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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  • ranilus - Monday, February 20, 2012 - link

    The advantage is the flexibility of where you can put the system. On the desk, right beside/behind the monitor, on the floor, in an entertainment center, etc.

    I had an Aurora. I was happy with the stock CPU and GPU, didn't feel the need to upgrade or overclock, or add SLI/CF or RAID 0. But that case, on man it wasn't just HUGE. It was HEAVY. I think it was 60lbs. I couldn't put it on the desktop. I couldn't fit it in my computer desk which had space for a computer tower, I could only put it beside the desk, and it was sort of in the way the whole time.

    There's always the want for simplicity, a neat desk-area, a clutter-free Feng-shui, and/or an aesthetically pleasing gaming room. The X51 achieves that, while also being relatively powerful.

    It is indeed just as you've said, you are obviously not the target audience. Really the system, and All-In-Ones, are for those who appreciates a holistic Chi.
    Reply
  • Coup27 - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    Nice review and a neat little system. What sets this apart is the custom design and build. On that front it is a shame there is only one photo of inside the unit itself and even that you cannot see past the side. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Friday, February 17, 2012 - link

    I like the clean built and the form factor and the relative power it packs. However, I'm a PC nerd and would never buy a complete PC unless I can save 100-200 bucks compared to the components used (which is impossible). Reply
  • Leyawiin - Saturday, February 18, 2012 - link

    I'm kind of intrigued by this tiny form factor and the relative power it has. I'm sure it would perform better than my mid-range PC (GTX 460 OC'd and X4 955 OC'd). Interesting... Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, February 18, 2012 - link

    CPU would be faster in some cases, yes, but the GPU? Overclocked GTX 460 is almost certainly going to outperform the GTX 555 (OEM). 460 has 336 cores at 1350MHz (stock), which works out to 907.2 GFLOPS (theoretical), and the 256-bit GDDR5 memory interface at 3600MHz (effective) gives you 115.2 GB/s of bandwidth -- that's assuming you have the 1GB version of the GTX 460; if not, you'd be sitting down at 86.4 GB/s.

    In comparison, the GTX 555 has 288 cores at 1553 MHz, which yields a theoretical 894.5 GFLOPS. It has a 192-bit memory interface running at 3828MHz, for 91.9GB/s of bandwidth. So, at stock the GTX 460 1GB card would have 1-2% more computations power and 25% more bandwidth, but you say your card is overclocked which would mean that however far you've overclocked basically translates directly into more computational power.
    Reply
  • Leyawiin - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    Ah, I'm not that familiar with the GTX 555 since its OEM and there are no reviews anywhere. I am playing Skyrim almost exclusively right now and its so CPU bound I was thinking that stronger CPU would have more of an impact. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    The 1.4 update should have alleviated a lot of the CPU-bound issues. At least, it seems to have done so on my PC. Plus you can also use the high resolution texture packs -- though with a 1GB card that might be asking too much. Reply
  • TareX - Sunday, February 19, 2012 - link

    Extremely irrelevant, but I'm wondering when Anandtech will be reviewing the world's latest, fastest, most impressive handheld gaming machine coming out this week... Reply
  • AndySocial - Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - link

    I find it interesting that no reviewers ever seem to review the base model. It seems that would be enlightening. Many people are probably intrigued by the idea of a small system with ostensibly enough power to play current games on their HDTV (gotta love HDMI standardization across PC and TV usage). But, this review, like every other I've seen so far, won't tell them if the most-affordable system is worth buying. This is especially true when the X51 is using OEM-only video cards, so a typical user is not going to be able to find a lot of comparisons of other systems with the same specs. Reply

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