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Alienware Area 51m review: Alienware Area 51m

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The Good Blistering performance; top-notch components; attractive design; sharp, high-resolution screen.

The Bad Huge and heavy; short battery life; expensive.

The Bottom Line The Alienware Area 51m breathes new life into the desktop-replacement and gaming categories, with awesome power and an incredible assortment of components.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 5
  • Support 8

Review Sections

Editors' note: Alienware now offers the Area 51m with Intel's new Extreme Edition processor. CNET Labs will soon be testing the performance of this laptop with this state-of-the-art power booster. We'll let you know what difference Intel's new processor makes in our updated review. Check back in March for the full story. (2/19/04)

With a design that would be equally at home in a skateboarder's backpack or on a kitchen counter, Alienware enters the notebook market. This otherworldly desktop replacement delivers stratospheric performance with style, thanks to a 3.06GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1GB of memory, and a top-notch graphics controller. Of course, this system makes some sacrifices for its gaming prowess: it weighs nearly 10 pounds and has a short battery life, so don't plan to use it for traveling. But if gaming is your passion--or you just want screaming performance on standard applications--put the Area 51m notebook at the top of your list. The Area 51m's plastic case is a real eye-catcher, with a large triangle on the cover and strategically placed alien-head logos. Too bad the company couldn't use a sci-fi-inspired miniaturization ray to make the Area 51m smaller--this is one of the largest notebooks we've seen. At 13 inches by 11.5 inches, it leaves a big footprint and might not even fit on some airline tray tables. The profile of the wedge-shaped system varies from 1.9 inches in the front to an enormous 2.4 inches in the back.

All told, this notebook weighs 9.6 pounds, but that swells to just less than 11 pounds with the huge AC adapter, which requires a three-prong outlet to power up this monster machine. That's fractions of an inch bigger and more than 1 pound heavier than WinBook's J4, which roughly matches the Area 51m spec for spec.

The Area 51m features an excellent keyboard.

Scroll buttons add a nice touch to the touchpad/mouse button setup.

With two media bays, the Area 51m design can take a variety of drives, including a CD-ROM, a CD-RW, a combo CD-RW/DVD, and a second battery; a writable DVD+R module should be available later this year. The unit we tested came with a combo CD-RW/DVD drive. An Avance sound chip and a pair of speakers team up to create crisp but not particularly loud audio. The audio-CD control panel, which lets you play discs with the unit shut, has a nice volume control, but the audio plugs are on the side; plugs on the front are always easier to get to.

This system also features an excellent keyboard with 19.7mm, translucent keys. With a generous 2.6mm of stroke depth, the keyboard is subtle and firm--a rarity in portables these days--and the Synaptics touchpad has useful scrolling buttons.

For those who want their notebook to make a statement, the Area 51m is available in six colors in addition to the standard gray model. We looked at the Majestic Blue model, which adds $61 to the price. For an extra $701, you can choose a Chameleon color scheme, which actually changes color with the light. Space Black, Conspiracy Blue, and Cyborg Green are also available. And, no, we're not making this up.

Power is the key to the Area 51m's success. Based on a desktop Pentium 4 processor that runs at 3.06GHz, the notebook is top-shelf all the way, with a 533MHz system bus (twice the speed of most other notebooks), 1GB of 266MHz memory, and a 40GB hard drive that sizzles at 5,400rpm. With 1GB of memory, the system's RAM slots are full. At more than $3,000, the Area 51m is among the most expensive notebooks available today, but if money is tight, you can save more than $500 by downgrading the configuration to a 2.4GHz processor.

Open the lid, and the center of attention is a 15-inch high-resolution screen fed by ATI's Mobility Radeon 9000 accelerator with 64MB of its own high-speed memory. The video system displays UXGA images in full color and can send a video stream to an external monitor at resolutions up to 2,048x1,536.

All of this firepower makes for one hot machine, figuratively and literally. The Area 51m starts up quickly, handles typical tasks with speed and grace, and never bogs down. On the other hand, the bottom heats up, and the trio of loud cooling fans is usually working overtime.

The media bay can house a variety of drives.

Alienware's distinctive logo adorns the lid.

Unfortunately, the system's battery can barely keep up with all this power. But because this high-performance gaming and graphics system is meant to be left on a table, short battery life and a hot underside aren't as detrimental as they would be with another class of notebooks, such as the thin-and-light Centrinos that we recently reviewed.

There are ports aplenty on the edges of the Area 51m, including parallel, external monitor, composite video, FireWire, a quartet of USB 2.0 plugs, and a single Type II PC Card slot. Communications shouldn't be a problem, either, with a built-in 100Mbps Ethernet adapter and a 56K modem. You can get an additional combo 802.11a/b wireless card for a reasonable $61.

The Area 51m comes with Windows XP Professional but no basic productivity software. Alienware more than makes up for a lack of productivity software, however, with a terrific group of 50 basic games, from checkers and chess to Air Strike and Thunder Castle. You can also buy a copy of Office XP Pro from Alienware for a reasonable $350.

Mobile application performance
MobileMark2002 measures performance with the notebook unplugged and running on its battery. The Area 51m, however, could not complete MobileMark2002 with just its standard battery, a scenario we've encountered with other huge Pentium 4 notebooks, which are really meant to be left on your desk and plugged in. CNET Labs used two batteries to test the Area 51m on this benchmark. With two batteries, the Area 51m did very well in MobileMark2002. Its 184 score, which is fast for a Pentium 4-based system, was not enough to beat the Acer TravelMate 803LCi in this test. (The TravelMate 803LCi features the new Pentium M, one-third of the Centrino triad, and it was tested with one battery.)

Mobile application performance  (Longer bars indicate faster performance)
BAPCo MobileMark2002 performance rating  
Acer TravelMate 803LCi
Alienware Area 51m
SysMark2002 performance
The Alienware Area 51m truly shines in this test, which measures maximum performance with the notebook plugged in. Its Internet-content-creation score is the best we've seen, thanks to its high processor speed and huge amount of RAM: 1GB. It eclipsed the Acer TravelMate 803LCi and even beat the WinBook J4, which has the same speed processor and less RAM. Office productivity is a different story, however, as the Alienware Area 51m came in last place. While not a bad tally by any means, its office-productivity score just wasn't as impressive as the TravelMate 803LCi's. Still, the Area 51m's Internet-content-creation score was enough to give it the overall maximum-performance edge, making it a great system for running office and multimedia apps.

Maximum application performance  (Longer bars indicate faster performance)
BAPCo SysMark2002 rating  
SysMark2002 Internet content creation  
SysMark2002 office productivity  
Alienware Area 51m
WinBook J4
Acer TravelMate 803LCi
To measure maximum notebook 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 performance
Thanks to its fast processor, copious amount of RAM, and ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB, the Alienware Area 51m scores very high in 3D performance. If you're getting this system strictly for gaming, however, be advised that another system did better on this 3DMark test. The 2.4GHz Pentium 4-based Dell Inspiron 8600, with its Nvidia GeForce4 4200 Go 64MB, scored almost 1,900 points higher than the Area 51m. Don't get us wrong: a mark of 7,502 in 3DMark is nothing to sneeze at. We had just hoped that, seeing how this is a system made for gaming, Area 51m's 3DMark performance would've been even higher.

3D graphics performance  (Longer bars indicate faster performance)
Futuremark's 3DMark2001 SE  
Alienware Area 51m
WinBook J4
Acer TravelMate 803LCi
To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses Futuremark's 3DMark2001 SE. We use 3DMark to measure desktop replacement notebook performance with the DirectX 8.1 interface at the 32-bit color setting at a resolution of 1,024x768.

Find out more about how we test notebooks.

System configurations:

Acer TravelMate 803LCi
Windows XP Professional; 1.6GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB; Toshiba MK6022GAX 60GB 5,400rpm

Alienware Area 51m
Windows XP Professional; 3.06GHz Intel Pentium 4; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB; IBM Travelstar 40GN 40GB 5,400rpm

WinBook J4
Windows XP Professional; 3.06GHz Intel Pentium 4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 8500 64MB; IBM Travelstar 40GN 40GB 5,400rpm

The Area 51m was not able to complete this test with just its standard battery, a scenario that is not unheard of for this class of Pentium 4 notebooks. So, CNET Labs tested the Area 51m with two batteries in place: a 14.8V, 3,400mAh cell and a 14.8V, 4,000mAh cell. Even with two cells, the Area 51m proved to have lackluster battery life. Reaching just more than two hours, it comes nowhere near the nearly five hours achieved by the Acer TravelMate 803LCi. The TravelMate 803LCi, with its 14.8V, 4,400mAh battery--not to mention its power-efficient Pentium M processor--had no problem coming out on top. If you plan on using the Alienware Area 51m for extended periods of time, keep it plugged in.

Battery life  (Longer bars indicate longer battery life)
BAPCo MobileMark2002 battery-life minutes  
Acer TravelMate 803LCi
Alienware Area 51m
To measure mobile application performance and battery life, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's MobileMark2002. MobileMark measures both application performance and battery life concurrently using a number of popular applications (Microsoft Word 2002, Microsoft Excel 2002, Microsoft PowerPoint 2002, Microsoft Outlook 2002, Netscape Communicator 6.0, WinZip Computing WinZip 8.0, McAfee VirusScan 5.13, Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1, and Macromedia Flash 5.0).

Find out more about how we test notebooks.

System configurations:

Acer TravelMate 803LCi
Windows XP Professional; 1.6GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB; Toshiba MK6022GAX 60GB 5,400rpm

Alienware Area 51m
Windows XP Professional; 3.06GHz Intel Pentium 4; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 64MB; IBM Travelstar 40GN 40GB 5,400rpm

WinBook J4
Windows XP Professional; 3.06GHz Intel Pentium 4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 8500 64MB; IBM Travelstar 40GN 40GB 5,400rpm

The Area 51m's standard warranty lasts one year, which is common in the industry but too short for such a sophisticated device. Luckily, Alienware makes up for the short standard warranty in other ways. For starters, Alienware sells a $194 warranty extension (to three years) that is money well spent.

Beyond its warranty, the Area 51m's manual is comprehensive, with a detailed troubleshooting section. In addition to the expected toll-free, 24/7 tech-support hotline, Alienware has an excellent Web site with a variety of up-to-date material, ranging from downloads to setup tips to a page of links to component makers. We were impressed by the links to game patches, benchmarks, and game demos. There's also a nice personal support page that follows your particular system.

In addition to the free alien-logo T-shirt that comes in the box, Alienware provides a unique upgrade policy that makes the initial configuration decisions easier to bear. Alienware will replace any swappable component for the cost of parts and shipping; the labor (if any is needed) is free. While many might use this policy to get a bigger hard drive, the policy also extends to the color of the notebook case.

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