A Return To Alienware’s No Compromises Gaming Roots


For as long as I can remember, I’ve been disappointed by gaming laptops—I avoided them myself and advised friends to do the same, given the lower performance levels they offered versus desktop PCs. However, things changed considerably in the last 5 years, in large part thanks to NVIDIA and its MAX-Q designs. In general, gaming laptops have gotten considerably better, though many of them still compromise on performance for a thinner form factor.

Last year, Alienware introduced its new Area-51 laptop (read my initial write-up here). On paper the laptop ticked off all of the right boxes, and while that’s great, the real measure is evaluating the actual experience that it delivers. The Alienware Area-51m isn’t really a laptop, but more of a desktop replacement. It’s the kind of laptop that gives you the ability to replace a desktop when you are on the move or don’t want or need to have a desktop anymore. I’ve been using the Alienware Area-51m as a portable desktop for travel and other scenarios where an actual desktop is not available. Because the Alienware Area-51m is a gaming laptop, I’ve mostly been using it for gaming. Today I wanted to offer my full review of the device.

The specs

What really makes the Alienware Area-51m a great desktop replacement is the way it’s configured and the fact that it’s upgradeable. The original release of the Area-51m came with a 1080 Ti, which has since been upgraded to the 2080 series. This upgradability and the no-holds-barred performance really makes this laptop feel like a return to form for Alienware as a brand. Alienware’s roots in gaming were in building the sickest, fastest boutique custom PCs that money could buy. The Area-51m really delivers on this promise, with a 17” 144 Hz G-Sync 1080P display and Tobii eye-tracking—exactly what you would expect from a desktop in terms of features. Obviously, since it is a laptop, it’s limited to a 17” monitor. Still, you could always plug it into a better monitor if you want to.

The center and core of this system’s performance comes from its Intel Core i9-9900K desktop CPU. This makes the Alienware Area-51m faster than pretty much every other laptop on the market, with a few exceptions that sport the same processor. Most laptop CPUs have fewer or slower cores in them and compromise on absolute performance to meet a certain power or weight restriction. Having a Core i9-9900K as the starting base for this laptop establishes that this laptop is all about performance and no compromises. The system that Dell sent me was configured with the 32GB of RAM option and offered up to 64GB, which is what I would expect from an ultimate gaming rig. Most of my systems have been 32GB and 64GB in the last few years, and I expect nothing less of such a powerhouse system. The 32GB was perfect for me because I like to multitask—I run a lot of apps and Chrome at the same time as I am gaming. The system also came with 1TB hybrid HDD, and 512GB (2x256GB) of NVMe storage, in order to make the most of its support for dual PCIe M2 SSDs and maximize performance. The configuration for the system that Dell gave me includes an NVIDIA RTX 2080 with 8GB of VRAM. This is one of the best GPUs money can buy and puts it in league with desktops.

The laptop also doesn’t compromise on connectivity or power. It features a 2.5Gb ethernet port for wired gaming and a Killer Wi-Fi 6 AX1650 NIC with Bluetooth 5.0. This means that whether you decide to play wirelessly or wired, you will always have the fastest, lowest latency connection possible—extremely important for gaming. All of these specs considered, I honestly could not differentiate my gaming experience with this laptop from that of my desktop.

The power situation with this laptop is interesting—it has a massive 90 Wh battery, the biggest of any laptop I’ve ever used. While that battery is huge, the laptop still requires two power supplies: a standard Dell 180W adapter which I’ve used before on other Alienware Gaming notebooks (namely the m15), and a beefy 330W second power supply. The laptop will not operate at full performance unless both are plugged into the laptop and you will get a warning about this at boot if you do not. So, if you plan on gaming with this laptop, expect to need at least two power plugs.

The Gaming Experience

I have used the Alienware Area 51-m for the last 6 months and I’ve had zero issues with the laptop. Everything works as advertised and I couldn’t be happier. In fact, this is the first time in my life that I felt like I could make a laptop my daily PC for work and gaming. The Alienware Area-51m gives you a choice between a 144 Hz G-Sync 1080P display or a 4K display, but you could easily connect pretty much any monitor your heart desires through the laptop’s many ports (full-size HDMI or miniDP).

It must be noted that this laptop is huge. Like, absolutely massive. So massive, in fact, that I do not own a backpack that it will fit in. It essentially requires you to buy Alienware’s messenger bag or backpack made specifically for it. On top of that, you’ll also need room for your power bricks and gaming peripherals. This makes for quite a heavy backpack, when fully loaded—this system and its components are not for the weak. Then again, this is not all that surprising given the fact that it is a desktop replacement laptop, designed without compromises.

I played my regular rotation of games on the system, including Apex Legends, CSGO, PUBG, Ring of Elysium and Call of Duty. They all flew like crazy on this laptop. I also did a good amount of work on this laptop and it never flinched. I loved the full-size USB ports because it meant that I could easily connect my USB mouse and headset to the laptop without the adapters that some laptops require. I think it would be nice to have a couple more USB ports, like I’d usually expect from a desktop, but I think a USB hub could potentially solve that problem. Also, as the world transitions to Type-C, there will be more room for USB ports; the physical size of Type-A ports won’t be as much of an issue. There is one Type-C port on the Area 51-m, but none of my gaming peripherals support Type-C yet (the desktop PC industry hasn’t adopted USB Type-C as aggressively as the laptop PC segment).

I also enjoyed the sleek new Alienware Legend design language, including the look and feel of the RBG keyboard (though I wish it was mechanical). Also, I absolutely love the keyboard’s RGB-lit touchpad—it’s just a great look. I also really like the light ring Alienware put around the back exhaust of the Area-51m and the glowing Alienware logos on the back of the monitor and on the keyboard. Overall, the laptop’s lighting and design is quite striking. Alienware nailed it on this front.

I also enjoyed the integration of Tobii’s eye-tracking—not just for games like CSGO and PUBG, but also for the ability to dim the screen and save power when you aren’t looking at it. I think Tobii eye-tracking is an absolute premium feature, and I’m glad to see Dell embracing the technology across nearly all Alienware gaming laptops. I think this technology’s potential to improve data and skills will make gamers better and become an invaluable feature on these laptops. I’d love to see where Alienware takes this. It is current reliant on Overwolf to supply the game connectivity with Tobii’s different capabilities—I’d like to see tighter integration.

I also did some Photoshop, Lightroom and Premiere Pro editing on the laptop. It was plenty fast, but you might want to consider the 4K display option if you plan on using the laptop primarily for creative work, versus gaming. You won’t have 144 Hz and G-Sync, but you will have the resolution you need as a creator. Alternatively, you could always attach an external display for creative purposes.

Verdict

The Alienware Area-51m is everything I have ever wanted in a gaming laptop. Yes, this system sells, as configured, for $4,299 on Dell.com, but it is also nearly impossible to build such a laptop with these specs on your own. The amount of engineering and tooling needed to make this happen is something to consider in the price, as well as the overall compactness of the laptop considering the performance it delivers. It would cost about $3,000 to build your own comparable desktop, and even more to build your own comparable laptop.

I believe the Alienware Area-51m is the ultimate portable gaming machine for anyone that wants to have desktop performance with the portability of a laptop. Yes, this laptop is probably the biggest laptop I’ve used in quite a while, but it also has better performance than most people’s desktop PCs. It’s the perfect laptop to bring to LAN parties, if you still go to those (which I do from time to time). In the Area-51-m, Alienware has designed the best looking and highest performing desktop replacement I have seen to date. I think there is definitely a sizable user market for it.

Disclosure: Moor Insights & Strategy, like all research and analyst firms, provides or has provided research, analysis, advising and/or consulting to many high-tech companies in the industry, including Dell Technologies. The author does not have any investment positions in the companies named in this article.



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