With the side off, the case is laid out very well, with hard drive access on the right made easy with outward facing drives and drive rails. The Alienware chassis is so huge, there's plenty of room on the left for all the components along with extra room for cable routing. The X2 processor is cooled by this rather chunky heatpipe heatsink. It's the same cooler that was shipped with the Athlon 64 FX-55 before it moved over on to the San Diego core. In practice, it's pretty quiet and does the job well.
At the heart of the system are these components. The 7800s are reference boards which are badged as EVGA, a well-known American brand. As we found in our review of the 7800, the cooling system on these is incredibly quiet and efficient. The Corsair memory is dual-channel, 2-2-2-5 PC3200. It's stonkingly fast, and very low latency - the perfect pairing with the rest of the componenets in the system. It's good to see that Alienware haven't skimped on top-grade memory.
These two Maxtor drives whirr along at 7200RPM, and are 400GB each. In RAID 0 (striping), these two drives produce one huge 730GB partiion once formated - surely enough for anyone's porn games collection. However, we would have like to have seen a Western Digital Raptor used as the main system drive with another drive for secondary storage - enabling the lightning fast performance of the 10,000RPM Raptor.
The DVD writer is a standard NEC model - nothing to complain about, nothing to write home about. Interestingly, Alienware also still build a floppy drive into their systems to enable RAID driver setup etc. With the A8N supporting booting from USB, why not include an Alienware 16MB USB key with the drivers on?
The back of the case is fairly standard, aside from the plethora of DVI ports. The rear fan is 120mm, and runs extremely quietly - full marks there. The A8N sports dual LAN as well as USB and Firewire. The Audigy 2 ZS has the full complement of gold-plated ports at the back. Whilst the onboard sound on the A8N is pretty good, the ZS is really top quality, and is a great match for the rest of the components in the system - even if, perhaps, it's inclusion is a little OTT in an era when discrete soundboards are struggling to sell. The ZS enables the use of a gameport on the back. Can you even remember the last time you used one of those? Didn't USB replace it, like, 8 years go?
Pricing and upgradability
Frankly, spending time considering the upgradability of a machine like this is pretty pointless - there's really nothing that most people would ever want to upgrade. The graphics and processor will be cutting edge for a long while yet, and no games will be out to tax that setup for a good 18 months. Even when the next, next generation of graphics is here, the upgrade to that is a simple pop-out-plug-in for PCI Express. There's two more memory slots to add another gig of memory, and plenty of room (both in the case and on the motherboard) for additional storage, should you want to go ahead and add that Raptor, or create a monstrous Terabyte array.
The system costs £2997. How does that compare to the cost of the components off the shelf?
That takes us to £2330. So, you're paying Alienware around £700 to build the system, tweak it, give it a full warranty, and deliver it to your door with the minimum of hassle. This might seem a hefty premium to some, but many people will base their decision on the asking price - they want a top-end system, and three grand buys them power gaming straight out of the box.
Having spent the last year pulling my hair out with various forms of AMD systems and SLI, it's a headache I could do without. The premium is there so any hassles become Tech Support's headaches.