Alienware Area-51 790i Review

by Reads (10,882)

Alienware has always had a reputation for catering to the enthusiast end of the PC market.  They try to differentiate themselves from other computer manufacturers by offering high-end components and unique aesthetics — when you buy an Alienware desktop, you know it’s an Alienware desktop.  With futuristic case designs, extravagant lighting systems and the omnipresent alien head logo, it’s hard to mistake it for anything else.  At the same time, engineering a system like that can carry a pretty hefty price tag.  Is Alienware’s Area-51 790i more than just a pretty face?  Read on for our full review.

Specifications

Our version of the Alienware Area-51 790i had the following specifications:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz (12MB L2 cache, 1333MHz FSB)
  • Memory: 4GB DDR3 SDRAM @ 1066MHz (2 x 2GB DIMMs)
  • Hard drive^1: 2 x 160GB SATA @10,000RPM, 16MB cache in RAID 0 configuration
  • Hard drive^2: 500GB SATA @ 7,200RPM, 16MB cache
  • Optical drive: Super Multi DVD+/-RW with LightScribe capability
  • Sound: integrated 7.1 HD audio
  • Video card: ATI Radeon HD4870 X2 w/2GB GDDR5 RAM
  • Motherboard: NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI motherboard
  • Networking: 2 x 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet/
  • Logitech G15 gaming keyboard and Logitech G5 laser mouse
  • 1.2kW power supply
  • Operating system: Windows Vista Premium 32-bit
  • One year AlienCare Onsite Service and 24/7 Toll-free phone support
  • Dimensions: 19.01”(H)x9.97”(W)x17.1”(D)

The Area-51 790i has a starting price of $1,499; the above configuration has a suggested retail price of $3,679.

 

Build and Design

Obviously, one of the biggest differences between high-end boutique manufacturers like Alienware (they’re still essentially a boutique maker despite having been bought out by Dell) is the design and build quality of the system.  Like it or hate it, and it’s probably going to be one of those two, design and branding is one of Alienware’s strengths. 

The Area-51, like any of Alienware’s offerings, is nothing if not distinctive.  The front of the case is black and silver, with an Alienware alien head logo smack in the middle.  The head doubles as the power button for the computer.  The bottom half is dominated by the metal screens that act as intake vents for case cooling.  I thought they would be plastic at first but was pleasantly surprised to see how durable they were.  The whole case feels very high end; the gloss reminds me of a car finish. 

The top half of the case is taken over by a massive door that covers the three 5.25″ drive bays.  Fortunately, the assorted ports on the front of the case are below the door, so you don’t need to leave it open for quick access.  The 5.25″ bays are covered by standard plates that pop in and out easily if you want to add in another drive or other bay accessory.  The door itself is one of the most engineered front doors I’ve ever seen on a computer case.  The hinges are massive and look very cool, hiding away the wiring that connects the alien head power button and blue LED backlighting.

That’s not to say it’s perfect, however, as it’s still a door, and I find these to be annoying after a while.  They definitely make a computer look nice and clean, but always get in the way, eventually.  My biggest issue with this implementation is that the door doesn’t lock into an open position or get further out of the way.  I could see someone walking past and either breaking the door or their leg, so it’s something to keep in mind.

The side of the case sees the venting continue back, although it’s mostly design since behind the area is a solid case panel.  Another alien head is on the side; it also is backlit by colored LEDs (blue, in our case, though this is customizable at order.  An optional upgrade lets you control different colors via software).  The side shot gives you a feel for the size of the computer.  In no way is this a small machine; most people ordering an Alienware system problem aren’t going to be worried about its physical footprint, though.  The whole theme of the system’s designed can best be described as retro-futuristic.  It feels a little like a rocketship or something out of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  Given the name of the company, I suspect this is precisely what they were going for.

As I said, all of the alien heads are lit with colored LEDs.  The pictures don’t really do them justice; in reality they’re pretty bright.  I can take or leave computer lights, but I will say they add to the futuristic feel of the system.  The ports on the front of the machine also have glowing sigils to help users plug things in when the lights are out:

The back of the machine has the rest of the ports for the computer.  The rear case vent has a cool spiral effect with another alien head in the middle.  Regardless of whether you like it, the guys at Alienware do remember to add cool little finishing touches like this that elevate the design of the computer above other, cheaper cases.

The power supply at the top of the machine has a chunky power switch that turns on and off with a satisfying click.  I like to have the power supply at the bottom of the machine, but that’s obviously a preference with no bearing on how well it functions.  The thin pieces that stick out into the open space (right up the case vent) are the levers that let you rapidly access the case interior; all you need to do is pull up and the door lifts right off.  It’s very quick and easy to take them off, but a couple of us had trouble snapping them back into place.  Still, a definite improvement over even thumbscrews to get into the computer. 

Inside, you can again see just how big the computer is, with the full-sized motherboard taking up just a fraction of the total volume.  The wiring is clean for the most part, pulled down and running along the motherboard tray where possible.  A bonus to having so much room to play with means that you can work inside the confines of the computer without bumping into components or accidentally pulling anything loose.  

Even with a monstrously huge card like the HD4870X2, there’s plenty of space to fiddle with wiring or even add a second card.  Speaking of massive, the 1200W power supply from Thermaltake takes up the all of the space above the motherboard.  Fortunately, the power cables were made such that they go exactly where they need to without a lot of slack to get tripped up in. 

The drives sit in a drive cage right in the middle front of the case.  The screwless design of the case continues here as drives are mounted with quick access slides.  Another thing that’s handy about how drives are mounted is that they sit with back end facing the user; some computers mount them parallel to the side panel rather than perpendicularly, making it difficult to plug in and remove the power and data cables.

Speaking of power cables, one very cool feature of the Area-51’s case design is how power to the side panels is handled.  Obviously, with LED lighting on the sides of the computer, the engineers had to connect the power leads from the panels to the main body of the computer.  Rather than attach it via a standard power cable, there are a set of contents sitting inside of the computer which touch a metal plate on the side panel.  This is really handy since a regular power cable wouldn’t detach when you pull off the side panel, which makes damaging components easier than you might think.

Inputs and Expansion

The sheer size of the Alienware Area-51 790i allows the manufacturer more than enough room to add a bunch of ports to the computer.  In fact, it wouldn’t leave Alienware any excuse if they’d left any out. 

The front of the computer has the optical drive as well as two USB2.0 ports, FireWire, a headphone jack and audio in.  On a black case, everything can blend in, so Alienware put lit icons beneath them when the computer is turned on.

The rear of the case offers six more USB2.0 ports, as well as another FireWire and an eSATA.  One interesting feature not seen on many computers was the addition of dual Gigabit ethernet ports, which opens up a few new possibilities.  The full complement of audio in and out ports are back here, including an optical port, as well as a number of video ports.  The motherboard offers composite video out near the top, while the added HD4870X2 adds in two dual link DVI ports as well as s-video out, which pretty much covers any display you might want to hook up.  Alienware also decided to add in legacy PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse which, if nothing else, free up that many more USB ports for whatever you might need. Extra PCI/PCIe slots inside let you add in more functionality (or even more ports, should you have fifty different USB devices that all need plugged in at the same time) like an additional 4870X2. 

Software

While the software that comes with the Alienware Area-51 is fairly standard, there are a couple of items I want to point out.  If you get the upgraded system lighting, Alienware provides software controls for changing the color of the system, which is fun to play around with, if nothing else.  The really cool thing though, is that the Area-51 790i includes support for both NVIDIA’s graphics cards in SLI as well as ATI’s graphics cards in Crossfire.  Intel’s upcoming X58-based motherboards are not the first to make this happen, not by a long shot.  The hardware for SLI is included on the board itself, while Alienware worked with ATI to develop drivers that would let them enable Crossfire on the nForce-based motherboard.  This answered the question I had when we first got the system — why Alienware was using the ATI flagship card with an nForce chipset.  As an aside, our system also shipped with a 32-bit copy of Windows Vista Home Premium, interestingly enough.  Since there was 4GB of general RAM in the system as well as 2GB of GDDR5 on the video card, only 2 gigs was generally available to the operating system. 

Peripherals

Alienware offers basic OEM desktop sets consisting of a keyboard and mouse.  At checkout, however, users can upgrade to more gaming-oriented devices like the Logitech G15 gaming keyboard and Logitech G5 laser mouse.  Both of these are worthwhile upgrades and great devices in their own right.  While not peripherals exactly, Alienware does include a couple of bonus items that, again, go back to their goal of taking care of all the little details.  In addition to the computer, the box contains a black hat with the Alienware alien head logo, as well as a really nice mouse pad and portfolio containing all of the manuals and system discs.

 

Performance and Benchmarks

The Area-51 790i is built to perform, and perform it did.  The 4870X2 is a heck of a card, and will power through just about any game you’d want to.  I had the machine hooked up to a 1920×1200 display, and ran through a couple of sessions of Bioshock and Crysis.  Bioshock will run like butter, even with everything set to high at full resolution.  You won’t notice any dropped frames or slowdowns at all.  Crysis, even with settings turned up (but no AA) will average 40 frames a second.  Absolutely more than playable.  So the system can play games, and play them very well.  Here’s how it fared in the rest of our benchmarks:

wPrime is a PC performance benchmarking program that forces the computer to perform recursive mathematical calculations. This program is multithreaded, meaning we can take advantage of more than one core of a processor at a time, resulting in a more realistic estimate of a computer’s performance.

wPrime benchmark comparison results (lower numbers mean better performance):

Desktop wPrime 32 time
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz) 13.869s
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz) 14.625s
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 16.301s
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 27.65s
HP Pavilion Slimline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 29.733s
HP Compaq dc5850 (Athlon X2 5000B @ 2.6GHz) 31.421s
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 35.582s

PCMark05 overall system performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance):

Desktop PCMark05 Score
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz) 10,616 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz) 9,999 PCMarks
Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz) 6,887 PCMarks
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850 @ 2.16 GHz) 5,189 PCMarks
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 4,981 PCMarks
HP Pavilion Slimline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 4,593 PCMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 4,305 PCMarks

3DMark06 overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance):

Desktop 3DMark06 Score
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450, ATI HD4870X2) 14,705 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850, NVIDIA FX4600) 10,327 3DMarks
Dell Studio Slim (Core 2 Quad Q8200, ATI HD3450 256MB) 1,820 3DMarks
HP TouchSmart IQ506 (Core 2 Duo T5850, NVIDIA 9300M GS) 1,714 3DMarks
HP Compaq dc5850 (Athlon X2 5000B, ATI HD3100 IGP) 1,041 3DMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100, Intel X3100) 528 3DMarks
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400, NVIDIA 6150SE) 403 3DMarks

The Area-51 also managed to get 5,976 PCMarks in PCMark Vantage and a score of P12578 in 3DMark Vantage.  The GPU score was 13148 while the general CPU score was 11129.

HDTune results:

You can see that the RAID 0 striping of the two fast hard drives results in very fast access times, and these aren’t even as fast as they could be.

Power Consumption and Noise

I’ll get it out of the way right now: the system is not quiet.  It’s big, with lots of hard drives and lots of fans needed to keep everything cool.  It doesn’t help that it has a big power supply and a very loud graphics card, either.  That isn’t really an issue, though: it’s a powerful gaming system, and powerful PC components run hot.  To keep the noise down, users do have two options: Alienware offers their own water cooling systems, installed by their employees before the system leaves the factory.  Water cooling systems can cut down noise significantly by reducing necessary fans.  Alternatively, you can pay $99 and get Alienware’s own sound dampening materials installed on the inside of the case.  Either are options you may wish to consider if loud PCs bother you. 

As I said earlier, the system uses some powerful components — powerful components use a lot of, well, power.  At idle, the system already draws 232 Watts.  That’s a fair amount for a system idling around.  At max, I was able to get the Area-51 to pull down more than 350 Watts.  It might use more or less, depending on the configuration you purchase.

 

Conclusion

The Alienware Area-51 is a powerful system.  It has a well-designed and well-engineered case and really great build quality.  Both the case and the computer offer a lot of neat little touches that you won’t find on less expensive computers.  The unit we received was more than powerful enough to demolish pretty much anything we threw at it — and it did it with style (assuming you find LEDs stylish).

All of that power and design, however, come at a price.  This configuration ran over $3600.  That is a tremendous amount of money, and certainly double what you’d pay if you wanted to build this computer yourself.  That’s the clincher, though: most people don’t build their own computers or even want to, and Alienware caters to this audience.  Moreover, building your own computer doesn’t get you the interesting case and all of its little features, the cool portfolio of manuals and system software, or even the Alienware hat (okay, questionable worth). 

In the end, the Area-51 is expensive, but it does it does anything you need it to do and more.  Certainly, it’s cool.  And people, like always, are willing to pay for cool.

Pros

  • Interesting design that you’ll either love or hate
  • Lots of room inside case
  • Screwless design makes changing things in and out quick and easy
  • LEDs below front ports make plugging things in in the dark easier

Cons

  • System runs noisy without water cooling or sound dampening solutions
  • Equipped with a 4870X2, the Area-51 will heat up a room
  • Expensive compared to other solutions
  • Older hard drives used


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