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Even a creature from outer space should know you can't buy a good review on HEXUS

by Bob Crabtree on 30 October 2006, 07:42

Tags: Alienware (NASDAQ:DELL)

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Naming names

The name of the company's that's put our collective nose right out of joint is Alienware. Yes, the high-end consumer PC builder that was taken over by Dell in March, as explained in a press release headed ALIENWARE AND DELL: TAKING HIGH-PERFORMANCE PCS TO THE NEXT LEVEL.

And the less said about that pretentious load of twaddle, the better.

The review that drew the threat was Tarinder Sandhu's fair, honest and accurate assessment of the company's upmarket Area-51 7500 system.

Okay, you might think that we're bound to reckon that our own review was all those things but, have you actually read the piece?

I did. I crawled all over it again and again, trying to see if the review was unfair, unreasonable or inaccurate.

I found nothing there for Alienware to complain about apart from the fact that we've pointed out the bleeding obvious.

And what's obvious is that this is a PC that, despite its gaudy Halloween outer layer, performs no better than machines sold at about two-thirds of the price.

Yes, it does perform very well - as the review makes clear - but the system case, the spec of some elements within it and the type of warranty can all be made to look thoroughly second-rate by competing machines that are sold for quite a lot less.

It's still early days for Core 2 Duo systems, so we've not yet reviewed a lot of them. Of the two others we've had the opportunity to look at, the MESH Elite Extreme SLI System - Core 2 Extreme X6800, offers significantly better value than the Alienware, as Tarinder's review pointed out with comparative facts and figures.

If you are prepared to spend around £3,000, then as Tarinder's Alienware review also made clear, the other system we've looked at, theVadim Fusion Cetus Overclocked Core 2 Duo System, offers considerably better performance.

Tarinder actually couched all these truisms in more diplomatic terms than I've done but, nonetheless, said them all. And, if you read the review, then look around at Alienware's competitors, you won't be able to disagree with Tarinder's take.

Seemingly, even Alienware doesn't disagree with Tarinder's take. It's not upset that we got anything wrong, merely hacked off - and, seemingly, surprised - that we're telling the truth about the product's over-inflated price and run-of-the-mill quality and specs.

One further point to note (and, really, this is only me rubbing salt in the wound) - as well as crawling all over Tarinder's Alienware review, I also visited the configurators on Alienware's site and on MESH's, to double-check what options were available and the prices.

I found no issues but did notice that the price of the Alienware system was less than Tarinder had quoted. It was £2,965.70, including VAT (but excluding delivery), whereas, two months ago, the ex-delivery price Tarinder mentioned (and which was provided to him by Alienware) was £3,112. So today's price is just over £146 less than Tarinder quoted.

The delivery price back in August was £55.67 including VAT but Alienware's site makes it hard for you to know how much you'll be charged for delivery, so I can't tell you how much that costs today.

On MESH's site, I aimed for a configuration that was as close to the Alienware as possible - so left out the monitor and speakers Tarinder had included in the price he quoted of £2,499.

My doing that produced a price of £2,334.50 - £164.50 less than in the review - and that price includes delivery.

So, in fact, the differential today between the Alienware and MESH systems is greater now than Tarinder said in his review back in August. It's now £631.20 or, if you take account of delivery (and assuming Alienware's delivery charge is unchanged), over £686.

Internally, we've debated why Alienware responded as it did. The obvious possibility was that, somehow, Dell was forcing its hand. But Dell, we thought, was wise enough to know that our reviews are totally straight and will have understood that no one can do anything to change that. So we had to look for more likely answers.

The first we came up with was that Alienware is ultra sensitive to anything deemed as adverse publicity. Our reasoning here was that, with Dell looking over its shoulder (and itself having had some poor financial results of late), Alienware felt it needed to be perceived as highly successful - and good reviews give that impression.

The next - and it's certainly not incompatible with the first - is that the people we were dealing with (and may be their bosses) were just unbelievably stupid and arrogant.

However, our third possibility - although, again, not mutually exclusive - is the one you could probably mortgage your house on.

The sad and very sick truth is that Alienware had been assuming we'd be giving the system a glowing review - irrespective of its quality, features and price.

How can we be so sure? Well, the company told us so. And it's not simply that it said it expected this of us, it told us it expects it of every publication around the world to which it sends review product!

Yes, really, it did say that. In writing.

And that means, in effect, it's saying that every positive review of an Alienware product that the company supplied could be corrupt and totally untrustworthy - and, by inference, so might the site or magazine that published it.

So, don't go suing us if your publication has being slated by Alienware, set your lawyers on the company itself.

Naturally, we also debated how we should react to this attempt to force us to write corrupt (I nearly wrongly said, "soft") reviews in future and the way in which Alienware had acted hurt that we'd not done so with the Area-51 7500 system.

The only right and proper reaction, we thought, was a tell-it-like-it-is opinion piece. So then we had to pick a writer.

Stupidly, I'd been among the loudest to complain. My name also came to the fore accompanied by arguments that since I'd been a professional journo for almost as long as some of our people have been alive, I supplied the necessary gravitas.

The clincher, though, was that I either wrote it or had to endure my turn in The Barrel at the next HEXUS editorial "meeting" (so much for gravitas!). So bang went my weekend.

What, initially provoked my anger was an email sent on October 25 to Tarinder Sandhu, our reviews editor, by Mat Bettinson, marketing manager of Alienware Ltd.

But how I felt then was nothing in comparison to how I felt after reading Bettison's email of October 26 to Paul Dutton, our director - communications & strategy.

You can read Bettison's corrupt and potentially corrupting words on page three...