Alienware Area 51 ALX CrossFireX gaming PC
How much does it cost..?!
Review How much would you spend on a gaming PC? Alienware hopes the answer is ‘about four grand’. It has delivered a colossal gaming PC with two AMD ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 graphic cards, but does the machine's performance match its price?
We’ll get on to the CrossFireX graphics in just a moment, but let’s start with the cosmetic appearance of the Area 51 ALX CFX. Alienware is big on the space theme, so the chassis is available in either "saucer silver" or "space black". The alien face on the front of the case doubles as the power button, and the logos on the front and side of the case are illuminated.
Alienware's Area 51 ALX CFX: out of this world?
When the PC is running you can use the bundled AlienFX Editor utility to change the colour of the LEDs in five case zones independently of each other. It sounds incredibly naff and cheesy, but it works surprisingly well.
The front of the case has one Firewire and two USB ports along with jacks for your headset, and above that there's a door that covers the optical drive. The drive bay flap is an impressive piece of engineering that operates on a pair of articulated arms so the door pulls forward before it swings to one side. Unlike the door on a typical PC case that is usually just a flimsy piece of plastic, the Alienware door is quite substantial.
Inside the case, the Area 51 looks fairly conventional. There are three optical drive bays at the front, with an LG GSA-H55L 20x dual-layer DVD writer at the top, an empty bay under that and a card reader in the bottom bay.
The hard drive bay accommodates up to four drives across the case that makes it easy to connect the SATA cables with an 80mm fan to keep the bay cool. In the review system, Alienware chose to install a pair of 500GB Seagate 7200.10 drives in a 1TB RAID 0 array on the integrated Intel RAID controller.
This struck us as a poor choice, as the increased performance of RAID 0 is more than offset by the risk of failure. The array will be destroyed if either drive or the RAID controller on the motherboard fails - that’s three potential points of failure. With a single drive you avoid some of that risk, and a single terabyte drive can be absurdly cheap - see our round-up, here.
Target the thermal exhaust port...
The Area 51 ALX CFX's other components are an Asus P5E3 Deluxe Wi-Fi AP motherboard with 2GB of 1333MHz DDR 3 memory from Patriot, and an Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 CPU. Alienware overclocks the processor from the standard 3GHz to 4GHz by the simple expedient of raising the clock multiplier from 9x to 12x. The CPU voltage is raised from 1.3625V to 1.55V, and the memory is powered at 1.7V with low latency timings of 7-7-7-20.
Keeping it all under control there’s a small water cooling system that sits above the CPU socket inside the rear of the case with a 100mm fan that exhausts at the rear.
That’s the housekeeping out of the way, so let’s turn to the CrossFireX graphics that uses a pair of Diamond HD 3870 X2 graphics cards with 1GB of DDR 3 and two Radeon HD 3870 GPUs on each card. Unsurprisingly, Alienware has specified a hefty power supply, rated at 1000W. The graphics cards effectively fill the bottom of the case, leaving just one PCI slot and one PCI Express x1 slot available for expansion. There’s room to install a sound card, but as things stand you’ll probably be relying on the integrated SoundMAX audio.
Despite the terrifying price this PC doesn’t come with a display or a set of speakers, but it does come with a stack of ‘free’ extras that consist of a keychain, a pen, a polo shirt, an aluminium briefcase and, perhaps most usefully, an Alienware support manager on call day or night.
Power Draw Results
Power draw in Watt (W)
The Area 51 ALX CFX is a moderately noisy PC, but it's near-silent compared to the Tri-SLI packing Mesh Q8 - reviewed here. Once Windows Vista Ultimate is running, the hard drive array ticks away like crazy. Vista hammers your hard drive at the best of times, so two of the things only add to the pain.
PCMark 05 Results
Longer bars are better
Performance in 3DMark06 and PCMark05 is impressive in every department, but that's partly thanks to the extra 1GHz of CPU speed. In graphics tests, the Alienware starts to look somewhat limp compared to the Mesh Q8 when anti-aliasing is enabled - then in Crysis things went utterly pear-shaped.
3DMark 06 Results
1280 x 1024
2048 x 1536
Longer bars are better
At 1920 x 1200 with Medium Quality settings selected, the Alienware managed a mere 27fps compared to 51.1fps from the Mesh, but with anti-aliasing turned on, the Alienware frame rate dived to 4fps. By contrast, the Mesh was hardly affected by AA and plugged along at 45.3fps.
1920 x 1200 - Medium Quality
1920 x 1200 - Very High Quality
Results in frames per second
Longer bars are better
It was a similar story with Crysis' Very High Quality settings enabled. Without anti-aliasing, as the Alienware only ran at 7.3fps while the Mesh achieved 19fps. We turned on AA, and the Alienware crashlanded somewhere in New Mexico while the Mesh continued to hover, albeit at a barely playable framerate.
The likeliest explanation is that CrossFireX is new and Alienware's still getting to grips with it. That suggests a driver update is in order, but it seemed appropriate to update the BIOS first. The Asus motherboard had version 0601 installed while the latest on offer was 1109. The update went smoothly, the system rebooted and... the RAID array vanished.
Despite the fearsome price this PC doesn’t come with a display or speakers
Integrated RAID controllers are fickle things and you mess with the BIOS at your peril, but the fact is that graphics performance was none too hot out of the box. It may have been more prudent for us to have updated the graphics drivers before monkeying with the BIOS, but sooner or later anyone who owns a high-end machine with a high-end Asus motherboard will update the BIOS and then... like that, it's gone.
As we mentioned earlier RAID 0 as a bootable drive seems like a poor idea but you have to wonder why Alienware didn’t allocate some cash on a dedicated RAID card that would separate the RAID controller from the motherboard BIOS.
On the matter of the cost, the Area 51 ALX CFX would seem to be incredibly expensive. At retail, you’d pay £1100 for the CPU, motherboard and memory, £600 for the pair of X2 graphics cards, £150 for the hard drives, £20 for the DVD writer and £120 for Windows. That’s £2000 in all, and if you add in around £600 for the cooling system, chassis and power supply and some cash for the mouse and keyboard then you're still a long way short of the £3624 Alienware is asking for this baby.
The jury is still out on CrossFireX, and on this early showing you’d have to be very brave to sink such a huge pile of cash on the Area 51, despite its good looks.