I drive a Buick. Before that, I drove a Dodge Caravan. These are not exactly the hottest cars on the planet, but each served my purposes...

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I drive a Buick. Before that, I drove a Dodge Caravan. These are not exactly the hottest cars on the planet, but each served my purposes at the time I bought it. So there you have it — the confession of guy who likes boring cars.


Given this character flaw, what would I do if someone asked me to review a new Maserati? Sure, I could report that it went like a bat out of hell when I stomped on the gas, but would I know whether it’s faster than a Lamborghini or handles better than a Porsche? Would I kill myself finding out?


With these philosophical and ethical questions in mind, I knew exactly what to say when the folks from a company called Alienware called to ask if I wanted to review one of their hot new gaming computers.


“Sure, send it over.”


And thus another confession. One of the benefits of this job is getting to try out hot gadgets I probably wouldn’t buy even if I could afford them. And this is a hot one — literally and figuratively.


It’s got game


What’s to like?


It’s big: The 17-inch wide-screen LCD is plenty large, crisp and unusually bright. The screen can play movies in their original aspect ratio (generally 16:9), unlike standard screens.


It’s fast: Comes with a 3.4 GHz Pentium 4 processor, a gigabyte of memory and a high-speed, 60-gigabyte SCSI hard drive. Driving the display is an nVidia GeForce 6800 Go video adapter. It’s enough gas to make the smallest game detail pop, and even has enough for video production, too.


Lots of goodies: Dolby 7.1 surround-sound output, a variety of video and TV ports for large-screen viewing, plenty of USB and IEEE 1394 (Firewire) ports for connecting printers, scanners, external drives and other gadgets.


What’s not to like


It’s big: At 15.5 inches wide, 11.5 inches deep, and two inches thick, the 7700 tips the scales at a hefty 12.5 pounds.


Clunky keyboard: Uses tiny function keys, and requires two key presses to access the Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys.


It’s hot: The case below the keyboard where the hands rest gets uncomfortably warm, and the main cooling fan is noisy.


First a word about Alienware (www.alienware.com). The 9-year-old Miami-based outfit is one of a handful of companies that unabashedly court gaming geeks by cramming as much state-of-the art horsepower into a computer case as they can without taking down the local power grid.


The computer Alienware delivered is a decidedly over-the-top model called the Area 51m 7700. From a distance, it looks like a standard laptop, except for a molded cover that resembles Darth Vader’s helmet and bears the image of an alien whose eyes light up when you turn the machine on.


Technically, it is a laptop — if you’re Shaquille O’Neal. At 15.5 inches wide, 11.5 inches deep, and two inches thick, the 7700 tips the scales at 12.5 pounds, plus a pound or two for the power brick. It’s nothing you’d ever want to balance on your lap — or lug through an airport.


To be fair, Alienware doesn’t suggest you do either. It bills the machine as a mobile desktop replacement, and it succeeds at that. Although it might last an hour on batteries, it’s really designed for geeks who want firepower they can lug to LAN parties — gatherings where dozens of gamers hook up to the same physical network in a hotel or arena and blast away at one another.



Wide screen

This is a nifty machine, starting with a 17-inch wide-screen, liquid crystal display (LCD) that’s crisp and unusually bright — a nice touch because many games are very dark.


The wide screen can play movies in their original aspect ratio (generally 16:9), unlike standard screens, which use the middle of the display with black bars at the top and bottom.


On the downside, most application programs and video games are designed for a standard screen, with a 4:3 aspect ratio. For these, you can “stretch” the program to fit the wide-angle display, which makes everything look a bit too fat for me, or run the program in its normal 4:3 aspect ratio with black bars on the sides.


Under the hood, the 7700 is a match for many high-end gaming machines — making it a lot nastier than most of the stuff you’ll find on retailers’ shelves. My model came with a 3.4 GHz Pentium 4 processor, a gigabyte of memory and a high-speed, 60-gigabyte SCSI hard drive. Driving the display is an nVidia GeForce 6800 Go video adapter with 256 megabytes of onboard memory — the kind of hardware you buy when your idea of a good time is the 138th level of “Doom.” The only other job that requires this kind of power is video production, and the 7700 does that pretty well, too.


In addition to its turbocharged engine, the 7700 has many nice touches, including Dolby 7.1 surround-sound output, a variety of video and TV ports for large-screen viewing, plenty of USB and IEEE 1394 (Firewire) ports for connecting printers, scanners, external drives and other gadgets. Plus, there’s a front control panel that lets you use the DVD/CD-RW drive to play music or movies even when the PC is turned off.



Tracking the speed

So how fast is it? With the assistance of my son, we loaded several games, including “Unreal Tournament” and the most recent version of “The Sims” (not an action game, but one with astounding detail). We cranked up all the detail settings to their highest level and let the 7700 do its thing. The action was amazingly smooth. In fact, my son reported that the only time he got it to hiccup was when he invited 12 Sim families over to his Sim house for a Sim barbecue and then did a 3D-flythough at the gathering — that’s a lot of objects and detail to keep moving.


Now you’ve reached the limits of my gaming expertise. The only thing I can add is that the GeForce video card comes with a choice of optimally tweaked settings for a couple of dozen titles — so you know where the designer and manufacturer put their efforts.


What can I say about Web browsing, word processing, e-mail and photo-editing on the 7700? They’re fast, but it’s hard to say whether scrolling a page in 1/100th of a second is any faster than 1/500th of a second. It’s all faster than the normal eye can detect. And if that’s what you’re doing with a PC, you probably don’t need this one.


In fact, the 7700 has some drawbacks for workaday users. Although its oversized form factor provides enough room for a near-full size keyboard, this one still uses tiny function keys, and requires two key presses to access the Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys — all of which are popular for people who type a lot. A notebook machine this big should provide all those functions on separate keys.



Too hot to handle?

Another problem is that this system is hot — literally. Although I counted four cooling fans on the bottom of the case, the area of the case below the keyboard where the hands rest gets uncomfortably warm — not enough to burn, but annoying enough to make this a bad choice for typing.


Likewise, the main cooling fan makes more racket than most desktop PC fans — definitely a bad choice if you value a quiet environment.


But if you’re a gamer, these inconveniences are a small price to pay for a machine that really performs. Just expect the dollar price to be high, too.


The 7700 starts at about $2,200, and the model I tried sells for about $2,600 (prices vary, depending on special deals). But a faster processor, more memory, dual drives, a built-in camera, wireless networking and a higher-resolution screen can send the bill well above $3,500.


Considering that a decent all-around desktop runs about $1,000 to $1,200 with a 17-inch monitor, and fine laptops are available for $1,500, or less, the Area 51m 7700 is an expensive machine.


But if gaming or video production are your thing, it’s worth a look.