Alienware M11x review
Alienware delivers a world first: a gaming notebook you can sling in a bag, but the price is a little steep
Whoever coined the phrase "good things come in small packages" clearly never had the PC gaming community in mind. When it comes to gaming, bigger really is better. High-power components are housed in giant-sized cases, while the combined power draw of multi-core processors, high-end graphics cards and processor coolers all conspire to make the electric heater look positively eco-friendly. Flying in the face of such rigid convention comes naturally to Alienware's latest creation, the M11x, which promises to fuse gaming potential with genuine ultraportability.
It's as if one of Alienware's hulking gaming laptops has been accidentally shrunk in the wash: you get the same muscular, love-it-or-loathe-it physique, the same glowing alien-head logo and kaleidoscopic LED lighting. Except this laptop is absolutely tiny. At 1.97kg, the M11x might not give the lightest ultraportables a run for their money, but its combination of dainty dimensions and pulse-quickening gaming ability make it entirely unique.
Cast a cursory eye inside the M11x and what quickly becomes apparent is it's a very different beast to the many CULV laptops on the market. Its low-voltage dual-core processor is overclocked to within an inch of its life, and for graphics you get a mighty Nvidia GT 335M graphics chipset which takes over from the standard Intel GMA 4500M integrated chip when gaming is on the cards. Factor in the 33mm thick chassis that conceals a fan capable of keeping it all cool when the going gets tough, and the M11x is far from the usual dainty ultraportable.
The price at the top of the page is, admittedly, staggeringly expensive but the M11x isn't only available in this particular flavour. You can specify it in a range of guises, stretching from the basic £637 exc VAT model - which comprises an Intel Pentium Dual-Core SU4100 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard disk - all the way up to the model Alienware sent us. This, at £1,208 exc VAT, ups the ante with a Core 2 Duo SU7300, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB Samsung SSD. It's enough to put a lump in anyone's throat, but don't forget, most of that is due to the SSD which, at £505 inc VAT on its own, is the main factor in the high price.
Alienware's decision to partner a fast Nvidia graphics chipset, an overclocked low-voltage processor and a lightning-quick SSD sees the M11x turn in a respectable 0.85 in our application benchmarks - a good 20% faster than any CULV laptop we've tested - and gaming performance is even more sprightly. Our standard 3D benchmark, Crysis, poses a stern test for any PC or laptop, but the M11x exceeded our expectations by achieving an average of 30fps in our Medium-settings test. The High-settings test was more of a strain, returning 14fps, but at the 11.6in panel's native resolution of 1,366 x 768 the M11x still managed an almost playable 19fps.
The Alienware's performance is all the more impressive when you consider that it doesn't come at the expense of battery life. The hybrid graphics arrangement works beautifully: switching between the two chipsets is a simple matter of hitting FN-F6. A flicker of the screen and a couple of seconds later, and the graphics chipsets have swapped place.
You can also flit between performance and stamina settings at the drop of a hat. If battery life is key, then it's possible to clock the CPU back to its usual 1.3GHz after a quick foray into the M11x's BIOS. We tested battery life in this configuration with Intel's GMA 4500M graphics running and found the M11x managed over nine hours in our light use test.
Conversely, switching to the Nvidia GT 335M and bumping the panel up to its maximum brightness saw the battery run dry after 3hrs 10mins of our heavy use multi-tasking test. Modern games prove even more demanding, but with wireless enabled and full screen brightness, we got just under two hours into Crysis' lush jungle terrain before the M11x finally gave up the ghost.
And, no matter where you go, you're unlikely to find the M11x lacking. Three USB ports, one of which is capable of charging devices while the laptop is off, are complemented by Mini-FireWire, a three-in-one card reader, two headphone outputs, 10/100 Ethernet and a SIM card slot for the as-yet-unavailable 3G modem option. The array of display outputs, meanwhile, borders on overkill, with D-SUB, HDMI and DisplayPort proudly lined up along the laptop's left edge. There's even a pair of outstandingly loud speakers that, while typically bass-shy, have more than enough punch and clarity to do justice to music and games alike.
Despite a strong showing in many areas, however, there's still plenty of room for improvement. The display for one, suffers from viewing angles, which give a decidedly narrow sweet spot. Even slight adjustments in our seating position left us tilting the screen back and forth to keep everything looking its best. And, while image quality is good enough, it's far from exemplary, with the somewhat maudlin colour reproduction robbing Crysis' lush jungle scenes of their usual tropical splendour. A bit more punch and slightly higher contrast wouldn't go amiss.
The keyboard might be the last thing on many people's minds, but it too could be improved. The keys have a nice action and a reasonably deep stroke, but some of the larger-fingered PC Pro team members felt it a little cramped. Move from touch-typing to gaming, however, and there are other issues. The combination of the M11x's thick base and small wristrest makes using the WASD keys - all-important for any first person shooter - rather uncomfortable. At home, we've no doubt many gamers will be tempted to hook up an external keyboard and mouse.
The final stumbling block is that price. At £1,208 inc VAT, this money-no-object Alienware M11x treads perilously close to the likes of Sony's mighty Z-series, a laptop that bests it in most areas without breaking a sweat. Do away with the SSD in favour of a bog-standard mechanical drive, however, and the M11x is an entirely different prospect.
It still costs a hefty premium over and above the average CULV laptop - the Asus UL20A being one sterling example - but if you want a laptop that's both ultraportable and powerful enough to play games, then there's just nothing quite like the Alienware M11x.
|Warranty||1yr collect and return|
|Dimensions||286 x 233 x 33mm (WDH)|
Processor and memory
|Processor||Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300|
|Motherboard chipset||Intel GS45|
|SODIMM sockets free||0|
|SODIMM sockets total||2|
Screen and video
|Resolution screen horizontal||1,366|
|Resolution screen vertical||768|
|Resolution||1366 x 768|
|Graphics chipset||Nvidia GeForce GT 335M|
|Graphics card RAM||1.00GB|
|VGA (D-SUB) outputs||1|
|Hard disk usable capacity||238GB|
|Internal disk interface||SATA/300|
|Hard disk||Samsung SSD PM800|
|Optical disc technology||N/A|
|Replacement battery price inc VAT||£0|
|Wired adapter speed||100Mbits/sec|
|802.11 draft-n support||yes|
|Integrated 3G adapter||no|
|Wireless hardware on/off switch||no|
|Wireless key-combination switch||yes|
|PC Card slots||0|
|USB ports (downstream)||3|
|PS/2 mouse port||no|
|9-pin serial ports||0|
|Optical S/PDIF audio output ports||1|
|Electrical S/PDIF audio ports||0|
|3.5mm audio jacks||3|
|SD card reader||yes|
|Memory Stick reader||yes|
|MMC (multimedia card) reader||yes|
|Smart Media reader||no|
|Compact Flash reader||no|
|Pointing device type||Touchpad|
|Audio chipset||Realtek HD Audio|
|Speaker location||Front edge|
|Hardware volume control?||no|
|Camera megapixel rating||1.3mp|
Battery and performance tests
|Battery life, light use||9hr 12min|
|Battery life, heavy use||3hr 10min|
|Overall application benchmark score||0.85|
|Office application benchmark score||0.89|
|2D graphics application benchmark score||0.95|
|Encoding application benchmark score||0.72|
|Multitasking application benchmark score||0.84|
|3D performance (crysis) low settings||55fps|
|3D performance setting||Low|
Operating system and software
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit|
|OS family||Windows 7|
|Recovery method||Recovery partition|