Alienware Area-51m upgradability: How the Holy Grail of laptop features eluded us

If Alienware can't do it, it will never, ever happen.

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Gordon Mah Ung

The Quest for the Holy Grail of gaming laptop features—upgradable internal graphics—ended in a horrible, ignominious death on Wednesday, with the release of Alienware’s Area-51m R2.

And by death, we mean permanent death—not Marvel comics death, where the hero comes back 10 issues later.

If we sound bitter, heartbroken, and utterly disappointed, it’s because we are. When the Alienware Area-51m R1 came out a year ago, we thought our quest for upgradable graphics in laptops was finally over. The Area-51m R1 came with a socketed CPU and custom graphics modules that the company could control. 

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The Area-51m R2 will feature 10th-gen desktop CPUs and RTX Super GPUs—but will go no further officially.

We realized there were risks, as we wrote in our Area-51m R1 review: “the other scenario is upgrading to a ‘10th gen’ Core i7 or Core i9. Given Intel’s history of dumping sockets or chipsets overboard, however, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to do it."

Yet we remained hopeful. “That said, the chances that Alienware would do all of this work without offering at least one useful CPU upgrade is very unlikely, because it has deeper insight than we do into what’s coming.” We realized that it was a “leap of faith” that next-gen GPUs would work, but we thought surely, with the size and power of Dell and Alienware, there was no way this would end badly.

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The Holy Grail: Alienware said it designed a custom GPU module that can be replaced down the road with a faster model. Unfortunately, “faster model” meant only within the same family.

It ended badly

It did end badly, of course. First Intel announced that its 10th-gen Comet Lake S CPUs mandated a new LGA1200 socket that's incompatible with the LGA1151 socket in the Area-51m R1. 

Next came the Alienware Area-51m R2. It features Intel’s desktop 10th-gen CPU with up to 10 cores, new cooling, beefier electrical underpinnings, and Nvidia’s RTX Super series of GPUs. It all sounds great—for those who are planning to buy the Area-51m R2.

But the Area-51m R1 will never get the chance. Dell’s official response to questions about Super upgrades for the R1 was: “The Area-51m R1 only supports GPU upgrades within its current generation of graphics cards. This includes Nvidia’s RTX 2070 and 2080 series cards via the upgrade kits available on Dell.com. The Area-51m R2 will also support Nvidia’s RTX 2070 Super and 2080 Super and those upgrade kits will be available later this fall.”

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The Area-51m R1’s lack of next-gen CPU and GPU upgrades has left us heartbroken.

Dell officials didn’t get into the why’s and what for’s, but we can guess. “Too much power draw, too much thermal requirements” will likely be the answer. We say that because every time Quest Knights have been dispatched, they've fallen to the twin dragons of Thermal and Power.

We’ve seen it not happen, over and over again. Asus tried it before, and the last memorable time was MSI’s massive GT80 laptop with SLI 9th-gen graphics, real mechanical keyboard, and a marketing feature of “next-gen graphics upgrades.” Guess how that turned out. 

To be fair, Dell did technically offer upgrades for the Area-51m R1. Those who started with a Core i7-9700K could upgrade to a Core i9-9900K. And Dell did ultimately put its custom GPU modules up for sale, for those who wanted to move from a GeForce RTX 2060 to a GeForce RTX 2080.

But that’s not what the Quest was about, at least not to users serious about hardware and laptops. The True Quest was to pursue at least one more generation of upgrades for the GPU and CPU.

Sure, there will always be external graphics. And Eurocom will still do what it does by offering GPU upgrades for some laptops. Those are mostly side-grades these days though, and certainly not as grand as Dell’s vision: to let you upgrade it yourself, or send someone to your house to do it for you.

RIP - grave - tombstone - cemetery - death [Image by Rob van der Meijden - CC0 via Pixabay Rob van der Meijden (CC0)

It’s over, it’s really over

In technology, you never say never. Except when it’s actually time to say never, and this is that time. After seeing Asus fail and MSI fail, we thought perhaps Alienware, the Sir Lancelot of computing, could succeed. But it’s clear that even with Dell’s vast strength that won’t happen either. Ever.

In fact, when asked if the new Alienware Area-51m R2 will get next-gen CPUs and GPUs upgrades we were told: “Due to generational differences in technologies, we are unable to commit to upgradability beyond the generation of GPU’s & CPU’s that the Area-51m R2 was designed for, 10th Gen Intel Processors and NV 2070 RTX SUPER and NV 2080 RTX SUPER respectively.”

So yes, the last Quest Knight has failed, and the Holy Grail will forever remain beyond our grasp.

This story, "Alienware Area-51m upgradability: How the Holy Grail of laptop features eluded us" was originally published by PCWorld.

  
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