Alienware Really Doesn’t Want You to Buy an AMD Ryzen PC

Once upon a time (specifically, the early 2000s), certain manufacturers and OEMs were so terrified of what Intel might do to them if they sold AMD products, they went to ridiculous lengths to hide the fact that they did so. Motherboard manufacturers shipped boards without their own logos, in unadorned white boxes. System vendors would format their product lists for 1024×768 at a time when 800×600 was the norm. Set the page to 800×600, and the AMD products would either be shoved below and require scrolling to see, or even shoved to the side, where you wouldn’t notice them at all if you didn’t see the horizontal scroll bar. Even when AMD was beating Intel in performance tests, OEMs would describe Intel-powered systems in soaring terms, while AMD machines were labeled with more pedestrian remarks like “Good for business and home office use.”

I thought this kind of behavior had been relegated to the distant past, but it seems to be cropping up again. I’ve been keeping an eye on OEM system prices as part of our GPU shortage coverage. I was downright surprised to see the following at Alienware today. There are a number of problems with this unwanted flashback to 2005, some more immediately visible than others:

To begin:

Alienware is increasing its “R” model numbers on the Intel side when Intel launches a new product generation, but not treating AMD equivalently. Intel 10th Gen chips sold in Alienware R11 systems. Now, Rocket Lake is being sold as Alienware R12. AMD’s Ryzen 3950X and 5950X, on the other hand, are both being sold as R10. This creates the illusion that Intel is advancing, while AMD is not.

The Alienware Intel option offers a “reengineered gaming desktop with 11th Gen Intel Core processors, PCI-Express Gen 4 graphics and 80 Plus Gold rated power supply options.” The AMD option is described as: “High-performance desktop with up to 16-core 5th Gen AMD Ryzen overclockable processors designed for gamers who create.”

There are several differences in how these two products are being described to the potential buyer, and they aren’t equivalent. Only the Intel system is described as a gaming desktop, even though Ryzen 5000 matches Rocket Lake’s gaming performance and Alienware is a gaming vendor, first and foremost. AMD introduced PCI-Express 4.0 in 2019 but it’s only mentioned for Intel systems. There is no indication anywhere on its product pages that Alienware uses different power supplies for Intel systems versus AMD systems, but only the Intel system gets the nod for an efficient power supply.

According to the desktop landing page, the AMD system supports half as much RAM as the Intel system and only offers up to an RTX 3080. Both of these are false. AMD Aurora systems can be equipped with 128GB of DDR4-3400 and an RTX 3090, but you’ll have to click on the “Buy Yours” button, then click on a specific system before Alienware tells you that the RTX 3090 and 128GB of DDR4 are both actually available for AMD systems. RAM upgrade options, at least, are listed after you click “Buy Yours.”

Alienware’s gimpy Ryzen 9 5900 offers 25.6GB/s worth of memory bandwidth in a single-channel DDR4-3200 configuration. That’s on par with an Intel Core i7-980X from 2010.

In December 2019, you could buy an Intel Alienware Aurora with 64GB of DDR4-2933 or an AMD system with 64GB of HyperX Fury DDR4-3200. In April 2021, you can buy an Intel Alienware Aurora R12 with 128GB of DDR4-3400 or /checks notes, an AMD system with 64GB of HyperX Fury DDR4-3200. Alienware bumped Intel from DDR4-2933 to DDR4-3400, but must have forgotten that the Ryzen 5000 series supports a 1:1 memory multiplier at DDR4-3600, making this the preferred RAM clock for a high-end system.

Rocket Lake, on the other hand, offers dual channels by default.

Alienware sells its $2,700+ Ryzen 9 5900 desktop with 16GB of RAM in a single-channel configuration. The Intel desktop systems move to double-channel RAM at $1,900 and retain that configuration thereafter. Only one AMD system offers double-channel memory by default, and it’s the second-lowest. The top two options offer single-channel configurations by default. If you select a Ryzen 9 5950X as an upgrade to the 5900, Dell’s configurator does not upgrade or suggest you upgrade to a dual-channel memory configuration. It does not advise the end user that limiting a 16-core CPU to a single memory channel may result in subpar performance. There is no fee for switching from 16GB single-channel to 16GB dual-channel RAM — Alienware just doesn’t offer dual channel as default on AMD systems, despite offering it as default on Intel systems.

Segue: Back in the 1990s, one of the easiest ways to improve the performance of a hapless person’s OEM PC was to check how many PATA cables were connected to the motherboard. Invariably, one would discover that the CD-ROM and hard drive were connected to each other and then to the motherboard, by a single Parallel ATA (PATA) cable. Connecting the components in this fashion halved performance compared with what one could achieve by using two cables and both of the PATA connectors that came standard on just about every motherboard.

OEM companies like Dell loved saving the pitiful amount of money they could pocket by not including an extra cable, even though doing so made copying data from a CD-ROM to a hard drive much slower than it would otherwise be. Keep in mind that this was precisely the era in which everyone installed software by copying it from a CD-ROM. Companies like Alienware and Falcon-Northwest became popular because they promised not to cut corners or screw their users to shave a penny off the bottom line, even if their computers cost more than a mainstream PC.

In 2000, my best friend wanted to buy a name-brand gaming PC with a warranty and professional support, specifically so he’d never have to find out his PC manufacturer had screwed him out of upgrades or performance by using cheap parts. I recommended he buy an Alienware. When I helped him unpack it, the first thing I did was open the case panel and check to make certain Alienware had included two PATA cables, not just one.

They had.

Today — self evidently — not so much.

Alienware should hang its head in shame at the idea of charging people $3,400 — the minimum price for a Ryzen 9 5950X system — for a boutique PC stuck behind 16GB of single-channel memory without so much as a warning. We know dual-channel RAM doesn’t cost Alienware more money because the company allows users to manually select 16GB of dual-channel memory as a free alternative configuration. We know the company realizes its importance because every high-end Intel desktop has it.

There is no defense for shipping a single-channel RAM configuration by default in a 12-core or 16-core system. There is no justification for offering badly configured AMD systems that swap away a critically important performance feature at higher price points. The $2,000 to $3,500 prices Alienware charges for 12-core and 16-core systems are supposed to pay for the kind of hand-curated consideration that makes mistakes like this impossible. How much of an additional premium do AMD customers need to pay in order to receive appropriate default hardware configurations at each price point the way Intel users do?

AMD systems were advertised on the landing page as offering an RTX 3090 as recently as January, but they were downgraded to the RTX 3080 by the time Intel launched Rocket Lake. Dell did not mistakenly list the wrong maximum GPU supported or the wrong maximum RAM configuration on Intel systems during the interval of time when it offered the R11 and R12 systems side-by-side. Both of these machines were properly listed as offering up to an RTX 3090 and up to 128GB of DDR4 RAM. Only the AMD system was listed incorrectly.

If you take a stroll through the Wayback Machine, you’ll discover Alienware updates its advertising verbiage every time Intel launches a new platform. AMD systems have been woodenly described with the same language since mid-2019.

Adding It All Up

Apart from the single-channel RAM issue, the midrange AMD SKUs are fairly competitive with the Intel systems. One gets the feeling that’s in spite of Alienware, rather than because of anything the company is doing to support a robust market with meaningful opportunities for customer choice. Any two — heck, any three — of these issues can be handwaved away. Combined, they either show an OEM subtly putting all the weight it can on the Intel side of the equation and/or an OEM disinterested in selling well-configured AMD hardware despite being more than willing to charge for it.

To summarize: Intel products get updated descriptions, AMD products don’t. Intel products get model number increases, AMD products don’t. Intel systems are directly described as “gaming desktops,” while AMD systems are not. Intel Aurora systems are correctly identified as offering PCIe 4.0, while the AMD Aurora R10 has never been advertised as offering PCIe 4.0 in the landing page’s spec sheet. I checked every single WayBack Machine instance saved since September 2019 as noted above. PCI-Express 4.0 support wasn’t important enough to list as a reason to buy an AMD PC, yet somehow became a reason to buy an Intel PC.

By only listing the “80 Plus Gold” power supply metric for the Intel systems, Alienware creates the illusion that these systems are more power-efficient than their AMD counterparts. Please forgive me while I laugh myself sick. Rocket Lake is not a bad performer, but you’d need an 80 Plus Neutronium power supply capable of achieving >100 percent efficiency to make its power consumption competitive with Ryzen 5000.

Intel products receive landing page upgrades to secondary components, like the bump from 64GB to 128GB of RAM. AMD products do not. The desktop landing page accurately describes the “up to” RAM clock speeds and capacities for Intel systems, but not for AMD systems. Alienware sells top-end Intel boxes with dual-channel RAM but sells top-end AMD computers in single-channel configurations, even though AMD systems are historically more sensitive to RAM clock. Even though Alienware’s customers are paying it a premium, specifically, to know that kind of thing.

Could this all be an accident? Sure. It’s possible that Alienware managed to spontaneously make more than a half-dozen mistakes, all of which happen to favor Intel. It’s possible one of those mistakes happened to involve listing power supply efficiency in a way that makes Rocket Lake look better than Ryzen at a time when Ryzen’s power efficiency is vastly better than anything Intel brings to the table. It is possible that Alienware has accidentally misrepresented its own product configurations in a way that exclusively and entirely favors Intel’s objectively worse platform.

But is it likely?

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