Alienware Area-51 X58
“If you have the cash, Alienware's X58 is an ideal way to translate money into computing power...”
- no compromises computing power; unique
- stylish case; reliable and easy to set up
- Price rivals a used car; pumps out heat; some cheap-feeling case parts; chintzy mouse and keyboard
With Intel’s new Core i7 processors and Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 295 cards drawing rave reviews from performance enthusiasts, it only makes sense that one system combining both would be among the best available. And Alienware’s X58 meets that expectation. The $5,200 gaming machine that recently arrived on our doorstep proves that proven components and attentive design produce a machine that’s nearly unstoppable. But is it worth it for the price tag?
Features and Design
Your UPS guy will hate you for ordering the X58. Or at least for making him carry it. This particular case goes down in DT record books as one of the heaviest we’ve ever tested. After letting our arms grow lethargic from toting around the latest crop of netbooks and other featherweights all day, the X58 felt like it was loaded with lead ingots. That’s hardly a legitimate complaint for a desktop, but we did bemoan the lack of any convenient handholds on the slippery chassis.
The styling of Alienware’s classic case seems appropriate for the weight. It’s somewhere between a Cadillac, circa 1953, and an alien spacecraft unearthed in the Mojave about the same time. In either case, it belongs in a wind tunnel. Two grilles begin low on the front and sweep rearward across the sides, and the top of the case has a rounded look that calls to mind the hood of a car more than your traditional desktop case. Ours came in a glossy black finish with blue backlights behind that front grille that proved to be pleasantly low key – perhaps too subtle for gamers who are looking to truly own a spectacle.
As the weight would suggest, the X58 chassis certainly gives off an air of solidity, but certain details detract from that impression. Most notably, the front door on the case, which swings away to reveal the optical drive, feels too cheap for the rest of the body. Its hinges make a crackling plastic noise as it opens, and we got the feeling that one good bump from the wrong angle would set it permanently off kilter.
Our Area-51 X58 came equipped with even better hardware than Alienware’s flagship ALX X58, which means it pretty much received the best of everything available right now. At the heart is Intel’s potent i7 Extreme 3.2GHz processor, which offers up to eight virtual cores through Hyper Threading, a recently revived technology that benefits multitasking. There’s also 12GB of ultra-quick 1066MHz DDR3 RAM, the maximum currently available in this configuration. That’s backed up by two of Nvidia’s flagship GeForce GTX 295 boards, plus dual 1TB SATA drives configured in a RAID 0 array to offer a combined 2TB of storage.
Unlike some custom builders that seem to cram extras randomly into every nook and cranny of a shipping carton not occupied by the computer itself, Alienware neatly organizes all the goodies into a flat-packed box that slides out easily and keeps everything organized. Inside, you’ll find wired Logitech keyboard and mouse, an Alienware-branded mouse pad, two DVI to VGA adapters, and a reload CD. More tellingly, there’s also a black Alienware baseball hat and a leather-bound manual that rivals what you might expect to get with a Lexus or BMW.
Though these two little extras definitely help build Alienware’s reputation as a premium builder, we would have rather seen the expense go into a better mouse and keyboard set up. The Logitech-branded accessories feel more like something you would find in a school computer lab than attached to a $5,000 gaming computer.
Press the (questionably tasteful) blue alien head on the front of the case, and the X58 stirs to life in 1 minute and 20 seconds. That’s reasonable for a gaming PC, and fortunate, because with the rate this thing gulps down electricity when it’s running, you’ll certainly be tempted to turn it off, or at least put it into hibernation, when you’re done fragging.
Speaking of which, while the X58 isn’t as egregiously noisy as some homebuilt rigs, it’s definitely a space heater. After leaving it on overnight in a closed office, we returned to a sauna the next day generated by an idling X58. And though we didn’t do any specific watt-consumption benchmarks, you had better believe that 1200-watt power supply will show up on the next electricity bill.
But when it comes time to crunch the numbers and fire up games, the X58 justifies its gluttonous electricity use over and over. Simply put, we’ve never tested a more capable gaming machine.
The polygon-pushing power of this system first shined through in MotoGP 08, where the fast-paced racing action that caused even HP’s venerable Firebird to chug and stutter didn’t seem the faze the X58 at all. Not only did it run at full 1080p resolution with flawless, arcade-like smoothness, it never flinched when we turned on 2X anti-aliasing, or later 4X anti aliasing, which brought every game option to maximum. Even with the X58 delivering graphics barely discernable from real life at first glance, it never once dropped below 60 frames per second.
Exploring the rich utopian environments of Crysis turned in similar results. Our initial configuration of 1080p screen resolution and every setting on high returned flawless frame rates which barely ever dropped below 90 fps. The “very high” settings, which seemed back in 2007 to exist only for the purpose of crushing systems, made no perceivable dent in performance. Turning on 2X anti aliasing also allowed us to get frame rates consistently over 60 fps, translating to beautiful, perfectly smooth game play. Only when we turned ant aliasing to 4X and 8X did we see performance start to droop, and even then, the system returned admirable results.
To get some handle on this almost-omnipotent system, we benchmarked it with 3DMark06. It returned an excellent score of 19,445 3DMarks. That’s among the highest we’ve ever seen in the office, if not quite what we expected after first witnessing its unstoppable gamer performance. But more than we value a monster benchmark result, we believe the real-life gaming abilities this particular Alienware showed off makes it the most competent gaming PC we’ve ever tested.
Ports and Connectors
If you can’t hook a peripheral up the X58, good luck finding a system that can use it. The list of inputs and outputs on the system looks like a encyclopedia of different formats. The front alone offers two USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, as well as a FireWire connector. On the rear, you’ll find another six USB ports, another FireWire jack, a legacy mouse and keyboard connector, analog RCA video out jack, eSATA, digital optical audio out, 7.1 surround jacks, and two gigabit Ethernet jacks.
The dual GTX 295 cards offer a total of four DVI ports and two HDMI ports, for the possibility of connecting up to four different displays. However, the limitations on how Nvidia’s software control panel allows these to be used are somewhat strange. We weren’t able to enable a single HDMI for our gaming monitor without turning off SLI, which cripples the machine’s fabled gaming performance. We found a way around it using the included adapters to connect via VGA instead, but still feel connecting one monitor via HDMI should be possible without that sacrifice.
Alienware doesn’t include much of anything on the default Windows Vista 64-bit installation that comes preloaded on this computer. Which, as far as most gamers are concerned, is a really good thing. Besides a handful of programs for the included hardware (like control panels for sound and graphics), the only trace of a third-party program we could find was a copy of Nero 7 Essentials. We definitely would have appreciated optional install discs for some games, though, perhaps along the lines of what AVA Direct provides.
If you’ve ever dreamed of throwing practicality into the wind, cranking every game to maximum settings, and enjoying them as they were meant to be played – with maximum detail in every little leaf, perfectly smoothed edges, and water that looks closer to real life than you ever dreamed possible – this is the system to do it with. We’ve never been as confident loading up all the blockbusters as we have with the X58, which took every one in stride and will, doubtless, for years to come.
That said, $5,200 is quite a chunk of change no matter how you cut it. But the system starts at $1,649, and many of the options found on ours could easily be stripped off to pare down that intimidating figure without affecting performance by too much. (Stepping down from a 3.2GHz processor to a 2.66GHz processor, for instance, will save you $1,000.) The company’s prices also reasonably reflect the market price for parts, and the top-notch presentation of its products and out-of-the-box performance help justify any premium.
If you have the cash, Alienware’s X58 is an ideal way to translate that money into computing power for gamers who don’t have the know-how or patience to build their own.
- Unstoppable, no compromises computing power
- Unique, stylish case
- Reliable and easy to set up
- Price rivals a used car
- Pumps out heat
- Some cheap-feeling case parts
- Chintzy mouse and keyboard
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