Why the unique Alienware Area-51m will be a gamble for Dell
Dell unveiled its latest flagship 17-inch Alienware at CES 2019 to succeed the aging Alienware 17 series. Instead of being just an iterative update, however, the new laptop incorporates a standard LGA 1151 socket and a never-before-seen proprietary removable Nvidia graphics card design called the Dell Graphics Form Factor (DGFF).
On paper, the removable GPU sounds like a boon for laptop gamers. The idea of replacing the GPU at will for a newer or faster model brings the laptop closer to a desktop experience. How can such a favorable concept work against users and OEMs?
We can name two major reasons why DGFF may go the way of the dodo or be a niche product at best. Firstly, MSI had already attempted to market a range of gaming laptops with removable MXM GPUs a few years ago. At that time, the selling point was that owners would be able to upgrade from a GTX 970M/980M to an equivalent next generation Pascal GPU. When Pascal finally became available in the MXM form factor, it proved to be incompatible with existing MSI laptops and so an internal redesign was necessary. MSI has all but abandoned the MXM form factor for its range of laptops as of CES 2019.
Secondly, the process of replacing a DGFF or MXM graphics card is indubitably more involved than a desktop graphics card because the heat sinks must be removed first and then properly reapplied. Alienware VP and Product Manager Frank Azor has told us that Dell will eventually offer a "ship and return" service so the OEM can handle the GPU swapping in-house. In fact, Azor was hesitant to say that end-users should swap out the GPU themselves. While we're sure that enthusiasts will have no problem servicing the laptop, it's a barrier impeding widespread adoption nonetheless.
With that said, there's a good chance that Dell can make the removable laptop GPU concept successful. The OEM has likely learned from competitors' mistakes and Dell has deeper pockets to push DGFF even further than MSI with MXM. The potential is certainly there, but we'll just have to wait until the next generation of Nvidia graphics to see how future-proof DGFF can really be.