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Alienware Aurora (Core i7-2600K review: Alienware Aurora (Core i7-2600K

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It's been 2.5 years since we last reviewed an Alienware desktop. Despite a complete chassis redesign, the $2,569 Alienware Aurora gaming PC feels familiar. This system trades heavily on its stylized appearance, and although it has some interesting features built into its case, we still wish Alienware would push as hard as its competitors to maximize performance. Some gamers might prioritize dramatic case visuals when considering a high-end gaming PC, and for them the Aurora will have some appeal. If instead you would rather trade case lighting for a few more frames per second, we can think of desktops from several other vendors that deliver better performance for the dollar.

Alienware Aurora (Intel 2nd Gen Core  i7 2600K)
6.2

Alienware Aurora (Core i7-2600K

The Good

The <b>Alienware Aurora</b> boasts one of the more eye-catching designs among higher-end gaming PCs, accompanied by configurable external lighting, capacious hard-drive space, and a wide range of connectivity options.

The Bad

This system's application performance lags behind that of more aggressively overclocked boutique PCs, and suffers from a small memory allotment and lack of affordable solid-state storage options.

The Bottom Line

We can't recommend the Alienware Aurora on performance and value grounds, but its memorable appearance might appeal to those interested in making a statement with a gaming desktop.

Design
You may know Alienware best from its old bulbous alien-head case designs, but the new look takes a more angular approach. Alienware has also abandoned the old bug-eyed effect for a more armored appearance, but overall the new case has a similar silhouette to the original Alienware design.

Around the case you'll find a few unique design touches. Push the Alienware logo on the top of the case and the main drive-bay door slides down mechanically to reveal the Blu-ray drive and media card reader. There was no front-accessible hard-drive bay in our review unit, though, nor does Alienware offer one as an option for this system.

On the top of the case, you can push down a panel on the leading edge to reveal the USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and audio inputs. The ports all face the rear of the case, which means you can't see them from the front of the system when you want to connect something. To remove the case's side panel, you lift up a tab on top of the case on the rear-facing edge.

Case lighting has long been a differentiator for Alienware. With the AlienFX software included with all of its desktops you can customize the color and behavior of the four external lighting zones around the case. You can choose from a variety of colors for the LEDs, as well as make them blink or fade between two different colors. You can also assign the color to change when you receive a new e-mail, although that's the only available application tie-in. Along with the AlienFX software, you get Alienware-made apps for power management and thermal controls.

Features
No other vendor we're aware of offers similar control over case lighting. Between that feature and the stylized case, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more unique-looking gaming desktop than the Alienware Aurora. But if you prioritize performance for the dollar over appearance, you might wish Alienware had spent less time on this system's looks.

Alienware Aurora Maingear Vybe SuperStock
Price $2,596 $2,849
Motherboard chipset Intel P67 Intel P67
CPU 3.9GHz Intel Core i7-2600K (overclocked) 4.8GHz Intel Core i7-2600K (overclocked)
Memory 4GB 1,866MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics (2) 2GB AMD Radeon HD 6950 (2) 2GB AMD Radeon HD 6950
Hard drives 2TB SATA 600 7,200 rpm, 1TB SATA 300 7,200rpm 250GB Intel SSD, 1TB 7,200rpm Samsung
Optical drive Blu-ray/DVD burner combo dual-layer DVD burner
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

We'll compare the Alienware Aurora with Maingear's Vybe Super Stock, a recent Editors' Choice Award winner with a similar price. The Vybe might look more conservative on the outside, but its more aggressive internal components give it a demonstrable performance edge.

The biggest difference between the two is the CPU overclocking. The Intel Core i7-2600K chip comes with a feature called Intel Turbo Boost Technology, which dynamically adjusts the clock speed among its various cores depending on the workload. The baseline speed of the chip is 3.4GHz, but the upper limit by default is 3.8GHz. Alienware tweaked the upper limit of its 2600K to 3.9GHz, and it offers a boost to 4.1GHz for an extra $75.

From Maingear, you can get the same CPU overclocked to a top speed of 4.8GHz. That difference reflects one of the issues that has plagued Alienware since it was acquired by Dell in 2006. With Dell's marketing muscle behind it, Alienware can expect to sell more PCs than it did as a boutique vendor. In order to manage the costs of supporting those systems, Alienware needs to achieve as much standardization and predictability in its configurations as it can. With built-in thermal detection and other safety features, overclocking is a far less risky operation than it used to be. But that's apparently not enough to allay Dell and Alienware's concerns, which unfortunately means the Aurora doesn't ship with its overclocking potential fully realized.

We also take issue with the Alienware's solid-state drive offerings. The Aurora shipped with two mechanical hard drives: a 1TB SATA300 drive and a faster 2TB SATA 600 drive. That's a lot of storage, and in comparison Maingear's 1.25TB total storage space seems small. That said, Maingear included a 250GB solid-state boot drive and a 1TB mechanical drive for storage. If you drop the Maingear's SSD down to a 128GB model, the price of the system falls to $2,500, and you retain the same fast drive access with only a minor loss in storage space. Alienware, though, only sells a 512GB SSD, which, while roomy, would add another $900 to the price of this system. If you're more interested in faster drive access than storage space, as any gamer might be, Alienware has no more cost-effective option.

The Alienware Aurora's remaining features compare well enough. The 4GB of RAM is a small allotment for this price range, but it's also 1,866MHz memory, which is faster than the 1,333MHz and 1,600MHz RAM we normally see. The pair of 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6950 graphics cards is appropriate for the price, and the Blu-ray/DVD-burner combo drive is a welcome feature as well.

Performance

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Cinebench
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs  
Rendering single CPU  

We expect a number of factors explain the Aurora's comparatively subpar application performance. Its underwhelmingly overclocked CPU, its smaller loadout of system memory, and its reliance on a mechanical hard drive all likely contribute. It's bad enough that the Aurora is slower than PCs in its own price range like the Origin Genesis and Maingear systems. The fact that it can't overtake the $1,199 Velocity Micro Edge Z40 in our iTunes, Photoshop CS3, and multimedia-multitasking tests is worse. Compared with standard desktops, the Alienware Aurora is fast. It just doesn't offer the level of application performance we expect for a performance-oriented PC in this price range.

Crysis (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,600x1,200 (high, 4x aa)  
1,280x1,024 (medium, 4x aa)  

Far Cry 2 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,920x1,200 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  
1,440x900 (DirectX 10, 4x aa, very high)  

Metro 2033 (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
2,560x1,536 (DirectX 11, very high)  
1,920x1,080 (DirectX 11, very high)  

3DMark 11 Combined test (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Performance (1,920x1,080, 16x AF)  
Entry level (1,680x1,050)  
Alienware Aurora (Core i7-2600K, Spring 2011)
24 
31 

The Aurora's gaming performance is more encouraging. The two Radeon HD 6950 graphics cards give this system respectable scores on all of our 3D tests. Our Crysis test shows the impact of having only 4GB of RAM instead of 8GB, but that memory dependence is also fairly unique to that game, which itself is a worst-case scenario. The fact that the Aurora broke 60fps on the higher-resolution version of that test should tell you that this is a worthy gaming system.

Our more recent gaming benchmarks include Metro 2033 and 3DMark 11. On the challenging Metro 2033, the Alienware system posted the second-highest score we've seen at 2,560x1,536, which means its performance is appropriate for its price. Our more GPU-vendor-neutral 3DMark 11 test is also our newest benchmark, and arguably more representative of future DirectX 11 gameplay. While we have not yet accumulated a broad data set for that test, we can at least say that the Aurora is faster than the Velocity Micro system, as it should be.

With two double-wide graphics cards in the Aurora, you get no other card expansion options. You might not need more, but Maingear's Vybe does offer a free 1x PCI Express slot in addition to its pair of 3D cards. The Aurora also comes with all four RAM slots occupied, which seems a shame in this system since with only 4GB of memory the RAM is the first thing we'd upgrade in this system. Unfortunately, you'll have to throw away all four 1GB sticks to make that upgrade. At least you get two free out-facing hard-drive bays.

The Alienware Aurora fares better with its connectivity. On the back of the system you get six USB 2.0 jacks, two USB 3.0 ports, a FireWire output, both optical and coaxial digital audio outs, and a set of 7.1 analog audio jacks. The graphics cards also offer a ton of display output options, with ports for DVI, HDMI, and Mini DisplayPort connections. The only output option we can think to add would be an eSATA jack, but we expect that for most gamers the extant ports will more than suffice.

Juice box
Alienware Aurora Average watts per hour
Off 0.6
Sleep 2.64
Idle 92.51
Load 355.82
Raw (annual kWh) 558.86
Energy Star-compliant No
Annual power consumption cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $63.43

While we were underwhelmed by the Alienware Aurora's performance, at least its power consumption is not disproportionately high. We've been impressed by the efficiency provided by Intel's new Core i7-2600K chips, although even higher-end gaming PCs still draw too much power to qualify for Energy Star certification. That's not a surprise for this price range, and the Aurora's power draw is in keeping with its competition.

Service and support
Alienware backs the Aurora with a straightforward one-year parts and labor warranty. You get discretionary home repair service, 24-7 phone support access, and remote diagnosis capability through DellConnect. That's about what we expect from any boutique vendor, although you'll need to face the perils of Dell's call-center-based support operation, rather than getting the more personalized in-house service you generally find from smaller boutique vendors.

Conclusions
We can't recommend the Alienware Aurora to those who put performance and value above all other considerations in their hunt for a higher-end gaming desktop. It simply lacks too many of the advanced tweaks and features you can get from other vendors for the same price. Alienware's design and case lighting features give it unique visual appeal, however, and if you prioritize making a visual statement, this system is worth consideration.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Alienware Aurora (Core i7-2600K, Spring 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-2600K; 4GB 1,866MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2) 2GB AMD Radeon HD 6950 graphics cards; 1TB SATA 300 7,200rpm hard drive; 2TB SATA 600 7,200rpm hard drive

Falcon Northwest Mach V (Core i7-2600K, Spring 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 4.6GHz Intel Core i7-2600K (overclocked); 16GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; (2)1.5GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 graphics cards; 128GB solid-state hard drive; 1TB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive

Maingear Vybe Super Stock (Core i7-2600K, Spring 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-2600; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 5870, 250GB Intel SSD, 1TB 7,200rpm Samsung hard drive

Origin Genesis (Core i7-2600K, Spring 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 4.7GHz Intel Core i7-2600K (overclocked); 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1.5GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 graphics card (overclocked); 80GB solid-state hard drive; 1TB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive

Velocity Micro Edge Z40 (Core i7-2500K)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 4.0GHz Intel Core i5-2500K (overclocked); 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 560Ti graphics card (overclocked); 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive

Alienware Aurora (Intel 2nd Gen Core  i7 2600K)
6.2

Alienware Aurora (Core i7-2600K

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 5Performance 6Support 7