. The first thing you'll notice about the Alienware Area-51 ALX system is the sheer size of the beast. Even the power cord is huge. The plastic, alien-shaped exterior looks almost identical to that of the original , but the addition of a modified Koolance liquid-cooling system with a digital temperature display and a three-speed cooling switch adds another inch or so to the height of the tower. And as with the older case, you can choose the color, but the ALX-line options are limited to Saucer Silver with black trim and Space Black with silver trim.
On the inside, the Area-51 ALX is organized in typical Alienware fashion; all cabling is tied and tucked away for optimal airflow, with just enough slack to allow for easy connection to the internal components. One significant change is the positioning of the five hard drive bays, two of which were available on our test system. Instead of slide-mounting the drives from rear to front, the Area-51 ALX chassis is set up to allow direct access from the side, making it easy to add and remove drives without accidentally dislodging interior cards and components. The dual 3.5-inch drive bays, occupied by a floppy drive and an AtechFlash Pro 9 media-card reader, are also tool-free and no longer require the removal of a cage to swap out drives, although the four tool-free 5.25-inch drive bays require you to remove a screw from each optical drive that holds them in place during shipping.
Our test system was packed with features yet still served up room to expand, with two of the four DIMM slots available, along with a pair of unoccupied PCI Express 1X slots. Of the three standard PCI slots, one is taken up by a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 sound card, and the other two are blocked by the video card's liquid-cooling tubes and a game port connector, which hangs off the Audigy card. You'll need a small screwdriver to remove the expansion cards, since the cards are not held in place by a quick-release mechanism, and the lip of the metal chassis makes it difficult to use a full-size screwdriver without stripping the screw heads.
All four FireWire connections are located on the rear of the system, and four of the eight USB 2.0 ports are front accessible. Unfortunately, two of the rear USB ports are cannibalized to connect two of the front-mounted ports, since the motherboard connections are occupied by a USB media-card reader and the remaining two front ports. Additional integrated rear connections include dual Gigabit Ethernet connections, an external Wi-Fi (802.11g) antenna port, and audio connections supporting eight-channel sound with optical and coaxial S/PDIF ports. Legacy connections are limited to two PS/2 ports and a parallel port.Our Alienware Area-51 ALX test system was powered by Intel's 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor, which was overclocked to 3.814GHz. (You can order the system with a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 560 CPU overclocked to 4.0GHz for $700 less, and you can also configure an AMD-based system.) The Asus P5AD2 motherboard uses Intel's 925X chipset with support for DDR2 memory, PCI Express I/O technology, and integrated SATA and IDE RAID controllers. Our system came configured with 1GB of memory by way of two Corsair XMS2 512MB PC5400 DDR2 modules and Nvidia's 256MB GeForce 6800 Ultra PCI Express video card, overclocked to 460MHz rather than the 400MHz default setting. These parts amounted to the most powerful system on paper to have passed through CNET Labs. Unfortunately, the reality is another story.
The Extreme Edition and GeForce 6800 Ultra parts already run very hot at their standard settings; overclock them, and you'll need to get creative with thermal control. Enter the ALX liquid-cooling system. Two pumps and a heat-exchange unit channel a water/alcohol solution through plastic tubes to specially designed heat sink covers on the processor, the video card's GPU, and throughout the motherboard. The cooling system also features dual fans with three speed selections and a monitoring mechanism that sounds an alarm and shuts down the system in the event of an overheating condition, typically in excess of 136 degrees F. Our temperature readings ranged between 95 and 100 degrees F. Cranking the fan speed up to its highest setting produced some background noise, but we found the Area-51 ALX fairly quiet and cool when the fans ran at lower speeds.
For storage, our Area-51 ALX evaluation unit came equipped with two Western Digital 36GB SATA 10,000rpm Raptor hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, accompanied by a massive 250GB Western Digital Caviar 7,200rpm SATA drive providing plenty of additional storage. While the 36GB hard drives are certainly fast, we've seen better performance from the newer 74GB Raptor drives. Second best isn't acceptable at this price level; for $6,500, we expected to see the 74GB versions. You can configure the ALX with up to 2.4 terabytes of storage (using 400GB IBM/Hitachi DeskStar drives), but each drive will add $477 to the price. Our test system included a pair of Plextor drives that'll tackle any and all forms of optical media: an 8X multiformat, double-layer DVD burner and a 52X CD-RW drive, which come bundled with Ahead's Nero 6.0 CD/DVD burning software and CyberLink's PowerDVD 5.0.
Rather than make use of Intel's integrated sound solution, the Area-51 ALX came with Creative's Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS sound card, and for another $155 you can add the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro, with an external input and output breakout box. Rounding out our test system's configuration was a black NEC 22-inch flat-screen CRT display--an excellent choice for crystal-clear gameplay--and a 500-watt Klipsch ProMedia Ultra 5.1 speaker system, which complements the Audigy 2 card and provides all the sound you'll need for immersive gaming or DVD-movie playback. We were impressed with the range and response of the ALX-branded Microsoft wireless keyboard and optical tilt-wheel mouse. Microsoft Windows XP Professional comes preinstalled with Service Pack 2, so there's no need to download the update.Application performance
Because its spec sheet is so impressive, we expected the Alienware Area-51 ALX to deliver the fastest performance of any system to come through CNET Labs. Its 3.4GHz Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor is overclocked to 3.814GHz, and its Asus P5AD2 Premium motherboard is the only board that supports PC5400 memory (albeit at only 600MHz of its 667MHz rated speed). The Area-51 includes not only the fastest processor we've tested, but also the fastest memory. The only system that comes close is the , the current performance standard bearer, which is built around a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 560 overclocked to 3.7GHz and 533MHz DDR2 memory. With the better specs, plus the P4 Extreme Edition's monstrous L3 cache, we expected the Area-51 ALX to best the ProMagix PCX's SysMark 2004 results. Instead, it lagged behind Velocity Micro's system by 2 percent. The Area-51 ALX may have lost by a small margin, but considering its specifications, it should have won--by a lot.
The hard drives that Alienware chose for our Area-51 ALX test system is one possible explanation for why the system didn't set new records. Although the two Western Digital 36GB 10,000rpm Raptor drives are certainly high-end parts, they represent the first batch of 10K drives to hit the market. Western Digital later improved the seek time and other specs with its second-generation 74GB 10K Raptor drives. Why Alienware chose these slower drives we can't say, nor do we feel that this misstep is wholly to blame for the underachieving scores.
Don't misunderstand: the Alienware Area-51 ALX is not a slow computer. Its overall rating of 229 on BAPCo SysMark 2004 puts it among three fastest PCs we've ever tested. The Area-51 ALX will plow through any amount of work you can give it. The problem is that it's not the best, and for its never-before-seen specs and exorbitant $6,500 price tag, it should be.
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
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).
3D graphics and gaming performance
The Alienware Area-51 ALX's 3D performance paints a somewhat rosier picture than the application performance does, but we still think that it should be better. By overclocking the Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics card to the highest clock speeds ever to come through our Labs, the Area-51 posted the highest Doom 3 scores we've seen to date. So for future games that use the OpenGL programming specification, for which Doom 3 will likely be the most common graphics engine, the Alienware Area-51 ALX delivers the best performance of any computer we've seen.
DirectX 9.0-based 3D performance, the more common 3D-programming specification, is another story. Using Far Cry as our benchmark, the Velocity Micro ProMagix PCX bested the Area-51 ALX by 2 frames per second (fps) on the 1,024x768 test and 4fps on the 1,600x1,200 test. Not an earth-shattering difference, but in our minds, that's precisely the problem for a system like the Area-51 ALX that's supposed to set records. And you can't even pin the problem on Nvidia vs. ATI (current conventional wisdom dictates that Nvidia handles OpenGL better than ATI and vice versa for DirectX 9.0), because the Velocity Micro computer also uses an overclocked GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics card with settings that aren't as aggressive as those on the Area-51 ALX's card.