When you call something “the most powerful laptop in the universe,” you have a lot to live up to. And Dell’s flagship gaming system, the Alienware M17x ($4,649 as configured), mostly lives up to those claims. This anodized aluminum beast is loaded with the fastest hardware you can put in a notebook today, including two of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 280M graphics cards and a 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme Quad QX9300 CPU. It’s a semi-truck of a computer, and it’ll shred the latest 3D titles like a diamond-toothed chainsaw through a zombie skull, but is it worth nearly five grand?
Measuring 16.0 x 12.6 x 2.1 inches and starting at 11.6 pounds (depending on your configuration), the M17x is the type of notebook that requires a hernia belt just to lift off a desk. But that just means there’s more to love. With a case made of anodized aluminum, this notebook looks and feels as tough as the Batmobile. Two speakers on the front of the computer have a sports car look, and each has a honeycomb grill that reminds us of the body armor in Crysis.
Our system had a matte Space Black finish, but it’s also available in Lunar Silver and Nebular Red. There aren’t any visible screws anywhere but on the customized name plate, which resides on the underbelly of the beast. Like a personal rave, Alienware managed to cram customizable lights in several places, including the Alienware logo below the 17-inch, 1920 x 1200-pixel resolution display, along the touchpad, under the keyboard, on the Alienware head-shaped power button, and even on the back of the lid.
Our biggest beef with the M17x’s industrial design is its lid. It feels like the hinge isn’t strong enough to last through thousands of openings and closings. When you flick it lightly, the lid bounces back and forth a bit—a testament to its weight. We would have preferred a much sturdier hinge that stretched the breadth of the computer’s underside to ensure lifelong sturdiness.
Keyboard and Trackpad
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The M17x’s keyboard is massive and solid. The keys don’t have any flex to them, so it’s as if you’re typing on a legitimate desktop keyboard. As with Alienware’s previous desktop replacement systems, there’s a full number pad, too, which means you can store all of your macros in games such as World of Warcraft. As mentioned above, you can tweak the keyboard’s backlight colors, and Alienware even lets you adjust the keyboard by region. So, for example, you can have the far left of your keyboard glow blue, the middle-left glow red, the middle-right glow orange, and the far right glow green. It’s a really cool snow-cone-looking effect, but one many will probably pass up for fear of making their keyboard look like a clown’s wig.
Click to enlargeAbove the keyboard are soft-touch buttons for ejecting Blu-ray discs, full media controls for skip and play/pause, volume controls, a wireless launch button, and quick-launch buttons for the system’s AlienFusion control panel (one for controlling lights and another for its power-tweaking Stealth Mode).
The touchpad on the M17x is large and flush with the wrist rest, except for a small glowing border; its honeycomb texture allows for swift finger glides across the surface. The two touchpad buttons offered good feedback, but if you’re playing a first person shooter you’ll want to resort to a full gaming mouse for quicker button presses.
Ports and Webcam
The M17x has an assortment of ports, but some are awkwardly placed. On the left side of the unit are: HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, two USB 2.0, eSATA, DisplayPort, FireWire, and a Kensington lock slot. The right side has two additional USB 2.0 ports, an 8-in-1 memory card reader, and an ExpressCard/54 slot. The mic, line-in, and line-out jacks are placed on the back right side, which means that you’ll have to run your headphones around the computer; we prefer these to be on the front of the chassis. The charging port is conveniently placed on the back of the M17x.
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The webcam was satisfactory for video chatting during our Skype tests, but we found the colors to be a little oversaturated, and were told that our face could be a bit brighter. There was a bit of motion blur during quick movements, like when we waved our hands around, but the quality was good overall.
Display and Speakers
The M17x has a large 17-inch display with a flushed glass plate that covers the entire surface. It sports a crisp, 1920 x 1200 high-definition resolution for both a killer movie watching and gaming experience. The high-gloss finish resulted in a fair amount of glare, so you’ll want to hold off on playing games or watching movies until you dim the lights.
The speakers on the M17x were some of the best we’ve heard on a notebook. They were loud and crisp, allowing us to clearly hear our commander’s voice belting out commands in Call of Duty: World at War, along with the click-clacking of footsteps around us. They’re also loud enough to fill a small room with music. When we streamed the New Country station from Slacker Radio, the audio didn’t distort at high volumes, and the guitars in Kenny Chesney’s “I’m Alive” sounded in balance with his voice.
We watched an episode of Heroes on the M17x and found that the playback was very good at the display’s full 1200p resolution. We did notice, however, that the Blu-ray looked a bit grainy, and there were a few hints of artifacts when we looked closely at the edges of a house against a blue sky. Sitting back in our chair, though, these were barely noticeable; an action scene of two of the main characters running from a police officer played back smoothly, voices stayed in sync, the audio was clear of any popping, and we didn’t experience any frame stuttering.
Measuring the performance of the M17x against the latest desktop replacement competition is like comparing a space shuttle to a hot air balloon. Packing two 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drives, a 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme Quad QX9300 processor, and 8GB of RAM, it’s a machine that’s packed to the gills. The M17x scored 5,276 points in PCMark Vantage, besting the ASUS W90 (4,542), Gateway P-7807u FX (4,339), and MSI GT725 (4,638) by hundreds of points. It also blew past the 3,788 category average for this test.
The dual 7,200-rpm 500GB drives running in RAID 0 allow you more than enough space to store dozens of games alongside your music and video libraries. We booted our system in 60 seconds, which is 9 seconds faster than the category average. The M17x also performed well on our LAPTOP Transfer Test, where we saw a speed of 37.1 MBps. That’s nearly 10 MBps faster than the MSI GT725—the fastest we’ve tested lately—and almost 15 MBps faster than the category average.
The M17x came configured with two GeForce GTX 280M graphics processors running in SLI, which means there’s a total of 256 cores to render visuals. The cards support PhysX engine technology for real-world physics in games (like the upcoming Terminator Salvation title expected later this year), which means objects will collapse, explode, and fall (read: trees, walls, tanks—you name it) as they would in real life.
Our system notched 13,463 points in 3DMark06—twice that of the category average (6,163) and over 2,000 points faster than the closest competitor, the ASUS W90 (11,310). On 3DMark Vantage the M17x managed a score of 11,904, which is more than 3,000 points better than the W90 and leagues above the category average (4,379).
Transcoding a 5:05 MPEG-4 video file (640 x 480) to AVI with the M17x took 2:55, which is 2:06 faster than the category average. When we ran the test again using vReveal, which takes advantage of Nvidia’s CUDA technology to speed up the conversion process, the M17x became the new system to beat: we completed the conversion in 1:50.
While the M17x’s benchmark numbers are impressive, the true fun of this gaming rig is using it to play, well, games. In our Far Cry 2 tests, we saw an average of 69 frames per second at a resolution of 1920 x 1200. The Gateway P-7808u FX ($1,799), which has a lower 1400 x 900 resolution and a lesser Nvidia GeForce 9800M GTS graphics processor, offered 53 fps. That’s not a huge delta in performance given the price difference between the two systems. The good news is that the M17x offers killer graphics that make this notebook future proof for the next generation of 3D titles.
A runthrough of a few levels in Call of Duty: World at War was superb. The jungle foliage around us glowed under flares as we were flanked in a surprise attack during the opening level, and as we escaped the island by boat, the water’s reflections made it look super realistic. In Left 4 Dead, zombie heads popped with gore as we unloaded round after round into the hordes, and the frame rate barely dipped amidst the dozens of on-screen zombies and exploding Molotov cocktails.
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As one might expect, the M17x gobbles up energy like a Hummer. The system took 1 hour and 16 minutes to charge to 80 percent and 2:18 to reach a full 100 percent. During this time it used an average of 85.3 watts. Its battery efficiency, or the total watts it took to recharge (11,771.4) divided by the battery life, was a score of 125.2. To put that number in perspective, the Dell XPS Studio 16, another desktop replacement, has an efficiency score of 65.1. The M17x has not yet been rated by EPEAT.
Wi-Fi and Battery Life
We were able to achieve an average of 24.3 Mbps using the M17x’s 802.11a/g/draft-n Wi-Fi connection at a distance of 15 feet from our router. That’s over 4 Mbps faster than the category average, and moderately faster than the next best performer in its category, the Gateway P-7807u FX, which achieved a speed of 20.5 Mbps at that distance. At 50 feet, throughput dropped to 15.5 MBps, which is about 1 MBps slower than the category average.
Our battery died after 1 hour and 34 minutes of usage. That’s not very long at all, and far worse than the desktop replacement average of 2 hours and 38 minutes. Then again, chances are you won’t be straying for from an outlet anyway.
Software and Warranty
Alienware doesn’t bog down its systems with crapware. Our M17x included just a few programs, such as Alienware Respawn for restoring our system, CyberLink PowerDVD 8 and CyberLink YouCam, and Nero SmartStart Essentials. It also came with the required software to tweak the keyboard and power settings, called Command Center.
Alienware offers a one-year limited hardware warranty with each purchase, and 24/7 online and phone support. In the past, some of our readers have had issues with the durability of Alienware notebooks. On the Area-51 M15x, for example, users first reported that the GPU was overheating, and then that the system’s chassis was cracking along its edges. We will ask Alienware if we can hold onto our system for a few weeks to see if we experience any similar issues.
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You can customize the M17x to meet your budget by swapping out some of the hardware during the building process on Alienware’s Web site. Alienware’s definition of a medium-end configuration ($3,599) includes a 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9100 processor, dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 280M GPUs in SLI, a lesser 4GB of RAM, and a pair of 160GB 7,200rpm hard drives running in RAID 0. The entry level $1,799 system offers a mid-range 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo P6800 CPU, a less powerful Nvidia GeForce GTX 260M GPU, 4GB of RAM, and a lower 1440 x 900-pixel resolution display. You also won’t find a Blu-ray player in the entry-level system, and it has only a single 250GB, 7,200rpm hard drive.
The Alienware M17x system delivers stunning performance for today’s hottest titles, and it has enough muscle to handle the next generation of games. It’s the most powerful system we’ve had in our labs, and it cuts through hits like Call of Duty: World at War with frame rates to spare. But so can other systems like the MSI GT725 or the Gateway P-7807u FX, and those systems are less than half the price of the M17x. However, if you care as much about premium design and personalization as you do about what’s under the hood, this gaming rig is second to none.