Review: Alienware Suits Up With The MJ-12 8550i Workstation

Alienware shatters the staid, boring image of the workstation with its MJ-12 8550i, a feisty box with enough tech and attitude to cause major job envy.

May 31, 2007

5 Min Read
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Think "Alienware" and you'll probably conjure up images of huge computer cases meant to impart a vision of bug-eyed aliens straight out of Area 51 -- and which offer performance as outrageous as their looks. And you'd be right -- this boutique computer builder has made its reputation on fast systems with outrageous styling.

Alienware has now entered the business world with its new MJ-12 8550i workstation. But while the machine may look a lot more respectable than its peers, it packs all the punch that its $6,032 price tag implies, including dual 2.33GHz Intel Xeon 5345 processors, 2GB of fully-buffered DIMM (FBDIMM) memory, and a GeForce 8800GTX graphics card. This means you get incredible performance -- but for most business applications, it may be more than you really need.

Some Impressive Specs
The Xeon 5345 CPU is a quad-core device -- there are eight cores in this box. It utilizes "green-er" 65 nanometer technology running at 80 watts -- meaning that the two CPUs in the MJ-12 8550i use just 40 watts more than the average single 120-watt CPU. The system delivers eight-threaded (allowing eight streams of execution to take place concurrently within the same program) 32- and 64-bit processing, with each pair of cores sharing 4MB of L2 cache. Intel indicates that the setup is rated at 4.5x more performance per watt than their single core Xeon processors.

Another fairly new technology sitting in this system is its FBDIMM, which uses a serial interface between the memory controller and the advanced memory buffer. The usual setup is parallel; when you increase the width of the addressed memory, a parallel arrangement requires an ever-increasing pin-count. It becomes messy. Serial solves that and, in theory at least, the latency added by a serial arrangement can be offset by the higher memory speeds it will accommodate.That brings us to the GeForce 8800 GTX graphics card. It's been a gamer's mainstay for months in an SLI configuration, which involves multiple GPUs. Here, it's a single card that supports DirectX 10 (and there are actually some drivers available for it), carries an unprecedented 768MB of GDDR3 memory, and is the current king of the crop. (There's an Ultra version of the beast that's slightly faster but in short supply right now. Besides, the two processors and this graphics card already carry more than a third of the system cost.)

Handling The Hard Drives
Alienware packed in three 7,200rpm 500GB Serial ATA 3GB/s drives, each with 16MB of cache, in what might, at first, seem like a curious arrangement: Two are used as the system drive in a RAID 0 configuration while the third, termed the storage drive, is configured as a standalone SATA device.

In most systems, only one would be used as the system drive and two as data drives, because of the performance advantage RAID provides. However, RAID characteristics can differ from motherboard to motherboard -- in almost all cases, recreating your RAID array will mean you'll lose the information the drives contain. So should your MJ-12 8550i go down in flames (so to speak), you can simply pluck out the single data drive, install it in a new PC (or mount it in an external drive case), and recover all of your precious data.

Product Info

Alienware MJ-12

Price: $6,032

Other features include 700 watts of power; a maximum memory capacity of 16MB, and room for a fourth hard drive. Dual Gigabit Ethernet ports are provided, as are six USB ports (four at the rear, two up front). Two Firewire ports, and front-mounted mic and headphone jacks round up the external connectivity.

Alienware has taken the hassle out of having a door on the front panel of the box. On this case, the door is mounted to a hinge that opens and then slides back out of the way, flush against the side panel, if you wish to leave it open. It's completely clear of errant optical disc trays or knees. Internal sound-deadening material keeps things surprisingly quiet.Do You Need All This Power?
So should you run out and buy this computer for your workplace? Well...maybe.

As with all multi-core systems, it depends on what software you're using to drive it. Running single-threaded programs on it is a lot like using a racing car to drive to the grocery store.

In general, most software built for the average desktop system today still doesn't fall into the multithreaded category. Even simple video rendering runs about as fast as it would on a Pentium D 945-powered computer because only one core is being utilized (Ulead VideoStudio and most video rendering applications written for current desktop PC platforms are single-threaded). As you make the rendering more complex (by, for example, changing video bit rates from the original) some small part of another core might become active. Continue to ramp-up the effects (overlays, titles, etc.) and you bring more of the computer's cores online.

It's when you move upstairs to more complex enterprise applications designed to run across multi-processor systems that you start to really use the MJ-12 8550i's potential: CAD/CAM software, database applications, and the like.

And, of course, there are games. When I ran Supreme Commander, an RTS game that takes advantage of multiple cores, the MJ-12 8550i did noticeably better than a single quad-core system with dual 8800 GTX cards in an SLI arrangement. (Of course, the MJ-12 8550i costs about $2,000 more than the competing system.)In short, Alienware's new business system is a very fast but specialized (and expensive) tool geared toward graphic artists or animators running multithreaded software, enterprise shops running virtualized environments -- and yes, hard-core gamers. Unless you fall into one of these categories, you may lust after this bleeding-edge system, but you'd be better off with a more practical box.

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