Introducing the Alienware X51

While Alienware isn't openly inviting comparisons to Microsoft's Xbox 360 with their brand new X51 gaming desktop, it's hard not to see the resemblance, at least in form factor. But where Microsoft's aging console continues trudging away with generations old hardware, Alienware has produced an authentic Windows 7 gaming PC in a shell roughly the same size. Not just that, but they're introducing it at one of the lowest prices we've ever seen for what's ordinarily a very premium brand. Was Alienware able to cram a fully-powered machine in this tiny chassis, or were too many sacrifices made?

The X51 is basically the size of an Xbox 360, but the insides are pure PC: Alienware employs a Mini-ITX motherboard, desktop-level Sandy Bridge Intel processors, and a full-sized double-slot graphics card (rotated ninety degrees and connected via a riser card to the PCIe 2.1 x16 slot).

The component options available are listed below, and we've bolded the items from our review unit where applicable. Alienware currently has four models listed, with slightly varying specs. Our unit is the $949 model with an upgrade to 8GB RAM, though it's of course possible to upgrade other areas on your own.

Alienware X51 Specifications
Chassis Custom Alienware X51
Processor Intel i7-2600
(4x3.4GHz, Hyper-Threading, Turbo to 3.8GHz, 32nm, 8MB L3, 95W)

Intel Core i5-2320
(4x3GHz, No Hyper-Threading, Turbo to 3.3GHz, 32nm, 6MB L3, 95W)

Intel i3-2120
(2x3.3GHz, Hyper-Threading, No Turbo, 32nm, 3MB L3, 65W)
Motherboard Custom H61 Chipset Board
Memory 2x4GB Hynix DDR3-1333
2x2GB DDR3-1333
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 555 1GB GDDR5 (OEM)
(288 CUDA Cores, 736/1472/3828MHz core/shaders/RAM, 192-bit memory bus)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 545 1GB GDDR5 (OEM)
(144 CUDA Cores, 870/1740/3996MHz core/shaders/RAM, 128-bit memory bus)

Intel HD 2000 IGP
(6 EUs, 1100MHz core clock)
Hard Drive(s) Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6Gbps HDD
Optical Drive(s) HL-DT-ST DVD+/-RW GA31N slot-loading drive
Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo slot-loading drive
Power Supply 330W Custom
240W Custom
Networking Dell Wireless 1502 802.11b/g/n (150Mbps 2.4GHz)
Realtek PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC892
Speaker, mic/line-in, surround jacks, optical out and S/PDIF for 7.1 sound
Front Side Optical drive
2x USB 2.0
Headphone and mic jacks
Top -
Back Side Optical and S/PDIF
HDMI (IGP)
4x USB 2.0
Ethernet
2x USB 3.0
Speaker, mic/line-in, surround jacks
2x DVI-D (GeForce)
1x Mini-HDMI (GeForce)
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 12.54"-13.5" (back-front) x 12.52" x 3.74"
(318.5-343mm x 318mm x 95mm)
Weight 12.1 lbs. (5.49kg)
Extras External PSU
Integrated 802.11b/g/n
User-configurable external lighting
NVIDIA Optimus
Warranty 1-year parts, labor, and support
Pricing Starts at $699
Review system configured at $999

Alienware keeps the configuration options for the X51 pretty lean, but they benefit tremendously from being a subdivision of Dell as opposed to a standalone boutique. The X51 enjoys a custom chassis design just like all of Alienware's hardware does, but they also have access to OEM only graphics hardware.

The entry level system offers Intel's Core i3-2120 dual-core processor, certainly plenty for gaming, and pairs it up with NVIDIA's GeForce GT 545. Our review unit steps each of these up to the next available part: the Intel Core i5-2320 and GeForce GTX 555. Unfortunately the X51 maxes out at the GTX 555 while the processor can be upgraded to a Core i7-2600 for users who want an extra 400MHz plus Hyper-Threading on the CPU.

The GT 545 and GTX 555 are odd birds in and of themselves, but the graphics card in the X51 is user upgradeable. So why these parts? The GT 545 is a touch above entry-level; it's a GDDR5-equipped part (OEM only as opposed to the DDR3-equipped retail parts) and sports a cut-down GF116 GPU, with 144 CUDA cores and a 128-bit memory bus hooked up to 1GB of GDDR5. The chip is clocked at 870MHz (putting the shaders at 1.7GHz) and the memory is clocked at an effective 4GHz.

More compelling is the GeForce GTX 555 that our review unit is equipped with. Due to limitations on the X51's external power supply, the X51 can't handle graphics cards rated for more than 150 watts. Thankfully the GTX 555 maximizes that power envelope; it employs a trimmed-down GF114 GPU with 288 CUDA cores enabled along with a 192-bit memory bus and 1GB of GDDR5. That's an asymmetrical memory configuration just like the desktop GTX 550 Ti has but on different silicon. The GPU itself is clocked at 736MHz (for 1472MHz on the shaders) and the memory runs at an effective 3.8GHz. Note also that models that ship with the upgraded GTX 555 GPU get the larger 330W external power brick, so if you're thinking about upgrading to a different GPU in the future you will most definitely want to go with the higher spec system.

The icing on the graphics cake is that the X51 is the first instance of desktop Optimus we've seen. That's right: you can actually plug your monitor into the IGP's HDMI port and the tower will power down the GPU when it's not in use. This implementation functions just like the notebook version does, and it's a welcome addition.

Where I think Alienware does lose a point is in the storage configuration. Understanding internal real estate is at a premium, the single 3.5" drive bay still hurts a little at a time when the ideal system configuration is an SSD for a system drive and a mechanical disk for storage. The 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 included isn't bad, but it will hurt the X51 in PCMark testing and detracts a little from the overall user experience. Given the sloped shape of the chassis, however, we would have preferred a modified design with space for a 2.5" SSD/HDD at the back. That said, the X51's motherboard has enough SATA ports for you to remove the 3.5" drive and replace it with a pair of 2.5" drives, so the enterprising end user can opt to install an SSD and notebook hard drive.

Finally, the X51 supports USB 3.0 on the back, has a slot-loading optical drive that can be upgraded to a Blu-ray reader, and has wireless networking included on a user-replaceable mini-PCIe card that's mounted to the motherboard.

The final price of $1000 for our review unit gets you a very interesting piece of hardware, though obviously there's a price premium for going with the custom Mini-ITX chassis, PSU, etc. You could put together a similar system in terms of performance with a Micro-ATX case/motherboard for under $800 quite easily, but if you want to go the Mini-ITX route things become a bit more difficult--both in terms of finding hardware that will all fit and work together well, plus the assembly process in ITX chassis generally requires more time and effort than mATX. Overall then, the price and specs are very reasonable, so let's see what this black beauty can do on the race track.

System Performance
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  • swimtech - Saturday, February 18, 2012 - link

    That sounds like a great idea for a follow up article if they can hang on to the review unit for awhile longer. Seriously doubt the 100% OC though - 20% might be enough to get there for a better Battlefield 3 experience. Reply
  • DanNeely - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    Alienware had to spec the PSU for a worst case load that's rather heavier than the AT load test. Probably intel burn test + furmark with all the monitor ports connected, the optical drive burning a disk, all the fans spinning at max speed, and tablets charging from every USB port. Reply
  • Roland00Address - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    1) Video Card Power is limited to 150w according to dell
    2) Total System Power is limited to an external power brick (same one used in m18x). Dell makes a 240w version and a 330w version. You may only get the 240w version if you skimp out on the video card and processor. You can always buy the 330w power supply separately for $145
    3) The maximum length of the video card is 9 inches. This removes a reference 6870 since that card is 9.84 inches. You may be able to find a non reference 6870 which has a shorter board.

    A 7770 will fit, but it should provide similar enough performance to the geforce 555 (oem only) to be barely worth the trouble. The 7800 series on the other hand may actually work though.
    Reply
  • Roland00Address - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    *wishes for a preview button*, but hey at least most of the spammers have gone away. Reply
  • NicodemusMM - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    I've been seeing a new carriage in some of Dell's Optiplex models. It's essentially a plastic insert that fits into their 3.5" drive slots, but it holds two 2.5" drives. Such an option may be viable for this model. Simply use one SSD and one 7200 RPM 2.5" drive.

    I like the looks of this, but I hope their fan profile allows it to spin up a bit once users get it into their house and fill it with dog hair and tobacco tar. I do not look forward to calls on this model.
    Reply
  • Robalov - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    That case is exactly what I want and have been looking for.

    Hopefully down the line, some of the cases will make it to ebay.

    The computer itself fills a hole for those wanting to game without lugging around a full tower, but it's a small market, I imagine this would get more sales as a HTPC if they marketed it as such.
    Reply
  • Meaker10 - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    The main problem I see here is you can get a notebook with a built in 1080p screen, GTX570M and 2 hard drive slots (supporting raid0) for the same price! Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    ...where? Reply
  • rpsgc - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    The only notebooks around 1000 USD I can find all have a GTX 560M at best. Reply
  • kevith - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    That´s the only thing I was looking for throughout reading this review: Can you find these features at the same price in a laptop, and: You can´t. Reply

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