Alienware x51 Andromeda Review
Alienware recently released the x51 Andromeda tower, refreshed with Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge processors and a beefed up Nvidia graphics card that makes a statement in a slim profile. With Alienware continuing to pursuit the ultimate gaming experience in a compact desktop form factor, does the x51 live up to the dream? Find out below for our verdict.
The model being reviewed is the x51 with the 3rd Gen Ivybridge i7 -3770 (3.4Ghz) CPU, Nvidia GTX660 1.5gb OEM GPU, 8GB of DDR3 RAM (@1600MHz) and 2TB Hard Drive
- Compact attractive design, comparable to current consoles
- Can be powerfully spec’d to handle high quality 1080p gaming (at least GTX660 and i5 processor model)
- GTX660 graphics card a significant improvement over the Nvidia GTX555
- Relatively good value compared to other Alienware products like the Aurora.
- Access to the excellent 1 year in house warranty service provided by Dell
The Not so Good:
- Still more expensive than buying a custom PC made by an independent company
- Some of the internal component’s quality are a little underwhelming
- ONLY a 1 year warranty – disappointing for a system which can cost in excess of £1000
- Blu-ray drive does not come as standard (£90 upgrade)
- Limited upgrade options - no option on the UK Dell website to add an SSD
Design and Build Quality
The x51 is extremely dainty for a gaming PC. It comes in at around 12.1 lbs. (5.49kg) and the case measures 95 x 343 x 318mm, which makes it slightly larger than the original xbox360. The front panel of the system is built out of an attractive glossed black plastic which although looks good, can be a bit of a fingerprint magnet. The side panels however are made from a cheaper looking matted plastic, which is a letdown considering the large amount of money that you’ll have to drop to purchase an x51.
The x51 has two USB 2.0 slots at the front as well as a headphone and mic jack for easy access. There is also a slot loaded optical DVD drive, we were disappointed that a blu-ray drive was not included as standard, instead you have to fork out an extra £90 for one to be fitted by Alienware. There are also no USB 3.0 slots on the front panel, instead you will have to maneuver round to the back of the machine which can get pretty warm.
Bundled with the x51 is a standard Alienware keyboard and mouse. The full size keyboard works fine and is plenty functional, if its design is not to your liking you can now choose a standard Dell keyboard instead for no additional charge. The mouse is glossy and light, it is sensitive enough for most users’ needs, however I didn’t find the shape of it comfortable especially after extended periods.
Like all Alienware machines the x51 has its very own lighting system which can be set to your own preference using Alienware’s own software, Alienware Command Centre. You can also set pre-sets for certain applications which can affect the lighting, for instance when you receive mail the lights can change colour, or you can create lighting profiles within games. For example when testing Battlefield 3 we noticed the lights were white when not under attack, however changed red when you were on low health and taking damage. This is a nice extra on the Alienware machine as it adds to the immersive experience within the games, However, if the lights are not to your liking and a bit too garish you can always set them to a colour pre-set “Basic-Blackout” which in effect turns the light off.
The x51’s case does not host the power supply unit (to save space and reduce heating problems). Instead it uses a pretty mighty power brick similar to that of the Xbox however it is much much bigger, though still easy enough to keep out of sight.
Now to the nitty gritty. So how does this miniature gaming machine perform in real life at its primary function, gaming? Alienware boasted the new GTX660 was almost twice as powerful as the prior GTX555 and capable for playing highly demanding games such as Battlefield 3 in full 1080p HD. I have put the x51 through its paces on some of the most demanding games out there using the highest settings possible on each game and playing them at 1080p full HD on a 40inch TV. Below are both the average and minimum frame rates recorded through extended gameplay on each of the games:
* Please note where applicable DX11 was used (Dirt 3 and Crysis 2)
*The system tested is the i7 3770 & GTX 660 rig
I decided to turn v-sync on as I did not think it was acceptable for a costly system such as this to have screen tearing during games. Taking 30FPS as a good playable frame rate, the x51 performs well. It proves it is definitely capable of managing to play the latest games in full HD at high settings, which is incredibly impressive considering its compact size. However these results are not so mind blowing when the cost of the system (£1000+) is taken into account , as you can see in a few of the games the lowest frame rates dropped below 30FPS while not always noticeable, it does place some doubt over the future proofing of the system. I fear that the x51 may struggle to continue playing maximum settings on games that come out next year in late 2013.
Perhaps however I am being a bit too harsh on the x51. The PC market is constantly changing and it is not uncommon for gaming rigs to fall behind after a year due to the rapid development of the market. I can practically hear some PC gamers screaming “YOU CAN BUILD A CHEAPER PC WITH BETTER PERFORMACE FOR LESS YOURSELF!!”, which is true. However I think you will be hard pressed to find a PC built and designed as well as the x51 considering its size, plus not everyone is happy or confident enough to build their own PCs.
Practicality and Every Day use
So what is the x51 like in everyday tasks and day to day running?
Idle - Firstly when idle the x51 is a fairly quiet system at around 49dB (ambient room noise levels can vary between 30-40 dB in most cases). It can be noticeable at times especially when I tried to listen to music at low volumes, the CPU’s fan whirring/ rattling can be annoying.
Under load – When in heavy gaming sessions the x51 can get noticeably louder and it is very much audible at 58/59 dB, similar volume levels can occur also when burning DVD’s.
Temperature – One of the biggest concerns with systems this small is the potential risk of overheating. However I can report that despite only using the stock CPU and GPU fans there have been absolutely no heating issues with the x51 in which performance has been affected (this is even after extended gaming sessions going on for longer than several hours). It can get warm around the back of the system however it shouldn’t affect most, unless you like putting your hands behind your computer for prolonged periods of time…
Inbuilt Wi-Fi- The x51 comes with built in Wi-Fi as standard. When the x51 first came out there were a number of complaints on how poor the Wi-Fi was. Hopefully this has now been resolved, as I had no issues what so ever with Wi-Fi receiver. I got full bars of signal where I should within the house (prior reports had people complaining they could only receive 3 bars on the Wi-Fi even when it was placed right next to the router).
I received 3 bars on the x51 in my room, where as my laptop received 4, however internet speeds were only 1mb slower on the x51 than on my laptop (using speed-test.net). I was also able to play data demanding games like Guildwars 2 comfortably on the x51’s wireless connection , however I did notice some intermittent drops in the signal so would still recommend using an Ethernet cable where possible. Wi-Fi testing can be incredibly subjective and has many variables affecting it including the internet provider, router model/make, router positioning, so measuring a devices Wi-Fi performance can be some what subjective.
Upgradability – Future Proofing
For its size, the x51 with its modular design makes it relatively easy to remove and upgrade core components such as the graphics card and processor. However putting an additional SSD, which many gamers may consider can be a kafuffle with the absence of an extra SATA power connector. Another big factor limiting upgradability with the x51 is the 330W PSU, it unfortunately means upgrading to a more powerful GPU will be difficult as many graphics cards now require 500W PSU as a minimum. It may not be all doom and gloom, further advancements with Kepler architecture GPU’s should bring about more power efficient GPU’s, however they may be OEM exclusive like the currently installed GTX660 in the x51. It may be possible in the future to get a Dell engineer to install a new GPU if a better model is installed on future x51’s, but considering they charge up to £100’s for RAM upgrades this could be highly costly.
Buying an x51
If you feel inclined to go ahead and purchase an x51, I would urge you to try and haggle with the telephone purchasing department, you will be surprised what deals may be available that aren’t visible on the website yet. It is not unheard of for people to knock off an extra 8% off the web price. Also if you do purchase online don’t forget to use the online codes provided below each models description to get a small discount(approx. £20).
The x51 comes with a 1 year in home hardware warranty and the support for the product is excellent, however it ONLY 1 year and to upgrade for 2 years or more can set you back £200+. This is highly disappointing as I am aware of other online companies who will build a PC to your desired specification at a competitive price and give you a 3 year warranty as standard.
Has the x51 made PC gaming more accessible to console gamers?
In short, no, graphically the x51 blows consoles out of the water, with its DX11 capability bringing in an extra dimension of graphical performance into games. Plus the x51s convenient size and attractive design makes it a much more appealing proposition to first time pc gamers, but unfortunately I don’t see a flood of new PC gamers snapping up an x51. This is due to the fact the x51 is still at least 4 times more costly than the current games consoles which is not justified by the increase in performance.
Comparing the x51 to consoles was always going to be an up hill battle for the x51, as there are many factors that differ between PC and console gaming and both markets have wildly different strategies to attract customers. If I were to compare the x51 to anything it would be other small factors PCs (which are quite hard to find) or gaming laptops. The reason why I believe gaming laptops make a fairer comparison is because a similarly spec’d 17inch gaming laptop will usually weigh only 1kg less than the x51, which means in most cases they are not THAT much more portable, however most will cost almost £600 more. Sure you can argue the laptop has a screen built in but if you are a serious gamer you will most likely be using an external monitor for gaming sessions rather than hunching over and staring at 15 or 17inch screen.
Overall the x51 makes for a very enticing PC gaming package. It looks good, is sized conveniently, performs well and is relatively well priced for an Alienware gaming system. There are however a few things holding me back from giving it a stellar score, which are the limited upgrade options (and prices charged by Alienware/Dell for upgrades), the limited warranty and the overall price.
The x51 model has several configurations, starting from £899 for the Intel i5 Ivy Bridge processor, 8GB RAM, 1TB Storage and a 1GB Nvidia GTX660 Graphics Card. For an extra £100 over the stock options, it’ll snag you an Intel i7 processor, 1.5GB GTX660 card and 1TB Storage. For the Ultimate stock model, you’ll get an additional Blu-Ray drive and Alienware monitor for £1,364. I would recommend the i5 model with the GTX660 for best value at £899, as I am unconvinced the cheaper models with the Nvidia Geforce GT640 would be able to cope with high quality HD gaming.
*While the x51 boasts a SATA3 Hard Drive, recently we have found that the motherboard only supports SATA2 ports. This is bad news for those looking to put a SATA3 SSD in the x51 as it may result in up to half the write speeds.- This has now been updated in the rating.