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Alienware Aurora review: A lot of VR-ready desktop in a small package

The Alienware Aurora desktop can fit two new Nvidia 1080 GPUs in its small case.

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Dan Ackerman
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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 semi-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

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Alienware's desktop gaming lineup has seen a recent shuffle, mixing up the catalog of products available, while keeping the same general small-medium-large division between them. Losing out in the reshuffle is the X51 desktop, a slim but flexible small form factor system. In its place, Alienware has launched the Aurora, a new mid-size tower with a more accessible chassis and wider configuration options. Anchoring the small and large slots in this lineup are the newly refreshed Alienware Alpha and the giant Area-51 desktop.

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8.2

Alienware Aurora

The Good

The Alienware Aurora can fit two graphics cards into a relatively small case. Interior access doesn't require a screwdriver, and future GPU upgrades should be easy.

The Bad

This is still big and heavy for a mid-size gaming desktop, some components are hidden behind the power supply, and some of the latest highest-end component options aren't available yet.

The Bottom Line

Alienware's mid-size Aurora is very flexible, and one of the smallest dual-GPU-ready gaming desktops, but it's still going to hog a lot of floor space under your desk.

In one sense, it's a shame, because the X51 was one of the smallest desktops that could be configured to run current-gen virtual reality headsets (which have very heavy hardware requirements). But the switch-up also makes sense because the revamped Alpha -- itself smaller than a living room game console -- now has desktop-level processors and graphics, making it a much more practical entry level gaming rig.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Taking over that middle spot in Alienware's lineup is the Aurora, a new system that uses a resurrected name previously used on other Alienware products from the mid-2000s until just a few years ago.

Like most Alienware systems, the Aurora offers a deep set of configuration options. Our test unit included an Intel Core i7-6700K, the new Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card, and a 256GB SSD/2TB HDD storage combo, for a total of $2,279 (the closest similar configurations in other territories go for £1,609 and AU$3,667). The least-expensive configurations (which are decidedly not VR-ready, start at $799/£699/AU$1,599.

Alienware Aurora

Price as reviewed $2,279
PC CPU 4GHz Intel Core i7-6700K
PC Memory 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2400MHz
Graphics 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
Storage 256GB SSD + 2TB 7200rpm HDD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)


Design and upgradability

This new Aurora is a relatively svelte 14 inches deep by 18 inches tall by 8 inches wide, and the chassis takes a good deal of its design DNA from the larger Area 51, with three side lights on the angled case echoing the pyramid-like design on that larger desktop. It's very sharp-looking, without going over the top. And keep in mind that this is a custom design, while gaming desktops from smaller PC makers almost always come built into off-the-shelf cases, despite costing as much or more than an Alienware.

Nvidia GeForce 1080 gaming desktop roundup (pictures)

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This is the smallest Alienware desktop that can handle dual graphics cards, and if you want to start out with a single card and add another later, the traditional side panel screws have been replaced with a simple rear latch, making it easy to access the case interior. That's often called a "tool-less" design, as you don't need a screwdriver or other tools to get to the motherboard and accessory slots.

Inside the easy to open case, you can access the second graphics card slot, as well as the hard drive bays, but the CPU and RAM are hidden away behind the power supply, which folds out on a hinge after undoing a couple of screws. It's all part of how the relatively small chassis can hold two GPUs, three hard drives and more in a very compact space.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The end result is an interior where everything fits, but also one that feels cramped, with its internal cables densely packed, at least compared to the full-size desktops from Origin PC, Velocity Micro, Digital Storm and others we've tested recently. Despite this, we didn't notice any heat issues or excessive fan noise, even when running high-end VR applications.

Like the company's other systems, the Aurora includes a handy software suite for controlling various system functions, from the AlienFX lighting scheme to thermal controls. You can, for example, set the system fan speed manually or leave it up to the system to control automatically. I left the lights on their default blue settings, but you can program all sorts of of patterns and color combinations.

Performance and gaming

In our performance tests, we compared the Aurora to a handful of other recent gaming desktops with Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 1080 GPUs. All the systems in that roundup had either one or two GeForce 1080 cards and one of a handful of high-end processor choices. With only a single GPU, and the Intel Core i7-6700K CPU rather than a faster 6900K or 6950X CPU, it was one of the slower performers in this particular high-end collection, but also one of the least expensive. That high-end Core i7 6950X and the just-released GeForce 1080Ti GPU aren't currently listed as configuration options in the Aurora.

With a couple of tweaks, you could get very similar performance to our test system for just around $2,000, and that includes the 1080 graphics card, so there's plenty of built-in future-proofing here.

In standard PC games, from Overwatch to Fallout 4, or VR games, such as Edge of Nowhere and Raw Data, the Aurora performed smoothly, with no slowdown or stuttering, and no random crashes (always something to look out for in bleeding edge gaming desktops).

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

Despite not being as fast as some of the other Nvidia 1080 desktops we've tested (which can easily cost more than twice as much) if you go back to the first round of VR-ready desktops we tested just a few months ago, which featured systems with GeForce 970 and 980 graphics cards, this Aurora configuration stands out.

Compared to it's sister system, the VR-ready Dell XPS 8900, which runs around $1,200, the Aurora doubled many of the performance scores. My opinion continues to be that just around $2,000 is the sweet spot for performance and value in a VR-ready desktop,

You can see a full comparison of Nvidia GeForce 1080 desktops here, and our original round-up of VR-ready desktops with Nvidia 970 and 980 cards, here.

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

Origin PC Millennium 79Falcon Northwest Fragbox 81Digital Storm Velox 85Digital Storm Aura 128Origin PC Omni 133Velocity Micro Raptor Z55 133Alienware Aurora R5 152Acer Predator G1 710 157
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)


Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Origin PC Millennium 40631Falcon Northwest Fragbox 39935Digital Storm Velox 34473Digital Storm Aura 18845Origin PC Omni 18103Velocity Micro Raptor Z55 17894Alienware Aurora R5 16904Acer Predator G1 710 14465
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance




3DMark Fire Strike Ultra

Origin PC Millennium 10384Digital Storm Velox 9859Falcon Northwest Fragbox 9220Origin PC Omni 5427Digital Storm Aura 5036Alienware Aurora R5 4973Acer Predator G1 710 4936Velocity Micro Raptor Z55 4717
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance


Bioshock Infinite gaming test

Digital Storm Velox 334Origin PC Millennium 309Falcon Northwest Fragbox 276Origin PC Omni 241Alienware Aurora R5 232Digital Storm Aura 230Velocity Micro Raptor Z55 221Acer Predator G1 710 192
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

System Configurations

Origin PC Millennium Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); (oc) 4.4GHz Intel Core i7-6950X; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2133MHz; (oc) (2) 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 512GB SSD + 3TB HDD
Origin PC Omni Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2666MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 500GB SSD + 2TB HDD
Alienware Aurora R5 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2133MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 256GB SSD + 2TB HDD
Digital Storm Velox Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); (oc) 4.3GHz Intel Core i7-6900K; 30GB DDR4 SDRAM 2133MHz; (2) Nvidia GeFroce GTX 1080; 512GB SSD + 2TB HDD
Digital Storm Aura Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 512GB SSD + 1TB HDD
Velocity Micro Raptor Z55 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 4.2GHz Intel Core i7-6700K; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2400MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 512GB SSD + 3TB HDD
Acer Predator G1 710 Micorsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-6700; 30GB DDR4 SDRAM 2133MHz; 8GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 1080; 512GB SSD + 2TB HDD
Falcon Northwest Fragbox Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); (oc) 4.5GHz Intel Core i7-6950X; 64GB DDR4 SDRAM 2133MHz; (oc) (2) 8GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080; 512GB SSD + 6TB HDD
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8.2

Alienware Aurora

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8