Review: Alienware X51

The Alienware X51 is a quiet, compact desktop which aims to bring PC gaming to the living room. We put it through the PC World test centre to see how it stands up under pressure, then dropped it into the lounge for some real-world testing.

NameDesktop computer: Alienware X51
At a glance:Small Form Factor,Quad core 3.4GHz Core i7 CPU,GTX 555 GPU, 8GB DDR3 RAM, 1TB HDD,Can’t upgrade to SSD without removing main HDD,Good gaming performance
Summary:A nice machine in a tiny package, let down by a slow hard drive and the limited appeal of having such a small gaming PC.
RRP:$2099 (as reviewed)

Founded in 1996 and purchased by computer giant Dell ten years later, Alienware is probably the most well recognised manufacturer of gaming desktops and laptops in the world.

Back in January this year they announced the launch of the Alienware X51: a quiet, small form factor (SFF) desktop which aimed to bring PC gaming to the living room. Right now this machine is available for purchase in our fair land: we put it through the PC World labs to see whether it proves a worthy addition to Alienware’s stable.

Measuring just 343 x 318 x 95mm, the custom-designed 5.5kg unit certainly fits the SFF label, and looks like some sort of Xbox 360/Playstation3 lovechild (even down to the external power supply). It can be stood up like a regular tower PC case or laid flat on its side – presumably to fit into a home entertainment unit next to your Sky decoder or Blu-ray player.

There are three different base models of X51 to choose from, ranging in price from $1699 to $2099 NZD. The top model – which is the one we received for testing – consists of a 3.4GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core CPU, Nvidia GTX 555 1GB video card, 1TB hard drive, 8GB DDR3 RAM, Blu-ray reader/DVD writer, Wireless-N adaptor, Windows Home Premium 64-bit, and Alienware standard wired keyboard and mouse.

The cheapest model downgrades you to a slower Core i5 CPU, weaker Nvidia GT 545 video card, smaller 4GB of RAM and a non-Blu-ray DVD writer, whilst the $1899 version has the same CPU and video card from the budget model, but the RAM and optical drive of the high end model.

No monitor is shipped with these standard configurations, although you can choose to purchase one along with assorted other peripherals through Dell’s website (or use your own).

When I unboxed the X51 I was slightly disappointed by the fact that the front and side panels are made of plastic. Most gaming consoles are also of plastic construction, but they also only cost around a quarter of the price. It would have been nice to see a higher grade of material being used to increase aesthetic appeal. There are three LEDs on the front and side panels, which can be set to glow any colour of the rainbow (or switched off).

Removing the side panel reveals a highly organised interior where almost every square millimetre is used. Surprisingly the GTX 555 (a slightly cut-down version of the GTX 560, not available for separate retail purchase) is a full-length, double-slot graphics card. Most SFF computers opt for underpowered low profile cards due to height restrictions but Alienware have implemented a right-angled riser slot to connect the GPU to the motherboard so that it runs the length of the case, not perpendicular to it.

Underneath the GPU is a single 1TB 7200RPM hard drive. There is no room for a second hard drive and this is a real shame, because anyone purchasing a “premium” computer these days should rightly expect at least the option to have a high-speed SSD (solid-state drive) installed. The slower spinning-disk mechanical drive will negatively impact your user experience with the X51 if you’re accustomed to using an SSD-based machine.

One strange thing I noticed after booting up the machine was that it didn’t have any drivers installed. Being a review unit I presumed the last person who tested it simply hadn’t restored it back to a factory default installation. After a lot of research, it turns out that the recovery partitions installed on all Dell PCs are unusable on the X51 because it uses the new GPT method of hard drive partitioning.

This makes the recovery partitions a waste of space, and also means it is impossible for the user to restore the machine back to the way it first came out of the factory. You do get a Windows DVD and driver/utility CD in the box, so you can do a basic reinstall however. It’s a real head-scratcher though.

To test out the gaming capabilities of the X51 I played through a few modern games (it’s hard work, but someone has to do it) and ran it through our standard GPU benchmarks to see how well the X51 could cope. I hooked the unit up to my 21.5-inch LG LCD monitor with a resolution of 1920x1080 and used FRAPS to capture average and minimum FPS (frames per second).

DiRT3 ran beautifully at ‘High’ settings with 4xAA (anti-aliasing) enabled, never dipping below 60 FPS. Battlefield 3 was playable at ‘High’ settings but dipped down to an uncomfortably low 30 FPS during hectic battles, so I determined ‘Medium’ to be the optimum settings to keep it ticking above 50 FPS.

Anno 2070, a particularly demanding real-time strategy game, needed to be run at medium settings to stay above 40 FPS, whilst Mass Effect 3 and Portal 2 never dipped below 60 FPS even at their highest settings.

As for the benchmarks, the X51 scored 3421 points in 3DMark11’s Performance test and 26.0 FPS in the Unigine Heaven 2.5 test at 1920x1080 with default settings. For comparison, these results put the graphical prowess of the GTX 555 roughly on par with the AMD Radeon HD 6850.

Considering the physical size of the X51 and its price these are relatively impressive results, which definitely put it in the ‘Gaming PC’ category.

Power usage monitored through a basic Elto Power Meter came out at the following levels:

  • Switched off: 0.9W
  • Sleep mode: 2.2W
  • Desktop idle: 47W
  • Heavy gaming: 151W
  • Maximum CPU + GPU stress-testing: 229W

The unit itself is extremely silent until you fire up a CPU or GPU intensive task which is when the fan speeds start to crank up, but even then it’s relatively quiet.

To see if the X51 really could exist happily in my living area I took it home and connected it to a Panasonic 42-inch Full HD plasma TV in my lounge via HDMI.

The first thing that was immediately apparent is that you need to use a wireless mouse and keyboard in this situation – I didn’t have either on hand so had to resort to having the X51 in the middle of the room with cables draping everywhere.

The second issue I ran into was the inability to read text from normal TV viewing distances. This was somewhat offset by increasing Windows font sizes but this didn’t work for in-game text.

The novelty of playing games on my plasma TV lasted all of 30 minutes, and I believe it was the precise moment that I plugged my Xbox 360 controller into the computer to play DiRT3 that I realised that actually playing the game on an Xbox would be a whole lot simpler.

Digital gaming platform Steamworks have something called “The Big Picture” coming soon which will enable PC games to be run in an easy-to-read and simpler-to-navigate TV-mode.

Until something like this arrives and is successfully implemented, I honestly cannot recommend having a gaming PC in your living room, which largely defeats the purpose of the Alienware X51.

It is a well-designed, well-built, capable machine, but the premium you’re paying to squeeze these high performance parts into such a small form factor has limited payoff.

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Paul Urquhart

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