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Alienware MJ-12 8550i workstation

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Mention Dell’s PC subsidiary Alienware to most Internet users, and they will think of high-end games machines with every conceivable option on-board and a hefty price tag to suit. They’re less well known for it perhaps, but the company has also been carving out a similar niche in the professional workstation sector, a market that needs much of the same horsepower as online gaming but with a different balance of features.

The first surprise is that the Windows XP workstation buyer gets a lot more for his or her money these days – a MJ-12 8550a entry-level spec costs £1,221 (inc. VAT) for 1Gb of DDR2, 250 GB of SATA hard drive, Nvidia Quadro FX 35 128Mb graphics, all built around AMD’s 1.8GHz Opteron. Choose a meatier machine and the price rises, but still to levels that would once have been considered startling. A Dual Intel Xeon 2.00 GHz (that’s 8 processing cores, Alienware proudly reminds us) with 2Gb RAM (a max of 4GB), 1333 MHz FSB, Nvidia Quadro FX 1500 256MB graphics, and 500Gb of RAID 0 disk, comes in at a fairly reasonable £2,385 (inc. VAT). In the US, workstations are also available as rack-mounted units.

Price, however, is misleading when it comes to workstations. The challenge is to make such machines do more. Any workstation needs a degree of graphics power but unlike gaming this has to be balanced with first-rate disk I/O and plenty of hardware redundancy.

Alienware’s answer to this is to make the MJ-12 a big, solid machine – just getting it out of the packaging requires two grown men. The unit has folding feet at each corner, just as well because this thing toppling on to someone’s foot would probably have the health and safety brigade crawling all over it. The size is actually reassuring: large means more air volume and through-flow, and that is needed to cool hot components.

The review unit was configured with a basic 250GB of hard drive space, but there is room for up to 2.5TB behind its four drive bays, all accessible in its four bays behind the large, hinged front panel. The system can be ordered in either of RAID 0 (performance) or 1 (redundancy) configurations; hard drives are easy to access via the front of the machine, a premium feature that marks this machine out from conventional PCs. (But why can’t all expensive PCs be made this way?)

Encouragingly, date-eating serial-attached SCSI drives running at 15,000rpm can be specified for I/O-critical applications – the board has connectors to accept both that and SATA equivalents. Beyond its volume and quad-fans, there is nothing about the neat, sparsely-populated interior that marks it out of the ordinary though we did note – and appreciate – the dual Gigabit Ethernet ports. An acoustic dampening noise reduction option costs £33 on the basic spec, well worth it if it does its job.

For some reason (that had the customer support guffawing as if we were dim-witted cretins), there was no VGA monitor connector. There was a DVI, but no adaptor to plug this in to a VGA monitor. We should apologise for being the only people left who haven’t moved on from the world of VGA. We’d recommend you make sure you’re not one of them.

Conclusion

Does absolute performance matter? Or is it price-performance? From our informal tests running I/O-intensive games (not the intended use but a fair test of underlying speed), the Alienware performed well, as we would have expected it to, opening online games from servers at lightning speed and allowing us to murder the opposition, even those with lower pings (who said games were about skill?). Opening a sequence of large files, and processor-intensive graphics operations using Photoshop was likewise swift; the dual Xeon really does made a difference. We’d compare it to a benchmark, but we don’t have one for this type of machine, making comparison impossible.

The same could probably be said of performance for many PC-based workstation using the same expensive but off-the-shelf components and a decent mainboard, so despite its spec and speediness this is not necessarily where the Alienware scores.

Instead, it is the quality of build, the expansion, the reasonable redundancy (including 700 Watt multi-GPU power supply as standard), and the good cooling of the design, that marks it out from the slung-together feel of some of its PC workstation rivals. This is a decent platform with a good choice of options at a fair price.



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