The Area-51 designator has always been reserved for Alienware’s highest performance systems, which are usually desktops. Symbolizing performance, design, and innovation, the designation was given to a notebook system only once years ago. But the high-performance notebook is making a comeback as Alienware revealed the new Area-51m at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
Its return comes as the company shifts into a new era of design. One that focuses on a clean futuristic look with rounded edges and accents, like the beehive pattern for the notebook’s rear heat exhaust grills. Featuring a 17.3-inch screen, the latest Intel Core i9 processor, and Nvidia RTX 20 generation video cards, the premium notebook is made to be a full desktop replacement.
“We looked at ways we could take existing notebooks and reduce and remove the compromises that people make when going from a desktop form factor to a notebook. We’re basically giving them a foldable desktop,” said Frank Azor, VP and general manager for Alienware, Gaming and XPS at Dell.
A Portable Gaming Desktop
Azor isn’t exaggerating when describing the Area-51m as a foldable desktop. There’s a true desktop-class CPU packed inside, which can range from the Intel 9th generation Core i7-8700 six-core processor to an eight-core Core i9-9900HK.
The graphics are still based on mobile GPUs since desktop cards are way too big to fit into a notebook form factor. However, Alienware has created custom Nvidia RTX 20-based mobile video cards, ranging from RTX 2060 graphics to 2080. These video cards can be swapped out and upgraded after purchase, so gamers can always keep up with the latest technology. There’s also an Alienware Graphics Amplifier port for those who want to use a true desktop video card with the notebook.
Lastly, the entire system is overclocked with options to push things even further using the Alienware Command Center software.
“The CPU is 95 watts, and it’s been engineered to operate at 119 watts. The default for the graphics card is 150 watts and it’s been set to operate at over 180 watts,” said Azor, describing the overclocked components. “We always over-engineer our products to give them enough headroom so that they don’t only last and perform great on day one, but for many years to come.”
But despite all that power, the display tops out at 1080p, which is a little strange for a flaship system. Even with options such as a 144Hz refresh rate, Nvidia G-Sync, and Tobii Eyetracking technology, those looking for 4K HDR gaming experiences might be disappointed. They will have to hook the system up to an external 4K display.
Of course, with a system like this, there’s bound to be a ton of heat involved. The notebook has a massive copper heat sink, heat pipe, and huge fans to ensure optimal airflow throughout the chassis. The software is also designed to manage heat and performance. Although Azor is confident in Alienware’s reputation as a longtime computer maker that “over-engineers” everything, the true test will be when these monster systems are in gamers’ hands.
The Price Of Power
According to Azor, the purpose of the Area-51m is both ambitious and straightforward. By packing all this high-end hardware into a notebook, Alienware is removing the barriers for those who are deciding between the power of a desktop or the convenience of notebook system. Now they can have both in one.
The Area-51m is also geared for those who want to consolidate their systems. So, instead of having to pack up and transport a desktop and all its peripherals and cables to bring to a friend’s house, LAN party, BYOC event, or esports competition, they just need to carry a notebook, mouse, and perhaps a headset.
In truth, the system has more in common with an all-in-one desktop than a notebook. So much so that Azor said that Alienware is prepared for a situation where the Area-51m may lead to fewer desktop sales down the road.
Even with its magnesium alloy chassis, the system still weighs a hefty 8.54 lbs (3.87 Kg). Also, the power-hungry PC has two DC power inputs. Although it packs a massive 90 Wh battery, gamers shouldn’t expect to get too much play time out of it considering the mighty components inside.
Gamers who would rather have a thin and light notebook with longer battery life can look into the Alienware m15 and m17 models, which weigh under five and six pounds respectively and support UHD (3840 x 2160) and QHD (2560 x 1440) displays. But the trade-off is that they use mobile Intel H-series CPUs and Nvidia GeForce Max-Q graphics. They still deliver impressive performance, but they’re not cutting-edge technology.
A Diverse PC Gaming Audience
Azor admits that the Area-51m is a pretty niche and expensive system, designed largely for tech enthusiasts and aspiring esports players who are willing to pay more to have the best. With that said, he hopes that the Area-51m’s overall convenience and portability will allow PC gamers to be more social.
Specifically, as esports continues to grow around the world, more people are socializing around events. With a portable high-performance gaming system, players can attend more competitions and BYOC events than they otherwise might.
PC gaming also continues to become increasingly diverse with both its player base and games. According to Azor, over 40 percent of Alienware’s demographic is female, which is partly what inspired the new design to be less male-centric than it was 10 years ago.
“I think mainstream audiences are recognizing the diversity of gamers,” Azor explained. “Thanks to gaming’s popularity, it’s becoming more obvious and socially accepted. People are becoming more public with their gaming lifestyle and with their love for this hobby.”
The clear challenge is to have a design that both differentiates Alienware computers from its competitors while appealing to a broad range of players who are interested in everything from first-person shooters to real-time strategy games, MOBAs, and more. Even sports games, a genre usually dominated by consoles, are growing in popularity on PCs. Madden NFL 19 brought the franchise back to the PC platform for the first time in over 10 years. Meanwhile, Alienware is an official partner for NBA 2K League esports competitions.
The Future Of PC Gaming
With its upgradable CPU and graphics card, the Area-51m is a relatively future-proof gaming notebook. Although some might be betting on 4K for the future of gaming, Azor believes that ray tracing will be the compelling technology in the short term. He also remains a strong supporter of virtual and augmented reality, but concedes that it may take five or ten years for those technologies to become mainstream.
“In the long-term, I’m still a firm believer that AR and VR are going to transform the way we learn, communicate, and are entertained. Similar to how PCs and the internet have done that for us in the past 30 years,” Azor said.
For Alienware, the future of gaming technology might not necessarily be in hardware, since “performance has been democratized and commoditized. Everybody is using the same bag of parts nowadays.” Alienware’s key areas of differentiation will be in its unique designs and reputation, but it is also making major strides with its Alienware Command Center software.
The software, which can custom control everything from hardware overclocking to AlienFX lighting while launching games, has received over 30 updates since it was introduced at last year’s CES. Azor said that the company will continue to improve on it by integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence. Instead of having custom improvements limited to individual machines, the AI learning architecture could upload them to the cloud and apply them similar use cases.
“Developing that software and making it more sophisticated and intelligent will be a key part of how we differentiate moving forward,” he explained. “That’s on top of the iconic design, performance, and quality people have come to know us for.”