Alienware Area-51 x58 Review

by J.R. Nelson Reads (30,232)

Alienware is known throughout the tech community for their extravagant systems.  While they’ve tried to tone it down in recent years, so as to appeal to a wider range of consumers, the boutique PC maker hasn’t let that stop them from continuing to create computers where no expense is spared.  The Alienware Area-51 x58 is just such a system, and with a price tag of a few thousand dollars, you can bet that this isn’t just a boring grey box.  If anything, the Area-51 is an experience.  The cost might give you pause, but this beast is built with some of the best components available.  In the end, is it all worth it?  Read on for our full review.

Specifications

Our Area-51 x58 review unit had the following specifications:

  • Processor: Intel Core i7 965 @ 3.2 GHz
  • Memory: 12GB DDR3 SDRAM @ 1066 MHz
  • Motherboard: ASUSTeK P6T Deluxe x58
  • Primary hard drive: 2 x 128GB SSDs in RAID 0
  • Secondary hard drive: 2 x 1TB 7200 RPM in RAID 0
  • Optical drive: 4x BluRay R/W DVD+/-RW
  • Sound: SoundMAX Integrated Digital HD Audio
  • Video card: 2 x ATI Radeon HD4870X2 2GB in quad CrossFireX
  • Networking: 2 x 10/100/1000 Gigabit ethernet
  • Wired keyboard and mouse
  • Operating system: Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit
  • 1200W rated power supply
  • Warranty: one year on-site service and 24/7 toll-free phone support.
  • Dimensions: 19.01 x 9.97 x 17.1 inches (HxWxD)

The Alienware Area-51 x58 starts at $1648.  As configured, the x58 system will cost $6379.

Build and Design

Alienware has become known for a very specific look, and the Area-51 fits it to a T.  The case is metal, with high-density plastics surrounding it, finished with an automotive-quality glossy black paint job.  Several different colors are available for the exterior coat.  Similarly, the ice blue lighting that permeates the exterior can be upgraded to an AlienFX multi-light unit, complete with a software interface that lets you change the lighting colors at will, including the ability to make different regions different colors.

As with the last Area-51 that we reviewed, the outer case design hasn’t changed even a little bit.  The outside features the same art deco futuristic spaceship look; setting side by side, you won’t be able to tell any models of the Area-51 line apart.  My favorite part of Alienware’s design, which I feel needs mentioning again, is the hinge and wiring setup on the flip-out door that covers the exterior drive bays.  I spoke with Alienware about this, and mentioned how well-constructed it seemed.  They replied that a significant amount of time actually went into the design and structure of this component, and it shows.  Many cases fall short here, with a cheap-feeling cover that ends up getting broken.  The Alienware alien head logo on the outside serves dual-purpose as a lighted power button that turns the system on and off.

I’m not going to go too much into detail about the outside and overall design of the Area-51 x58’s case, since we’ve reviewed Alienware Area-51 units before, and it looks exactly the same.  In the end, I think it’s a very cool look, and while big and very heavy, the build quality is very good.

Inside of the computer is the same spacious cabinet as before.  If nothing else, you have to give props to Alienware for their outstanding wiring jobs; since they build computers on a large scale, they can order completely custom parts, including the wiring being used to distribute power.  As a result, everything is exactly the length it needs to be, so there’s no hidden jumbles of wiring shoved beneath the drive bay like there is in my own case.

One of the coolest parts of Alienware’s case design is how they take care of the wiring for the lights (and, if present, a fan) on the side panel.  Instead of connecting wires, which you still can, if you prefer, they use a contact panel.  This means that you won’t need to worry about pulling out wires or components if you unthinkingly rip off the side panel.

From a quick look at the specifications, it’s easy to see that Alienware spared very little expense in terms of individual components for the Area-51 x58.  Most notably in the interior shot above, you can see two graphics cards in the lower left-hand corner, each of which is a 2 GB ATI Radeon HD4870X2.  Individually, the cards run around $450 and while one alone will pretty easily play anything on the market today, two will blow it out of the water.

The core (no pun intended) of the system is the Intel Core i7 965 processor, clocked standard at 3.2 GHz.  These processors have an unlocked multiplier for even easier overclocking, although the stock performance is more than enough for most people.  At $1000, it’s essentially the most expensive consumer processor on the market; at the same time, it’s also the fastest.  As Intel’s latest processors require DDR3 memory, there are six memory slots to the right of the processor, each of which contain 2 GB of DDR3-1066 memory.  DDR3 is finally coming down from it’s astronomical cost late last year, and buying twelve gigs on your own will run around $200.

While you can order an Area-51 x58 with just a single hard drive, our review unit came stock with four.  Each pair is configured in a RAID 0 configuration.  While I don’t really recommend using such a configuration for novice computer users, there’s no doubt that it gives you pretty outstanding speeds.  The top pair of drives are two 128GB Samsung SSDs, which in a RAID 0 setup gives you 256GB of usable space before partitioning steals about thirty of that.  In a similar setup were the 1 TB drives below, although these were obviously standard rotating magnetic media, rather than solid state.  While again, setting these drives in a RAID 0 configuration is very fast, it’s wise to have enough space to back up anything you’re going to put in such a setup, since if one drive fails, you lose all of your data (this is because RAID 0 stripes alternate pieces of data on each drive.  If one drive fails, you’ll lose half of those stripes, rendering all of your files useless).

Hidden in the front of the computer, behind the Awesome Door, is a 4x BluRay burner.  While it’s a bit hilarious to talk about luxuries and expense when looking at a $6000 computer, a BluRay writer, at this point in time, is still a bit of an unnecessary luxury.  Individual discs are still too expensive to make backing up large amounts of data worthwhile; given the precipitous drop in magnetic storage, you may as well just buy a few hard drives and keep them in a safe, dry place.

Inputs and Expansion

The cost and size of the Area-51 x58 preclude any possibility for leaving out too many ports, and Alienware gladly stuffs them into the front and back of the machine.

The front of the Area-51 provides easy access to two USB2.0 ports as well as a single FireWire port.  Alienware also put the standard audio in/out jacks on one side.  I think that style won out over functionality at this point; it would be nice to see a little more within easy access, especially considering that the size of the desktop makes accessing the rear to plug things in and take them out slightly difficult.

The rear of the machine at least makes up for the sparse accoutrements of the front by adding in, well, everything but the kitchen sink.  There are eight more USB2.0 ports, which I’d say is enough for anyone, but we see how well statements like that are taken when viewed through the lens of history.  There’s still a PS/2 combo port for either keyboard or mouse, for consumers who still have a favorite peripheral (like those IBM Model M keyboards) and just won’t give it up.  Fortunately, you won’t need to use a troublesome USB-PS/2 converter.  In addition, there are dual Gigabit ethernet ports, another FireWire port, and one eSATA.  It’s unfortunate that Alienware (although I suppose I should blame ASUS, who makes this board) chose to only give one eSATA port and all those USB2.0 ports.  If anything, it would be nice to see some more combo USB/eSATA ports being used.  When it comes to audio and video inputs and outputs, our unit likely had enough for anyone.  On the motherboard itself, you have analog sound in, analog surround sound out, digital optical audio out and digital coaxial audio out.  Thanks to the dual HD4870X2 cards, there are six video out ports, four DVI and two s-video.

Thanks to the size of the case, there are additional 5.25-inch drive bays available inside for more storage or in case you want to add a multi-card reader to the front of the computer (a worthy addition).  Most of the 3.5-inch drive bays are already populated with the four hard drives our system came with.  While the two PCI-e 2.0 16x slots are taken up by the two video cards, there’s still a PCI-e 1x slot available for any peripheral that requires it.

Performance

Desktop wPrime 32 time
Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965 @ 3.2GHz) 7.426s
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz) 9.1s
Dell XPS 625 (Phenom II X4 940 @ 3.0GHz) 12.777s
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

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

Desktop PCMark05 Score
Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965 @ 3.2GHz) 15,186 PCMarks
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz) 10,928 PCMarks
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz) 10,616 PCMarks
Dell XPS 625 (Phenom II X4 940 @ 3.0GHz) 10,296 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

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

Desktop 3DMark06 Score
Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965, Dual ATI HD4870X2) 22,666 3DMarks
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450, ATI HD4870X2) 14,705 3DMarks
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920, ATI HD4850) 13,085 3DMarks
Dell XPS 625 (Phenom II X4 940, ATI HD4850) 12,641 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

PCMark Vantage overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)

Desktop PCMark Vantage Score
Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965 @ 3.2GHz) 11,310 PCMarks
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz) 6056 PCMarks
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz) 5976 PCMarks

3DMark Vantage overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)

Desktop 3DMark Vantage Score
Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965, Dual ATI HD4870X2) p21865
Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450, ATI HD4870X2) p12578
Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920, ATI HD4850) p7603

None of these results are surprising; given the components in the Area-51 x58, the only surprising performance result would have been if it hadn’t ended up at the top of the charts.  The Core i7 965 is a ridiculously fast processor, and the HD4870X2 is a ridiculously fast graphics card.  Two of them, obviously, are even faster (at least in most games). 

When it comes to gaming performance, you won’t be let down, either.  I had the time to test the system with two different games, Bioshock and Left4Dead.  Each game was played at 1920×1200, at the absolute highest settings the game itself allowed.  Left4Dead will hit well over 140 frames per second while playing this game, and Bioshock averaged 116 FPS (but maxed out at 165).

HDTune results

2 x 128GB SSDs:

2 x 1TB SATA HDs:

This was a slightly perplexing result.  The SSD chart should be more of an even line across the chart (as seen in several tests on our sister site NotebookReview), but instead we’ve gotten slightly reduced performance and occasional high jumps.  It’s a possibility that one of the SSDs was having performance issues, which are in no way Alienware’s fault.  Should a system drive go bad, the warranty service would immediately replace it.  At the least, you can see the nigh instantaneous access times of 0.2ms; that’s certainly much lower than traditional hard drives.  Speaking of which, the RAID 0 pair of traditional hard drives showed off some pretty spectacular speeds; when the minimum transfer speed is around 100MB/s, who needs an SSD anyway?  The max speed was almost twice that, and even the important statistic, the average transfer rate, was certainly no slouch at 158.6MB/s.  The access times, however, averages 10.6ms, showing just how much fast SSDs are in this area.

Noise and Power

The Area-51 x58 is a pretty noisy machine.  After all, you have a very fast processor that needs cooling, a case that needs continuous airflow, and, most relevant, two very, very hot graphics cards.  The fans on the HD4870X2 cards are pretty loud, and they have to be; ATI’s most recent products are notioriously loud.  It’s a gaming case, though, and somewhat expected; if both noise and performance are a requirement for you, Alienware offers an upgrade that puts certain procedures into place, dampening the noise. 

This computer will consume just about as much power as it emits sound.  Completely turned off, the Area-51 will still use around three watts of electricity just powering some of the lights and features of the case.  Turned on and idling, that number jumps to 300 watts, more than your average desktop.  If you load up a game such as Bioshock, you can expect to be using around 500 watts at a time, and if you somehow manage to max it out like we did (although this was difficult enough of a task as to border on the ludicrous), you can get the Area-51 to use up an astounding 806 watts.  Keep in mind that this doesn’t include anything like speakers or a display that you may have hooked up.  You could find yourself using the better part of a kilowatt of energy when all is said and done.  What a fun way to use it, though, I have to say.

Conclusion

The Alienware Area-51 x58 is part of a class of computers that are above most.  Using very high quality components, you can drive up the price tag of this computer to over six thousand dollars.  If you can somehow find it within yourself to make do with “only” a Core i7 920 and “just” one graphics card, you can net yourself a pretty outstanding gaming machine for substantially less money.

Alienware’s computers, despite what the critics say, are high quality machines built with care and great design.  While the style may not be to everyone’s taste, you can’t deny that it stands out, and when you’re spending this much money on a computer, that’s just as important as its speed.  If you have the money to spend, you’ll probably have a great time, and if you don’t, you’ll wish you did.

Pros

  • Sickeningly fast.  Sickeningly.
  • RAID 0 configuration allows fast scratch drives
  • Stylish, high quality case

Cons

  • Loud fans, and puts out a lot of heat
  • Heavy machine
  • Dual RAID 0 configurations aren’t the best for data security


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