Gaming notebooks are a secret hobby of mine. I don't actually game that much – even my wife logs more hours than I do – but gaming notebooks are the only way to get the best of the best in a luggable form factor. Alienware is the name to beat in this space, but I've always wondered how they managed to survive the Dell acquisition.
I started out with a Dell XPS Gen 2. This system was an absolute beast; it survived my physical punishment than any system I've ever owned. My first Alienware was an Area-51 m5700 – essentially a rebadged Clevo. It had the performance the XPS simply didn't.
When I read the announcement in 2006, I feared the worst. Gaming notebooks you could drop down two flights of stairs while running were about to become extinct! In 2009, I went looking for a new notebook, and was crushed to find that the XPS line was no more. I got an Alienware M17x instead.
This lasted for nearly three years, but the right hinge on the monitor seized up about three months before the warrantee expired. I emailed them and asked if they'd be so kind as to send me the parts. They no longer had these parts in stock; would I like a full refund? I went for it, tossed in another $1,000 and I am typing this article on the result: the absolute top-of-the-line M18x circa Dec 2011.
The dual Radeon 6970s are perhaps overkill for minecraft, but 16GB of RAM and a quad core made it more than a gaming rig to me. This system is a "luggable" testbed – a virtual server with its own custom carrying case. More importantly, by having top-end video cards, it actually talks proper DDC/CI to LaCie monitors. This means that I can use it to test their hardware calibration – something I can't do with my netbook.
This is the niche that Alienware occupies. Because my clients have high-end requirements, I've worked with high-end notebooks from many manufacturers: MSI, Asus, Sager and so forth. But today's Alienware has a niche-within-a-niche. It makes luggable, full-featured systems that offer the very best modern technology has to offer, wrapped inside the closest thing you can get to indestructible without actually being milspec. Alienware does not make disposable computers.
By contrast, Dell survives almost entirely by making disposable computers – the two would seem to be each other's antithesis. Alienware's Frank Azor took time out to discuss the company's history.
Azor is quick to point out that mixing corporate DNA wasn't easy: "For the first two years we weren't very integrated, [and were] still really competing with each other." There was some market repositioning needed by both companies. High-end workstation products by Alienware were axed, and Dell discontinued my beloved XPS gaming notebooks.
According to Azor, "When we decided to replace the XPS gaming brand with Alienware, we didn't replace the teams, we consolidated them – the best of both teams together." This seems in keeping with my experience. My M18X has Alienware-class performance, but inherited the "little things" – like big fat power plugs that survive obscene amounts of insertions – that made the XPS so durable.
Azor says "the Dell business has been very receptive to picking and choosing the categories we want to work in". Give Alienware access to Dell's global supply chain, bargaining power and so forth, but let Alienware choose its own direction. Miraculously, Dell complied and everyone has benefited.
Azor is proud of Alienware, and his role in it. His voice changes when he talks about the early days of the company. "I'm a co-founder," he says. "Employee number 4." He reports that Alienware remains a very healthy business unit and is thankful to have access to Dell's might.
One area he expressed a particular displeasure with was the state of monitors. He believes that we need to be collectively pushing the industry to support higher resolution panels; it is something he has been working on and there were hints that this may come to fruition soon.
Azor is also cautious. He doesn't want to "put the brand at risk by branching out." My "please build us an Ultrabook that doesn't suck" idea was not well received. He doesn't want to start chasing the latest industry trend only to have to make so many compromises that it doesn't make sense to call the end result "Alienware". Reputations take years to build and a single day to destroy.
Azor believes that Alienware is rubbing off on Dell. Slowly but surely, Dell is coming to realise that the relentless drive to the bottom is a fool's game. Cutting every corner and grinding your own margins in the effort to undercut your competitor by a dollar is an unsustainable market. He says he already sees changes in thinking that are beginning to mirror Alienware's belief that refusing to compromise is what builds a brand's reputation for reliability.
After going through several gaming notebooks of her own, my wife would seem to agree. "I like that notebook," she says, pointing at her gaming rig. "It's my second MSI. I've been pretty polite to it, mostly just sitting it on a desk. But after a few trips, there are bits falling off. It's not a 'drag it to Austin and back' kind of a laptop. That $400 little Samsung netbook is more durable. It might be minuscule and made out of slow, but it's actually pretty tough. That's important."
Alienware is expensive, more so than competitors with the same specs. Despite this, my wife's next gaming rig will be an Alienware, and my next workstation will be as well. Six years after the acquisition, I realise that Alienware didn't survive the Dell merger intact after all – the corporate DNA of these two companies has truly intermixed and the resulting entity is better off than either were before. That's something truly rare. ®