Smooth 4K gameplay. Excellent multithreaded performance. Expandable chassis. Efficient, quiet cooling.
Expensive. USB-C lacks Thunderbolt 3. Lags rivals on most benchmark tests.
- Bottom Line
The latest Alienware Area-51 runs on AMD's blistering Ryzen Threadripper for the ultimate in CPU-intensive 4K gaming performance. But for most, this expensive, flashy desktop PC is overkill.
Combining AMD's 16-core Ryzen Threadripper CPU with a pair of Nvidia's fastest graphics cards ought to result in a multitasking gamer's dream PC. The Alienware Area-51 Threadripper Edition (starts at $2,399; $5,919 as tested) is so equipped, tackles multimedia tasks quickly, and delivers smooth 4K gameplay. Wrapped in an unconventional triangular tower, it's priced and positioned as a high-end gaming desktop. The problem is, it's very pricey as configured, and aside from one very specific test, it's not the fastest PC we've tested. Competitors like the Velocity Micro Raptor Z95 and the Origin Neuron are better for multimedia projects and gaming, respectively, and the Neuron is significantly less expensive.
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An Imposing Aesthetic
The Area-51 Threadripper Edition's frame is metal, and it's clad in molded plastic panels. The design is unchanged from its 2015 version. Instead of the classic rectangular box of most desktop PCs, the system is an irregular hexagon, with three short sides and three longer sides. The domed left- and right-side panels are silver, while the back and front panels are black plastic with slats for cooling. It measures 22.4 by 10.75 by 25 inches (HWD), dwarfing towers like the Origin Neuron (17.8 by 9 by 15.7 inches) and Velocity Micro Raptor Z95 (17.5 by 7.25 by 20.5) in all dimensions. The gargantuan Asus ROG GT51 is a hair taller, but slightly slimmer and shallower (23.1 by 10.31 by 23), and the blocky HP Omen X is almost twice as wide (20.3 by 19.9 by 16). The bottom line is: You'll have to make some room for this irregularly shaped monolith. Thankfully, there's a handle built into each corner of the chassis to help you reposition its 62-pound bulk.
Alienware's usual multi-zone lighting effects let you customize RGB lighting in nine areas over most of the Area-51's surfaces, and the overall effect is less gaudy and ostentatious than the MSI Aegis Ti3. You can control the lighting effects in the Alienware Control Center utility. A set of lights turn on inside the case when you open the left-side door, so you can see the motherboard and components while tinkering, and a similar row of lights shines on the rear I/O ports for visibility when plugging and unplugging cables.
Cool air flows into the front of the PC, passes over internal coolers for the CPU and GPUs, and hot air exits the back. As a result of the efficient airflow, the fans barely speed up to an audible level, even when running our benchmark tests. It was just as quiet as the MSI Aegis Ti3, which automatically shuts down its fans to combat noise.
The left case doors open by pulling a top-mounted latch. The interior cavity has room for up to three graphics cards. There is a spare PCIe x16 slot and a PCIe x4 slot on the motherboard for future expansion, but I don't think you'll need it for years (if at all). All four DIMM slots on the motherboard are filled with 32GB of RAM, plenty for the life of the PC.
Pop open the right-side door, and you'll have access to the installed 2TB SATA hard drive (the 1TB M.2 SSD boot drive is installed on the motherboard). There are two 3.5-inch and two 2.5-inch bays free for additional hard drives or SSDs. The free drive bays are pre-wired, a welcome convenience for future upgrades. Overall it has roughly the same upgradeability as the Velocity Micro Raptor Z95, but more internal expansion space than the Origin Neuron and most other high-end gaming desktops.
There is lots of room on the expansive chassis; consequently there is an excellent selection of ports. On the front panel there is a microphone jack, a headphone jack, an SD card slot, and two USB 3.0 ports. There's also a slot-loading DVD drive on the front, a rarity. Turn the desktop around and you can access six DisplayPorts, two HDMI jacks, two Ethernet jacks, surround audio ports including a S/PDIF connector, two USB 2.0 ports, one USB-C port, and seven USB 3.0 ports on the back panel. Unfortunately, the USB-C lacks Thunderbolt 3 technology, which would be a benefit when transferring videos to and from external SSDs. Killer-branded 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 handle wireless connections. The warranty and in-home service after a remote diagnosis is one year.
What Can You Do With 16 Cores?
Aside from the CPU and a pair of Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti graphics cards, the Area-51 I reviewed also has 32GB of RAM and 3TB of storage divided between a 1TB SSD and a 2TB hard drive. The SSD, graphics cards, and processor contribute to a majority of the purchase price. The base version starts at $2,699 and comes with a 12-core Ryzen Threadripper 1920X CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 2TB hard drive, and one Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card.
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The linchpin of this iteration of the Area-51 is its AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X processor. We've installed one in a home-built PC, and our sister site Computer Shopper calls it "a no-brainer for serious content creators and uncompromising multi-taskers." Consequently, this desktop garnered our highest-ever score of 3,047 points on the Cinebench test. That's 657 points over the Velocity Micro Raptor Z95, which has a 10-core overclocked Intel Core i7-7900X CPU, and 1,973 points better than the Origin Neuron. Animators and other CGI artists will certainly be interested in this result. Likewise, it took a scant 28 seconds to complete our Handbrake video-encoding test, just behind the Raptor Z95 (0:25). Any Handbrake time below a minute is excellent, and most Core-i7-equipped high-end gaming PCs will take about 45 seconds on the same test.
Other test scores were a bit behind the top marks: Its score of 3,330 points on the PCMark 8 Work Conventional test lagged the Origin Neuron (4,271) and MSI Aegis Ti3 (4,136). Its Photoshop score also lagged the competition, at 3 minutes, 44 seconds, more than a minute-and-a-half behind the Neuron and Digital Storm Velox (2:06). The latter was the most disappointing, but not a surprise as Photoshop only uses a subset of the Threadripper's cores, while CineBench fully utilizes the CPU's potential.
The Area-51 is equipped with two top-shelf 11GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti graphics cards. It can play 3D games at 4K resolution smoothly, shown by its score of 84fps (frames per second) on the Heaven test and 80fps on the Valley test. If you're paying $5,799 for a gaming rig, you'd expect, nay demand, it challenge the best. Unfortunately, that honor went to the Origin Neuron (95fps on Heaven; 113fps on Valley), and the Raptor Z95 was also ahead by a significant margin (88fps on Heaven; 103fps on Valley). Your eyes may not be able to tell the difference between 80fps and 113fps, but your wallet certainly will, and the price difference between these PCs is significant.
Clearly, the Area-51 comes up short when considered purely as a gaming rig, but there is one set of users for whom this setup makes sense: those looking to multitask and play games. This system is capable of doing just that. During some anecdotal testing, I hooked both a 4K and a 3K display up to the Area-51 to test its multitasking skills. The system was able to run both Heaven and Valley at 1080p smoothly while streaming videos from YouTube, with a Word window open, and running the Handbrake test. I didn't experience any hiccups while typing in Word, and the animation in both games stayed smooth at more than 60fps for the duration of the session.
Massive Multitasking, but at a Price
The Alienware Area-51 Threadripper Edition is certainly adept at processing multimedia tasks in a short amount of time, plus you won't have to quit the game you're playing while your project renders in the background. I like the concept of sharing multiple tasks on a single PC, but in this case, you'll have to contend with an eye-popping price tag. Those who crave multimedia performance are better off dropping one of the graphics cards to save $1,000. On the flip side, if gaming is more important, switching to a lower-priced processor pays off. The Origin Neuron remains our Editors' Choice and primary recommendation for gaming desktops, as it is faster on 3D games for about $1,900 less. The Velocity Micro Vector Z95 is another option for artists including animators, photographers, and videographers.
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Joel Santo Domingo is the Lead Analyst for the Desktops team at PC Magazine Labs. He joined PC Magazine in 2000, after 7 years of IT work for companies large and small. His background includes managing mobile, desktop and network infrastructure on both the Macintosh and Windows platforms. Joel is proof that you can escape the retail grind: he wore a yellow polo shirt early in his tech career. Along the way Joel earned a BA in English Literature and an MBA in Information Technology… More »
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