Alienware assimilates Dell FROM THE INSIDE!
Resistance is futile...
Gaming notebooks are a secret hobby of mine. I don't actually game that much – even my wife logs more hours than I do – but gaming notebooks are the only way to get the best of the best in a luggable form factor. Alienware is the name to beat in this space, but I've always wondered how they managed to survive the Dell acquisition.
I started out with a Dell XPS Gen 2. This system was an absolute beast; it survived my physical punishment than any system I've ever owned. My first Alienware was an Area-51 m5700 – essentially a rebadged Clevo. It had the performance the XPS simply didn't.
When I read the announcement in 2006, I feared the worst. Gaming notebooks you could drop down two flights of stairs while running were about to become extinct! In 2009, I went looking for a new notebook, and was crushed to find that the XPS line was no more. I got an Alienware M17x instead.
This lasted for nearly three years, but the right hinge on the monitor seized up about three months before the warrantee expired. I emailed them and asked if they'd be so kind as to send me the parts. They no longer had these parts in stock; would I like a full refund? I went for it, tossed in another $1,000 and I am typing this article on the result: the absolute top-of-the-line M18x circa Dec 2011.
The dual Radeon 6970s are perhaps overkill for minecraft, but 16GB of RAM and a quad core made it more than a gaming rig to me. This system is a "luggable" testbed – a virtual server with its own custom carrying case. More importantly, by having top-end video cards, it actually talks proper DDC/CI to LaCie monitors. This means that I can use it to test their hardware calibration – something I can't do with my netbook.
This is the niche that Alienware occupies. Because my clients have high-end requirements, I've worked with high-end notebooks from many manufacturers: MSI, Asus, Sager and so forth. But today's Alienware has a niche-within-a-niche. It makes luggable, full-featured systems that offer the very best modern technology has to offer, wrapped inside the closest thing you can get to indestructible without actually being milspec. Alienware does not make disposable computers.
By contrast, Dell survives almost entirely by making disposable computers – the two would seem to be each other's antithesis. Alienware's Frank Azor took time out to discuss the company's history.
Azor is quick to point out that mixing corporate DNA wasn't easy: "For the first two years we weren't very integrated, [and were] still really competing with each other." There was some market repositioning needed by both companies. High-end workstation products by Alienware were axed, and Dell discontinued my beloved XPS gaming notebooks.
According to Azor, "When we decided to replace the XPS gaming brand with Alienware, we didn't replace the teams, we consolidated them – the best of both teams together." This seems in keeping with my experience. My M18X has Alienware-class performance, but inherited the "little things" – like big fat power plugs that survive obscene amounts of insertions – that made the XPS so durable.
Azor says "the Dell business has been very receptive to picking and choosing the categories we want to work in". Give Alienware access to Dell's global supply chain, bargaining power and so forth, but let Alienware choose its own direction. Miraculously, Dell complied and everyone has benefited.
Azor is proud of Alienware, and his role in it. His voice changes when he talks about the early days of the company. "I'm a co-founder," he says. "Employee number 4." He reports that Alienware remains a very healthy business unit and is thankful to have access to Dell's might.
One area he expressed a particular displeasure with was the state of monitors. He believes that we need to be collectively pushing the industry to support higher resolution panels; it is something he has been working on and there were hints that this may come to fruition soon.
Azor is also cautious. He doesn't want to "put the brand at risk by branching out." My "please build us an Ultrabook that doesn't suck" idea was not well received. He doesn't want to start chasing the latest industry trend only to have to make so many compromises that it doesn't make sense to call the end result "Alienware". Reputations take years to build and a single day to destroy.
Azor believes that Alienware is rubbing off on Dell. Slowly but surely, Dell is coming to realise that the relentless drive to the bottom is a fool's game. Cutting every corner and grinding your own margins in the effort to undercut your competitor by a dollar is an unsustainable market. He says he already sees changes in thinking that are beginning to mirror Alienware's belief that refusing to compromise is what builds a brand's reputation for reliability.
After going through several gaming notebooks of her own, my wife would seem to agree. "I like that notebook," she says, pointing at her gaming rig. "It's my second MSI. I've been pretty polite to it, mostly just sitting it on a desk. But after a few trips, there are bits falling off. It's not a 'drag it to Austin and back' kind of a laptop. That $400 little Samsung netbook is more durable. It might be minuscule and made out of slow, but it's actually pretty tough. That's important."
Alienware is expensive, more so than competitors with the same specs. Despite this, my wife's next gaming rig will be an Alienware, and my next workstation will be as well. Six years after the acquisition, I realise that Alienware didn't survive the Dell merger intact after all – the corporate DNA of these two companies has truly intermixed and the resulting entity is better off than either were before. That's something truly rare. ®
Re: ... Sorry. Did I misread this as an article or piece of news?
One of the cool parts about writing for El Reg is that you get to talk to the people wbo make the products you use. Sometimes I talk loudly and with great irritation. Sometimes I have to restrain the fanboy.
Alienware is one of the few "brands" I like; and I like them not because they pay me to, but because they make great stuff. I'm odd that way.
Flawless operation? Not a chance...
I'm absolutely delighted this columnist enjoyed their Alienware experience. Mine couldn't have been worse.
Back in 2006 I spent a not insubstantial amount of £1800 on an Alienware m9700 laptop. When it arrived it was Dead On Arrival. Sometimes it would switch on, other times it wouldn't. It went back within 48 hours.
A month later, when it returned, all was good. Until it started BSODing all the time a few months later. Multiple clean installs of Windows failed to cure the problem, so back it went to Alienware/Dell where it was fitted with what was now its third motherboard.
Back it came. All was good until the 12 month warranty ran out and it started exhibiting the same old BSOD issues. Fortunately Alienware / Dell agreed to repair it out of warranty for free (after some badgering).
Motherboard number 4!
Within a couple of months the WUXGA screen started playing up with vertical lines showing on the right side, then the BSODs started returning. Then the laptop stopped turning on altogether.
At the time, my wife was having some pretty serious health issues so I didn't have the time to waste badgering Alienware / Dell again. When I did eventually try contacting them I received no response, so the laptop to this day remains sitting in my IT room, broken, non functioning. A seriously good looking, but ultimately useless £1800 paperweight that didn't even give me a year of flawless operation.
I won't be making that mistake again.
A Reg hack actually liking something?
Perish the thought!
You see this approach a lot more on the enterprise computing side, Dell acquired many companies over the past few years but hasn't really gutted any of them, they simply operate as their own division under the Dell name (Compellent, EqualLogic, Force10, AppAssure, KACE, Sonicwall etc are now rebranded Dell:Compellent, Dell:EqualLogic, etc). I'm sure in traditional business areas (IT, finance, HR) Dell has probably consolidated those companies under their internal processes, but otherwise for the most part the companies seem to retain their identities and benefit from some collaboration with other divisions.
It's not a bad approach, and it looks like the same was done with Alienware.
Between my personal systema and the corporate deployments of these units, I've worked with over 2000 Alienware notebooks. There have been 3 RMA-class incidents (dead mobo), 2 stiff-hinge-death incidents, and a life lesson learned about AMD's inability to make good dual-GPU drivers.
Compared to every other system I've worked with - the $400 Samsung netbooks my wife and I have being the only exception - these Alienware boxes have had the lowest incidence of "it's dead, Jim." Hardware or software. That includes Dell's disposable consumer goods, HP, Asus, MSI, Sager, Samsung, Fujitsu, Sony, Eurocom, Acer, Lenovo...
I think I can speak from some experience on this one.