Wednesday, April 7, 2010; 12:19 AM
If you're a PC gamer sick of lugging around an 8- to 10-pound monster with awful battery life just to play games, Alienware's M11x is your salvation. This 11.6-inch ultraportable laptop has enough power to play all the latest titles while making only modest compromises, yet it's considerably more portable than typical gaming notebooks in the 15-inch range, let alone giant desktop-replacement notebooks. With prices starting at $799 (as of April 2, 2010; our review system was kitted out to a $1099 configuration), it generally doesn't cost as much as those larger alternatives, either.
The M11x squeezes its fantastic performance into a small package by taking an Intel SU7300 ultra-low-voltage CPU, which normally runs at 1.3GHz, and overclocking it to 1.73GHz by way of boosting the frontside bus from 800MHz to 1066MHz. At least, that's what you find on Alienware's spec sheets and in the Windows system properties page. Using the CPU-Z tool to examine the CPU properties, we discovered that the clock multiplier was dropped from its default 6.5 to 6.0, making the final clock speed 1.6GHz. If you don't like the overclocked speed, an option in the BIOS lets you tell the CPU to run at the default speed. Alienware fully supports the overclocked speed in the one-year warranty (optional extended warranties are available).
Our review system came with 4GB of RAM (up from 2GB in the base configuration, and highly recommended). The base configuration also includes the Intel SU4100 ULV processor; the SU7300 that our review unit had costs $100 more. Graphics duties are handled by the very capable GeForce 335M with 1GB of video memory. The system unfortunately does not use nVidia's new Optimus switchable graphics technology, so you have to switch between the Intel integrated GPU and the nVidia GPU manually (or rely on Windows power profiles). Fortunately, Alienware has made this task quite easy: The Function-F6 key combination toggles between the Intel and nVidia graphics, so it's easy to get longer battery life when you're just surfing the Web and then to kick in the powerful discrete graphics when it's game time. As for storage, the default configuration has a 160GB, 5400-rpm hard drive; you should opt for one of the faster 7200-rpm models, which can have a big impact on overall performance. Our review system was loaded with a 500GB drive, but if you have cash to spare, you can pay through the nose for a 256GB solid-state drive.
Regardless of what the true CPU speed is, the M11x flies. On our WorldBench 6 tests, it earned a score of 77, which is among the best marks we've seen from an ultraportable PC. Does the overclocked CPU ruin your battery life? Our tests say no--at least, not if you throw enough battery at it. Using the Intel integrated graphics, with the CPU in its overclocked state, we achieved about 7.5 hours of battery life. That was without any sort of bulky extended battery sticking out of the bottom of the case. In fact, extended batteries are not available: The M11x's eight-cell prismatic battery is fully integrated and can't be easily removed, which helps give the case a smooth and clean look.
What about game performance? I was easily able to play current AAA titles like Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 with good results. You won't be able to run the more-strenuous games at maximum detail level, but you can set things high enough for games to look really good and still get smooth frame rates. You can easily max out other games, like Left 4 Dead 2. If there's a downside to playing games on this system, it's the fan noise: When things get hot, the fan spins up loudly. I can't help but think that a better ventilation design would have helped.
The screen is probably the worst part of the Alienware M11x, and it's only average. The 1366 by 768 resolution is plenty for an 11.6-inch display, but the color gamut is limited and a little washed out. Viewing angles are mediocre, and the poor vertical viewing angles are especially noticeable on a small laptop such as this. The audio, on the other hand, is excellent for an ultraportable system. Whether I was listening to music, watching video, or playing games, the sound this little guy pumped out remained relatively clean even at high volumes.
Typing and pointing are above average, but not up to the level of, say, a good Lenovo business laptop. The keyboard has a unique look, and the keys are a little soft with not a whole lot of travel, but they're well sized and spaced. After a few minutes of adjustment, the keys are easy to type on. The touchpad is excellent, with a pleasing texture, smooth and accurate tracking, and two distinct buttons that are recessed just enough to keep you from accidentally misclicking.
Alienware computers are known for shipping with little to no extra software installed to fill up your system tray and bog down performance, but one very useful utility is included: the Alienware Command Center. This slick interface lets you set up and configure the Windows power profiles, adjust the options for the touchpad, set up the Webcam-powered facial-recognition software (dubbed AlienSense), and tweak the AlienFX lighting. The last bit is really quite cool: You can independently adjust the backlighting for five different zones (the keyboard, the front lights, the Alienware logo beneath the display, the alien-head power button, and the activity lights to the upper right of the keyboard). You have 20 colors to choose from, you can make the lights pulse or cycle between colors, or just turn them off. The tool has two brightness settings for all lights, too.
I'm especially pleased with the port selection and location on this laptop. The left side has three video plugs (VGA, HDMI, and DisplayPort), along with a powered USB port, gigabit ethernet, memory card readers, and FireWire. The right side is relatively clean, with two USB ports and three audio jacks (a microphone input and two headphone jacks, to make it easier to share a movie with someone in private). Note that the machine has no optical drive, so if you buy your games on disc, you'll need an external USB drive to load them onto the system; with so many games and other PC apps sold through digital distribution these days, this limitation is less of a problem than it used to be. Both 802.11a/b/g/n networking and Bluetooth 2.1 are standard.
At 4.6 pounds, the Alienware M11x is certainly heavy for an ultraportable laptop. It's thicker than many of its contemporaries, too. As a gaming laptop, it's downright svelte. Even 13- or 15-inch models that offer this kind of performance typically weigh a pound or two more, and are physically larger. If you've been torn between a bulky laptop that's powerful enough to handle games but gets mediocre battery life, or a more easily portable laptop with great battery life that doesn't perform well, worry no longer. In the M11x, Alienware delivers a product that offers the best of both worlds and answers the prayers of gamers who are sick of sore shoulders and dead batteries. I'd love to see a future version with Optimus switchable graphics and a better display, but what Alienware is offering right now is an excellent, much-needed product that fills a unique niche.