Deep inside the smallest, most powerful gaming rig…ever?
Besides chocolate and coconut, oil and water, gaming and small form factor usually don’t mix. That’s something Alienware is hoping to fix with its new incredibly small X51 box.
Maximum PC got to dig around inside an X51 unit to see how the company managed to get desktop parts into such a miniature machine and even check out the Nvidia’s top secret Optimus technology too.
Alienware had two targets in designing the new X51 desktop: make it small and make it powerful. The Alienware box is slightly bigger than a generation 1 Xbox 360 console and it’s very reminiscent of business-class small form factor machines. There’s a big difference with the X51 though: It has some juice.
Alienware designers told us with this size of desktop, mobile parts are often used to keep the thermals and size down but because most gamers like to upgrade, the company said it based the X51 on desktop components. Inside is a Mini-ITX motherboard using the H61 chipset and a standard LGA1155 socket with the most powerful being an Intel Core i7-2600. Why no K chip? Alienware said the H61 makes overclocking out of the question so there’s no need to pay for an unlocked processor. The board features two standard DDR3 DIMM slots in dual-channel mode and a Mini PCI Express Card slot. The Mini PCI Express Card slot will be outfitted with an 802.11n chip but since it’s a standard slot, will take any card. The motherboard itself is an industry standard MiniITX size and could theoretically be upgraded but the I/O shield of the machine is built into the rear plane of the machine so swapping out a motherboard would seem to require Dremelling out the I/O shield area to fit any new board.
To get more hardware inside the box, Alienware had to move from the typical small, loud and hot internal PSU to an external brick. Two options will be available: A 240 Watt brick or a 340 Watt brick. The brick plugs into the rear of the box and AC/DC conversion is done inside the machine on a board in front of the motherboard.
For storage, the X51 will mount a full size 3.5-inch desktop drive, and a slot-fed DVD burner or optional Blu-ray combo drive. There’s no mount for a 2.5-inch SSD or mobile drive but Alienware designers said they expect those interested in SSDs to remove the 3.5-inch drive and use a bracket to mount up to 2.5-inch SSDs. Knowing this would be an option, Alienware said they intentionally put three SATA ports on the motherboard. The real magic though is the GPU support. Two configurations will be available at launch: A GeForce GTX 555 or a GeForce GTX 545. These are not specially designed cards with custom coolers either—these are off the shelf cards. Alienware said gamers universally want the option to upgrade cards down the road so it made sure the unit could function with off the shelf cards.
The company said it believes it’s possible to run up to a GeForce GTX 580 based on the power and thermal capabilities but it has not qualified the box for it. We only saw two standard six-pin power plugs so don’t pin your hopes on anything that requires insane amount of power. Realistically, Alienware said it expects GeForce GTX 560 Ti-level of graphics as a near term upgrade. Keep in mind that as vendors introduce newer GPUs, the power requirements usually go down for mid-range cards so it’s not implausible to get GeForce GTX 580 performance later this year with the power needs of a GeForce GTX 560 Ti.
All X51s will also come with Nvidia’s long awaited, secret Optimus technology. Optimus lets you seamlessly switch between discrete and the integrated Sandy Bridge graphics. It was actually backdoor announced by board makers when the original Z68 chipset came out last Spring but was quickly denied by Nvidia. Now nearly a year later, Optimus for desktop is finally ready. Configuring Optimus seems fairly easy and straightforward, too. Just go into the Nvidia control panel, select "Manage 3D Settings" and then you’re given an option to let Optimus automagically select what to run on by looking at the 3D workload or manually select the integrated graphics or discrete graphics.
Since gamers like bling, Alienware added a dash of that with its trademark lighting on various places around the case. Like the laptop and Aurora, the X51 lets you change the color of the LEDs on the case and the keyboard and mouse using the AFX lighting applet. To show you how much thought the designers put into the box, the signature Alienware head on the front of the box can be rotated to match the orientation of the box.
We'll get a box in for review when we can, but we can say that the X51 is an impressive amount of hardware in a small box. We've seen high-end graphics, even up to GTX 580 cards in small form factor rigs before, but they're generally pretty bulky. That Alienware can stuff a 150-watt GPU into a box the size of a business-class small form factor is pretty damn amazing. To be honest, this isn't the first attempt at a small, thin gaming box. Hewlett-Packard's (Voodoo's) Firebird made a run at it with its Firebird machine, back in 2009.
While interesting and truly silent, the Firebird's use of mobile CPUs and SLI'ed mobile GPUs was a big turn off to gamers. We weren't overly joyed with the Firebird, but we did think that it was a glimpse of one possible future for desktop gaming. Alienware's X51 pretty much cements that: PC gaming is truly getting smaller and cheaper.
Two configuations will be offered, with the cheapest being $699 for a box with a Core i3, 4GB of RAM, a 1TB drive, and a GeForce GTX 545.