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Out of This World

By David Cohn

The Alienware MJ-12 8550i workstation came equipped with two quad-core Intel processors, a four-head NVIDIA ultra high-end graphics board, and 1.5 terabytes of hard drive space, easily handling the most demanding MCAD and digital content creation applications.

If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably heard of Alienware, but the name may be less familiar in the corporate world. Founded in 1996, Alienware builds high-performance desktop, notebook, media center, and professional systems with the philosophy of “build it as if it were your own.” Headquartered in Miami, FL, the company was acquired by Dell in May 2006 and now operates as a wholly owned subsidiary.

For this, our first review of an Alienware workstation, the company sent us its top-of-the-line MJ-12 8550i, equipped with a pair of 2.66GHz Intel Xeon 5355 quad-core CPUs, the same processors as those in the HP wx8400 workstation we recently reviewed (see DE June 2007 issue). The Alienware workstation also came loaded with memory, an ultra high-end NVIDIA graphics board, and 1.5 terabytes of hard disk space.

Each Intel CPU contains four processor cores, which share 8MB of onboard L2 cache. The processors run both 64-bit and 32-bit applications and operating systems and use fully buffered DIMM modules, enabling a maximum memory bandwidth of 21GBps while using 667MHz modules. Our evaluation unit came with 4GB of RAM, installed using four 1GB memory modules.

Alienware MJ-12 8550i
At a Glance

Miami, FL

> Price: $8,866 as tested

> Size: 7.75 in. 3 23.0 in. 317.0 in. tower

> Weight: 47 pounds

> CPU: two Intel Xeon 5355 quad-core processors

> Memory:  4GB

> Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 X2

> Hard Disk: three Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7,200 rpm SATA

> Floppy: none

> Removable storage: 28-in-1 card reader

> Optical: Sony dual layer 16X DVD+/-R/RW

> Audio: integrated audio plus Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi audio w/ 2 microphone, line-in, headphone, line out, front out, rear out, center/subwoofer out, and optical out

> Network: two Gigabit LAN

> Modem: none

> Other: one 9-pin serial, six USB 2.0, two IEEE1394 FireWire, PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse

> Keyboard: 104-key Alienware keyboard

> Pointing device: two-button Alienware optical wheel mouse

The Alienware MJ-12 8550i workstation is much more conservative in appearance than the company’s Area-51 desktop computers. The system came housed in a black tower case measuring 7.75 in. 3 23 in. 3 17 in. and weighing 47 pounds. Four plastic feet swivel out from the base to increase stability. A plastic door with a small Alienware logo conceals all the front-panel ports when closed, but swivels entirely out of the way to provide quick access to the ports, drive bays, and buttons. These include a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a single FireWire connector, headphone and microphone jacks, and power and reset buttons. The ports can also be accessed through a small flip-down panel without opening the entire door. You must open the door, however, to access the drive bays, power, and reset buttons. Behind the door, the upper-most drive bay was filled with an 18X Sony NEC DVD +/- RW dual-layer optical drive while a second bay contained a 28-in-1 media card reader. A third bay remained empty.

The system’s rear panel provides PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, a 9-pin serial port, two RJ-45 network ports, four more USB ports, and audio line-in, line-out, and microphone ports. LEDs on the rear panel help diagnose problems during startup (by referring to several pages of documentation).

Loosening two captive thumb screws and removing the side panel provides access to the case’s spacious interior. Inside we found an extended ATX motherboard based on the Intel 5000P chipset with eight DIMM sockets supporting up to 32MB of system memory. The motherboard supports up to two Intel Xeon processors, and our evaluation unit came with a pair of 2.66GHz series 5355 processors. The motherboard provides five expansion slots: two PCI slots, two PCI Express x4 slots, and a single PCI Express x16 card slot. The x16 slot in our evaluation unit was filled with an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 X2 graphics board, a version of the FX 4500 with two GPUs and 1GB of video memory (512MB per GPU). This board provides four dual link DVI ports and an S-video port—imagine connecting four 30-inch 2560×1920 displays.

The two PCI slots were also filled, one with a Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer High Definition 7.1 audio board that adds four more audio ports (line-out jacks for front, rear, and center/subwoofer as well as a jack that serves triple duty as microphone, line-in, or optical out) and the other with a FireWire board, with a second FireWire connector on the rear panel. Only the two PCI Express x1 slots remained available.

The motherboard also provides support for all of the drives, including six SATA-2 connectors, with RAID 0 and 1 support. In addition to the optical drive and card reader, our evaluation unit came with three identical Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7,200 rpm hard drives. Two drives were configured in a RAID 0 (striped) array, so that they appeared as a single terabyte hard drive, with the third drive configured as a separate 500GB volume. This is not the best arrangement, however, because the failure of a single disk destroys the entire array. For mission-critical applications, a redundant RAID 1 array would be preferred. Data would be mirrored on both disks, and the array would continue to operate as long as one drive remains functioning. Replacing a failed drive restores mirroring, and with this Alienware system, installing internal hard drives is quite easy. After removing the front bezel, you loosen four captive thumb screws and slide the entire drive cage out the front of the system. There’s room in the cage for up to four drives.

There are also plenty of fans cooling this system, including one on the front of the removable drive cage, one on the rear panel, one on each CPU heat sink, a pair on the NVIDIA graphics board, and one more in the 700-watt power supply. The fans are noticeable, but certainly not objectionable.

The Alienware system performed quite well, turning in results comparable to those of the similarly equipped HP xw8400. But as we’ve noted in recent reviews, most standard benchmarks don’t show any of the benefits of multicore CPUs. The results on the standard SPEC viewperf and SolidWorks tests lagged behind those of the Dell Precision 690 and the older HP wx8400 equipped with faster dual-core CPUs. But when we ran our AutoCAD rendering test, the Alienware MJ-12 8550i completed the image in just 82 seconds, virtually matching the results of the quad-core equipped HP workstation.

Alienware rounds the system out with a very nice 104-key USB keyboard and an optical USB wheel mouse, although with only six available USB ports, we would have preferred PS/2-style devices instead. A one-year warranty with 24/7 phone support and onsite service is standard; additional years can be added for up to four years.

Prices start at $2,499 for a system with a single 1.6GHz Xeon CPU, 1GB of RAM, a single 250GB SATA hard drive and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 350 graphics board. Our evaluation unit, equipped with two of Intel’s fastest CPUs, 4GB of RAM, the ultra high-end NVIDIA graphics board, and all of that extra hard drive space priced out at a whopping $8,866—a lofty sum to be sure, but this creature delivers other-worldly performance.

David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to DE, an applications engineer with The PPI Group, and the author of more than a dozen books. Please send comments about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com. You can also contact David at david@dscohn.com or at dscohn.com.

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Digital Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.