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Hell hath no fury like an Alienware plugged-in. This company is well known for its high-octane gaming machines, so we expected something special from their factory. This Athlon 64 FX-55 system is housed in a metallic-paint case that looks like a 1950s Ford Thunderbird redesigned by HR Giger. It would be next to impossible to pass this off as a work machine, but we dare you to try.
Gamers who pride themselves on custom-built machines may scorn Alienware's prescriptive approach to high-end gaming machine design, but many of us don't have the time or energy to invest in piecing together a home-grown system. If you're a console gamer looking for the kind of brawn that only the unreleased PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 can deliver, the Alienware Aurora 7500 SLI could be your off-the-shelf alternative. The appeal of an Alienware system is both its looks and reliability. Unlike a DIY system, these machines tend to be a more thoroughly tested, and therefore more reliable, breed of gaming platform.
The Aurora 7500 SLI is big. Seriously big. It utterly lacks any shame over this -- in the same way that a 4x4 doesn't have any qualms about hopping a kerb, the Alienware will take up most of your desk and still look like it deserves all that space. It's an arrogance born of aggressive styling and a bold colour scheme.
Although the 7500's outer shell is plastic, it looks like car bodywork and has a metallic paint finish that gives it a bullet-proof glint. It comes in black, blue, green, purple and silver (pictured) flavours. Certain parts of the outer-case feel slightly less well designed than others, though. While most of the casing is solid, the hinged section that covers the drive bays is not only difficult to open, but feels like a clumsy way to integrate the drives. We would have preferred a slot-loading DVD drive rather than having to repeatedly open and close the whole bay door when swapping discs. This door is lockable, but won't be a huge deterrent to espionage, because everything on the outer case is made of plastic.
The 7500's bodywork is bolted to a solid metal chassis, which is laid out in the same way that most generic PC cases are. The outer bodywork is a facade, and detachable from the main unit if a LAN party gets out of control and you need to send it for a re-spray. Massive vents run down the sides of the 7500 like air intakes on a hot-rod, terminating in small Alienware logos on either side of the bodywork. When the 7500's switched on, the front of the vents illuminate themselves like two fiery chambers in a furnace. The Alienware logo at the top of the front-panel also light up -- the alien's tiny eyes glow menacingly.
Like any high-performance PC, the 7500 generates a serious amount of heat. To deal with this, there's a large power supply (480W) and two fans (80 and 120mm) that draw heat out of the machine. The larger of these two fans is mounted flush with the rear of the 7500 and evacuates air through a large perforated vent that dominates the back plate. You'll need to make sure there's plenty of room behind the tower to avoid blocking this.
This PC is heavy, but it's not unwieldy -- we managed to cart it across London in a taxi for a party. We've lifted much heavier systems, but LAN party regulars might want to consider the Alienware Area 51m 7700, which offers serious gaming performance in a laptop chassis.
The 7500 is loaded like a Boeing. An Athlon FX-55 processor with 1MB cache is paired with the obligatory SLI motherboard. These are gutsy choices for a consumer gaming machine -- there are few games that will cause these specs to blink, let alone choke. A 160MB Barracuda SATA drive provides a comfortable amount of room to store games, videos and MP3s, but you can always expand this -- the chassis has room for at least three extra drives, and Alienware offer a second 160MB drive for £101. Our review model came with 1GB of RAM in the form of two 512MB Corsair PC3200XL sticks, and this should be enough for most current titles. You can double up to 2GB for £93 when configuring your machine.
A pair of Nvidea GeForce 6800 video cards provide graphics output on the 7500. These are bridged to boost graphics performance and each has a pair of DVI-outputs, making a total of four DVI outputs. The £1900 price tag doesn't include a monitor, and if your current monitor is VGA, you'll need to use a DVI-to-VGA converter to make the 7500 compatible. The 7500 also includes Alien Adrenaline, a customised video performance optimisation system.
Sound is dealt with by a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS. This is a 7.1-channel surround sound card which was more than enough to make us spill our tea during a game of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. The Audigy card sends surround sound channels to eight different outputs, which you can route into the surround sound system in your living room (speakers also aren't included).
Single-layer DVD drives are unable to back up standard movie DVDs, but a double-layer drive, like the one in the 7500, lets you match the capacity of commercial DVDs. You can burn much longer home movies to a double-layer drive. Discs created with the 7500 will play back in a regular household DVD player.
The 7500 also includes four USB ports and two Ethernet ports. These two Ethernet ports will allow you to set the system up as a router, perhaps as the heart of a gaming LAN. Because two Ethernet ports are available, there is also the option to use a cross-over cable to hook up a network-compatible printer directly to your machine while still remaining connected to a separate LAN. Usually this would require a hub.
The chopper grazes our drop-off point and we leap into the tall-grass, sweat like treacle running down the computer mouse. A second later two incoming anti-aircraft missiles blow the helicopter apart like a piñata. This is war. War at the kind of frame rates that can make a grown man run from the living room shrieking, doomed to spend the rest of his life nursing shell-shock. The 7500 delivers experiences like this with little effort.
There's no pity in the world of virtual war, no medals, no real-world glory. But you can tell who's an online war gamer. You can see it in the thousand-yard stare of the kid on the bus, the itchy mouse finger of the bleary-eyed office worker. These gamers live quietly among us, but the 7500 isn't quiet at all. During a game of Battlefield 2, we got complaints from the other side of the office about the 7500's fan noise. To be honest, we didn't notice the fan at all, we were too busy strafing Chinese troops with our M16, but if you're going to use the 7500 as a home media centre PC, this may be a problem. The 7500's raison d'etre is to play games exceptionally fast, so it's hard to level criticism at it for generating so much heat that the system fans go into overdrive. Most gamers wouldn't be able to hear a real gunshot over the volume of their surround system, so fan noise won't bother everyone.
The 7500's a mouthy little machine, so Battlefield 2 seemed like the best way to push it to its limits. We're hesitant to tell you too much about this game, because it's the most addictive thing we've ever sampled, but suffice to say it ran spectacularly. The game arena rendered gorgeously with no perceptibly dropped frames. Skirmishes in the game can get incredibly intense, with multiple attacks from helicopters, planes and other players simultaneously bearing down on a very small area of the game environment. Whereas our home PC (an Athlon 2600 at 2GHz and 1GB of RAM) collapsed in a stuttering fit, the 7500 rendered everything flawlessly. Refraction on the surface of the sea as you're choppered into the war zone is nothing short of breathtaking.
If you're looking for a high-performance gaming platform that the very latest games really shine on, the Aurora 7500 SLI is essentially a super-console. While a PC can never offer the same level of hassle-free gaming as a PlayStation 2 or Xbox, the 7500 comes as close as anything we've seen yet.
Edited by Nick Hide