There's no question that the Alienware M18x is one of the fastest, best-looking gaming notebooks on the market. But users considering this high-end system must choose between configurations with Nvidia and AMD graphics chips. When we reviewed the dual Nvidia GeForce GTX580M-powered M18x back in August, we lauded that notebook's face-melting graphics, beautiful 18-inch screen, and convenient Wireless HD video output. So how does a $4,566 model of the Alienware M18x that features dual AMD Radeon HD 6990M graphics cards and a 4-GHz Core i7 CPU compare to its Nvidia-based brother?
The Alienware M18x is both massive and impressive. While not as flashy as the Nebula Red lid, the Space Black matte anodized aluminum chassis--combined with large vents and backlit front grilles--gives the notebook a Close Encounters kind of vibe. The smudge- and fingerprint-resistant lid is adorned with a shiny backlit Alienware logo. Toward the bottom of the lid is a ribbed rubber panel that makes for an interesting contrast.
Opening the notebook reveals a silky black matte finish surrounding a black matte brushed-aluminum keyboard deck. A smaller version of the Alienware insignia rests in the middle of the keyboard deck. Buttons for volume, wireless, media, and the AlienFX Tutorial Grabber are located on the right, directly above the keyboard.
Alienware continues to please with its mesmerizing, highly customizable backlighting. Colors for the keyboard, alien logos, and the border surrounding the touchpad can be changed to suit your mood, sort of like a digital mood ring.
At a hefty 12.8 pounds, this 17.2 x 12.7 x 2.1-inch behemoth won't be traveling very far. It dwarfs other 18-inch notebooks, including the 10-pound, 16.6 x 12.8 x 2.3-inch ASUS G74SX-A2.
Despite its bulk and all the lights, the M18x is able to keep its cool. After we streamed a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad, the space between the G and H keys, and the underside measured 75, 83, and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.
Keyboard and Touchpad
In addition to a full number pad, the M18x's keyboard has five macro keys with a sixth button to toggle between three modes, giving gamers 15 macros per game. We wish Alienware had taken advantage of the 0.8 inches of space on either side so the keyboard wouldn't feel so closed in. We also wish that the keys were less beveled; this not only makes them look smaller than they actually are, but robs fingers of real estate. There's also a bit of flex on the keyboard, which isn't acceptable on a notebook this expensive.
There aren't many multitouch gestures on the 3.9 x 2.2-inch Synaptics touchpad, but what's there is fast and responsive. Two-finger scrolling was effortless on CNN.com and Kotaku, as was three-finger flick in our photo gallery. Notepad and Google Chrome took between 1 to 2 seconds to launch after we performed a three-finger press.
Display and Audio
Gazing into the M18x's enormous 18.4-inch, 1920 x 1080p WLED display is akin to Narcissus peering into a pool of water--you never want to take your eyes away. The edge-to-edge glossy display gave us bright, clear images with sharp detail and vivid color. The Blu-ray edition of The Green Hornet never looked so good. The Hornet's car, the Black Beauty, gleamed wickedly against the street lights. Kato's blood red "Kato Vision" glowed, and the explosions were big, bright, and over the top.
The notebook is at its best when playing games. The dark, gritty world of Batman: Arkham Asylum was beautifully rendered. The Joker's vibrant purple suit was noticeably wrinkled from his last encounter with the Dark Knight. And it was hard not to be captivated by Poison Ivy's blazing red hair, surprisingly seductive pale green skin, and the delicate tendrils of ivy wrapped around her midriff.
Audio on the 5.1 Klipsch surround-sound speakers was loud, crisp, and rich. Explosions were incredibly satisfying, allowing us to hear even the smallest splintering of glass after the initial boom. However, we noticed the bass was lacking when we played music tracks including Jay-Z's "On To The Next One" and Dr. Dre's "What's The Difference."
Webcam and Ports
The M18x has a port for every season. The right side of the notebook plays host to two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI 1.3 input, an eSATA/USB combo (with PowerShare), a slot-loading Blu-ray player, a 9-in-1 card reader, and an ExpressCard/54 slot. And if that weren't enough, the left side has two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI 1.4 out, VGA, Gigabit Ethernet, a mini DisplayPort, two headphone jacks, a microphone jack, a S/PDIF optical out, and a Kensington Lock slot.
In Dell's Live Central webcam software, the 3-megapixel camera captured stills and video in 2048 x 1536p. Images were sharp with crisp detail, but had noticeably muted color.
The Alienware M18x is capable of Wireless HD streaming; unfortunately, we were unable to test this feature, as we did not have the Vizio XWH200 receiver. However, when we tested a different configuration of the M18x earlier this year, we were able to game on a large-screen TV wirelessly, without any noticeable latency.
Equipped with a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i7-2920XM CPU that overclocks to 4 GHz, 16GB of RAM, two 750GB, 7,200-rpm hard drives in a RAID 0 array, and dual AMD Radeon 6900M GPUs with 2GB of VRAM, the Alienware M18x has seriously epic performance. On PCMark Vantage, the M18x scored 11,425, crushing the 8,282 desktop replacement average, and on par with an M18x with the same processor but dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M GPUs in SLI (10,182). However, the ASUS G74SX-AX's quad-core 2-GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM processor, 16GB of RAM, 750GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GTX 560M GPU blew them all away with a blistering 12,970--thanks to an assist from a 160GB SSD.
One area where the M18X didn't impress was boot time; it took 64 seconds to launch the 64-bit version of Windows Home Professional 7. While that time was only 3 seconds short of the 0:61 category average, ASUS's G74SX-AX took just 0:30. However, the Nvidia-powered M18x took an even longer 75 seconds. On the File Transfer test, the Alienware M18x duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files in 1 minute and 59 seconds for a transfer rate of 42.8 MBps, blazing past the 36.1 MBps category average. The G74SX-A2 notched an impressive 48.5 MBps.
On the Spreadsheet test, the AMD-powered M18x matched 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses in 3 minutes and 54 seconds, handily beating the 4:17 category average. The original Nvidia-powered M18x was slightly faster, clocking in at 3:49, but the difference is negligible.
Graphics and Gaming
What do you get when you put two AMD Radeon 6900M graphic cards in one machine? Some face-melting, butt-kicking gaming scores that pwn just about every other notebook on the yard. During the 3DMark06 benchmark, the AMD-powered M18x scored 24,688, double the 11,435 desktop replacement average. The M18x with dual Nvidia GeForce GTX580M GPUs came in at a close second with 24,142. The ASUS G74SX-A2 was left in the dust with 15,299.
The unbridled graphics power continued as we played World of Warcraft and Far Cry 2. It was an absolute blast maxing out every setting on both titles. We were able to get a whopping 140 frames per second on the highest setting at 1920 x 1080p playing World of Warcraft. That's twice the 69 fps desktop replacement category average. The G74SX-A2 scored 81 fps. However, the Nvidia-powered M18x took the victory with a blazing 164 fps. In Far Cry 2, the AMD-powered M18x posted 147 fps, three times as much as the 47 fps average. The Nvidia M18x held a slight lead with 151 fps, while the ASUS G74SX-A2 posted 97 fps.
It's very rare that we have a gaming machine run every setting at maximum. This is one of the rigs that can handle it. We were positively gleeful while playing Batman: Arkham Asylum, unleashing flurries of vicious combos against Bane and other members of Batman's rogues' gallery at an unwavering 60 fps.
Those expecting to play Arkham Asylum, Battlefield 3, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 will want to make sure they've got the current drivers installed. On the AMD-powered M18x, we encountered a persistent screen-skipping problem that kept us from properly enjoying leaping from rooftop to rooftop in Assassin's Creed 2. Once we updated to AMD Catalyst 11.10, those issues evaporated, and we easily averaged 180 fps on Battlefield 3's cut scenes and maintained a smooth 60 fps throughout. Those using the Nvidia M18x will have to download the GeForce 285.62 WHQL drivers, which Nvidia claims will boost performance in Battlefield 3 by 11 percent.
When we received the Alienware M18x, it came with an Intel Core i7-2920XM overclocked to 4 GHz, 16GB of DDR3 memory at 1600MHz, two 750GB, 7,200-rpm hard drives, and dual AMD Radeon 6900M GPUs. However, Alienware has since upgraded the CPU to a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i7-2960XM CPU, but otherwise kept the specs the same. That model now costs $4,566, which also includes the Vizio XHW200 WirelessHD transmitter and receiver. For this price, we would have expected an SSD to come standard, but you can swap out the dual hard drives for a single 256GB SSD for $150 or dual SSDs for $550.
Opting for dual Nvidia GeForce GTX580M GPUs in SLI instead of AMD graphics will add $150 to the total cost. Those who don't have a ton of money can opt for the $1,999 base model of the M18x, which is packaged with a 2.2-GHz Intel Core i7-2670QM CPU (overclockable to 3.1 GHz), 4GB of 1600Mhz DDR3 memory, a single 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive, a slot-loading DVD burner, and a single Nvidia GeForce GTX 560M with 1.5GB of VRAM.
Despite having all those heavy-duty components, the Alienware M18x was able to last 4 hours and 16 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi) in Intel integrated graphics mode. That's 45 minutes longer than the category average. Switching to discrete graphics was a different story, with the battery petering out at 1:51. Still, the AMD M18x beat out the Nvidia M18x's integrated and discrete times of 3:36 and 1:46. As with the Nvidia version, switching from discrete to integrated graphics requires restarting the notebook.
Alienware blissfully keeps the M18x free of unnecessary bloatware. We did like Bigfoot Networks' Killer Network Manager, which allowed us to keep tabs on our network usage and tune the bandwidth accordingly.
We had the most fun with the Alienware Command Center, where we were able to customize the backlighting on the front grilles, keyboard, and touchpad. We sank at least a half hour creating different color combinations and setting up specific parts of the keyboard to flash on and off. In addition to creating color profiles in the Alien Command Center, we could adjust the touchpad's sensitivity and create power profiles via AlienTouch and AlienFusion panels. We could also back up and restore the system using the AlienRespawn panel.
As the saying goes, two is always better than one, but which dual video card setup should you get on the Alienware M18x: AMD's or Nvidia's? While the AMD-powered M18x scored a little higher on the synthetic 3DMark06 test, the Nvidia-powered configuration had slightly higher frame rates in actual game play. At present, Alienware also charges $150 more for the Nvidia cards, making the AMD seem like a better value on this rig, though Nvidia has a minor edge in real-world performance.
With either video card option, the Alienware M18x remains the gaming notebook to beat, if money is no object. If you don't have $4,500 laying around, the next best option is the $2,076 ASUS G73SW-A2 with its 2-GHz Intel Core i7-2630QM CPU, 16GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 560M, and 750GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive and 160GB SSD. But if you're looking for the most powerful gaming rig in the land, stick with the Alienware M18x.