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Alienware Area-51 m9750 review: Alienware Area-51 m9750

Alienware Area-51 m9750

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
7 min read

Alienware has long been the first name in big-budget gaming rigs, straddling the line between the mainstream and enthusiast markets with flashy ads, high-end components, and just enough hand-holding for novices. We first laid eyes on the company's flagship laptop, the Area-51 m9750, at CES 2007 back in January and came away impressed with its array of high-end components. Its huge, high-resolution display, twin SLI video cards, and a Blu-ray drive, along with a promise that its starting price would approach a reasonable $2,000 earned it a Best of CES nod in the gaming category.


Alienware Area-51 m9750

The Good

Massive resolution display; twin SLI video cards offer unparalleled 3D performance for a laptop; DVI and surround sound outputs; matte finish on case repels fingerprints.

The Bad

No HDMI; requires Windows XP for optimum performance; reasonable starting price disappears quickly with upgrades; battery life weak, even for a desktop replacement.

The Bottom Line

Alienware's flagship gaming laptop, the Area-51 m9750, has plenty of appeal for high-end gamers, but the alien head aesthetic seems dated, and newer components are right around the corner.

Alienware has finally released the system, and its performance in CNET Labs more than lived up to expectations. Our review system included a host of upgrades that more than double the baseline model's price and we can't help but wish that a $4,000-plus laptop would have a slightly more sophisticated look. (Alienware's occasional tweaks to its plastic, alien-head design haven't gone nearly far enough.) Another oddity--Alienware insisted on providing the system with Windows XP, saying Vista video card drivers weren't yet able to provide the optimal experience (although the Alienware Web site recommends Vista Ultimate). Still, this highly configurable system is great for hardcore gamers who want to ditch the desktop, and even better, it only costs about $200 more than the best Dell XPS M1710 we could configure, which lacked the dual video cards and had a lower screen resolution.

Price as reviewed $2,099/$4,473
Processor 2.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600
Memory 2GB, 667MHz DDR2
Hard drive 2 x 150GB 7,200rpm
Chipset Intel 945PM
Graphics 2 x Nvidia GeForce Go 7950GTX
Operating system Windows XP Professional
Dimensions (WDH) 15.5 x 11.8 x 1.8 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 17.0 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter [pounds] 9.4/11.8 pounds
Category Desktop Replacement

The Area-51 m9750 doesn't stray too far from the typical Alienware design aesthetic. The familiar glowing alien head and ridges are on the back of the lid, the rest of the body is squared-off and chunky. A sleek, sophisticated desktop replacement, this is not. Lest you think a larger laptop can't look good, HP has some excellent examples in the 20-inch HDX and 17-inch Pavilion dv9500t.

One design feature we liked was the Area-51 m9750's matte black finish. Glossy laptops are fingerprint magnets, and we've always thought matte finishes looked cleaner and more upscale. Alienware calls the finish Stealth Black and promotes its scratch-resistant properties.

The laptop's body is large enough to fit a full-size keyboard and separate number pad, along with a generous touchpad. The wrist-rest area may be the largest we've ever seen, but it almost pushes the keyboard too far back--there's a full 5.5 inches from the front edge of the laptop to the bottom of the keyboard. It took a little getting used to, and some users may find it uncomfortable. A Webcam sits above the screen, and a series of touch-sensitive media control and quick-launch buttons reside above the keyboard, but the volume control is shunted off to a small wheel on the left side of the system--we'd much prefer a volume control somewhere on the keyboard-tray surface.

The 17-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,920x1,200 native resolution, which is higher than the standard 1,600x1,200 resolution for a screen this size. That means that onscreen text and icons are extremely tiny, but also that you can fire up video games at superhigh resolutions. A lower 1,440x900 display is also available at a discount of $300. The screen looked great, with excellent detail, but lately we've soured on glossy screen coatings, finding the glare from ambient lighting distracting.

  Alienware Area-51 m9750 Average for category [desktop replacement]
Video VGA-out, S-video, DVI VGA-out, S-video, DVI or HDMI
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks, surround sound outputs; TOSlink Optical Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks, S/PDIF
Data 4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, multiformat memory card reader 4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, multiformat memory card reader
Expansion ExpressCard slot PC Card and ExpressCard
Networking modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth
Optical drive DVD Burner HD DVD or Blu-ray

Including 802.11n Wi-Fi technology is almost a given for all but the cheapest laptops these days, but the system lacks mobile broadband, another feature we've become used to seeing. Still, gamers aren't likely to trust their online matches to a slower EV-DO connection, so we're not overly concerned by its absence, and besides, you'll probably be at home on your local Wi-Fi network most of the time anyway.

As is typical for Alienware systems, the audio and video options are excellent, providing standard three-plug surround sound audio connections, along with an optical audio out. If our review unit included the optional Blu-ray drive, we'd prefer HDMI to DVI, but the DVI still provides for a high-resolution output if needed; you'll just have to use a separate cable for audio. A basic, single-tuner TV tuner is also included, with coax and S-video inputs, but the gradual rollout of CableCard technology just makes standard PC TV tuners look even more archaic, particularly a standard-def NTSC tuner like the one offered on the Area-51 m9750.

A lot of the Area-51 m9750's buzz came from its very reasonable starting price. For $2,099, however, you'll have to keep your expectations in check. Your two grand gets you an Intel Core 2 Duo T5500, 1GB of RAM, a single GeForce Go 7950GTX GPU, and an 80GB hard drive. Not a terrible set of specs, but we can't imagine any gamers being happy with just 1GB of RAM. Our review unit more than doubled that price, without even adding a Blu-ray drive. If you want to go even further, Alienware is jumping on the solid-state drive (SSD) bandwagon, offering a few SSD configurations. A single 32GB SSD drive is $500 (above the default 80GB drive), a combo of a 32GB SSD and 200GB standard hard drive is an extra $800, and a RAID 0 array with two 32GB SSD drives is a whopping $1,100 add-on.

As expected, the Alienware Area-51 m9750 and its dual GeForce Go 7950GTX cards pummeled the competition in our F.E.A.R. and Quake 4 tests, offering up 81.1 frames per second in Quake 4, even at a ridiculously high 1,600x1,200 resolution with anti-aliasing turned on. We looked at the low-end Alienware m5790 earlier this year, and that system's single ATI Radeon x1900 pumped around half the frames in the same Quake 4 test. The twin video cards in SLI mode are clearly the system's highlight, as the m9750's Core 2 Duo T7600 CPU performed on par with other recent systems in more mundane benchmarks, such as CNET Lab's Multitasking, iTunes encoding, and Photoshop CS2 tests (although the Alienware's 7,200rpm drives helped it power ahead in the Photoshop test).

The (nongaming) performance differences between this and other high-end laptops, such as the HP Pavilion HDX or the Apple MacBook Pro, are small enough to have little real-world effect, and all these systems are near the upper end of currently available hardware--although Intel is currently prepping a Core 2 Extreme mobile processor and Nvidia has a new DirectX 10 GPU, the GeForce 8700M GT, both of which will no doubt be included in Alienware systems later this year.

The Area-51 m9750 ran for a mere one hour and 12 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, a short lifespan, even for a massive desktop replacement system. Of course, powering a 1,920x1,200 display and two GPUs isn't easy, and we don't expect laptop gamers to keep their systems unplugged for any length of time.

Alienware backs the system with a standard one-year warranty on parts and labor, including onsite service and 24-7 toll-free phone support. You can extend the warranty to up to three years for $300. Support options on Alienware's Web site include live chat, an extensive knowledge database, and a page of drivers. Our review system also included Alienware's typically excellent owner's binder, and a Respawn recovery DVD, a $49 option.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
HP Pavilion HDX
Alienware Area-51 m9750

Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Alienware Area-51 m9750
HP Pavilion HDX

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
HP Pavilion HDX
Alienware Area-51 m9750

3D gaming performance (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
'F.E.A.R.' 1024x768, SS:on, AA:off, 8X AF  
'Quake 4' 1024x768, HQ, 4xAA, 8X AF  
Alienware Area-51 m9750
HP Pavilion HDX

DVD battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
HP Pavilion HDX
Alienware Area-51 m9750

Find out more about how we test laptops.

Alienware Area-51 m9750
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600; 2048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 512MB Nvidia GeForce Go 7950GTX; 300GB Seagate 7,200rpm

HP Pavilion HDX
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7700; 3,072MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB ATI HD 2600 XT; 100GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

iBuyPower Battalion 101 LX750
Windows Vista Ultimate Edition; 2.21GHz AMD Turion 64 x2 TL-64; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce Go 7600; 120GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Dell Inspiron E1705
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce Go 7900GS; 120GB Toshiba 5,400rpm SATA/150

Apple MacBook Pro (Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz)
OS X 10.4.8; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7700 ; 2048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GT; 160GB Hitachi 5,400rpm


Alienware Area-51 m9750

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 9Battery 4Support 7