Alienware's Reality PC
How much PC can $2,750 buy? Quite a lot, judging from a close look at Alienware's Aurora 7500. In this series of reviews of high-end media PCs (see BW Online, 2/17/06, "Dell's High-End Home Run"), we're looking at just how much bang you can get for your buck when you're willing to spend a bundle.
The Aurora 7500, designed especially for hardcore gamers, retails for $2,750, not including the monitor. It's the top-notch version of a PC we reviewed earlier (see BW Online, 9/16/05, "A Gaming System That's Out of This World"). The 7500 looks as if it came straight out of the Space Age. It has sleek aerodynamic contours and a cool blue LED glowing inside it, and comes loaded with some of the newest and baddest components out there. But while I was impressed by its raw performance, and there's no doubting it packs some high-end components, I'm not sure Alienware weaves them together in a way that makes the PC worth more than the sum of its parts.
Under the hood, the 7500 has all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a top-of-the-line PC. It's got an AMD (AMD) Athlon 64 4200+ dual-core processor making it great for heavy-duty multimedia use like games and video editing. It also has a dual 512 MB ATI Radeon X1900 CrossFire, a top-of-the-line graphics card that retails on its own for more than $500, and a surround sound-enabled audio card.
On the front of the computer there are four USB ports, a flash-memory reader for several different card formats, and a DVD drive. Also, Microsoft (MSFT) Windows XP Media Center Edition, which helps you manage video and music, plus gain access to your computer through a living room TV, comes installed. In short, the Aurora 7500 is equipped to serve as the center of your home theater system.
Despite its impressive components and a sleek look from afar, up close the 7500's design is a little rough around the edges. The "saucer blue" plastic chassis feels kind of flimsy, and the plastic door doesn't always close quite right. Sometimes it took a couple of tries to get it to click shut. The back is a garden-variety stack of input cards and a big fan, like any other PC.
The four USB ports on the front of the box are hooked up via external USB cables that run through the computer from the back of the machine, which has something of a makeshift look. While the 7500 uses its own branded liquid cooling system to keep its chips from overheating, the fan is so loud that you can hear it blowing away.
This machine isn't for amateurs. Setup can be difficult, as the cards and input jacks in the back aren't terribly well-labeled. There's no shortage of options for the expert with big plans to trick out the PC -- say, coordinate multiple monitors or install a half-dozen surround-sound speakers. There are four different monitor jacks, and six different jacks and a Firewire port on the audio card.
Still, it's hard to figure out what goes where. I ended up asking for help with a basic setup from one of my company's tech guys, who figured it out well enough but agreed it wasn't straightforward. Be warned if you're not right at home with PC hardware.
Another drawback with the exterior: There's no headphone jack on the front of the tower or the monitor (the unit ships with a 20.1-inch BenQ monitor branded with the Alienware logo, which sells for $720). Instead, you need external computer speakers, and they can only be attached directly to the audio card in the back of the machine.
GET IN THE GAME.
To give the computer a workout, I loaded up the spooky first-person shooter game F.E.A.R. and cranked all the graphics settings to the max. In case you've ever wondered whether dropping big bucks on a snazzy graphics card and a power-hungry processor makes a difference, the 7500 will clear up the matter once and for all. Played on the standard Dell (DELL) I use at work (which I rarely do -- promise), it looks like any other video game.
On the Alienware PC, it was as if I were in a movie. Game play was never choppy, and the graphics were stunning: Pools of water rippled and glistened in detail. Smears of blood on the wall were disturbingly grisly. It really makes for an in-depth experience that far exceeds what I'm used to. After one scene in which the villain chews off a victim's face, a colleague commented that I looked a few shades whiter. I'll concede I felt pretty spooked out.Was I impressed with the 7500's performance? You better believe it. Is there much difference between an Alienware machine and another make with the same chips and cards installed? That's a harder call. The 7500 has appeal if you're a serious gamer, you're ready to make a PC the center of your home entertainment system, and you've got more than three grand to do it with. But if your needs aren't quite so great and your budget's a little tighter, you may want to keep shopping around.