Alienware System Gone Dark

AlienFX Side Panel

Since May 2007 I have had an Alienware 7500-R4 system. Here is the configuration. At the time Alienware shipped systems with 4GB or more, but only supported Vista x86, which meant in my case that I only had access to 2.7GB of the 4GB that I purchased.

Lights Did Work

The AlienFX software worked for about 2 years after I upgraded to Vista x64, apparently because a flash memory on the ELC board – Electronic Lighting Control?  – saved the settings. But when I upgraded the system to 8GB recently, the system came up dark, and the lights have never re-appeared. My case is now permanently dark.

Alienware Support is no Help

Contacting Alienware support on this issue has been a comedy of errors with respect to the AlienFX software. But the bottom line is that Alienware / DELL no longer supports software for the AlienFX hardware on modern operating systems. There was never any support for Vista x64, and while they support Windows 7 x64 on new systems, the new AlienFX boards are apparently different and Alienware does not support any upgrades of the AlienFX boards to more modern ones that will work with Windows 7. Of course downgrading the system to run Vista x86 at this point is hopeless for so many reasons, not the least of which is that the system now has 8GB of memory.

A Long Life Ahead

Of course, any high-end system purchased as recently as 2007 will run Windows 7 quite well. So these systems are not near End-of-Life. I expect to get another 2-3 years out of mine before replacing the motherboard and hard drives. The case and 1KW power supply should at least another generation beyond this one with a new MB and hard drives.

But I don’t want a dark case for the next 8-10 years.

I considered asking Alienware for the drawings of the ELC motherboard. But they are so officious and stuck in their ways at this point that it is of little point. Let’s take a look at the AlienFX hardware for the P2 circa 2007 case and consider some alternatives.

AlienFX Hardware

AlienFX in Case

AlienFX hardware comprises three components:

  1. LED lights in clusters around the case to allow multiple leds to turn on to provide various colors. These connect to the ELC Motherboard via what look like PATA cable connectors. There are three PATA headers on the ELC MB.
  2. An ELC motherboard which connects the LED light wires, power, and a USB connection to the ELC daughter card which contains all the active components.
  3. An ELC daughter card which connects to the ELC MB with an angled connector similar to an SODIMM connector, if not exactly an SODIMM connector.
ELC Motherboard top
ELC Daughter Card Top

Alienware, or whoever produced the board for them [MacroVision? I have seen that mentioned in the AlienFX software], probably feel very proprietary about this design, and so whatever solution arises to have lighting needs to steer clear of any intellectual property. I don’t want to hack the ELC daughter card, write a driver for it, or replace it, since all those avenues will probably violate someone’s idea of intellectual property.

However, the PATA headers cannot be claimed to be proprietary in any way, they are just connectors to LEDs in the case. While there may be patents on the case lighting in general, powering the LEDs in the case with some independently built system will only be seen as a violation in some far reaches of lawyers minds.

Alternatives to get Lights

I see a couple of alternatives to getting my lights back.

  1. Reverse Engineer the wires and just turn on the lights. If a stupid ELC motherboard is produced that drives the LEDs to light them up, then constant light is available. I sure would like this since my case sits under my desk and it is hard to even insert a DVD without lights.
  2. In addition to 1, add a PIC or other simple controller to allow the case lights to be changed, either just to change the colors statically, or more in keeping with the original support, allow the lights to change dynamically. There may even be a way to talk to the PIC controller with a USB driver, or serial line via the USB.

Call to Action

Do other folks have this problem with their Alienware P2, circa 2006-2008 cases?

Has someone else come up with a solution?

Don’t you want your case lights back?

What should we do?

– windy