It’s been a good 5 years, if not more, since I purchased a gaming PC. Preferring instead consoles, or whatever Mac gaming I can cobble together. I have spent a great many of these years toying with the idea of buying or building a gaming PC, but it wasn’t until catching wind of the Alienware X51 that I really committed to the idea.
The Alienware X51 represents everything I want in a gaming PC, and whilst it’s still not perfect in its execution, it’s compact, tidy and aesthetically pleasing form factor simply cannot be replicated at any price. Systems that come close weren’t sufficiently cheap enough to sway me from its enticing and captivating, console-like form-factor and systems that were cheap enough… sucked, frankly.
I say “not perfect,” but in reality it’s very close. The issues with the X51 number in the few. The most important and, to be frank, only really notable gripe being the default settings for GPU cooling. This is a software problem, and results in an out-of-the-box Alienware X51 simply falling flat on its face when gaming due to a low fan speed and subsequent overheating. A quick GPU fan-speed fix with MSI Afterburner and the system will game indefinitely without a hiccup. The result of this is increased noise, but some careful fan-speed tweaking, taking into account the ambient temperature of your room, will result in a pretty decent noise/stability balance. The trouble seems to stem from the ever-so-slightly naff OEM GTX 660 graphics card that Dell/Alienware opted to use, but rest assured that this small tweak will have you rocking Crysis 3 Multiplayer in about as high detail as I think it’s possible to crank it up to.
Although the Alienware X51 has a low-end model, you’re far better off waiting for a deep discount on the higher end. Not to mention, of course, getting a few percent of the cost back via Quidco. The i5 and i7 models, coupled with the GTX660 and that all-important 330 watt power supply are expensive, but can be had for a reasonable price if you’re willing to wait. The low-end models come with a 220 watt power supply, which has far less power headroom for upgrades in future. You’re going to want to put a new graphics card in this eventually, so plan for that.
If you’re serious about gaming, you should go for at least an i5 CPU and a GTX660 ( OEM ) GPU with 1.5GB RAM. You get a reasonable 8GB of system memory ( you’ll likely not need any more than this for gaming ) and this is coupled with a DVD-RW drive ( or optional Blu-Ray ) and a 7200RPM, 1TB hard drive. When playing Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance I still got slow-down ( not uncommon for FA! ) with the i7 CPU when commanding a huge group of units. So if you have a particular affinity for this awesome game, you’re going to want the i7, which also results in a stunningly responsive system.
Despite its extremely compact, seemingly proprietary form-factor, the Alienware X51 will take an SSD upgrade ( an SSD can even be squeezed into the case in addition to the existing HDD ), a faster GPU, quite probably a faster CPU and definitely more RAM. I’ve opted to stick an SSD into mine and keep it clean from any useless operating system files ( sticking the OS onto an SSD does approximately nothing for gaming, and everything to reduce the SSDs lifespan ). I’ll be authoring another post, hopefully soon, about the SSD installation process, and the benefits it offers for gaming.
In terms of performance, the X51 is no slouch. It’ll run most games at time of writing on full settings at a respectable frame-rate. I’ve been enjoying Settlers 7, Anno, Crysis, Crysis 2, Crysis 3 MP Beta, Dues Ex: Human Revolution, Natural Selection 2, Planetside 2 and many more.
A full-sized graphics card in the X51 also means you’ve got no fewer than two DVI ports, one HDMI port and 1 DisplayPort to play with. I couldn’t resist hooking up three monitors and playing a little Natural Selection and Planetside at something like 3072*768. Astute observers will realise that this isn’t a great resolution for multiple monitors ( I don’t have enough decent monitors! ) and is only slightly more demanding than 1080p. Triple-head gaming is an interesting experience. You probably aren’t going to drive 5670*1080 are a decent framerate, but if I ever get the opportunity to try, I surely will.
I’m looking forward to getting an SSD installed, and reckon it’s probably the most significant upgrade I could do until the GeForce 7XX series graphics cards arrive and drop substantially enough in price ( I will likely just pick up a second X51 when that happens anyway ). The X51 really has no need of an SSD for enhancing boot-up speed which, with Windows 8 at least, is absurdly quick.
Overall, the small form factor, unparalleled good looks, and upgradability makes the X51 a seriously good choice for the space and style conscious gamer. It’s a little noisy, particularly when gaming, but not excessively so. Grab the i7 version and treat yourself to an SSD and you’ll have a system which will run rings around games consoles when it comes to slick graphics and lightning quick loading speeds. And with Steam Big Picture you’ll have a close-to-console experience with all that PC goodness and flexibility.
AlienFX lovers will be moderately disappointed by the fact the built-in lighting doesn’t support colour transitions, but this is only a minor fleeting disappointment and not a big deal for anyone who wants to get down to gaming.
I would wholly recommend this system to anyone looking for a compact, good-enough gaming setup with a low power footprint that’ll look great alongside a TV or on a desk.
If, however, you’re serious about multi-monitor, ridiculously-high-resolution or benchmark pissing contests, however, you might want to go for something bigger, with more capacity for upgrades and decidedly uglier. I, for one, am enamoured with the progress that the X51 represents and will never look back.
Oh, and get Windows 8. It’s brilliant for a gaming rig, if only because there’s no possible way you’ll ever be able to endure it on a workstation. If you want Media Center, however, stick with 7. I had to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro and get a free key for Media Center from Microsoft’s now expired promotion. Alienware/Dell? Ship with Windows 8 Pro, please.