Move over game console, a PC is here to take your job
DON’T BLINK, it’s not a game console. It’s something far better—a PC that’s as small as the original Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with the promise of pretty good gaming performance, too.
As we all know, making things small, fast, and also affordable is no easy feat. Yet Alienware engineers somehow managed to smash real graphics into a standard slimline tower without tacking on a huge price tag.
To be frank, this isn’t the first attempt at a small, powerful PC with a slimline shape. The X51 reminds us very much of Voodoo/Hewlett-Packard’s Firebird PC from 2009 (review at bit.ly/Delqq). The Firebird’s main failing was relying primarily on notebook technology for its GPUs, which killed upgrades.
Amazingly small and fairly quiet, the X51 is impressively powerful for its size.
Alienware doesn’t make this mistake with the X51. The company uses mostly off-the-shelf components, such as a desktop 3GHz Core i5-2320 CPU and DIMMs instead of SO-DIMMS. Most importantly, Alienware cleverly folds a standard double-slot GeForce GTX 555 into the case. The GTX 555 is basically a lightweight GTX 560 and features 288 CUDA cores instead of 336, a 776MHz core clock instead of 810MHz, and a narrower 192-bit memory interface instead of 256-bit. More to the point, it’s off-the-shelf, so you can drop in any dual-slot card within the power and thermal limits of the chassis and PSU. Alienware initially said the PC could accommodate a GTX 580, but has since pegged its max capability to a GTX 560 non-Ti. For what it’s worth, the PC looks like it could easily fit a 560 Ti and probably even a 570—but we haven’t tested whether either setup would run reliably.
Alienware’s OEM muscle is apparent in the X51’s use of Nvidia’s Optimus technology, which lets you switch between the integrated graphics or discrete card automatically. We haven’t seen this anywhere in a desktop system. On the discrete card, the machine would peak at about 150 watts, and while running integrated, we saw power consumption drop to 60 watts—not much more than the box’s idle consumption of about 50 watts. That’s a healthy power savings, and we’d love to see such technology elsewhere. Speaking of power, one of the ways Alienware was able to open up space to fit a standard two-slot GPU was by using an external power brick. Two models are available, a 230‑watt and a 330‑watt brick (and we hope Alienware will add even more powerful bricks down the road).
Alienware uses an off‑the‑shelf GPU and many other standard parts in its ground-breaking X51 machine.
How does the X51 perform? Not surprisingly, it doesn’t set any speed records. We wouldn’t expect it to, considering its small size and modest power consumption, but it’s definitely not pokey. In gaming, it seems to offer a respectable frame rate for most games and just enough pep to run high-end titles. BF3, for example, is probably best run at medium or high settings, depending on your frame rate threshold.
Are there more powerful small form factor boxes out there? Certainly. Both the CyberPower LAN Party Evo and the Falcon Northwest FragBox from our July 2011 SFF roundup are spec’d with hotter hardware. To be fair, both were also two to four times as expensive as the Alienware—and boxier, too. We have to tip our hats to the Alienware X51; it offers a hell of a lot of performance in a truly console-size box. Between the Optimus technology, the size, and the price, we suspect it’s just the first of many such Xenomorphs to come.
Powerful console-size PC with Nvidia Optimus technology.
Cloud City Patrol Car
Needs bay for SSD; lacks SATA 6Gb/s support and front USB 3.0 ports.
Vegas Pro (sec)
Lightroom 2.6 (sec)
ProShow 4 (sec)
stalker: CoP (fps)
Far Cry 2 (fps)
Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 overclocked to 1,750MHz, on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard. We are running an ATI Radeon HD 5970 graphics card, a 160GB Intel X25-M SSD, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate.