- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

Spending $2,500 on a notebook computer is a big investment. And when it’s purchased from one of the smaller computer companies, the deal might feel like a big gamble.

Alienware, a Miami-based computer seller that also has an office in the District, tries to help buyers over that hurdle. Despite its casual image, the firm’s hardware is serious, solid and well-supported.

My first test unit from the firm is their Area 51 m5500. Pricing starts at $979 — there’s a $200 rebate available now, although it’s easy to go beyond that price by adding options. My souped-up model included a 2.13 gigahertz Intel Pentium M 770 processor, a $482 premium on the 1.5 GHz Intel Centrino processor supplied in the basic model. The test unit also boasts 1 gigabyte of RAM, a $119 upgrade from the standard 256 megabytes, as well as an Ultra XGA display, a $199 premium item.

The basic configuration should be good enough for many users, and the price of some upgrades such as the RAM boost are reasonable, in my view. It is fast, and it handles Microsoft Windows quite nicely. While Alienware builds many of its desktop and notebook systems for devotees of computer games, this portable seems suited for business applications, with a dimension that can handle entertainment.

That starts with the 15.4-inch wide LCD screen, which as mentioned supports Ultra XGA resolution, up to 1920 by 1200 pixels. I found the highest-resolution setting a bit much, but gamers will likely appreciate it. The unit also plays DVDs, so this should be a good machine to watch a movie with at the end of the day. Sound from the built-in speakers is certainly acceptable for most situations.

The computer handled its tasks with ease, running an Office applications suite, Internet browser and some other applications easily and well. The m5500’s trackpad includes a scrolling “zone” which is great for moving up and down on a page, but which can also be an inviting target for a stray hand movement.

I did have a few issues, one of which was more or less solved quickly. That was a dramatic drop in battery life; switching on the machine at first sent the battery capacity plummeting rapidly. The culprit was built-in support for an external VGA monitor connection, and disabling that feature yielded an improvement.

A more serious issue arose when I tried to install a different operating system on the computer, as an experiment. This non-Windows system began to install but then froze, rendering the unit useless.

That’s where a $26 option came in very handy. For that minuscule price, Alienware will sell you a “respawn” package of two discs: a CD-ROM containing Symantec Corp.’s Norton Ghost software and a DVD with the basic image of your computer’s hard drive.

Within 30 minutes, in a process that seems magical, the m5500 was back to its factory-fresh self. Other manufacturers offer this kind of option, and of course you can buy the Ghost software yourself and create your own recovery DVD. But it’s nice to have this very reasonably priced option.

Would I spend $2,468, before a $100 rebate, on this computer? Perhaps. It’s powerful enough to be a true desktop replacement, and if I needed this level of power on the road, I’d consider it. But for those who like the unusual in terms of design — this is a stylish machine — with some powerful components, it’s a machine worth checking out. Find the firm at www.alienware.com.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com, or visit www.kellner.us.

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