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AMD's Radeon RX 480 gave my old Alienware X51 a new lease of life

The Alienware X51 was already a VR-Ready machine in its last incarnation before Dell pulled it, so long as you spec'd it up right at purchase. If you're not familiar, it's a box not a lot bigger than the Xbox One. The compact nature is one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place.

My own machine isn't one of the newer VR-Ready ones. I have an X51 R2, the previous generation model, and one that's coming up for three years old. I didn't buy it new either, rather getting a great price for it used. But thanks mostly to AMD and its new Radeon RX 480 graphics card I've now given this old girl a whole new lease of life and got it ready for a new virtual reality future. Big claims have been made about this card, and so far at least, I have no trouble believing them.

Alienware X51 R2

Alienware X51 R2

When I first got this PC, the specs were:

  • Intel Core i5-4430 quad-core processor
  • 8GB RAM
  • 1TB HDD
  • NVIDIA GTX 645 1GB graphics
  • Blu-Ray drive

I've since added more RAM, a better wireless card and addressed the out of date graphics card. First, with a NVIDIA GTX 960, the highest officially recommended card by Dell. But that's now made way for something even better. Something that's even ready for VR.

At this point the current specs are as above but with 16GB of RAM and the shiny new RX 480 4GB graphics card. I went for the 4GB version of this option from Sapphire (opens in new tab) for a couple of important reasons. Firstly, price, with the 4GB card coming in at £188. A steal, frankly. The second is that the X51 R2 needs to use a reference cooler, the blower style, to vent heat out of the rear of the case. One of the biggest hurdles for prospective buyers right now is availability, with 4GB cards almost impossible to get hold of on both sides of the Atlantic and 8GB cards constantly out of stock. If it's not available, have a look at our list of the best graphics cards for more options.

Because of the compact design, space is at a premium inside and having a non-reference cooler would result in just blowing air around internally without modifying the PC further. The reference RX 480 is also a comfortable fit, since it's about the same size as the reference GTX 960 that had been in there before. But fiddling with the inside of this PC is a breeze, Dell made it very accessible.

A note on power, too, for anyone who might be thinking of doing the same with their X51 R2. You'll want to have the larger, 330W external power supply, available either directly from Dell (opens in new tab) or usual places such as eBay. The smaller 240W one isn't going to give you enough headroom.

In fact, the biggest pain point in this upgrade was removing all of the NVIDIA drivers and associated software and replacing it with AMD. Not exactly hard, but more time consuming than I'd have liked.

And so, to some quick results. I ran the SteamVR Performance Test, 3D Mark Fire Strike and a couple of games with benchmark modes I have installed before the upgrade and after to see the difference.

On the GTX 960 the VR test was in the middle bar, suggesting I might get some success, but not have a good time. As expected. On Fire Strike I got a score of 5973, Dirt Rally averaged 50FPS on High graphics settings and Bioshock Infinite recorded 116FPS average on Ultra.

We're now VR ready!

We're now VR ready!

The RX 480 on the other hand was a win in the VR test. Despite not having the minimum recommended CPU, my X51 R2 comfortably hit the "VR Ready" end of the scale. On Fire Strike the score rocketed to 9161, with Dirt Rally and Bioshock Infinite averaging 59.8FPS and 155FPS on the same graphical settings as the GTX 960.

All of this is very encouraging. I haven't plugged in my RX 480 to a test bench running a high-end CPU, super fast DDR4 memory or any of that, just a regular, off the shelf, 3 year old PC. The results so far are encouraging, but there's still a lot more to figure out. Not least how well it will actually fare in VR.

Having spent a few weeks with the RX 480 though, I'm yet to see any sign of issues. AMD quickly pushed out driver updates to combat the power draw issues some reviewers and early adopters were seeing. It runs hotter than my old NVIDIA card, around 80 degrees celsius most of the time, but it's very quiet under general running and under load is still less of a noise than the hideous CPU cooler that Dell saw fit to install as standard. It ventilates well out of the rear of the case and has been an all round good experience.

I'm not personally interested in 4K, or even 1440p gaming, but I may well be in VR in the not so distant future. AMD just made it so I spent less than £200 and readied myself for that as well as ensuring I have a great PC gaming experience for the foreseeable. Consider, too, that the RX 480 cost only £30 more than the GTX 960 that went in before it, and the value keeps on shining through.

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Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

45 Comments
  • This article is basically an explanation of why I don't buy pre-built computers. Buying parts ensures you have what you want and need, and you don't have to deal with OEMs. If you can upgrade PC parts, IDK why you would pay a build premium from a brand like Alienware.
  • What? He basically said he had to change out to a newer gpu, add more ram, and noted the psu requirements on a 3 year old PC. You would have the same article on a build it yourself rig.
  • Not to mention I bought this for £350 used. I probably wouldn't have handed over full retail for a brand new one, but equally I wanted a small form PC and this fit the bill nicely. It's basically fully loaded now (for my needs) and I've spent just under £600.
  • Hey Richard, nice article.  There are a few recommendations I have for your system.  The first thing that I thought of when you were making comments about having to remove all fo the old nVidia drivers and software is that, you should really consider wiping and starting fresh, that will bring even more life back into the system.  I make it a point to do this about once a year if not more.  It can be a PITA, unless you make it a point to create an image of your system and consistently update it over time.  This makes refreshing (wiping and starting over) so much quicker and easier.  You won't have to spend time downloading and installing all of the software, drivers, and updates as usual, and it can be super quick, should you upgrade to a Solid State Drive and use a USB3.0 source for the image (a matter of a few minutes), which brings me to my second recommendation... ...an SSD.  They are relatively cheap these days with the sweet spot at 500-512GB.  If your system has room for 2 drives, I would suggest getting two of them.  Keep the image on a partition on one of them and when you have to reimage, it'll take just a couple minutes.  That's incredibly nice for multiple occasions e.g.; if you ever get a malware infection, one of the easiest ways to remove malware is to simply reimage your machine and with either an SSD and USB3.0 external device or two SSD's (thumb drive, SSD or HDD with external enclosure) it's super easy and quick.  Also, the system you have is really good for a SFF.  You have excellent internal hardware and at this point, an SSD will offer your system the best possibly upgrade you can provide for it.  Most people don't realize just how much better the experience of using a computer is when using an SSD until they use one or until they try to go back to a system running an HDD.  Boot time is ridiculously fast, applications launch instantly.  Load times in video games become non-existant.  It really is an amazing upgrade.  So, if and when you can afford one, I highly recommend it.   Lastly, your 4GB RX480.  Considering you purchased a reference design (blower style) model, there is a possibility that it actually has 8GB worth of VRAM on the board, but with only 4GB of it being usable.  If you are one of the lucky people that have such a card, it is possible to unlock the additional 4GB, giving you the full on 8GB version of the card, for free.  You should look into whether or not your card is one of those.   Here is an article about it:  http://wccftech.com/amd-rx-480-4gb-cards-8gb-unlockable-bios-update/ And here are some instructions:  http://www.gamersnexus.net/guides/2506-how-to-flash-rx-480-vbios-from-4g... Good luck to you sir!
  • I think you are completely missing Keith's point, I agree with him custom built PC are always way better than pre built machines, unless the vendor gives you full freedom of choosing individual parts inside there premium shiny cabinets and allow you to upgrade at will without breaking the Windows activation and other efi issues
  • But due to form factor and PSU constraints his card choice was extremely limited. The nice thing about building your own is that (at least new) they are much cheaper, and when you want to do upgrades in the future it is much simpler to do so. Now in this case Richard bought it used... so if the price is right then the price is right. But buying these kinds of specialty systems new is a really hard sell. I think too a lot of this is a perspective issue. If you bought something like an x51 because you are a console gamer that wants 'more' then the x51 fits the bill perfectly. I mean, what console allows you to swap out the GPU and RAM at all? Even limited choices is better than console choices, so on that front it is a huge step up.
    But if you are a PC builder and you are accustomed to nearly unlimited choices, but are then confronted with working on something like an x51 then it quickly gets frustrating.
  • You can't build something this small yourself. The only hindrance to my knowledge on that X51 is the PSU(could be wrong on this), everything else is industry stands stuff. 
  • Standard*
  • Actually, you can.  I've built many mITX systems for friends and family.  All are quiet and powerful.
  • What case is this small? I have checked and there's only a Silverstone that comes close to this size with an optical disc. I'd be interested in something like that.
  • The ncase M1 is similar in size - 240 x 160 x 328mm vs 343mm x 95mm x 318mm for the current version of the X51 (R3) but is extremely expensive at $185. It does come with support for a slot loading optical drive. It's more than I'm willing to spend on an ITX case but I guess if you're after a case this small it will cost you - or you could just buy the Alienware.
  • Still stand by my point. That thing looks like a big shoe box. The X51 looks stylish and sleek. It can lose itself in an entertainment center. When you compare, there's no comparison
  • Brofist!!!
    I'm also satisfied with assembled Desktop System . It gives us more saving and independence upon pre-built BOXES.
  • Did you ever read the article, or just read the headline and assume? His explination was about how easy all this was (hardest part would be the same for anyone that goes from Nvidia to AMD) People pay a premium because they may not know how, and can't be bothered to learn, to build a PC. They want the warranty that goes with it, or maybe they think the thing looks cool..
  • Well, he said parts were accessible, however one is apparently limited to PSUs coming from Dell and Reference Cards because of the airflow.
  • I bought the same machine as the one in the article 3 years ago.  At the time, I spec'd it with the 760TI, which is a re-badged 670.  It still chugs through anything I throw at it.  I am thinking about getting a 1070, but that's more to do with me wanting to get stupid framerates than actual need.
  • I don't know how you got that setup with i5 4430 as compatible but while using compatibility tool for occulus it says it requires Intel i5-4590 processor equivalent or greater. Link to compatibility tool for occulus rift https://support.oculus.com/1633938460220125/ Both the webpages of HTC vive ( https://www.htcvive.com/us/product-optimized/ ) and Occulus ( https://www3.oculus.com/en-us/oculus-ready-pcs/ ) rift say that you need  Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater. Here is my rig i5 4460 16Gb(8X2) 2133Mhz on Z97 D3H with 450W PSU. Currently I am using R7 250X. I am planning to upgrade the PSU in case I get the RX 480. Would VR work if I just get the RX 480 ? Do I need to change my CPU as well ?
  • I mention that in the post. I can only assume quad-core i5 is quad-core i5 and it's close enough not to be a hinderance. But that screenshot is the Steam VR test. Hoping to plug it in to Matt Brown's Vive soon to see what's what.
  • Here is what I got http://i66.tinypic.com/358rjgx.png
  • Great story, thank you for sharing it!! I have a similar build(960) and was wondering how it may improve with a new card.
  • You should also add a Samsung 850 EVO/PRO SSD... 
  • I was going to recommend the same.  To me popping in an SSD would make a huge difference.
  • I was really tempted by one of these but finding them to be similarly priced to the 1060 so quite torn. I'm impressed that runs off a 330w PSU without issues. If I could find the 4GB card at a decent price I'd be tempted as it's still about £60 less than a 1060, the problem is finding one. A few places seemed to inflate prices a little once they became harder to find. Really liked the article
  • Between the 1060 and RX480 I would choose the AMD Card. The 8GB version, too. It may not look like that much of a gain, right now, but I am pretty sure the longevity and performance gains it will get over time will make it a better choice overall. At least when you look at the specs it is ahead of the 1060.
  • I would like the author to re-confirm that they actually used a 330w PSU.  I honestly wouldn't even recommend running a GTX 1060 on a 330w PSU.
    If I had to buy something this week to safely run on a 330w PSU it would be the GTX 950, but best option would be waiting a week or two and getting a Rx 460.  That card is specifically designed for cheap systems with sub 350w power supplies.
  • It's either going to be an RX480 for me, or a GTX 1060. Comparable price, GTX presently outperforming the RX - though I've heard that can change if things like Vulcan take off - which I understand AMD benefits from much more significantly than nVidia. Though I could be persuaded either way, and am obviously not ruling either one out, at the moment, at least, I'm definitely leaning "Green Team". But the nice thing is that whichever one I end up getting, it will be replacing a way past its prime GTX 660ti, so to my eyes, they will both amount to dramatic improvement for not dramatic price.
  • Those are the exact cards I'm looking at for the future (if my current card can't handle...let's say Gears 4...it should). If I'm not mistaken, the 1060 also has more memory at 6GB. ATM I'm team Green as well and probably will be for the foreseeable future, as I just...errr invested in a Shield TV. But I keep reading about this Direct X12 thing in which people keep saying AMD is more optimized in that. Vulcan Eh? Something new for me to look at I suppose.
  • Haha! DX12! That's the one I couldn't remember!! I can't believe I blanked on something like DX12!!! :-D Yes, from everything I'm hearing, AMD cards, at least at present, benefit much more significantly from DX12 and from Vulcan than nVidia. So, it creates the dynamic where the AMD is actually the theoretically superior card when using these more advanced technologies, but the inferior card in the current "standard environment". So it comes down to the safe bet vs the gamble. The RX480 is more of a die roll, it seems to me, but with a higher potential max payout. Now, in terms of buying decisions, a couple things to keep in mind: This assumes that driver/firmware updates or whatnot from nVidia doesn't erase the advantage later, and it also assumes that Vulcan and/or DX12 will really take off quickly enough to make the difference before these two cards have been replaced by successors. So there's no guarantees that this eventual theoretical advantage with the AMD will ever pan out, where we already know the 1060 will deliver to its anticipated extent. Interesting times! I personally thrive in environments where real arguments can be made for both (or all) sides. It'll be with great interest that I watch this all develop! Cheers!
  • Oh, I almost forgot! As far as the VRAM goes, I don't know what all options there'll be with the 1060, but the 480 comes in both a 4GB and an 8GB version. So, you can either have 2GB less RAM than the 1060, or 2GB more. And considering the 8GB is a crazy small amount extra, and you need at least 5GB to run nightmare setting in Doom, the 8GB would be for me a no brainier if I were gonna go "Red Team." :-)
  • From what I have heard AMD Cards do gain performance over time, when newer drivers get released and they figure out their own hardware. More so than Nvidia Cards. Which seems logical, since spec-wise the 480 is better than the 1060 and has more headroom to improve. So I personally would go with an 8GB AMD Card. Or something more powerful from Nvidia. Especially since the 1060 does not support SLI should it become more feasible in the future.
  • I don't care about vr. But I want this card to improve my i7 from 3 years ago so I can play forza apex.
  • What card are you using currently ? I am using R7 250X and I get average of 50 FPS with all other settings maxed out (not dynamic) at 900p without any kind of anti aliasing.  
  • The one that came with my computer. It's an hd7700 something amd. No dx12 is my issue
  • You have a desktop computer right?
    HD 7750 or 7770 still support some DX12 features. Rx 470 comes out next week and looks like the best price/performance card if money is tight.
    Should give you a noticeable upgrade (its better than 7970, GTX 770, GTX 960 and R9 380X) and it supports DX12.
  • FWIW I can play that on Ultra at 1080p on a 4GB 960M. RX 480 should give you a good time :)
  • Nice I will start saving.
  • Richard, did you actually run the RX 480 on a 330w PSU?
    I've never seen anyone recommend an Rx 480 for a PSU less than 420w before.
    Nvidia's GTX 1060 which consumes 40w less than RX 480 officially requires a 400w PSU. I just want to make sure no mistake has been made here as 330w and Rx 480 seems like a bad combination.  The PSU would be running hot and inefficiently at peak power the whole time during gaming (unless you stayed at a lower res like 1360x768).  And as that PSU degrades over time there would be even less electricity on offer.  It seems a bad match. Keep in touch about it.
  • You should add an SSD to your setup, get a 256GB SSD to use as boot drive/game/programs drive. SSD has the biggest difference on PC experience if you are stuck with an HDD
  • Richard, could you give me some tip about replacing the drives of the graphic cards. I'll replace my AMD card for a NVIDIA one and wich to know how to do it. Tks.
  • Very easy.  Just remove the old card from the PCIe slot and unplug it from your power supply and monitor cables.  Then slot in the other card and plug it in.  Remove the old drivers with DDDU (Display Driver Uninstaller) and install new drivers off the website.  Nvidia website for Nvidia drivers.  Its easy. However make sure you know the wattage of your power supply before installing a new card.  EG: A GTX 1060 requires at least a 400w power supply.
  • Thank you!
  • Please don't recommend the RX 480 for a 330w power supply.  That's a recipe for disaster.  Anyone who wants to avoid trouble in the future needs at least a 420w power supply to make sure that Rx 480 system keeps running as the power supply degrades.
    Nvidia recommends at least a 400w power supply for the GTX 1060 and the RX 480 uses 40 more watts than that. If you want to squeeze something on to a 330w power supply try a GTX 950, but Nvidia still recommends a 350w power supply for that one.
    Best option for a 330w power supply is to wait an extra week and get the RX 460 which uses even less power than the 950.
    Rx 460 is the best option available for a 330w power supply.  Rx 480 is entirely out of the question unless you want to stress and burn out your power supply.
  • What about Rx470, is a 350W PSU enough for it ?
  • Hey Richard , i have the same PC' , Alienware X51 R2, except mine has this   I7-4770 @ 3.40ghZ ( 8 CPUS)  8GB Ram 1TB HDD Nvidia Geforce GTX745 I was thinking about upgrading it with the same card you did, the RX480 Radeon, the 8gb one, from NITRO. I know i'll have to buy the 330W Adapter before installing the new card, but do you have any problems with the PSU's ? Like i know they recommend a higher value around 400W for this card. It's been a couple of weeks now, did you notice anything wrong with the card installed ?? Thanks for your replies, and nice article !
  • i got mine rx 460 4gb strix OC after 2 days of using, it went bluescreen and got that keep on and off my AW x51 r2 i don't know whats the problem is.