Dell demonstrated an astonishing amount of chutzpah today when it unveiled a second-generation Alienware Area-51m — and declared that whoops, the first-generation of the “upgradeable” laptop isn’t actually going to be upgradeable after all. The company has officially stated that: “Area-51m R1 only supports GPU upgrades within its current generation of graphics cards.”
First, a refresher: The original Alienware Area-51m was a desktop replacement laptop with a socketed CPU that could be swapped for other chips and, at least in theory, the ability to upgrade to different graphics cards in the future. An Alienware spokesperson claimed last year that Dell was committed to providing upgrades for the platform, but apparently what Dell meant by that was that it would only provide upgrades within the product family. In other words, if you have a 1660 Ti, you could swap up to an RTX 2080. What you won’t be able to do is improve to any graphics card better than that.
The reason laptop graphics cards aren’t upgradeable has nothing to do with AMD, Nvidia, or the PCIe standard. The reason laptop GPUs can’t be upgraded is that no OEM has ever felt it would be profitable to create and commit to supporting a platform for multiple product generations. Laptop GPUs have to be built to very strict size tolerances, which is why there’s never been a single common standard. What Dell promised to do last year, effectively, was to create one, specifically for its Alienware 51-m line of products. Building a common laptop GPU card standard would allow a Dell Mobile (or what have you) RTX 2080 to be swapped for a Dell Mobile RTX 3080 or 4080 when the time came because all of these cards would use the same, Dell-designed form factor.
Dell is going to design custom mobile GPUs to fit its various XPS and Alienware laptops no matter what. This isn’t about whether the company was willing to build a custom GPU. It’s a question of whether Dell was willing to commit to building a series of compatible custom GPUs over time, in order to provide the market with an actual upgrade path. The answer? Even after promising customers that it would provide an “upgradeable” GPU, no, it wasn’t.
I refuse to let Dell even a little off the hook for this. The company communicated that it would provide further upgrades, and it knew damn well that “upgrade” is generally read to mean “components introduced after the laptop’s purchase date,” not “alternate hardware I could have bought at the time, but didn’t.” This was a laptop specifically and directly sold on the promise of offering a compatible platform for future hardware.
“Gamers have made it clear that they’ve noticed a lack of CPU and GPU upgradability in gaming laptops. We decided the best way to deal with that problem was to launch an upgradeable laptop at a substantial price premium, then provide no actual upgrades for it.” — Image by Dell, alternative caption by ExtremeTech
Declaring that the use of a socketed Intel motherboard made the Area-51m “upgradeable” in some fashion now looks like the profoundly cynical move of a company that never intended to deliver what it promised. It was always obvious that Dell’s ability to deliver an upgradeable CPU would hinge on whether Intel launched 10th Gen chips on its existing motherboard platforms or if it required new motherboards. The question of GPU upgrades, on the other hand, was always going to hinge on what Dell was willing to make available. The Area-51m website still claims that the product offers “CPU and GPU upgradability.” It neglects to mention that you’re literally paying for a feature Dell hasn’t previously bothered to support for an entire generation of customers.
And no — the Alien Graphics Amplifier doesn’t cut it. First of all, the Alienware Area-51m isn’t advertised as offering an upgradeable GPU via the AGA; it’s advertised as offering an upgradeable GPU. Second, the AGA is a $220 upgrade. That’s not a terrible price, but we’re already talking about customers who paid a premium for a laptop advertised with CPU and GPU upgradability.
Now Dell is launching a second-generation Area-51m. I’d detail and discuss it here if I had the slightest intention of recommending you give money to a company that treats its customers this way.
I don’t honestly care whether there’s a better chance that the R2 will actually get hardware upgrades. Every single customer that bought an Alienware Area-51m likely bought it expecting to upgrade the GPU much more than the CPU. The entire justification for buying the Area-51m (as opposed to one of Alienware’s other laptops) was the upgradeability. It’s true that Dell never specifically promised that it would offer GPU upgrades for the Alienware Area-51m. All it did was advertise that the laptop’s GPU was “upgradeable” while hiding behind a definition of “upgradeable” that no enthusiast would ever use. This is a distinction without a meaningful difference as far as I’m concerned.
Last year, I was willing to extend the benefit of the doubt when the company began shipping the RTX 2060 and 2070 modules it promised. As I wrote: “The flip side to all of this is that it’s rather nuts to pay $1,140 for an RTX 2080 if you already own an RTX 2060 or 2070. Frankly, it’d be pretty nuts to pay that much money to upgrade from an RTX 1660 Ti to an RTX 2080. But the first run of GPU upgrades for this hardware family was always going to be the weakest upgrade tier. What matters far more is whether Dell continues to put effort into the program in the first place.”
As is probably clear by now, I specifically repudiate my own previously optimistic guidance. CPU upgrades are nearly irrelevant for gaming. GPU upgrades are what matters.
Last year was supposed to be the introduction of the DGFF — the Dell Graphics Form Factor. After today, the company might want to change the acronym. I humbly suggest Dell Gaming-Fully Upgradeable, shortened as “DG-FU,” might be a better name instead. At the very least, it seems to capture more of the company’s actual attitude towards the gaming public.