Alienware is one of 13 desktop manufacturers partnered with Nvidia to sell PCs with four discrete graphics chips inside, ostensibly to deliver the highest of high-end 3D gaming power. Nvidia first announced this technology, called Quad SLI, back in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, by way of Dell's limited-edition XPS 600 Renegade. Five months later,
Nvidia itself admits that Quad SLI is meant for only the most demanding and well-off gamer, not least because in order to put it to best advantage, you need a high-resolution display (2,560x1,600). There are currently only two such screens on the market, the 30-inch LCDs from Apple and Dell, each of which cost more than $2,000. So before you even shell out for the computer, you need to spend the equivalent of four eMachines desktops on the monitor to get everything out of Quad SLI. Alienware didn't send us a display, and it's not included in the $6,752 price tag, but the company does offer the Dell model for $1,999. (Dell did let us hang onto the 30-incher we reviewed back in January in order to test Quad SLI.)
Finally, Nvidia impressed on us throughout the review that Quad SLI doesn't scale well at lower resolutions, meaning that you shouldn't expect quadruple the performance of a single GeForce 7900 GTX card at 1,280x1,024 resolution and lower. Instead, Quad SLI is supposed to let you play at heretofore unapproachable resolutions. It's also supposed to let you turn on higher image-quality settings, up to 32X antialiasing for example, which under normal circumstances taxes your graphics card at the 8X or even 4X setting. Our tests show that on two of today's most demanding games, Quad SLI succeeds under some of those circumstances, but there's still room for improvement.
We deviated from our standard desktop 3D testing methodology and instead used a custom-made Quake 4 demo and F.E.A.R.'s built-in performance test to assess the Alienware Aurora ALX and the $3,499 Cyberpower Gamer Ultra X1900 XTX, a similar system to the Alienware box. The Cyberpower's major difference is that it features Nvidia competitor ATI's highest-end 3D card setup, the Radeon X1900 XTX in dual-card CrossFire mode. We chose Quake 4 and F.E.A.R. because they're two of the most demanding 3D games on the market. It's safe to assume that the scores for most other games will be faster, especially when compared with our F.E.A.R. results.
We ran all tests at two different resolutions, each with two sets of image-quality settings. At 1,600x1,200 on both Quake 4 and F.E.A.R., the Alienware with Quad SLI blew away the ATI-powered Cyberpower at both image-quality settings. Where on the higher 8X antialiasing setting, the Cyberpower's 38 frames per second (fps) F.E.A.R score skirted the edges of playable, the Alienware box clocked a much smoother 56fps. That's impressive, although perhaps not an additional $3,200 worth of impressive. The results at 2,560x1,600 were less notable. Both the Alienware and the Cyberpower systems posted the exact same scores when we had the standard image-quality enhancements turned on. We also ran one additional test at this resolution because Nvidia claims Quad SLI will make F.E.A.R playable if you turn off antialiasing and
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Quake 4, 8X antialiasing, 16X anisotropic filtering||Quake 4, 4X antialiasing, 8X anisotropic filtering||F.E.A.R., 8X antialiasing, 16X anisotropic filtering||F.E.A.R., 4X antialiasing, 8X anisotropic filtering|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Quake 4, 8X antialiasing, 16X anisotropic filtering||Quake 4, 4X antialiasing, 8X anisotropic filtering||F.E.A.R., 8X antialiasing, 16X anisotropic filtering||F.E.A.R., 4X antialiasing, 8X anisotropic filtering||F.E.A.R., no antialiasing, trilinear filtering, soft shadows on|
On balance, we think it's hard to justify the cost of Quad SLI, not to mention the $2,000 30-inch LCD. The performance leap just isn't compelling enough yet, and since it still chokes on F.E.A.R. at high-res, we question its ability to handle next-gen games. You will probably see some performance gain on older PC games, but playing through your catalog isn't why most people buy a new PC. There's a timing issue to consider here as well. Windows Vista is due early next year, and with it DirectX 10, and brand-new 3D game programming capabilities. You can bet that Nvidia and ATI will have DirectX 10-ready 3D cards by that time (Vista and most new games will be backward compatible with DirectX 9, but likely not as pretty), which means that any Quad SLI system you purchase now will soon be a generation behind. We've come to accept that pace of innovation with $200, $300, and even $500 graphics cards, but it's too tough a pill to swallow when you are dropping $6,700 on a gaming PC. That is a problem not only for the Aurora ALX but for all Quad SLI systems.