Dum dum, dum dum de dum dum, dum dum de dum! It's hard to resist singing John Williams' theme for Darth Vader while unpacking the Aurora Star Wars Edition. Despite our initial reservations over a PC that has the Death Star on one side and Emperor Palpatine on the other, this special-edition Alienware PC will elicit a reluctant smile from anyone who was a child when Star Wars first came out in 1977. You can't help but grin at such a lavish homage to the movie. Sure, shrug it off as a knowing, ironic smirk, but part of you wants to yell, "Prepare to make the jump to lightspeed!", and slap the side of the chassis.
Alienware's prescriptive attitude to gaming-machine design isn't for everyone. There's always going to be a self-appointed elite who wants to solder bits of a 1968 Mustang engine to an Athlon 64 and call it the best machine money can buy -- despite the fact that it took six weeks working through the night to build their overclocked Frankenstein. Alienware offers fast gaming PCs with fun box designs in off-the-shelf packages. They're pre-configured to the extent that you just have to flick the power switch on the wall -- and they're priced to match the convenience.
This is one furious-looking PC. The chassis itself doesn't differ architecturally from the previously reviewed Aurora 7500 SLI, but to look at it you'd think it was a completely different machine. The graphics on the side are spectacular. Gauche perhaps, but still immensely appealing to any Star Wars fan. Extremely close inspection reveals that these are not in fact airbrushed directly onto the plastic shell of the PC itself, but are giant stickers. These are extremely well affixed to the case: most people we showed it to assumed the artwork had been sprayed on. You'd be very hard-pressed to tell Alienware hadn't individually airbrushed each unit.
Our review model was the Dark Side Edition, but there's also a Light Side Edition to be had (see Images, above). The Dark Side model is dominated by the Death Star on its left-hand side. A battalion of Storm Troopers and a fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters surround this intergalactic bringer of death. Bobba Fett can be spotted chilling out in the top left-hand corner, checking his watch. He's probably late for something important.
The Star Wars Aurora's plastic shell is bolted to to a metal sub-chassis. This means you can detach the outer shell from the chassis and replace or repair it, should it see active service at a particularly raucous gaming event. Enormous grills span the bottom edge of the Aurora, culminating in two little alien heads. Cute. A pink light emanates from the grills at the front of the machine. The eyes in the Alienware logo also glow threateningly, but we would have preferred to see a small Darth Vader helmet here.
As with the standard Aurora, the Star Wars Edition generates more heat than the angry Sand People of Tatooine. To compensate for this, a 480-watt PSU and two fans (80 and 120mm) evacuate hot air from the case.
The Star Wars Edition is heavy. You could lug this around the house, but it's one of the bulkiest PC cases we've come across. The largely plastic chassis does help keep it just the right side of unwieldy, but once you've set the machine up, you'll be reluctant to move it far.
So what drives this evil machine? We popped open the bonnet expecting to find nothing but a small, dead Yoda hotwired into the motherboard. Instead there was a more earthly Athlon FX-55 processor with 1MB cache, coupled to a speedy SLI motherboard. These are specs that clearly rival the original Death Star. A 260MB Barracuda SATA drive will house many millennia of games, videos and MP3s, but you can jam more into the beast -- the Star Wars Aurora has room for at least three extra drives. Our review model came with 1GB of RAM in the form of two 512MB Corsair PC3200XL sticks, and this should be enough for any Dark Side acolyte to do the Emperor's bidding. Customising up from the basic spec on the Alienware site, we found our machine would cost the Dark-Lordly sum of £1,620.
The machine has a lot in common with Darth Vader -- its innards have been precision engineered and the desktop infused with the power of the Dark Side. We half expected it to use the Force choke on us if we gave it a bad review. Even the desktop is styled to match the chassis's evil leanings -- Windows XP is skinned with a Dark Side theme.
A single Nvidia GeForce 6800 video card powers the graphics output on the Aurora. Video output is DVI only -- if your current monitor is VGA, you'll need to use a DVI to VGA converter to make the output signal agree with your monitor. As with the standard Aurora, a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 card supplies audio output. This is a 7.1-channel card that's easily routed into a home surround-sound system. There is also an optical drive for writing DVDs and CDs in all current formats, including dual-layer DVD.
Four USB ports, two Ethernet ports and a FireWire port offer enough output to run a LAN party as well as plug in gaming peripherals like joysticks, dance mats and 3D glasses.
We installed Battlefield 2 on the Aurora. It's a demanding title, perfect for testing the limits of higher-end gaming systems like the Star Wars Special Edition. Despite the Star Wars Edition having just one graphics card -- as opposed to the previously reviewed Aurora's pair -- we didn't notice any perceptible slowdown during gameplay. Skirmishes involving multiple tanks, planes, helicopters and soldiers had no effect on frame rates. Taking to the skies in a chopper gave an astonishing view of the game arena -- the Aurora threw around slews of textured polygons with very little effort at all.
Our one caveat is the fan noise. It's understandable coming from a machine as well specced as this, and Alienware has made some effort to reduce the volume. Baffle inside the chassis reduces some of the fan noise. Most gamers will have their surround-sound systems or headphones turned up too loud to notice, but in a quiet room the Aurora breathes almost as noisily as Darth himself.
Ripping and burning DVDs on the Aurora was a breeze. We used the freeware software DVD Shrink to rip a film we'd made for a competition and burn it back to DVD. The whole process took about 20 minutes, and this included re-encoding the movie to 94 per cent of its original size. These aren't the fastest rip-and-burn times we've seen, even on lower-specced machines, but they're respectable enough.
Office applications ran blazingly fast, and it was a delight to snipe civilians with our rifle and night-scope in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. Graphics were smooth and nothing seemed to lag on the 26-inch Philips LCD display we attached the Aurora to.
You might be able to assemble a cheaper machine, but ask yourself whether it's worth the effort. Also ask yourself how much you love Star Wars. Although the case is gorgeously finished, a less dedicated fan may quickly tire of the themed decals. If you'd like your gaming PC to look a little special, go for another Alienware. If you want it to look insanely special, the Star Wars Edition is extremely tempting.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide