Connectivity at the machine’s front is par for the course with two USBs, FireWire and headphone sockets, plus microphone jacks. A nice touch is that backlit indicators allow you to find these easily in the dark.
The drive bays are hidden behind a door sporting the glowing alien head on its front, which cleverly doubles up as the power button. The door uses a rather ingenious double hinge mechanism that enables it to slide parrellel with the side of the case, preventing that annoying situation you get with some cases where you can’t actually access your PCs drives because you can’t open the door properly. It doesn’t half look funky too. To be honest, it’s easily one of the best door designs I’ve come across, and the icing on the cake is a tiny metal switch that turns the LEDs lighting the DVD drive off when the door is closed. Aside from the black LG DVD-writer, there are two free 5.25in drive bays.
Moving onto the back, you get twin DVI-out ports, but for some obscure reason Alienware hasn’t seen fit to include the HDMI adapter that comes with every ATI 4870 X2 card – for shame! The motherboard is very well endowed in terms of connectivity, offering six USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire, six analogue mini-jacks and optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, and PS2 ports in addition to e-SATA.
Opening up the PC is really simple: just pull a lever at the back to remove either side panel. The one on the left grants access to all the PC’s internals, and reveals the kind of clever trick you’d expect from a specialist company that’s been in this business as long as Alienware (and has the financial backing of the second-largest PC manufacturer on this planet). You see, to power the lights and 120mm fan embedded in the side panel, the company has a custom power pad that connects automatically when you slide the panel back in, meaning there are no cables to disconnect when opening up your PC.
Unfortunately, opening the case also revealed the first glaring problem with the Area-51. The graphics card, one of the more expensive parts in this rig, had come loose from its slot, and had presumably been rattling about the chassis during transport. Nor was this exactly surprising since it wasn’t screwed in, and the Alienware case offers no other means of retention.
Thankfully it still worked, but this doesn’t inspire much confidence in the amount of care the company lavishes on its exclusive and expensive systems before they leave the factory. We would like to think that this was a result of a rushed system that was sent out for review and is shouldn’t be something that happens to retail models.
While I’m on the rampage, though, let me just mention that this is one noisy PC. Admittedly, cooling is excellent, with 120mm fans at the machine’s front and back (near the CPU) in addition to the aforementioned side-panel one. However, the inexplicable inclusion of an 80mm fan in the right panel, where it cools the single Seagate 500GB 7200RPM hard drive, adds to the noise level considerably. The tiny cooling fan on the motherboard’s Northbridge doesn’t help much, either. In this age of passively cooled high-end boards, noisy motherboard coolers just shouldn’t be accepted and, while Alienware does offer Acoustic Dampening, it’ll set you back an extra £70.
A last obvious niggle is that the DVD writer is an EIDE model, rather than SATA. Not only is SATA more future-proof, but its cables are far thinner, though to be fair Alienware has used a rounded EIDE cable.
Once we’d secured the graphics card, there was little left to complain about in terms of build quality. All the cables were intelligently and neatly routed so as to cause minimum obstruction, and installation of the optical and hard drives is tool-free thanks to a plastic clip system that works well and somewhat reduces vibration. The black 750W power supply is a custom non-modular Dell model, as is the CPU cooler – in fact it’s the same one as found on Dell’s XPS 360.