Dell’s Alienware brand produces enthusiast PCs that generally don’t try to compete on price, but its latest effort represents a change to that tactic. The X51 is a small-form-factor PC that takes Alienware’s gaming expertise and attempts to sell it to the living room masses. It’s immediately clear the X51 is designed to challenge consoles, with its black gloss, sleek curves and familiar Alienware touches. The stylised UFO logo on the front lights up and can be rotated to suit the PC’s orientation, and the side panels look suitably futuristic.
The X51 is small, too: 344mm tall and 94mm wide, which means it will fit into spaces traditional PCs won’t. Alienware’s designers have done a superb job in managing to cram in a fully functional gaming PC.
The bespoke motherboard hosts the CPU, memory sockets and several other key components, but there are two daughterboards for internal headers and links to the front-panel connectors and various lights. A separate board rises from the PCI Express x16 slot to rotate the graphics card through 90 degrees, and the card is held in a sturdy metal caddy. The gap beneath is partly left for air to reach the GPU, but also to leave room for the 3.5in hard disk.
It’s a superb compact design, with cables routed discreetly throughout, and care taken over component placement. Upgrade space is understandably at a premium: the memory, CPU and wireless card are easily accessible, but it takes effort to extract the graphics card or the hard disk from beneath the metal frame. This PC isn’t meant for tinkering.
The small case also places limitations on the components. Our sample had a 3GHz Intel Core i5-2320 and 8GB of RAM, and the X51 scored 0.87 in our benchmarks. That’s nothing special for a PC at this price .
Gaming performance is similarly mid-range. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 545 is an OEM card that’s essentially a cut-down GTX 550. The goal is obviously the 1080p resolution of today’s TV sets, but you won’t always be able to ramp the settings right up: an average of 47fps in our High quality Crysis benchmark fell to 27fps at Very High settings.
What can you do to improve frame rates? Dell offers several models and configurations, but they don’t address the core issue. Upping the processor to a Core i7-2600 and GTX 555 raises the price to $1,699. There’s also one cheaper specification available, with the same Core i5 processor, half the memory and a DVD-writer instead of Blu-ray. However, you can’t upgrade to faster graphics, due to the thermal and power limits of such a small case.
The good news is that at least the present components don’t stretch the chassis. It helps that they run at stock speeds, but the processor’s peak temperature of 71°C is fine, and the graphics card’s was only 3°C higher.
There are few surprises in the rest of the specification: 802.11n wireless, a 1TB hard disk and a slot-loading Blu-ray reader. There’s a pair of USB 3 and six USB 2 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and both optical and electrical S/PDIF.
The supplied software isn’t thrilling. AlienAutopsy has links to driver downloads and options from the Control Panel. The Command Centre has tools to change the colour of the lights and a script tool to load up software – such as VoIP or IM clients – when particular games or applications are launched. The X51 also has a rather basic BIOS.
Alienware’s PCs are among the most striking around, and the X51 is no different – it’s a fine example of small-form-factor engineering and would look great under a TV. But value is rarely Alienware’s strong suit, and that remains the case here. The X51 costs more than faster PCs, yet doesn’t quite meet the goal that would make it enticing: 1080p gaming at console-killing top settings. It’s a good effort, but it may take a generation to fulfill its clear potential.