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From its chrome trim to its customizable case lighting, Alienware's Area-51 ALX high-end gaming desktop bears all the visual hallmarks of a luxury-class gaming PC. Our $7,738 review model came configured with Intel's highest-end Core 2 Extreme CPU, overclocked, no less, and a quad-graphics card set up, which give it the best gaming scores we've seen to date. But without an option for 64-bit Windows Vista, chances are you'll want to upgrade this system sooner that you'd like. If the Alienware chassis does it for you, and you're after the best gaming performance you can get today, the Area 51 ALX makes a strong case for itself. Forward-looking gamers with a lot of money to spend are better off looking to the Falcon Northwest Mach V or Maingear's Ephex for better future-proofing.
The Alienware case design remains unique in the industry. It's not for everyone, but it also comes with the best use of case lighting around if you opt for the $100 AlienFX upgrade, as was included in our review unit. AlienFX is an LED lighting and software combination lets you not only customize the color of the various LED lights zones around the case, but it also lets you tie the lights to various functions. You can use the software to shift the lighting to a particular mood-setting scheme when you open a game, and you can even tie it to certain application functions, like making the front panel alien head blink when you have new e-mail. No other vendor has such a feature that we know of, and although it's borderline gimmicky, it helps set Alienware's desktops apart.
AlienFX is an option for several Alienware desktops, but Alienware kept a few options exclusive to the Area-51 ALX. Chief among them is the capability to overclock the Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 quad-core processor from 3.2GHz to 4.0GHz. Choosing that option costs you $450, because in addition to the $200 fee to overclock, Alienware also requires you to upgrade to a 1,200 watt power supply, a $250 premium over the 1,000 watt standard PSU. The other major exclusive feature is 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM. Alienware offers only 1,333MHz RAM on its other Area-51 systems.
While those features are unique to the Area-51 ALX, they're not exclusive to Alienware. Short of the custom lighting and the Alienware case, you can buy the exact same configuration from Maingear, and almost the same system from Falcon Northwest, minus the faster RAM. What Alienware doesn't offer that others do is 64-bit Windows Vista. If it did, the Area-51 ALX would be able to take advantage of all 4GB of RAM that came with our review unit. But because it only comes with 32-bit Vista, the Alienware system loses a portion of that memory, and its application performance suffers as a result.
Before we list the performance charts, we'll outline the difference between the Area-51 ALX and the Falcon Northwest Mach V we reviewed last week, because the two are similar, but with a few relevant differences.
|Falcon Northwest Mach V||Alienware Area-51 ALX|
|Motherboard chipset||Nvidia NForce 790i SLI||Nvidia NForce 790i SLI|
|CPU||4.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (overclocked)||4.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (overclocked)|
|Memory||4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM||4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(2) 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2||(2) 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2|
|Hard drives||1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive||(2) 160GB 10,000 rpm Western Digital Raptor hard drives (RAID 0); 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive|
|Optical drive||dual-layer DVD burner with LightScribe||4x dual-layer Blu-ray burner|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit||Windows Vista Home Premium (32-bit)|
From a price comparison stand-point, don't put too much stock in the Alienware's higher cost. It has a pricey pair of 160GB 10,000rpm hard drives, as well as the expensive 1,600MHz memory. Falcon only offers up to 1,066MHz RAM with the Mach V, but you can upgrade its single 7,200rpm drive to match the Alienware's storage configuration. Indeed, if you spec out either the Mach V or the Maingear Ephex in the charts to match the Alienware, the prices come within $100 of each other, so Alienware's value proposition is in line with other high-end PC manufacturers. But as you'll see, while its faster RAM and faster hard drives likely help it beat the Mach V on many of our tests, because the Area-51 ALX only has 32-bit Vista, it can't overcome the Mach V on all of our tests.
|Rendering Multiple CPUs||Rendering Single CPU|
The chart to look for here in particular is Photoshop, which is very memory intensive. As you can see, the Mach V finished the test almost 20 seconds faster than the Area-51 ALX. The Falcon also ekes out minor wins on our multitasking and CineBench tests. The Alienware systems is definitely no slouch, but imagine how much faster it could have been if Alienware had been more aggressive and adopted 64-bit Vista.
|1,920x1,200 (4x AA, 16x AF)||1,280x1,024 (4x AA, 16X AF)|
|1,600x1,200 (high, 4x aa)||1,280x1,024 (medium, 4x aa)|
Based on its game scores, though, it's obvious that the Area-51 ALX was built specifically to crank through polygons. The Crysis scores in particular are impressive, as it's the first system we've seen break 40 frames per second on our demanding 1,600x1,200-pixel resolution test. However, we wouldn't blame you for being frustrated. You paid nearly $8,000 to achieve only acceptable high-resolution frame rates. That shows, for better or for worse, how far Crysis is ahead of the hardware. For scores more indicative of the PC gaming market at-large, we'll point you to Alienware's score of about 250fps on our high-resolution Unreal Tournament 3 test.
While there's no question that the Area-51 ALX is fast today, what about making upgrades? You get some leeway for making changes, but our review config was pretty well packed. With two double-wide 3D cards and three hard drives already in residence, you get room for a 1x PCI-Express card, and either a third full-sized PCI Express card or a standard PCI card in the one double-purpose slot. There's also a single free hard drive bay, and two free memory slots, although the system won't benefit from more RAM unless you change the operating system to 64-bit. The cabling is mostly well-done, and the hard drive power and data connections are situated where they should be, but in all, Falcon Northwest does a slightly better job of routing the cables for the cleanest internal appearance.
Alienware's service and support basically mirrors that of the Dell XPS 730 H2C. The default warranty gets you one year of parts and labor coverage, with onsite service included, as well as 24-7, toll-free phone support. Alienware includes its Respawn recovery software for restoring the system to its factory-pure state, and you can also find all manner of support resources on Alienware's Web site, from system-specific configuration help to driver downloads, and more general pages dealing with Alienware's upgrade policy and other topics.
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Alienware Area-51 ALX
Windows Vista Home Premium; 4.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (overclocked); 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2 graphics cards; (2) 160GB 10,000rpm Western Digital hard drives, 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.
Dell XPS 730 H2C
Windows Vista Home Premium; 3.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 (overclocked); 2GB 1,600MHz (overclocked) DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 1GB ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 graphics cards; (2) 160GB 10,000rpm Western Digital hard drives, 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.
Falcon Northwest Mach V
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit; 4.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770; 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2 graphics cards; 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive.
Windows Vista Ultimate; 4.0GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650; 2GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 512MB ATI Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards; (2) 150GB Western Digital 10,000rpm hard drives; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm hard drive.
Windows Vista Home Premium (tested); Windows XP Professional SP2 (second partition); 3.2GHz (overclocked) Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics card; 500GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive.