Unlike its higher-end sibling, the Aurora m9700, the silver-and-black Alienware Area-51 m5550 has a subdued look that might blend in to the corporate landscape, were it not for the familiar glowing alien head on the lid. At just under 3.2kgs, the Area-51 m5550 is also designed to be slightly more mobile than the m9700 -- though its disappointingly brief battery life is likely to keep users tethered to the wall socket. The laptop did post some of the best test scores we've seen on our application benchmarks, so if you're looking for raw power (and you can afford to pay more than three grand to get it), you won't go wrong with the Alienware Area-51 m5550.
The Area-51 m5550's dimensions are 363mm wide x 274mm deep, and 36mm thick. While we wouldn't want to carry the 3.2kg laptop every day, we could easily imagine taking it with us on the occasional trip. With its AC adapter, the laptop weighs 3.7kgs.
The glossy finish on the Area-51 m5550's 15.4-inch display resulted in rich, deep colours in nearly all use scenarios; unfortunately, it also was quite reflective in even average office-light environments. The screen's 1,280x800 native resolution looks sharp and gives you enough room to keep multiple windows open side by side.
The keyboard on the Area-51 m5550 is just less than full-size (the spacebar is half-size) and requires some adjustment to type comfortably. Users of keyboard shortcuts should note that Alienware has jettisoned the right-side control key to free up space. While the keyboard is a bit cramped, the track pad is downright spacious, and we appreciate its separate vertical scroll zone; likewise, the two large mouse buttons were easy to activate. We love the track pad on/off button, which let us easily disable the pad when typing or when using an external mouse. A small built-in microphone sits to the left of the track pad; we're surprised there's not a Webcam (a feature we're seeing on more laptops in this category) to go with it. Above the keyboard, four programmable buttons launch frequently used applications and tap in to Alienware's support site. The laptop lacks any external media controls, save the volume wheel on the left-hand side of the case.
The Alienware Area-51 m5550 has an average selection of ports and jacks for a midsize laptop. There are S-Video, DVI, and VGA connectors, three USB 2.0 ports and a four-pin FireWire port, plus a microphone jack and a headphone jack that doubles as an S/PDIF connector. Networking connections include Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g wireless, and a modem. You can add functionality to the Area-51 m5550 via the ExpressCard/54 slot, and there's a built-in 4-in-1 card reader that recognizes Secure Digital, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro and MultiMediaCard formats. A tray-loading DVD burner rounds out the laptop's feature set -- about the only thing missing is a Bluetooth radio.
Priced at AU$3,805, our Alienware Area-51 m5550 cost several hundred dollars more than other Core 2 Duo systems we've reviewed but still comes in well under the price of larger gaming systems, such as the Dell XPS M1710. Our configuration of the Area-51 m5550 included a top-of-the-line 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600, 2GB of fast 667MHz RAM, a 80GB hard drive spinning at 5,400rpm, and an Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 video card with 256MB of dedicated memory.
On every one of CNET.com's application benchmarks, the Alienware outscored the competition, posting some of the highest application performance scores we've seen to date. That performance comes at the cost of battery life, though: the Area-51 m5550's six-cell battery lasted just 99 minutes in our drain tests -- about half of the average for a system of its size and less than even some desktop replacements, such as the Dell XPS M1710.
Of course, it's difficult to talk about an Alienware's performance without referring to frame rates; in this realm, the Area-51 m5550 did not excel. It posted a mediocre 37.1 frames per second on our Doom 3 test and a meagre 23fps on F.E.A.R. While that matches the gaming performance of similarly configured laptops, it won't be enough for serious gamers.
Service and Support
Alienware backs the Area-51 m5550 with an industry-standard one-year warranty that includes toll-free phone support and return to base servicing. Upgrading to a three-year warranty costs AU$290. The deep Alienware support Web site includes the expected knowledge database, driver downloads, and FAQs, plus some additional helpful features, such as up-to-date virus information with free virus scans, customer forums, and the option to view your support history.