Alienware Area-51 Series m5550
Quake, Doom, and now Dell ( DELL)? Are big computers catching the gaming PC bug?

Gaming PCs were once a strictly nerds-only corner of the personal computer market. Heck, you still can't even rent PC games at most Blockbusters.

But then no less than Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) bought game PC maker Voodoo Computers last month; Dell had already gobbled up fellow game PCer Alienware in March.

It's easy to see what attracted both H-P and Dell to their game-making quarries.

Game-playing computers are cool. They're the Porsche 977 Turbos of the PC market: fire-breathing computational monsters built with the speed and power to handle processor-taxing pastimes such as Doom III or Quake 4.

"Our machines have an aggressive contour and design that separates them from the mass market," says Mark Vena, vice president of marketing at Alienware.

But the deals got me wondering: Are Dell and H-P becoming serious gaming PC impresarios?

A quick look at Voodoo's and Alienware's product lines showed me the big computer makers are not going into gaming with a vengeance. Rather, it's the other way around -- Voodoo and Alienware are going to pump fresh blood into the otherwise lackluster general computer market.

The Laptop of Luxury

If you are a computer snob like me, the Calgary, Alberta-based Voodoo PC is for you.

The company's Envy line of laptop computers, for example, starts at $2,500. And trust me, you'll want to throw more like $8,000 into an Envy once you taste the blistering performance and excellent features.

These machines come in countless colors and configurations. The best part is the paint: The Envy I tested was finished with the same red epoxy used by Italian sports car maker Ferrari. Va-va-voom.

Miami-based Alienware tells a different, more varied product story.

Yes, the company sells ubergaming PCs with the similar bombproof performance and price as the Voodoo. But the company has also quietly developed about a half-dozen rather everyday business and personal laptop computers.

These machines are still game-friendly; all offer serious processors and memory. But the units proffer more modest features akin to a traditional mass-market laptop.

To get a feel for Alienware's more mainstream offerings, I spent a few weeks with the company's decidedly humanoid Area-51 Series m5550 laptop.

The m5550 is Alienware's value-oriented line. These machines start at $999, and the one I tested ran at about $1,684.

Pricing and comparing laptops is disgracefully complex -- yet another product line ruined by bait-and-switch pricing -- but I'd say on average an Alienware's price will run about 25% more than one for a comparable Dell, H-P or Toshiba.

What do you get for your 25%? Actually, quite a bit.

The Alienware shows up in -- gasp! -- decent packaging.

Most computers ship in a box suited for Orange Crush. Not the Alienware. The machine arrives in a reusable black shipping container that holds not only the PC, but a handy system configuration sheet and what has become the ultimate luxury -- real live system backup discs.

(You have to wonder about the health of the larger PC industry if the mainstream vendors need to save $1.75 on two CDs; but that's what has happened. System discs are long gone from H-Ps and Dells.)

Beyond the packaging, the m5550 is done in an attractive metallic silver with black accents. Yes, there is what I called Mr. Alienface, the Alienware logo, plunked right on the cover; but he (she? it?) is only an inch or so high and comes with a cute blue backlight. So I wasn't repulsed.

And the m5550 stood up to the ultimate design test: I did not feel like an idiot carrying it.

I schlepped the Alienware out to Detroit for a little playoff baseball. (I wanted to see for myself whether the once-lowly Tigers could bring $200 million of Yankee offense to its knees. They could.)

Not only was I not embarrassed by my m5550, I got props while in the Northwest terminal from some University of Michigan grads hanging out nearby. I always love looking cool to the kids.

As a computer, the m5550 is solid; it felt a bit more finished and upscale than a similar Toshiba or H-P. The 15.4-inch extended graphics array screen was excellent; bright and clear for a portable. I also liked the feel and carry of the keys.

My Alienware came configured with all sorts of goodies: dual processors; 1 gigabyte of random access memory; 256 megabytes of graphics cards; and plenty of connectors, including an S-video output that turned the m5550 into a serviceable DVD player.

I won't bore you with the details, but the m5550 stood up to every conceivable data test for both office and Internet. Game play seemed decent, though be warned: my gaming reviews hail from the full 20 seconds I can last in Doom before I die.

It's No Coverup

But -- you knew there'd be a but -- the Alienware flames out trying to be a media device. Like all other laptops, the unit sorely lacks in movie quality; picture and sound are awful. High-definition imagery from iTunes looked like it came from my waterproof camera. And even basic midmarket DVDs such as "The Wire" looked like something from a child's play camera. Blacks were bad, colors were washed out. And the aliasing? Ick!

Also, you can expect indifferent battery life from the Alienware. My unit only worked for little under two hours at maximum efficiency -- the result of all that processing umph.

Nevertheless, despite its limits, I give the Alienware m5550 the thumbs up. Think of it as the anti-Mac: a more expensive computer with fashion and flair, but one that is not limited by lack of software and other issues that plague Apple ( AAPL) computers.

And, honestly, for the average user looking for style and performance, the Alienware is cooler than a Mac.

Take that, Steve Jobs.



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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.