Dell's Alienware Area-51m is a return to form for gaming laptop upgradeability

When it first launched almost twenty years ago, the Alienware Area-51m was ahead of its time. A gaming laptop featuring upgradeable graphics was virtually unheard of in the early '00s, much like it is today. (For what it's worth, it's not clear how many people actually bought and then later upgraded their graphics on the old 51m, but that's a different topic.)

At CES 2019, Dell has revealed that it's bringing back the Area-51m, albeit in a more contemporary shell employing a modern selection of hardy components. Now toting a 17.3-inch narrow-bezel display, this new rendition of a classic concept is one that's likely to garner the attention of would-be PC builders who simply don't have the space to house a desktop computer next to a monitor, mouse and keyboard.

Inside the refreshed Alienware Area-51m, you'll find anywhere from a 6GB Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 graphics card to an 8GB RTX 2080 while a either an 8th- or 9th-generation Intel processor occupies the CPU socket. Ranging from an i7-8700 to an i9-9900K, Dell stressed to us that these are full-size desktop processors, not the HQ-series chips you typically find in gaming laptops. And because of that, you can easily swap out the CPU just as you would the graphics. Of course if you start with an i9-9900K, it's unlikely Intel will ever have a faster CPU for the Coffee Lake socket.

Other possible configurations include a breadth of storage options, all the way up to a RAID 0 array comprising two 116GB Intel Optane SSDs and a 1TB hybrid drive paired with 8GB of SSHD space. The 300-nit, 72% color gamut screen, on the other hand, can be personalized before purchase with the choice of a 60Hz or 144Hz refresh rate. Sadly, all models are limited to a resolution of 1920x1080, though some of the high-end offerings do have Tobii eye-tracking and/or Nvidia G-Sync. All have three narrow bezels surrounding their displays as well.

Otherwise, the Alienware Area-51m is par for the course given its $2,549 starting price (Dell confirmed to me that there are lower priced variants slated for the future, starting at $1,949). Its port selection is vast, bearing just about every connection imaginable. Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1, Mini-DisplayPort, Ethernet, headphone jack, HDMI—everyone is here! It even has a port for Alienware's external Graphics Amplifier accessory, in case switching out the GPU on your own proves too arduous. 

Of course, what would a gaming laptop in the current year be without an overdose of RGB lighting? Not only does the Area-51m have RGB lighting on its "TactX" keyboard, but it's per-key, so you can customize the color of each key independently. And speaking of colors, the Alienware Area-51m is available in two: Lunar Light and Dark Side of the Moon. On planet Earth, these equate to the colors "white" and "black," respectively. 

Being the laptop that it is, size and weight are going to play a factor in whether or not the Alienware Area-51m appeals to you. So we'll tell you up front that it measures 1.7 x 16.1 x 15.9 inches and weighs a whopping 8.45 pounds, excluding the presumably hefty dual A/C adapters it requires to charge. Off the charger, the Area-51m is powered by a 90Wh lithium-ion battery. 

The Alienware Area-51m goes on sale beginning January 21, 2019 alongside a refreshed Dell G7 17 and the Alienware m17, a larger alternative to the Alienware m15 I reviewed last month. Each of these notebooks will be compatible with an overhauled version of the Alienware Command Center software upon release. 

Gabe Carey
Gabe has been writing about the intersection of games and technology since the tender age of 16. Previously seen on TechRadar, Digital Trends and PC Magazine, he currently serves as a Senior Writer on the central hardware team spanning PC Gamer and GamesRadar. In his leisure time, you can find him amassing Razer products, playing games and watching superhero movies ranging from bad to mediocre in his cramped Manhattan apartment.