A good performer with design flourishes
Choice of graphics chipsets
Good gaming graphics
Minor build issues
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Some people aren't satisfied with a plain old laptop. There's clearly a market for PCs branded with glowing aliens and rubber fins, because Alienware, a company renowned for its high-price, highspec systems, is filling it. You expect near-perfect build quality when you're being asked this much for a PC, especially if its real gimmick is the styling, but you don't exactly get it here.
The rubberised lumps on the rear of the screen start off aesthetically pleasing, but a week's use left our lid developing visible damage on the corners. There was also a noticeable gap between the bottom of the LCD panel and the monitor bezel.
Despite construction issues, the design is effective enough to win back some points. At 2.7kg it really isn't that heavy for a machine of this size and power, and even the AC adapter is fairly light. It has a tapered base, which sits the keyboard at a good typing angle and every port is exactly where we'd put them in an ideal world, accessible and usefully situated.
The graphics performance, like the styling, can't really be disputed. The GeForce 6600 Go is about as close to the desktop range as you're going to get. Coupled with the 15.4-inch LCD panel, which has a pleasing response rate in practice, there's a good visual combination on offer.
A distinctive feature, rarely seen until now, is the external VGA switch. Boot your machine with this in the off position and the internal GeForce chip is denied power, meaning the machine uses the motherboard's on-board Intel 915 graphics instead. This might seem like a pointless exercise - why would you deliberately want to cripple your PC's graphics capability? Well, you could equally argue that having to supply the juice for a high-power graphics card is a complete waste of your battery if you're only going to be typing a letter.
The feature isn't hot-switchable, so you'll need to reboot to change your configuration, but the improved battery life (an extra half-hour according to MobileMark testing) is worth the small hassle, and the 915 is good enough if you're not playing games. 512MB isn't really enough RAM, though, and the machine tends to struggle if pushed too hard.
One of the better properties of the provided Pentium-M is its lack of heat. At times when an equivalent P4 machine would be doing its best to melt our fingers, the m5500 manages cool composure.
The clever design also helps the temperature stay low. Where equivalent machines often clump warm components to the left, here they're deliberately spread under the whole keyboard, which helps to dissipate the heat. Usually the m5500 runs in virtual silence, which is no doubt a by-product of the design genius. Even when the heat is high enough for the fan to kick in, it's still inoffensively quiet.
Its few flaws can't kill the quality of this PC and neither does the price. You could find a machine with equivalent components elsewhere for less, but Alienware's cosmetic touches are more than just window dressing. The clever design makes it wonderful to use.
While we'd probably plump for a slightly higher specification (512MB RAM does feel a bit sluggish these days), this is an excellent PC. That's as long as you can stomach the glowing blue alien... PC Answers staff
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