An "immersive HD gaming experience", or are you better off building your own?
By Tim Colwill on June 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm
The Alienware range fill a very key niche in PC gaming’s rich smorgasbord: they exist for people who want to play PC games, and they want to play them at reasonable settings, but they don’t care about digging through tech guides and reviews, or learning what an anti-static wristband is, or how to use one. This is, of course, perfectly fine – the more people we have gaming on PC’s the better, and hardware such as the Alienware X51 is designed to do exactly that. Still, you can’t look at a piece of pre-built technology without trying to take it apart, and so when the X51 showed up on our doorstep in a massive black cardboard box, we grabbed our anti-static wristband and got to it.
Included in the big black box with the X51 is a USB keyboard and mouse, as well as an external power supply and the cables necessary to connect them all together. Monitors are sold separately, connecting via a DVI port on the back of the X51 itself. The unit also ships with all the CD’s necessary to install and re-install both WIndows 7 and Dell’s particular flavour of bundled software, including ‘Alien Autopsy’ which monitors the health of your system, ‘AlienFusion’ power management, ‘AlienFX’ to change the color of the external LED’s, and other various alien-themed tools.
So, to the system itself. The overall size of the X51 is roughly comparable to an old-school Xbox 360, or a ‘fat’ model PS3 – it’s about half the size and weight of your traditional tower, most of which has been outsourced to a hefty external PSU along the same lines as you’ll find on the actual Xbox 360.
As a result the actual case itself is rather delightfully small, and would easily find a place among most cluttered gaming desks. Two screws at the back allow you to remove the left panel and get into the guts of the machine, but unfortunately as I quickly discovered, those guts are quite well-protected.
Inside, the X51 contains a built in wireless card, which was seamless most of the time but occasionally dropped down to two bars, despite having a clear line of sight to the router about ten metres away. The H61 motherboard plays home to an Intel Core i7 2600 CPU, has one x16 PCIe 2.0 connection and a pair of DIMM slots, which are filled with two sticks of 4GB 1600 MHz DDR3. Mounted in the PCIe slot is a 1GB GeForce GTX 555 on a riser card to bring it parallel to the motherboard. I was told that the riser card could be removed – but attempting to do so met with severe resistance and a number of unpleasant noises, and as this was a review unit, I wasn’t willing to push too far.
In any event, the point is clear: this is not a case where you can easily modify the insides. Space is at somewhat of a premium and everything has been chosen or custom built to fit perfectly within, a far cry from the official website’s claim of being “designed for you to easily swap out desktop-class CPUs, graphics cards, hard drives and memory”. If those new components you’re wanting to swap in are custom-made Dell components, or you’ve been able to check carefully beforehand about whether they’ll fit, sure – but this isn’t a situation where you could head down to your local PC shop and just grab a new card with confidence.
Nevertheless, the reality of an Alienware is that you’re buying one because you want a powerful PC, but you don’t want to have to deal with the hassle of actually figuring out what the hell it all does on the inside. So is it actually a powerful PC for the price? The answer to that is a definite yes – and certainly one that’s more than capable of handling most of what modern gaming can throw at it.
I jumped in for a few rounds of Battlefield 3, where it pulled well over 80 FPS in almost every situation on the default graphics settings. Pushing it to Ultra settings dropped the framerate down to 35, but the game was still eminently playable and certainly nothing to sneeze at. The only problem of note was the noise: Battlefield 3 kicked the fan into overdrive, to the point where I considered popping headphones on to cut it out.
This noise was only an issue with BF3 (and in the occasional Mass Effect 3 fight scene), however. A few more minutes of testingCivilization V turned into hours, with the system holding up well and not making excess noise. TERA performed much the same, showing that the X51 can easily support most games, but struggles a bit in some of the heavy hitters. It pulled a 3DMark score of P3423 (3112 graphics, 8320 physics, 3027 combined) in our benchmarking tests, which is, again, more than competent.
So how does it hold up against a custom rig? Well, for the same price as the X51 ($1300, delivered) you can definitely get a custom-built machine with slightly better performance, but not by a huge margin. An Intel Core i7 3770-based tower is easily achievable inside a $1300 budget, while maintaining the GeForce GTX 550 level of GPU. For a few hundred more you could push it to an SSD as well, and jump up to a Radeon HD 7850 at the same time, offering you even more graphical power. Naturally, the more money you put in the better you’ll get, but on a strict dollars:performance ratio, the X51 is a very competitive machine – and comes with none of the hassles involved in having to figure it all out for yourself. If you want to jump into PC gaming but don’t want to get your hands dirty, it’s a solid place to start.
- Slim size, attractive aesthetic
- Reasonable performance for the price
- Bulky external PSU
- Very little room inside, slim prospects for expansion
- Noisy during intensive scenes