Alienware let us know that we should take no prisoners in our overclock testing, so we took them at their word. We started with the Core 2 Extreme QX9770, which is unlocked and has a default clock speed of 3.2 GHz. Hitting 3.4 and 3.6 GHz was not a problem, even at default voltages, but we took it to 1.375V for some serious testing.
At this level, we reached 3.8 and 4.0 GHz overclocks, but it was difficult to move it any higher. Finally, we managed to hit 4.2 GHz at a 1.40V setting. We then tried to tweak the FSB speed and voltage a bit, but any noticeable amount higher resulted in instability with the Vista operating system, and the 4.2 GHz clock was our official limit.
We also wanted to see how high the Patriot DDR3-1333 memory would go, and if it actually passed the test at 1600 MHz. This was an easy switch in the System BIOS settings and we changed the DDR3 setting to Linked, and then chose a Synch multiplier that upped it to DDR3-1600 speeds.
Then just to be sure, we increased the DDR3 voltage a bit to 1.6V. This overclock was no problem at all, and the system booted and completed testing at the new 1600 MHz speed. Overall, the Area-51 system provided for an excellent overclocking base, and enthusiasts will be pleased with the overall package.
In testing the performance of the Area-51, we took two different angles. The first was to confirm that the CPU and memory subsystem performed up to the standards of a high-end Intel Core 2 Extreme platform. Using both the SiSoft SANDRA 2009 and Everest Ultimate Edition suites, we ran through a few of the CPU and memory tests, then compared these back to our reference scores. This testing was a non-issue, and the either matched or exceeded the results of our Core 2 Extreme QX9770/DDR3-1333 platform.
For the game benchmarking, we selected a series of popular games and utilities, then ran these at a 1680x1050 resolution using standard (2xAA, 4xAF) details and 1920x1200 at high-end (4xAA, 8xAF) detail settings just to give an idea on what kind of high-rez framerates this beast can pump out.
These results speak for themselves, and other than the always-tough Crysis (at high details), these scores are significant given the demanding high resolution testing with anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing enabled. These game settings can drag mainstream systems to their knees, but the powerful Area-51 supplies very playable framerates. Due to the dual Radeon HD 4870 X2 cards, the system also displays very little in the way of a performance drop from the first to the second scenario.
Looking at benchmark scores is one thing, but using the Alienware Area-51 system in real-world situations is another. We used it as a standard gaming system for a few weeks, attempting to duplicate the "new user" experience from opening the box to installing games and then testing out its true limits. This initial setup phase demonstrated that the Area-51's disk performance is excellent, and the dual 10K RAID configuration loaded games and applied patches like the wind.
Even with the debut of the GeForce GTX 295, dual Radeon HD 4870 X2 cards still represent one of the top graphics solutions, and makes high-resolution gaming a necessity. In order to get the most out of its serious GPU power, it should be matched with a high-resolution 24", 27" or even 30" LCD to. Using a 24" Dell 2408 LCD at 1920x1200, even newer games ran like butter on the dual Radeon HD 4870 X2 video cards. Using it with a basic 19-22" display is like tossing money out the window, as a lower-cost configuration will do the job.
But this kind of power also comes at a cost, and the Area-51 is a very large and heavy gaming system. Its dimensions check in at approximately 23.5" by 18.5" by 9.5", but this is fairly standard for a chassis that supports Extended ATX motherboards. The case is heavy and can be tough to move, as there is little in the way of hard grips. This won't be an issue for most people who intend to use it as stationary gaming system, but please don't even think about taking one these beasts to the local LAN competition.
For a water-cooled system that gets rid of some cooling fans, the Area-51 is also far from silent, as the noise from the cooling fans is immediately discernable. This is common for many higher-end gaming systems, especially with a dual Radeon HD 4870 X2 configuration, but it's worth mentioning. Our review system also had the DVD burner set in the top 5.25" slot rather than the in middle or bottom slot, which made it difficult to insert discs.