There was a time when Alienware represented the absolute largesse of gaming PCs: if you owned one, it was because you had way too much money, but you were cool as all hell for doing so.
Buying pre-built PCs isn't as popular as it was 15 years ago, but Alienware PCs can still fill the same purpose: they're massive, they're expensive, and they're bloody powerful.
Alienware PCs were the stuff of legend. The gigantic, UFO-themed cases were the stuff of envy at LANs. And while they were far from the most affordable machines on the market, they weren't designed to be. You bought an Alienware because you wanted the best. Not the second best. Not the best value for money. Not the most cost-effective. The best. Period.
Back in the day, owning an Alienware PC was the sign of having way too much money. Only the richest parents could afford one. They weren't gaming machines. they were status symbols for nerds.
Of course, there were always better machines out there for those who wanted to pay several thousand dollars at a time. And you could always build a PC with equivalent specs for cheaper.
But some brands are about status. And while Alienware has taken a more affordable bent ever since they were bought by Dell, the Area 51 gaming desktop line still harks back to the brand's glory days.
Look at it. It weighs a ton. The starting weight listed on the official website: 28kg. I'm not entirely sure if the model we received weighed that much specifically, but Christ it was heavy.
It's heavy on the wallet, too. The R5 line, the latest model of the Area 51 desktops, start from $3000 and only get higher from there. The baseline gets you a GTX 1050 Ti with 8GB RAM and a i7-7800X, which isn't really much to speak of. Pay another grand and you'll get the i7-8720X with 16GB RAM and a GTX 1070, which is more befitting of something in this price range (especially given how much top of the line GPUs cost right now).
As for the full specs list, here's the main bits from the machine I tested:
Intel i7-7820X @ 3.6GHz base, 4.5GHz turbo
32GB DDR4 RAM @ 2666MHz, quad channel
Geforce GTX 1080 8GB
1x 250GB Samsung NVMe SSD, 1x 2TB Seagate Barracuda SATA 7200 RPM HDD
As far as the ports are concerned, the back panel features 6x USB 3.1 ports, a single USB-C port, two regular USB 2.0 ports, two ethernet slots (one Intel, one Killer NIC), and your standard audio/optical out ports. The front has your audio/microphone jacks, two USB 3.1 and USB 3.1 superspeed plugs, and an optical drive for good measure.
There's plenty of functionality, really, and the model we tested has plenty of power. The exact unit we had would set you back $4809.01 if you were to buy it from the Dell online store (an extra $360 to upgrade to 32GB of quad channel RAM and another $450 for the jump from the GTX 1070 to GTX 1080).
Whichever model you get, the Area 51 will ship with some branded Alienware programming. The Alienware Control Centre gives you a range of monitors and tools, including live diagnostics on temperatures and fan speeds. The AlienFX, AlienAdrenaline and AlienFusion software is the same as you'd find on the Alienware gaming laptops, allowing for customised lighting, power settings, macros and other functionality and shortcuts. Most people will leave all of this alone, mind you, but it's there if you want it.
What most people will do, of course, is run games. I put the Area 51 through its paces using a blend of in-game benchmarks and 3D Mark Fire Strike tests. The Alienware 34" gaming monitor that I played with was still around the office at the time of testing, so I plugged that in and tested the Area 51's capability for handling a common ultra widescreen resolution as well. 1440p wasn't an option, but I'll get back to that in a moment.
For the record, all tests were run using NVIDIA's 391.35 drivers.
You can go on and on with these kinds of games, so I opted for a mix of games across a variety of engines. Total Warhammer 2 and Ghost Recon: Wildlands ran in DX11, while Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation was benchmarked in DX12 mode, for clarity. (Wildlands doesn't have an option to change to DX12, while Warhammer 2's DX12 mode tends to get better results from AMD cards.)
Each of the games were ran at their respective second-highest presets for a couple of reasons. Firstly, anyone buying the Area 51 is also liable to be buying a monitor with a high-end refresh rate: you don't spend upwards of $3000 on a machine only to push it through a 60Hz TN-based screen.
As a result, higher frame rates will matter. But as is becoming increasingly known, there's not enough visual upgrade in games between the High to Ultra or High to Highest presets. Kingdom Come: Deliverance was a recent example: the highest settings have some astonishingly good techniques for replicating light refractions indoors, but the hit to the frame rate is so substantial that even high end PCs with a GTX 1080 Ti can't maintain a stable 60 FPS.
At 1080p, our Area 51 had no qualms pushing out high frame rates. Ultrawide resolutions are another matter, mind you: unless you're prepared to lower settings to Medium, or individually downgrade some of the harder-hitting options, that 60 FPS mark might be a bit harder to hit.
The recommendation here, then, is that if you have an Area 51 with our setup above, stick to a 1440p monitor. That should be a good balance between resolution and frame rate, unless you're on a smaller 1080p screen, in which case you should feel free to crank it. If you want the full ultrawide experience, you'd need to pay several hundred extra for a GTX 1080 Ti. Certain Area 51 R5 models can ship with a second graphics card, but given how SLI support has fared over the last few years, the single graphics card is the better option.
All of this is moot if you don't like a single thing: the gigantic, triangle-shaped chassis. No matter the internals, that's one thing that won't change. So if you don't like that, then the Area 51 will be a bust regardless of what configuration you go for.
But I kind of like it. It helps that I have some history, having owned an Alienware PC in the past. It's because of that, however, that the Area 51 reminds me of what the Alienware brand represents. The power-to-dollar equation really isn't any different than what it was before - if you want to be ruthless with your wallet, building your own PC will always be vastly better value.
It's a status symbol. Sure, it's the sign of someone who has way too much money on their hands. But that's always been a target market for the high-end Alienware PCs, and it's nice to know that some things haven't changed.