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Alienware Area-51m review: A gaming laptop that doesn't shy away from the bigger-is-better school of design

A desktop-laptop Frankenstein that's monstrously powerful.

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
5 min read

At what point does it make sense to stop using the term laptop? (Or notebook, if you prefer.) Is it the 21-inch Acer Predator 21 X, a $9,000 beast with a 21-inch screen and its own rolling suitcase? Is it the Asus Mothership, closer to an all-in-one desktop with a detachable keyboard? Or is it the new Alienware Area-51m, a hefty 17-inch system that's more desktop than laptop under its magnesium alloy exoskeleton?


Alienware Area-51m

The Good

Desktop-level power thanks to actual desktop components. There are plenty of accessible parts inside for possible upgrades. Modern-feeling new design.

The Bad

As gaming laptops trend thinner and lighter, this one is bigger and heavier. No 4K screen option. Higher-end versions get expensive quickly.

The Bottom Line

On top of a satisfying visual refresh of Alienware's highest-end laptop, the Area-51m offers plenty of processing overhead from desktop CPUs and the latest RTX GPUs. There's promise of potentially great future upgradability, but it's not yet been proven.

Then again, what's in a name? After all, I've called this a Frankenstein of a system, cobbled together from desktop and laptop parts, knowing full well that online commenters will immediately monstersplain to me that actually it was the scientist who was named Frankenstein, not the monster itself.

But unlike most monsters, this hulking giant is actually pretty easy on the eyes. And inside that sharp-looking laptop shell, you'll find the heart of a gaming desktop. On one level, that means a desktop-class CPU (with a desktop Z390 chipset), rather than a mobile one. But on a deeper level it means bringing to a laptop form the one thing that desktop gamers have always had a near-monopoly on -- serious upgradability.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The return of the upgradable laptop

In most laptops, access to even upgrade just the RAM and storage is iffy. The Area-51m goes far beyond that, with a modular CPU and GPU design that allows you to get inside the case and replace both the processor and graphics card.

Well, kind of. You'll still need something newer to upgrade to, and in the case of our Intel Core i9 test system, there's nowhere to go but down right now. But you can start with a lower-end Core i7-8700 and upgrade later.

The idea of swapping laptop GPUs is a great one, but this laptop includes a top-of-the-line new Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, so there's not really anything to trade up to yet. You'll have to wait for future GPUs and hope they're supported, and that Dell makes a custom version available for owners to swap in themselves.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The RAM and the 2.5-inch hard drive are easy to get to and upgrade once you undo a handful of screws on the bottom panel. Actually getting to the CPU and GPU requires removing some other stuff first, so attempt at your own risk. Honestly, you're good for at least a year or two even if you're obsessed with having the latest and greatest, and for much, much longer if you're just interested in a laptop that will play any game at high frame rates. 

Alienware Area-51m

Price as reviewed $4,499 (£3,799, AU$7,999)
Display size/resolution 17.3-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel display
CPU 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K
Memory 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz
Graphics 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080
Storage (2) 512GB SSD RAID 0 + 1TB HDD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.1
Operating system Windows 10 Home (64-bit)

A new design with familiar touches

When I first saw the new Area-51m in late 2018, my initial impression was that the Alienware team had somewhat oversold just how much of a ground-up redesign this was. It was a nice-looking, if massive, gaming laptop. The industrial design was modern and minimalist enough to avoid the dorm room look of so many gaming PCs. But it didn't reinvent the wheel or go in too many unexpected directions. 

Now that I've had a chance to spend a few weeks with one, in the matte white color scheme, it's grown on me significantly. This is an attractive laptop that does the most it can to work with its size, making you feel like you haven't sacrificed table space for nothing. The magnesium alloy body has a great almost ceramic feel to it, with none of the vulnerability to smudging and fingerprints most other laptops suffer from. I love the look of the hex-shaped fan vents on the bottom surface, which are necessary, along with side and rear vents, to cool the desktop-level components.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As usual on big-format gaming laptops, the keyboard is excellent but the touchpad is small and basic. It is backlit, however, which is a fun touchpad extra my colleagues and I always like to see. Most gaming laptops today have shallow, island-style keyboards, so it's nice to see a callback to a classic design in these deep, responsive keys.

The Alienware Command Center software handles all the customized lighting control, as well as some overclocking, fan speed and game library options. I always feel like these all-in-one manufacturer-specific control apps could use some streamlining and better tutorials. The interface here can be a bit too minimal and it's not as intuitive as I'd like. 

The screen bezels are thin except on the bottom, where there's a thick border hiding Tobii eye-tracking cameras. The hardware-plus-software combo watches your eyes while you play, and can move the in-game camera for you (or move a screen cursor and so on).

Different PC makers have tried to make Tobii work for gaming laptops for years, but it's just never done anything for me. The effect is usually more like a shaky-cam horror movie, and everyone who tested the Area-51m with me immediately turned it off. Eye tracking may have a future in VR headsets, however, so don't count it out just yet. I'd say skip it in this laptop, but it's the only way right now to get the better 144Hz screen option.

Another brick in the wall (socket)

There's one thing to watch out for that's halfway a design issue and halfway an engineering issue. The system includes two separate power supplies. In our case it's one 330-watt brick and a second 180-watt brick. Depending on the configuration you could get twin 180-watt bricks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The smaller one is fine for on-the-go use if you don't plan to do any gaming, while the larger one was fine for most gaming in our hands-on testing. But try to even turn the system on with just one power brick plugged in and you'll be sternly warned that performance could suffer.

I usually used both bricks at once as recommended when I stayed in one place. But man, that's a lot of extra mass either on your desk or underfoot, plus big stiff power cables. There's got to be a better way...

Sarah Tew/CNET

Big scores, big price

How does the Area-51m perform? So far, each of the Nvidia RTX 2080 or 2080 Max-Q laptops we've tested have turned in excellent performance. No surprises here: This system continues the trend. The charts below speak for themselves, but I was impressed with everything from gaming to 3D modeling to Photoshop and video editing. The only system we tested that comes close is a new Origin PC Eon-17X, which also has a big desktop CPU inside (but basically the same clunky body it's had for years). 

If you're anywhere close to maxing this hardware out, you're probably more in the market for a workstation-class machine anyway (for example, the new Acer Concept D line).

While the Area-51m starts at a reasonable $2,199 (£2,199, AU$3,999), that's for specs (an RTX 2060 GPU, just 8GB of RAM) that I wouldn't suggest spending that much on. With the Intel Core i9, RTX 2080 GPU, 32GB of RAM, two TB of storage and a 144Hz G-Sync display, it's $4,499 (£3,799, AU$7,999). That's not outrageous for a top-of-the-line gaming laptop, but it ain't cheap, either. 

Geekbench 4 (multicore)

Alienware Area-51m 30271Origin PC Eon-17X 29598Lenovo Legion Y740-15 21027Asus Zephyrus GX701 (Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q) 20608Razer Blade 15 (Nvidia RTX 2060) 17175Alienware 17 R4 (Nvidia GTX 1080) 14503
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Cinebench R15 CPU (multicore)

Alienware Area-51m 1994Origin PC Eon-17X 1839Lenovo Legion Y740-15 1247Asus Zephyrus GX701 (Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q) 1225Alienware 17 R4 (Nvidia GTX 1080) 877Razer Blade 15 (Nvidia RTX 2060) 865
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Video playback battery drain test (streaming)

Razer Blade 15 (Nvidia RTX 2060 Max-Q) 345Alienware 17 R4 (Nvidia GTX 1080) 191Lenovo Legion Y740-15 182Alienware Area-51m 136Asus Zephyrus GX701 (Nvidia RTX 2080) 135Origin PC Eon-17X 134
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

3DMark Port Royal (RTX)

Alienware Area-51m 5769Origin PC Eon-17X 5735Asus Zephyrus GX701 (Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q) 4523Lenovo Legion Y740-15 3335Razer Blade 15 (Nvidia RTX 2060) 2992
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Far Cry 5 (fps)

Origin PC Eon-17X 132Alienware Area-51m 127Asus Zephyrus GX701 (Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q) 99Lenovo Legion Y740-15 92Alienware 17 R4 (Nvidia GTX 1080) 90Razer Blade 15 (Nvidia RTX 2060) 79
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (frames per second)

System configurations

Alienware Area-51m Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080; (2) 512GB SSD RAID 0 + 1TB HDD
Origin PC Eon-17X Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM3GHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080; 500GB SSD + 2TB HDD
Asus Zephyrus GX701 (Nvidia RTX 2080 Max-Q) Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 24GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 with Max-Q Design; 1TB SSD
Lenovo Legion Y740-15 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 with Max-Q Design; 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD
Razer Blade 15 (Nvidia RTX 2060) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,666MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 with Max-Q Design; 512GB SSD
Alienware 17 R4 (Nvidia GTX 1080) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HK; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 ; 512GB SSD + 1TB HDD

Alienware Area-51m

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8.5Performance 9.5Battery 5