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Alienware Aurora R3 System Autopsy
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Date: Aug 15, 2011
Section:Systems
Author: Paul Lilly
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Introduction & Specification
As the final days of summer wind down, most people will find themselves in one of two situations. Either you're gearing up to head back to school, or it's life as usual, only with worse weather right around the corner. It doesn't matter which category you fall into, because either way, there's a good chance you'll be spending less time outside grilling steaks and squandering more of your free moments inside your home or dorm, sheltered from the inclement weather, sitting behind a PC. If you're ready for a new rig to last until next summer (and beyond), it's time to make a decision: Do you play the part of Polly Prudence and pick up a modest machine that's good enough to surf the Web and hammer out emails, or treat yourself to a decadent gaming PC because, well, you're worth a bit of extra coin?

Boutique system vendor Alienware hopes you'll choose the latter, and to help nudge you in that direction, the company sent its new Aurora R3 in search of life on Earth. It just so happens that one of these rigs crash landed at HotHardware, and today it's us performing the Alien(ware) autopsy on them. We dissected the Aurora R3 from head to toe, discovered what makes it tick, and then fed it a handful of games and other software to observe how it digests a diet of DirectX 11 and other modern morsels, all in the name of science, of course.



Alienware Aurora R3
Specifications and Features (as tested)

Model

Aurora R3
CPU

Intel Core i7 2600K; Alienware High-Performance CPU Liquid Cooling
Memory

4GB DDR3 1333MHz (2 DIMMs)
Graphics

2 x ATI Radeon HD 6950 (CrossFire)
Storage

Seagate Barracuda XT 2TB 7200RPM (64MB, SATA 6Gbps)
Optical

Blu-ray Reader/DVD Burner Combo
Operating System

Windows 7 Home Premium x64
Wired Internet

10/100/1000 Ethernet
Front Panel Ports

2 x USB 2.0; 1 x USB 3.0; Headphone and Mic
Rear Panel Ports

6 x USB 2.0; 2 x USB 3.0; FireWire; GbE LAN; Audio Inputs; Optical SPDIF; Coaxial SPDIF; eSATA
Sound Integrated 7.1 w/ THX TruStudio PC
Power Supply 875W
Weight

~45 pounds (average)
Keyboard / Mouse Dell Studio
Dimensions

9.847" x 25.39" x 16.77" (WxDxH)
Warranty

1 Year Basic Service Plan
Price

$2,448.99 (as configured)


Pricing for the Aurora R3 starts at scant $1,200, and we say "scant" because premium system builders typically charge premium prices for their machines. We're well aware that Alienware was acquired by Dell five years ago, and while some PC gaming purists might still take issue with that, teaming up with a bulk OEM has made Alienware systems accessible to customers on a tighter budget, while still maintaining the DNA of a boutique system builder.

As configured, the Aurora R3 we received checks in at just shy of $2,450 before taxes and shipping. Along with the higher price tag comes a better selection of components, including an Intel Core i7 2600K processor (liquid cooled) running the show, a pair of AMD Radeon HD 6950 graphics cards with double the appetite for gaming goodness, and a Blu-ray reader. Our system didn't ship with a solid state drive, and 4GB of DDR3-1333 is rather pedestrian for an Alienware system, but it does come with a SATA 6Gbps hard drive with 64MB of cache, an 875W power supply, and USB 3.0 ports found on both the front panel and rear I/O ports.
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Software, Accessories, & First Boot
Your bundle partially depends on how many add-ons you choose to dump in your virtual shopping cart when configuring an Alienware system. Need a monitor? Dell gives you a handful to choose from. Speakers, headsets, gaming controllers, and gaming software are also among the optional accessories.



If you choose to add nothing at all to your system, you'll still receive a basic multimedia keyboard and mouse, Alienware mouse pad, drivers and utilities disc, Windows 7 installation DVD, an applications disc (CyberLink PowerDVD 3D and RemoteMedia software), and an Aurora R3 Resource DVD with various odds and ends related to your system. Alienware included its TactX keyboard and mouse combination in our bundle, a $150 add-on that steps up both input peripherals with gaming grade features, like a much higher DPI and customizable profiles.



Remember how we mentioned that even though Dell owns Alienware, these specialized gaming machines are still infused with boutique system building DNA? Check out the desktop. We're not talking about the custom wallpaper, of which Alienware includes several, but the complete lack of performance robbing bloatware, toolbars, and other digital cruft to be shoveled into the recycle bin. To Dell's credit, we noted a similar experience when we reviewed the OEM's Studio XPS 7100 desktop system



Alienware systems also ship with Dell's proprietary Aliewnare Command Center software, a non-intrusive utility that allows you to manage your rig's thermal system and customize the LED light show. The latter is particularly cool, in that you can configure up the Aurora R3 to change its lighting behavior based on specific events, like when you get an email. There are different colors and transition effects at your disposal.



Both the TactX keyboard and mouse ship with customization software to setup different profiles, create profiles, record macros, change the lighting scheme, and so forth. What's nice here is how Dell integrates the software into the Alienware experience.
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Overall Design & Layout
Part of what separates an Alienware machine from other boutique systems is the unique chassis, though according to Alienware, it's not just about aesthetics. This year's Aurora model sports an enclosure purportedly "designed for easy upgrades and optimal thermal control."



Weighing in at around 45 pounds and over two feet long, this isn't a mid-tower chassis designed for traveling LAN party goers. Once this thing lands in your home office/dorm room/bedroom or wherever you end up putting it, that's where it will likely stay. There aren't any wheels, straps, or handles that would indicate Alienware expects you to lug the Aurora R3 around.

The case itself is compromised of mostly plastic. We prefer aluminum, both for its weight and thermal characteristics, but we suppose the plastic design is one way Dell manages to keep costs from spiraling out of control. The plastic actually feels sturdy, and the Aurora R3 manages a menacing look without being overly obnoxious about it.

     

Hidden behind the front door are the optical drive(s) and media card reader. You access these by pressing the Alien head, which we initially thought would power up the system, and so will most people who don't RTFM. Instead, the power button sits somewhat stealthily on top behind the head.

The rear I/O panel is home to two USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port, GbE LAN port, 7.1 HD audio ports with THX TruStudio Sound, digital optical and coaxial SPDIF outputs, and an eSATA 3Gbps port. There's also a lock switch on top to keep the side panel secure, and a diagnostic button on the power supply.

 

Dell provides two more USB 2.0 ports on the front panel, along with a single USB 3.0 port and both microphone and headphone ports. These are hidden behind a top panel door that you access by pressing down, and while we appreciate the option of keeping them out of sight, the angle is a bit awkward from a usability standpoint.



Dell hit a homerun in designing the side panel for the Aurora R3. To perform an autopsy, whether out of sheer curiosity or to upgrade your components, you remove the side panel by pulling on a latch on the top-rear of the case. This releases the Aurora R3's grip on the side panel, which you can then pull back and toss to the side. Putting it back on is just a matter of lining up the bottom and pushing the panel back into place. So how does the Aurora R3's ribcage light up if there aren't any wires running from the system to the side panel? Dell equipped it with a remote module that makes contact with the lighting system when the side panel is put back in place.

Both Radeon HD 6950 cards are hidden behind a plastic shroud that swings open, should you need to access them for any reason. Everything is a tight fit inside the Aurora R3, but upgrading couldn't be any easier. Want to add another hard drive? Simply slide out the tool-less drive tray, plop in your HDD, shove it back in and plug in the power and SATA cables Dell thoughtfully left hanging by the drive bay. Each of the drive bays have the necessary cables in place so you won't have to fumble around looking for the right wires.

That's the good. And the bad? Well, our system arrived with the main 24-pin ATX connector swinging in the wind. This is one of the first things you should check if your system doesn't fire up when hitting the power button, but can still prove vexing for less experienced PC users. Much more troubling was the discovery of a loose screw floating around. It was rattling around when we picked up the system, but had we not noticed it, could have shorted the system, or even worse, fried the hardware. Not cool.
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PCMark & 3DMark Tests
Armed with two graphics cards and a sexy Sandy Bridge processor, we expect the Aurora R3 to trounce through the majority of our benchmarks with little trouble. To kick things off we fire up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance


In our PCMark Vantage test, the Aurora R3 kept pace with an Alienware Area 51 system equipped with Intel's mighty Core i7 980X Extreme Edition processor and two Radeon HD 5970 graphics cards. So why couldn't it keep up with the Origin Genesis? As configured, the Aurora R3 lacks a solid state drive and sports just 4GB of lower frequency DDR3-1333 memory, both of which prevent the system from reaching its full potential, whereas the Origin system has the benefit of an 80GB SSD and 6GB of fast DDR3-1600 memory. It's worth mentioning that Dell offers faster storage and RAM options on the Aurora R3.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage and 3DMark 11
Simulated Gaming Performance

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's Performance preset option, as well as ran the system through a 3DMark Vantage run, which focuses on DirectX 10.


There are a couple of things to note here. First, the Aurora's 7099 score in 3DMark 11 is a respectable score in its own right, and certainly a good clip higher than what you'll achieve with most single-GPU setups. Secondly, welcome to the world of model numbers. At a glance, you'd think a pair of Radeon HD 6950 graphics cards would destroy two Radeon HD 5970 parts or a GTX 580. But in reality, the 6950 is a weaker than either of those. The 5970 actually sports two GPUs per card, and each one has more shader units than the 6950, while the GTX 580 is just a burlier architecture all around. This is the reason why the Aurora R3 trails some of the other higher end gaming machines we've reviewed.


The same concepts apply to 3DMark Vantage, only we have a much larger sample of rigs to compare with since it's an older benchmark. Again, a score of 21,776 is nothing to sneeze at, but the 6950 graphics cards just don't have the muscle to pull the Aurora R3 up to the same level as other gaming machines with higher end GPUs.  We should also note that NVIDIA's PhysX technology skews the results a bit in favor of the NVIDIA's based systems as well in this test.

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SiSoft Sandra & CineBench
Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed and with 4GB of DDR3-1333 RAM (2 DIMMs).

 


Processor Arithmetic
 


Multi-Media
 


Memory Bandwidth
 

 
Physical Disks
 

Our SiSoft Sandra benchmarks virtually ignore the dual graphics cards and place the attention squarely on the processor, memory, and physical disk(s) subsystems. At this point, we already know that Intel's Sandy Bridge platform is a solid performer, so what we're really looking for are any signs of system instability or poorly configured components, and we didn't spot any. Even the RAM with its DDR3-1333 frequency performed better than expected, and though the Aurora R3 (as configured) lacks a wicked fast solid state drive, the HDD in our setup spins at 7200RPM, has ample cache (64MB), and is free to run wild with a SATA 6Gbps interface.

 

Cinebench R11.5 64bit
Content Creation Performance

Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads (CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.


 

CineBench is one of the most taxing benchmarks we run. That's because it's tuned for workstations and professional-level graphics cards, not for home systems and gaming. With that in mind, the Aurora R3 put on a comparatively strong showing, and though not included in our graph above, it scored 84.07 frames per second in CineBench R11's OpenGL benchmark. What all this tells us is that like every other gaming system to come through HotHardware, the Aurora R3, while spunky, should stick with gaming and not professional-level content creation.

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Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and Lost Planet 2

FarCry 2
DX10 Gaming Performance


FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the graphics cards in this article with a fully patched version of FarCry 2, using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the Ranch Map. The test results shown here were run at various resolutions and settings.


Consider Far Cry 2 a warm up lap for Alienware's Aurora R3. It's not very demanding, at least not by today's standards, and doesn't include any DirectX 11 visuals. But what it does do is showcase how the Aurora R3 handles yesterday's titles with eye candy cranked up, which you might not have been able to pull off with your previous system. With triple-digit benchmark scores across the board, it's safe to say the Aurora R3 gives you the option of revisiting older titles with no concessions to visual quality settings.

Left 4 Dead 2
Gaming Performance

 
Left 4 Dead 2

In our Left 4 Dead 2 test, we use a custom Time Demo that involves plenty of fast action, some explosions, and plenty of people and objects on the screen at the same time.

Still not a particularly demanding title, Left 4 Dead 2 is more current and far and away more popular than Far Cry 2 at this point. It's focus is on multi-player gaming, and that can mean dialing down graphics settings to maintain playable framerates with an acceptable ping. The Aurora R3, with its dual graphics cards, negates that concern, allowing you to turn things up as far as they go without worrying about dropping frames and getting blind-sided by a real-life opponent.

Lost Planet 2
DX11 Gaming Performance

 
Lost Planet 2

A follow-up to Capcom’s Lost Planet : Extreme Condition, Lost Planet 2 is a third person shooter that takes place again on E.D.N. III ten years after the story line of the first title. We ran the game’s DX11 mode which makes heavy use of DX11 Tessellation and Displacement mapping and soft shadows. There are also areas of the game that make use of DX11 DirectCompute for things like wave simulation in areas with water. This is one game engine that looks significantly different in DX11 mode when you compare certain environmental elements and character rendering in its DX9 mode versus DX11. We used the Test B option built into the benchmark tool and with all graphics options set to their High Quality values.


Lost Planet 2 is known for favoring Nvidia's architecture, but a pair of AMD's Radeon HD 6950 cards proves capable of playable framerates at 8xAA, up to a certain point. Trying to push high end visuals on a 30-inch display with a 2560x1600 is probably expecting too much, but for Full HD (1920x1080) and below, there's enough horsepower here to keep the gaming carriage from careening off a cliff.
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Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Metro 2033
DX11 Gaming Performance

 
Metro 2033

Metro 2033 is your basic post-apocalyptic first person shooter game with a few rather unconventional twists. Unlike most FPS titles, there is no health meter to measure your level of ailment, but rather you’re left to deal with life, or lack there-of more akin to the real world with blood spatter on your visor and your heart rate and respiration level as indicators. The game is loosely based on a novel by Russian Author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Metro 2003 boasts some of the best 3D visuals on the PC platform currently including a DX11 rendering mode that makes use of advanced depth of field effects and character model tessellation for increased realism.


Metro 2033 put the hurt on the Aurora R3, at least at higher resolutions with everything turned way up. You'll have to make concessions in one or both of these areas, but once you do, the combination of Intel's Core i7 2600K processor and two mid-range GPUs results in smooth gameplay.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - Call of Pripyat
DX11 Gaming Performance

 
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Call of Pripyat is the third game in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series and throws in DX11 to the mix. This benchmark is based on one of the locations found within the latest game. Testing includes four stages and utilizes various weather conditions, as well as different time of day settings. It offers a number of presets and options, including multiple versions of DirectX, resolutions, antialiasing, etc. SunShafts represents the most graphically challenging stage available. We conducted our testing with DX11 enabled, multiple resolutions, and Ultra settings.

Finishing up our gamut of game tests is one final DirectX 11 title at a variety of resolutions. We also list the minimum framrate at each resolution to give you an idea of what sort of worst-case scenario(s) you can expect. Once again, we see the dual 6950 graphics card start to give way at higher resolutions, but bursting with energy at lower resolutions. Bear in mind that we're running S.T.A.L.K.E.R. on Ultra High, so the results here are very good.
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Noise, Heat, & Power Consumption

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

We used SeaSonic's Power Angel Power Meter to measure the amount of power our test system pulled from the wall. You'll find three figures below: power supply's maximum rated wattage, peak power consumption under a full CPU/GPU load, and how much the system pulled from the wall when idle (following a fresh system boot).

Dell requires an upgrade to an 875W power supply (up from the default 525W) for certain videocard selections, including dual Radeon HD 6950 cards. That's a wise move on Dell's part, as we measured a peak load of 594W when stressing the Aurora R3 with Prime95 and Furmark (it takes some .exe renaming trickery to get Furmark to fully tax multiple GPUs, and it's not entirely safe to do so, but hey, HH readers are worth it). That 875W power supply gives you a fair amount of headroom for future upgrades.

Heat and Acoustics
Alienware's Aurora R3 runs hot, to the point where it hurts your hand to touch the graphics card under load. You shouldn't be fondling the components when they're running anyway, but the point here is the hardware selection asks a lot from the cooling system. To battle thermals, Alienware equips the processor with a liquid cooler and lets the videocards expel hot air out the back of the case. The airflow scheme keeps instability from rearing its unwanted head, but at another cost: Noise.

The Aurora R3 isn't a suitable vehicle for abductions because it stands zero chance of sneaking up on anyone. Its liquid cooling system isn't extended to the graphics cards, and things get loud in a hurry while gaming. Day-to-day computing isn't affected, but fire up a taxing game and the GPU cooling fans kick on and spin up considerably. At it's worst, you'll need a good set of speakers or headphones to drown out the noise the Aurora R3 puts out.  That said, this isn't all that uncommon for high-end graphics setups like this.

In addition, and to our surprise, at one point when the fan speeds jumped up a level, one of them developed an annoying clicking sound, perhaps due to a faulty bearing.

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Performance Summary & Conclusion
Performance Summary: As configured, Alienware's Aurora R3 balances performance with cost. The system didn't rip through our benchmarks with reckless abandon, nor did it ever feel slow. Instead, the Aurora R3 we tested lands somewhere in the middle flirting with the upper end, a great place to be if you're wanting near rockstar performance without a big label price tag. The Intel Core i7 2600K processor provides a strong foundation to build upon, and the dual Radeon HD 6950 cards provide enough pixel pushing muscle to crank up the visual quality settings in most titles, and especially in games like Left 4 Dead 2. For those seeking a no-holds-barred computing experience, you'll need to spend some additional coin beefing up the weaker areas. The system configuration Alienware sent us was tempered by the lack of a solid state drive, just 4GB of DDR3-1333 memory, and mid-range videocards. Address these three areas and you'll have a gaming PC to be reckoned with. As it stands, the Aurora R3 is still a very scrappy PC.

For some, Alienware gave up its geek cred when Dell took over, and it doesn't help Alienware's case that the system we received came with the main 24-pin ATX power connector unplugged from the motherboard and a loose metal screw bouncing around the chassis. We're not here to make excuses for Dell or defend Alienware's decision, but we will point out that these construction mishaps aren't typical of anything we've experienced with prior Dell system reviews.  Also, with the backing of a big OEM like Dell, Alienware systems are becoming more affordable to those who always assumed a boutique gaming PC would be out of reach.

Pricing for the Aurora R3 starts at $1,200; our configuration rang up at $2,450. There's still a markup involved, but it's not obscene, and ordering through Dell is the only way you can get a rad case like the one the Aurora R3 ships with. Alienware's DNA remains intact, from the overall design of the chassis, to the customizable lighting. Getting inside the system is as easy as it gets, and we wish all system builders would route power and SATA cables to the available drive bays like Dell did, which makes adding drives a snap.

The Aurora R3 obviously isn't for everyone, in particular those looking for a subdued PC to blend in with a conservative decor or anyone seeking a low noise PC. High end gamers with deeper pockets may also want a bit more oomph than the Aurora R3 provides. That leaves gamers hoping to score a flashy machine with a decent bang-for-buck ratio as the target audience, and that's not a segment Alienware served as much, before being scooped up by Dell. Haters will still hate, but if the only thing that's stopped you from abducting an Alienware system in the past was the price tag, then you need to probe the Aurora R3's product page more closely.

  

  • Trademark Alienware styling
  • Clean and easily accessible interior
  • Intel Sandy Bridge platform is still tops
  • Customizable lighting
  • Two graphics cards are better than one!
  • HD 6950 architecture isn't strong enough to drive demanding games on a 30-inch panel
  • Gets loud when gaming
  • Build quality feels rushed (unplugged 24-pin ATX power cord, loose screw)


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