|Introduction, Specifications & Features|
If you are a regular here at HotHardware.com, you have most likely heard of Alienware, one of the companies that helped establish the market for high-performance, gaming PCs. Since hitting the scene in 1996, Alienware has become a leader not only in gaming PCs but also in high-performance desktop, notebook, media center, and professional systems. Alienware's refreshing philosophy emphasizes building a system "as if it were your own."
As most of you probably know, Dell acquired Alienware about a year ago in order to leverage Alienware's edgy brand. Some may fear that this means the worst for Alienware, but for now, Alienware still operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dell and basically continues with business as usual. Alienware is still Alienware and not a watered down version of what it used to be. The company has the ability to maintain its image of a high-performance system builder, which means it technically competes with Dell's own XPS line. We are anxious to see how this plays out over the next couple of years, and we seriously doubt that Dell will do anything to harm Alienware's excellent brand name and market presence.
That's enough about Alienware itself; let's talk about the hardware for a moment. Today in the labs, we have the Alienware Area-51 7500, which features Alienware's signature, unique aesthetics and some of the most powerful hardware available today.
Like other Alienware systems, the Area-51 7500 has many configurable options, such as processor, operating system, memory, chassis color, hard drive, and much more. You can spend anywhere from $2,199 for the default options which don't include a monitor, to over $10,000 if you max everything out. At the time it was shipped to us, our test system could be purchased for just over $5,800 without a monitor. The table below outlines the specifications and some of the features of the Area-51 7500 that we have in the labs today.
As you can see from the specs, the Area-51 7500 can be configured to be one hell of a gaming system, one that most of us can only dream about. The Cyborg Green-colored monster (this system is BIG and HEAVY) that we received was shipped in a black box with Alienware logos on it.
The system shipped with a Microsoft IntelliMouse 4.0, an Alienware USB keyboard, four VGA-to-DVI adapters, an owner's manual bound in a nice Alienware branded, black binder, and the Alienware Respawn CD/DVD.
|Presentation, Exterior Finish & Build Quality|
Removing the Cyborg Green Area-51 7500 from its box is quite an experience for a number of reasons. First off, carrying the 40+ pound box can be an unwieldy task. Secondly, seeing the Cyborg Green case with its multiple alien heads and AlienIce gills can bring an anticipatory grin to any enthusiast's face. And finally, lifting this beast out of the box to hook it up can be a challenge, especially if you aren't very strong. We'd recommend getting some reliable help for lifting the box before unpacking and for removing the system from the box.
Part of the reason that the Area-51 7500 is heavier than other systems is because the chassis is an extended (not standard) ATX case. This is great for fitting extra long add-in cards, like those 8800 GTXs residing in this test system. While the case may look like it's just colored, molded plastic, it's actually all steal and then covered with the plastic pieces.
Overall, the quality of the exterior finish and aesthetic touches throughout the chassis are quite good. We didn't find any scratches or other blemishes on the case.
Alienware definitely fits its otherworldly namesake perfectly with the design of the P2 chassis. Even without the Alienware alien heads and their glowing eyes, you still would wonder what planet this case comes from. To maintain this look, Alienware hides the external drives behind a door emblazoned with a relatively big alien head. This alien head is actually the system's power button. That is a pretty cool and unique touch. For those of you wondering, no there is not a baby alien head that functions as a reset button; there is only a power button on the P2 chassis.
Behind the door, we found three 5.25" bays and no 3.5" bays. Our test system features a 16x dual layer DVD+/-RW drive with LightScribe Technology and a flash media card reader. We were glad to see that the door actually swings over to the left side of the case after opening, which will help keep it out of the way.
Under the door, you can see a mix of ports: a mic jack, a headphone jack, a FireWire port and two USB 2.0 ports. We were quite pleased when we saw the labels for these ports light up when we first powered on the system. Nice touch, Alienware. The little things can make a big difference.
When we turn the Area-51 7500 around to inspect the back, we see a typical set of I/O ports and connectors, including two PS/2 ports, one FireWire port, six USB 2.0 ports, a digital audio out jack, six analog audio jacks, and two RJ-45 (network) ports. Below the motherboard I/O, you can see the four DVI connectors that belong to the 8800 GTX video cards. To the right of the motherboard I/O, you can see a custom Alienware fan grill. While it looks cool and definitely adds to the theme of the case, we would like to see Alienware take the design one step further by allowing better airflow through the grill.
One of the cooler features on the Alienware P2 chassis is the lighting. If you choose the standard lighting configuration, you get to choose one of seven colors, and all the lighting will be the same color. Or, for an extra $200, you can upgrade to the AlienFX system lighting, which provides the user with a system lighting interface (software) to customize the lighting to his or her heart's content. Each lighting zone can be a different color, and you can even program pulsating or morphing colors. The screenshot below is of the AlienFX application and shows the zones and how each can be a different color.
|Interior Design, Layout & Construction|
Getting inside the Area-51 7500 is an easy task thanks to its tool-less design. Removing each side panel is as simple as pulling up a release lever and then pulling off the panel. Once we removed the side panel, we were impressed by the clean and simple layout inside the Area-51 7500. What impressed us more, though, was how obvious the level of engineering became when we took a closer look at the side panel. In the first picture below, take a look at the small white box that is below the fan. The fan and AlienFX LEDs on that panel get power once that makes contact with a similar box on the bottom of the case. No cables are directly attached from the panel to the power supply. It's a slick design.
As you can see, cables are tucked away and folded to achieve that tidy, crisp look we've all come to expect from high-end machines. In the first picture below, you can see that the hard drive cage features drive rails, which means you can easily remove those Western Digital Raptors if you need or want to. Additionally, the 5.25" bays boast a custom tool-less installation system that allows for quick removal/installation. The second picture below shows a close-up of the liquid cooling system used to cool the quad core processor. According to Alienware, the "high-performance liquid cooling system uses a high-flow, compact pump to circulate a thermally conductive liquid though a closed-loop system to remove heat from the processor and reject it to the ambient air flowing through a liquid-to-air heat exchanger." This means that you get a quietly cooled processor.
What would a high-end PC be without the latest and greatest video cards? It wouldn't be much to brag about, right? Well, no worries here. The picture below highlights the presence of not one but two NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTX video cards in SLI mode. It doesn't get much later and greater than that right now. Considering the size of those cards, it's a good thing the Alienware P2 chassis is an extended ATX case. You can see that the cards actually go beyond the motherboard.
All of these top-notch components produce a lot of heat and therefore need to be cooled. This job is handled by the four fans in the case. You've already seen the left side panel's fan and the rear fan that helps dispel the CPU's liquid cooling system's heat. You can see in the picture below that the front of the case also features a 120mm fan that is totally free from obstruction. The fourth fan is found on the right side of the case and helps pull heat away from the hard drives.
Overall, Alienware does a good job on the Area-51 7500's interior layout and construction. We found no major problems to fault Alienware on. Just like the exterior, the quality is top-notch.
Upon entering the Area-51 7500's BIOS, we were greeted with the familiar Phoenix AwardBIOS CMOS setup utility. Since the Phoneix AwardBIOS is so commonly used by motherboard OEMs, many of you are probably already very familiar with how to navigate this BIOS. In the main menu, you can see all of the general BIOS options. There really isn't much exciting in the first two sub-menus (Standard CMOS Features and Advanced BIOS Features).
The exciting, enthusiast-oriented options are found in the Advanced Chipset Features sub-menu. In this menu, you can adjust system clocks, front side bus and memory speed, memory timings, CPU configuration, system voltages and more. In the second and third pictures below, you can see that the CPU multiplier can be adjusted from 6 to 60. Only the multipliers supported by the CPU will work, however.
In the FSB & Memory Config screen, you can tweak the FSB (front side bus) and memory speeds and ratios. Additionally, you can change the memory timing values.
The System Voltages sub-menu allows you to adjust the voltages of the following parameters: CPU core, CPU FSB, memory, nForce SPP, nForce MCP, and HT nForce SPP - MCP. This amount of flexibility should appeal to the tweaking fanatics out there.
One final sub-menu worth taking a quick peek at is System Monitor. This screen functions as a system health/status monitor. You can check current temperatures, voltages and fan speeds.
|Test Systems & SiSoft SANDRA|
The Area-51 7500 was left "as delivered" for the duration of benchmarking. Nothing was installed or altered, with the exception of the necessary benchmarking software. In addition to the Dell XPS 710 H2C, a wide variety of custom built test rigs were used for comparison in the benchmarks. The test rigs were divided into two groups; one group was used for the general, rendering and productivity benchmarks, while the second group was used in the gaming tests. It is important to note that the Dell XPS 710 H2C's Core 2 Extreme QX6700 is overclocked to 3.2GHz. Combined, the test rigs cover a wide range of system configurations and should give us a good idea of how the Area-51 7500 performs.
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide useful high-level information about your hardware and OS. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA XI SP1a suite (CPU, Multimedia, Memory and File System) with the Area-51 7500.
We didn't find anything surprising about the SANDRA results; we were expecting good performance, and that's what we saw. The Area-51 7500 put up CPU and memory scores that were higher than the reference systems. Additionally, the two 150GB 10,000 RPM Western Digital Raptors in RAID 0 scored quite well in the File System test. A result of 121MB/s is pretty darn fast.
For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05. We incorporated PCMark05 into our benchmark suite soon after its release, and we have found it to be even more robust in terms of test features than its predecessor. That said, the CPU and memory test modules we use for comparison are very similar to the 04 version of the test suite. For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do, and how they work.
"The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
The Area-51 7500 performs right on par with our custom Core 2 Extreme QX6700 system, which is what we expected. The reason the Area-51 7500 falls behind the Dell XPS 710 H2C is because the Dell XPS is overclocked to 3.2GHz with the same processor as the Area-51 7500, which naturally puts it at quite an advantage in this and other benchmarks.
"The Memory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing." - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.
Again, the Area-51 7500 performs in line with the custom Core 2 Extreme QX6700 system, which is somewhat interesting considering that the Area-51 7500 uses an nForce 680i SLI motherboard while the custom system uses an Intel 975X Express motherboard.
PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmarks that has replaced the aging and no-longer supported Content Creation and Business Winstone tests in our suite. WorldBench 5 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance.
Below we have the results from WB 5's Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7 modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance here; in other words, shorter bars indicate better performance.
The Area-51 7500 falls behind the whole pack in the WorldBench Office test. Interestingly enough, it is closest to the Dell XPS 710 H2C. We weren't surprised, though, to see that Office applications don't really benefit a great deal from having more CPU cores currently.
For some reason, the Area-51 7500 fails to threaten the competition much again (with the exception of the AMD system). We realize that most people aren't buying Area-51 7500s with Office and Photoshop in the front of their minds, but if those types of applications are as important to you as your games on a gaming rig, then consider a Core 2 Extreme X6800 or overclocking the Core 2 Extreme QX6700.
|Lame MP3 Encoding & Cinebench 2003|
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes.
Processing times are recorded below. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.
Finally, we see the Area-51 7500 pull ahead of our custom Core 2 Extreme QX6700 975X Express system, even if it is only by a small margin. The nForce 680i motherboard must make the difference here. The overclocked Dell XPS 710 H2C still leads the pack, as you might expect by now.
Processing times are recorded below. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.
Rather than beat our custom QX6700 system this time, the Area-51 7500 performs almost exactly the same as it. The other systems fall in basically the same order as in the Lame MP3 encoding benchmark above.
|3DMark06 & Quake 4|
Starting with our 3DMark06 test, all of the gaming related benchmarks will be using a new set of comparison systems that were configured to put up a better fight against the Area-51 7500 when it came to gaming than our productivity test systems could have.
3DMark06's test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of different 3D scenes that are generated with software and hardware GPU renderers, which is also dependant on the host CPU's performance. In its CPU tests, the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator are instead sent to the central processor. GPU rendering tests employ a mix of SM2.0, SM3.0 and HDR techniques and effects.
Here we see the Area-51 7500 fall behind the custom QX6700 system, likely due to different drivers. Both systems feature two 8800 GTXs in SLI and both feature a Core 2 QX6700 processor. Let's move on to the real-world game benchmarks to see if this is the start of a trend.
The Area-51 7500 falls quite a bit behind most of the pack in our Quake 4 test. We ran this one several extra times just to be sure we were getting the right results. We don't know why the Area-51 7500 isn't getting more out of its muscle, but we started to believe it more once we ran a few more benchmarks.
|F.E.A.R., Prey & HL2: Episode 1|
This time the Area-51 7500 takes fourth place amongst our test rigs. This is a little bit better outcome, but it's still not what we expected.
The Area-51 7500 continues down the same path and finishes in fourth place again in this test. The margin between second, third and fourth place isn't that great, but the Area-51 7500 should be right in there with a slightly higher score.
In our Half-Life 2 test, the Area-51 7500 almost ties for third place, but it still maintains that fourth position.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: While the Alienware Area-51 7500 performs well, we were left wanting a little more from the system. In our testing, the Area-51 7500 came up a bit short of our expectations, as many of our comparison systems, despite being configured with similar hardware, outpaced it repeatedly. This was especially true in the gaming benchmarks. The differences in performance were likely due to variations in the drivers, BIOS settings, and software installed on the systems, and could possibly be minimized with some updating and tweaking. In its "out of box" configuration, however, the Alienware Area-51 7500 fell just a bit short of our similarly configured reference systems.
We recommend that users opt for at least a 24" LCD if they are buying a high-end system like the Area-51 7500. You won't really get your money's worth out of a system like this if you don't play at least some games above 1600x1200. The Area-51 7500 we reviewed is designed for high-res gaming. The system will push high resolution and high levels of eye candy on any game out there right now.
Overall, the quality of the Area-51 7500 is quite good. The one thing that concerned us about the system is the fact that the AlienFX lighting system stopped working in one of the zones (the zone that lights up the 5.25" external drive bays). All of the zones worked properly when we first received the system from Alienware, but then after shipping a second time, one zone no longer worked. While it is atypical that you'd ship a system after receiving it from Alienware, we still think the AlienFX lighting should be able to survive two shipments, especially considering the extra money you pay to get it. Other than that, we didn't have any major issues with the Area-51 7500. We were also pleasantly surprised by the system's low noise level when it powered up. For the amount of horsepower under the hood, the system's noise level is easy to live with. Additionally, the chassis' unique theme and color make for an eye-catching PC that many people will envy.
Despite some gripes, the Area-51 7500 has been easy and fun to work with and played all the games we threw at it flawlessly. If you are a gamer who wants a unique experience and good customer service after buying a flagship, high-end gaming rig, then Alienware's Area-51 7500 is worth a look.