Gaming desktops are usually enormous, power-hungry machines covered with more glowing lights than the Vegas strip. But what if you need something smaller for your living room but don't want to sacrifice power? Alienware reckons it has the answer in the form of the X51 -- a console-sized desktop PC with enough power to tackle serious gaming.
My review model came packing an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 graphics card. It's available now for £900 or you can opt for a lesser configuration from £650 if money is short.
Design and build quality
The first thing you'll notice about the X51 is its relatively miniature size. Most desktop PCs designed for gaming are enormous beasts -- just look at the gargantuan Alienware Aurora -- but the X51 is just a little bigger than the most recent Xbox so you won't need to make special modifications to your house to accommodate it.
Rather than have it sitting below a desk in your study or bedroom, it can happily rest in the space by your TV. The small size will appeal to families who don't want the eyesore of a huge PC tower slathered in glowing lights in their living room, but still need something brutal to tear into the latest games. If you've been trying to convince the other half to let you install a powerful rig in the one spot you entertain guests, you might have better luck with the X51 than the Aurora.
The X51's styling will be immediately recognisable as an Alienware machine to anyone with even a passing interest in PC gaming. On the front edge, you'll find Alienware's logo -- an alien head -- which glows when switched on and can be turned 90 degrees so it's the right way up if you want to lay your PC flat.
The outer casing is made from black plastic, with the usual angry-looking ridges and vents along the top. It's a very Alienware look. Fans will be pleased to see the inclusion of glowing slivers of plastic on the side -- these can be configured to have either the same colour as each other and the front Alien head, or alternating colours if you're feeling fancy. I naturally opted for hot pink and set about telling everyone why this was the only colour you should ever use ("because it's awesome!").
The styling definitely won't be to everyone's tastes -- fans of country pine bookcases and Laura Ashley curtains won't be too keen -- but it's at least small enough to slot away somewhere inconspicuous.
On the front edge you'll find a slot-loading DVD drive, which you can upgrade to a Blu-ray drive. It'll cost you an extra 90 quid, but if you're hoping to use the X51 as a media centre in your living room, it's probably worth the extra cash. You'll also spy two USB 2.0 slots as well as headphone and microphone jacks.
On the back are two HDMI ports (one of which is on the graphics card), four USB 2.0 slots, two USB 3.0 ports, jacks for a 7.1 surround sound speaker system, two DVI ports and Coaxial and TOSLINK digital audio outputs for feeding high-quality sound to home theatre systems.
As a small PC, the X51 has been custom-built to make sure everything fits just right. This makes it more awkward to get in and fiddle about with in the same way that you would with a regular desktop PC. Sliding off the side panels was a tricky process that initially flummoxed both myself and GameSpot's Mark Walton. Our attempts at replacing components was fraught with problems -- something which I'll return to later.
When it's all closed up, it feels particularly solid. The side panels don't offer any flex and it's reassuringly free of creaks or clicks when you poke it. I'm satisfied that it's built well enough to justify the price tag. It's not as though you're going to be carrying it off on your travels anyway.
The X51 is just a desktop PC, so it doesn't come with a monitor, unless you buy one with Dell at the time of purchase. If you've already got a decent monitor, you can just hook it up to that. It comes with an Alienware keyboard and mouse, which are pretty bog-standard affairs. They do the trick for everyday use, but if you're a hardcore fragger, you'll want to upgrade to something ridiculously fancy with more buttons than a Boeing 747.
Stuffed inside my review unit is a serious line-up of specs. It's packing an Intel Core i7-2600 quad-core processor clocked at 3.4GHz, backed by a meaty 8GB of RAM. I took it down the CNET UK testing chambers and, with a trembling hand, ran the benchmark tests. Unsurprisingly, it provided excellent results.
First of all, I fired up the PCMark05 test, which looks at how well the processor can perform tasks like web-page rendering and moving files around. It clocked up a score of 13,138 -- an extremely impressive total and one that beats the menacingly powerful Toshiba Qosmio X770 gaming laptop.
A score like that hints that this machine will happily chew through any office tasks without breaking a sweat. That is indeed what I found during use. Heavy multi-tasking was handled with aplomb, thanks to the healthy portion of RAM, and demanding programs will run without trouble.
Its powerful graphics card will lend a hand with photo and video editing too. It managed to encode my 11-minute 1080p video file into 24 frames per second H.264 in just over 4 minutes. That's a lightning fast time, and easily beats the X770's 11-minute attempt. If you're hoping to use the X51 as a media centre, rest assured that it will handle playing back your high-definition files without the slightest hiccup and will happily chomp through your holiday pics and video clips editing.
Of course, the X51 is first and foremost a gaming PC, so I rolled up my sleeves and checked out how it handles the polygons. It's packing an Nvidia GeForce 555 graphics card with 1GB of DDR5 memory.
I booted up th 3DMark06 benchmark test and was given the astonishing score of 21,762 -- easily the best I've seen on a computer in my time at CNET UK. By comparison, the MSI GT680 laptop -- which performed extremely well -- only racked up 13,995 on the same test.
Numbers aren't everything though so I installed some of the latest, shiniest games and took them for a spin. To start, I loaded up my favourite racer Dirt 3 and took the car for a spin through the Finnish hills. The resolution was ramped to 1,920x1,080 pixels and all settings were set to maximum.
The X51 maintained an average frame rate of 50fps, with a maximum of around 65fps, resulting in superbly smooth gameplay and no noticeable lag. Moving on to caped beat-em-up Batman: Arkham City, again with maximum settings, the X51 achieved an average frame rate of 45fps with a high of 71fps -- enough to keep even the most demanding gamers satisfied.
If gloriously-coded RPGs are your thing, then you'll be pleased to know that it was able to run Skyrim at max settings with an average frame rate of 45fps. That made traversing those wide open plains and shooting arrows at dragons and mammoths -- and maybe a few children -- particularly satisfying.
Also pleasing was the average 100fps I observed when playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. If that frame rate doesn't get you worked up, then there's just no hope for you. Considering a frame rate of around 25fps is perfectly playable, anything that pushes 100fps isn't to be sneezed at.
Should I get the X51 or an Xbox?
Well, first and foremost, the X51 is considerably more powerful than the Xbox. Intense games like Skyrim will play at higher frame rates, offering smoother graphics and speedier loading times. That also means that it's better equipped to handle the new major titles. The Xbox has been around for a long time and many users find that it's just not up to the task any more.
If you're a firm fan of the arm-waving, limb-flailing fun you can have with the Kinect sensor on the 360, you might be pleased to know that the sensor is now available for Windows, meaning that you can hook one up to your X51 and set about looking like a fool in your living room.
Of course, the X51 is also an extremely competent PC, so you're getting the benefits of office work, proper Internet browsing, photo and video editing and all the social networking you could dream of.
Given the 7.1 surround-sound sockets and the digital audio connectors for a home theatre system, the X51 would also function extremely well as a media computer. Fill its 1TB hard drive with your favourite TV shows and movies, hook it up to your TV using the HDMI output and relax as you watch Kristin Stewart explore the whole gamut of emotion.
It's more expensive than an Xbox, sure, but it can act as several devices at once -- your media centre, office PC and games console. If you're sat there thinking, "Yeah, Andrew, I totally need all of those things," then you could buy the X51 and potentially save yourself a bundle.
Can you use the Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 in the X51?
The GeForce GTX 680 is Nvidia's new flagship graphics card. It's based on what's known as a Kepler architecture, which means that it provides better performance while keeping operating power low. We've already seen how well this new tech works in Acer's Timeline U laptop that provided incredible gaming grunt while being slimmer and lighter than even most regular laptops.
The joy of desktop PCs for many is the fact that you can rip the panels off and replace the components when your existing ones no longer cut the mustard, thereby saving yourself a chunk of cash by not having to upgrade your entire machine. The X51 is considerably smaller than most desktops though, so I wasn't sure how easy it would be to keep up to date. There was only one way to find out, and as I happened to have one of the new 680s lying around the office, I gritted my teeth and grabbed a screwdriver.
The GTX 680 graphics card is somewhat bigger than the original GTX 555 and it was a very tight squeeze to fit it in, requiring some creativity (i.e. force) with the power cabling. Eventually though, the card was in place and I eagerly hit the power button.
So, did it work? In a word, no. The GTX 680 card needs a minimum of 550W, whereas the power supply unit (PSU) in the X51 topped out at 330W. I did manage to play some Dirt 3 and was amazed at the increased average frame rate from 45fps to 140fps. The same went for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, in which I saw an average of around 250fps during intense battle scenes.
Sadly, if I tried anything too difficult -- like running my graphics benchmarks for example -- the computer simply turned off, acting like a stubborn toddler. It's a real shame. Make no mistake, this graphics card is an absolute monster, and having such a small PC in a living room with that kind of power would wipe the floor with pretty much every other gaming system on the market.
Still, there's no need to feel despondent. The standard X51 is very powerful. As Nvidia continues to develop the Kepler range to bring the operational power requirements down even further, we may well see monstrous graphics cards sitting inside tiny little chassis.
If you're looking for a computer for the living room that won't stick out like a sore thumb but still has the raw power to tackle all the latest titles, the Alienware X51 is an excellent choice. It might not be worth the investment if you're already a keen console gamer, but you'd be getting serious bang for a fairly reasonable buck if you need an all-rounder PC for your living room.