Alienware Area-51 Extreme review: Alienware Area-51 Extreme

CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.9
  • Design: 7.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 8.0
  • Service and support: 9.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Stylish case geared for gamers; screaming CPU, overclocked graphics card and speedy hard drives lead to breakneck performance; awesome support and Web site.

The Bad No front-mounted FireWire ports; bulky case.

The Bottom Line With bleeding-edge performance and a slew of customization options backed up by support, the Alienware Area-51 Extreme should be on every gamer's short list, as long as you have cash to burn.

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summary

Alienware's latest incarnation of its Area-51 line maintains the brand's imposing alien-head design. Fans glowing and quietly humming, this black monster tower backs up its intimidating appearance with Intel's new Pentium 4 3.4GHz Extreme Edition chip, an overlocked Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics card, 1GB of high-speed 400MHz memory, and a serial ATA RAID hard drive array. All of these parts work together to form a powerhouse machine built to stay ahead of any game, backed up by Alienware's fantastic support and upgrade services. Our $4,506 Area-51 Extreme test system was expensive to be sure, but gamers with deep pockets will certainly be satisfied. The latest Area-51 revamp from Alienware uses the same case that came with the Area-51 we reviewed last spring, a full-tower ATX case with a stylized, plastic outer shell. You had to pay for color customization last year, but now you can select any one of the seven color options (with matching keyboard and mouse, of course) for no additional charge. Regardless of its hue, the Alienware Area-51 Extreme remains an imposing desktop, although we don't relish the idea of traveling with it because of its size. A traditional metal interior supports the plastic outer shell, although the latches on the front door and the side panel are made of plastic and, as a result, feel a bit flimsy.

Access to its interior is simple, requiring the removal of two thumbscrews. You'll have to unplug the power cord to the side panel's cooling fan, however, to completely remove the panel. The internal cabling remains impeccable, with cords tied and routed neatly out of the way. The organized interior facilitates easy upgrading, as do the 5.25-inch drive bays, with their simple tool-free mechanism, and the two easily removable 3.5-inch drive cages, which are also tool-free after you remove a screw that's meant to prevent dislodging during shipping. Two of the four DIMM slots remain available, and you can add three PCI cards (four slots are free, but one is blocked by the imposing graphics card fan).

Connecting peripherals is generally no problem, but with a new motherboard and the inclusion of a media-card reader, Alienware has had to make some tricky design moves. In addition to the standard legacy and integrated surround-sound audio ports, the Alienware Area-51 Extreme includes eight USB 2.0 ports--four in the rear and four in the front. The eight-in-one media-card reader complicates this issue, though, as it requires its own internal USB connection to the motherboard. By tying up that connection, Alienware had to route the wires for the front-panel USB 2.0 ports out the back of the system, cannibalizing two of the rear-panel USB 2.0 ports in the process.

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Spacious and battened down, the Area-51 is a pleasure to work inside. Not enough motherboard connections means that you have to settle for protruding wires if you want the eight-in-one media-card reader.

The six available USB 2.0 ports should suffice for most users, but if you need more than that, you can connect the media-card reader via one of the system's three rear-mounted FireWire ports. In addition to not liking the look of cables snaking out of the back of such a high-end PC, we wish that Alienware had chosen a media-card reader with a built-in FireWire port so that you could plug digital camcorders and other devices into the front of the system. The heart of the newest Alienware Area-51 is Intel's rocket-fast 3.4GHz Pentium 4 3.4GHz Extreme Edition processor. It's definitely among the fastest we've seen, but you'll pay a hefty sum for this power. It adds more than $700 to the price of the system over that of the older Northwood 3.4GHz P4. The Asus P4C800-E motherboard on our test system uses Intel's high-end 875P chipset and hosts 1GB of Corsair XMS DDR PC3200 RAM (up to a maximum of 2GB). Complimenting our Area-51 Extreme evaluation unit's speedy CPU and memory were two of the fastest hard drives around: 74GB, 10,000rpm Serial ATA Western Digital Raptors, which Alienware configured in a striped RAID array using the motherboard's integrated RAID controller.
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The graphics card and the sound card are both secured by a pair of plastic brackets.

For gamers though, the key component is the system's graphics card, and our Area-51 Extreme test system served up a 256MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics card, which Alienware overclocks to run at 510MHz. Though long-term card stability shouldn't be much of an issue, our test system also came with the optional $70 AlienIce cooling system, which further tricks out the case by adding lighted fans that also maximize airflow. Another option, which we did not receive, is the $26 AlienAdrenaline graphics card utility, which lets you manage a wide range of settings, including tools to overclock the card even further.

The Lite-On 52X CD-RW drive and the Plextor PX-708A multiformat 8X DVD R/W drive handle home media needs wonderfully, and both drives include recording software. The optional card reader is sure to please digital camera owners, though Alienware offers no serious graphics-editing application.

Our test system came bundled with a black, 19-inch NEC FE991 SB CRT monitor, which provides crisp and clear images at the higher resolutions that power gamers use, and Logitech's THX-certified Z-680 5.1 speakers connected to a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS sound card ensure movie and gaming audio satisfaction. A Microsoft Internet Keyboard and optical IntelliMouse combo round out the hardware package, and though neither are cordless, they get the job done.

Alienware does it right when it comes to software and peripheral options. Our Area-51 Extreme came with a large assortment of burning and media applications, Microsoft Works Suite 2004 a mouse pad, and several CDs full of drivers and recovery software. Though no games were included with our system, Alienware's fantastically complete site offers more than 20 recent games, numerous speaker and monitor choices, printers, external media devices, and power-protection options.

Application performance
Using a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processor, the Alienware Area-51 Extreme is the fastest system that has entered CNET Labs, at least from an application-performance standpoint. With a score of 226 on SysMark 2004, it is approximately 9 percent faster than the next-highest system, the Falcon Northwest Mach V . The most likely reason behind the performance difference is the Area-51 Extreme's hard drive subsystem. Using two 74GB 10,000rpm Raptor hard drives from Western Digital, the Alienware Area-51 has a distinct advantage over the Falcon system and its pair of slower-spinning 7,200rpm Seagate hard drives. The Alienware Area-51 will provide high-end performance for anything thrown its way.

Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
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
Like many high-end desktop vendors, Alienware overclocks the graphics card as standard procedure. Using Nvidia's 256MB GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics card, the company raised the core speed to a modest 510MHz, up from the card's default 475MHz setting. The 5950 Ultra has proven that it can withstand more tweaking, and systems where vendors were even slightly more aggressive with their overclocking--the Falcon Northwest Mach V and its 517MHz core clocked 5950 Ultra, for example--produced higher scores. Also holding back the Area-51 Extreme's frame rates somewhat is a setting that Alienware used for the Nvidia card on our test system. For the Nvidia image settings on the 5950 Ultra, you must choose High Performance, Performance, or Quality. Unlike the Falcon Northwest and Velocity Micro systems we tested here, both of which set the 5950 Ultra's image setting to High Performance, Alienware chose the Quality setting for our Area-51 Extreme test system. You'll get a gorgeous picture with the Quality setting, but it comes at the expense the overall frame rate. Still, posting 63.9 frames per second on our 1,600x1,200 resolution Unreal Tournament 2003 test is no mean feat, and gamers who purchase the Alienware Area-51 Extreme will find themselves the proud owners of a highly capable gaming desktop.

3D gaming performance (in fps)  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,024x768  
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF  

To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003, widely used as an industry-standard benchmark. We use Unreal to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8.0 (DX8) interface at a 32-bit color depth and at a resolution of 1,024x768 and 1,600x1,200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled during our 1,024x768 tests and are set to 4X and 8X respectively during our 1,600x1,200 tests. At this color depth and these resolutions, Unreal is an excellent means of comparing the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. We report the results of the Unreal Flyby-Antalus test in frames per second (fps).

Performance analysis written by CNET Labs technician David Gussman.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Alienware Area-51 Extreme
Windows XP Professional; 3.GHz Intel P4 Extreme Edition; Intel 875P chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra 256MB; two WDC WD740GD-00FLX0 74GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA; integrated Intel 82801ER SATA RAID controller

Elite PC Titan 64
Windows XP Professional; 2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 3400+; Via K8T800 chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI Radeon 9800XT 256MB; two WDC WD360GD-00FNA0 36GB Serial ATA 10,000rpm; one WDC WD2000JB-00DUA0, 200GB, ATA/100, 7,200rpm; integrated Intel 82801ER SATA RAID controller

Falcon Northwest Mach V
Windows XP Home; 3.4GHz Intel P4 Extreme Edition; Intel 875P chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra 256MB; two Seagate ST3120026AS 120GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA; integrated Intel 82801ER SATA RAID controller

Polywell Qbox 865T
Windows XP Home; 3.4EGHz Intel P4; Intel 865PE chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB; WDC WD740GD-00FLX0 74GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA

Velocity Micro Vision FX AVD
Windows XP Professional; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-53; Nvidia Nforce-3 Pro 150; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra 256MB; two WDC WD360GD-00FNA0 36GB Serial ATA 10,000rpm; one WDC WD2000JB-00EVA0 200GB ATA/100 7,200rpm; integrated WinXP Promise FastTrak 378 controller

Alienware's service and support ensures that your expensive Area-51 Extreme purchase will be well protected. The default for this system is a one-year warranty (upgradable to three years for around $250), which includes toll-free, 24/7 phone support, free onsite support for any particularly nasty problems or hardware upgrades, and free two-way shipping if a part breaks down. The company will even replace a broken part with a newer version if one is available, free of charge, and update any incompatible components to boot. Also included with the warranty is a hardware upgrade service that lasts the duration of the warranty and provides newer hardware at a significant discount to the owner.

Alienware's Web site is superlative, with an extensive troubleshooting database, as well as a FAQ section, forums, online support, game patches, and hardware drivers, and even videos detailing installation of new components. In addition, you receive an alien-theme system manual, which provides details on everyday operation and some basic troubleshooting guides, as along with specific contact and warranty information.

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Alienware Area-51 Extreme

Part Number: CNETALIENWAREAREA-51 Released: Feb 5, 2004

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Feb 5, 2004
  • Graphics Processor NVIDIA GeForce FX 5950 Ultra
  • OS Provided Microsoft Windows XP Professional
  • Video Memory 256 MB / 256 MB (max) DDR SDRAM
  • Monitor Type LCD