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The cooler does a great job of keeping the Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 from extreme temperatures, keeping this 3.2GHz processor humming along at an average of 46 degrees. It should also allow for some truly extreme overclocking, since in addition to the huge 12MB cache and 1600MHz FSB, the main advantage to Intel's Extreme CPUs is that they come with an unlocked multiplier.
Pairing this monster of a processor with an ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2 graphics card is a good choice, since we're talking about the fastest single card ever to grace our labs. That said, we would never recommend anyone actually buy the QX9770 and pair it with anything. £1000 for a processor is just ridiculous considering the minimal benefit you'd see over a something like a Q9300, a processor that costs £800 less.
Of course, these best-in-class components are backed up by a nice amount of RAM, right? Well, no. Two sticks of plain non-branded 1066MHz DDR3 RAM provide a whopping total of… only two gigabytes. This would have been (barely) acceptable on a budget gaming system, but on a top of the line gaming monster it's just one of those unforgivable compromises. Care to upgrade that? Well, that will be another £135 please for the next step up (4GB) - and remember, this is for unbranded memory . This is more than you would pay retail for 4GB of premium DDR3 Corsair memory with heatspreaders. Come on, Alienware, with your buying power we expect better. Even the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium you include can handle three gigabytes, never mind the fact we'd actually expect a system of this price to use a 64-bit operating system and have at least 4GB of RAM. Still, let's hold of full judgement until we've looked at how this affect performance.
As you would expect, even the most demanding titles run smooth as silk on the Area-51. In a manual run-through It managed an average of 34FPS in Crysis at the highest possible detail settings (everything on very high) and a 1,900 x 1,200 resolution, with four times anti-aliasing thrown in for good measure. Sadly it wasn't a flawless experience, though, since the Alienware would randomly crash when under gaming-stress. we suspect this may have been a problem with that wayward graphics card so again shouldn't be something customers should experience.
It must also be noted that while its gaming performance is incredibly impressive, it is pipped to the post by the CyberPower Gamer Infinity Crossfire-HD in almost every scenario - which can be partially attributed to the overclocked processor, but also to the extra memory. The worst thing about this is that the CyberPower is a £1,000 rig. Sure, CyberPower's machine was a bit unstable, but clocking it down gave us a reliable experience and still provides comparable performance. You could even get water-cooling installed and still have £1,000 left over.
On the software side, meanwhile, there's nothing too exciting. Of course you get custom Alienware wallpapers, icons and sounds, and a lovely clean machine with no bloat-ware. A nice touch is a file tracing your machine's build history both in terms of hardware and software. The standard warranty is one year free 24/7 phone support and collect-and-return, which includes the unique provision of trading in your old parts towards the cost of upgrades which the company will carry out at no extra charge.
If I had to sum the Alienware up in one sentence, it would be "Extreme performance yet buggy, noisy, expensive and with a poor balance of components". To be fair, apart from the missing screws build quality was perfectly adequate, and if you like the Alienware look, there's no alternative. Just do yourself a favour and switch the Extreme processor to a Core 2 Quad Q9300 and upgrade the RAM to 4GB, then spend the £500 you have left over on a top quality monitor.