|Introduction & Specifications|
|Remember the Twilight Zone episode in which a race of 9-foot aliens descended upon Earth with seemingly benign intentions? They shared advanced technologies with the human race and appeared to live by a code outlined in a book that U.S. government cryptographers figured out was titled, "To Serve Man." The horrifying reveal at the end of the episode was that it's actually a cookbook, lending a whole new perspective to its contents and what those space invaders were really up to the whole time.
The point being here, is that things aren't always what they appear to be. And so it is with Dell's Alienware X51 R2, a small form factor (SFF) gaming PC in console digs. It's shaped similar to Microsoft's Xbox 360 Slim, and though it's slightly larger than either a 360 or PlayStation 3, the X51 R2 would be right at home in a living room setting nestled next to a large screen TV. Indeed, it's adept at running Steam's Big Picture mode, and if your primary objective is to play games in the living room, go ahead and consider the X51 R2 a hybrid game console.
We know from our autopsy that the X51 R2's internal organs are decidedly PC, just like the original X51 that Dell beamed into our lab last year. The R2 model we're dissecting here today is evolved with Haswell DNA, the codename for Intel's 4th Generation of Core processors. It also has 16GB of speedy DDR3 1600MHz memory, an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 graphics card, and a Micron RealSSD 256GB solid state drive (SSD) all working in tandem to, uh, serve man (or woman, as the case may be), only without the chilling plot twist. Here's a look at the full monty:
Dell didn't get carried away playing into the Alienware theme with far-fetched technologies and parts that are in short supply here on the third rock from the sun, and instead wisely chose to balance performance with affordability. There's not a single component that's over the top in terms of power or price, but as a whole, the component selection has the potential to deal some damage to our performance metrics. We'll get to all that soon enough, but first let's perform an autopsy.
Before we dive in, we want to point your attention to the large 330W power brick. This is how Dell was able to build a compact gaming machine and avoid two potential problems: size and heat. By removing the internal power supply from the equation, the X51 R2 is able to maintain a relatively svelte stature and can also run quieter since there isn't a need for a PSU fan to expel hot air.
|Design & Layout|
|Whereas PC gamers once relegated themselves to gaming in the basement or bedroom on a smaller sized monitor, there's been an industry wide shift to take over the living room. Valve, for example, created a Big Picture mode for Steam that's designed to get gamers in front of their living room TV sets, and PC makers like Dell are serving this market with console-sized machines. How does the X51 R2 compare to the current crop of dedicated game boxes?
From left to right, we have the X51 R2 SFF gaming PC, Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii (not the Wii U) console lined up side-by-side. The Alienware rig is a little taller and deeper than the PS3 and Xbox 360, but still sized small enough to fit comfortably in your typical home theater setup without sticking out like a sore thumb.
It's also the best equipped of the bunch, and arguably the most aggressive looking unit, which we'll examine in closer detail in just a moment. You'll note on the front that there are two SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports that are not color-coded blue, headphone and microphone inputs, a slot-load Blu-ray reader, and a silver power button up top. The only other console to wield a Blu-ray player is the PS3, at least until the Xbox One arrives later this year.
An angled shot of the main system gives a better view of the Alienware styling, which is in full effect here. The right-side panel contains alien-esque lettering on the top, and below that is a spot for the customizable LED lighting to glow through. You can change the color of the lighting by firing up the included AlienFX Command Center software that comes pre-installed on these systems, or if you prefer you can turn the lights out altogether.
The same alien theme is found on the bundled keyboard, a fairly standard plank with low profile keys and quiet click action. It's a serviceable keyboard for daily typing chores, though we wouldn't be in a hurry to swap it out with our collection of mechanical planks. One thing we like is that it has dedicated media keys rather than integrating them into the set of Function keys.
Getting back to the main system, Dell did a good job not going overboard with glossy parts. The front strip of plastic is glossy, but the rest is a black plastic that's a little more resistant to fingerprints and smudges.
Another angled shot, this one of the left side panel, which is the one you would remove to gain access to the internal bits. Notice the sharp lines and distinct grooves that Dell fashioned into the chassis, giving it an out-of-this-world aesthetic that fits the Alienware mold.
There's also a full-size HDMI port, optical S/PDIF, GbE LAN port, several audio inputs, and various connections found on the dual-slot GeForce GTX 670 graphics card, including two DVI inputs.
|As you're about to see, Dell deserves major kudos for coming up a with a case design that can not only accommodate gaming grade components, but fit them together in a precise way that borders on obsessive compulsive. Dell isn't showing off, mind you, but ensuring that its X51 R2 is both fast enough and able to dissipate enough heat to keep the parts firing on all cylinders.
You'll quickly discover how tightly packed everything is once you rip off the side panel. If you're not experienced upgrading or servicing PC parts, this isn't the best system to learn on, though seasoned vets needn't fear diving into the deep end, so long as you take your time. As you move about, you'll discover that every screw and wire is logically placed.
The downside to this design is that even something as simple as swapping out the RAM becomes a process. In this instance, the X51 R2 is rocking 16GB of DDR3-1600, which is plenty for playing games and even content creation chores. There really shouldn't be a need to upgrade the RAM unless a stock goes bad, or there's a killer sale on a 32GB kit that you simply can't pass up.
With the removal of a screw here and there, it's fairly simple to remove the GeForce GTX 670 graphics card and slot-load Blu-ray drive, both of which obstruct access to the motherboard and all the other internal components. It's not a particularly pretty sight when you're gutting the X51 R2, though as previously mentioned, the wires and components are all positioned right where they need to be for all the parts to fit together.
Like the first generation X51, Dell again for a half-height air cooler keep the Haswell chip humming along. In the area immediately surrounding the CPU you can spy the built-in Wi-Fi card and two naked sticks of RAM. It's a little curious that the memory modules don't have heat spreaders on them, though we'd be more concerned if this was a heavily overclocked system.
Two SATA drives occupy the X51 R2 Dell configured for us, including a Micron RealSSD C400 256GB SSD (SATA 6Gbps) for the OS and games, and a Western Digital Scorpio Blue 1TB hard drive (SATA 3Gbps, 5400 RPM) for storage duties. It's the best of both worlds, offering speed for your programs and capacity for things like digital pictures, music, videos, work documents, and so forth.
|Software, First Boot, Steam Big Picture Mode|
One of the benefits of using a fast SSD as your primary drive is you can enjoy fast boots. It's not a major deal if you keep your system running all the time, but even then, it's nice to have for those Patch Tuesday updates that often require a reboot. The X51 R2 didn't disappoint. After we applying a few Windows updates and installing our gamut of benchmarks, we recorded 32 seconds to perform a cold boot into Windows. Powering down the system took just 6.7 seconds.
Here's what we like to see when first booting up a system. Since it's assumed you're already paying some sort of premium for a boutique brand experience, the last thing you want to encounter is a bunch of bloatware. We didn't find any on our test system, and instead were treated to a clean desktop with custom Alienware wallpaper. Steam and Alienware Command Center were the only bits of extra software we found on the X51 R2.
The Alienware Command Center is your portal to the custom software and settings included on the X51 R2. It's there that you'll find options to change the system lighting and transition effects, program macros for the keyboard, adjust system settings, and more.
Steam: Big Picture Mode Pre-Installed
The beauty of the X51 R2 is that it's sized to take resident in your living room, and if that's where you plan to use it, you'll be best served by firing up Steam's Big Picture mode, a 10-foot user interface designed for HDTVs. While Dell and Alienware took care of the hardware, Valve handled the software to make the transition into the living room a smooth one. We didn't experience any navigation hiccups with our setup, and if you have a wireless Xbox 360 controller, the experience is even better for titles like Assassin's Creed where a keyboard and mouse might not be the best combination.
One of the neat thing about Steam's Big Picture mode is that you're aren't limited to just gaming. There's a social experience baked, allowing you to access Facebook, Twitter, and other parts of the web. The X51 R2 handles all of this like a champ.
|PCMark & 3DMark Tests|
To kick things off we fired 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. Also, most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
The X51 R2 wasted no time living up to the hype associated with Haswell. Right out of the gate, the Alienware system took landed in front of other SFF systems with a score of 6,310, enough to ever-so-slightly edge out AVADirect's well-equipped setup. We're splitting hairs at the top end of the PCMark 7 scoring spectrum, but more important than notching a win by a hair is the fact that this rig is tuned for performance, hence it runs at the front of the pack.
3DMark11, is specifically targeted at Windows 7-based systems due to its DirectX 11 requirement. 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, which uses a resolution of 1280x720 with 4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.
It was only a slightly different story in 3DMark 11, which focuses much more heavily on the graphics subsystem than anything else. NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 670 is outpaced by the company's own Titan GPU, but compared to other systems running running the same graphics card, the Alienware rig was able to pull ahead by a thread. That's as much a victory for Haswell as it is for Dell.
In an effort to build up a database of 3DMark 11 Extreme preset scores, and because we were curious how it would fare, we ran the X51 R2 through the benchmark's highest setting. It barely broke a sweat. To put that 2.966 score into perspective, a typical Ivy Bridge system running on integrated graphics will score in the vicinity of 200 to 300 points in the same test.
|SiSoft Sandra & CineBench|
|We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
Intel's Haswell architecture represents a "Tock" in Intel's "Tick-Tock" upgrade cycle, meaning it's a major update and not simply a minor revision. SiSoft SANDRA's synthetic benchmarks do a good job underscoring the strength of this architectural change, especially in comparison to the original X51. It also boasts much stronger integrated graphics, though that's of little benefit in this instance since there's a discrete GPU backing up the CPU.
For whatever reason, the X51 R2 posted one of the slower memory scores, though we're talking relatively minute differences for the most part. To wit, the real-world difference between 16.7GB/s (X51 R2) versus 17.5GB/s (X51) is not something you're likely to notice outside of benchmarking.
The same isn't true for the Physical Disks benchmark. These scores are based on read speeds, and the Micron RealSSD C400 256GB SSD really flies. It's 513MB/s is the fastest of the bunch, edging out the iBuyPower Revolt and running circles around systems using a mechanical hard drive.
For good measure, we ran ATTO and recorded a read speed of 535.27MB/s and write speed of 275.6MB/s. In terms of real-world performance, the X51 R2 is highly responsive, just as we've come to expect from SSD-based setups.
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.
The XPS 18 sat at the bottom of the pack in Cinebench's CPU tests, and though it trailed by a small margin, the real takeaway here is that for all of the system's flexibility, one thing you're not going to be doing is a lot of CAD work or 3D design. It doesn't have the horsepower required for such tasks.
Cinebench has one goal and one goal only: bring your system to its knees. It doesn't take full advantage of Haswell's architectural changes and is mainly interested in cores and clockspeed. The Core i7 4770 chip found in the X51 R2 is certainly a faster processor than the Core i7 2600, but both are quad-core parts clocked at 3.4Ghz.
The OpenGL portion of the test told a different story. Armed with a GeForce GTX 670 graphics card, the X51 R2 was able to post a mighty impressive 77.77 fps, which is one of the higher scores we've seen.
|Games: Far Cry 2 & Lost Planet 2|
|With the simulations out of the way, we dug into the games themselves. Many games have built-in benchmark utilities. We kicked off the game benchmarks with a pair of sequels: Far Cry 2 and Lost Planet 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.
What's of main interest here is how the system performs at 1920x1080. Even with the visual quality settings maxed out, any modern gaming machine shouldn't break a sweat running Far Cry at Full HD, and in this case, the X51 R2 posted 127.51 fps, second only to the Titan-based system. It's also interesting that it's almost three times as fast as the original X51 that we reviewed last year.
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.
It should be obvious by now that the GeForce Titan is simply a faster graphics card than the GeForce GTX 670, and benchmarks like Lost Planet 2 help illustrate the discrepancy in pixel-pushing power. Judged on its own, however, 72 fps is nothing to be ashamed about, especially for a console-sized system. And once again, this year's model proved nearly three times as fast as the GTX 555-equipped Alienware from last year.
|Games: Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.|
|Next, we took on some post-apocalyptic shooters. Metro 2033 is new and tough on even modern systems. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. also provides a challenge.
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.
The Alienware setup right right on the heels of the iBuyPower Revolt, both of which have the same graphics card. It's basically a wash between those two systems, though iBuyPower's faster clocked Ivy Bridge chip gave it a slight advantage in this benchmark, and by slight, we mean only 0.33 fps at 1920x1080, well within the margin of error.
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.
In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the X51 R2 posted high average framerates at every resolution tested. And even though it's not represented on the above graph, it managed a playable 45.8 fps at a 2560x1600 resolution, which means there's enough power here to play some games on a 30-inch panel's native resolution. That's impressive for such a small system.
|Games: Batman Arkham City & Hitman Absolution|
|Batman: Arkham City follows the well-received Batman: Arkham Asylum and brings with it some new challenges for Batman and better graphics for us. Hitman Absolution is one of the newest games in our benchmark pool and is murder on most gaming PCs. Both games offer DX11 code paths and advanced graphics technologies, including tessellation.
Batman: Arkham City is a sequel to 2009’s Game of the Year winning Batman: Arkham Asylum. This recently released sequel, however, lives up to and even surpasses the original. The story takes place 18 months after the original game. Quincy Sharp, the onetime administrator of Arkham Asylum, has become mayor and convinced Gotham to create "Arkham City" by walling off the worst, most crime-ridden areas of the city and turning the area into a giant open-air prison. The game has DirectX 9 and 11 rendering paths, with support for tessellation, multi-view soft shadows, and ambient occlusion. We tested in DX11 mode with all in-game graphical options set to their maximum values, at various resolutions.
The X51 R2 stepped up its game, literally, in Batman: Arkham City, scoring near the top of the pack and trailing only AVADirect's system, which has a pretty major GPU advantage.
Our final game benchmark of the review is of Hitman, the blockbuster game that follows an assassin as he finds himself become a target. Here we have no other systems to compare it to compare it to as yet.
The same situation played out in Hitman: Absolution, a relatively new addition to our gamut of gaming benchmarks (hence the limited comparisons). At 1920x1080 (which is what most large screen HDTVs run natively), the X51 R2 was able to push a very playable 43.76 fps.
|Power Consumption & Noise|
|Since this is a system designed primarily for the living room, noise output is more important than it perhaps normally would be in other rooms. The good news is that the system stays fairly quiet most of the time, especially when performing low level tasks or watching movies. During high stress situations, however, the cooling fans kick on and they're definitely audible, though the noise is comparable to an Xbox or PlayStation console.
At idle, the X51 R2 hovers around 40W, the lowest in the entire group of systems we compared it with. During our stress test, which involved running Prime95 and FurMark simultaneously, power consumption peaked at 260W, a good 70W below the AC adapter's rated wattage.
In theory, this means there's some headroom to upgrade the GPU in the X51 R2, though you'd want to be careful if going that route. At present, the GeForce GTX 670 is the fastest card Dell offers in this system.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: We were already big fans of Dell's original Alienware X51, and with the CPU upgrade to Haswell and GPU bump to an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 graphics card without an increase in physical size, all we can do is tip our hat at the system builder and offer, "well played." Indeed, the X51 R2 played well through our benchmarks at a clip that was, on occasion, more than three times faster than the original. In the majority of cases, it was about twice as fast. In PCMark 7, for example, the X51 R2 scored 6,310 versus last year's score of 3.048.
Home theater PCs have been around for a long time, but only recently have SFF systems begun asserting themselves as legitimate gaming boxes and/or console replacements. Valve is fully on the board with the movement, hence its Big Picture mode for Steam, and the X51 R2 is more than happy to play along. Compared to last year's model, the GeForce GTX 670 in this year's refresh provides a big performance bump in today's top titles, and we were even able to extract playable framerates in some games on a 30-inch monitor running at 2560x1600. That bodes well for a system that's going to spend the majority of its time pushing pixels on Full HD 1080p displays (providing you actually plop it in your living room).
Another thing we like about the X51 R2 is its aggressive looks, though beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For those who don't find the system attractive, the saving grace for Dell is that it's a compact system that can easily be tucked out of sight. Alternately, you can draw attention to the system by playing around with the customizable LED lighting.
The only real negative is the price tag. At $1,849 as configured, the system is much more expensive than a dedicated game console. That said, there's a saving grace in that you can do more with a PC than you can on a console, but if all you're doing is playing games, price comes into play.
For those who can afford it as we tested it, the Alienware X51 R2 delivers a premium gaming experience in a compact design that's both stylish and well-suited for the living room. You can also of course configure a less expensive build-out on the Dell Alienware site. Job well done, team AW.