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Dell Hit With Fraud Case Over Alienware Area-51m Upgrade Claims

Alienware Area-51m
(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

A California man has filed for a class action lawsuit against PC manufacturer Dell, claiming that the company "intentionally misled and deceived" buyers of its Alienware Area 51-m R1 gaming laptop, which was advertised to be more upgradeable than other gaming notebooks.

The plaintiff, Robert Felter, who is based in San Francisco, alleges that Dell misleads customers to believe that the laptop would be upgradeable, possibly into future generations of components. The case, Felter v. Dell Technologies, Inc. (3:21-cv-04187) has been filed with the United States District Court in the Northern District of California.

The Alienware Area 51-m was announced at CES 2019 and launched soon after. (The complaint claims the announcement was made in the summer of 2019, which is incorrect.). Among the Area 51-m's biggest touted innovations were a user-replaceable CPU and GPU.

At media briefings, Alienware representatives told the press that the CPU could be upgraded as long as it used Intel's Z390 chipset. The laptop used Intel's 9th Gen Core desktop processors, up to the Intel Core i9-9900K. Dell developed separate proprietary Dell Graphics Form Factor (DGFF) modules for the Nvidia graphics.

The lawsuit, however, claims that consumers were told that "core components" (meaning the CPU and GPU) could be replaced beyond the current generation of hardware.

"Dell’s advertisement to the public didn’t place any restrictions on the upgradeability of the laptop," lawyer David W. Kani said in an email to Tom's Hardware. "They also never disclosed that those with the highest spec CPU and/or GPU that their device would not be upgradeable."

Representatives for Dell said the company's policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

The complaint reads that "Dell’s representations of the upgradability of the Area 51M R1 also extended to units that were equipped with the fastest, most advanced Core Components available to the market, thus creating a reasonable expectation with consumers that the upgradability of the Area 51M R1 extended to yet to be released INTEL CPUs and NVIDIA GPUs, and did in fact create such expectations with consumers." Several times, the complaint refers to Dell's claims of "unprecedented upgradeability."

Those words indeed live on Dell's web page for the Alienware Area-51M R1.

"Gamers have made it clear that they’ve noticed a lack of CPU and GPU upgradability in gaming laptops," it reads. "The Area-51m was engineered with this in mind, finally allowing gamers to harness power comparable to even the highest-performance desktop... CPU upgrades can be done using standard desktop-class processors, while GPU upgrades can be done with GPU upgrade kits available on Dell.com or with the Alienware Graphics Amplifier."

Claims about the Alienware Area-51m R1

(Image credit: Dell)

Upgrade kits for the graphics card finally launched in November of 2019 and included options for the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080. Those were the GPUs in the earliest sold Area-51m units, though later ones launched with the weaker RTX 2060 and GTX 1660 Ti. Those with an RTX 2070, could, in theory, upgrade to an RTX 2080, and those with lesser GPUs could move up the chain.

But in May of 2020, Alienware released the Alienware Area-51m R2, a refresh that added support for 10th Gen Intel Core desktop processors and a wider range of GPUs from the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti up to the newer Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super and an AMD option, the Radeon RX 5700M.

In June, Alienware laid bare the limits of the upgradeability of both machines. Like the earlier laptop that only supported 9th Gen Intel processors, the new one would only support Intel 10th Gen. The top-end RTX 2080 Super and RTX 2070 Super would be the end of the line of GPUs.

It's the release of the second-generation Area-51m that is the crux of Felter's argument.

"The Area 51M's CPU was not upgradeable to the new INTEL 10th generation CPU, nor was its GPU upgradeable to the new NVIDIA RTX SUPER 2000 series," the complaint states. "In fact, the only way Plaintiff could own a laptop with these newly released upgraded Core Components was to spend several thousand dollars more than what an upgrade would cost to purchase the then-newly released Alienware Area 51M R2 or a similarly equipped laptop from another manufacturer."

In other words: To further upgrade the laptop, Felter would have to buy a new model.

Additionally, the plaintiff and his attorneys claim that because Dell includes Intel and Nvidia components in its machines and has roadmaps in advance, that the company knew the laptop could not be upgraded.

The case is an interesting one in the enthusiast space. At its essence, this boils down to a motherboard with Intel's Z390 chipset as well as the proprietary graphics cards. Motherboards are upgraded at a regular cadence to work with the latest processors, though occasionally new processors will work on older boards. This could potentially set a sort of precedent about how far out a motherboard needs to support a CPU. In desktops, GPUs typically work for years, as long as it's not using an outdated standard. But Dell's graphics were in a proprietary form factor.

Felter is seeking damages, relief and attorneys fees for himself and those in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state who purchased the laptop on their own since its release in 2019. He is represented by attorneys Brian H. Mahany of Mahany Law and Steven I. Hochfelsen and David W. Kani of Hochfelsen & Kani, LLP.  He is asking the court for a jury trial.

Update -  June 4, 9:30 a.m. ET - Updated with response from Dell.

Andrew E. Freedman

Andrew E. Freedman is a senior editor at Tom's Hardware focusing on laptops, desktops and gaming as well as keeping up with the latest news. He holds a M.S. in Journalism (Digital Media) from Columbia University. A lover of all things gaming and tech, his previous work has shown up in Kotaku, PCMag, Complex, Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag among others.

  • NightHawkRMX
    Its a laptop, its to be expected that there is limited upgradability. I don't particularly see anything wrong with Dells marketing. Dell never said that it could be upgraded to a next generation part.
    Reply
  • wirefire
    I am not impressed with this lawsuit. There may be some room for legal interpretation with the language that Dell uses but nowhere do they detail what this upgradability is. The CPU and GPU are user replaceable. This is not standard in he laptop space and does allow for a degree up upgradability. It is a function of Intel, not Dell that will determine how "upgradable" these units are in the CPU. as for the GPU.... well as long as the power requirements can physically be met, there is no reason why any GPU couldn't be made available for the hardware.

    Is what Dell advertised "deceiving".... well to the uninformed, yes it could be. If you are buying an Alienware laptop I would guess in most cases you are an "informed" buyer. it is not the kind of laptop someone buys on a whim. If it takes a 9900K you could "upgrade" it to a CPU that has a better OC (cherry picked silicon)... "upgrade" is very vauge.
    Reply
  • Mandark
    More useless litigation
    Reply
  • drtweak
    wirefire said:
    I am not impressed with this lawsuit. There may be some room for legal interpretation with the language that Dell uses but nowhere do they detail what this upgradability is. The CPU and GPU are user replaceable. This is not standard in he laptop space and does allow for a degree up upgradability. It is a function of Intel, not Dell that will determine how "upgradable" these units are in the CPU. as for the GPU.... well as long as the power requirements can physically be met, there is no reason why any GPU couldn't be made available for the hardware.

    Is what Dell advertised "deceiving".... well to the uninformed, yes it could be. If you are buying an Alienware laptop I would guess in most cases you are an "informed" buyer. it is not the kind of laptop someone buys on a whim. If it takes a 9900K you could "upgrade" it to a CPU that has a better OC (cherry picked silicon)... "upgrade" is very vauge.

    Boom couldn't have said it any better. Sounds like the guy needs more of an IT expert not a lawyer on this one to help him. Its like Intel only does two generations per socket. Its like ony the 8th and 9th gen are supported on the Z390 and since it came with a 9900K like not much more you can do to go from there.

    Then he says

    "They also never disclosed that those with the highest spec CPU and/or GPU that their device would not be upgradeable."

    Ummm pretty sure those who got the highest spec CPU knew what they were getting XD
    Reply
  • cryoburner
    "The Area-51m was engineered with this in mind, finally allowing gamers to harness power comparable to even the highest-performance desktop..."
    If by "comparable" they mean "significantly slower due to heat and power restrictions" then I guess that part holds up. : D
    Reply
  • Co BIY
    Class action suits are an abuse of the law that very occasionally may create an incentive for large firms with many customers to do the right thing.

    The word "unprecedented" really doesn't promise too much. Dell will be covered by bringing in i5 spec model and upgrading it to an i7 in about 20 minutes. Then bringing a pile of it's previous laptops and say You couldn't do that with any of these previous laptop models. Mic drop.

    They need to be awarded lawyers fees for this frivolous lawsuit.
    Reply
  • HyperMatrix
    He will win this case against dell. Despite the previous comments, Dell did lie. Whether intentional or not. This is clear cut in the law. Dell didn’t advertise “unparalleled customizability.” They advertised upgradability. Yet upgrades were never made available if you bought the top end laptop. Boggles the mind to see comments above stating “well he should have known laptops can’t be upgraded” when the problem is that he normally did know laptops couldn’t be upgraded, and paid extra money to Dell precisely because they said that he would be able to do something that you normally couldn’t do: UPGRADE the cpu/GPU. But that statement was false.

    It’s not even an issue of a limited period of time in which upgrades were made available. It’s that in cases, no upgrades were ever made available. Samsung had a similar lawsuit with their TVs and the advertised upgradable one connect box that basically let you upgrade your existing panel to modern TB tech by upgrading the OSD/cpu/etc. They ended up having to make an upgrade box for TVs that they advertised as being upgradable in the future. Years after their initial launch. Because they were sued.

    This is a guaranteed win against Dell.
    Reply
  • watzupken
    I think when companies advertise that a laptop is upgradable, they should be very explicit to say what can be upgraded and what is the limitations. I was told by a company once that they GPU in their laptop is upgradable. Its a GTX 680M on an MXM card. In theory, yes, you can pull that card out and replace with another, BUT, that does not mean that you can upgrade it like a desktop GPU. With the release of the GTX 700 series, I went back to the company to ask about the prospect of upgrading the GPU, but was told that it can't be upgraded because,
    GTX 700 requires more power, which the existing slot/socket is unable to provide,
    GTX 700 uses a different display out which does not work with the current displayThe long and short is, upgrade is not possible. That was my first experience with gaming laptop, and I wasn't expecting the limitation to be this bad. That's why I feel its critical to be explicit as to the limitations of any upgrade upfront.
    Reply
  • TerryLaze
    HyperMatrix said:
    He will win this case against dell. Despite the previous comments, Dell did lie. Whether intentional or not. This is clear cut in the law. Dell didn’t advertise “unparalleled customizability.” They advertised upgradability. Yet upgrades were never made available if you bought the top end laptop. Boggles the mind to see comments above stating “well he should have known laptops can’t be upgraded” when the problem is that he normally did know laptops couldn’t be upgraded, and paid extra money to Dell precisely because they said that he would be able to do something that you normally couldn’t do: UPGRADE the cpu/GPU. But that statement was false.

    It’s not even an issue of a limited period of time in which upgrades were made available. It’s that in cases, no upgrades were ever made available. Samsung had a similar lawsuit with their TVs and the advertised upgradable one connect box that basically let you upgrade your existing panel to modern TB tech by upgrading the OSD/cpu/etc. They ended up having to make an upgrade box for TVs that they advertised as being upgradable in the future. Years after their initial launch. Because they were sued.

    This is a guaranteed win against Dell.
    There is a degree of common sense that the law expects from people.

    Even if you bought the laptop with the highest components and have no upgrade path, the laptop is still an upgradable laptop it's a characteristic of the laptop, even if it doesn't apply to you it does still to the laptop.

    Also you are expected to know that hardware has to be compatible and that you can't upgrade to something that is not made for your platform.
    Reply
  • jsut71
    This is stupid. With the money he’s likely paying his attorney he could have just upgraded. In Texas just to have my ex wife served divorce papers cost $500. And that is the standard mandated cost for just that. And I doubt very highly that California and San Francisco is any less expensive. During the 7 years I lived in California from my mid 20’s to early 30’s they demanded several thousands of dollars to reregister my car from the state I had moved from. Sounds like he’s just looking for a big payout or settlement from Dell.
    Reply