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The dark destroyer
Alienware PCs have a lure that Dell or HP would love to achieve. Having seen the luxury PC market before most others, they set about aiming their products at the hardcore gaming element that either can't be bothered building their own system or just want to get on with the fragging rather than building. We look at a fully loaded Aurora 5500 costing 1500 and see whether Alienware really can build you a computer that allows you to frag hard straight out of the box.

Recently I've found myself recommending pre-built machines to others, not because they or I can't clubber one together, but these days the price difference between components and pre-built machines are negligible at best. Factor in support, essential software like Click to enlargeMicrosoft Windows then you realize there are some good deals to be had. Alienware however aren't Dell. They don't do sub-500 computers and the customers they are targeting aren't wet behind the ears either so Alienware need to do a good job. Much like BMW pride themselves on providing "the ultimate driving machine", Alienware need to provide the ultimate PC owning experiance.

High-end Alienware PCs (Aurora 5500, 7500 and Area-51 5500) feature the same steel chassis with a plastic body kit, which seems to have had a little too much Botox added. It looks bloated, is too shiny and is very heavy. Our review unit weighed in at over 25kg and with no carrying handles this isn't a machine for the LAN party junkie. It's quite noisy too but that isn't so much of an issue for the headphone toting gamer.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge Alienware have done a good job of keeping everything neat and tidy inside, with extremely easy access to all components. The hard-drive rack was particularly well done, although taking a drive out was impossible in our unit. I gave up for fear of breaking not only the caddy but the hard drive itself.

Although I was less than impressed with the case itself, the contents of it did raise at least one of my eyebrows. Alienware have gone for components that I would pick myself if I were building a gaming PC. Gone are the unknown OEM brands and in are components from Asus, XFX, Western Digital, Creative Labs and Enermax.

The important facts are these. AMD's Athlon 64 4000+ is coupled to 1GB of DDR 400 (two modules) and graphics are powered by 256MB XFX Geforce 7800 GTX. Regardless of who makes the computer, the combination of those components will undoubtedly be fast, and the Aurora wasn't going to prove me wrong.

Click to enlarge The Athlon 64 4000+ isn't a dual core processor, but don't let that put you off. Most games don't take advantage of the second core so you won't see an increase in performance from that. Even AMD's "gamer line" of processors, the FX, still doesn't feature dual core technology (although it will do soon). These days you'd be a noob to have a performance PC running with less than 1GB of RAM so don't go for the base 512MB if you are speccing up your Aurora. Thanks to the use of two modules, you get the added benefits of dual channel memory.

To complete the power component trio, graphics are driven by a 256MB XFX Geforce 7800 GTX card. This very capable card will allow you to run the latest games at high resolutions with high levels of full screen antialiasing and filtering and still achieve very playable framerates. Thanks to Alienware using an SLI compatible motherboard, in the future you can buy another 256MB Geforce 7800 GTX and run both cards in tandem. This should result in an average game performance boost of around 30-40%.

Interestingly the Aurora has a Creative Audigy 2 ZS sound card even though the motherboard has quite adequate surround sound capabilities built onboard. Alienware have since updating their offerings with the Creative's Audigy 4 and the new X-Fi. Frankly, most gamers will find the on board sound perfectly adequate and the Audigy 2 albeit aging, only improves on something that was good enough to start off with.

Click to enlargeOther components such as the power supply are well specified although unlike the motherboard, not SLI capable. The hard drive is a Western Digital unit with 200GB of storage space. Inside there's space for a further five hard disk drives and there's more than enough SATA connectors on the motherboard should you want to fill those slots.

Software comes in the form of Windows XP Home, with the Professional version available for a further 50. At the time of writing, Alienware were offering Battlefield 2 as well. It would have been nice to see a few more games bundled on a machine of such price though.

When it comes to value, I went over to Scan and saw how much I could get these components for. Thanks to Alienware using mostly off-the-shelf components it was quite easy to get an almost identical PC. At the time of writing it came to about 400 less than what Alienware were selling it for. Factoring in things like Microsoft Windows XP Home, 1 years warranty, the ease of having something arrive that's ready for gaming and you're looking at a pretty good value PC.

Our system had the optional recovery DVD. It's a must if you aren't comfortable installing Windows yourself. The standard 1 year collect and return warranty is complimented with 24/7 free-phone technical support. This is my first cause for concern, as if I had spent 1500 on a computer, without a monitor, I would expect an on-site warranty at the very least.

The performance figures of the Aurora were truly outstanding. We ran a number of popular games with 4x anti-aliasing and 8x ansotropic filtering enabled to really push the graphics subsystem. We simply couldn't fault it in any of the tests we did.

PC Mark 20054506
3D Mark 20057716
Battlefield 2 (4x FSAA & 8x AF)Graph
Doom 3 (4x FSAA & 8x AF)Graph
FarCry (4x FSAA & 8x AF)Graph

In all the tests the Aurora 5500 posted figures over 60FPS even at a resolution of 1600x1200. In Halflife 2 (not listed above) a game mostly constrained by processing power, we were seeing around 100 FPS at 1600x1200. The Aurora provided smooth gameplay and didn't let us down. Very respectable PCMark and 3DMark scores rounded off an impressive set of figures.

The Alienware Aurora 5500 is an excellant gaming computer. Our tests showed it can easily cope with games that are out there even at very high resolutions with high levels of image filtering applied. The innards of the Aurora 5500 is top quality, with AMD's Athlon 64 4000+ providing ample horsepower and the XFX Geforce 7800 GTX backing up the graphics subsystem. There's plenty of room for future expansion with ample hard drive bays, PCI slots and the second PCI Express slot allowing for SLI graphics.

Coming to the thorny issue of price, 1500 is a lot to pay for a computer that doesn't come with a monitor. The one year collect-and-return warranty is adequate, but nothing more. The overall system does seem like it's been put together with care and due attention with Windows being supplied fully skinned in Alienware's agressive colours.

Good build quality, high performance and some nice touches make the Alienware Aurora 5500 a very desirable product. If you want a gaming PC but can't be bothered to build your own, the Aurora 5500 should definitely be on your shortlist.