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Alienware x51 desktop review: Alienware x51 desktop

Alienware x51 desktop

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
9 min read

Scaling down a gaming desktop means sacrifice. In exchange for the reduced footprint, you lose performance, flexibility in upgrading, and often value. In spite of those issues, I still like the new Alienware X51 slim tower. Alienware's designers have distilled the company's signature UFO motif into an aggressive little package without crossing into gaudiness. Our $999 X51 review unit is also fast enough to play most current PC games well.


Alienware x51 desktop

The Good

The affordable <b>Alienware X51</b> brings innovation to slim-tower PCs by offering a full-size graphics card.

The Bad

Despite the big 3D card, the X51's slim-tower chassis still has a limited upgrade path.

The Bottom Line

Alienware has successfully brought its brand to an affordable, suitably stylized package, and I can recommend the X51 to anyone in the market for a mainstream gaming PC.

A midtower gaming PC still offers better upgrading and more hardware for your money, but if you need the X51's smaller footprint, or you just want a competent gaming system for a reasonable price, this system would be a good choice.

Alienware quite obviously looked to the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 to guide the design of the X51. That inspiration has pluses and minuses. The X51's slim-tower chassis measures a tidy 13.25 inches high, 3.75 inches wide, and 12.25 inches deep, making it only a little bit larger than those gaming consoles in overall volume. The fact that the X51 can stand upright or lie down flat on its side is useful. The X51's glossy black front panel and slot-loading DVD burner would also fit in with the aesthetics of any media rack. Even Alienware's signature "alien eye" side panel cut-outs give the X51 a certain charm, thanks to a refined design.

However compact and crafted, the X51 can't boast a console's couch-friendly ease of use. You still need to install games, tweak video drivers, and otherwise endure the various idiosyncrasies of PC gaming. In the X51, Alienware is clearly trying to offer a gaming PC packaged for mass consumption. There's nothing wrong with that, but for all the X51's visual appeal, let's all pause to remember: this is still a Windows gaming computer.

The Alienware X51's design has room for a full-height graphics card.

What's remarkable is that Alienware can credibly call the X51 a gaming desktop. I've seen many slim-tower desktops. The limitations of their design (or perhaps their designers) have saddled those smaller PCs with half-height graphics cards, so described because they're short enough vertically to fit inside those narrow slim-tower cases.

Alienware has done away with that limitation in the X51. Instead, this system has a full-height 3D card, sandwiched on top of the motherboard. With the motherboard affixed to the right-hand panel per usual, Alienware has used a connector card to bridge the gap between the graphics card and the PCI Express slot. That it's capable of accepting a full-height 3D card means the X51 is a better gaming machine than any other slim tower we've tested.

Alienware X51 Lenovo H330 77801HU Velocity Micro Edge Z40
Price $999 $799 $1,199
Motherboard chipset Intel H61 Intel H61 Intel P67
CPU 3.0GHz Intel Core i5-2320 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500 4.0GHz Intel Core i5-2500K (overclocked)
Memory 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6450 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 560Ti
Hard drives 1TB 7,200rpm 1TB 7,200rpm 1TB 7,200rpm
Optical drive dual-layer DVD burner Blu-ray player/DVD burner combo Blu-ray/DVD burner combo
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

The Lenovo H330 listed above offers a typical competing slim-tower build. It's not as expensive as the Alienware X51, and it actually has a faster CPU and a Blu-ray drive, but the half-height, budget AMD graphics card can't compete with the Alienware's full-fledged Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 card. On the other hand, for just $200 more than our $999 X51, you can turn to the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 for a true gaming midtower, complete with an overclocked CPU.

Our benchmark charts outline the performance difference between these and other PCs. What you'll see from comparing the features is that while the X51 is faster than competing slim towers like the Lenovo H330, Alienware asks a premium for its new desktop beyond typical commodity PC pricing. You can also get a faster computer in a standard performance midtower. Given the innovation Alienware has brought to slim-tower design, I don't find Alienware's asking price unreasonable. I also won't be surprised if another vendor copies Alienware's design and comes in at a lower price.

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 (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

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

I've written about enough general-purpose desktops that run games poorly, it's almost refreshing to see a gaming PC with subpar non-gaming application performance. The Alienware X51 is not an incapable computer. I felt no obvious lag during general Web browsing or system navigation. Still, the X51's 3.0GHz Core i5-2320 chip is the slowest in this comparison, and it shows. This system will be fine for day-to-day media consumption and light-duty media editing, but you can get more for your money elsewhere. Alternatively, you can buy an X51 with a Core i7 CPU upgrade for $1,149.

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)
2,560x1,600 (DirectX 11, very high)  
1,920x1,080 (DirectX 11, very high)  

3DMark 11 combined test (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Extreme (1,920x1080)  
Performance (1,920x1,080, 16x AF)  
Entry level (1,680x1,050)  

The X51's gaming results paint a much rosier picture. The most interesting comparison is with the HP Pavilion Elite h8xt. The h8xt is a $1,299 do-it-all midtower with an AMD Radeon HD 6850 graphics card. The X51 is not as fast as the h8xt, but it comes awfully close on every gaming test. Not too shabby for a slim tower that costs $300 less.

Anecdotally, I can also report that the Alienware X51 can run current popular titles with no hiccups. I had no trouble playing Battlefield 3 at high image quality, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on its "ultra" setting, both at 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution.

Given the system's convertible design, its facility with 1,920x1,080 games is probably no coincidence. That's the same resolution as an HDTV. Bump the resolution to 2,560x1,440 pixels and you will run into slowness. I expect the same would occur if you enabled 3D viewing. And although there are few high-profile "next-gen"-looking games on the immediate release horizon, I can't guarantee the Alienware X51 will be ready to deal with next year's most demanding PC games. For now, the Alienware X51 is a perfectly decent gaming desktop.

If you want to improve the X51 post-purchase, you have some options, but not as many as true tweakers might like. Its Core i5 chip is not a K variant, so it's not as easy to overclock. You get only two RAM slots, so memory upgrades will require wholesale replacement of the current memory sticks. The single hard-drive slot hides underneath the graphics card. You will also remain firmly in midrange graphics card territory thanks to the 330-watt power supply and the relatively short case depth. You do at least get a second graphics card power supply connector.

This slide-out tab only has a preview unit sticker on it now, but on the shipping version it will hide all of those ugly branding stickers PC owners loathe.

Alienware includes a few welcome extras with the X51. To the left of the graphics card, you'll find a mysterious plastic tab. Pull it, and you'll see where Alienware has posted those unsightly service and partner branding tags. Open the Windows Start menu and you'll find the Alienware folder, which holds various programs for tweaking and monitoring system settings and adjusting the external lighting.

For connectivity, the Alienware X51 lined up with my expectations. Highlights include a pair of USB 3.0 ports, digital audio output and 7.1 audio outs, and a pair of DVI jacks and a Mini-HDMI port on the graphics card. I won't be surprised if a year from now the X51 has a new motherboard with a Thunderbolt port on it.

Juice box
Alienware X51 Average watts/hour
Off (watts) 1.02
Sleep (watts) 2.41
Idle (watts) 52.68
Load (watts) 193.26
Raw (annual kWh) 313.709
Energy Star-compliant Yes
Annual power consumption cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $35.61

The Alienware's power consumption is a touch out of proportion to its capabilities. In a perfect world, it would require less power than the faster Hewlett-Packard system. Perhaps that's due to the Alienware's external power brick. In terms of noise generation, the Alienware X51 is average. I didn't notice the fans ramping up past what I expected during game testing. Alienware, owned by Dell, backs the X51 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. You also get to face the perils of Dell's call center support.

Gaming desktop traditionalists, this PC is not for you. You'll hate the limited upgrade path. I have no hesitation recommending the Alienware X51 to everyone else, in particular those who've ever felt put off by the process of buying or building a gaming computer.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

Alienware X51 (Core i5-2320, January 2012)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.0GHz Intel Core i5-2320; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Gateway FX6850-51u (Core i7-2600, May 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-2600; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1.5GB Nvidia GeForce GT440 graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm Hitachi hard drive

HP Pavilion Elite h8xt (Core i7-2600, August 2011)
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.4GHz Intel Core i7-2600; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6850 graphics card; 1.5TB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive

Lenovo H330 77801HU
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit; 3.0GHz Intel Core i5-2500; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6450 graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Velocity Micro Edge Z40
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 x51 desktop

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Support 7