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With PCs shrinking all around it, Alienware's Aurora ALX SLI bucks the trend by being both big (24.0 by 8.5 by 21.0 inches, HWD) and heavy (50 pounds). It's not just a frivolous expansion of dimensions--well, not really. The system's ample dimensions are the result of the black-and-silver plastic cladding that covers an otherwise mundane box and gives the Aurora ALX SLI its sci-fi anime appearance. Hidden beneath its bulges and contours are the cooling fans and the top-mounted radiator. Alienware keeps the number of fans to a minimum, however, thanks to the PC's liquid-cooling system. For all its powerful parts, the Aurora ALX SLI runs quietly. Still, among ultra-high-end gaming PCs, we prefer the Voodoo Rage F:5's custom-painted case to the Aurora ALX SLI's plastic shell, which is available in only silver or black.
Not only does the liquid-cooling system keep the PC's acoustics in check, it also provides overhead for overclockers. The CPU on our test system, an AMD Athlon 64 FX-55 processor, ran at its factory default speed of 2.6GHz, but the two GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics cards were overclocked. When you order an ALX system--either the Intel-case Area-51 or the AMD-based Aurora--you work out the exact configuration and settings over the phone with an Alienware representative.
If you are bent on expansion after you get the Aurora ALX SLI home, the case is easy to open by removing two thumbscrews and flicking a latch hidden under a pop-up side hatch. You'll need to disconnect the panel's fan at the motherboard. Everything else is neatly tucked away, practically out of sight. With just one optical drive (a 16X double-layer DVD burner), a floppy drive, and a pair of hard drives, the enormous case leaves plenty of room for future growth. You have space to add three more 5.25-inch drives and one 3.5-inch drive, all of which will be accessible from the front panel. Also at your disposal are four free internal 3.5-inch bays. Since the two hard drives are of the fast-spinning 10,000rpm variety without cooling fans directed at them, we'd be hesitant to fill all of the hard drive bays without additional cooling. A call to Alienware support resulted in the recommendation of using no more than three hard drives--with an empty bay between each--unless you also add extra fans.
Two memory sockets are unfilled, but there's only one available PCI slot. External expansion possibilities take up the slack with eight USB 2.0 ports (four on the front, four on back), two FireWire ports at the rear, and a pair of RJ-45 Gigabit LAN jacks on the back panel, along with the usual legacy connectors. Our Aurora ALX SLI test system's Audigy 2 ZS sound card supplies the audio connections' 7.1 sound. Our test system didn't arrive with peripherals, but Alienware offers a decent selection of both CRTs and LCDs in addition to room-rattling speakers from Creative, Klipsch, and Logitech. We did receive a suitable high-end wireless Microsoft keyboard and mouse combo, but for a system at this level, we'd trade the optical mouse for Logitech's superior laser mouse, which, unfortunately, Alienware doesn't offer.
As with peripherals, our Windows XP Pro test system included little in the way of bundled software. The DVD burner comes equipped with Nero 6.3 for burning chores, while PowerDVD 5.0 handles DVD viewing. You can send Alienware your favorite games (or buy them from Alienware), and the company will install and optimize up to three of them for you free of charge. You also get access to Alienware's game servers, so you can test your skills against other ALX owners, as well as Alienware employees.
In addition to the already potent (and 64-bit capable) FX-55 processor and the pair of overclocked graphics cards, our Aurora ALX SLI boasts 1GB of PC3200 DDR memory and twin 10,000rpm, 74GB Western Digital Raptor SATA hard drives in a RAID 0 array. This assortment of high-end technology nudges the Aurora ALX SLI toward the top of the heap in our productivity tests. Its SysMark 2004 score of 226 was tops among SLI systems we've tested, but it still narrowly trails the 229 posted by the Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition-based, single-card Area-51 ALX system we reviewed last year.
In our 3D gaming tests, the Aurora ALX SLI took top honors on CNET Labs' new Half-Life 2 benchmark and on half of the Far Cry tests. Its score of 72.8 frames per second (fps) at a resolution of 1,600x1,200 placed it in the middle of the pack, but its 98.5fps on the 1,024x768 test was the best of the bunch. Compared with the SLI systems from ABS and Voodoo on Half-Life 2, the Aurora ALX SLI performed a clean sweep. We attribute its strong showing to Alienware overclocking its graphics cards (ABS uses 6800 GT cards at stock speeds) and using 400MHz memory (Voodoo uses 500MHz, which doesn't play nice with the Athlon 64 FX-55 processor). In addition, Alienware included beta Nvidia SLI drivers on the Aurora ALX SLI, which we believe include optimizations for Half-Life 2. The Voodoo Rage F:5's Half-Life 2 performance is held back because the company included publicly available but older drivers. In the end, the Alienware Aurora ALX SLI offers cutting-edge graphics performance, which should only increase as the SLI platform matures.
Service and support is where the rubber meets the road for the Aurora. The system is packaged with a one-year onsite warranty with additional plans, up to three years, available. Support is 24/7 and toll-free, with online chat support also an option. The Web site provides update downloads and has a comprehensive FAQ. Best of all, unlike most computer makers, Alienware will let you either upgrade your hardware yourself or receive free factory installation throughout the life of your warranty.
Beyond the normal support regimen, simply because Alienware is beyond the realm of the normal computer company, you get even more extras with the Aurora ALX SLI. The company walks you through the processing of your order, helping you choose the right mix of components and periodically keeping you apprised of how things are going. Once you're up and gaming, your one-year pass to the ALXOnly Gamehelper portal grants you access to a forum for ALX owners, plus gaming tips, downloadable patches, and discount offers on future games. Have we mentioned the briefcase of goodies? It's aluminum. Inside, there's a keychain, a personalized ID card, and a 256MB USB keydrive that doubles as a watch. If that isn't alien behavior for a computer company, we don't know what is.
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, 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).
|Far Cry 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF||Far Cry 1,024x768 4xAA 8xAF|
UbiSoft Entertainment's Far Cry is a recent addition to our gaming benchmark arsenal. Far Cry is a DirectX 9.0-based game that uses Vertex Shader 2.0 and Pixel Shader 2.0, as well as plethora of advanced rendering techniques. As such, it is very demanding on a graphics subsystem and is therefore an excellent tool for evaluating high-end graphics cards. We run a custom demo on the Rebellion level and run it two times each at a 32-bit color depth and at resolutions of 1,024x768 and 1,600x1,200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are set to 4X and 8X for both resolutions during our 1,600x1,200 tests. After installing the retail game, we patch it to version 1.1. This update supports Pixel Shader 3.0 but only for those graphics cards that support Pixel Shader 3.0--all other cards will still use Pixel Shader 2.0.
|Half-Life 2 1,024x768 4xAA 8xAF||Half-Life 2 1,280x1,024 4xAA 8xAF||Half-Life 2 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF|
Valve Software's Half-Life 2 showcases some of the latest in DirectX 9.0 image quality, accompanied by tremendous GPU taxation. Those factors, and its vast popularity among PC gamers, make it an ideal game to test a desktop's 3D capabilities. Using a demo file created in our Labs that incorporates all of the game's taxing features, Half-Life 2 gives us a great indication of how a PC will handle today's most challenging 3D games. Our custom demo is set in the canal level and encompasses advanced effects, such as light from the flashlight as well as water effects. We make sure to update Half-Life 2 with the latest patches before we start testing. Depending on the type of system being tested, we perform two runs of the demos at a resolution of 1,024x768 for lower-end desktops, then an additional two runs each of 1,280x1,024 resolution and 1,600x1,200 resolution tests for high-end systems. We configure the display settings via the game's own options screens, not the Windows graphics driver settings, and within the game we set antialiasing and anisotropic filtering to 4X and 8X for all resolutions.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
ABS Ultimate M6
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-55; Nvidia Nforce4 Ultra SLI chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB (2) Nvidia GeForce 6800 GT (PCIe, SLI); two Seagate ST3200822AS 200GB 7,200rpm, Serial ATA; integrated Silicon SiI 3114 SoftRAID 5 controller
Alienware Area-51 ALX
Windows XP Professional SP2; 3.4GHz Intel P4 Extreme; Intel 925X chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (PCIe); two WDC WD360GD-00TNA0 36GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA; integrated Intel 82801FR SATA RAID controller
Alienware Aurora ALX SLI
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-55; Nvidia Nforce4 Ultra SLI chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB (2) Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (PCIe, SLI); two WDC WD740GD-00FLX0 74GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA; integrated Nvidia Nforce RAID class controller
Velocity Micro Gamer's Edge DualX
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-55; Nvidia Nforce4 Ultra SLI chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB (2) Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (PCIe, SLI); two WDC WD740GD-00FLX0 74GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA; WDC WD2500JD-50HBB0 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA; integrated Silicon SiI 3114 SoftRAID 5 controller
Voodoo Rage F:5
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-55; Nvidia Nforce4 Ultra SLI chipset; 2,048MB DDR SDRAM 500MHz; 256MB (2) Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (PCIe, SLI); two Seagate ST3160827AS 160GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA ; integrated Nvidia nForce RAID class controller