Alienware Aurora: Style Trumps Substance
At a Glance
If you're willing to pay for the privilege of owning a stylish gaming machine and want to avoid the hassle of building your own, the Alienware Aurora ($2600, as of 7/8/2011) is a solid choice. Those seeking the best price-to-performance ratio should probably look elsewhere.
The Aurora's svelte stealth black case showcases Alienware's penchant for flashy product design. Smooth corners, shiny exhaust ports, and a suite of customizable LED panels are clearly meant to make the Aurora look cool, and for better or worse it works: Despite the comparatively weak components loaded into our review unit, I couldn't help feeling I was booting up a Performance Desktop every time I punched the power button. (Be sure to check out our video review!)
Our Aurora review unit includes components that seem somewhat anemic compared to the top models in our performance PC category, but that's to be expected when competing against expensive full-size units like the Origin Genesis. Yet with a score of 170 in our Worldbench 6 suite of performance benchmarks the Aurora still falters when competing against similarly priced performance PCs like the V3 Convoy, which earned a score of 204 in the same test suite.
The problem is in the Aurora's parts -- and it's a problem that Alienware is happy to address if you're willing to pay the price. Aurora desktops are fully customizable, and can range from $1200 to as much as $5000 depending on the components you choose. In this case, $2600 gets you a 3.4GHz Core i7-2600 Sandy Bridge CPU, which can automatically overclock up to 3.8GHz thanks to Intel's Turbo Boost technology. It's possible to purchase an Aurora with an unlocked Intel "K" Series processor, if you'd like to perform your own overclock (the V3 Convoy packs the same processor overclocked to 5GHz). Our review unit packs a paltry 4GB of DDR3 RAM, though there's room on the MicroATX motherboard for up to 16GB if you're willing to pay for the upgrade. The 2TB hard drive is perfectly serviceable for storage purposes, but we've grown accustomed to seeing speedy solid-state drives at this price.
Of course, the real stars of the show are the dual AMD Radeon HD 6950 graphics cards running in Crossfire that are sandwiched into the case next to an 875W power supply. Alienware has gone the extra mile to fit two full-size graphics cards into a compact midsize tower, and despite the paucity of available RAM, our review unit was capable of consistently delivering 183 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 at 2560 by 1600 pixels with maxed-out settings. That's a respectable performance, but once again it pales when compared with category leaders like the V3 Convoy, which cranked out 224.8 frames per second in the same tests. The difference in is due chiefly to the Convoy's excellent overclock, so performance junkies should seriously consider upgrading to an unlocked Sandy Bridge CPU.
To lay hands on any of the components in this machine, you'll need to do some digging, as the Aurora's compact interior is compartmentalized with plastic enclosures that snap into place to keep everything secure. It's a nice touch that keeps the case organized and prevents components from rattling about during transport, but the added plastic clutters up the Aurora's cramped interior and makes it difficult to swap out components. Thankfully, Alienware's liquid-cooling system ensures that CPU cooling isn't an issue.
The top and rear of the case sport excellent cooling vents, and a plethora of ports ensure that you have no dearth of options when it comes to connectivity. The rear includes both optical and coaxial S/PDIF connectors, seven USB ports, a combo USB 2.0/eSATA jack, and a USB 3.0 port nestled beneath a six-pin FireWire jack. A sliding panel atop the case conceals two more USB ports and a USB 3.0 port, as well as a headphone and microphone jack recessed beneath the power button. Punching the glowing Alienware logo on the front drops another sliding panel to reveal a Blu-Ray/DVD combo drive, a spare optical drive bay, and a four-in-one media card reader.
Our Aurora review unit also arrived with an Alienware TactX keyboard and mouse, a matching pair of peripherals that will cost you an extra $150. Both keyboard and mouse sport customizable LED lighting that matches the programmable AlienFX case lights adorning the Aurora. After some heavy use, it's clear that the TactX mouse is accurate and comfortable enough to be worth the price, but typing on the matching keyboard feels mushy and unsatisfying. The keys have almost no travel, but there are a lot of them to mash on; the TactX peripherals are designed for PC gaming, so the keyboard includes four sets of swappable, programmable hotkeys while the mouse can switch between different control profiles with the flick of a switch. They're a serviceable pair of devices that look great on your desk, much like the Aurora itself.
After spending a good amount of time working out with the Aurora, I can't really recommend this machine to serious performance enthusiasts, but anyone willing to pay a premium price for serviceable parts in a stylish case will be satisfied. The engineers at Alienware consistently excel when it comes to product design, but you'll have to decide if the extra polish is worth the price.