Alienware Area 51 Laptop Review...

A good few years ago (February 2004) I purchased an Alienware laptop. I didn't have a blog at the time so wasn’t able to comment on the product or my experiences with Alienware. However - I was having a chat with a friend on the weekend and he reminded me that somewhere in storage I have a ‘Saucer Silver’ Alienware Area51 Laptop and thought it may be beneficial to someone if I was to post some sort of review about it.

It wasn’t cheap – costing me about £2,500.00 (inc VAT) – but was a great spec. I was after a really powerful, hi-res laptop that would enable me to run Photoshop / Illustrator / Flash / After Effects and the like when I was out of the office or on contracts where they couldn’t supply me a reasonable machine. The Alienware seemed a good choice though I must admit it was the slick looks (yes – and even that little alien on the back of the screen with illuminated eyes) that tempted me away from the likes of Sony Viao’s or MacBook Pro’s.

For some reason I still have the manual in my bottom drawer so I can give you the spec:

CPU: Intel Pentium 4 CPU 3.00GHz (x2)
Case Colour: Saucer(!) Silver
Memory: 1024MB
HDD: 60.1GB HTS726060M9AT00
Optical: QSI DVDRW SDW-041
OS: XP Pro
BIOS: American Megatrends Inc 080009 A M I 2000410
AGP: ATI Mobility Radeon 9600/9700 Series (128)
C-Media AC97 Audio Device
Smart Link 56K Modem
Realtek RTL8169/8110 Family Gigabit Ethernet NIC
O2Micro OZ711Mx MemoryCardBus Accelerator

As I recall the computer also had 3x USB ports and one of those mini FireWire ports. It also had a built in Wireless adapter, a IrDA Fast Infrared Port and a combined SD/Memory Stick reader. It came with a remote control (as big as an average TV remote), an Alienware T-Shirt, mouse mat and manual/folder with some nonsense about “For your eyes only: Agent James Marett” printed on the front. I think I had also opted for a Microsoft Intellimouse in Green, branded with the Alienware logo.

Sadly I can’t find an image of the exact model I bought at the moment but will post if I do come across one.

As far as ‘looking forward to new hardware’ goes I was pretty excited after completing my order online and checked the automated tracking system on their website at least bi-daily. I was pleased to see that, quicker than estimated, my laptop had been assembled and was ready for shipping. Over the next few days I tracked my order from Ireland, to the UK and on to the Midlands… But suddenly the trail went cold. My laptop had seemingly disappeared! I waited a few days then felt the need to make further enquiries. After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing between Alienware and the shipping company (who both blamed each other) I finally got Alienware to look into the situation. This took over a week and luckily resulting in my order being restarted from scratch as, in Alienware’s words, a priority order. What happened to my laptop I'll never know. Without wishing to offend anyone in the Midlands I'm guessing it was stolen...

Possibly ‘priority’ means something different in Ireland because Alienware’s second attempt at assembling my laptop took over three weeks. More than five time longer than the first time round. This time it was shipped it actually made it all the way to my house. Though instead of being delivered it was driven straight past and back to the depot! It took a great deal of phoning, complaining, being hung up on, made false promises and finally begging to get the shipping company to allow me to go and pick it up from the depot the following Monday rather than wait an indefinite period of time for the next ‘scheduled delivery’.

So finally… I had in my hand my shipment. I rushed home and set to work removing the outer packaging. The box inside was very swish – gloss black with the Alienware logo picked out in white on the front. Nice! This, I thought, is going to be worth the wait.

It wasn’t.

(Before I go any further I should say that this all took place over four years ago, Alienware may have vastly improved (or otherwise) since then so please don’t relate this article to any of their current products. I also want to steer clear of pounding the reader with a swathe of negativity so I am going to use a concept I saw on Family Guy… The ‘Compliment Sandwich’. This means I will say something good followed by an ‘area that needs improving’ followed by something good followed by an ‘area that needs improving’ and so on. So here goes…)

I carefully opened the box and removed the well packed laptop. I’m afraid to say that in the flesh the design of the laptop was disappointing. The Alienware machines always look so great in all the well-lit, cunningly positioned marketing photography but sadly in reality they aren’t so stylish. Just like the Ford Puma! What part of the ‘aluminium casing’ that was aluminium (the lid) was, to my mind, poorly pressed out of thin and tacky feeling metal. The Alien head logo in the centre of the lid looked decidedly cheap. And the rest of the casing was bulky and bulbous. It didn't seem to hang together very well – certainly a million miles from the sleek lines of a Sony or MacBook. I couldn't believe I had fallen in love with this lump of tack I was staring at.

Undeterred I pressed on, opened the screen and pressed the power-on button. It sprang to life and booted up into XP Pro in no time. It was, and still is, one of the fastest machines I have ever owned (Mac or PC). I noticed a demo of Quake (or something) that was installed as part of the OEM so I thought I’d give it a whirl just to check out how fast it really was.

I never got that far. As I moused towards the icon I got a MASSIVE blue-screen crash! I say ‘MASSIVE’ because it truly was. Nothing I did would resurrect the machine. Turning it off and on, various safe modes, system recovery, even reinstallation from scratch. Nothing worked. I phoned the Alienware 24/7 technical support line only to find out that they weren’t! Eventually I had to call to my IT Guru brother, Alexis, to help me to figure out what was wrong. I forget the exact details now but it was pretty major and required something major to be fiddled with at BIOS level. I was eventually able to reinstall the OS and went to bed composing a lengthly letter of complaint in my mind.

I had some success with the re-install and was able to run all my high-end apps such as After Effects, Lightwave, Director, etc. on the huge 1600x1200 resolution monitor which was crisp and focused. Feeling smug I went ahead and also installed a copy of Doom 3 as a little ‘treat’.

It soon became apparent that although everything ran smooth every 20seconds or so the system would lock up for a few seconds pausing whatever you were doing. This became highly irritating. It also seemed that unless the laptop was within three meters of the wireless router the built-in WiFi was just not powerful enough to get a signal. In addition to this the battery-life of the simply enormous battery (stretching the full width of the already chunky laptop and surely weighing a full kilo) was about 50 minutes at best. Not even long enough to survive my train journey to work. This meant that I had to cart around the absolutely massive power supply as well as the extremely heavy laptop itself. During this period of my life I had almost constant backache! Portability was not one of its key features.

After I realised that I could turn off the built-in WiFi and therefore prevent the constant system lock-ups I began using my laptop on a daily basis as my main computer. Oast One was in premises in Hammersmith and I would carry the laptop to work and back every day. During this period the machine did me proud. It was fast (most the time) and enabled me to create many high-end CD ROM, Flash animation and use After Effects. I had learnt to work-around the silly niggles and blue-screen crashes the computer kept throwing at me and the keyboard was pretty good as far as laptops go, allowing me all the usual functions in a fairly well laid out manner. However – after I started working with a big Sony monitor plugged in to the Alienware as a second screen I thought I would invest in a USB keyboard (the Alienware had no PS/2 ports).

Deciding to maintain the Alienware theme rather than going for a more cost effective option I phoned Alienware and ordered a USB keyboard compatible with my Area51 laptop, a new mouse and a second power supply (so I could leave one in the office and one at home and only need one bag to carry my laptop in). The sales person happily took my order and a week or so later I took delivery. The first thing I noticed was that the MS Intellimouse was not branded Alienware as before, despite the description and premium price tag. This being the case I’m not sure why I had paid extra for it but let it slide. However – what I could not let slide was the incredibly cheap PS/2 keyboard they supplied. I had specifically requested a USB keyboard compatible with my laptop and the sales guy had looked this up on the system as the correct one. After calling to enquire Alienware told me that this PS/2 crud was the only keyboard they sold! In disbelief I asked for my money back and was told to ship the keyboard back before they would return anything. Fair enough I thought and shipped recorded delivery. I am STILL waiting for my refund over four years and many phone calls/promises later. I must admit I kind of gave up three years ago.

OK… something positive… Did I say the screen was nice?

Shortly after this we decided to set up a better network in the studio. Until now we had been pretty much surviving by email small files to each other and putting larger files onto portable hard drives or iPods. Backing-up was done manually onto externals. This is where I learnt that the Ethernet adapter in the Alienware was as good as useless. It would connect to the internet no problem but was not able to perform on a network. IF you could actually see the network when you booted it was short lived. As soon as you started copying files the network connection would disappear after two or three megabytes. Maybe as much as ten if you were lucky. Once this happened you would have to reboot and hope that the network showed up again this time round. No amount of driver updating, calls to support or fiddling would correct this.

The illumiated alien eyes on the lid changed colour depedant on what mode you we in. Red for charging, green for normal use and blue for something else. Cool bu totally pointless…

I had had enough – the Area51 was getting on worse on a daily basis. It had always intermittently blue-screened but it was now getting far worse. About 50% of the time you booted it would blue-screen. Then another huge crash that required an OS install took out a load of personal files I hadn’t backed up. I decided to get a new desktop PC and stop using it. The damn thing had been the bane of my life for well over a year and was certainly not worth the money I spent on it. Yes, on paper, it looked great but there were so, so many issues. In addition to the ones I have mentioned above:

  • The DVD drive totally stopped working
  • The remote control never really worked correctly
  • The Infrared Port never worked properly
  • The thing very big and heavy and the build quality was not up to much so it would literally rip itself apart under its own weight in transit. Even in a padded laptop bag.
  • It was incredibly noisy
  • The fan vents along the side would spew out superheated air, akin to the after-burn of a Tornado Fighter Jet. Occasionally the whole machine would get so hot it would stop working. It required over an hour to cool down.
  • Over time the monitor became discoloured in one lower corner – possibly as a result of the incredible heat it produced.
  • One of the catches on the screen broke within a week
  • The catch on the battery broke within six months

I’m sure there were more issues that slip my mind right now.

So all in all I’m afraid I wasn’t that impressed. For the price I paid I wasn’t really getting what I wanted out of a laptop. Yes, it was powerful. Yes it was fast. Yes it was high-resolution. But it wasn’t portable and it certainly wasn’t reliable.  It really makes me wonder why you would buy it over a killer desktop PC for half the price. But then again I did. I really regret not going with my gut instinct, making more fuss and sending the thing back with a demand for a refund after that very first crash. Then again I probably would have never received my money back!

A very sorry 2 out of 10 stars and a lesson learnt. No wonder I’m not sure where I put it.

ADDITION 21 December 2010: I have recently found my Alienware and shipped it to Dave White in Germany. He took delivery today - I would be interested to know how he gets on with it.