Alienware Area-51m review

Alienware’s Area-51m is a $4,500 laptop that’s worth every penny

The Alienware Area-51m combines the past and present to cut a bold direction for gaming laptops.
The Alienware Area-51m combines the past and present to cut a bold direction for gaming laptops.
The Alienware Area-51m combines the past and present to cut a bold direction for gaming laptops.

Highs

  • Awesome new design
  • Large, enjoyable keyboard
  • Excellent processor
  • Top-tier gaming performance
  • Most components can be upgraded

Lows

  • Could be easier to upgrade
  • Poor battery life

I knew Aisha Tyler was doing a job when she took the stage as host of Dell’s CES 2019 press conference. I knew to expect the usual mix of awkward dialogue, forced enthusiasm, and a few sincerely good jokes. Yet there was one moment that broke the mundane proceedings with a rush of enthusiasm from everyone present – Tyler, Dell’s Frank Azor, and the entire crowd. The reveal of Alienware’s Area-51m.

The laptop’s hardware, a combination of a Core i9-9900K desktop processor with a full fat Nvidia RTX 2080 video card, is impressive – but that’s not why the Area-51m found itself swimming in positive press. That honor goes to the design. With a white chassis, sci-fi “A51” text, and a sleek Tron-style light loop on the rear, the Area-51m looks straight from a 1980’s sci-fi movie. This is the laptop our heroic gamer would use when she plunges into the virtual world and conquers her enemies in a fantastically rendered version of Pac-Man.

Like nothing else

It’d be a stretch to call the Alienware Area-51m original, but there’s nothing else like it in gaming today. Razer is the only competitor that cares about design. Its laptops, however, are serious pieces of kit, all hard edges and sculpted lines. The sleeker, softer Area-51m contrasts stark white and black panels with truly out-there design elements, like the futuristic font, that make it unique.

The Area-51m looks futuristic, but it has one foot in the past. This is a big, heavy gaming laptop that weighs in at 8.5 pounds and measures up to 1.6 inches thick. The size is a consequence of the hardware, which includes desktop instead of mobile-grade components. While technically a laptop, the Area-51m is really a portable desktop replacement.

There’s competition in this space from companies like Origin, but competing systems from smaller PC builders don’t have a fully custom chassis. The Area-51m’s design is in a class of its own.

While the Area-51m looks futuristic, it has one foot in the past.

While the Area-51M leads the pack in looks, it doesn’t do so at the expensive of practicality. It includes three USB-A 3.0 ports, one USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, HDMI 2.0, mini-DisplayPort 1.4, a headphone jack, a “global headset jack,” a 2.5Gbps Ethernet port, and even an Alienware Graphics Amplifier port in case you’d like to add an external graphics card. That covers the gamut of what a gamer will need.

Oh, and you’ll find not one but two power plugs. The Area-51m comes with a pair of power bricks, the size of which depends on your configuration. Our model came with one rated at 330 watts and a second at 180 watts. The system will power up with just one, but performance will be reduced, and the battery may discharge if both aren’t plugged in. Keep that in mind if you plan to lug this beast around.

A great keyboard and a vestigial touchpad

The Alienware Area-51m has a surprisingly normal keyboard. It spans the full width of the laptop, includes a numpad, and offers chunky square keycaps that don’t look as modern as the laptop that surrounds it.

I can forgive that, however, because the keyboard is outstanding. It offers long key travel, a firm bottoming action, and a spacious layout that should accommodate any gamer. The laptop’s thickness can make using the keyboard feel a bit awkward at times because your hands are far from whatever surface the laptop is sitting on, but the Area-51m’s large palmrest makes this less of an issue. I had no problem typing at high speeds from the moment I booted the system.

alienware area-51m review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

The touchpad is less impressive. It’s similar in size to the touchpad on most modern 13-inch laptops, and while it feels responsive in most situations, it can be clunky when attempting multi-touch gestures. There just isn’t a lot of room to work with. That space is further reduced by the tactile left and right mouse buttons that sit below the touchpad. They’re massive, which makes them easy to find and hit by feel, but slightly smaller buttons might’ve worked better if it meant more room for the touch surface.

The Area-51m doesn’t feel designed with the touchpad as a priority. That makes some sense. Gamers rarely use a touchpad to play games, so it’ll often sit unused. Still, competitors like Razer and even MSI offer much larger touchpads on much smaller systems.

The Core i9-9900K simply vaults the Area-51m into a different league of performance.

Both keyboard and touchpad are lit by a rainbow of per-key RGB LED lighting controlled through Alienware’s custom Alienware Command Center software. Recently refreshed, the software feels roughly on par with Razer’s Chroma software and is a step above the systems used by most competitors, which often fall back on a third-party solution (such as Corsair or Steelseries). It’s easy to change the lighting, save a preset, or link a preset to specific games.

Tobii’s eye-tracking tech comes bundled with the 144Hz display option. You can use it to navigate your desk with only a glance or control special features in select games. We’ve tried Tobii before and enjoyed it, but it’s not something you’re likely to use every day. It’s compatible with a few popular games like The Division 2 and offer a few neat special features. One example? The laptop can automatically dim the display when you look away, then turn it back up to full when you glance back.

Crack it open. Or don’t

Dell’s announcement of the Alienware Area-51m focused on its design, but that was only half the pitch. The other half was upgradability. Modern gaming laptops usually can’t be upgraded beyond adding more RAM or, sometimes, another hard drive.

The Area-51m’s desktop-grade components, however, can be fully replaced – including the processor and GPU. While socket-compatible CPU upgrades should work, GPU upgrades will only be possible by purchasing a special package that will be sold by Dell. Details on what the upgrades will offer, or how much they’ll cost, haven’t been settled. That makes sense because the Area-51m comes with RTX 2060, RTX 2070, and RTX 2080 GPU options – the best you can buy today. There’s no “upgrade” available. Still, gamers buying today must take it on faith that Dell’s future GPU upgrade modules will be sold at reasonable prices and be widely available.

alienware area-51m review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

Frankly, it’s a moot point, because the Area-51m isn’t as upgrade-friendly as headlines might lead you to think. Yes, it’s technically possible to replace all the core components, and Dell does promise to sell a GPU upgrade in the future. Yet upgrading the system requires more confidence and expertise than most gamers, even those familiar with PC hardware, might muster. Getting to the CPU and GPU means disassembling the entire bottom half of the laptop. You’ll have to keep track of multiple screws of different lengths and gingerly remove delicate cables.

The laptop doesn’t feel built to tolerate upgrades, either. The attractive soft-touch plastics that span the top and bottom of the system are easy to scratch, yet the screws that hold the bottom panel on proved fiddly and impossible to fully remove without the help of pliers. The bottom panel itself – which, remember, is easy to scratch – has no lever, divot, or other easy place to grip for removing it once the screws are gone. You’ll have to use a spudger or other specialty tool. Having passed that hurdle, you’ll find a couple cables inside that are held in place by adhesive. I removed them without issue, and they did reattach in place when I reassembled the laptop, but I’m doubtful the adhesive will hold up over time.

In short – don’t buy the Area-51m because you want to upgrade it in the future. Is it possible? Sure. Will you ever actually do it? Probably not.

Lots of display options, and they’re all 1080p

Alienware sells the Area-51m with four display options. The base choice is a 1080p 60Hz IPS display, which can be upgraded with G-Sync compatibility for $50. There’s also a 1080p 144Hz IPS display that, again, can be upgraded to G-Sync for $50. My review unit had the last of these four options.

And that’s it. There’s no 1440p or 4K panel available. I normally have no problem with that because most gaming laptops see best results at 1080p, but the Area-51m is the exception. A 4K option would make sense here. If you want that, you’ll have to turn to a competitor like the Origin EON17-X.

At least it’s a great 1080p screen. It offered excellent contrast in my tests, hitting a ratio of 1040:1. That outpaces the competition and comes close to the best laptop displays I’ve tested, such as that on the Microsoft Surface Book 2. The Area-51m also produces accurate color across a wide gamut.

Brightness is the only downside, as the panel only hit 288 lux in our testing. That’s less than the 300 we prefer to see as a minimum. However, all models of the Area-51M come with an anti-glare screen that negates most of the issue. You won’t be able to use this laptop outdoors on a sunny day but, uh, it has two power adapters and weighs 8.5 pounds. When would you ever do that, anyway?

Personally, I don’t have beef with the Area-51m’s screen. It looked excellent in my time gaming on the laptop. Colors popped in games like Fortnite, yet the panel also had enough contrast to produce depth in more realistic games like Battlefield V. Yet I suspect many gamers will long for a higher-resolution panel. Alienware would be wise to add that as an option.

alienware area-51m review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

What about sound? It’s alright. The Area-51m is loud at maximum volume and produces some bass, which creates a fuller, deeper sound than most laptops. Yet distortion is a serious issue at times. An explosion can cause the speakers to crackle, a problem that becomes more likely as the volume comes closer to its maximum. You can get by without headphones, but most gamers will want to use them.

The Core i9-9900K makes its case

While Alienware Area-51m’s desktop-grade Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU takes the spotlight, the Core i9-9900K processor in my decked-out review unit is also a beast. This is an eight-core, sixteen-thread processor with a 3.6GHz base clock and 5GHz boost clock. Intel’s Core i7-8750H, the mobile six-core found in most gaming laptops, is impressive – but the i9-9900K kicks things up a notch.

The Core i9-9900K simply vaults the Area-51m into a different league of performance. It trounces the Core i7-8750H systems, scoring about 45 percent better in the multi-core Geekbench 4 test, and about 20 percent better in single-core. It also requires less than a minute and a half to transcode a 4K trailer in Handbrake. That test usually takes more than two minutes, even on powerful gaming laptops. In fact, the Area-51M hits performance figures that are just a small step behind leading gaming desktops like the Origin Millennium.

That’s impressive. The Area-51M may be a gaming laptop, but I can see people using its grunt for more serious work. You could use this laptop to grind through 4K video editing, batch edit huge numbers of files, or run professional software like AutoCAD with nary a hitch.

Even Assassin’s Creed Odyssey plays at 73 FPS with every detail turned all the way up.

It’s possible to overclock the processor, but I didn’t see meaningful gains when I put the built-in overclock settings to the test. The Geekbench 4 multi-core and Handbrake benchmarks performed within two percent of their earlier results at “normal” clock speeds. You might be able to eek out better scores if you spent a few hours geeking over the processor clock speed and voltage, but don’t expect too much. Then again, what more do you want? The Area-51m’s processor performance already outclasses what you find in even the best competitors.

The same isn’t true of the hard drive. Our review unit came with two 512GB solid state drives joined together in RAID0 (it also had a 1TB hybrid mechanical drive for added storage). The RAID0 configuration posted respectable read and write speeds of about 1.5 gigabytes per second, but the fastest drive can exceed three gigabytes per second. Frankly, this is of no real consequence for gamers, but you can find better drive performance elsewhere.

Why buy a gaming desktop?

While the Alienware Area-51m’s processor performance is impressive, it’s sort of besides the point. Game performance is far more dependent on the GPU. Here, the Area-51m has a subtle trick up its sleeve. It uses Nvidia’s RTX 2080 instead of the RTX 2080 Max-Q. The Max-Q version, found in most gaming laptops, is built to aggressively scale back its clock speeds depending on thermal conditions. Put simply, it’s not nearly as fast as a “normal” desktop RTX 2080 video card.

In theory, this means the Area-51m will perform much closer to a gaming desktop. Does that prove true? Let’s start with 3DMark.

Now that’s a strong start. The Area-51m scores over 20 percent better than the next-quickest system in 3DMark’s Time Spy test, and it sets a record for a laptop in this benchmark. It’s clear the desktop-derived RTX 2080 has an advantage over Max-Q variants. And that advantage continues to real-world gaming.

Pick your jaw up off the floor. I’ll wait. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.

Yea, so, the Alienware Area-51m obliterates games at 1080p. Fornite at Epic detail runs at an average of 207 frames per second. Civilization VI at ultra? 160 FPS. Battlefield V at ultra? 116 FPS. Even Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey plays at 73 FPS with every detail turned all the way to maximum.

The Area-51m easily clears the 60 FPS hurdle PC gamers prefer. It also stomps the competition, delivering noticeably higher framerates in all titles. The Asus ROG Zephyrus S GX701 can almost keep up in some titles, but in others – like Civilization VI – the Area-51m completely runs away from the pack.

Now, you might be wondering if these results keep up with a true desktop RTX 2080. They do, at least at 1080p resolution. The Area-51m will generally match a desktop system with the same GPU. That’s outstanding.

While the Area-51M maxes out at 1080p, I was curious about its 4K performance, so I connected it to the excellent Acer Predator XB3. The results continued to impress. Battlefield V achieved an average of 55 FPS at maximum detail, Civilization VI averaged 95 FPS, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey averaged 40 FPS. A 60 FPS experience is no longer guaranteed, but you can enjoy games at 30 FPS without sacrificing any detail – or you can push settings down a notch and play at 60 FPS.

You just can’t argue this laptop’s gaming credentials.

Can you really call this a laptop?

That performance has its price, however. In this case, a big gain in performance translates to a big compromise on portability.

The Alienware Area-51m weighs 8.5 pounds, which is hefty enough on its own. Yet that’s only half the story. Remember, it requires two power adapters to perform its best. They’re big, heavy units that together weigh as much, and take up as much space, as a laptop.

You’ll need them, too, because the Area-51m doesn’t last long on a charge. Its 90 watt-hour battery is large, but it’s powering desktop components that suck substantially more juice than mobile hardware. The G-Sync panel doesn’t help either.

At best, we saw barely more than two hours of life in the video loop test, which is our least demanding. Our most demanding test, the Basemark browser benchmark, sucked down 90 watt-hours in about 80 minutes. That’s not even an hour and a half!

Surprisingly, this isn’t the worst result we’ve witnessed recently. The Asus ROG Zephyrus S GX701 did worse, hitting only one hour of life in Basemark and less than two hours in the video loop. Yet there’s also gaming laptops that score much better. The Razer Blade (2019) is a prime example. It scored almost two hours and Basemark and lasted a perfectly usable six hours in our video loop test.

alienware area-51m review
Riley Young/Digital Trends

It’s clear that you can’t use the Area-51m like most other laptops. It’s not even slightly portable. You might want to lug it occasionally from one desk to another, but it’s meant to spend most of its life in one place.

Enter the Command Center

Gaming laptops often bundle in software to control special features, like the keyboard backlight, but Alienware’s Area-51m goes the extra mile. It uses the Alienware Command Center, a software interface that controls backlighting, fan speed, and overclocking, and ties those features to specific games (if you’d like).

Command Center put me off at first. Though slick, it looks like yet another launcher – and gamers have had enough of that. After a few minutes browsing it, though, I realized that while Command Center can act like a launcher, it doesn’t have to be used that way. The settings selected for specific games will be enabled no matter how you launch them.

The settings are handy, as well. Fan noise is readily noticeable when the Area-51M is at full throttle. It’s an unavoidable annoyance that no gaming laptop avoids. Command Center can make life a little more silent, however, if you take time to associate a quiet profile with games that don’t demand performance. You need the fans to do work when playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but they can relax a when you load Rocket League.

You can also tie specific macro key and lighting schemes to games which, if you want to nerd out about it, can be great fun. You might choose to only light the WASD keys when playing a first-person shooter or light the row of number keys when playing an MMORPG.

I usually find bundled software easier to ignore than to use, but Alienware’s new Command Center is an exception. It’s simple and unlocked some nice perks once I took a few minutes to poke around in it.

Our Take

Alienware’s Area-51m is a beast, but its performance justifies both its lack of portability and its high price tag. Starting at $2,000, and coming in at $4,500 as-tested, this is not an affordable system. Yet it doesn’t feel like a bad value given its performance and quality. You could spend just as much on a gaming desktop and end up with a system that’s not much quicker than this Alienware.

Is there a better alternative?

A handful of other companies offer laptops with desktop grade components. Origin’s EON17-X is the most well-known among them. It can be had with a 4K display and custom paint options. We haven’t reviewed it yet.

Less expensive gaming laptops based on mobile hardware are more affordable and more portable. The MSI GS75 Stealth and Asus ROG Zephyrus S are good examples. You’ll spend about $1,000 to $1,500 less for a top-tier trim, but neither of these laptops can keep up with the Area-51m.

Razer’s Blade is still Digital Trends’ favorite gaming laptop because it combines strong performance with a practical size and decent battery life. However, there’s no denying the Area-51m easily beats the Razer in benchmarks.

How long will it last?

The Alienware Area-51m is easier to upgrade than most laptops. I don’t think many people will end up upgrading the CPU or GPU, but the hard drives and RAM are easy to swap out as well. The Area-51m is so quick that it’ll likely still be of some use a decade from now, though perhaps not as a gaming rig.

A one-year warranty with in-home service (after remote diagnosis) is standard. The in-home service option is an awesome benefit, but we’d like to see a longer warranty considering this laptop’s price. Adding a warranty can be expensive, as well – a 3 year “premium support” warranty tacks on $430 dollars.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you don’t mind a laptop this large. The Area-51m won’t be practical for on-the-go gamers, but it’s an excellent choice if battery life is not high on your list of priorities.

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