Introducing the Alienware X51

While Alienware isn't openly inviting comparisons to Microsoft's Xbox 360 with their brand new X51 gaming desktop, it's hard not to see the resemblance, at least in form factor. But where Microsoft's aging console continues trudging away with generations old hardware, Alienware has produced an authentic Windows 7 gaming PC in a shell roughly the same size. Not just that, but they're introducing it at one of the lowest prices we've ever seen for what's ordinarily a very premium brand. Was Alienware able to cram a fully-powered machine in this tiny chassis, or were too many sacrifices made?

The X51 is basically the size of an Xbox 360, but the insides are pure PC: Alienware employs a Mini-ITX motherboard, desktop-level Sandy Bridge Intel processors, and a full-sized double-slot graphics card (rotated ninety degrees and connected via a riser card to the PCIe 2.1 x16 slot).

The component options available are listed below, and we've bolded the items from our review unit where applicable. Alienware currently has four models listed, with slightly varying specs. Our unit is the $949 model with an upgrade to 8GB RAM, though it's of course possible to upgrade other areas on your own.

Alienware X51 Specifications
Chassis Custom Alienware X51
Processor Intel i7-2600
(4x3.4GHz, Hyper-Threading, Turbo to 3.8GHz, 32nm, 8MB L3, 95W)

Intel Core i5-2320
(4x3GHz, No Hyper-Threading, Turbo to 3.3GHz, 32nm, 6MB L3, 95W)

Intel i3-2120
(2x3.3GHz, Hyper-Threading, No Turbo, 32nm, 3MB L3, 65W)
Motherboard Custom H61 Chipset Board
Memory 2x4GB Hynix DDR3-1333
2x2GB DDR3-1333
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 555 1GB GDDR5 (OEM)
(288 CUDA Cores, 736/1472/3828MHz core/shaders/RAM, 192-bit memory bus)

NVIDIA GeForce GT 545 1GB GDDR5 (OEM)
(144 CUDA Cores, 870/1740/3996MHz core/shaders/RAM, 128-bit memory bus)

Intel HD 2000 IGP
(6 EUs, 1100MHz core clock)
Hard Drive(s) Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6Gbps HDD
Optical Drive(s) HL-DT-ST DVD+/-RW GA31N slot-loading drive
Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo slot-loading drive
Power Supply 330W Custom
240W Custom
Networking Dell Wireless 1502 802.11b/g/n (150Mbps 2.4GHz)
Realtek PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC892
Speaker, mic/line-in, surround jacks, optical out and S/PDIF for 7.1 sound
Front Side Optical drive
2x USB 2.0
Headphone and mic jacks
Top -
Back Side Optical and S/PDIF
HDMI (IGP)
4x USB 2.0
Ethernet
2x USB 3.0
Speaker, mic/line-in, surround jacks
2x DVI-D (GeForce)
1x Mini-HDMI (GeForce)
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 12.54"-13.5" (back-front) x 12.52" x 3.74"
(318.5-343mm x 318mm x 95mm)
Weight 12.1 lbs. (5.49kg)
Extras External PSU
Integrated 802.11b/g/n
User-configurable external lighting
NVIDIA Optimus
Warranty 1-year parts, labor, and support
Pricing Starts at $699
Review system configured at $999

Alienware keeps the configuration options for the X51 pretty lean, but they benefit tremendously from being a subdivision of Dell as opposed to a standalone boutique. The X51 enjoys a custom chassis design just like all of Alienware's hardware does, but they also have access to OEM only graphics hardware.

The entry level system offers Intel's Core i3-2120 dual-core processor, certainly plenty for gaming, and pairs it up with NVIDIA's GeForce GT 545. Our review unit steps each of these up to the next available part: the Intel Core i5-2320 and GeForce GTX 555. Unfortunately the X51 maxes out at the GTX 555 while the processor can be upgraded to a Core i7-2600 for users who want an extra 400MHz plus Hyper-Threading on the CPU.

The GT 545 and GTX 555 are odd birds in and of themselves, but the graphics card in the X51 is user upgradeable. So why these parts? The GT 545 is a touch above entry-level; it's a GDDR5-equipped part (OEM only as opposed to the DDR3-equipped retail parts) and sports a cut-down GF116 GPU, with 144 CUDA cores and a 128-bit memory bus hooked up to 1GB of GDDR5. The chip is clocked at 870MHz (putting the shaders at 1.7GHz) and the memory is clocked at an effective 4GHz.

More compelling is the GeForce GTX 555 that our review unit is equipped with. Due to limitations on the X51's external power supply, the X51 can't handle graphics cards rated for more than 150 watts. Thankfully the GTX 555 maximizes that power envelope; it employs a trimmed-down GF114 GPU with 288 CUDA cores enabled along with a 192-bit memory bus and 1GB of GDDR5. That's an asymmetrical memory configuration just like the desktop GTX 550 Ti has but on different silicon. The GPU itself is clocked at 736MHz (for 1472MHz on the shaders) and the memory runs at an effective 3.8GHz. Note also that models that ship with the upgraded GTX 555 GPU get the larger 330W external power brick, so if you're thinking about upgrading to a different GPU in the future you will most definitely want to go with the higher spec system.

The icing on the graphics cake is that the X51 is the first instance of desktop Optimus we've seen. That's right: you can actually plug your monitor into the IGP's HDMI port and the tower will power down the GPU when it's not in use. This implementation functions just like the notebook version does, and it's a welcome addition.

Where I think Alienware does lose a point is in the storage configuration. Understanding internal real estate is at a premium, the single 3.5" drive bay still hurts a little at a time when the ideal system configuration is an SSD for a system drive and a mechanical disk for storage. The 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 included isn't bad, but it will hurt the X51 in PCMark testing and detracts a little from the overall user experience. Given the sloped shape of the chassis, however, we would have preferred a modified design with space for a 2.5" SSD/HDD at the back. That said, the X51's motherboard has enough SATA ports for you to remove the 3.5" drive and replace it with a pair of 2.5" drives, so the enterprising end user can opt to install an SSD and notebook hard drive.

Finally, the X51 supports USB 3.0 on the back, has a slot-loading optical drive that can be upgraded to a Blu-ray reader, and has wireless networking included on a user-replaceable mini-PCIe card that's mounted to the motherboard.

The final price of $1000 for our review unit gets you a very interesting piece of hardware, though obviously there's a price premium for going with the custom Mini-ITX chassis, PSU, etc. You could put together a similar system in terms of performance with a Micro-ATX case/motherboard for under $800 quite easily, but if you want to go the Mini-ITX route things become a bit more difficult--both in terms of finding hardware that will all fit and work together well, plus the assembly process in ITX chassis generally requires more time and effort than mATX. Overall then, the price and specs are very reasonable, so let's see what this black beauty can do on the race track.

System Performance
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  • Anonymous Blowhard - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    "With such a compact design one would expect the X51 to be both loud and hot, but surprisingly this isn't the case. Quite the opposite actually; the X51 is cooler and quieter at both idle and load than the first-generation Xbox 360 was."

    I'm pretty sure I've heard quieter power tools than a first-gen 360. That's not exactly shooting for the moon there.

    How far away is that 40dB measurement being taken from? This makes the difference between "gaming capable HTPC" and "banned from the living room."
    Reply
  • haukionkannel - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    This is something like a paragon of "the best you can get" when thinking next generation consoles.
    The consoles are most propably even more cripled by power consumption and this would be too expensive, so they would reguire allso cheaper parts...
    Nice to see when xbox 720 comes out how it would compare to this...
    Reply
  • A5 - Saturday, February 18, 2012 - link

    Take this and replace the GPU with something with DX11.1 support and similar thermals (a 6850 with DX11.1 features added seems reasonable instead of a 7770), and you're probably in the ballpark.

    Good-looking console games come from the incredible amount of optimization possible due to a single hardware configuration, not from the power of the hardware.
    Reply
  • A5 - Saturday, February 18, 2012 - link

    You'd also replace the CPU with some kind of PPC variant if the rumors are to be believed. Reply
  • tipoo - Saturday, February 18, 2012 - link

    The first revision 360 had a 200W maximum power draw, this has a 172W draw. I think they could do it, but I think Microsoft at least, and probably Sony too, will re-think the selling for a loss strategy this round as it took them a looong time to recoup losses. There's a rumor the Nextbox will use a 6670-like card, but I think (and hope) that is false, as the original 360 dev kits used an old x800 graphics card before they finally came with the x1900-like chip in the 360. Reply
  • Traciatim - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    It's really unfortunate that you couldn't have done the gaming benchmarks with the I3, i5, and i7 models to see how much of a difference each step makes in a variety of games. Reply
  • Wolfpup - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    The answer is power gating, not switchable graphics. Until we have that better, we need the GPU acting as a GPU.

    These articles keep acting like it's fine, and in practice, it's one person after another getting blue screens, driver weirdness, difficulty installing Nvidia or AMD's drivers, etc., that you just don't see on most systems without switchable graphics.

    Articles like this that keep promoting it have casual users trying to buy stuff confused, when you've got 10 people on a forum trying to talk them out of it.

    I'm used to Anandtech being dead on with everything, so this Optimus push of the last few years is BIZARRE.
    Reply
  • TrackSmart - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    Switchable graphics makes a lot of sense for a mobile system, where an extra couple of watts of power draw can mean an extra hour or two of battery life. I'm already amazed at how little energy *very powerful* modern graphics cards use when idling. How much lower do you think they can realistically go? Until they can get within range of their mobile parts at idle, switchable graphics will continue to be a compelling feature for keeping laptops running longer.

    If you are talking specifically about desktop computers, then I agree that the benefits are minimal. Aside for access to Quick Sync for those few people who would use it.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    "...in practice, it's one person after another getting blue screens, driver weirdness, difficulty installing Nvidia or AMD's drivers, etc., that you just don't see on most systems without switchable graphics..."

    I disagree. I've had very few BSODs, taking all of the Optimus laptops I've tested/used together over the past few years. I'm sure there are probably exceptions, but certainly within the last 18 months I've had no complaints that I can think of with Optimus on my personal laptops.

    I don't think Optimus fills a major need for a desktop, but posts like yours claiming that Optimus is essentially driver hell and problems are, in my experience, the rantings of someone who either had one bad experience or simply hasn't used it.

    But let's put it another way: what specific laptops have you used/tested with Opitmus where there were clear problems with Optimus working properly, where drivers couldn't be updated, etc.?
    Reply
  • TrackSmart - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    Gamers are the target audience, yet a marginally bigger case would have allowed for a more powerful GPU. Or a similarly powerful GPU for a lot less money. This is not a mobile system where every square cm of space counts, so why force the consumer to make such large compromises in price:performance?

    Obviously I'm not the target audience. Just like I will never own an "all in one" desktop computer that has the performance of a laptop. It just doesn't make sense unless you have absurd space limitations.
    Reply

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