There's something kooky about Alienware. It's the kid at school who threw balled-up paper around during maths lessons, but then quietly snuck off to read up on relativity at lunch time. The Alienware brand says 'late-90s raver', but the Alienware components and price-tag say 'I'm deadly serious about my PC'.
Characterised by a distinctive alien-head logo, Alienware's quirky PC designs have always been a favourite of extreme gamers. The Area 51 laptop continues the company's tradition of amphetamine-ramped machines for the Half-Life-2-obsessed.
The Area 51 has a tasty bio-mechanical look to it. The chassis style isn't as extreme as HR Giger's designs for the Alien movies, but it does look like a prop from Half-Life 2. When the lid's closed and your Area 51 is in sleep mode, the eyes of the Alienware logo pulse threateningly. Far from cheesy, this is actually quite an endearing feature -- and probably enough to make a laptop thief think twice before snagging your interplanetary visitor. After all, if its eyes glow, what else might the creature be capable of?
If the Alienware Area 51 was a Bond girl, it'd be Portsy Galore. It's got four USB ports, two FireWire, every card slot you can imagine and a DVI-out for digital video. Promiscuous? It's everyone's PC -- there's even S-video and composite out.
Presumably because the screen is just so unashamedly massive, there are two catches to keep it shut. Beneath the keyboard there's an old-school LED display that lets you use the Area 51's CD drive as a stand-alone player without having to boot up the whole shebang. The drive runs on minimal power -- it's a great touch.
Alienware has taken advantage of the Area 51's size with a keyboard that spans most of the laptop's width. Unlike the famously porky Toshiba Qosmio G10, the Area 51 makes good use of the extra few centimetres that a jumbo screen like this affords. There's a numeric keypad that, while appealing to accountants, will mainly excite gamers who'll enjoy the degree of extra control this gives them. It's all the better to whip your game character around and quickly lop off a zombie's head.
There's some serious cooling-fan action on the base of the Area 51. Four independent fans keep this beast from turning apocalyptic -- there's a lot to be kept cool. The Area 51's high-performance graphics card and 3.8GHz processor run hot. Intel processors are not renowned for their low power consumption; in fact they make some of the toastiest CPUs on the market. When you're running a laptop processor at high speed, you need to do something with the generated heat, and Alienware has done an impressive job of working cooling into the case design.
Although gorgeously bright and sharp, the Area 51's LCD suffers the same problems as the screens on several other laptops we've recently reviewed: it's distractingly reflective. If you're gaming in a dark environment, there won't be a problem, but in every other situation, you'll see a lot of yourself reflected back at you. Compared to the LCD screens we use on our desktop computers, the Area 51's LCD is unforgivably glary in an office environment. To get the best out of most games, you'll want to be in the dark anyway, but Alienware has made a mistake by not treating the screen with an anti-glare finish.
Two FireWire ports make the Area 51 a good choice for video graphics professionals, or anyone who needs to add some high-speed external storage. Although USB is getting faster, FireWire still shames it for raw performance. You're unlikely to run out of internal storage space for a while, though, as the Area 51 comes with a 120GB hard disk. We packed it with just about every great game currently available and still had space left over. There's also an optical writer, which is compatible with all formats of DVD and CD recordable media.
Our review model ran Windows XP Professional and was ready for action out of the box -- there's no need to set up users or fiddle with system preferences. Hitman: Contracts installed without a hitch and we were soon popping caps into asylum patients at some quite brutal resolutions and texture levels. Cranking all of Hitman's graphics preferences up to their limits had no noticeable effect on frame rates. Everything looked smooth and realistic, even when multiple enemies attacked.
The Area 51's sound system is nothing short of cinematic. Initially dubious about the ability of a laptop to pull off surround sound, we turned things right up during a game of Half-Life 2 to see what Alienware is capable of. During one shoot-out, the blood-curdling screams of the nearly-dead echoed from what seemed like somewhere behind us.
Whether it was simulating the screams of war casualties, the screams of hapless pedestrians, or the screams of zombies, the death-bellows of the injured were always chillingly realistic. Racing games also performed well: rumbling engines and the squeal of rubber in surround sound are enough to make you start sniffing the air for a trace of engine oil that isn't really there.
Although the Alienware looks great on paper, to be honest, the 3.8GHz Pentium 4 processor and GeForce 6800 graphics card are academic: when you're pumping lead into civilians at 1,680x1,050, there's no time to dwell on a spec sheet. If this really is alien technology, we take our hats off to the little green men and offer them a quick suckle on our brains -- if that's what gets them going.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide