Alienware plays it safe with the Area-51 3550, its first Viiv-based Media Center. Our build meets all the requirements for an Intel Viiv sticker but adds little else to the configuration--and it carries the high price typical of Alienware. The $1,747 review unit uses the company's all-too-familiar full-tower case in what it calls Cyborg Green. The case looks great, but it's huge and certainly not living-room-friendly. Alienware has smaller, sleeker cases in its arsenal, which makes this choice all the more disappointing. The company says it selected the full-tower chassis because its customers prefer that familiar design, but a midtower option was subsequently made available. For the same money (minus monitor and speakers), Dell's Viiv-flavored XPS 400 is a better buy, offering a faster Pentium D 940, plus better graphics in a compact BTX case.
Less a new technology than a convenient branding of familiar parts, a Viiv system is supposed to be optimized for multimedia use, mandating the Windows Media Center Edition operating system, 5.1 or 7.1 audio, and Intel's Quick Resume instant on/off technology. A dual-core CPU, in this case a Pentium D 920, is also part of the spec, and one of the more useful requirements of Viiv. Other things we think you need for a great entertainment PC--such as a TV tuner (which is included) and a decent video card (which isn't)--are not part of the Viiv requirement, so simply looking for the Viiv sticker may not be enough to satisfy all of your multimedia needs.
Pop open the front door of the Area-51 3550, and you'll see only a double-layer DVD burner and a multiformat card reader. After Alienware shipped our test unit, it decided to allow for configuring the system with additional optical drives (the original configuration page allowed for one only), which makes sense given the three available 5.25-inch bays. Four USB 2.0 ports lie along the bottom edge of the case's front, two on each side. In back are FireWire and USB 2.0 ports, along with the requisite Gigabit Ethernet jack and connections for the integrated 7.1-channel audio.
Sliding off the side panel for a peek inside drew a mixed reaction. The interior is tidy, with all cabling sheathed and tucked completely out of the way. Arranging the cables probably wasn't very challenging, however, with so few components inside. Alienware chose an Intel D945GPM MicroATX motherboard to support this model. Considering the hulking full-tower case, the board looks like a twin-size bed in the middle of an empty master bedroom. The board also severely limits card expansion; the one empty PCI slot is inaccessible, blocked by the graphics card. All that's open to you is one x1 PCI Express (PCIe) slot. A low-end, 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6200 TurboCache graphics card fills the x16 PCIe slot, and the remaining PCI slot is occupied by a single-tuner TV card. Two 120mm cooling fans spin inside, keeping the rig cool and quiet.
Our system came configured with one 250GB hard drive and 1GB of RAM, with room for three more drives and two additional sticks of memory. These components can be bumped up on Alienware's Web site to a maximum of 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive.
Performance on CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 application benchmark tests was statistically even with the similarly configured HP Media Center m7360n. Both have a 2.8GHz Pentium D 920 CPU. Moving up to the 3.2GHz Pentium D 940 in the Dell XPS 400 yielded an 11 percent boost in performance.
While it's hard to think of an Alienware system without thinking of gaming, the included GeForce 6200TC GPU isn't intended for 3D graphics. Its unplayable score of 2.1 frames per second (fps) on our 1,024x768-resolution Doom 3 graphics test is proof of that. The available upgrades aren't much to write home about, either. The video cards max out at a 256MB GeForce 6800GS, available for an extra $154. If you're looking for more muscle, the configurator politely suggests, "Need more graphics power? Click here to upgrade to the Area-51 5500."
The included TV tuner performed adequately, providing respectable picture quality on live and recorded programming. A dual-tuner upgrade is available for $50, or you can opt for just the MCE remote, if you don't plan to use the system as a DVR.
Bundled with the PC was a basic wired Microsoft keyboard-and-mouse set. One noteworthy optional accessory is the $152 Gyration Media Center remote, which can be used as an MCE remote or as a gyroscopic mouse outside of the MCE interface. An OEM version of Nero's CD/DVD creator was included, as well as . A variety of monitors and speakers are available for bundling, but our system came with neither.
Service and support is a mixed bag. Alienware's AlienCare policy is a good one, with an extensive online knowledge base and driver downloads, but the basic warranty is only 90 days. At the very minimum, you should add $30 for a full year of coverage. Onsite service is available only for terms of one year or longer. Online chat support is available Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, and phone support is a toll-free call, Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., with limited hours on Saturday.
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
|Doom 3 1,024x768 4XAA 8XAF|
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 920; Intel 945G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6200 Turbocache (PCIe); Hitachi, 250GB, 7,200rpm, SATA
Dell XPS 400 (Viiv)
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.2GHz Intel Pentium D 940; Intel 945P chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 (PCIe); (2) Maxtor, 250GB, 7,200rpm, SATA; integrated Intel (RAID 1)
HP Media Center m7360n
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 920; Intel 945G chipset; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6200SE (PCIe); Maxtor, 300GB, 7,200rpm, SATA
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 820; Intel 945G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 128MB ATI X300 (PCIe); Seagate, 160GB, 7,200rpm, SATA
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.46GHz Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 955; Intel 975X chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GT (PCIe); (2) WDC WD740GD-00FLC0, 74GB, 10,000rpm, SATA, (2) Maxtor 7Y250M0, 250GB, 7,200rpm, SATA; Integrated Silicon SiL3114 SoftRAID5 (RAID 0)