Alienware X51 Desktop Puts Big Things Into a Small Package

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Starting at $699, the Alienware X51 breaks into decidedly new territory for a company that has made its name slapping neon lights onto desktops built like battleships. Announced at a launch party in San Francisco last night, the X51 is Alienware’s attempt at making a simple gaming PC, without shutting out those of us who aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty.

PCs are decidedly different from consoles, and Alienware gets that. They’re also aware of where the market is headed: simplicity is king, and beefy machines with sliding vents and collapsing faceplates like the Alienware Aurora are becoming an increasingly hard sell.

Alienware X51, in the wild
The X51 stands out. It’s small -- just over a foot tall and long, and three inches wide. It looks deceptively like an Xbox 360, and can operating standing up or lying flat on its side -- the alien head badge can be turned to the proper orientation, if you mind those sorts of details. This PC is equally at home under a desk or in an entertainment center, as Alienware took pains to show me last night with the machine arrayed in a number of booths.

But a PC’s capabilities are determined exclusively by their hardware; slim and sleek is largely irrelevant if your desktop struggles on most tasks, as the nettops in the oft-neglected Compact PC category can attest to.

To that end, the X51 offers the Core i3, i5, and i7 variants of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors, up to 8GB of RAM, and Nvidia GeForce GT 545 or 555 graphics card, and 1TB of hard drive space. The slot-loading DVD-burner can be upgraded to a Blu-Ray drive, but 802.11n WiFi is built in to all models. All told, there’s not much in the way of options. And that’s absolutely fine: if you’re looking for an easy entry into the PC gaming space, the Alienware X51 works out to be a great deal.

There are the requisite Alienware perks. If you like lights -- and I love lights -- the X51 lets you have at it, with a mind-boggling array of color options spread across the machines lighting zones, on the sides and face. Flashing lights, slow pulses, swapping between colors -- standard fare from the company, but a neat option.

New to the mix is Alienware’s AlienAdrenaline app. This allows for custom profiles that trigger actions when you activate a shortcut. Say I wanted to settle in for a few hours with Star Wars: The Old Republic. Once I’ve configured the app, a single click will start up the game, set the X51’s chassis to glow a soothing Imperial Red, fire up my media player and set the Imperial Death March to loop ad nauseum, and point my browser to relevant Wookipedia entries. Again, not a revolutionary development. But it’s something a lot of gamers will find a lot of value in, and easily ignored if you’d rather not.

But there’s something far more important at work here, and that’s upgradeability.

Inside the Alienware X51

One screw keeps the X51 chassis’ side wall secured. Removing another pair of screws gets you access to everything else. It’s a tight fit, naturally. The mini-ITX motherboard only offers a pair of DIMM slots, so you won’t have much room to maneuver with RAM (or even space for some of the taller RAM sticks on the market). And the power brick can’t take much, so I was told you’d be limited to 150W graphics cards.

Yes, you can do better by building your own PC, or simply buying a larger machine. But the slim form factor is the entire point of the X51; if you need more space, or a pair of cards in SLI, or want to overclock, you’re likely already looking elsewhere.

If you like the flexibility that the (relatively) tiny chassis offers and aren’t afraid to muck around inside the case, this gaming PC could actually work out to be a smart investment. Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors are arriving this year, and they’re promising drop-in support with existing Sandy Bridge motherboards. Graphics cards are getting more energy efficient every year, hard drives prices will get back to normal somedayand prices on solid state drives continue to fall. If the build quality of the chassis is up to snuff (that remains to be seen), the X51 could easily become the miserly serial upgrader’s best friend.

I see plenty of overclocked, liquid-cooled behemoths ever year, as they make up the bulk of PCWorld’s performance desktop category. And they’re great, in much the same way that Formula 1 race cars and solid-gold yachts are great: someone, somewhere, is having a lot of fun with these things. But I couldn’t ever bring myself to spend nearly ten thousand dollars (or even half that much) to play the First Person Shooter du Jour, even if it it’s all rather pretty.

That’s why that $699 starting price tag is so alluring. It’s a sensible stab at the oft-repeated fallacy that PC gaming is too expensive, and a nod to the console gaming masses. The X51 plays games, but does so much more, at a very fair price.

I’m not entirely sold that this will replace your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 in the living room. But it’s a perfect fit for that perennially cash-strapped college student who needs to make an especially convincing argument. Sure, it’s a gaming PC. But it’s a capable machine, and it leaves enough room in the budget for a lightweight, inexpensive laptop (or tablet). The easy upgradeability is just icing on the cake.

The Alienware X51 has yet to arrive in the PCWorld Lab for testing, so we haven’t had a chance to put a model through its paces. But I’m looking forward to seeing this thing in action -- stay tuned for our full review.

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