Alienware vs. Dell
August 11, 2005 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Alienware vs. Dell: I humbly request personal experiences to aid in the resolution of my notebook-buying dilemma.

I'm buying a laptop. I know what I want as far as specs are concerned, so I'm more interested in personal experiences or information about these two companies than in general laptop buying advice.

I seek a reliable, well-built machine (made with reputable constituent parts) from a manufacturer that will either 1) refrain from loading it up with tons of para-spyware and customized versions of software (both necessary and superfluous) or 2) not be stingy about giving me a full install disc for the OS, so I can format the hard drive and do a fresh install and avoid all the nonsense-ware. (FYI: I plan to dual-boot XP and Debian.)

From what I've heard (from word-of-mouth and previous AskMe threads), Dell will send full XP discs, but only if you call and bug them after you've bought the machine (and they're less stingy with XP Pro). This is not a big deal (if, in fact, they'll do such a thing), but it -- and the purported surfeit of crapware -- do not fill me with confidence in the company.

So what about Alienware? I like their reputation. I can get the machine I want from Alienware for $600-$800 more than from Dell. Is it really worth it? Does anyone have any recent experience with Alienware's stuff? Do they really ship full XP install discs? What about crapware?

I also plan on upgrading the RAM the second I get the notebook (which I can do much cheaper than having the manufacturer do it). Does Alienware use readily replaceable/upgradeable modules? Crucial doesn't seem to list all the current Alienware models in their finder.

Also, what is Dell's current level of obstinacy? I've had Dells in the past and found them to be well-built systems, but if their customer service quality has declined and their crapware inclusion has increased, I'm not certain that it's worthwhile to deal with them anymore.

Any and all info and/or personal experiences would be appreciated.
posted by gramschmidt to Computers & Internet (30 answers total)
Do you really want a machine that weighs eight pounds and gets 2 hours of battery life?

That said, Dell will give you the full OS for 10 bucks.

Alienware exists to seperate drunken millionaire technoplayboys from their money.
posted by TTIKTDA at 11:34 AM on August 11, 2005

Response by poster: Dell will give you the full OS for 10 bucks

That's not just a "restore" disc?
posted by gramschmidt at 11:41 AM on August 11, 2005

Anything that Dell sends you will likely be OEM. The trick is to borrow a friend's retail disc and use it for the fresh install. The Dell-provided key should work just fine.

Personally, I am not a big fan of Dell, but I think I would choose them over Alienware provided that you can get a fresh copy of the OS. Alienware to me means paying a premium for absolutely nothing.

Any memory upgrades will be readily available, because the motherboards are all based around similar chipsets.

As far as support goes, Alienware will probably win hands down, but I would just buy the 100% warranty (no idea what it's actually called) that covers almost anything. Dead pixel? Send it back. Drop it and break it? Send it back. Not happy with how it smells? Send it back.

Don't forget to take advantage of 30-day money back guarantees. A lot of people view them as a hassle and something they won't use, but if you want to test drive the system, do just that!

ps:// I own a Fujitsu tablet, and it's the best machine I've ever owned. The support is great too.
posted by mr.dan at 11:45 AM on August 11, 2005

I was in this situation a few months ago and went with a Dell, mainly because my employer offers a hefty discount on Dell stuff. That said, I was quite pissed to find out I don't even get a restore disk. Instead they partition your harddrive [~10gigs worth] with the original image. You can call and call and call and they still won't send you a restore disk. Maybe I'll call again today, just to see if they've changed their minds.

Alienware is much more competitive than Voodoo PC for instance, and they seem to offer a bit higher end stuff too, so I might consider that.
posted by sciurus at 11:50 AM on August 11, 2005

Stay away from Dell man, cheap plastic junk. Maybe they use dto be good laptops I don't know but I know them now. I work with about half a dozen laptop makes and Dell is pretty much the bottom. Top of the list, if you care, is IBM, easily, the Thinkpads are the best laptops I've seen (including Apple).
posted by Cosine at 11:50 AM on August 11, 2005

I have a Dell Inspiron 8600. While it's a fine laptop performance-wise, it's cheap-feeling. The plastic creaks when I pick it up, and has since weeks after buying it. The display hinge rattles when I adjust or open the display. On the plus side, there really wasn't much crapware on the laptop. I almost immediately reformatted with a personal copy of XP Pro, so I can't tell you if it came with a real XP disc or not. I only got my Dell because I got a ridiculous deal on it with a $750 off coupon. Dell puts these kinds of coupons out all the time, so check FatWallet for the latest coupon codes and you might luck out. I'd never pay full retail for a Dell though.

Sager makes the Area 51 laptops for Alienware, and you can get them much cheaper at other places like Discount Laptops and Power Notebooks, two stores with ridiculously good service (10.0 rating on Reseller ratings). You can even get them with no OS installed, saving you bucks if you already have a copy of XP Pro.

Echoing Cosine, Thinkpads are the best, no question. If you're a "gamer," though, your choices for video cards will be more limited. They're more focused on build quality and compactness.
posted by zsazsa at 11:56 AM on August 11, 2005

Yeah, why is the choice between Dell and Alienware? I have heard of way too many bad experiences with Dell laptops (and way too few experiences of any sort with Alienware). Get a ThinkPad.
posted by grouse at 11:58 AM on August 11, 2005

I've never heard of Dell sending full XP disks. Instead, as mentioned above, they'll send you the restore disk for your model for something like $10 at your request. That said, I'm pretty happy with my Dell laptop. It's sturdy and reliable, although a bit loud. Support has been solid when I've needed it, but expect to wait on the phone before you can get ahold of a real person.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:58 AM on August 11, 2005

Response by poster: Damn. I know Thinkpads are excellent, but I've been wary of considering them since the Lenovo sell. For instance, Cosine, are these IBMs you're dealing with recent ones? Has their quality suffered under a different manufacturer? Or is it still essentially the same manufacturer with a new majority shareholding company? Anybody else know? The forums say yes and no.
posted by gramschmidt at 12:06 PM on August 11, 2005

Yeah, my comments were fairly business-centric. If you want to game the IBM's can do it for you (my T42 has an ATI 9600XT in it) but other makes can certainly do better.

Also work-centric but; repair for a Dell, box up laptop, mail to Dell, wait, wait wait... repair for Thinkpad, call IBM, dude shows up and fixes it the next day....
posted by Cosine at 12:09 PM on August 11, 2005

Drop it and break it?
Maybe they've changed the warranty in the last 2 years, but they most definitely did not cover physical damage to the laptop via dropping it, stepping on it, spilling water, etc. A better warranty may be your home-owners or renter's insurance- Some cover electronic stuff like computers, no questions asked.
posted by jmd82 at 12:11 PM on August 11, 2005

If you go Dell, I suggest skipping out on the Inspiron line. The Latitude and Precision lines are a little more expensive, but the parts are sourced more carefully, and they're significantly less likely to have compatibility issues.

If you're planning to run the machine for a long time, the business-class boxes are more likely to keep you happy for years into the future.
posted by mosch at 12:26 PM on August 11, 2005

Dell laptop quality has deteriorated, at least in the past year or two. Go with IBM, Fujitsu, Panasonic (any Japanese brand really except SONY!).
posted by parallax7d at 12:45 PM on August 11, 2005

This doesn't address your OS/Restore disc issue, but it's my personal experience with buying a Dell laptop.

In 2 words: Never Again.

I bought a brand new Inspiron 8100 back in 2001, I think it was, right on the cusp of when XP was coming out.

Out of the box it had problems. It blue screened on the first boot up. The power management in the BIOS was screwed up, and it was power cycling the HDD rapidly, so much so that the HDD was actually making mechanical noise.

This was a known issue that soon mushroomed in the Dell support forums.

14(!) seperate BIOS updates and one HDD replacement later, my Dell notebook became somewhat steady and useable.

The support staff kept me hanging on ("this next bios release will fix it, promise!") just long enough to get me past the period where I could return the notebook for a full refund according to Dell's policies. This was a common tactic that I caught on to too late. In hindsight, I should have sent it straight back when it problems presented themsevles on the very first boot out of the box.
posted by de void at 12:47 PM on August 11, 2005

I normally don't reply to "what type of computer should I buy" posts because every Tom, Dick, and Harry has had something bad happen to them, or has heard a horror story, that has soured them on an entire company's products. I don't find these anecdotes to be objective enough. That said, some people are saying things here which, unless stuff has changed drastically, recently, are incorrect in my experience.

I was the IT guy for a 50 person software development company for three years, ending last May. In that time we were an exclusively Dell shop for desktops and laptops, and I learned a lot of tricks to supporting their stuff.

First, I don't know what this stuff is about "you only get a restore CD." Perhaps that's if you buy a "home" system, but there's nothing stopping you from buying from the "small business" area of the site. When I did that, I got a Dell-branded Windows XP or 2000 CD. It was a full version install whose only handicap was that it only worked on Dells. This was never a problem for me. I believe they ALSO included some kind of restore or software install CD, but I rarely if ever used those. All necessary drivers were available and easy to find on the Dell site when I looked them up using my system's service tag.

The "repair for a Dell, box up laptop, mail to Dell, wait, wait wait..." comment is also strange. The type of repair service you get is a choice. If you want on-site support, you buy the on-site warranty. If you're cheap, you buy the mail-in warranty. I suspect that if this is not an option at IBM, that's one reason why their computers cost more. With Dell laptops, my policy was to buy a 3 year on-site warranty, end of story. It wasn't often that I needed it, but when a pixel went dead, a modem stopped working, or whatever, a guy would show up the next day and fix it. Quickly. And often times if I asked nicely, they would leave me with a repair manual for that model. After warranties expired, I was often able to do my own work on the systems to keep them running.

If you want a good tip about buying Dell's, check out their refurbished stuff. They now call this "Dell Outlet" on the site. I'm sure 200 people will reply, moaning and wailing about the dreaded "refurbished." Dell's refurb gear is less than 30 days old, and you can get a same as new warranty on it. Because all their systems are custom-configured at order time, if someone specs out a new system, and cancels the order after it is built but before it ships, that system goes into the refurb inventory. No, you can't determine when looking at the available stock whether what you're getting is really technically "new," but I'll tell you this. For the last year at my old job I bought _exclusively_ refurb Dells, and I had no more problems with those than I had with new systems. Overall, I was never surprised or concerned with the occurence of problems in the Dells, given the treatment they got at the hands of my users. Does the plastic creak? Do the hinges rattle? Sure. If that bothers you, spend the extra $300+ on an IBM that weighs a pound+ more. I'm not being sarcastic there; it's a matter of personal preference.

I now own an iBook and I like it, and I've been out of the PC support scene for a year or so, so take that for what it is. However if I needed to buy a PC laptop tomorrow, it would be a simple matter of choosing a cheaper Dell or a more rugged and expensive IBM. Both were good systems, last time I checked.
posted by autojack at 1:03 PM on August 11, 2005

I think Dell launched their XPS line specifically to compete with Alienware. Probably worth a look.
posted by sachinag at 1:03 PM on August 11, 2005

I will not really answer your question directly. I have used a Dell laptop (Latitude D600) and it's fine, but it feels cheap. It's merely OK. I have never used an Alienware machine. They seem overpriced to me.

In a previous job I used several IBM laptops. One of them I still have at home. I believe it was built in 1998 and it's still in very good shape. The battery has been replaced, but that's it. IBM laptops are fantastic. The Levono acquisition has changed nothing in the quality of Thinkpads (as far as I can tell).

I believe IBM offers restore CDs, their service has been generally very good. As an ancedotal data point, I had the trackpoint break on my Thinkpad 600x last year. There was a IBM service depot within a 10 minute drive of where I live. They had it fixed (required replacing the whole keyboard) in 2 days. I challenge you to get a 2-day repair, from a third party, on a 6 year-old laptop, from any other vendor.
posted by GuyZero at 1:03 PM on August 11, 2005

Don't be afraid to buy a refurbished item. Likelihood is that it's been tested more than a new current-line item. Maybe I've just been lucky, but so far all my refurb laptop purchases have been trouble-free -- the only laptop I've had problems with was a Powerbook I bought back in 1988 whose screen died (but which Apple somehow fixed amazingly quickly).
posted by clevershark at 1:46 PM on August 11, 2005

oops, that would be 1998, not 1988! No such thing as a 1988 Powerbook!
posted by clevershark at 1:48 PM on August 11, 2005

My 16 month old Latitude did come with a full XP pro disc (dunno if you get one if you take the base XP Home) and is not at all cheap feeling. Battery life is also good.

Personally I think the Inspiron line has always been junk but YMMV.
posted by phearlez at 1:50 PM on August 11, 2005

From paying attention to the managers around me I'd agree that Dell notebook quality is crap. For the records their desktops seem crap as well given the number of failing units we have. Somehow I/S still thinks that they're the way to go though, maybe some sort of kickback is involved, I don't know.
posted by substrate at 2:00 PM on August 11, 2005

Personal experience has been that Dell has slowly gone downhill. We've had a remarkable number of problems getting a brand new Dell notebook to work reliably with the brand new Dell LCD projector that it shipped with. We've had 6 hard drives crap out in 5 different computers spread through 3 labs in the past year. None of these systems were over a year old. Their tech support is impossible to get in touch with, which is really sad because their customer service used to be their strongest point. Any replacement of broken parts appears to be a replacement with a refurbished bit rather than a new component. In short, look elsewhere. Two-three years ago, I would have said Dell was fine, but they really have started to suck.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:03 PM on August 11, 2005

I work as IT manager for a company of about 100 folks, mostly developers and engineers and have nothing but good things to say about Dell laptops. We only buy the Latitude line which is designed for business and is of much better quality than the Inspiron series. Onsite repair is awesome also. And you can actually find drivers easily on their website unlike other brands. I started buying IBM Thinkpads for a few months about 2 years ago because they were partners of ours and we got a good price and had nothing but complaints. Especially from windows developers because of the IBM key where the windows key should be. Also had a bunch of hard drive failures. And they come loaded with bloatware that uses about 20 % of available CPU on bootup. They are very sturdy machines though and might be a good choice if you travel frequently.
posted by white_devil at 2:17 PM on August 11, 2005

I'd also suggest staying away from Toshiba, the failure rate we have on their laptops is over 10% during a 18 month life cycle.
posted by Cosine at 2:17 PM on August 11, 2005

I have a Dell Inspiron 5150 (just under two years old) that came with a perfectly normal Windows XP installation disk. It had only a small (less than 50 MB) recovery partition. I've had to send it in for repair once, which took less than a week, round trip. If you need faster service, get the on-site repair contract. Other than that, I've had no trouble at all with it. I think you find lots of people who've had bad experiences with Dell just because so many people have their computers.
posted by yarmond at 2:55 PM on August 11, 2005

"Maybe some sort of kickback is involved, I don't know."

Dude, you've got to be kidding me. I hope that's supposed to be humor, but I don't see any sarcasm tags ;-) If not, that's exactly the kind of silly speculation that I noted in my original response as a reason why I ordinarily stay out of these discussions.

Regarding hard drive failures, I would say that this was the thing that happened most frequently to me. Not unusually often, again, but when I was buying a 1.5Ghz+ laptop with a 14" screen and 512M of memory, 40G+ hard drive, network and modem, with Windows XP and Office... for $1200... think it through. PC sales are a low-margin business these days, and this is why the industry is dominated by a couple of giants and a lot of no-name companies. Everyone has to buy parts in huge quantity to get discounts low enough to meet the other guy's price and still make a few bucks per unit. Storage is basically the only thing in a laptop with a moving part, other than fans. The failure rates of those parts are going to be somewhat high. Accept it. Make backups. Get the next day on site replacement warranty (and you might even get a bigger hard drive out of the deal - happened to me on a few occasions). Move on with your life.

My theory on this (and it's just that - a theory) is that you can either buy a lower-priced system and risk part failure, or buy a higher-priced system and have the same risk. It's not economical for IBM to take the extra $300 per unit they make and buy substantially better parts (hard drives, for example). Instead, they spend that money on support staff, call center systems, software, etc. Or they just keep it and give roughly the same quality of service and product at a higher profit for themselves. Again, just a theory, but I defy someone to post and say "I work in a company that is an all-IBM shop and we haven't had a laptop hard drive fail in years." I'm not trying to stir the shit here, I'm just saying that one guy complaining that he had a hard drive die on him shouldn't taint your perception of an entire company.

Also one other thing I would throw out there, regarding "bloatware." I think another place that many of the major computer makers bring in some extra money is in third-party deals with AOL, Netscape, Microsoft, etc. They don't just ship you a laptop with 30 random apps installed on it because they think you want them or they get their jollies selling slow computers. Yes, one of the first things I did when I received a new Dell laptop was uninstall most of the nonsense that it came with. My only point is to say that I think everyone does this, and it's not a horrible insurmountable problem. It just takes a few minutes to clean it up and then it's forgotten. Incidentally, the official Dell Windows install CDs do not reinstall that junk if you end up using them. Or at least, they didn't do that when I was working with them.
posted by autojack at 3:03 PM on August 11, 2005

First, I don't know what this stuff is about "you only get a restore CD." Perhaps that's if you buy a "home" system, but there's nothing stopping you from buying from the "small business" area of the site. When I did that, I got a Dell-branded Windows XP or 2000 CD. It was a full version install whose only handicap was that it only worked on Dells.

Same experience here. I own a one-year-old Dell Inspiron 8600, and I've been quite satisfied with it so far. Most people seem to say the Inspiron line is lacking in quality compared to the Latitudes and some other makers' products. That may or may not be true, but I personally have had nothing but *lack* of trouble so far, and you can certainly get a lot of computer for your money, especially if you wait for a good rebate offer. (Same for the Dimension 8200 desktop, but it's three years old now and Dell isn't necessarily quite the same company not that it was then.) That said, I have no experience with Alienware. IBM seems to be universally recognized as some of the best-quality laptops, but they are significantly more expensive.
posted by musicinmybrain at 5:07 PM on August 11, 2005

My Dell Inspiron 8500 that I bought two years ago (and which has suffered through two combat deployments) is still kicking. The only problem I've had is a dead battery, which was replaced, although being outside the continental united states made that a bit of a pain. My system did come with a dell-branded full windows xp disk, which doesn't required you to enter a (supplied) key during reinstall.

To me, the most important component of a laptop is the screen. Check out the displays on some various manufacturer's laptops. One of the Toshibas I looked at had this high-gloss screen, so if there were any lights behind you, the glare would obscure part of the screen.
My Dell has a stellar display, 1920x1200, and you can view it from damn near any angle, unlike many other displays. The large screen sucks up a lot of battery, but it's worth it to me.

I've had several friends buy Alienware, have problems out of the box, send them back, and turn around and buy Dells they were happy with, but as other posters mentioned, you could probably find people with the opposite experience. Personally, I've found that Alienware laptops are too heavy and run too hot.

As an aside, isn't it hard to sit in a business meeting with a straight face when your laptop's model name is Area-51?
posted by cactus at 6:53 PM on August 11, 2005

Oh sure, buy alienware and promulgate the notion of evil greys standing by waiting to probe you and take all your money. You planetary xenophobe, you should be ashamed! Ever since those poor aliens got stranded in New Mexico in 1947, all anyone can do is blame, blame, blame. Anal probe this, and cow lip that.

I keed, I keed. I love my Alienware desktop. When I bought it, they burned some problematic proprietary application software in and tested it, and in almost 3 years of insane pounding, it's still brilliantly fast, able to run every game I've ever thrown at it, and kicks my Dell's pathetic little butt...but I've heard a lot of bad things about the laptops. They're build on a Sagar backbone, if what you want is a gaming powerhouse and some support that doesn't require you threatening people with a loaded gun, revisit zsazsa's comment.
posted by dejah420 at 7:52 PM on August 11, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses, everyone. There's plenty of food for thought here, which is precisely what I wanted.
posted by gramschmidt at 12:52 PM on August 12, 2005

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