At rAge 2016, I got the opportunity to sit down with Chris Buchanan, Client Solutions Director at Dell, to talk about Alienware’s new notebooks being displayed on the rAge floor. Alienware is going through a complete redesign of their notebooks, with a slightly updated design language bringing it into the modern era. Alienware’s previous designs were often fondly labeled as “tanks for notebooks”, and the rugged industrial design helped them outlast most other vendors. Today’s laptops are a bit slimmer, and much better-looking in my opinion.
The impetus for this redesign was probably the number of Alienware’s competitors who were coming up with more thin and light designs. While the Alienware 15 from 2015 was definitely a great option, MSI was creeping up with their Stealth lineup, and Gigabyte and ASUS both have thin notebooks coming to the market (particularly ASUS with their new Strix laptop family). Because Alienware is a gaming brand first, it never had the chance to take the risk that was so clearly needed (a slimming down), because its fan base is largely made up of people who prefer the rugged design, rather than risk taking a hit on cooling to fit into a particular profile.
Chris said as much during the walkthrough of the new lineup for 2016, noting that the change was motivated by what their customers and partners told them they wanted. If that wasn’t the case, then the old design would have soldiered on, becoming tradition in the same way that a Macbook design is always familiar. Some die-hard fans may not like it, but the new design is really good.
Alienware 15 and 17 Gaming Notebooks
The new designs are no less imposing, however. The chassis has been made in parts from anodized aluminium and magnesium alloy, with steel inserts for extra strength where applicable. It’s still a heavy design, but it’s no longer bulky, which may make it a lot easier for users to handle. Thanks to the new materials, the finish is something approaching a matte feel, but it won’t have the grippy feel of matte surfaces.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t an opportunity to handle the laptops personally. They were behind a protective glass cage on the floor, partly because these are the only units in the country so far.
Cooling is another feature that Chris highlighted. “We didn’t like the way our competitors lean with their designs because they’re frequently ineffective at actually delivering a high level of performance. We’ve designed our cooling system to be effective and robust.” Dell achieved this by moving the bulk of the heatsink to the rear of the laptop, and bringing the display a bit closer by moving the hingle forward. This is similar to a lot of current designs like Acer’s Predator, MSI’s GT, and ASUS’ high-end gaming notebook families, and it’s a good balance between a slim design and an effective surface area for the heatsink.
Taking advantage of this, all the ports are moved to the rear, and there are only a few USB ports to the left and right of the notebook. Instead, there are now intake vents off to the sides, drawing in cool air for the heatsink. As an occasional lefty, this pleases me greatly as my hand won’t be heated up by exhaust vents with this setup. You’ll also notice the LED lighting on the lid and bottom chassis that accentuates the design – it’s a fully RGB setup, with software allowing you to control the colour, lighting effects, and per-area colours as well. The only drawback is that the keyboard isn’t lighted per-key, but this should be more than enough for most people.
Where things have also been improved is the keyboard, the Windows Hello-capable webcam, and the updated internals, which move to Intel Skylake mobile parts with NVIDIA’s Pascal GTX 1000 series graphics cards. No part was left untouched in this redesign, not even the solid state drives, which now ship on the notebooks by default and are NVMe capable. The keyboard also has an update, adding in a reinforced steel backplate to prevent any bounce, as well as to quieten key strokes better.
In addition, there are options for 120Hz G-Sync capable displays, 4K IPS displays, and even bog-standard 1080p IPS at 60Hz monitors. These options are becoming available to the gaming market for the first time, and it will be interesting to see how the 120Hz adoptions goes on these units. I was assured that battery life on Dell’s new units is better than ever, but I’m really interested in what the impact is on running a 120Hz display in a notebook. Perhaps, thanks to the lack of strobing backlights, this won’t present much of a problem.
Given the Windows Hello-capable camera, I asked why a fingerprint reader wasn’t also included. I was told that Dell views fingerprint readers as something that business notebooks should be shipping with instead, as the consumer still has choice with Windows Hello, security keys, and other two-factor authentication mechanisms to better protect their accounts.
Finally, something of a surprise popped up in the form of the Tobii eye tracking technology, which is available only on the 17-inch model. We’ve seen this before in other notebooks, with MSI being the first vendor to ship it with something, and it will be interesting to see how much further its adoption will spread. Eye tracking has a huge amount of possible use-cases besides gaming, and I’d really like to see how it gets used in assistive technologies in the future.
Alienware Aurora Gaming Desktop
The Alienware Aurora is the firm’s desktop offering for more stationery gamers, and they still see sense in bringing a desktop SKU to market despite almost a decade of waning sales of pre-built machines. Like the notebooks, it’s been updated to support Intel Skylake processors and NVIDIA Pascal graphics, although there are options for some AMD Radeon products as well. The scope for AMD products is also quite limited for now (there’s only a R7 370 4GB to choose from), although there will be an update to Polaris-based GPUs in the near future.
Eventually, this machine will see an update to Intel’s Kaby Lake processors, along with the Z270 chipset (or a server/workstation derivative, like the Intel C236). The storage improvement is quite interesting, because there’s enough space for one M.2 NVMe SSD on the motherboard, as well as space for up to four 2.5-inch SSDs in slots dotted around the chassis, or one 3.5-inch hard drive for mass storage. Software RAID might be interesting with all five slots populated with similar drives. Someone out there is definitely crazy enough to run four SATA SSDs in RAID 5, with an M.2 drive acting as a cache.
The cooling setup is quite different compared to previous models, because Dell has configured the chassis to use negative pressure to keep things cool and dust-free. The PSU is also rotated in a similar fashion to the old Pentium III days above the CPU slot, helping to keep a slim profile and make the chassis shorter, and it swings out just like some Lian Li designs with horizontally-mounted radiators. Perhaps there were a lot of people who couldn’t find deep enough desks for the 2015 Aurora!
Alienware Area 51
Alienware’s pride and joy is the Area 51, and it’s a very odd chassis. The motherboard backplane is slanted upwards (downwards?) at a 45º angle, with the hope that convection plays a large enough role to direct heat into the right places so that it can be exhausted more effectively. It’s not a new idea, though most chassis manufacturers have opted to just flip the motherboard upside-down rather than slant it upwards.
Inside it houses Intel’s Broadwell-E family as well as a custom motherboard with a X99 chipset sporting three PCI Express 3.0 x16 electrical slots. Previously the Area 51 could be ordered with NVIDIA’s Maxwell GPUs which did support three-way SLI, but Pascal is limited to two for graphics work. Rather humorously, the specs page lists up to three GTX Titan X graphics cards can be ordered for the system, but it’s not specified if these are the Maxwell-based Titan X cards, or the newer ones based on the Pascal architecture that share the same name.
There’s support for up to 64GB of RAM, up to an Intel Core i7-6950X processor (which, on its own, costs as much as the base Area 51 model), and Killer Ethernet networking by Rivet Networks. It’s not just for gaming, though – Dell positions this as a machine for gamers, developers, and content creators, and will be offering NVIDIA Quadro options here eventually.
The machine is designed to be upgradeable by the user, and has no fancy locking mechanisms or any proprietary connectors that might hinder that effort by enthusiasts. What’s also neat is that it pivots on its base, so you don’t have to pick up the chassis and turn it around to plug anything into a port. Lighting by the I/O shield also ensures that you won’t be plugging in a USB drive three times just to get the correct orientation.
The Alienware 15 and 17 aren’t in South Africa yet, but pricing is expected to start at around R35,000 for the base model 15 and 17. There is a 13-inch design as well starting at R29,000. I always joke that I think of Alienware laptops in terms of how many Opel Astras I could buy with the same money. So far, the record set by the new 17-inch design is two-and-a-half Opel Astras.
If you had to scale up all the way to the most expensive model currently listed on Alienware.com at U.S. $4,433 (approx. R63,000*, but expected to be around R100,000 once it lands locally) with all the bells and whistles, including warranty and damage insurance, you’re essentially buying 0.035% of one Nkandla homestead. The Alienware 13, 15, and 17 should all be available in stores sometime in February 2017.
The Aurora desktop will be available soon through select retailers, and starts at R35,000 with general availability sometime after mid-November 2016. The Area 51 demo on stage was one of two in the country at the time of writing, and has no set release date yet. Expect to see prices starting at least at 0.070% of one Nkandla for the dual-GPU configurations.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked about how the Steam Machines initiative was going, and whether Dell would consider shipping more machines with SteamOS, or a more general-purpose Linux operating system. Chris Buchanan lamented the slow update on SteamOS, and said that while Dell would still sell the Alienware Alpha with SteamOS to interested customers, they saw a much bigger demand for the Windows version of that machine. Buchanan noted that Dell’s relationship with Microsoft was very strong, and that deviating from it wasn’t part of their business plan, although there were always side projects to evaluate options moving forward running at the same time.
I also asked about the possible adoption of AMD’s Bristol Ridge and Zen processors into the products shown today, and was told that Dell’s relationship with Intel was also quite strong, with a lot of notable collaborations resulting in notebooks and desktop designs that weren’t possible before. It’s probable that Dell will sell AMD Zen-based products in the near future, but for now the focus is on Windows and Intel until the status quo changes, or if customers have a sudden desire to buy hundreds of thousands of AMD-based computers.