|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.
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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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.
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.
|SiSoft Sandra & CineBench|
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).
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.
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.
|Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead 2, and Lost Planet 2|
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.
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 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.
|Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.|
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.
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.
|Noise, Heat, & Power Consumption|
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
|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.