Alienware Area 51: Triad, Tri-SLI GTX 980, Haswell-E

Design and Layout

This mechanical explosion that Dell Alienware put together is a little deceiving in that it looks like the drive rack area is in the front of the chassis.  In fact, the drive bays are on the right side panel of the case, as you'll see shortly.  That said, Alienware's Triad chassis design does make efficient use of space and offers easy serviceability, as well as intrinsic thermal advantages due to its layout.

The 2014 Alienware Area-51 is actually a touch smaller than the average full-sized ATX chassis.

There's no question, it's tight in there, but Alienware found a way to make it all fit cleanly with minimal clutter and good airflow characteristics, even with a tri-SLI setup of full-sized GeForce GTX 980 cards. The PSU is mounted in a fairly traditional location though angled up slightly and exhausting warm air out the back. There are two cool air intake fans at the top and bottom of the front of the chassis and due to the triangular shape of the case, they're directed right over the CPU and graphics card areas.

As we noted, pulling the right side panel (both panels incidentally easily release with a lever and lock mechanism on the top, rear of the case), exposes the hard drive area and the front panel IO connector card.  There are three full-sized 3.5-inch HDD bays and a single double-high 2.5-inch bay which can accommodate two Solid State Drives. 

Top graphics card has rear cage lock removed, second card lock being removed, third still intact

The graphics card setup of the new Area-51 is really well done. There are three full-length PCIe X16 Gen 3 slots on the motherboard that can be setup in a X16/X16/X8 configuration, so you can enable triple-SLI or triple-Crossfire setups. Alienware went with new lighted SLI-bridge connector style as well, which is a nice touch of gaming rig bling.  Incidentally, Dell-Alienware does offer a 3x Radeon R9 290X configuration as well.

What's really nice about the card slot design is that there is a rear locking cage configuration as well, which adds a great deal of stability, especially for multi-GPU setups. Pulling a simple locking press-fit guide out of its channel releases the rear of a graphic card and then a simple rocker-type snap connector releases the front of the card from the slot bracket. There are of course traditional locking mechanisms down on the motherboard PCIe slots as well, and believe it or not, even with my meaty digits, there's enough space to squeeze in there and release a card from its slot. All told, it's actually a completely "screwless" setup.

Here we've removed the bottom GeForce GTX 980 card and if you look closely, the rear of the card has a cage bracket screwed into it with thumbscrews. This modification isn't too dramatic and versus reference GTX 980s, there's nothing too proprietary here.

Here you can see the Area-51's power supply a bit more closely. It's a fully modular PSU and this is the beefy 1500 Watt model. Four screws allow removal from the rear of the system. And again, looking closely, you'll see the side panel connectors for Alienware's AlienFX lighting system. Configurable light pipes adorn the front edges and side panels and with AlienFX software you can dial them in for a variety of different colors, to give your system that tricked-out look and feel in any hue you wish.

The Area-51's CPU socket area has plenty of air flow around it and the adjacent DIMM slots. The 120mm intake fan pulls cool air in, while the self-contained liquid cooler and its radiator and fan assembly push warm air off the CPU heat pump and exhaust that out the top rear of the case. Logically, this layout makes sense with warm air rising to the top of the case and being pulled out from there. Each of the GTX 980 graphics cards also pumps warm air out of its slot with NVIDIA's shrouded fansink design and the PSU also has its own exhaust fan, obviously as well.

The net-net is that this system runs very cool and surprisingly (or not) very quiet. In fact, it's one of the quietest heavy-duty gaming rigs we've had in for testing in a long time, especially considering its tri-SLI setup.  Part of this is thanks to NVIDIA's super-efficient and well-designed Maxwell-based GeForce GTX 980 cards while the rest of the thermal and acoustic advantages are all Alienware.

The rear of the Alienware Area-51 is pretty standard with the major exception that everything is pointed up at you. This makes for slightly easier access, but also better thermals as well. If the chassis is backed up against a wall or under your desk, the 45-degree angle of the rear chassis wall helps with a natural air gap that traditional rectangular setups don't have.  Access-wise, this angular configuration doesn't have quite the advantage you might expect, after all, you're still reaching to the back side of the case to connect things. However it does help with some moving room for sure. 

That said, we do think Alienware missed a bit of opportunity to put additional IO on the front or perhaps even on top of the chassis.  Just a couple more USB 3.0 or maybe even a Thunderbolt port would have rocked for some media content creation types, but really, we're nit-picking like the enthusiast snobs we tend to be.

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