Unlike its higher-end sibling, the Aurora mALX, the silver-and-black Alienware Area-51 m5550 has a subdued look that might blend in to the corporate landscape, were it not for the familiar glowing alien head on the lid. At 3.1kg, the Area-51 m5550 is also designed to be slightly more mobile than the mALX -- though its disappointingly brief battery life is likely to keep users tethered to the wall socket.
The laptop did post some of the best test scores we've seen on our application benchmarks, so if you're looking for raw power (and you can afford to pay nearly two grand to get it), you won't go wrong with the Alienware Area-51 m5550. If you need a laptop that will run on its battery for extended periods, though, we recommend a similar and less expensive system, such as the HP Pavilion dv6000.
Measuring 362mm wide, 273mm deep and 35mm thick, the Area-51 m5550 is a tad larger than the HP Pavilion dv6000. We wouldn't want to carry the 3.1kg (even more with the power adaptor) m5550 every day, although we could easily imagine taking it with us on the occasional trip.
The glossy finish on the Area-51 m5550's 15.4-inch display resulted in rich, deep colours in nearly all scenarios. Unfortunately, it also was quite reflective in even average office-light environments. The screen's 1,280x800-pixel native resolution looks sharp and gives you enough room to keep multiple windows open side by side.
The keyboard on the Area-51 m5550 is just less than full-size (the spacebar is half-size) and requires some adjustment to type comfortably. Users of keyboard shortcuts should note that Alienware has jettisoned the right-side control key to free up space. While the keyboard is somewhat cramped, the track pad is downright spacious, and we appreciate its separate vertical scroll zone. Likewise, the two large mouse buttons were easy to activate. We love the track pad on/off button, which let us easily disable the pad when typing or when using an external mouse.
A small built-in microphone sits to the left of the track pad; we're surprised there's not a webcam (a feature we're seeing on more laptops in this category) to go with it. Above the keyboard, four programmable buttons launch frequently used applications and tap in to Alienware's support site. The laptop lacks any external media controls, save the volume wheel on the left-hand side of the case.
The Alienware Area-51 m5550 has an average selection of ports and jacks for a midsize laptop. There are S-Video, DVI and VGA connectors, three USB 2.0 ports and a four-pin FireWire port, plus a microphone jack and a headphone jack that doubles as an S/PDIF connector. Networking connections include Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g wireless and a modem.
You can add functionality to the Area-51 m5550 via the ExpressCard/54 slot, and there's a built-in 4-in-1 card reader that recognises Secure Digital, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro and MultiMediaCard formats. A tray-loading DVD burner completes the laptop's feature set -- almost the only thing missing is a Bluetooth adaptor (available as a £29 option).
Priced at £1,859, our Alienware Area-51 m5550 cost several hundred pounds more than other Core 2 Duo systems we've reviewed, but in its most basic configuration (£899) it still comes in well under the price of larger gaming systems, such as the Dell XPS M1710. Our configuration of the Area-51 m5550 included a top-of-the-line 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7600, 2GB of fast 667MHz RAM, a 100GB hard drive spinning at 7,200rpm, and an Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 video card with 256MB of dedicated memory.
On every one of our benchmarks, the Alienware outscored the competition, posting some of the highest application performance scores we've seen to date. That performance comes at the cost of battery life, though: the Area-51 m5550's six-cell battery lasted just 99 minutes in our drain tests -- about half of the average for a system of its size and less than even some desktop replacements, such as the Dell XPS M1710.