Mobile gamers have long contended with an intractable problem rooted in the deeply annoying laws of physics: Small spaces and limited power consumption are contraindicated if you want a fast gaming system. OEMs and gamers, meanwhile, both want to cram as much horsepower as possible into the smallest, lightest, laptop chassis possible. Balancing these various issues has resulted in a wide range of laptops intended for the gaming market, from big honking desktop replacements to smaller, relatively svelte systems with 13-inch screens. Alienware’s latest Area 51m is very much a system of the former type. In fact, it’s such a desktop replacement, it ships with a desktop-class CPU core and an upgradeable GPU.
The initial specs are fairly impressive, though the panel resolution is limited to 1080p. The 17.3-inch display includes options for a basic 60Hz panel or 144Hz with Tobi eye tracking, G-Sync support, or both. The 8.5-pound weight isn’t bad for a desktop replacement in this class (at least not with replaceable components) and the chassis supports up to two M.2 drives and a 2.5-inch HDD/SSD. Three USB 3.1 ports, USB-C Thunderbolt 3, an ethernet port with 2.5Gbps support, mini-DisplayPort, and HDMI 2.0 outputs round out the chassis, with an additional slot for the Alienware Graphics Amplifier if you want to hook up an even more insane GPU.
The system even ships with two power adapters. This might seem absurd — it is a touch absurd — but then again, I’ve personally tested high-end laptops that were unable to provide the necessary amount of power for their own operation and would overdraw their own AC adapters, overheating them and leaving the laptop on battery power. The system only requires one brick for desktop work; the second brick is for gaming.
The Alienware 51m supports up to an Intel Core i9-9900K and uses a Dell Graphics Form Factor (DGFF) GPU, up to the RTX 2080. This point is important. The CPU is desktop-class and can theoretically be swapped for any other desktop chip. The GPU, however, will still require a third-party to build something to sell (or for Dell to make upgrades available). As Engadget notes, “The only potential downside is DGFF, which isn’t assured any GPU upgrades from NVIDIA or AMD yet.” But AMD and NV are not the relevant companies here. The relevant company is Dell itself, given that Dell builds its own GPUs and has its own form factor. According to an Alienware spokesperson we spoke to, Alienware is committed to providing upgrade modules for this platform. Without that guarantee, the promise of upgradeability wouldn’t be worth much. The old MXM standard was always theoretically upgradeable, but laptop manufacturers almost never brought modules to market.
What About the CPU?
The CPU upgrade path is theoretically simpler, given that the system uses standard Intel desktop parts. The net value of the upgradeability is almost certainly going to be marginal for the simple reason that Alienware isn’t likely to sell this chassis with a Core i3 CPU and it only supports 9th Gen CPUs to start with.
We don’t know yet if Intel’s 10th Generation CPUs will be supported in current motherboards or if Alienware will update its laptop UEFI to add such support. Even if it does, we don’t know how such chips will perform. The physics challenges to putting a rumored 10-core Intel desktop CPU in a laptop would be formidable in any case.
If Alienware is willing to sell this chassis with the just-announced Core i3-9350KF (4C4T, 4GHz base, 4.6GHz Turbo), then you might one day be able to perform a serious upgrade by leaping to a Core i9-9900K. But what’s more likely, given the positioning of the system, is that they’ll offer it with a range of upper-end SKUs and no guarantee of future compatibility (Alienware cannot guarantee Intel’s compatibility plans for obvious reasons). The value of upgradeability is in being able to buy a meaningful update.
The other question here is whether Alienware’s cooling solution can actually handle a Core i9-9900K at full power, to say nothing of any future chips. At full load, the 9900K is a 160W CPU. Sure, you can throttle it to sit within its 95W TDP, but if you do, you’ll give up the performance you paid for. Anandtech checked this, specifically, and found clamping the CPUs performance to 95W had a significant negative impact on performance.
It’s not clear if Alienware’s cooling solution for the Area 51m is capable of handling 160W of power consumption. We’re not saying it can’t — we’re just pointing out the company hasn’t publicly said it can. Running a desktop CPU is not the same thing as running a desktop CPU at full desktop performance and we’re deeply tired of laptop manufacturers selling customers performance they can’t actually use.
The great irony of the entire boutique gaming business is that the ultra-high-end CPUs these companies want to put front-and-center almost never improve gaming relative to lower-power, lower-cost options. The Core i9-9900K is an incredibly powerful CPU, but CPU choice simply isn’t that important to gaming benchmarks once you clear a certain threshold. In a true desktop form factor, there’s potentially reason to say “I want every last bit of performance I can possibly achieve.” In a laptop, thermal and power constraints typically prevent this type of maximum-performance scenario from happening in the first place.
Finally, there’s the price. At $2,549 for the base configuration, this system isn’t remotely cheap. Frankly, that seems high for a system limited to a 1080p panel, though I don’t doubt that Alienware did a great deal of work to bring the chassis design and overall system to market. Building a desktop replacement to allow for user-serviceable upgrades isn’t trivial. The cooling and chassis design problems you have to solve to pull off this kind of hardware support are significant. But it’s precisely because those problems are significant that we want to see final numbers on how well the system performs when outfitted with high-end hardware.