Alienware X51 Review

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Good things, small packages…

Alienware desktops used to start at well over £1000 and would come in rather chunky mid and full tower cases, they still do of course, but now we have the option of a sleek, compact design which comes in well under that price mark. We’re talking about the X51, Alienware’s latest desktop is not only cheaper, but it’s a good deal smaller than its bigger brothers. Does this small package pack a mighty punch? Read on to find out.

How does it look?

Alienware machines have always done well in the looks department, so much so that many PC gamers have given into the urge for a machine with flashy lights and a masterfully designed chassis, even when a more cost effective option has been on offer.

The X51 like other Alienware products looks way better than your average PC, what immediately makes the X51 stand out is its compact size. The X51 is small, very small in fact, roughly the size of the classic Xbox 360 and like certain models of the 360, it has a black matte finish. Alienware’s trademarked FX lighting is once again in use with a wide variety of colours available for users to customise the look of the X51. Lights beam out either side as well as the front, through the alien head logo. Speaking of the infamous logo, the head can be rotated to ensure it is facing up, whether the X51 is positioned in the customary vertical position, or horizontally like consoles of old.

The overall build quality is good with tight edges and solid plastic used to encase the valuable components. What you don’t see in most of the flashy screenshot of the X51 is the external power supply. Much like the Xbox 360 or a laptop, the power is external to the X51’s case which is how Dell have been able to make the unit so compact. The power supply is not too big and can easily be hidden behind a desk or settle besides the inevitable jungle of cables.

Simply put, the X51 looks great and is certainly not something to hide, totally living up to Alienware’s standard for design in the process. It can easily take pride of place next to a TV in the living room, or on a desk with a monitor.

What is it packing?

The high end X51 will set you back £899 with the full spec listed below. A low and mid spec is also available at £649 and £799 respectively.

Processor: Intel Core i7-2600 (3.40GHz, 8MB L3 Cache, 4C)
Operating system: Genuine Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit
Memory: 8GB Dual Channel at 1333Mhz – 2 DIMMS
Video card: 1GB GDDR5 NVIDIA® GeForce GTX 555
Sound Card: Internal High-Definition 7.1 Performance Audio with WAVES MAXX Audio (Standard)
Hard drive: 1000GB SATA hard drive (7200RPM)
Optical drive: Slot-Loading Dual Layer DVD Burner (DVD+-RW, CD-RW) (Standard)
Wireless: Integrated 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi Wireless LAN
Power Supply: Alienware 330 Watt Power Supply

The main difference between the mid and high range model is the processor. for £799 you get Intel’s Core i5 quad core processor at 3.40GHz, the high end model which is just £100 more comes with the mighty Core i7 which is once again, a quad core processor at 3.40 GHz. The benefit of the i7 is it’s hyperthreading technology which will double the 4 cores available to 8, when using certain applications. Tasks such as video encoding, 3D modelling, and photo editing.

The low end offering is difficult to recommend, with just a dual core i3 processor, Nvidia GTX 545 graphics card, and a gimped 230 watt power supply The £649 model is not only the weakest offering, it has the least potential for upgrades.

Speaking of upgrades the X51 is almost fully modular with the ability to switch out the graphics card, hard drive, and optical drive.  The 1 Terebyte  hard drive which comes loaded with all models is more than enough for the average user but if proffered, a Solid State Drive can be used as a replacement. Unfortunately the compact size of the X51 means that only one HDD or SSD can be installed at one time, this obviously rules out the popular option of running Windows on an SSD for fast boot times whilst storing the bulk of files and programs on the HDD.

The graphics card utilises a PCI-Express riser card to connect to the motherboard ensuring the card itself is placed in the most compact position imaginable. Ideally you would be able to upgrade the X51 with latest and greatest cards from AMD and Nvidia, unfortunately GPU upgrades are limited by the size of the compact X51 case and the capacity of the 33o watt (230 watt if you went with the low end model) power supply. Take one look at Nvidia’s latest spec sheet and you will see that the Nvidia 680 can use up to 195 watts of power with a minimum of 550 watts of system power required. The option for graphical upgrades are few and far between but as technology gets better we are seeing smaller cards with lower power requirements. the Nvidia 680 whilst not sutiable for the X51 is an example of improved efficiency on Nvidia’s part, the flagship card is not only more powerful than its predecessor, but it is smaller and requires roughly 50 watts less in the power department. If mid range cards in Nvidia’s 600 series show the same optimisation then we could see a number of viable GPU upgrade options for the X51 in the near future.

Can it run..?

Let’s get straight down to business, it’s well known that the GTX 555 is a good mid range desktop card. With the support of 8GB of ram and the second generation of Intel’s core i processors, the x51 has no trouble playing games such as StarCraft 2 and Portal 2 on the highest settings whilst pushing out at least 60 frames per second. It’s all very good powering through the aforementioned games, but neither really push the recommended spec sheet. The true test comes when attempting to run the current powerhouses of PC gaming, Battlefield 3 and The Witcher 2. Both games utilise new engines which take advantage of DirectX 11’s capabilites and will push any hardware currently on the market to its limit, so how did the X51 do?

We started things off with Battlefield 3 and allowed the game to choose settings based on our hardware. Surprisingly the game chose near perfect settings for our X51 with screen resolution set at 1920×1080 all options set to medium except textures which were afforded the luxury of high. With these settings Battlefield 3 gave us 50-55 frames per second whilst playing in a 32 player rush map. Bumping textures to “ultra” did little to reduce frame output and certainly enhanced the look of the game. We experimented with a mixture of medium and high settings, and whilst we achieved on average a solid 30-40 frames per second, due to the nature of Battlefield 3’s open multiplayer environments, we occasionally witnessed a dip below 30, which isn’t particularly acceptable when playing a first-person shooter. Our tests using The Witcher 2 told a similar story, with the X51 comfortable at medium settings, but struggling a little in terms of frames per second with the game bumped up to the higher graphical options.

Playing the latest and greatest games obviously puts the X51 under a lot of stress, and with such a small form factor things can get hot quick. In an idle state the X51’s Nvidia GTX 555 sits at roughly 40 degrees c which is quite good when you consider that our Nvidia GTX 580 hits 51 in a very well cooled case. Things soon change when playing games, loading up a session of Battlefield 3 caused the GPU to reach a temperature of 81 where it levelled out and never reached the danger level of the high nineties. Obviously when the GPU is in use the fans react to cool the Nvidia hardware, at an idle state the X51 emits a low noise level hum which can at times fade to the background. Once under load the CPU and GPU fans kick in and can cause quite a bit of noise, fans could just about be heard when playing Battlefield 3 with sound coming from stereo speakers.

Verdict

There is no doubt that the Alienware X51 is a powerful machine, it has top specifications in the CPU and RAM department, and is only let down by the mid-range Nvidia GTX 555 graphics card. It’s unfortunate that the weakest link in a gaming desktop is the component that powers 3D graphics, but that is the sacrifice that must be made for a low power, small form factor desktop that will fit in locations that a normal computer tower will not.

If you’re looking to purchase a gaming desktop and are only drawn to the X51’s competitive price, then perhaps you will be better off with a custom build. These don’t have to be built from scratch, as many websites offer custom configuration with all assembly done pre-delivery. If you look around a little, you could actually pick up a system with a similar specification to the X51, but with a better graphics card and the ability to upgrade in future for around the same price.

On the other hand, if you’re after the X51 for its unique form factor and sexy look, then you need look no further. There is no product currently on the market that rivals Alineware’s baby desktop in terms of size and style. If you are serious about making a purchase we suggest that you go for the medium or high spec model and understand that upgrading the graphics card could be tricky, at least for now.

8/10

The Alienware X51 is available to purchase now.

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