I’m extremely lucky to get a variety of games, keyboards, mice and headsets to play with and review, letting me experience products I would likely have never gotten to even touch otherwise because I have a bank account filled to the brim with metaphorical moths. I never thought I’d get to take a shot at reviewing an entire computer, let alone a rather expensive one from Alienware. It’s an entirely new experience for me, leaving me wondering exactly how to tackle the challenge and deliver some worthwhile criticism. Without further ado, then, here is my attempt at not looking like a complete tit while reviewing Alienware’s latest iteration of their X51, having spent two weeks with it as my main computer.
First we must tackle the ever intriguing topic of boxes! These lovely containers of good things aren’t exactly worth discussing most of the time, but for some reason people do like to know how stuff is packaged. The answer is that it’s stored with a large black box with two trays at either end used to seat the Alien during transport to military bases for interrogation and/or autopsy. There’s no padding running the length of the box, so a large blow the sides could potentially damage the computer. A slim box slides down the gap left by the trays, while a second one stacks on top. The packaging suffices, but I’d certainly like to see some padding in those sides to help protect the computer during transit, especially with so many couriers out there that are all to willing to toss parcels around.
Right, so now the computer is out of the box. Well done. All those lovely innards that power glorious games are packed into a pretty nice looking case that doesn’t go too crazy with the angles. Way back before Dell purchased the company Alienware’s design philosophy was often criticised for its excessive stylings, but Dell seem to have had a calming effect on them. The only flashes of something more bombastic is the two large panels at the side that emit light, which can be turned off entirely or have the color changed to match an existing setup. Otherwise, this is a pretty understated design, featuring nice curves and a simple Alien head on the front that can be rotated in case you want to lie the machine flat, which is a rather neat touch. The top sports mesh to help keep the entire thing cool, with another small bit of mesh sitting just under the alien head. Coming in at 13.5” tall by 12” wide and 3” deep at the R3 is comparable to an Xbox one, so it could slot nicely into the living room and wouldn’t look out of place with its sleek black shell. Hell, install SteamOS and you’ve essentially got a Steam Machine in all but name. It’s quiet, too, the custom water cooling loop chugging away with minimal audio output and the entire machine sitting under forty decibel when idling. The only real problem is that the R3 relies on a sizable external power brick that measures in at 7.5” long by 3.75” by 3” to power the entire system.
Under the hood there’s a 240GB Samsung PM951 SSD (with an impressive 1.6GB per second read time) that contains the pre-installed copy of Windows 10, which given the controversy over Microsoft’s spying policies may be a turn-off for many, plus a 2TB drive for storing all those games, movies, albums, pictures and other tat that usually accrues over the days, months and years. With that SSD running the operating system everything zips along at an impressive pace and there’s some spare space for a few games and programs on there, too. God knows I could have done with the extra loading speed when reviewing Mordheim: City of the Damned a few weeks ago. Alienware have also pre-installed their custom command centre program which contains five different sub-programs, the first of which lets you monitor the system’s thermals and alter the fans. AlienFX simply lets you alter the three LED lights on the case so that you can have the left panel green, the right blue and the Alien head with glowing red eyes, a combination designed to annoy anyone with OCD. Alien Fusion is all about mucking about with power plans, letting you separately adjust a pile of different settings so that you can get the PC running just how you want it, such as setting the hard disk to switch off after a certain amount of idle time. Alien Adreneline lets you create a custom shortcut for a game that also fires up things like voice chat programs and LED color themes when used, which is pretty. The final sub-program is OCControls which gives you access to basic CPU overclocking in case you fancy squeezing a little more power out of the already strong CPU.
That CPU is an Intel Skylake i7 6700 that boasts four cores running at 4.0Ghz each with a 4.4Ghz turbo boost when needed, and is cooled via a small, custom liquid cooling loop that kept the system hovering around 32c when idling. The whole thing is bolted to the only questionable piece of kit in the entire machine; Alienware’s proprietory motherboard. It’s an unknown variable in a system otherwise filled with solid parts, and it’s hard to know how it’ll perform down the line, other than making upgrading a tad tricky. The CPU is supported by 16GB of DDR4 ram, which is nice considering that some games are now recommending a minimum of 8GB. Finishing off the system specs is a Nvidia GTX 960, which is arguably the source of a significant imbalance, because for gaming the preference is for a more powerful GPU than CPU. While there some CPU intensive titles on the market, with real time strategy games like the Total War series being a prime example, it’s still the GPU that does the brunt of the work in the majority of cases. This is a problem with most pre-built computers as the general audience are often sold entirely on the processor, putting too much emphasis on how many Ghz the system has. It does allow the machine to run on a small external PSU of just 330w, however, which is pretty damn good and helps save pennies on those power bills. It’ll take a long time for it to pay itself back, though, because all of this comes to a rather eye-watering £1,329.99, but the range starts at a slightly less wallet-damaging £829.99. If you do want a boost in graphical power the R3 can take Alienware’s special Alienware Graphics Amplifier box which can house a seperate GPU, so you could plug in something like a Titan X, although that’s quite a bit of extra cash to drop on an already expensive machine.
The way everything is put together internally is impressive. Opening up the case is as simple as undoing a solitary screw and then carefully detaching the LED wire that runs to the outer panel, at which point you can remove the GPU tray which slides out of its x20 PCI slot. Yup, you read that correctly; Alienware have created a x20 PCI for their custom motherboard. Why, you ask? Because the M2 SSD rides shotgun with the graphics card, letting both be placed in a single slot. It’s ingenius, really. Sandwhiched behind that there’s the HDD tray which can only house one drive, so sadly you cant whack another HDD in there for increased storage, instead you’ll need to replace it entirely with a larger capacity drive. Indeed, for upgrading the X51 is fairly limited, so keep that in mind before attempting to chuck in a new graphics card and overloading the 330w power brick. That Skylake processor shouldn’t have you trying to dismantle the cooling loop anytime soon, however. There’s no wasted space within the X51, and while it’s hardly the smallest machine on the market it’s impressive.
Connections are plentiful, with the rear of the machine sporting two USB 3.0 slots and two USB 3.0 slots capable of 10GBPS, and two regular USB 2.0 as well. You can also find a HDMI output toward the top right but its blocked off to ensure nobody plugs their monitor into that rather than the graphics card. There is, of course, a Gigabit Ethernet port in case you don’t want to use the machine’s inbuilt 802.11ac2x2 WiFi capability. For audio there’s inputs for a front speaker, side speaker and subwoofer. For monitor connection the GTX 960 is packing three display ports and an HDMI 2.0, plus a dual-link DVI. The front of the X51 has a further two USB 3.0 slots plus connections for a headset and mic.
With that out of the way let’s talk about benchmarks. When it came to play games I tried to pick out well-known titles that weren’t overly new, the reason being I new games, such as Fallout 4, tend to be released in rough state and thus any performance problems can stem from either the computer or the game itself, making tests inconclusive. By choosing slightly older titles that have been heavily patched I attempted to minimise performance problems from the games themselves, while also pushing the machine a little. Rather than simply use in-game benchmarking tool since they frequently don’t indicate real-world performance I opted to make my own benchmarking scenarios using nothing more than FRAPS and a bit of forethought. Unlike sites that do reviews of graphics my benchmarking scenarios don’t have to be timed since I’m not looking to replicate any of them over and over again. Keep in mind that this is the first time I’ve ever reviewed an entire system before, so aside from benchmarking my own personal rig I’ve never done anything like this, thus I don’t promise entirely accurate results. All tests were performed at each game’s highest settings, bar one or two exceptions that I’ll explain, and at 1080p since that’s both the most common screen resolution in use and this machine’s sweet spot.
We kick off with a popular one in the form of BioShock: Infinite, which doesn’t take a lot of grunt to power it. The only thing that was turned off here was the Depth of Field Diffusion. The test began in the first proper combat scenario and therefore involved some leaping between hooks, good amounts of smoke and some enemies that needed shot in the face. After that I moved on to the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, opting to disable TressFx since its an AMD technology and hits performance quite hard for little return. The scenario was again the first major combat sequence in which Lara got hold of a pistol after being captured, and it involved a lot of beautiful lighting thanks to a raging fire. There’s a few cinematics in here, but they are rendered entirely in-game. Moving onwards I fired up Hitman Absolution and proceeded to embark on the game’s second level which features a very large crowd, which I spent some time simply walking through before unleashing hell by blowing the target and the target’s car up, allowing the crowd to panic and begin fleeing for a small while before shutting the benchmark off. Absolution is a 2012 game and therefore shouldn’t pose much of a challenge, yet it can still provide a reasonable test. After that Thief was next, which provides a more challenging benchmark scenario since it’s not an action heavy game. I chose to fire up the benchmark during the early manor infiltration in the game’s prologue, which provided the opportunity for sneaking around a number of AI and plenty of lights and shadows.
Finally I moved on to three newer games that presented an interesting challenge since all three have large, open worlds with a lot of variable scenarios. Starting with Mad Max I engaged an enemy convoy which resulted in plenty of explosions, and then a fist fight for added fun. Then it was time for Far Cry 4, which was a bit trickier since I attempted to come up with a challenging scenario, eventually settling on just charging into an enemy base after tossing in some bait for good measure. Some bullets, a few Molotov cocktails and some reinforcements later and the job was a good ún, I reckon.. For Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain I chose assault the airport head-on while calling in a support chopper as well. Keep in mind that MGS: V is locked to 60FPS, so we’re looking for as close to that as possible. Finally with the Witcher 3 I tackled the early section from where Geralt first rides Roach and then fights a Griffin.
The results didn’t throw up anything too surprising, mostly just confirming that the X51 is rock-solid for 1080p gaming across a range of titles, although clearly the highest settings and 60FPS isn’t achievable for all the time. Mad Max was perfectly playable with everything cranked up, yet another example of how well optimised that game is and what a good job Avalanche did on it, but Metal Gear Solid V struggled a bit more with a very sharp decline to just 9fps at one point. Shocked by this I decided to sink an hour into the game, just riding around and blowing things up to see if this would be a common problem. Far Cry 4 looks beautiful and requires some pretty powerful hardware to run it, so I was genuinely impressed that the Alienware X51 managed an average of 45fps and that the lowest dip was just 39. However, it’s fair to say that my test wasn’t a great example of how chaotic the game can get and thus during heavy action the system will undoubtedly struggle a little more, meaning graphical tweaks will be needed to get it running smoother, unless a console level framerate with beautiful graphics is what you prefer. The real sticking point was, predictably, the mighty Witcher 3 which has taken the place of Crysis as being a destroyer of hardware, although it’s actually incredibly scaleable. Indeed, I turned the preset down to high because on max settings it wasn’t even worth running the rest. While the average framerate shows a console-level experience actually playing the game is to janky on those settings. Switching to the medium presets nets an average FPS of
With the game testing done let’s move on to one final set of benchmarks in the form of 3DMark’s Fire Strike. Like the game benchmarks these tests were performed with no overclocking so that the system is at its stock settings, like it had just come out of the box. The Alienware X51 R3 scored a grand total of 6704 on the 3DMark Fire Strike test, breaking down to 7541 for the graphics test and 12902 for the CPU intensive physics test, again indicating an imbalance in the system for gaming. Finally the combined test, which as its name implies combines elements of the graphics and physics tests, gave a score of 2627. In terms of framerate the R3 got 36.42 and 29.81 on graphics test 1 and 2 respectively, 40.96 on the physics test and 12.22 on the combined test.
Included in the package was an Alienware branded keyboard and a mouse that’s so damn shiny it makes chrome feel bad for existing, and is therefore also impossible to actually keep clean. It’s nice to see a keyboard and mouse included to get you started, but they aren’t worth keeping around. The keyboard’s keys are squishy, while the mouse lacks any thumb buttons which is a major problem for gaming or even just browsing the web. They do at least look quite nice, the mouse sporting a jet black, shiny finish and the keyboard boasting some nice white detail. There’s also a HDMI to display port adapter, but sadly no HDMI cable is included which feels like a missed opportunity to get first-timers rolling straight out of the box. Still, a HDMI cable costs pennies and most people tend to have a few lying around.
As always opting for a prebuilt machine is a much more costly option that buying the parts and building the machine yourself, which is also an incredibly satisfying thing to do and actually rather easy, too. In most cases the markup on prebuilts is substantial, and especially so with Alienware where you are paying for the brand name, too. The build quality is great and system performs very well at 1080p, but the CPU and GPU are mismatched for gaming, perhaps an attempt to get customers to purchase the expensive amplifier dock and a more powerful card to go with it. As always, though, while I may talk about price within the review it ultimately won’t effect my final opinion because I’m here to talk about how good the product is, not whether it’s good for the money. Only you, dear reader, can decide what good value for money is. From that perspective this is a solid system from Alienware. It’s unbalanced, but put together very well, looks pretty and can handle most games at quite high settings, although those more intensive titles will need the settings tweaked to maintain a good framerate.
In other words it’s an impressive system that’s been built with all the care and attention I would expect from an experienced company. Yes, I’d like to see a more powerful internal GPU over the i7 Skylake processor, although that Intel CPU does mean the x51 can handle non-gaming tasks with ease. Liquid cooling keeps everything cool and ticking over quietly, which combined with its size and sleek styling makes this a good living room beast. It’s not as small as other offerings on the market, but really its a Steam Machine in everything but name and can be treated as such. Install SteamOS. Plug in a controller, plonk yourself on the couch and the jobs a good ‘un. Otherwise it’s still a damn fine desktop unit.