The Alienware X51 ($999.99 direct) fits everything a serious gamer needs into a compact chassis. The desktop has a full-size hard drive, desktop-class quad-core processor, and, best of all, a 150-watt discrete graphics card with multimonitor support. PC gaming is arguably “better” than console gaming because systems like the X51 can easily drive more than one monitor, and PC games can be modified by the gaming public to enhance or even radically change game play elements. Want to mash up the Star Trek and Star Wars universes on a console? You’re out of luck. On a PC, it’s almost a sure bet that there’s a universe-bending mod for your space opera game of choice. The Alienware X51 is an excellent portal to any fictional universe, and our latest Editors’ Choice for entry-level gaming desktop PCs.
Design and Features
The X51 marks the start of a new design philosophy for Alienware gaming rigs: small form factor (SFF). While there have been plenty of SFF media PCs in the past, SFF gaming PCs are relatively rare. That’s because the half-height graphics cards that fit in budget SFF PCs are unimpressive performers, highlighted by the fact that integrated graphics have caught up to the cheap $25-50 graphics cards on the game benchmark tests. The X51 turns the design paradigm (literally) on its ear by shifting the PCIe x16 connector so that a dual-slot wide graphics card can fit in the SFF chassis. The last system to try this method that we looked at was the AVADirect GT3 Core i7($1,367.26 direct, 3.5 stars). The result is virtually everything you need in a gaming PC is in the system. But doing so means that there really is no internal expansion room whatsoever, so if you want better components, you’ll have to swap something out rather than just add on. Though the interior is full, getting to components is easy. Undoing three screws is all it takes to pop out the graphics card, and the hard drive is mounted right beneath the graphics card. The power supply is an external one, which helps keep the chassis interior uncluttered, but make sure you have some room on your floor for the 330-watt brick.
Inside the chassis, you’ll find a quad-core Intel Core i5-2320 processor, 8GB of DDR3 memory, a 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi card, and a slot-loading DVD burner. You really don’t need too much else, since the system supports multiple monitors out of the box. Like the Alienware Aurora ($2,598.99 direct, 3.5 stars), the X51 comes with user-customizable lighting effects. There are three lighting zones on the X51, so you can make them all the same color, all different colors, or any combination of the three. Alienware’s Command Center software controls the lighting effects and power usage, and you can even tailor each to correspond to what game you’re playing. For example, you can turn the fans down and put red lights on for viewing DVDs, or turn the fans up and set the lights to Jedi green when playing Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The front of the system has the usual backlit alien head Alienware logo, flanked by the lit color panels. Next to the slot-loading DVD drive on the front are two USB 2.0 ports and two audio jacks for a headset. On the back, you’ll find a Kensington lock port, TOSlink and RCA jack for digital audio out, an HDMI port for the internal Intel HD Graphics 2000, six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, analog audio ports, and two DVI-I ports and mini HDMI on the graphics card. Using a combination of the DVI ports, the motherboard HDMI port, and the mini HMDI port, you can use up to three monitors with the X51. Two connected to the graphics card and one to the HDMI port on the motherboard. Obviously, you’d want your game play on the monitor(s) connected to the graphics card, but the extra HDMI port is useful for keeping a browser window, IM window, or even watching a movie on the second (or third) monitor. Having multiple monitors running off the same PC will save you the hassle of balancing a tablet or notebook on your lap while storming the Hutt stronghold on your main screen.
As you’d expect, the X51 was a great performer on our standard benchmark tests. The butter-smooth 88 frames per second (fps) score on Crysis and 86fps score on Lost Planet 2 on Medium/Middle quality setting are the hallmarks of a good entry-level gaming system. Both are near the top of the list for systems in this price range, though the more media-oriented Dell XPS 8300 (X8300-7008NBK) ($999.99 direct, 3.5 stars) was a smidge faster on Crysis (111fps) and the previous entry-level gaming EC, the Velocity Micro Edge Z40 ($1,199 direct, 4 stars), was faster on Lost Planet 2 (130fps). You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference at these frame rates, though. At the higher quality settings on both games, all three were below playable frame rates, with the Velocity Z40 (33fps Crysis and 49fps Lost Planet 2) eking a win over the X51 (22fps Crysis and 35fps Lost Planet 2), with the XPS 8300 (20fps Crysis and 19fps Lost Planet 2) bringing up the rear. You should be able to find a happy medium with the Velocity Z40 and Alienware X51 systems, however. The X51 was the top dog on the 3DMark 11 tests (5,184 Entry and 1,059 Extreme), handily beating previously tested systems at both quality settings.