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Alienware Area-51 review: Alienware Area-51

Alienware Area-51

Asa Somers
8 min read
Take one look at the Area-51 from Alienware, and what do you see? Dodge Viper for your home office? Desktop system from outer space? With its otherworldly, molded-plastic case and internal neon light, the Area-51 looks uncannily like a creature from, say, Alien vs. Predator. Based on Intel's new 875P chipset (code-named Canterwood) and a 3GHz Pentium 4 processor, the Area-51 matches its exterior with real prowess under the hood. It comes tricked out with the latest graphics and audio subsystems and bundles some of the best speakers in the industry. While Alienware's systems have cost relatively more in the past, the company has actually priced this new model
below some of its competitors, which generally come housed in staid tower cases appropriate to midrange users. In other words, if you like the aesthetics of the Area-51 case, or even if you simply don't mind them, you should seriously consider this amazing computer.

Editors' note: (4/17/03) The Serial ATA hard drives that were included in our Area-51 test system won't be available from Alienware until the end of this month.


Alienware Area-51

The Good

Best feature set we've seen on a PC to date; high gaming frame rates; cutting-edge audio; thorough tech support.

The Bad

Large, heavy case makes trekking to LAN parties a workout; no FireWire port on front panel.

The Bottom Line

From a specially designed cooling system to a knowledgeable in-house support staff to a finely-tuned compilation of bleeding-edge components, the Area-51 is a hard-core gamer's dream machine.
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Alienware must be going through its blue period.

On the outside, the Area-51 looks about as different from a standard, beige tower system as it possibly could. For one thing, the sleek, angry-looking case comes in seven custom colors with a matching keyboard and mouse. (You can save a little cash if you choose these devices in generic black.) But even more dramatic, Alienware has added a sculpted, plastic shell to the metal, full-tower case. While this flair may be aesthetically pleasing to some, it results in a hefty, unwieldy case. We also question the durability of the plastic latches and knobs on the outer shell.

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Count 'em: 10 USB 2.0 ports in all.

On the inside, the system is more recognizable as a computer, but it sets itself apart from the competition in other ways. You'll need a screwdriver to remove the side panel, which is a bit awkward to take off because of its funky shape. Once you have the panel detached, you must disconnect the power cable from the cooling fan mounted in its side before you can remove it completely. Indeed, you'll find seven exhaust fans inside your Area-51, with room for at least one more. Surprisingly, noise isn't an issue, and neither is keeping this turbocharged system from overheating.

The full-tower case leaves you plenty of open space to expand.
The case's interior is neatly appointed. Cables snake around the periphery, well out of your way, and there's plenty of room to upgrade. Four of our evaluation system's five PCI slots were free, and the case offered five additional drive bays, even though it was already loaded with two optical drives and dual hard drives. The motherboard features four DIMM slots, two of which were free in our test system.
You'll find plenty of connectivity options, as well. The Area-51's case features 10 USB 2.0 ports (4 are front-mounted), along with a full complement of legacy ports and full surround-sound audio connectors. This is the first system we've seen where the number of USB ports hit double digits. A single FireWire connector can be found around the back, but we'd also like to see one brought to the front of the case.

The Alienware Area-51 is one of the first systems we've tested with Intel's new 875P chipset (code-named Canterwood) and a 3GHz Pentium 4 processor. This new chipset features an 800MHz frontside bus that accommodates faster system memory, in this case, 400MHz PC3200 DDR SDRAM. Like Intel's previous P4 processors running at 3GHz, this chip features Hyper-Threading technology, which allows a processor to run two parts of an application at once.
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A top-notch duo: the Lite-On CD-RW drive and the Pioneer DVD-recordable drive.
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Above the white PCI slots is ATI's best: the Radeon 9800 Pro.

Beyond the Area-51's core processing and memory subsystems, the secondary components within are difficult to improve upon. The included 52X/24X/52X CD-RW drive and the Pioneer DVR-A05, a CNET Editors' Choice award winner, are the highest-quality optical combination you can find. Our test system also boasted dual Serial ATA 120GB Seagate hard drives, running through a new integrated RAID controller, which is built into the Canterwood board. (Alienware estimates that the Serial ATA hard drives won't be available for sale until the end of April.)
In terms of gaming, graphics, and video, it's no surprise that the Area-51 features the industry's newest and fastest graphics card, the 128MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro. The Radeon 9800 Pro delivers huge frame rates and ultrasmooth video playback with rich, realistic colors. Match that with an Audigy 2 sound card, which supports DVD audio and 6.1 surround sound, hooked up to a killer set of Logitech Z-680 THX-certified speakers, and you have perhaps the best combination of multimedia components on the market today.

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The small, flat red cables are evidence of the Serial ATA interface for the two hard drives.
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Bright, brighter, or brightest? You decide.

Our system shipped with a black, 19-inch NEC 991SB CRT display with a flat DiamondTron screen. Graphics looked sharp and rich in our tests, even at the upscale 1,792x1,344 maximum resolution that the Radeon card supports. But while we liked the monitor's three ultrabright settings, which are great for bumping up the screen's luminance for working with fine text or graphics, we found its onscreen menu system totally unintuitive. We also found it odd that Alienware offers only one LCD panel choice--and an exorbitant 20-inch model, at that. Otherwise, you have to go the CRT route or buy your display somewhere else.
The company offers only Microsoft Works Suite 2003 or Office XP Professional as added-cost productivity software options, and our system came with neither. Alienware does not offer Alien Adrenaline--its proprietary video-optimizing software--for this system because it does not yet support overclocking with the Radeon 9800 card. Serious gamers will definitely want to be on the lookout for a new version of this utility, which offers pinpoint control of most aspects of your display hardware, even allowing you to set up a number of display presets specific to various programs.

Application performance
Comparing systems using the new Intel 875P chipset is like comparing a Porsche and a Ferrari. Any system using the new chipset will perform at incredible speeds, so you really can't go wrong. The Alienware Area-51 is no exception. Its application and Internet-content-creation performance proved outstanding, but when compared to the performance of other systems with the new chipset, the Alienware fell right in the middle of the pack. No matter your computing needs and desires, this system will be up to the task and more.
Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark2002 rating  
SysMark2002 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark2002 office-productivity rating  
ABS 1539 Ultimate X4 (3GHz Intel P4, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
Dell Dimension 8300 (3GHz Intel P4, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
Alienware Area-51 (3GHz Intel P4, 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
Gateway 700XL Digital Film Maker (3GHz Intel P4, 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz)
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark2002, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
3D graphics and gaming performance
The Alienware Area-51 uses the new ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, which is all the 9700 Pro was and more. Its 3DMark2001 performance is among the fastest we've seen to date and beat Nvidia's new GeForce FX Ultra by a healthy margin. Quake III performance did not change significantly, but it didn't really need to since it was already running at ridiculously high frame rates. The 9800 Pro can handle anything and any game you can throw at it.
3D graphics performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Futuremark's 3DMark2001 Second Edition Build 330 (16-bit color)  
Futuremark's 3DMark2001 Second Edition Build 330 (32-bit color)  
ABS 1539 Ultimate X4 (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
Dell Dimension 8300 (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
Alienware Area-51 (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
Gateway 700XL Digital Film Maker (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses Futuremark's 3DMark2001 Pro Second Edition, Build 330. We use 3DMark to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8 (DX8) interface at both 16- and 32-bit color settings at a resolution of 1,024x768. A system that does not have DX8 hardware support will typically generate a lower score than one that has DX8 hardware support.
3D gaming performance in fps  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Quake III Arena  
ABS 1539 Ultimate X4 (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
Alienware Area-51 (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
Gateway 700XL Digital Film Maker (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
Dell Dimension 8300 (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro)
To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Quake III Arena. Although Quake III is an older game, it is still widely used as an industry-standard tool. Quake III does not require DX8 hardware support--as 3DMark2001 does--and is therefore an excellent means of comparing the performance of low- to high-end graphics subsystems. Quake III performance is reported in frames per second (fps).
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
ABS 1539 Ultimate X4
Windows XP Home; 3GHz Intel P4; 1024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB; two Seagate ST380023AS 80BG 7,200rpm, Serial ATA; integrated Intel 82801ER Serial ATA RAID controller
Alienware Area-51
Windows XP Professional; 3GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB; two Seagate ST3120023AS 120GB 7,200rpm, Serial ATA; integrated Intel 82801ER Serial ATA RAID controller
Gateway 700XL Digital Film Maker
Windows XP Home; 3GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB; two Maxtor 6Y200P0 200GB 7,200rpm
Dell Dimension 8300
Windows XP Home; 3GHz Intel P4; 1024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB; WDC WD2000JB-75DUA0 200GB 7,200rpm

Alienware distinguishes itself from many other PC companies in the service and support department. Most importantly, the company retains an in-house support staff trained specifically on its own systems, rather than outsourcing support calls to a third party. So, when you call with a problem, the technician on the other end of the line should know exactly what you're talking about.
Your calls are toll-free, and tech support is available 24/7. The Alienware support site is robust, featuring interactive customer forums, game patches, driver downloads, and instructional upgrade videos. The company also preloads its proprietary Alien Autopsy diagnostic software on every system it sells. In the event of a problem, the software provides the Alienware technical staff with an incident report, including more than 30,000 fields of data, which helps them diagnose the trouble.
At the quoted price, our system included only a one-year warranty with onsite service. You can upgrade to three years for $195 more, though we feel that systems priced in this range should include multiyear coverage. If you run into trouble under warranty, you can request that a technician come to your house or business to fix the problem, you can send the system back to the company, or you can request parts to be sent to you and fix it yourself. In any case, the service costs you nothing. And if a required part is out-of-date, Alienware will replace it with the newer model at no cost. The company even offers an upgrade policy, allowing PC customers to purchase new components at cost.

Alienware Area-51

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 10Performance 9Support 8