capsule review

Alienware Area-51m 7700

At a Glance
  • Alienware Area 51-M 7700

    PCWorld Rating

Alienware Area-51m 7700
Artwork: Rick Rizner, John Goddard

If not quite extraterrestrial, the Alienware Area-51m 7700 is unique among multimedia laptops. Some notebooks offer better entertainment chops, such as models in Toshiba's Satellite and HP's Pavilion lines, but no multimedia laptops I know of flex as much desktop replacement muscle as the 7700. Alienware just needs to apply the finishing touches.

The early shipping model I reviewed packed enough attractions to send most entertainment laptop-loving earthlings into orbit: a 17-inch 1600 by 1050 wide screen, a Webcam, and four stereo speakers plus subwoofer, among other serious equipment. Conspicuously missing from the unit I looked at, however, were the Windows Media Center Edition operating system and a TV tuner, features that Alienware now offers in 51m 7700 models.

The 7700 is not your average desktop replacement, and not just because there's an alien face embossed on the lid. First, its 2.3-inch-tall case allows it to expand faster than the universe, with options for dual-RAID-capable hard drives providing up to 200GB of storage, two integrated optical drives and 2GB of RAM divided into four user-accessible memory slots. (My $3214 review laptop came with 120GB of storage and one fixed multiformat DVD burner with case space below for adding a second optical drive.)

The 7700 has a seven-in-one card reader, accommodating almost every type of flash memory card.

All the connections you'll need to attach almost every kind of peripheral are present on the 7700, including two FireWire ports, a DVI port for digital monitors, both S-Video-out and S-Video-in ports, an S/PDIF port, a cable connection, and four USB 2.0 ports. Serial and parallel ports, a PS/2 port, and an add-on USB floppy drive give older peripherals a place to dock. There is no built-in VGA connection, but the box includes a short DVI-to-VGA adapter cable.

It takes both hands to slide the 7700's two lid releases and lift the 17-inch screen, a sturdy panel that measures more than half an inch thick. The refreshingly uncluttered desktop sports a single icon--My Alienware PC Information--and elements on the bright screen are easy to read.

The full-size keyboard with separate numerical keypad offers springy, pleasantly muffled typing. The fine layout features <Delete> and <Ctrl> keys in the prime upper-left and lower-right corner locations. On the main keyboard, the <Page Up> and <Page Down> keys require bothersome combination keystrokes using the <Fn> key because they overlie the arrow keys; but not to worry--the dedicated <Page Up> and <Page Down> keys in the keypad are within easy reach. A rectangular touchpad with a dedicated vertical scroll zone and two large mouse buttons take care of the pointing and clicking chores. Topping it all off is a blue-ringed power button and two rows of easy-to-spot status LEDs, including separately grouped power and Wi-Fi lights.

The 7700 also functions as an excellent stand-alone CD player. The unit's four speakers--twice as many as most laptops offer, with two on the front and another set flanking the keyboard, plus subwoofer--produced loud, clear sound with plenty of bass when I used the dedicated CD controls on the front of the case. A separate power button and two color track LCDs make it a snap to enjoy music without booting Windows. The controls even include a shuffle button, an unusual extra. Unfortunately, the great sound disappeared down a black hole when I tried watching a DVD movie. While the picture looked fine, the speaker volume dropped to less than half of that produced for music CDs, despite my exhaustive rechecking of all the volume sliders. You also have to turn on the notebook to watch DVDs; it would have been nice if Alienware had included a Window-less DVD application, too, to make the 7700 a complete stand-alone entertainment unit.

The 7700's Webcam, embedded in the usual spot in the top of the screen frame, is difficult to use. Like most built-in Webcams, it lacks such niceties as a swivel lens and a shutter button. The clunky drop-down menus in BisonCam, the Webcam software, can't compete with those in the apps of other notebooks, such as Asus's user-friendly LifeFrame application. For instance, to take still photos you have to launch a separate instance of BisonCam as a USB device in My Computer. You also have to enable audio through the Control Panel. Image quality is the BisonCam's strength: It produced much smoother, crisper video than the Asus W5A, which turned out slightly jerky clips despite its elegant software. A good printed manual and a fairly nice nylon carrying bag round out the 7700's more earthbound delights.

What about performance? The 7700 is a fast, powerful machine that should be capable of handling your every processing need; our review unit came with the new top-of-the-line 3.6-GHz Pentium 4 560J desktop chip and 1GB of RAM. The 7700's WorldBench 5 score of 90 is among the highest scores we've recorded for a laptop. A host of other laptops have earned slightly higher scores, including a Polywell PolyNote 3015AW that topped all others with a score of 98, helped by the same amount of RAM as the 7700 but using an older 2-GHz/600-MHz Pentium M processor.

In the world of portables, there's nothing alien about a big laptop with bad power management, sad to say. However, the 12.4-pound (not counting the 2.4-pound power adapter) 7700 suffers from particularly dismal battery life--just 1.1 hours in our tests, while the average laptop endures for 3.5 hours on one charge.

But on the whole, the 7700 is one impressive piece of hardware. It didn't fire all of our rockets, but desktop replacement shoppers with an otherworldly sense of humor should take a close look.

The pricey 51m 7700 is a highly expandable desktop replacement, with some nice entertainment options.

Carla Thornton

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Heavy laptop has a built-in camera, optional dual RAID hard drives and built-in cable TV connection.

    Pros

    • Offers optional dual RAID hard drives

    Cons

    • Pricey, big and heavy
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