Alienware’s Upgradeable Laptop Still Holds Lots of Promise, But Not at That Price

By Joanna Nelius on at

Dell really wants you to choose its Alienware Area-51m over a high-end desktop. The company has called it a “desktop replacement” since the model’s inception, and not without reason: in addition to upgrading your memory and storage, you have the option to upgrade your CPU and GPU too. You can still do that with the upcoming Alienware Area-51m R2, which will be available 23 June, but a starting price of $3,050 (£2,517; UK pricing TBA) is not a cost-effective desktop replacement. You also can’t upgrade the soon-to-be previous model with a 10th-gen Intel processor or a RTX Super graphics card, but there’s a good reason why. (I’ll get into that in a bit.)

The Alienware Area-51m R2 comes with up to an Intel Core i9-10900K, Nvidia RTX 2080 Super, 64GB DDR4-2933 RAM, multiple single, double, and RAID storage options up to 4TB, and a 4K 60Hz display. I assume that $3,050 (£2,517) starting price includes the lowest-performing components available to configure the Area-51m R2, though. Otherwise, that $3,050 price tag would be a steal for all the above features and components. Most likely, you’ll get the following for that price: Intel Core i7-10700, Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti, 8GB DDR4 2933MHz RAM, 256GB NVMe M.2 PCIe SSD, and a 17.3-inch FHD 1080 144Hz 300 nit display.

If you were buying these parts separately to build a desktop PC (and keep in mind the 10th-gen Intel desktop CPUs aren’t available yet), it would cost you in the region of £1,000, which is a decent price for a budget/mid-tier build with a high-end processor – but you’d be overpaying. By a lot. If you want to overpay for an Alienware Area-51m laptop, go with the R1 model. It has a now last-gen, but comparable processor, better graphics card, more RAM, and dual storage capacity, a 256GB NVMe M.2 PCIe SSD and a 1TB (+8GB SSHD) hybrid drive.

But what you don’t get with the Area-51m R1 is the ability to upgrade the processor and graphics card to an Intel 10th-gen and RTX 2070 Super or RTX 2080 Super. That’s because of some architectural design changes. Intel has a new motherboard chipset, the Z490, for its 10th-gen desktop processors on a new LGA 1200 layout. The previous motherboard chipset, Z390, has a LGA 1151 layout. This means that a 10th-gen Intel CPU will not physically fit into the last-gen socket on the motherboard; the new chips have 1,200 pins where the older ones have 1,151 pins.

Nvidia’s RTX Super laptop GPUs, along with a new RTX 2060 version, have also gotten some upgrades to improve thermals and performance. While the Max-Q graphics card varieties aren’t available for the Area-51m R2, Nvidia has improved the efficiency of sharing thermals between components through a process called Dynamic Boost, which shifts power between the CPU and GPU where it’s needed most. But if the Alienware Area-51m R2 doesn’t come with Max-Q versions of Nvidia graphics cards, why can’t you upgrade the current Area-51m with a Super graphics card?

Nvidia told Gizmodo that, architecturally speaking, the RTX 2070 Super and RTX 2080 Super should be compatible with Dell’s Alienware Area-51m R2, but it comes down to Dell’s design implementation of its platform. A Dell spokesperson told Gizmodo that “Due to generational differences of the new Super cards, we are not able to extend support beyond the generation of GPU the Area-51m R1 was designed for.” So it seems that whatever Dell is doing design-wise this time around makes it so that the upgrade kits (which only released in November 2019) for the Area-51m R1 aren’t compatible with the Super GPUs. Dell did confirm as much to Gizmodo, saying that the “upgrade kits for R2 are new,” are not the same ones as the R1, and will be available autumn 2020.

It might seem misleading for Dell to promise such grandiose upgrade capabilities in the past, but Dell never actually promised anything. When its Area-51m R1 first released in January 2019, Dell told The Verge that while customers would be able to upgrade within the selection of cards it offered for the R1, it couldn’t say if that would be the case for any new laptop GPUs that were released for subsequent models.

If the Area-51m R2 will make your bank account cry, Dell is releasing a few other new gaming laptop models in the next few months which include:

  • Alienware m15 R3: up to Core i9-10980HK, RTX 2080 Super (Max-Q), starting at $1,500 (£1,238; UK price TBA); launching 21 May
  • Alienware m17 R3: up to Core i9-10980HK, RTX 2080 Super, starting at $1,550 (£1,279; UK price TBA); launching 21 May
  • Alienware Aurora R11: up to Core i9 10900KF, liquid cooled RTX 2080 Super (with dual graphics options up to RTX 2080 Ti), starting at $1,130 (£932; UK price TBA); launching 21 July
  • G3 15 (3500): up to Core i7-10750H, RTX 2060, starting at $780 (£644; UK price TBA); launching later this month
  • G5 15 (5500): up to Core i7-10750H, RTX 2070 Max-Q, starting at $830 (£685; UK price TBA); launching later this month

Featured image: Dell