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Alienware Area-51 5500 - Core 2 Duo E6300 1.86 GHz - 17 TFT review: Alienware Area-51 5500 - Core 2 Duo E6300 1.86 GHz - 17 TFT

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Intel's pricey Core 2 Extreme X6800 chip isn't an option on the midrange Area-51 5500; our review unit's Core 2 Duo E6700 chip is the fastest offered. The cost-effective measures extend throughout, including 2GB of DDR2 SDRAM, a single 250GB 7,200rpm hard drive, and a single DVD burner. Alienware also sent this system just as it added ATI's new 512MB Radeon X1950 XTX graphics card to its configurator. The CPU aside, you can upgrade all of those features for added cost, including adding a second graphics card, but we think this configuration in particular strikes a strong balance between price and performance. You'll be gaming, watching and burning DVDs, and doing pretty much whatever you want with your computer.

7.7

Alienware Area-51 5500 - Core 2 Duo E6300 1.86 GHz - 17 TFT

The Good

Strong balance of price and performance; new case is both functional and good looking.

The Bad

Software for customized lighting is still a work in progress.

The Bottom Line

We raved about Alienware's new case when we first saw it earlier this year, and we still like it here on the Area-51 5500, even if its innovative lighting system is only half-baked. What we like even more is the power this gaming PC serves up for the price.
We first saw Alienware's new P2 case on its , a desktop we reviewed a few months ago in conjunction with our coverage of Intel's Core 2 Duo launch. Not surprisingly, Alienware has rolled out the new case to the rest of its Area-51 and Aurora desktops as well (the ultra-high-end ALX series still awaits a case redesign). What caught us off guard, however, is what a good deal the Area-51 5500 is. The baseline model costs $1,599, and our powerful $2,539 review unit outperformed more expensive PCs on a few of CNET Labs' tests, and in general, this gaming system will deliver smooth frame rates, with room to grow. The gamer-oriented case, as usual, is not for everyone, and we're still waiting on Alienware to deliver some promised features to its custom software, but minor gripes aside, we like the bang-for-the-buck the Alienware Area-51 5500 provides.

For the few things this config can't do (for example, wireless networking, which you can add on Alienware's site), you get plenty of room for upgrading. Alienware's case can accommodate up to three more hard drives, another optical drive, and two more memory sticks. The system's 700-watt power supply gives you the muscle needed for future upgrades and hardware additions. You also have two spare PCI slots, as well as two extra PCI Express slots, one of which can accommodate another graphics card for ATI CrossFire powerhouse gaming. With next-gen 3D cards coming down the pike, we don't recommend spending money on a pair of current cards now, but it's nice to know the Area-51 5500's motherboard is ready.

Even though it's imminently upgradable, we think you won't need to add many parts to see fast performance. On all but CNET Labs' Microsoft Office productivity test, the Area-51 5500 either met or exceeded expectations. We're at a loss to explain the cause of the slowdown on the Office test. According to its specs, its time on that test should have been faster. And since it lived up to its specs on the other tests, we think the Office slowdown is not the result of Alienware doing something wrong. We'll chalk it up to a mystery for now, but we're going to keep playing with it.

Even if the Area-51 5500 has a problem with Microsoft Office apps, it's a powerhouse for gaming and digital media. Even on our tough, high-resolution F.E.A.R. test, its frame rates are mostly playable. Its closest competitor is the $2,999 Polywell Poly i570SLI, a system that costs a bit more than our Area-51 5500 review unit but includes a 20-inch LCD at its price. That Alienware is competing in price with cut-rate Polywell is a boon for gamers on a budget who covet a luxury PC name. Moving up the price scale, Gateway's top-of-the-line FX510XT costs nearly $2,000 more than the Area-51 5500, but its benchmark scores show the gains made when you move to Intel's Core 2 Extreme X6800 chip and add a second ATI CrossFire graphics card. Unless you plan to play games at very high resolutions, we doubt you'll notice a big difference in performance, which underscores our belief that the Area-51 5500 sits in the sweet spot, providing great performance for the price.

Multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Multitasking test  
Note: * System is overclocked

Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test  
Note: * System is overclocked

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple iTunes encoding test  
Note: * System is overclocked

Microsoft Office productivity test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Microsoft Office productivity test  
Note: * System is overclocked

3D gaming performance (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
F.E.A.R. 1,600x1,200 SS 8xAF  
F.E.A.R. 1,024x768 SS 8xAF  
Quake 4 1,024x768, 4xAA 8xAF  
Gateway FX510XT
63 
109 
123.9 
* Polywell Poly i570SLI
45 
93 
118.1 
Alienware Area-51 5500
43 
82 
124.3 
Note: * System is overclocked

Our biggest gripe with this system has to do with one of the features we like most about Alienware's new case. The chassis features a five-point external lighting system whose colors you can customize via Alienware's custom software. When we first looked at the new case in our review of the Area-51 7500 this summer, Alienware told us that the software was in beta and that it eventually would give you the ability to tie various applications to the lights so that they might blink when, say, your stock hits a certain point or turn blue when the weather is lousy. At the present, all the current software can do is blink when you have an incoming e-mail. Alienware says that it is still working out some issues with Microsoft and that more functionality will be coming via a downloadable update. We'd hoped the software would be final by now. Still, no other vendor that we know of offers a case like this, and even based on its potential, we think it's innovative. If nothing else, the lights are still cool.

We're less irritated by a single year of support on a $2,500 PC than we are on a $5,000 system, so we won't take a point off for stinginess on the Area-51 5500 the way we did on the Area-51 7500. You get one year of parts-and-labor coverage, as well as a year of onsite service and a 24/7 toll-free phone line. We're surprised though, that owner Dell hasn't provided Alienware with a service similar to Dell Connect, which lets a support tech take control of your PC remotely to fix problems without your having to worry about knowing how to explain them. If you're inclined toward helping yourself, Alienware offers plenty of troubleshooting resources online.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
Alienware Area-51 5500
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6700; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB ATI Radeon X1950; 250GB Samsung 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive.
Gateway FX510XT
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 2.93GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800; 4,096MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon X1900 XT (CrossFire mode); (2) 500GB Hitachi 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive; Intel 82801GR/GH Serial ATA RAID controller (RAID 0)
PC Club Enpower Sabre Extreme
Windows XP Home SP2; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7900 GT; 250GB Western Digital 7,200rpm Serial ATA hard drive.
Polywell Poly i570SLI
Windows XP Home SP2; 2.97GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6700; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 742MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce 7950 GT; (2) 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm Serial ATA hard drive; Nvidia Nforce RAID Class Controller (RAID 0)
Velocity Micro ProMagix E2200
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7900 GT; 320GB Western Digital 7,200rpm Serial ATA

7.7

Alienware Area-51 5500 - Core 2 Duo E6300 1.86 GHz - 17 TFT

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7Support 7