Although the Alienware Hangar18 came out earlier this year, we held off on a review in anticipation of covering it with a Blu-ray burner. Now that the Blu-ray option is ready, we wish we'd stuck with the standard-definition model. Overall, the Hangar18 is a compact, mostly well-conceived home theater PC, but with some rough edges. Aside from its Blu-ray difficulties, it's missing a few higher-end features the enthusiasts most likely to purchase one of these systems would look for. Our $3,769 unit is also pricier than Sony's similar VAIO XL3 and Velocity Micro's (admittedly bulkier) CineMagix Grand Theater PC. Alienware is on the right track with the design of its Hangar18, but we'd like to see it push harder on the features and reign in the price a bit before we give it our blessing.
When you go to purchase a Hangar18 from Alienware's Web page, you're met with a very different set of options than you find on its Area-51 gaming desktop pages. Rather than focus on clock speeds and hard drive sizes, Alienware instead describes the Hangar18's options in terms of hours of recorded television and 720p versus 1080p video output. This strategy helps you figure out how this system will affect your entertainment experience, but it also no doubt wants to heighten the living room acceptance factor. If you think of the Hangar18 as a consumer electronics device, rather than a computer, you might be more willing to plug one into your television.
And for the most part, the Hangar18 would not look out of place in your living room. Coming in at 3.2 by 17 by 13 inches, it's an inch or so shorter than the Sony VAIO XL3, and twice as trim as the gargantuan 6.75-inch high Velocity system. Alienware also does a good job of exposing useful features on the face of the unit, without giving it a cluttered appearance. The volume knob ties directly into Vista's audio settings, and only the media card reader sits behind a front panel door. All three of these systems try in some way to clean up their appearance compared with traditional desktops, but we found that the Alienware does the best job at balancing looks while keeping more frequently used features immediately accessible.
Really, the only thing we'd change about its appearance is the light-up plastic Alienware head on the front panel. Alienware has software on its desktops that lets you dim or change the color of a system's decorative lighting, and we wish it had the same on the Hangar18. And we understand that branding is important, but we highly doubt that plastic alien head designs will help achieve spousal acceptance.
Alien heads aside, the Hangar18 does a good job of looking like a consumer electronics device, but we're sad to report that it doesn't behave much like one. As this is still a Windows Vista system, the Hangar18 is subject to the lengthy boot and shutdown times of a standard computer. We found the Blu-ray playback experience a much bigger disappointment.
Because home theater PCs compete against traditional living room hardware, we weigh HTPCs against that "it-just-works" standard. With Vista's optical drive autoplay feature, you should be able to pop in a disc, Blu-ray or otherwise, and via the Media Center software or not, the system should just start playing the movie. Similarly, we'd expect an HTPC to make a smooth transition between ejecting one disc and popping in a new one.
The Hangar18 failed in both respects. Alienware configures the system to boot directly into Media Center. When we put in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 Blu-ray, the Media Center-independent Cyberlink movie software launched, but the movie never started. Some Blu-ray movies would play, via the same Cyberlink program, when we had the plain Vista desktop onscreen. The very high bit-rate Blu-ray movie Crank, however, never started up from any interface without crashing. Finally, whenever we did get a Blu-ray movie to play, we were never able to eject it and then get a new one to play without rebooting.
Partly the Hangar18's Blu-ray difficulty is Microsoft's fault. Vista Media Center has no built-in HD player software, forcing any desktop vendor that wants to sell a Blu-ray or HD/DVD-capable Windows system to rely on third-party players and somehow integrate them into Vista. But we've seen plenty of systems that all managed to pull-off relatively seamless HD playback, so it's definitely possible to do.
Hardware still matters
Based on its hardware, the Hangar18 should be at least capable of playing Blu-ray movies, but Alienware also limits your options for upgrading. You get three AMD Athlon X2 processor choices, either 2GB or 4GB of RAM, anywhere from 250GB to 2TB of hardware space, and that's about all the internal flexibility you get. No video card, audio card, or other upgrades are available. The 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT graphics card should be adequate for HD video at 1080p (the 720p version uses an integrated Nvidia GeForce 6150 chip), but it won't give you much in the way of 3D gaming power. That's fair enough in a system dedicated for home theater purposes only, but it's also in contrast to the Velocity Micro CineMagix Grand Theater, which offers options for two high-end 3D gaming cards. Of course that system is much larger than the Alienware, so there's the trade-off.
Sony's VAIO XL3 is the most recent HTPC we've reviewed, and thus makes the most relevant comparison with the Hangar18. Sony's system as we reviewed it is a bit less expensive at $3,300, compared with this $3,769 Alienware.
|Alienware Hangar18||Sony VAIO XL3|
|CPU||2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600||2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6400|
|Memory||2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM||2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||256MB ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT||256MB Nvidia GeForce 7600 GTL|
|Hard drives||Two 1TB 7,200 rpm||Two 250GB 7,200rpm|
|Optical drive||2x Blu-ray burner||2x Blu-ray burner|
|Networking||802.11b/g wireless, Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet||802.11b/g wireless, Gigabit Ethernet|
|TV Tuner||Integrated ATSC/NTSC tuner, (external ATI Digital Cable tuner available through resellers)||Integrated ATSC/NTSC tuner, integrated ATI Digital Cable tuner|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows Vista Home Premium|
Alienware has a CPU edge, as well as much more hard drive space, better overall processing and memory performance, and Bluetooth capability. Sony's trump is its faster graphics card and an integrated ATI Digital Cable tuner, which can accept CableCard-based HD cable. Having only one digital tuner means the Sony can't perform proper PVR functions with the HD cable signal. Alienware's Hangar18 can if you find a reseller (a home theater installer, for example) that offers the option, but it only supports the unsightly external tuners. If you're interested in that option, hopefully you can find an installer who knows how to hide them.
And although the Hangar18 has a faster CPU and speedier memory than the Sony, it can't save the Alienware system from a poor showing on our performance tests. Not that we really expect you'd spend much time editing photos on a system that doesn't even come with a mouse, but the core hardware will have an impact on things like photo slide-show load times, converting video to different formats, and other media tasks. It's interesting, too, to see the benefits of the Velocity Micro and HP's quad core chips.
The Velocity PC was a $4,000-plus config, so it's not the best comparison, but that HP desktop costs only $1,150 or so. Given the performance you can get for that significantly lower price, and the surge of new Vista Media Center extenders (not to mention the Xbox 360's extending abilities), you start to wonder whether a dedicated HTPC is really the best way to go for your ultimate digital media setup.