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volume 1, issue 14

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Off the Shelf:
Geek Toys





By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

Toy: Alienware Custom PC System
Publisher: Alienware PC
Average Price: $2000-$5000

o okay…let’s start with some background here. Issues 1.1 through 1.13 were edited, designed, and well…made, on a Pentium 100 with 16 megs of RAM. That was my PC for the last few years, and I tell ya…for a giant chunk of that, I was a laughing stock. Sure, I wanted a new PC, but I didn’t just want any old new PC…I wanted a man’s PC. I wanted the PC to end all PCs, and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less than that. So I waited.

And oy, did I ever wait. First I waited for the Pentium IIs to come out…then it was 3D positional audio cards…then it was the Voodoo 2, and so on, and so on. I waited for a looooong damn time. And you know what? Ever since I first started thinking about getting a new PC, I planned on getting it from Alienware.

Why? Well, I had been told by some friends about how they work, and I was pretty impressed by what they told me. And it all turned out to be true.

I’ll get to that. First let me tell you why I finally decided to get the new system. It’s quite simple, really. Deer Hunter II. Now, I’m not a fan of the game, but I got a review copy of it, and wanted to review it for the Bargain Bin here at loonygames (after all, I did review the original).

My old PC wouldn’t run Deer Hunter II.

Let me repeat that: Deer Hunter II. The game that was marketed towards the lowest common denominator. It wouldn’t run on my old PC. It required a p133 at least. I was angry. I was frustrated. It was time to order a new PC.

It was off to Alienware.

Here’s the way things work with Alienware. You pick out your system, from the motherboard, to the graphics card(s), to the monitor, etc. And these guys offer everything as an option. Once, just for the heck of it, me and a guy at my office configured a $10,000+ computer, just to see if we could.

This appealed to me, because having bought an over-the-counter computer previously, I was stuck with all kinds of crap that I just didn’t want. I figured (and rightly so) that if I had final say in every piece of hardware, then that wouldn’t be an issue. As a LAN user, I didn’t want to pay for a modem I’d never use. And having seen the inside of way too many computers, I know how nasty a lot of those proprietary cases can be. I wanted an elegant system.

The other thing about their whole customized PC system deal, is that they always have the latest hardware available to select from. I checked their site every week for almost a year, and I gotta say…I’m extremely impressed by their ability to keep adding the latest greatest hardware. Within weeks of the first TNT cards being released, Alienware offered it as an option. Pretty cool.

So, anyway, I decided early on to get my computer through Alienware for that reason. Let’s take a look at the whole ordering process, shall we?

The first step in getting a PC from Alienware, is to make up your preliminary specs from their website’s online quotation system. A word to the would-be-buyer: this is not necessarily the price you’ll be paying! The constant changing of prices in the hardware world means that their package prices are always in flux. When you call, you may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself paying much less than you had originally anticipated. This is a good thing indeed.

So I made out my specs, and called their 800 number. Since they customize PCs to order, when you call, you don’t just read off your package and pay the bill. Instead, when you call, you get a sort of "consultation". The salesman will take you through each piece of your new PC, and in some cases offer better (or cheaper) options than the ones you originally planned on. In my case, I had originally planned on getting a Pure 3D 2, but the salesman nicely pointed out to me that the only difference between the Pure 3D 2 and the Pure 3D 2 LX was that the Pure 3D proper has TV out whereas the other does not. While I wanted the TV out, it wasn’t necessary, since I was also getting a Canopus TNT card that had TV out built in. That saved me some nice cash.

We went through the whole package and finally settled on the specs. Here’s a rundown on what I ordered:

  • Abit BH6 440BX Motherboard (with 5 PCI, 2 ISA and 1 AGP)
  • Intel PII 450 MHz CPU
  • 128MB SDRAM
  • Maxtor DiamondMax 11.5 GB UDMA HD
  • A standard 3.5" floppy drive
  • Keytronics 104-Enhanced Keyboard (PS/2)
  • Logitech MouseMan+
  • Canopus Spectra 2500 TNT
  • 2 Canopus Pure 3D II LX (12MB) in SLI mode
  • SB Live! Value
  • Toshiba 3rd Generation DVD Player
  • Altec Lansing ACS48 Speaker/Subwoofer System
  • Viewsonic 17" OptiQuest G773

The price? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t cheap. Expect to pay anywhere between $2,000 and $5,000 for your average system (again, depending on when you order…remember: prices are always changing). So I finally had my specs, and I placed the order. And I was psyched. I practically had my old computer in my hands ready to throw it out the window right there.

Imagine my disappointment when he told me that it was going to be at least three weeks before it arrived.

I was crushed. Well, okay…not totally crushed, since I was pretty damn busy with school and this here site…but I really wanted that computer. I hadn’t felt that way since I was thirteen and knew that I had a brand new Sega Master System waiting for me on Christmas morning (hey, I still love that thing). :)

So I waited. And waited.

And when I returned home from San Francisco two weeks ago, there it was. Three giant (I mean giant) boxes…pure white, with a giant "grey" alien head. Pretty intimidating, all things considered. It’s a good thing my roommate was gone for the weekend when it arrived. ;)

So anyway, I tore into the boxes. I’m a fairly experienced computer-builder, but putting it together would have been easy for just about anyone. It’s no iMac, that’s for damn sure, but everything was pretty nicely labeled. They even included a color coding page in their custom manual (more on this in a second) that explained the hardest two parts to set up: the sound card plugs, and the passthrough cable.

The manual is really impressive. Aside from the fact that they put your name on it (they spent those three weeks working on this thing…go fig!) the manual is custom printed to your system. Inside you’ll find a complete checklist of everything included, as well as the checklist used for quality control.

This I thought was great, since it showed how much care they put into this before they sent it out to me. This isn’t just "slap in sound card: check" stuff. We’re talking about a complete driver update (these drivers are up to the second in here!), a cleanup of the Autoexec.bat and Config.sys, a check indicating that they tested the system with the Battlezone demo (in its highest resolution), likewise with Quake II, that they tested the network card, they deleted unnecessary desktop icons (!!), that they disabled stuff that I didn’t have installed (that Win98 automatically puts in) and all kinds of other stuff. They put a lot of tests on this thing before shipping it.

They’ve got lots of other handy things in the manual as well, such as instructions for plugging each piece of the computer in. And since the manual is actually just a giant binder, they included all the driver disks for each piece of hardware in their own individual sleeve. I was actually surprised at the fact that they included the OEM games that come with some of my hardware (the Quake II mission pack that ships with the Pure 3D II LX for example). This is a mighty cool thing.

But enough about the manual. How’s the computer run? Well…there is only one way that I’ve been able to describe it…and that’s stupid fast. Going from a p100/16 to a p450/128 is a major step up…much larger than I had actually realized. Throw in the fact that I’ve got SLI Voodoo 2 cards in here, and you’ve got yourself a major piece of machinery here.

I’ll get to some numbers in a bit, but first let’s talk about the insides here, because they really are quite pretty. I’ve had my ugly mug inside plenty of computers over the years, and I know an ugly setup when I see one. Alienware uses a custom case, which while it’s not quite as elegant as I would have hoped for (hey, I wanted ivory screws) it is one of the simplest ones I’ve ever seen.

I had to port over my old hard drive, and while it wasn’t quite a snap, per se, it was comparatively easy. Being an IDE drive, I had to slave it off of the old HD, and as anyone who’s ever done this will attest, something always goes wrong when you attempt this. In this case, it was a simple mistake…a loose wire somewhere. Horribly frustrating, but there’s nothing you can really do about that. After about an hour or so of cursing the inventor of the IDE drive, I finally got the damn thing working. Thank God.

With that in place (and after doing that night’s update to loonygames) it was time to get down to business.

I loaded up Quake 1. In 1024x768. I ran Timedemo 1.

75 frames per second.

"Wow!" I thought to myself, "that’s really fast!"

Then I realized I had Eudora Pro 4, Internet Explorer 4, Microsoft Word 97, and Winamp (which was playing!) running at the same time.

Three hours later I was awakened by the sound of arriving e-mail. The shock was obviously too much for my system.

So I loaded up Quake II. In 1024x768. I set timedemo to 1, and ran demo1.dm2.

65 frames per second.

"Golly!" I said, in my best goofball voice, "that’s really fast!"

Then I realized that in addition to the programs up there, I also had since opened Photoshop, which was currently set on one of our high-res scanned images for our covers.

Several hours later, I was awakened by the sound of the phone ringing. I decided that this computer was too fast for me to deal with telephones. I must bond with the PC. Become one with it.

To be blunt: I am this computer’s bitch.

I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m just afraid the day’s going to come when I turn on the computer, and it starts telling me that it’s disappointed with what I’ve been using it for. It’s inevitable…Trespasser aside, I don’t even own anything that actually takes advantage of 3/4s of what’s in here!

I’ve gone in 24 hours from having a computer that couldn’t run Deer Hunter II, to a computer that laughs in the face of a system hog like Trespasser. God bless America.

This is one killer PC, no doubt. But (and here come the disclaimers) this all comes at a price. If you do the comparison shopping thing, you’ll probably find cheaper systems from other manufacturers that have comparable processor speeds, comparable RAM and other hardware, yadda yadda. But if you want everything you could ever want in a system…go Alienware. It’s worth the extra cash. No question from me, that’s for damn sure.

If you’re concerned about support issues, well, I am pleased to report that Alienware’s is top-notch. I purchased a USB scanner last week from Hewlett Packard that didn’t work. After running all manner of tests on the scanner, I came to the conclusion that there must have been something wrong with the USB bus on my motherboard (a potential crisis!). So I called Alienware’s support line.

First off, I wasn’t on hold at all. I called in the middle of the day, and I was never put on hold. How cool is that? And it’s not like I pulled some of those patented loonygames strings here…I just called the support line like any Joe Customer. I told the support guy about my problem, and gave him all the info regarding my scanner and system. He (get this!) called Hewlett Packard for me, looked into the problem, and I’m currently waiting for a new driver disk that should fix the problem. Now that’s support for you.

I’m impressed. Hell, I’m downright amazed. The computer, while slightly more expensive than your average-run-of-the-mill box is top notch, the support is beyond compare, and hey…it’s got a cool beans alien head on the case. If you’re considering buying a new PC this year, look into Alienware. You won’t be disappointed.

- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief here at loonygames.



Credits: Bargain Bin logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Geek Toys is © 1998 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.