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Alienware changed the game of making PCs

The company may not have been the first gaming PC brand, but it is one of the longest lasting and most successful. The reason: outrageously powerful computers with crazy cool designs.

Alienware prides itself on making some of the most powerful PCs you can buy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Ask any gamer out there about playing games on a PC, and they'll tell you about Alienware.

The Miami-based company has been building gaming PCs for 20 years. It's become one of the most recognizable computer brands out there thanks to its alien-head logo, with glowing eyes peering out, that's emblazoned on its other-worldly looking computers.

One of its most distinctive designs was its "Predator" desktop from 2003, which made the large and heavy computer look like a large alien head at a time when most computers were utilitarian, gray-colored boxes. But that's not the only new idea Alienware helped popularize.

See also: How Alienware's gaming PCs kept their cool

Space-age goes mobile

If the '90s were dominated by desktop PCs, the early 2000s were about the rise of laptops. But Nelson Gonzalez, Alienware's co-founder, noticed that all the machines on the market were clunky, slow and had short battery life. No gamer was going to be able to play using those.

So when he proposed Alienware try to make a better one, most everyone responded, "you're crazy, no one's ever going to buy a gaming notebook," recalled Frank Azor, who heads Alienware today.

What they eventually created was the Area-51m. Released in 2002, the laptop was 2.4 inches thick (just shy of a building brick) and weighed a back-breaking 9.6 pounds. It also included a desktop-like Intel Pentium 4 processor and, most importantly, a separate graphics chip called the ATI Mobility Radeon 9000. That type of technology was bleeding edge at the time and not everyone was convinced it could deliver.

CNET called it a "desktop replacement" in its review at the time, noting it was a speedy. But that came at a cost -- for your lap. "All of this firepower makes for one hot machine, figuratively and literally," wrote CNET reviewer Brian Nadel at the time.

Fast forward seven years and you arrive at the 5-pound Alienware M11x, which was half the weight of its ancestor, saving you from the fear of future chiropractic bills. It actually looked like one of the small-screen netbook laptops that were popular at the time, except for the sharp angles and glowing alien head logo.

Big things, small packages

It's not easy to build a ridiculously powerful computer. It's even harder to squeeze one into a frame slightly larger than a shoebox.

The Alienware X51, launched in 2012, popularized small-size desktop computers by offering gamers the capability to cram standard parts in a package just 13.5 inches tall (compared with the 22.4 inches for Alienware's biggest current desktop, the Area 51). The secret was fitting the internal components together like puzzle pieces, instead of resorting to using cooler, less-powerful chips designed for small spaces. And of course, the system needed to run at full power without overheating. It cost less than $1,000.

The X51 has evolved since then, now offering a tech called liquid cooling, which attaches a unit with a fan and tubes that run heat-dissipating liquid to the motherboard and processor. Alienware helped popularize liquid cooling in the mid-2000s, starting with a massive desktop named the Aurora ALX.

When is a console not a console?

A lot of the history of Alienware has been about making gaming PCs faster, more powerful and very frequently, more expensive.

That's why Alienware turned heads when it introduced a comparatively underpowered computer about the size of a coffee table book two years ago.

For a little more than the price of an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 video game ($400-$500 at the time), the Alienware Alpha performed like a mid-range PC. But what it had going for it was a vast library of PC games offered through Valve's popular Steam online store and playable on a TV. And it even looked better than the video game consoles it competed against.

The Alpha was actually a re-purposed product. It was originally designed to be part of the new class of video game PCs called Steam Machines, powered by special software designed for gaming. But that industry effort was delayed, and so Alienware decided to release its Alpha anyway.