review – Alienware 51-7500

review Alienware Area 51-7500:

i’ve spent about half an year thinking if i should go for a new pc rig or if i focus myself on consoles. but still fascinated by S.T.A.L.K.E.R, GTR2, Quake 3/4 and ETQW i gave myself a bump and went for a new pc. i mean, the performance of my VAIO notebook (2 GHz, Intel single core, ATI x800 card, 2GB) isn’t that bad but compared to screenshots of above mentioned games, found on different forums, i was always a little bit disappointed. so i started to look around for complete rigs, components and tests. it took less than a week and i was completly lost. i haven’t spent any time into pc stuff for about 5 years now and so i was (and still be) far away from being up-to-date. in the past, i always tend to go for some known brand and i don’t mind to spend a few euros/dollars more to get something which works out of the box. i know, a well known brand is not a guarantee for a running system but my experience isn’t that bad either and spending endless hours to find something which is maybe a handfull of money cheaper does not provide a reasonable pay-off for me because my spare time is limited as well. this doesn’t mean that going for a self-build system is the wrong way, this is up to you.
my goal was to get a system which is a mixture of top-notch and affordable. so i was forced to spent some time to ‚compile‘ the system to my needs. after some searches on the internet i found that Alienware offers what i was looking for. Good base system with a great variety of options. i know that Alienware is a more than well known brand in the gaming scene and the majority of usage for my system is gaming. my budget was not really limited but my personal goal was to stay around the 1200-1400 euro range. finally, i went for this configuration:

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 – 3,16 GHz 1333 MHz FSB, 6 MB Cache
Motherboard: NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI
Graficprocessor: 512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT
Memory: DDR2 SDRAM, 800 MHz – 2 GB – 2 x 1024 MB
Harddisc: 250 GB Serial ATA 3 Gbit/s, 7.200 rpm, 16 MB Cache
Optical: 20x Dual Layer DVD+/-RW / 20x CD-RW
Sound: on-board Intel High Definition Audio, 7.1 Surround Sound, S/PDIF-Koaxial digital output
Power: 750 W power supply for multi GPU
OS: Windows Vista Home Premium
Case: Alienware P2-case – Cyborg Green

the quad core cpu and the dual gpu setup was too expensive for my usage (most of the games i’m playing support neither more than one core nor sli graphics) so i went for the 512 mb graphic card instead of the 2×256 sli version and i took the fastest dual core cpu available. the memory is upgradeable to 4 gb (2 banks left) and the gpu can be upgraded by a second one as well if necessary. hard disc isn’t important, i’ve got an external harddisc which stores my stuff.
additional, attracted by the nice demo on the page, i went for the ‚Alienware AlienIce 3.0 Video Cooling + AlienFX system lighting for Windows Vista‘ this provides the option to change and to animate the lighting of the case (the alien skulls, front bay lights and inner lighting) basically, this is a nice feature and i really like such stuff, so i thought, ok, that’s maybe worth the additional money. the possibilities to use the lights start with color, brightness, animation and goes up to change those settings depending on events or applications. unfortunately, the lights are quite flat, means, not very bright and the color fade is not as smooth as you may expect this from a true rgb light. i haven’t spent too much time on this, so maybe i will find the beauty later but at the moment, this feature is not worth the 80€ they charge you for it, even if you count in this additional fan in the side panel to aspirate you graphic card(s). in terms of performance, this money can spend to more usefull things maybe.

nethertheless, back to the main system.
the box in which the system is shipped as to be called huge by no doubt. and with huge, i mean huge. it’s shaped like a half dishwasher and it is about half as heavy as the mentioned kitchen tool. so i lifted up this monster box into my van and started to think about how to unbox this space killer in my 28 square meter flat in which i stay over the week for the job. the best solution was to take out the things i need and to transport the stuff unboxed into the room. after documenting the damage to the package (the postal service didn’t care about that very much) i opened the box, took of the small pieces out of a smaller box and then i removed this smaller box. i was quite shocked. the overall weight of the box was foreshadowing what i should expect but what i found exceeded my imagination by worlds. the rig is soo huge that i was really doubting that this is what i have ordered. i mean, carrying a 17 inch laptop has already shifted my point of view regarding size of computers and within my collection of classical systems, there are some rockies as well but that a modern system is consuming so much space was really beyond my horizon. the next step was to  haul this chunk of metal and semiconductors up to the 4th story (3rd in Germany). i’m really not a couch potato and i’m comfortable to climb up stairs or mountains but to trug this system up wasn’t a pleasure. covered with sweat, avoiding the two dogs between my feed, stumbeling into my flat, i was searching for a place to store this furniture temporally. the place i’ve planned was laughing at me, no way to fit this creature in. fortunately, my wife got stressed by the tightness of the flat as well and started to move things around. so i was able to place the pc close to my desk and i started to connect this million of cables to it. power, network, keyboard, mouse, monitor and sound system, what a pleasure to throw in a laptop into its docking station 😉 since the package was quite damaged, i found myself opening the housing to have a look inside if everything is where it should be. this test offered a nice overview of the construction of the system. very sorted, well designed and very well cooled by some huge fans and cooling ‚towers‘.
turning on the tv (which i use as a monitor) and then pressing the front alien to switch the system on was the following step. a short and impressive gasp of the fans, a flash of the aliens and the system has became alive. the next hour was a huge disappointment. it was kind of a never ending set-up, update, reboot session. the AlienFX system lighting wasn’t working, the settings communicated while ordering weren’t set and to make things worse, there was a microsoft patch day one day before. but that’s the dark side of using a pc. finally, i came to a state where i was
able to ‚use‘ the system the very first time. i was really keen to see something and without hassling with installation of my games including updates i thought it would be nice to have a look on the crysis demo.

the installation of this 1.7 gig file was pretty fast and after a few minutes i started up the game. due to my inpatience, i skipped the intro videos and went straight to the settings menu. hidding the ‚optimal settings‘ button and waiting for the messages to be appear was an action of a second. a red message box appeared and i thought, ups, what’s that? but then i realized the content of the message – games settings has been set to high spec. crysis on max settings? i wasn’t really sure if this is believable and so i started the single player game. the intro wasn’t really fluid, even if it was a little bit hard to spot what was causing this hardware demand. after reaching the beach, the game became much more responsive but kept minor stuttering more or less frequent. i started to roam around a little bit and overall, it was an impressive experience, i have never seen such graphics on one of my systems. after tweaking the graphic settings a little bit (i’ve reduced settings for texture quality and tested the volumetric quality) the game became much more smooth without loosing too much of it’s quality at 1280×768. i was kind of satisfied and went on to the next game because neither far-cry nor crysis can catch my attention for hours, i’m really kind of bored by the concept and the story.

the game i’ve had bought this system for – S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the installation was quite quick as well, the dvd drive and the harddisc are really fast so including the actual update plus the weather overhaul mod it took less than 10 minutes in sum. with some excitement i started the game. what is going to happen now? i went to the settings menu, chose maximum settings, checked the advanced menu if every slider is really on the right and then i started a new game. it takes really a while to start or to load a game without the -noprefetch switch but then the intro video came up. skipping this video, the screen went dark and then the game graphics appeared. i mean, the very first room isn’t really a beauty in terms of graphics but i was amazed tho. but as i have left the underground and stepped into the day i was blown away. i’ve seen a lot of screenshots on the internet before but seeing those graphics in realtime is an absolute different experience. i walked around with an open mouth, it was very fluid and smooth, very few stutterings (typical for stalker) and especially the weather overhaul effects blooming and depth of field are so awesome. while visiting a few places by loading up some savegames i started to relax. this system is what i was looking for.
a day later i was playing with the graphics settings again, and i’m using the global illumination option as well. this has just a minor impact on the graphic quality but no noticable impact on the performance. i will try to record a timedemo within the next days so that i will be able to get some detailed performance data.

confident that i haven’t bought something useless for me and strongened by the former experience, i started to test quake 5 (etqw) and gtr2. q5 was asking for an update, so i started the download of the patch and went for the installation of gtr2.

i’ve downloaded the actual nordschleife already, including all updates, so throwing in the track and starting gtr was a matter of seconds. fortunately, the securom protection accepted my drive and the disc, and the game appeared on the screen. moving every setting to the max and starting a test session on the nordschleife was the next step. i’ve jumped into an opponent car virtually, just to follow the ride on the track. the new nordschleife is really a beauty, the crew has spent so many attention to details, even the bonfires at the camps are burning and the tarmac textures are really nice. the trees are quite variant and well placed and the overall feeling of the landscape and the shape of the track is amazing. the frame rate was varying between 80-60 fps which is acceptable for this graphic monster of track. so i became a little bit more brave and went back to the race menu. same track, same graphic settings but 68 opponents. loading took a little bit longer and the time until the garage became responsive was a little bit longer as well. jumping into the car and checking the fps was the following action. the display was showing 25-30 fps, a small downstep in exitement. but i know, the nordschleife is very demanding at max shadow settings, especially when you surrounded by 40 visible cars. skipping the intro lap and switching to the ai driver gave me a chance to watch. after the common ‚wreck at least 10 cars within the first corners‘ gtr bullshit, the field started to become wider and the framerate went up to 30-40 fps. that is really ok for me and by tweaking the shadow settings, the performance is even better. unfortunately, simbin was never able to remove the stuttering from the game, which is really noticable during ai driver or replay but not so distracting while driving, so this problem still exists, and the track cam performance is still lower than in-car performance which also is still lower than on-the-hood cam. really a strange graphic enginge. another teardrop is the sudden crash after half of the track. this does not happen with less cars, so i have to check if this is related to the cars in the field or what’s the reason for this behavior. the lag of multi core/thread support is really a major minus because the cpu load is really heavy, so the dual core cpu does not have any effect for this game.

Enemy Territory – Quake Wars
this game concept isn’t really what i prefer but the fast paced action in combination of being a strogg makes this game attractive for me as well. same procedure, all graphic settings to max and jumping into the action. i’ve started the america level, same as the demo, because i’ve spent a lot of time to tweak the settings on my vaio notebook until this level became ‚playable‘. the first wow in-game is the graphic of the arm and the weapon, this is really amazing. the stroggs are so well designed and the graphic is so ‚realistic‘, i kept minutes just to watch the bots and myself. then i went out of the tunnel and everything was just so cool. etqw isn’t a game where you pay too much attention to the landscape, so i will not compare the graphics to stalker or crysis, it’s too different. but all the buildings, vehilces and player characters are really nice and very detailed. the game wasn’t showing any weakness in performance, only in spectator mode with the cam high above the ground, the motion becomes less fluid. but especially for this type of game, i’m not looking for extreme antialiasing nor anisotropic settings, so by stepping back a little bit, the game is more than fluid, smooth and responsive. and as usual for id-games games, it supports the dual core cpu very well.

Quake 3 Arena
for some of you may this appears a little bit odd but i’m a very passioned q3a player and at max settings for antialiasing and anisotropic, this game was still causing problems on my laptop. so i was looking forward to the performance on my new system. this test session became a little bit wierd because nothing of the graphic settings, neither in-game nor gpu configuration was showing any impact on the game performance. i have looked the frame rate to 60 hz, like my display and the showed framerate of 60 fps was like a static texture. so i’ve set the max frame rate to 100, nothing, same behavior, constant 100 fps. i went for 500, a few levels started to show an impact, the frame rate was between 300-500. by reducing antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, i was able to get 1000 fps without loosing too much graphic quality. this is really insane. by whatever reason, q3 refused to run in smp mode (multiprocessor mode) but i would say, i can life with this 😉

Plasma Pong
maybe not everybody is aware of this game. this game won a party competition 2007 and it is really funny to play and especially to watch. the game is a simple pong version but in a kind of fluid environment with different forces influending the fluid and the particel system. it is a nice performance check as well, because you can adjust the quality of the fluid, colors and particles in a broad range, so this game can be fitted to almost every system. and surprising, i was able to force the system to 40-45 fps by using 40000 particles. stepping back to 20000, which is not really noticable because still too much for my 1280×768 resolution, the game was running stable at 60 fps.

final comments:
for the mentioned games, this system is more than usable. except GTR2, none of the games were showing major problems in terms of performance. even for higher demands in fps, adjusting some of the graphic settings in-game (texture size for example is hardly noticable at 1280×768) or by tweaking some of the gpu settings it is really easy to adjust the performance to personal needs without loosing too much quality.
the overall design of the system is nice if not outstanding. in my personal opinion, the case is too huge compared to the stuff which can be found inside and without any doubts, the whole rig is too heavy to care it to somewhere frequently. if you are looking for a game party rig, i would recommend to go for a laptop. at this price tag, you will not get a system comparable to this pc system but enough performance to play current games at parties where superior graphics isn’t that important. the quality of the case is great, the look is not cheap and the front bay door is very solid. unfortunately, the dvd drive can’t push the bay door to open, you have to do this before ejecting your media.
the noiselevel even under heavy load is acceptable, i was expecting much more noise. the case provides front sockets for 2x usb, mic in, earphone and firewire(?) and on the rear all the necessary network connections, usb again, sound (analog, digital)
what i dislike is the on-board sound. i haven’t found a possibility to use the s/pdif in surround mode. even my old xbox doesn’t struggle with this but to get 6 channel (or max 8 channel) sound you have to wire your digital sound rig by 6-8 wires (3-4 if using stereo cables, which is required due to the stereo jacks) if you are using a sound set with single channels inputs you have to use special cables or if your sound set is using a different input design than fr/fl, rr/rl, center/sub, r/l.
the AlienFX lighting is a nice add-on, especially when you use this for alerts or different light setups depending on applications/games. but overall, the light experience is too weak, the alien skulls are ok but not outrageous, the case light is by far too weak and the bay light suffers from a strong rgb separation at the top and illuminating a green housing with something different than white or green doesn’t make much sense anyway. the illumination of the frontside sockets lights back into the case, which distorts the inner case lighting once more.
software: i went for the vista home premium because alienware wants to charge you additional 80 euros if you want xp on the system. beside this, directx10 may become more and more used for games in the future and especially for gaming, i don’t care that much about the system as long as it is not too different in terms of performance. so the rig comes with everything related to vista plus some additional software like powerdvd (with multichannel support), nero plus lightscripe application. additional, the AlienFX lighting application which refuses to work suddenly which requires a turn-off reboot or it doesn’t start up at all, causing vista to show usb mal-function messages, which requires a turn-off reboot as well.
i bought an Alienware usb stick as well, 4gb for 40 euros. the stick is fast, about 5-6 mb/s for writing and up to 20 mb/s for reading. even the rally stick (not rally2)isn’t that much faster.
additional, the package included a mouse pad, rigid style but very nice surface, a alienware basecap, which i would call cheap in quality and a small ‚filofax‘-style handbook and a few cd’s/dvd with drivers and system restore.
if the system is worth the money is quite hard to judge and it’s up to you if you want to spend about 1300 euros for this configuration. my impression is that you will get a similar system for maybe 200-300 euro less if you go to build it yourself but i’m not an expert, i see myself as an user. 4 weeks of delivery time is definitely too much, especially when the delivery date was promised 2 weeks earlier during the ordering process. the flaws with the initation of the system are not nice as well as the heavy and oversized case. would i buy it again? i’m not sure but in terms of being not really satisfied with the overall alienware service i think the next system will be a homebuild system again. but i think i can use the current rig for the next years when i want to keep track with graphic cards or by placing in some additional memory. not sure if i can exchange the cpu but someone with more knowledge will tell me this when the time is right.

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