Hardcore gamers really have two choices when it comes to buying a new hotrod PC, either build it yourself or buy a preconfigured system. Both paths have their supporters, with the do-it-yourself crowd wanting to get their hands dirty and take control of every part of the operation, while the off-the-shelf buyer may not have the time, experience or inclination to build a system from the ground up. For this last set of gamers, several companies have set up shop to specifically handle this segment of the PC market.
One of the more prominent is Alienware, which is now owned and operated by Dell, and is an acquisition that has helped both companies. Alienware has access to enhanced distribution and sales channels, while Dell will receive a lot more attention from hardware enthusiasts. The cream of the Alienware gaming crop is the Area-51 system line, which combines top-end components with extreme graphics to produce some of the most kickass preconfigured systems that money can buy.
Alienware has several desktop lines, but for pure, unadulterated performance, you should be looking at the Area-51 models. The basic specs include an Intel Core 2 Duo, Quad or Extreme processor and up to 4GB of dual channel DDR3-1333, all powered by an nForce 790i Ultra SLI platform. Graphics options run the gamut of ATI and NVIDIA cards, ranging from a GeForce 9600GT 512MB up to a Radeon HD 4870 X2 2GB, with an optional second card for SLI/CrossFire support and an Ageia PhysX PPU.
The choice of the nForce 790i Ultra SLI is an interesting one, especially as the Area-51 offers a CrossFire upgrade option. Alienware told us that the NVIDIA chipset was the fastest performer, and due to this, the company worked overtime to have this platform certified for both dual-card SLI and CrossFire implementations. However you view this, there can be no question that Alienware is performance-oriented to the extreme.
Storage options on the Area-51 790i are equally robust, and include both 7200-RPM 1TB and 10,000-RPM 160GB hard drive options, as well as dual drives in a RAID 0 configuration. The optical drive can be a standard 20x DL DVD burner, or buyers can upgrade this to a Blu-ray BD-ROM or even Blu-ray Burner drives. The default audio is the 7.1 HD onboard solution, but Alienware also offers a dedicated Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer soundcard as an option. Vista Home Premium is the default operating system, with an available upgrade to Ultimate.
The Area-51 790i features a magnesium alloy P2 chassis design that has been engineered around thermal testing and heat dissipation, while ensuring compatibility with the overall component list. Other factors like airflow, cable management, acoustic levels, and component access have also been taken into account, and the overall aesthetics are very unique and really set the Area-51 apart from the crowd.
The P2 chassis features a tool-free design that allows easy access for potential user upgrades, or to remove hard drives and other peripherals. There are no "warranty void if removed" stickers on the Area-51 790i, and Alienware understands that enthusiasts like to tinker with their PCs. Cable design is another nice feature, and Alienware has tucked these away from sight, providing a clean environment and one that is more conducive to airflow.
This system configuration includes Alienware's High-Performance Liquid Cooling system, which not only drops the temperatures and ambient noise considerably, but also potentially increases performance and overclocking. You can also add in the AlienFX lighting system with six distinct lighting zones, a dozen color choices and full programmability for light color, effect and transitions.
There are four 120mm cooling fans mounted to the case, with two on each of the snap-mounted side doors, one set as a rear exhaust and another at the front, used to handle the liquid-cooling system. The side panels reduce the ambient noise levels and the cooling fan on the main side panel is a wireless design, which allows easy access for potential upgrades.