We like the detailing on the notebook. Whilst the square / chunky look might not be to everyone's taste, we think it looks industrial. Who can resist blue LEDs? They might be so 2004
on the desktop, but on a notebook? Still funky. There is a large fan on the bottom, but we found that the machine didn't get particularly hot in use. Even when the fans spin up, it's still fairly quiet, too.
The machine has four USB 2.0 ports, as well as a mini firewire port. There is also a 4-in-1 card reader and a DVI output on the back for connecting up a secondary flat panel. We really like the ability to do this - it means that the system can be feasibly used as a main desktop system too - and while most other notebooks feature external monitor ports, nearly all of them are VGA. Glad to see someone at Alienware has been listening to us consumers' demands for DVI-out.
The keyboard is very nice, and has decent feel to it - although the keys are perhaps a little flat. However, something that definitely isn't flat is the sound quality. Alienware have crammed in four speakers and a subwoofer - it's pretty darned decent for laptop sound. So, you'll probably still want to plug your headphones in for gaming, but for just pumping out a couple of tunes, you'll find it better than most other notebooks.
In terms of build quality, we're really happy with this machine. Whilst some notebooks can feel flimsy, this has a sturdy build and there's no doubt that it will last the course. The extra detailing on the lid also helps add to the feeling that this is a bit more protected from knocks and bumps.
One thing we're not sure about is where there's a 'kill trackpad' button right on the top-centre. It is clearly designed so you can avoid accidental moving / clicking of the cursor when typing, if you have an external mouse. In reality, if you're that clumsy, how are you going to survive using the system on the road? Some users will love this feature, but considering you could just use Windows to dictate the pointing device, it seems like a bit of a pointless use of a button. (You either love it or hate it. I happen to think it's a really cool feature - Ed.)
The graphics question
One thing that we're a little hesitant about is the graphics power. Alienware have integrated a GeForce Go 6800 mobile chip, when all its gaming notebook competitors are moving to the new, faster GeForce Go 7800 GPU. This is a top of the line notebook - at least, in terms of cost it certainly is. To integrate a 6800 mobile makes this look a little below par. Sure, it's not slow - it's still faster than almost any other notebook. But we all know that the 7800 is a much faster chip than the 6800, and that will show up in gaming scenarios.
Choosing between the standard SXGA screen or spending £98 upgrading to WUXGA is a tough call. For Windows work, having 1920x1200 is definitely a boon. However, you don't need a Go 6800 for Windows work, so we need to consider this from a gaming perspective.
For gaming, it's best to play at native resolution, or as close to native as possible. Since the Go 6800 doesn't provide quite enough power to run the latest games at 1600x1200 smoothly, you will need to set your resolution slider back a notch or two to get the speed you want. If you're going to do that, why not save yourself £100 and settle for the stock SXGA screen?
Unfortunately, in games that don't support widescreen, you're looking at gaming at 1024x768, since the vertical height of this panel isn't sufficient to hit 1280x1024. Whilst this may sound bad, we found that the actual effect on the gaming experience was minimal. When we sat down with the machine to play F.E.A.R. and Need For Speed, we found the scaling of the display to be superb.
When we were looking at the value proposition for the Rock Extreme CT, we came to the following conclusions:
"The Rock system comes in at a shade over £1400. What can we get for that money in terms of desktop components? We headed over to Micro Direct to price up some items.
The Rock has a 1680x1050 display, which is the same as same as this Dell 20" at £380. A GeForce 7800 GTX is £305 and a 3GHz Pentium 4 is roughly equivalent to the Pentium M 2GHz, albeit a lot hotter. £200 should cover a case, hard drive, optical drive and PSU, making £1000 in total. Windows is £100 on top of that, and a Intel motherboard with HD Audio will be about another £100 depending on which exact model you want. As we start to edge towards £1400, the Rock looks increasingly good value, especially when considering overclocking and warranty, nevermind the portabilty compared with this desktop system. "
Let's then consider the Alienware in relation to this. At the cost here of £1726, it's around £300 more expensive. For that, you get a faster processor, better speakers and a far, far nicer chassis. However, you lose out on the graphics card and the display resolution, and you also only get a 1 year warranty, rather than the 3 year with Rock. Any one of these features would be a small problem - with all three, you're looking at a significant difference in value, we think.
Dropping down the processor specification to 1.86GHz, we're at £1505. That's only £100 more than the Rock, and if you really will find the bog-standard silver chassis a chore to live with, we can completely understand splashing out on the Alienware. However, given the performance and specification delta, you're going to really
have to want the Alienware look.