At what point does it make sense to stop using the term laptop? (Or notebook, if you prefer.) Is it the 21-inch Acer Predator 21 X, a $9,000 beast with a 21-inch screen and its own rolling suitcase? Is it the Asus Mothership, closer to an all-in-one desktop with a detachable keyboard? Or is it the new Alienware Area-51m, a hefty 17-inch system that’s more desktop than laptop under its magnesium alloy exoskeleton?
Then again, what’s in a name? After all, I’ve called this a Frankenstein of a system, cobbled together from desktop and laptop parts, knowing full well that online commenters will immediately monstersplain to me that actually it was the scientist who was named Frankenstein, not the monster itself.
But unlike most monsters, this hulking giant is actually pretty easy on the eyes. And inside that sharp-looking laptop shell, you’ll find the heart of a gaming desktop. On one level, that means a desktop-class CPU (with a desktop Z390 chipset), rather than a mobile one. But on a deeper level it means bringing to a laptop form the one thing that desktop gamers have always had a near-monopoly on — serious upgradability.
The return of the upgradable laptop
In most laptops, access to even upgrade just the RAM and storage is iffy. The Area-51m goes far beyond that, with a modular CPU and GPU design that allows you to get inside the case and replace both the processor and graphics card.
Well, kind of. You’ll still need something newer to upgrade to, and in the case of our Intel Core i9 test system, there’s nowhere to go but down right now. But you can start with a lower-end Core i7-8700 and upgrade later.
The idea of swapping laptop GPUs is a great one, but this laptop includes a top-of-the-line new Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, so there’s not really anything to trade up to yet. You’ll have to wait for future GPUs and hope they’re supported, and that Dell makes a custom version available for owners to swap in themselves.
The RAM and the 2.5-inch hard drive are easy to get to and upgrade once you undo a handful of screws on the bottom panel. Actually getting to the CPU and GPU requires removing some other stuff first, so attempt at your own risk. Honestly, you’re good for at least a year or two even if you’re obsessed with having the latest and greatest, and for much, much longer if you’re just interested in a laptop that will play any game at high frame rates.
|Price as reviewed||$4,499 (£3,799, AU$7,999)|
|Display size/resolution||17.3-inch, 1,920×1,080-pixel display|
|CPU||3.6GHz Intel Core i9-9900K|
|Memory||32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz|
|Graphics||8GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080|
|Storage||(2) 512GB SSD RAID 0 + 1TB HDD|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.1|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
A new design with familiar touches
When I first saw the new Area-51m in late 2018, my initial impression was that the Alienware team had somewhat oversold just how much of a ground-up redesign this was. It was a nice-looking, if massive, gaming laptop. The industrial design was modern and minimalist enough to avoid the dorm room look of so many gaming PCs. But it didn’t reinvent the wheel or go in too many unexpected directions.
Now that I’ve had a chance to spend a few weeks with one, in the matte white color scheme, it’s grown on me significantly. This is an attractive laptop that does the most it can to work with its size, making you feel like you haven’t sacrificed table space for nothing. The magnesium alloy body has a great almost ceramic feel to it, with none of the vulnerability to smudging and fingerprints most other laptops suffer from. I love the look of the hex-shaped fan vents on the bottom surface, which are necessary, along with side and rear vents, to cool the desktop-level components.
As usual on big-format gaming laptops, the keyboard is excellent but the touchpad is small and basic. It is backlit, however, which is a fun touchpad extra my colleagues and I always like to see. Most gaming laptops today have shallow, island-style keyboards, so it’s nice to see a callback to a classic design in these deep, responsive keys.