Alienware occupies an interesting position in the PC integration space, especially in relation to video producers. As their über-geek name suggests, they got into this business as a gaming-oriented company, poised to blow the mainstream likes of Dell out of the water with their hot-rod gaming PCs, equipped with the sort of graphics acceleration firepower that could make the latest fast-paced, graphics-intensive games run like nobody's business. Appropriately enough, the system they sent for review came with a litany of benchmarks for games like Doom 3, Unreal Tournament 2003, 3D Mark 2005, and the like.
So where does the pro videographer fit in this gaming-centric space? Long before Alienware shipped out what may be the ultimate gamer-targetted system, the Star Wars line they introduced this spring, the company figured out that the same sort of turbocharging components they were using to attract the gaming market were essential equipment for video producers as well, at least those who were looking to equip their editing bays with all-purpose Windows PCs that matched their needs more expertly than the usual run of assembly-line systems from the mass-market PC integration set.
These aren't turnkey video systems, of course, but Alienware does send out PCs fully loaded with leading NLEs like Adobe Premiere Pro or Sony Vegas 6, or other popular pro applications like discreet 3ds max 7. They've also answered the other emergent trend (and often shaky proposition) of supplying notebook systems designed specifically for processor-intensive tasks like video editing and media postproduction. With their latest line of "Mobile Desktop" systems, such as the MJ12m-7700 submitted for review, they've assembled some absolutely powerhouse PCs that are expertly positioned for use in any Windows-based videographer's editing bay—especially if it's a roving one.
Alienware describes the MJ12m-7700 as a mobile desktop, and it's an apt description. Not only does the MJ12 pack all the performance you'd expect in a desktop, but it also does so without the pretense to lightweight mobility of many notebooks. Of course it's big for a laptop, with a 17" ClearView LCD, but I've certainly handled lighter 17" notebooks. At 12.5 lbs, this one is hardly a welterweight, and even if you're used to toting heavy camera rigs you'll notice it soon enough when you're hauling it through airports. It also generates a striking amount of heat; used in my home office in March, it completely eliminated the need for the space heater that saves my joints from crackling on Wisconsin winter nights.
The payoff, of course, is performance. I've worked with this system for three months now, through a number of software reviews and a host of successful projects. It's easily slipped into the role of my workhorse production system, displacing a stalwart 3.0GHz Gateway PC with HT and a 2.4GHz Sony VAIO (both sizeable desktop systems) that's been getting long in the tooth for quite some time but is so well-loaded with software that it's been hard to let it go. And given that I work with a morass of bad habits—primarily, working with way too many applications open at once, particularly as I try to get other work done while waiting impatiently for rendering times to pass—the Alienware stood up admirably to such abuse, and still managed to churn out faster rendering times than the competition.
For the record, the Alienware system I received shipped with Windows XP Pro and featured a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor with HT and an 800MHz FSB, 1GB RAM (2 DIMMs), NVIDIA GeForce Go 6800 256MB video card, a Promise 2+0 Stripe/RAID0 80GB SCSI hard disk, a widescreen 17" SXGA+ LCD, and an NEC ND-6500A 8X DVD±R/RW drive with DVD+R DL support. (The NVIDIA Go 6800, incidentally, has been extremely well-received, and in some respects it's the heart of the system.) The Alienware also comes with four USB 2.0 ports and two 4-pin FireWire ports, which strikes me as pure genius on a laptop (try hunting down another laptop with multiple FW ports). A final storage-support perk is the array of Flash media drives on the side of the Alienware chassis, including Memory Stick, SD, CF Microdrive, and SmartMedia.
The Alienware's 17" widescreen display turns out to be quite a bit of real estate for previewing your work, and if that doesn't satisfy you, there's plenty of room for expanding that window via external monitors, thanks to the analog and DVI Video Out ports on the back.
The Gateway used for comparison testing is a 3GHz 700XL with HT technology and 512MB RAM running Windows XP Pro.
For the purposes of this review, I repeated the rendering steps of a recent real-world project that—in the real world of its completion—I produced entirely on the Alienware, but in the tight production time frame, as you might expect, didn't have the opportunity to shadow all the steps on another PC for speed comparisons. This project, described in this issue's Nonlinear Editor, was a photo montage I built for presentation at a wedding reception in Wilmington, N.C. I had less than 10 days to clean up the scanned photos, develop production concepts around the archival material I was given, create mosaics, cut and massage the music clips, add motion to the images and sync them to the soundtrack in Canopus Imaginate, export and render low bitrate files for Web review, make changes to the individual sections, integrate the project in Premiere and add transitions and other effects, render, and author for DVD. Naturally, this didn't leave a lot of time for clean-room testing, but after the fact I found I had a little more breathing room for re-rendering the project files and various segments on the Gateway 3.0GHz HT system for comparison's sake.
The Alienware topped the Gateway across the board. A typical 77MB Imaginate project file, heavy with cuts, pans, zooms, and tilts, rendered to DV-AVI in 6:55 on the Alienware, 7:27 on the Gateway.
The complete montage, after editing in Premiere, topped out at six minutes; not exactly longform work, but sufficient for comparing rendering times. Some of the more movement- and effects-intensive segments proved difficult to preview on both systems during editing, although the Alienware seemed to fare about 20% better on the more challenging segments, and was generally smoother for preview. Rendering the complete 1.32GB DV-AVI file with its roughly 11,000 frames from Premiere took 8:32 on the Alienware, 9:59 on the Gateway. Project that over an 80-minute production with an equivalent amount of effects and you save about 19 minutes. Rendering results with a DVD-compliant MPEG-2 file from Premiere Pro showed a similar time differential: 10:46 for the Alienware, 12:33 for the Gateway. Output quality was excellent in both cases.
BATTERY POWER AND OTHER FEATURES
It's worth noting a few other characteristics of this laptop. As you'd expect, it offers wireless support via internal 802.11b in addition to Ethernet; it also comes with a built-in BisonCam which shoots video from a tiny peephole at the top of the LCD. Battery life, another key issue, is estimated at four hours. I noticed performance drops before that four-hour benchmark, but it's just not part of my working style to try and do the type of computationally intensive tasks that comprise most of my work (and my interest in a PC like the Alienware) on battery power. The performance of the Alienware's Lithium Ion battery has taken some heat elsewhere, and I, likewise, didn't find it the most impressive part of the system's performance.
But for me, as a desktop-oriented laptop user, that's not a huge shortcoming in a desktop-replacement laptop that I want to use in multiple offices and editing environments. What this system does deliver is significant processing and speed improvements over immobile desktop systems, and that more than meets the criteria of what a mobile desktop is and ought to be.