Alienware AW2521H – Design and Features
$900 is pretty pricey for a 1080p display, but 360Hz is still the absolute fastest refresh rate you can buy, so you’ll have to pay a premium if you’re serious about competitive gaming. These are similar specs to the previously-reviewed Asus ROG Swift PG259QN, which costs $200 less – in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used the same panel.
Alienware’s AW2521H – not to be confused with Alienware’s way-too-similarly-named Alienware AW2521HF, a cheaper 240Hz monitor – mostly sets itself apart from Asus’ 360Hz model in design. It’s actually rather understated for an Alienware product, at least from the front. The display itself sports a nearly-frameless bezel apart from the bottom, with a text-only Alienware logo in the middle.
The rather thick monitor sits atop a two-legged stand with no adornments other than a few “G-Sync” and “360Hz” stickers that you can pull right off. Apart from the power button, which contains a built-in LED ring, the only lighting comes from the back of the stand, which reflects off your wall for some nice subtle bias lighting. You can adjust the color of this light in the on-screen display or turn it off entirely. I was disappointed to find that it only offered 20 colors, though, none of which were plain white (my preferred bias lighting color).
The stand is height, swivel, and tilt adjustable for optimal ergonomics, and there’s a cable management hole on the bottom for you to route all your connections. You’ll find two HDMI 2.0 ports on the back, as well as one DisplayPort 1.4 port, a headphone jack, and four USB 3.2 Gen1 ports – two on the back, two along the bottom of the panel for easy access. You’ll need to use DisplayPort to reach 360Hz; as the HDMI ports are only capable of 240Hz at 1080p.
1080p at 24.5 inches is on the small and low-res side, but again, the monitor is designed for competitive esports gaming, where you want to be able to see the entire screen without darting your eyes around. The lower 1080p resolution ensures you can push as many frames as possible to reach that super-fast refresh rate, so while it isn’t ideal for desktop work, it’s all your graphics card can probably handle for gaming this smooth. And if you can’t quite hit 360Hz, G-Sync is there to ensure you don’t get any stutter or screen tearing.
Alienware claims 1ms grey-to-grey response time, but there are numerous ways to fudge this spec, so it’s mostly meaningless – real-world testing is far more revealing of a monitor’s capabilities in this realm. Nvidia also offers its Reflex Analyzer built in to the monitor – we’ve dug deep into this feature before, so I won’t rehash that here, but suffice to say it’s a cool feature that helps you cut down on input lag, however marginal the improvements may be.
Alienware AW2521H – Testing
To test the performance of monitors, I run a DisplayCal verification using an X-Rite i1Display Pro colorimeter, alongside a few by-eye tests using Lagom’s LCD test patterns. The AW2521H is not an HDR or wide gamut monitor, instead hitting about 450 nits of maximum brightness and covering 92.8% of the sRGB color space. It is, however, extremely accurate within that sRGB space.
When measuring color accuracy, a deltaE value describes how closely a color matches its target point on the spectrum. In it’s out-of-the-box Standard mode, the AW2521H hit an average deltaE of 0.61 – that’s phenomenal, considering anything less than 1 is indistinguishable to the eye. A few values came in over 1, which is still shockingly good, and imperceptible to all but the most trained individuals. I did find that the target white point was just slightly warm, though backing off the blue in the Custom Color preset fixed this right up. Again, we’re talking a deltaE of about 2, which is still something most people will not notice.
That said, in the Lagom tests, black levels seemed just slightly crushed at the lowest couple values. That means shades just above the darkest black will appear too dark, obscuring fine details in shadows – not ideal for competitive gaming, which could mean missing a stealthy opponent. Turning up the Dark Stabilizer setting can help with this, though it will reduce the contrast ratio and make blacks look greyer – which is rough, given that the IPS panel in this display already has a weak 1029:1 contrast ratio by my measurements. Still, if you’re buying this monitor, black levels probably aren’t your main concern, and the monitor otherwise performs beautifully.
White levels were on point, meaning highlight detail will appear as intended. Gradients showed no visible banding, viewing angles are great thanks to the IPS panel, and gamma followed the 2.2 curve closely, deviating just a tad on the brighter end of the spectrum. With all that in mind, the default Standard mode is probably the best to stick with, unless you want to futz with the Custom mode to get everything just right. This monitor also has a G-Sync Esports Mode that tweaks settings to Nvidia’s recommended for esports, though Custom mode is more configurable.
Motion is the most important performance metric for a 360Hz monitor, though, so the response time needs to be low to avoid ghosting. Lagom’s response time test consists of a number of squares quickly alternating between two shades – if the squares flicker, then the response time is slow for that transition, meaning you may see a trail behind moving objects. Thankfully, this test showed virtually no flickering, and Blur Busters’ UFO test showed incredibly clear motion with almost no ghosting. The AW2521H’s overdrive feature (labeled Response Time in the menu) can improve motion even further, though it does introduce slight haloing artifacts. You can try these settings yourself to see which you prefer. You can also try the ULMB strobing backlight feature for even clearer motion, though it only works when G-Sync is off and the refresh rate is set to 240Hz – and comes with some artifacts behind moving objects.
Alienware AW2521H – Gaming
While cinematic first-person games really benefit from large, high-res displays, online multiplayer games like Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive really shine with high refresh rates. The butter-smooth, blur-free motion of fast panels like the AW2521H is something you have to experience to understand, and it gives you this sense of control that 60Hz doesn’t quite hit. I’m hardly a pro gamer, and I can’t provide any stats to prove that 360Hz truly made me any better – but racing around the field in Overwatch and spraying bullets at the competition just feels more fluid and precise compared to your average display. Remember, it’s not just about that 360Hz refresh rate – the response times are also a big improvement here, and I’ve used 144Hz monitors that felt much worse due to smeary motion.
That said, when compared with a good 144Hz display, the AW2521H is a minor upgrade designed for a very specific type of player: seriously competitive esports enthusiasts. The 360Hz motion is a noticeable jump from 144Hz and 240Hz, however slight – I ran an ABX test myself – but for most people, it’s not worth the few hundred extra dollars it currently costs.
You also have to sacrifice resolution and screen size, which isn’t ideal for more casual gamers with mixed preferences. If you play as much Tomb Raider as you do Overwatch, you’ll probably find this monitor a bit lacking for games in the former category. A 1440p monitor at 144Hz with a good response time – like the ViewSonic Elite XG270QG – is going to be a better pick for most people, and at a much lower price. If you’re serious about esports, a 360Hz monitor may be worth the sacrifices to you, though I’d argue the Asus PG259QN is a better value than the Alienware, despite the Alienware’s more attractive design, slightly better port selection, and built-in Reflex Analyzer.