Unless you're really into gaming, chances are you've never heard of Alienware Corp. But the Miami-based maker of high-performance PCs geared for those seeking the ultimate computer gaming experience definitely needs to be on your radar screen. Alienware is trying hard to infiltrate the corporate market, and you need to ensure that its products don't land in your organization.
Though it was acquired by Dell in March, Alienware operates as a wholly owned subsidiary. And it's nothing if not independent. Go to Alienware's Web site, and you'll find it bragging about how it beat "the competition" in SPEC.org performance testing. Oddly, the mobile workstation contest was between the Alienware MJ-12 m7700i and the Dell Precision M60. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
That might trouble Dell, but that's not what matters. What matters is that Alienware also beats Dell in the "Who Can Provide the Most Pathetic Support" contest. Given the sorry state of Dell's customer service, that's saying something.
My son Dan is a heavy-duty gamer who's pursuing a degree in interactive media and game development at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. In January 2005, Dan purchased the top-of-the-line Alienware Area-51m 7700 notebook. At a whopping $4,500, it was a substantial investment, but it was the dream machine for anyone who plans to devote his career to game design.
Just two months later, he began to experience problems with it overheating. He consulted Alienware's support forums and found an inexpensive, practical solution: Place bottle caps under the computer's feet to allow for more air circulation.
That alleviated the problem for a while, but after several months it got worse, to the point where it now overheats and shuts down after 10 to 15 minutes of any gaming activity. Since Dan's one-year warranty has expired, his call to Alienware's tech support yielded the advice that he return the system for troubleshooting. That service would cost $259, and he would likely have to pay an additional $400 to $600 for parts.
That might have been an option were it not for the fact that with the exception of a lousy one-month warranty on any replaced parts, no warranty was available to protect him in the event of a recurrence of the problem. And a recurrence, Dan and I learned too late, is all too likely.
We found message boards and blogs brimming with tales of woe from Alienware users who have experienced the same problem and from users who have undertaken initiatives to boycott Alienware. When you spend that much money for a system only to learn that there's a design flaw that routinely causes a meltdown after about a year (or sooner, many users lamented), you expect the company to do the right thing: Fix it right or replace it.
The Alienware brand still enjoys substantial cachet among younger computer enthusiasts, and that could be a problem for many IT shops. I'm usually the first one to speak out in favor of taking advantage of the unique contributions young people have to make in the workplace, as I did at last week's Computerworld Honors event in Washington. But the last thing we need is the next generation advocating the adoption of Alienware systems. Avoiding Alienware's own marketers, who will increasingly target you and your users, is sound advice as well.
For now, just be aware of the situation. And steer clear of any company that finds doing the right thing to be an alien concept.
Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.