By Cliff Edwards
The Good Dual-core AMD chips mean out-of-the-ballpark performance
The Bad Be prepared to shell out big bucks for this system. Productivity software adds even more
The Bottom Line A fast, boutique PC that will appeal to media enthusiasts unwilling to build their own systems
Taking the $2,300 Alienware Aurora out of its box, you know immediately you're getting something different. In keeping with its name, you get a "saucer silver" (gray) tower system with "astral blue alien ice" (black) grills on the bottom front and sides that evoke images of a creature from outer space.
Four front USB 2.0 ports on the bottom are the only other things readily apparent. A locked front panel hides optical drives, a floppy drive, an 8-in-1 digital card reader, and the power switch. In the rear, you get another eight USB slots, gigabit Ethernet, firewire, sound options, and a digital audio-out connector.
I'm not a fan of the chassis design, particularly since you have to open the front cover and pretty much leave it open to load discs and turn the PC on and off. But others in my office who took a look at the system thought it was pretty cool. And on the Alienware website, you can choose a variety of different chassis color combinations, some of which were more to my liking.
DOUBLE POWER. My test system sported a dual-core AMD Athlon 64-bit, 4800+ chip running at 2.41 GHz each; an Nvidia GeForce Ultra 6800 graphics card; 1 GB of double-data rate memory; two 80-GB serial ATA Raid 0 configured hard drives; a 16X dual-layer, all format drive; and the Windows XP Professional operating system. Add in another $600 to $1,400, and you'll get a high-performance LCD monitor. For my tests, I used Dell's W2600 LCD TV and Philips Brilliance 230W LCD monitor.
There's also plenty of room inside for expansion and add-ons, with 10 USB ports, three open PCI slots, graphic ports, and two extra memory slots.
The key to this system's benefits lies in its dual-core chips. Most PCs on the market include only a single chip, yet unless you have a very pricey additional graphics chip handling some of the work, even the latest are taxed to the max when trying to encode video. Such machines pretty much give up the ghost if you ask them to do much else at the same time, which is why a lot of people turn off their Internet security software when trying to play a game or edit photos with the processor-intensive Adobe (ADBE) software.
GOT GAME. Dual-core chips work by trying to balance the load when you're doing multiple tasks at once. As an added benefit, since you use two processor cores, you can drop the chip's clock speed. Typically, that would allow the system to run cooler and quieter than high-end single-core systems.
While BusinessWeek Online doesn't do formal benchmark tests as part of its reviews, other industry tests have given AMD (AMD) the edge over Intel (INTC) chips in terms of performance. Typically conducted by third parties, these tests seek to simulate typical -- and sometimes atypical -- computing tasks, and measure how long it takes a chip to finish the job.
Those results certainly appear true in my admittedly subjective testing. I loaded up two games, as per my normal practice, to test performance in the eyes of a casual gamer as well as those of more hardcore players.
For the casual gamer, I loaded up my favorite, Civilization III: Conquests. Doom 3 was my test title for more serious players. In each case, loading times and gameplay seemed noticeably faster than that from Intel-based systems I've looked at. Playing Doom 3, which calls for fast responses, reminded me of just how much I suck at first-person shooters.
BARE BASICS. After the testing, though, I thought back to comments from AMD execs, who before they rolled out their dual-core desktop chips had argued that Intel's dual-core Pentiums weren't the gamer's choice because they could in some cases impede performance.
I talked to an Alienware exec, who pitches dual-core nearly exactly as the folks at Dell (DELL) do, as part of a media-ready PC capable of catering to a variety of needs beyond core gaming. In most cases, the exec said, dual-core AMD chips offer similar or even better performance at gaming as AMD single-core products. But you'll have to shell out more for programs that cover those non-gaming needs -- Alienware doesn't offer much in the way of software in its basic package, just Nero CD burning and Outlook Express.
Even the frugal Dell offers more software than that. To add office productivity tools from Microsoft (MSFT) Office, advanced photo-editing software from Adobe, and antivirus software, expect to shell out as much as $1,000 more on the Aurora system.
While the software may set your pocketbook back a notch, the smoking hardware offered on this system, with its plentiful upgrade potential, makes it a good choice for a speedy machine for the here and now -- one that's also ready for the future.
Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau