The Alienware Area-51 m5700 embodies the company's passion for creating high-performance laptops by squashing a host of fast components inside a large but surprisingly lean chassis. It isn't small, but it's good for much more than just typing documents and doing your homework on -- this is a laptop that can handle anything from spreadsheets to 3D gaming. Some aspects of its specification have been eclipsed by newer components, and it is enormously pricey in comparison to laptops from smaller vendors, but if you want a laptop from one of the big names, the Alienware is a worthy contender.
The Area-51 m5700 has inherited most of the design characteristics of past Alienware laptops. The top of its lid sports the company's distinctive logo: an ominous alien head with glowing blue eyes, sandwiched between rubberised rib-like protrusions that provide extra grip when carrying the laptop. Flip the lid open and things are far less interesting. The m5700 is only available in Alienware's 'Xeno grey' colouring -- or 'granddad grey' as we call it. The laptop also lacks any of the usual aesthetic accoutrements you'd find on a gaming notebook. There are no glowing neon lights or psychedelic LEDs, so if you like your laptops gaudy, you'd better look elsewhere.
The Area-51 m5700 definitely isn't intended for use on the road. It's easy to transport to and from LAN parties if you're that way inclined, but its 17-inch screen makes it unwieldy, so it probably won't venture too far from your desk. That said, this is one of the thinnest Alienware laptops we've seen in some time. Whereas older Alienware laptops used power-hungry Pentium 4s that required large cooling solutions, the m5700's Pentium M CPU uses a more petite offering that can be crammed into a smaller chassis.
Its keyboard is large and comfortable, but we were slightly disappointed by the lack of a dedicated number pad, since there's plenty of room for one. We also took issue with its mouse touchpad, which was unresponsive at times. It has a dedicated scroll panel that makes it easy to scroll through long text documents, but it's not uncommon for the ball of your right hand to accidentally touch the pad as you type. This can cause the cursor to randomly jump around your document, so text could end up in the wrong place. We'd recommend getting the optional Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer for an extra £27.
Alienware has included the almost mandatory quick-launch buttons above the keyboard for one-touch access to a media player, Web browser and email client. This reduces the need to hunt for icons on your desktop or Windows Start menu. The fourth button in this set is rather more unusual: it serves as a means of reducing the speed of the laptop's cooling fans. This is a feature you'll appreciate when using the laptop late at night -- unless of course your boyfriend/girlfriend finds the incessant whine of a cooling fan conducive to a good night's sleep.
There are a number of processor and memory options for the m5700, but our review sample shipped with the top of the line Pentium M 770 CPU and 1GB of fast DDR2 memory running at 533MHz. The m5700 is one of few laptops that can use two hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration. This increases disk transfer rates and can dramatically improve performance in many applications. Our test sample came with a single 80GB hard drive running at a fairly average 5,400rpm, but a faster 7,200rpm version is available for an extra £46.
Graphics are handled by an Nvidia Geforce Go 6800 -- a very capable adaptor that was king of the hill until it was superseded by the Go 7800 GTX. This makes a good accompaniment to the notebook's imposing 17-inch screen. The display is great for watching DVD movies, but it has some trouble reproducing near-white or near-black tones -- which are hard to distinguish from solid white and black. As a result, the m5700 isn't ideal for editing digital pictures. The standard m5700 screen has a native resolution of 1,440x900 pixels, but if you're a serious gamer we'd recommend spending an extra £76 for the WideUXGA version that can display up to 1,920x1,200 pixels -- the fast graphics card will go to waste otherwise.
The m5700 has four USB ports -- many laptops have three or less. These are evenly spaced, so you shouldn't have much trouble connecting several devices side by side. We were disappointed at the lack of a full-size (6-pin)FireWire port. There's an unpowered mini (4-pin) FireWire port that can accept most FireWire devices via an adaptor, but this isn't included in the box. Wireless 802.11g Wi-Fi access is a standard feature, and there's a gigabit Ethernet port providing network speeds of up to 1,000Mbps (most PCs only go as fast as 100Mbps). You'll also find a 4-in-1 memory card reader that accepts SD, Memory Stick, Memory Stick and MMC cards, and an SPDIF audio jack that lets you to pump sound through a 7.1-channel speaker system. Our test sample came with an 8-speed dual-layer DVD drive, but this proved incredibly noisy when installing applications.
The basic software package with the m5700 is miserly. Our test sample only had Microsoft Windows XP Professional and a copy of Battlefield 2. You can add various versions of Microsoft Works or Office should you want to do some real work on it. The laptop comes with a standard 1-year collect and return warranty with 24-hour phone support.
The m5700 offers strong performance. We tested it using Sysmark 2004, and it returned a fairly healthy score of 166. This makes it around one and a half times quicker than desktop PCs using a 2GHz Pentium 4 processor and 512MB of Ram. As a result, it's more than up to the task of handling everyday productivity applications or more strenuous tasks such as video editing.
Its graphics performance is also very strong. The Geforce Go 6800 graphics card helped it clock up 3,733 in 3DMark 2005 and it ran Far Cry at 68.5 frames per second (FPS) using the default image settings. We've seen slightly better scores from laptops using almost identical specifications, but the m5700 definitely holds its own as a gaming machine. Serious gamers should note the fact that we saw some slight 'tearing' while playing games. This is a sign that the graphics card's frame rate is greater than the screen's refresh rate -- but it's a common issue on many TFT panels and most users won't even notice it.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide