Do you identify yourself as a PC gamer? Or do you prefer consoles, perhaps? Truth be told, there's not a lot separating the two these days. With notable exceptions, today's top games are built for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, and unless you can't live without the likes of Mario, Solid Snake or Master Chief, you'll likely pick based on the controller you prefer, graphical fidelity, and the distance you sit from your screen. Inevitably, tradeoffs have to be made. There's a lot to be said for vegging out on the couch after work with a good game, but consoles don't often play nice with mouse and keyboard, and don't usually render games at true 1080p. Meanwhile, the gaming PCs that can are typically huge and bulky.
That's why Alienware's X51 is so intriguing. This black tower packs full-size gaming PC components into a chassis only marginally bigger than an original PlayStation 3 — theoretically slotting in alongside your home theatre components to let you play the latest PC games on your TV. The crazy part is that despite the X51's size, it isn't a boutique machine: Alienware claims it's easily upgradable with off-the-shelf components, and the basic model starts at just $699. The question is obvious: what's the catch? Let's dig in, and we'll tell you.
The Alienware X51 is a pastiche of the game consoles it hopes to complement
When the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 received their slim makeovers, it was like two strangers passing in the night: the PS3 Slim traded the gloss and capacitive keys for a matte finish and physical buttons, while the Xbox 360 S adopted the PS3's sheen and chrome trim both. Why do I bring that up? Simply put, the Alienware X51 is a pastiche of the video game consoles it hopes to complement. The hefty 12-pound case has matte, rounded black sides that hearken back to the Xbox 360 Elite, cloven diagonally much like the Xbox 360 S, while its shiny center is all original PS3, with the same glossy, dust-attracting black plastic, slot-loading optical drive (albeit with a physical eject button) and glorified vents. Oddly, the eject button doesn't work on our review unit, though discs eject fine, and Alienware tells us it's a fluke. The other thing it borrows from the Xbox, unfortunately, is a truly gigantic external power supply, with around twelve feet of extra-thick cord to ensure you can place the system just about anywhere you like. Between the weight of the X51 and the bulk of the cord, it may not be as portable as it looks, but it's still a pretty decent alternative to a gaming laptop if you're headed to a LAN party.
Like the iconic chestburster, Alienware's DNA is poking its head out
Though the overall design may be inspired by Sony and Microsoft, there's still plenty of Alienware DNA to be found. Like the iconic chestburster, it's just lurking beneath the surface, and quite literally sticking its head out. Yes, that's an alien head emblem on the front of the case, and a pair of what appear to be translucent talons on either side; each individually lights up in colors of your choice. You can even set them to trigger when you get email or launch certain programs, for notifications and mood lighting. They're neither piercingly bright nor awkwardly showy, but if you'd rather not have them at all, you can also choose "black" to turn all the lights off. Problem solved. The sharp angles at the top and bottom of the glossy front panel also channel earlier Alienware desktops, and the company's alien font is displayed prominently on the right side panel. It reads "Alienware," in case you were curious.
Plenty of ports
In truth, at 13.5 inches high, 12.5 inches deep and 3.7 inches wide, it's oh-so-slightly bulkier than a game console — and a good bit heavier, to boot — but the X51 makes up for it on the connectivity front with as many ports as desktop PCs twice its size. The front panel has a pair of USB 2.0 ports alongside microphone and headphone jacks, and the back sports not only a dedicated HDMI 1.4 jack, four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 sockets, Gigabit Ethernet, and a full 3.5mm surround sound jack set — there's no SD card slot, we're afraid — but also both digital optical and coaxial SPDIF audio outputs to interface with most any kind of sound system you might have. That's in addition to 802.11n Wi-Fi, twin DVI video outputs and mini-HDMI on the rear of the graphics card.
What you don't get is a lot in the box: just a barebones mouse and keyboard, a user manual and a DVI to VGA adapter. You won't find a media remote. Dell has historically bundled loads of infrared remotes with its computers, but in what's perhaps the most likely in years to be attached to a TV, you'll need to jury-rig your own to control it from across the room, and since it also doesn't have video inputs or a TV tuner option (nor space to add your own) it's not really suited to be a media center PC anyhow.
Update: You may see some pictures of a dual-band Intel Wi-Fi card in the gallery below, but the final system will come with a Dell-branded 802.11b/g/n card instead.
By the way, that dedicated HDMI jack and some special software make setup a breeze: the Alienware X51 is one of the first computers to use the desktop version of Nvidia's Optimus graphics switching technology. That means not only does the computer attempt to save power by using the onboard Intel graphics when possible, you can also get all the power of that dedicated NVIDIA GPU through the full-size HDMI port, without having to use a special cable or adapter to connect your TV to the graphics card's DVI and mini-HDMI outputs. (You can use them to attach additional monitors, though.) It's also HDMI 1.4, which means that stereoscopic 3D gaming is also technically possible if you've got a 3DTV and compatible software.
Alienware's designed a case that fits components together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle
Where the X51 really shines, though, is underneath the hood. Through what must have been some exceptionally clever engineering, Alienware's designed a case that fits full-size desktop components together like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, without a hint of wasted space inside... and yet leaves every single component modular so that you can replace and upgrade them with minimal effort and in an incredibly short time. If you're a component junkie, you really have to see it for yourself, and I'll do my best to show you in the pictures and video above, but know that you could honestly tear down the whole system and put it back together in half an hour if you wanted to, and in almost any order that you choose. If you prefer never to open up your computers, feel free to skip ahead to the Performance section to hear how the machine plays games. Otherwise, here's how it works:
- Remove one single black screw from the rear of the machine, and slide the case door to the front to unhook;
- Carefully disconnect the side panel light wire, and take off the door; you now have access to the optical drive, memory, CPU fan duct, and (dual-slot!) GPU bay, which you can remove in any order.
- One screw and a quick pull on a sliding bracket, disconnect a SATA cable, and out comes the optical drive bay; four more to replace it with a laptop-sized slimline optical drive of your choice.
- Two screws and a careful pull on the GPU bay, and out it comes; remove the PCI-E power connector, flip open a couple of handy retaining clips and hold one more open, and you've got a naked graphics card ready to be transplanted with another.
- One screw and a yank to the left after that, and the hard drive tray is yours;
- Two screws to remove the fan duct, four more for the CPU cooler, and you're on your way to a new Intel LGA 1155 processor;
- Underneath it all, you can yank and replace the Intel H61 motherboard with a Mini-ITX alternative of your choice.
It's not just that the X51 is easy to upgrade, either, it's how well the pieces fit together that truly astounds — like the way the case uses the CPU duct and GPU cooler in unison to direct all the hot air out the rear of the console, or the way the hard drive and optical drive trays latch onto the console so securely with just a single screw. Or, for that matter, the rigidity of the metal Alienware's using for the whole frame.
By far, though, the most impressive part is that GPU bay. By giving the lion's share of space in the case to the GPU and using a PCI-Express riser card to angle the socket parallel to the motherboard, Alienware's managed to fit a full-size, dual-slot graphics card up to nine inches long. Alienware told me the 330W power supply only officially supports graphics cards that draw up to 150W TDP (or 105W TDP for the entry-level 240W PSU) which initally made me think an upgrade would be a bit of a waste, as both the Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 and GT 545 that Alienware sells already max out their respective power supply's recommended wattage spec. Thankfully, there seems to be a good bit of wiggle room with the larger power supply, as I transplanted the 170W+ Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC from our $1,000 Verge Gaming Rig to the X51 with no trouble — just a driver reinstall — and enjoyed substantially higher framerates after doing so.
Even so, it's a bit of a bummer that the entry-level X51 doesn't come with the 330W power supply to allow for such upgrades from the get-go. We also wouldn't mind a dedicated spot to mount a 2.5-inch solid state drive,
and an extra SATA port to connect it. As you'll see in a moment, it would definitely come in handy. Update: There is a third SATA port, our mistake.
The Alienware X51 starts at $699 with a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and GeForce GT 545 graphics, but I'm both sorry and happy to say Dell sent me the top-tier $1,249 system instead, with a 3.4GHz Core i7-2600 CPU, 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 graphics and the $100 Blu-ray drive option. With those components, you can expect a competent mid-range gaming PC that'll blow current-gen consoles out of the water. The raw numbers don't quite stack up to the kind of bang-for-the-buck machine you can build for the same amount of cash, and that's a bit of a shame, but when it comes to pre-built systems even the top-tier X51 we tested is a pretty decent deal.
Take Just Cause 2, for example, my favorite mid-range gaming test: where our $1,000 Verge Gaming Rig rended the lush islands of Panau playble at fully maxed settings and 1080p resolution, I had to sacrifice slightly here, dropping the anti-aliasing to 8x and suffering oh-so-slightly more jagged edges to maintain 40+ frames per second.
Similarly, The Witcher 2, and Battlefield 3, which each ran nicely at high levels of detail on our Verge custom rig, both had to be dropped to medium settings to stay above 30 FPS and 40 FPS respectively. I criticize because I care: to tell you the truth, these are a pair of the most demanding games available on PC today, and with most PCs that can fit in a home entertainment rack, neither game is particularly playable. Assuming you'll be hooking up the X51 to an HDTV, you can probably drop the resolution to 720p in exchange for more eye candy: from the distance you'll be playing, it may not make a difference.
By the way, though Alienware couldn't provide me with the base $699 configuration, you can get a rough idea of the relative performance based on preliminary benchmarks: the company told us the 3.3GHz Core i3-2120 with 4GB of RAM and GeForce GT 545 graphics notches scores of P8284 and X3901 in 3DMark Vantage and P2021 and X645 in 3DMark 11.
I can't say I noticed any stability issues with the X51, though I've only had it for a few days so far. After many months of using primarily solid state drive equipped computers, though, it doesn't feel quite as snappy as I'm used to. Alienware's optimized the BIOS to the point that it only takes a handful of seconds to start loading Windows, but you're still looking at around a full minute to finish booting from the 7200 RPM hard drive, and programs take a moment to load. It'd be nice to add an SSD, but you'll have to swap the existing HDD or ODD if you want to do so. I didn't get the chance to measure heat levels quite yet. As far as noise, the X51's fans are definitely audible under load and the Blu-ray drive adds volume, but I wouldn't characterize either as abnormally loud, and Optimus offloads graphics processing duties onto the onboard Intel HD Graphics 2000 for minor loads, which should also help.
Update: We fired our infrared temperature gun at the rear vents of the Alienware X51 midway through an intensive session of Battlefield 3, and were pretty pleased with the result: around 106 degrees Farenheit. That compares pretty favorably to the Xbox 360 S: in the same test, it heated up to 108 degrees even when idle.
The raw numbers won't blow you away, but they're pretty great
|Windows Experience Index||5.9|
|3DMark Vantage (w/ aftermarket GTX 560 Ti OC)||P20,139|
|3DMark 11 (w/ 560 Ti OC)||P5,055|
|Boot time||58 seconds|
A stone's throw shy of the perfect living room PC
Over the years, there have been a few attempts to build small computers that could nonetheless play hardcore PC games. The HP Firebird most vividly comes to mind, with its dual laptop GPUs, water cooling, RAID array of hard drives, handsome custom case, and moderately outlandish price. Where the Firebird failed and other attempts fizzled before they could reach the market, though, the Alienware X51 has a real chance at life. It's reasonably priced, solidly built, and can be configured to satisfy today's mid-range gaming needs. The clever upgradable chassis means that tomorrow's games are also a possibility. It's mildly portable, and can fit into your existing home entertainment setup, though the lack of wireless controls may be an issue for some. And lest we forget, it's also a fairly powerful home computer, and if you're willing to spend an extra $100, the machine can also be your Blu-ray player.
The Alienware styling isn't for everyone. I could personally do without the giant external power brick. The X51 chassis definitely has more bang-for-the-buck potential than Dell's existing four pricing levels will let you exploit. None of that changes the fact that Alienware's built a diminutive, desirable gaming PC unlike anything else on the market. If consoles can't cut the mustard and laptops leave you longing for more, the X51 might be the leanback gaming PC you've been looking for.
Note: scores presently only reflect the $1,249 model.