AlienWare MJ-12
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 7 (July 2004)

AlienWare MJ-12

Alienware has been dominating the high-end gaming market for some time now. Hip gamers who need really fast machines have been turning to Alienware systems for both speed and good looks. Whereas playing high-end games has been Alienware's forte, they've moved to the other side of the equation by producing a series of workstations designed for artists who create games, movies, and other high-end graphics applications. Its new MJ-12 workstation is a terrific tool for artists and content creation professionals alike.

An Alienware system is certainly not the generic black box that you tuck under a desk. Alienware's MJ-12 case looks like it was pulled straight off the set of a Buck Rogers movie: a curvy black and silver shell complete with cooling fins and a small alien hood ornament on the front. The full-size tower sports a case with a hefty 550-watt power supply and sufficient room for oodles of expansion.

Eye-catching and powerful, the Alienware MJ-12 workstation is well-suited to creative work flows.

The workstation is large, so it probably won't fit on your desktop. It also is not the quietest machine I've used. Some of the reason is perhaps due to the extra cooling requirements of its high-end processors and multi-disk array. It wasn't so noisy as to be bothersome, but I would opt to tuck it under or alongside a desk.

The back of the machine has the requisite keyboard, mouse, parallel, and serial ports, as well as two USB and two Gigabit Ethernet ports. Audio is provided by a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 card, which provides surround sound and a FireWire port. The front of the machine has four additional USB ports. Opening the front panel reveals CD-ROM and floppy drives, a DVD burner, and two 5-inch bays.

A hidden lever toward the back of the box helps pop off the side panel, opening up the workstation. The side panel also was held on with some Phillips screws. While the screws provide an extra degree of security, it looks as though the side can stay on quite firmly without them. I would only install them when shipping the unit. Once inside, I noticed that the guts of this box are beautiful. Every cable is properly routed and tied down for neatness and maximum airflow. The motherboard contains one AGP, two 32-bit PCI, one 64-bit PCI, and one 64-bit PCI-X slot. Easy to remove and service, the disk drives can be either standard ATA or Serial ATA, allowing for ultra-fast drives and RAID arrays.

The configuration I used included dual 3.06ghz Xeon processors on a Supermicro X5DAL-TG2 motherboard. The motherboard supports up to 8gb of ECC RAM. The dual Xeons provide excellent integer and floating-point performance, but are 32-bit processors. Comparing them to the dual 64-bit Opteron machine I reviewed last month gives us some interesting numbers. A quick Sandra test put CPU performance at 18994 Mips integer and 12970 Mflops, putting its integer performance on par with an Opteron and slightly ahead in floating point. Memory performance was clocked at 2402mb/second, which is understandably about half that of the Opteron, which has a data path twice as wide as the 32-bit Xeon.

This particular workstation was configured with four very fast Serial ATA drives tied together in a RAID array. Serial ATA drives have the speed of SCSI but are more cost effective. A disk performance benchmark measured throughput at a whopping 85mb/sec, fast enough for any high-end video or film application.

As for graphics, the MJ-12 sported an Nvidia Quadro FX 1100 graphics card, which is cost-effective and one of the faster solutions on the market. Graphics performance was very good. Subjected to Viewperf 7.1, it earned a 3ds max score of 25.12, a Pro/E score of 35.05, and a UGS-03 score of 34.79. These numbers, while not at the top of the heap, are excellent. Those needing even more power can always upgrade to the Nvidia Quadro FX 3000 or 4000.

Of course, benchmarks are only part of the story. I tested the machine with a number of applications, including Discreet's 3ds max and Adobe's After Effects and Photoshop. Application performance was very good, and I had no serious issues with any of the packages. And, as far as games, it earns a big thumb's up. Resolution and playback speed were excellent, and again I experienced no compatibility issues.

Overall, I really like this worksation. Although the case may prove a little large for most people, the system is solidly built with high-quality components. The machine was not only fast, but also attractive and easy to maintain. Anyone working in the high-end content creation field would love the Alienware MJ-12.

George Maestri is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.

Price: Starting at $2126 ($7324 as configured)
Minimum System Requirements: Not applicable