Alienware Aurora 3500
Alienware's ultra-high-endmay grab the headlines, but the company can still build a gaming PC that doesn't require a second mortgage. Witness the Aurora 3500, the entry-level model in Alienware's AMD-based Aurora line. A competent, if somewhat unexciting, gaming PC for users who want that Alienware cachet but don't have a lot of extra cash, the Aurora 3500 starts at $689. Our $1,995 review unit includes upgrades that deliver high-end performance, though the bundled monitor and speakers fail to impress. Neither peripheral kills the deal, and if you have your own already, you can shave something off the price and still end up with a powerful gaming PC that has the potential to grow with you.
The jet-black Aurora 3500 eschews thefor which Alienware is known and instead uses a more understated midtower chassis. We're not sure why the company opted for this model; according to the Aurora 3500's online configurator, you can select the full-tower case for $21 less.
The midtower case is not without its merits, however. For one, it has a smaller footprint (16.7 inches high by 7.8 inches wide by 18.3 inches deep) than the clunky full-size case (22 inches high by 9.5 inches wide by 22.5 inches deep). The smaller chassis also has a lockable, double-hinged front door that folds around to the side of the case, where it stays neatly out of the way. This feature is handy in that it solves the common door-is-always-flopping-around problem, but the plastic construction seems flimsy. One accidental knock with a knee or an elbow would likely do some damage (the Aurora 3500 is). We're also less than thrilled with the front-panel USB 2.0, FireWire, and audio ports, which are deeply recessed behind a spring-loaded access panel.
Despite its relatively small footprint, the Alienware Aurora 3500 remains an extremely expandable system. It's neat and roomy on the inside, with ample space for extra drives, cards, and RAM sticks. It also features a whopping 10 USB 2.0 ports (and two FireWire, for those counting).
We appreciate the plastic locking mechanism that holds the graphics card in place. All too often, we receive PCs with cards that have jostled loose in shipping, resulting in a system that won't boot. This simple contrivance prevents that from happening. Speaking of graphics cards, the Aurora comes with the enviable--and room for a second one, should you someday to decide to invest in an SLI configuration. This expandability is crucial for gaming systems, and we're glad to see Alienware make the allowance for upgrading. The near-ridiculous 650-watt power supply gives you plenty of power overhead as well.
Before you upgrade the graphics, however, you may want to consider investing in a larger hard drive: the included 160GB Serial ATA II drive probably won't satisfy power users. Thankfully, for just $66 extra, you can opt for a 250GB drive at the time of purchase. As for everything else--the single-core AMD Athlon 64 3800+ processor, the 1GB of dual-channel PC3200 RAM, and the double-layer DVD burner--the Aurora 3500 is more than sufficiently stocked. You can also upgrade it with a dual-core CPU down the road, thanks to the motherboard's AMD-compatible Socket 939 chipset.
In its current configuration, however, the Alienware Aurora 3500 is well suited to gaming and day-to-day computing. Its SysMark 2004 scores placed it exactly where we expected it on the application-performance scale, which is to say that it's capable of handling common tasks with aplomb. Its score of 187 was second only to that of the overclocked. For gaming, you should have no problem with the likes of Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, even with all the graphics bells and whistles turned on. You might need to dial down the settings for newer games, such as F.E.A.R. or Call of Duty 2, but the Aurora 3500 will still tackle them well enough for all but the pickiest performance wonks.