Alienware Area 51 m5550 Review (pics, specs)

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Alienware Area-51 m5550 with Core 2 Duo Review

By: Charles P. Jefferies

Main entry for: per-for-mance [per-fawr-muhns]

Function: noun

  1. The Alienware Area-51 m5550


Alienware Area 51 m5550 (view large image)

Today we will be evaluating Alienware’s midrange gaming notebook, the 15.4″ Area-51 m5550. It is clearly targeted at the gaming and enthusiast crowd, featuring an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, powerful Nvidia graphics, and Alienware’s unique case design. With specifications like our test machine, it gives a new meaning to the word ‘performance’, and sets itself apart from the competition.


Specifications

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T7600 2.33GHz 4MB Cache 667MHz FSB
  • Operating System (Office software not included): Genuine Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 with Service Pack 2
  • Display: Alienware m5550 15.4″ WideXGA 1280 x 800 LCD
  • Motherboard: Alienware Intel 945PM + ICH7 Chipset
  • Memory: 2GB Dual Channel DDR2 SO-DIMM at 667MHz – 2 x 1024MB
  • Hard Drive: 100GB Serial ATA 1.5Gb/s 7,200 RPM w/ NCQ & 8MB Cache
  • Primary CD ROM/DVD ROM: 8X Dual Layer DVD+/-RW / 24X CD-RW Combo w/Software
  • Video/Graphics Card: 256MB NVidia GeForce Go 7600
  • Sound Card: Intel 7.1 High-Definition Audio
  • Wireless Network Card: Internal Intel PRO Wireless 3945 a/b/g Mini-Card
  • Communications: Integrated 10/1000Mb Gigabit Ethernet & 56K V.92 Modem
  • Warranty: 1-Year AlienCare Toll-Free 24/7 Phone Support w/ Onsite Service

Our test unit has full specifications, and it isn’t cheap — the total: $2,613. Other configurations can be had starting at $999.

Build & Design


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Looks — it’s all about the looks. The Alienware m5550 is certainly a unique machine — I’d call the overall case design ‘out of this world’, literally. It is very sleek, and the black and silver colors blend nicely. There isn’t one place I can name where I took this notebook and people’s heads didn’t turn. As a matter of fact, I actually went to a local Barnes & Noble to use the wireless Internet, and recorded how many people turned their head upon entering. In the hour and a half that I was there, 26 out of 32 people stared at the m5550 for longer than one second. I’ll admit it was interesting.

The m5550 itself is very thin at 1.36″, especially when compared to the multitude of other 15.4″ notebooks on the market. It weighs in at a svelte 6 lbs, which also makes the m5550 one of the lightest notebooks in its class. Build quality is very sound — tapping on any of its surfaces yields a solid tone, not a rattling noise or anything that would give the impression it is made from cheap plastic. The chassis is very stiff, and did not bend at all when I tried to twist it. All of the surfaces (with the exception of the bottom) are coated in a glossy, clear coat finish, and while looking and feeling very slick, I do not know how durable it will be in the long term. The silver area does not seem to attract fingerprints, although the black glossy area below the LCD display does, and very easily. Have a microfiber cloth on hand.

I found the lid to be very sturdy; twisting it side to side has little effect, as it barely moves. Alienware’s lid design is very helpful here. No ripples appear on the screen when pushed on. The lid also has integrated rubber ‘grips’, which are in fact rubber, but they serve as more of a visual effect than a practical feature.


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Display

The Alienware m5550 comes standard with a glossy 15.4″, 16:10 aspect ratio panel in a WXGA (1280×800) resolution. Our test unit had no dead pixels or defects. I found the display to be impressively bright and evenly lit. The display has very good contrast, which can be enhanced using Nvidia’s “Digital Vibrance” control. Colors flow out of the screen, and games and movies look wonderful. Naturally, being a display of the glossy variety, reflections abound, but whether you like this style or not is personal preference.

It’s not all good though — the viewing angles are a different story. I would classify them as OK at best. Images when viewing the display from above look washed out and sometimes distorted if the pictures are dark colored. When viewed from even slightly below, the image gets distorted as well, and the display looks dark. While playing games, people standing on either side of me commented they had difficulty seeing what I was doing. Direct side to side angles also suffer.

I also believe a system like this should have higher-resolution options available — a WSXGA+ panel would be a plus. The only display currently available is the WXGA panel on our test unit.

On the whole, I think the standard WXGA display looks beautiful, but it needs improvements in the viewing angles department, and a higher-resolution option would be nice.

Speakers


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The m5550 has two speakers, located above the right and left corners of the keyboard. They are covered when the display is closed. Although they are rather large and look like they may produce good sound, they are tinny and have no bass. On the contrary, the speakers do get quite loud and are clear, even at 80-85% volume.

Headphone Jack & Sound Quality: the m5550 uses Intel’s 7.1 channel High-Definition audio, and has SPDIF digital audio output. The headphone jack on many notebooks has some distortion, usually in the form of a slight hiss, chirping, or a crackling sound. A break in the mold, the Alienware m5550 exhibits none of these characteristics — the sound is 100% crystal clear and sounds fantastic. I tested the jack with a pair of in-ear Shure e2c’s. The microphone jack is also quite good, and I had no problem using a headset for VoIP. The m5550 actually has an integrated microphone located in the bottom left of the left palmrest, but if you want to do any sort of voice, then get a headset or external microphone. The built-in one doesn’t seem to pick up much.

The m5550 has a convenient feature that I rarely see on notebooks — a volume control knob. Although the machine has no external volume buttons, the knob is quite useful and easy to use. It is located directly next to the headphone and microphone jacks. It only regulates the current level of sound, and does not control the volume in Windows.

Processor & Performance

Using a machine housing as much power as our test configuration is like receiving a lethal dose of performance — it’s one of the few machines that can deliver the ‘wind in your hair’ feeling. Our configuration is the highest available from a performance standpoint. It will cost you more than a pretty penny, but if you want the instant responsiveness and sheer processing power that come with it, ante up.

Equipped with 2GB of RAM, memory-intensive tasks such as high-end gaming and Adobe Photoshop don’t need to use the swap file on the hard drive. I did not run into any situations where I was low on physical memory.


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The hard drive is a 100GB Seagate Momentus (ST910021AS), spinning at 7,200RPM. It has a Serial ATA-150 interface and an 8MB cache. Seagates are known for being quiet, and this one is no exception — the drives operation is nearly silent, and only a slight hum is audible when the main fan is off, and there are no background noises. Writing and seeking are nearly silent tasks. The hard drive idles around 39*, which is very cool. After a long stretch of constant access, it can venture up into the low 40’s, but no higher. If you are one of the people who simply can’t stand notebooks with hot hard drives, there is nothing to worry about with the m5550.

Processor performance — please refer to our full performance analysis of the Intel Core 2 Duo T7600.

Eye candy:


Benchmarks

It’s time to see just how well the high-end components can perform.

Benchmarking notes:

The system was plugged into AC power for all testing. I ran Windows Update and installed all the latest patches and fixes for Windows. Wireless was turned off, and no unnecessary background services were running. The system was tuned using DH TuneXP 1.5. I fully defragmented the hard drive prior to testing, and ran appropriate spyware/anti-virus scans.

Important note regarding dual-core processors: Most manufacturers do not set up Windows to work properly with a dual-core processor. See Gophn’s Windows XP Multi-core config thread in the NotebookReview.com forums for proper set-up procedures. It is necessary to set up Windows properly in order to get accurate benchmark score.

Video drivers: Stock 84.71

Go7600 clocks: 450MHz Core/ 350MHz Memory

PCMark05

PCMark05 Results and comparison:

 Notebook PCMark05 Score

Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, Nvidia Go 7600)

4,915 PCMarks
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 3,487 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Panasonic ToughBook T4 (Intel 1.20GHz LV) 1,390 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400) 3,646 PCMarks
Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo) 3,427 PCMarks

 

3DMark03

 

3DMark05

3DMark05 Results and Comparison:

Notebook  3DMark 05 Results

Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, Nvidia Go 7600)

 3,542 3D Marks
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB)  2866 3D Marks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800 GTX)  7,078 3DMarks
ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)  727 3DMarks
 Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)  2,530 3D Marks
 Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)  2,273 3DMarks
 HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)  2,536 3D Marks
 Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)  4,157 3DMarks

3DMark06


The m5550 really does blaze its own trail — the above benchmarks are some of the highest (the PCMark05 score being the highest) we have seen for a 15.4″ notebook thus far. The Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 is the fastest mobile CPU on the market, and it shows its strengths in the multi-threaded benchmarks, including PCMark05 and especially in 3DMark06’s CPU tests.

The Nvidia GeForce Go7600 may score similar to previous generation hardware in 3DMark05, but newer hardware should really be tested with 3DMark06, and that’s where the Go7600 shows its real strengths. Let’s see how it does in real-world gaming scenarios. I benchmarked using FRAPS.

Star Wars: BattleFront 2

Resolution: 1280×800

All settings = maximum / AA = 2x / AF = 0x / Light Bloom = ON

Level: Jabba’s Palace

Average FPS: 43

Level: Tantive IV

Average FPS: 50

Counter-Strike: Source Video Stress Test

Resolution: 1280×800

All settings = maximum / AA = 4x / AF = 16x / Color Correction = OFF

Average FPS: 71.2

F.E.A.R. Combat

Resolution: 1024×768

All settings = maximum / AA = 0x / AF = 4x

Level: Heliport

Average FPS: 61

Far Cry

Resolution: 1280×800

All settings = maximum / AA = 0x / AF = 8x

Level: Fort

Average FPS: 55

Level: Carrier

Average FPS: 58

Quake 4

Resolution: 1024×768

All settings = maximum / AA = 2x / AF = 8x / Multi-core = Enabled / Note: Game capped @ 60FPS

Level: Air Defense Bunker

Average FPS: 59

The m5550 proves to be a very capable gaming machine, putting up respectable FPS in both old and new games alike. The Go7600 delivers enough performance that even a bit of anti-aliasing and antistrophic filtering can be added in many games. Although games look beautiful on the WXGA glossy screen, I still believe that a higher-resolution option should be offered; the Go7600 can stretch its legs a bit further in certain games and run at higher resolutions.

Heat & Noise


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The Alienware m5550 is cooled by a single fan in the top right of the notebook. During normal operation, it toggles on and off depending on what is running and the ambient temperature of the room, but is on the most of the time. When it is off, the only noise (if in a silent room) is the barely audible hum of the hard drive. The fan comes on at regular intervals, and is always noticeable when it does — it runs on at a medium speed and sounds like a combination of rushing air and motor noise, with a slight whine — I don’t find it annoying, but the fan is definitely noticeable. It is probably not noisy enough to bother anyone. After a few seconds, it will slowly spin down to a low speed, and it still sounds like a fan — motor noise is always present. It is not a very quiet fan.

Heat: This notebook can get warm. The heat-generating components in the notebook are located on the right side. The m5550 does not get hot enough to prevent one from touching it, but it is still one of the warmer notebooks I have used. The right palmrest gets quite warm under normal use, although I do not find it untouchable — typing isn’t a problem either.

Temperatures: CPU idles around 52*-53* C, and ramps up to 59* – 63* C when at full load (both cores). The GPU gets very hot, although I have not noticed any artifacts or slow-downs while gaming. Idle is around 67* – 72*C, and while gaming, it is around 85* – 90*. Keeping the m5550 on an even surface is a must for gaming and other strenuous activities. Make sure it gets adequate ventilation.

Lap use: I used this notebook on several occasions in my lap. No problems, just make sure the fan is not blocked. The bottom of the notebook really does not get that warm, it seems normal for a laptop.

Extra notes: Using a cooling pad with the m5550 is extremely effective – my Targus Chillmat did a wonderful job of keeping the overall temperature of the notebook down. It is barely warm on the surface when the cooling pad is in use, and the main fan never comes on except when gaming. A cooling pad is worth looking into if you are interested in this notebook.

I believe that some of the high temperatures can be attributed to the thinness of the notebook – with the lid open, the base of the notebook is about .65″ thick. There is not a lot of places for the heat to go, so it can build up and cause the surface to get warm. Heat generally shouldn’t be a problem with the m5550, but for the best results, get a Chillmat or similar cooling device. It helps.

Keyboard & Touchpad


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Keyboard: the Alienware m5550 has one of the, as I like to call, ‘feel-good’ keyboards, where typing is simply very enjoyable. The feedback and overall responsiveness is excellent. Keystroke is a bit longer than your typical keyboard, but I think that is a nice touch. When keys are depressed, it makes a rubbery sort of sound when the key hits base; no ‘clickety’ noises.


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The keyboard flexes very little, and is very stable on the whole. The keys are more or less in their usual positions, and are actually transparent — this is the first time I have seen keys like this on a notebook, and I like how it looks.


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Touchpad: there’s nothing remarkable or unremarkable about this touchpad, seems to be fine for general usage. I think the buttons could be a bit more defined, but that is personal preference. The surface of the touchpad is not glossy like the rest of the notebook, but is not textured. The scroll bar on the right is separated from the rest of the pad by a small ridge. The touchpad on/off button above the touchpad is a convenience and is always a welcome feature on a notebook. It turns a light green color when the touchpad is off.

Input & Output Ports

This is best illustrated using photos – fancy a look? All photos are left to right.

Right side:


ExpressCard 34/54 slot, USB 2.0, mini Firewire, 4-in-1 memory card reader (SD, MS, MSPRO, MMC), Gigabit Ethernet, S-Video, DVI-D (view large image)

Left side:


2x USB 2.0, optical drive, microphone, headphone/SPDIF jack, volume knob (view large image)

Front:


Infrared port (for optional Media Center remote), Wireless on/off switch (view large image)

Back:


Exhaust vent, lock slot, 56k modem, AC power jack (view large image)

Although the m5550 has a wide variety of ports, it could use another USB 2.0 port — three is barely enough to get by. Like many other new notebooks on the market, it features an ExpressCard 34/54 slot in place of the older PCMCIA slot.


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A really nice feature on the m5550 is the DVI-D port — the vast majority of notebooks do not feature this port; instead, they have a regular VGA port. DVI-D is very useful for connecting to external digital monitors or HDTVs.

Optical Drive

Our m5550 has an NEC ND-6750A DVD+/-RW DL drive. DVD burn speeds are up to 8X, and CD up to 24X. This drive is the quietest optical drive I have ever had in a notebook — even while burning a DVD at 8X speed, the sound is very muted and sounds like a quiet and unobtrusive whir. The notebook hardly vibrates at all when it is running. It is interesting to note that this drive does not have any activity light on it, but the hard drive light will act as one when it is in use.

Wireless


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The Alienware m5550 uses Intel Centrino Duo mobile technology, and comes standard with the Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG card. Wireless reception is very good, and I did not have any problems to connecting to both secured and unsecured network. The m5550 has a wireless on/off switch on the right front side of the machine.

Battery

If there is one flaw worth noting about the Alienware m5550, it would be the abysmal battery life. The standard battery is a 6-cell, 4400mAh pack; no higher-capacity options are available. It delivers a paltry time of 1 hour and 36 minutes with the screen brightness on medium and wireless on, surfing the Internet. I ran the battery life test several times, and was never able to break the two hour barrier. If you are buying this notebook, you may want to get an extra battery. An hour and a half isn’t even enough time to finish a movie.

The m5550 has user-activated “Battery Control Technology”, which, despite the name, does not seem to impact battery life. It can be turned on by pressing the fan button on top of the keyboard. Alienware says it lowers the CPU, graphics card, and cooling system usage. Now, Alienware isn’t lying — the feature does what it is supposed to, but the problem is that what it does is insignificant; whether the feature is on or off, it has virtually no impact on battery life (maybe +5-6 minutes more when activated). It’s amusing to note that the CPU is only underclocked by a minuscule 31MHz — normally it runs at 997MHz on battery, but with Battery Control Technology enabled, it ‘drops’ to 966MHz. Bottom line: good idea, but it needs to be a lot more aggressive.

Operating System & Software

The Alienware m5550 is available with XP Home, Media Center 2005, and Professional editions. Ours came preinstalled with XP Media Center. Alienware prides themselves on a “No Bloatware” policy (unlike their parent company), and specifically states on their website that “The Area-51 m5550 arrives at your door clean of any annoying, unwanted junk software.” Our m5550 was no exception, and came with a clean install of XP. Nero burning software and Cyberlink PowerDVD came with the unit, and both are very useful. The only other piece of software was an “AlienGUIse” theme package, which has customized Alienware themes for Windows.

Customer Support

I experienced no problems with our test unit, and did not have to contact customer care. The m5550 comes standard with one-year warranty; “AlienCare” 24/7 phone support and onsite service are included. The warranty is upgradeable to two and three years for $200 and $275 respectively. I do wish a machine as expensive as this one came with at least a two-year.


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Conclusion

The Alienware Area-51 m5550 is one of the few notebooks I have tested that I feel delivers an outstanding ownership experience. Granted, it does have its flaws — poor battery life, a warm operating temperature, and average viewing angles, but no product is going to be perfect, and this one is no exception.

The m5550 is the overall most powerful 15.4″ notebook that has been evaluated here at NotebookReview. Equipped with a top-of-the-line Core 2 Duo CPU, performance is unstoppable, and it will give most desktops a run for the finish line. Coupled with Nvidia’s Go7600 graphics card, handling the latest games is a breeze. The external appearance is one-of-a-kind, and it will be a stand-out wherever it goes. In a few words, the Alienware Area-51 m5550 is like the high-end sports car of the notebook world: sleek, sculpted, and fast. Game over.


Pros:

  • Phenomenal performer
  • Very thin and light for a 15.4″
  • Great audio; crystal clear headphone jack
  • Show stopping design
  • ‘Feel-good’ keyboard
  • Quiet optical drive
  • DVI-D
  • Not just another mainstream notebook

Cons:

  • Abysmal battery life
  • Runs warm
  • Needs another USB port
  • Fan could be quieter
  • LCD needs better viewing angles
  • Needs higher-resolution screen option


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