Alienware Area-51 5500 review

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We’ve seen a host of prestigious PCs this month, from the outrageously overclocked Gladiator to the more reasonably specified but powerful Mesh. Alienware was one of the first to seek out this high-end, not-just-a-PC market, and has been pushing the boundaries ever since. The case usually hides a selection of the best parts money can buy; Alienware systems tend to be ostentatious, gloriously over the top and proud of it.

Alienware Area-51 5500 review

At first glance, the Area-51 5500 is clearly still from the same stable: the internals are tidy, there’s sound-proof cladding and a host of high-end components provide plenty of power for every possible use. But the Area-51’s case is disappointing.

The front door isn’t particularly easy to open, lacking a proper catch. Once open, it feels flimsy, with the two hinges rattling and easily moving out of alignment. Fortunately, the door itself swings round 270 degrees and can be locked to the side of the case – we found it easier to keep it there rather than fiddle about every time we inserted a CD.

Internally, it’s a lot more practical. The large grille in the front houses a slow-spinning 120mm fan, keeping the 306GB-worth of striped RAID hard disks cool, and a rear 120mm fan exhausts hot air with similar politeness. The disks themselves are mounted on sturdy rubber grommets to further reduce vibration noise, and it all adds up to a reasonably quiet-running system, with its low hum far more tolerable than Evesham’s boisterous Axis Decimator 78.

There’s plenty of room inside, with the tidy cabling a help for both airflow and any future upgrades. Removing the disk caddy isn’t much bother: the entire fascia pops off with the use of two plastic levers. Four thumbscrews hold the fan and caddy in place and it all slides out of the front. The 1GB of fast-running PC5400 RAM (667MHz) from Crucial still leaves two slots free too. There’s also a single PCI Express 1x slot, three standard PCI and a PCI Express 4x slot – the last of these holds potential for future high-bandwidth devices such as HDTV tuners.

Backing up the striped hard disk array and 667MHz RAM is the new dual-core Pentium Extreme Edition 840 processor and a motherboard based on Intel’s 955X chipset. Both cores have Hyper-Threading for four simultaneous processing threads – this is notable, as it’s the only real difference between the Pentium EE and the Pentium D. Running at 3.2GHz, it managed a respectable 2.03 in our real-world benchmarks. We were eager to see how much difference four processing threads would make to our 3ds max rendering test, but were slightly disappointed by the results. A score of one minute, 15 seconds is swift, but only three seconds faster than a dual-threaded AMD 4800+ in our standard test rig. And that CPU scored 2.65 in our application benchmarks with a single Western Digital Raptor rather than RAID0 disks. Still, if you do significant amounts of encoding or rendering, the extra parallelism will be welcome.

Alienware’s forte has always been gaming, and on the 3D side there’s an ATi Radeon X850 XT PE fitted into the PCI Express 16x slot. It powered all our game benchmarks to well over playable frame rates at 1,280 x 1,024. With 4x AA and 8x AF, only Doom 3 ran at less than 50fps, and even then only by 2fps. Going more extreme, we saw above 50fps in both Far Cry and Half-Life 2 at 1,600 x 1,200 with the same quality settings, and Doom 3 was still playable at 36fps.

We can’t yet conclude how the X850 XT PE will deal with the next generation of games, though – our most demanding test uses Far Cry’s beta High Dynamic Range (HDR) rendering mode, which requires the 36-bit precision currently found in only nVidia’s GeForce 6 Series GPUs and above. This winter’s games will be playable – the X850 XT PE has enough raw power to cope – but they’re unlikely to look as pretty as if you were using the GeForce 7800 GTX. And you can get this next-generation card in cheaper systems, such as the Mesh Matrix Titan. It beats the X850 XT PE in every test and is capable of running Far Cry in HDR mode at high resolutions and high frame rates.

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