Among built-to-order gaming PCs, Alienware is about as close as one gets to a household name, and the brand is largely synonymous with huge black boxes covered in garish blinking lights. The new Alienware X51 ($999 as configured, as of February 3, 2012) is a marked departure from that routine, cutting both costs and girth to deliver a machine that's palatable to the masses but doesn't lose any of that gamer cred.
The Alienware X51's specs aren't especially impressive on paper. The model I reviewed is equipped with a 3GHz Intel Core i5-2320, 8GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 discrete graphics card, and a 1TB hard drive. Of note: Despite the system's (relatively) small size, those are all desktop-class components, and they perform well. On PCWorld's WorldBench 6 test suite, the X51 earned an impressive score of 147, landing at the top of the budget desktops category and giving some of the lower-end performance desktops a run for their money.
The X51's gaming performance isn't exactly mind-blowing, but it is strong. On our Crysis 2 benchmark, it posted a frame rate of 46.2 frames per second at a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels and fairly high settings. You can certainly eke out more frames if you turn the visual details down a bit, but that's excellent performance for a PC at this price. On Dirt 3 at the same resolution and settings, the X51 produced a rate of 84.3 fps.
But the real story here is the case. It's small--just over a foot tall and long, and 3 inches wide. It looks quite a bit like an Xbox 360, and it can operate lying on its side or standing upright; you can turn the alien-head badge on its front to match the case's orientation, if you mind those sorts of details.
The real feather in the X51's cap is its upgradability. A single screw keeps the side of the chassis locked down, and two more guard access to the innards. From there, you're free to swap components in and out, with the expected reservations. The Mini-ITX motherboard offers only a pair of DIMM slots, and things are so tight inside that you'd be hard-pressed to fit some of the taller RAM sticks available without jostling the SATA cables sticking out of the optical drive. The power supply is also meager, and limited to 150W graphics cards. That said, with existing Intel Sandy Bridge motherboards promising drop-in support for upcoming Ivy Bridge processors, Alienware has positioned the X51 as a gaming-PC offering that's also a smart investment for tinkering types.
A slot-loading DVD burner sits on the front of the X51, though options on Alienware's site include a Blu-ray player. If you're planning on using the X51 as a media center machine, that Blu-ray upgrade makes sense. You'll also find two USB 2.0 ports on the front, as well as audio and microphone jacks.
The rear offers a few more choices, namely 5.1-channel audio from the motherboard, optical and coax S/PDIF outputs, an HDMI port, four more USB 2.0 ports, and a pair of USB 3.0 ports. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 555 GPU has two DVI ports and a Mini HDMI port. You'll find the standard gigabit ethernet connection as well, but all models also pack 802.11n Wi-Fi as a standard feature; that's really useful in a PC that's as likely to be tucked into an entertainment center as on (or under) a desk.
The Alienware X51 is light on bundled software; installed on the machine are AlienFX and AlienFusion. The AlienFX app lets you tweak the lighting on the X51's chassis. For this purpose, the machine is split into three "zones"--the alien skull on the front, and 7-inch plastic panels on either side. The interface is simple and intuitive: A representation of the PC shows up on your screen, and clicking on the individual zones brings up a color wheel. If you'd like to get a bit more technical, advanced settings let you drill down. I've set the X51 to switch into a lovely pink-and-purple motif for particular games, but you can also set it to change color based on specific system events, such as receiving email messages. (Of course, if you prefer to keep things mundane, you can turn the lights off entirely.) Meanwhile, the AlienFusion app manages power profiles, providing many of the same options you can find in Windows' power-management features, albeit in a fancier interface.
My biggest complaint about the X51 is the lack of a solid-state drive option. We've heard no word on whether SSDs will be available later on, but nothing is stopping you from cracking open the case and replacing the hard drive if you're so inclined.
I had a chance to check out the X51 a few weeks ago at a launch event here in San Francisco, and I'm as impressed now as I was then. The X51 is a step in the right direction for Alienware: Large, imposing gaming rigs aren't going anywhere, but one of the many reasons given in support of the oft-repeated "PC gaming is dead" mantra is cost--and shoppers who aren't ready to roll up their sleeves and build their own PCs are likely to turn to recognized brands. However, if you need more power, you can find plenty of PCs to choose from on our performance-desktops chart (with the requisite bump in price).