Alienware M11x (Optimus Graphics) Review

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Pros: Cool design; Innovative lighting features; Faster new Core i7 processor; Excellent gaming frame rates; Good battery life;

Cons: Runs hot; Fan gets loud;

Verdict: The most portable gaming notebook ever just got even more powerful.

When the Alienware M11x first came out in May, we remarked that the system was nearly perfect save for one thing: users had to manually switch between the discrete and integrated graphics. With the advent of Nvidia's Optimus technology--which does the switching for you--it's all automatic. But that's not the only thing Alienware packed into the refreshed M11x: this 11.6-inch machine ($1,319 as configured) also boasts an Intel Core i7 processor, which gives it even more power than before. Despite some overheating issues with our first review unit, this rig blows away other machines in its class.

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Design

Identical to the previous Alienware M11x, this version look as if the company's M15x was sent through Willy Wonka's shrinking machine. Like its larger brethren, it features a prominent Alienware logo on the lid whose eyes glow when the system is turned on. Our system came in all black, the lid coated with a soft rubber finish (known as Soft Touch Stealth Black). The other color option is a gray finish called Lunar Shadow.

Also like larger Alienware machines, the front edge of the M11x has an angled design reminiscent of the newer Chevy Camaros. The deck is a matte black plastic, which doesn't pick up fingerprints, but the glossy black screen bezel shows every little mark.

Of course, the standout feature of any Alienware notebook is its innovative lighting. Two areas on either corner of the front edge, which have a honeycomb pattern, are backlit, as is the keyboard and Alienware logo beneath the screen. The colors of the lights are customizable, making for a visually exciting laptop.

Measuring 11.3 x 9.2 x 1.3 inches and weighing 4.6 pounds, the M11x is considerably bulkier and heavier than other laptops equipped with 11.6-inch displays. The Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T, for example, is a full inch narrower (though not much thinner) and weighs 1.6 pounds less.

Heat

After playing a Hulu video for 15 minutes at full screen (and with the Nvidia GPU activated), the touchpad measured 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the keyboard deck reached 82 degrees, and the middle of the underside was 86 degrees; all are well within what we consider normal. However, watching Hulu videos and playing games are two different things; after playing Call Of Duty for half an hour, the touchpad and left palm rest reached 110 degrees, and the temperature by the vent fan was a scorching 120 degrees. If you plan to game, don't do so on your lap.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Each key is backlit, making them really pop in dark rooms. The keys themselves have a slightly glossy coating, which didn't cause our fingers to slip but picked up oil from our skin. Owing to the inclusion of Page Up/Page Down buttons along the right edge, the keys are a little narrower than we'd like; it took us a few paragraphs of writing this review to get accustomed to the layout. Still, they're very responsive, and didn't make much noise when typing.

The touchpad on the M11x, at 3.1 x 1.6 inches, is large for a system of this size, although gamers will no doubt use a mouse. The touchpad is powered by Synaptics and is multitouch enabled, although those gestures--such as pinch and zoom--are turned off by default. After activating them, we found the controls to be responsive when zooming in and out of pictures and documents.

Display and Audio

The 11.6-inch display on the M11x is one of the better ones we've seen. While its resolution of 1366 x 768 is standard, we enjoyed deep blacks and bright colors whether watching videos or playing games. The glossy finish tended to kick back reflections, though. We were able to tilt the screen back as far as it would go--about 53 degrees past vertical--and still see everything on-screen clearly, but when it was perpendicular to the deck, images started to wash out. Horizontal viewing angles were strong.

While not on a par with larger gaming rigs, audio on the M11x was stellar for a system of this size. The chassis is large enough so that deeper bass sounds had enough room to resonate, and higher tones were crisp without becoming distorted. When gaming, booms from explosions rumbled while the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire crackled.

Ports and Webcam

For such a small system, the M11x has a lot of connectivity options. On the right edge are two USB ports, two headphone jacks, and a microphone jack. The left side, though, has an additional USB port, FireWire, Ethernet, HDMI, and DisplayPort; excluded from the last version is VGA. Rounding it off is a SIM Card slot and a 3-in-1 memory card reader.

In a Skype video call, the M11x's 1.3-megapixel webcam accurately recorded video and audio; a caller said that colors looked true, and there was very little motion blur. Alienware's Aliensense facial recognition software works well, too. When you first log in, the webcam records your mug; each successive time you log in, it learns your facial features. By the second day of our using the M11x, it recognized our face and logged us into Windows in less than a second.

Performance

The original M11x came with a 1.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU overclocked to 1.73 GHz. Coupled with 4GB of RAM and Nvidia GeForce GT 335M graphics , it scored 3,732 on PCMark Vantage, which at the time was impressive for a system this small. Now comes a 1.2-GHz Core i7-640UM CPU in the new M11x, along with the same Nvidia GeForce GT 335M graphics and 4GB of RAM; it simply demolished other notebooks in its class. Its PCMark Vantage score of 5,298 is 1,000 points higher than the thin-and-light average, and about 2,000 points higher than the average ultraportable. The Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T, which has a 1.2-GHz Intel Core i5-430UM CPU, scored 3,824.

The M11x's 7,200-rpm, 500GB hard drive was plenty fast, copying a 4.97GB folder of multimedia files in 2 minutes and 45 seconds, a rate of 30.8 MBps. Surprisingly, the Core i7 CPU wasn't much faster than the original M11x's CPU when transcoding a 114MB MPEG-4 to AVI. The newer M11x took 1:23, while the older M11x took 1:34. Still, that's 44 seconds faster than average, and 8 seconds faster than the Aspire 1830T.

Graphics and Gaming Performance

The new M11x has the same GPU as the original--Nvidia GeForce GT 335M, with 1GB of RAM--but that's a good thing. The GPU notched a score of 6,976 in 3DMark06, about 600 points higher than the older M11x, and in the same league as much larger gaming rigs. It's up there with systems such as the Acer Aspire 5740G's discrete ATI Radeon 5650 GPU (7,166), and it even bested the Sony VAIO Z's Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphics by about 700 points. Still, if you want serious gaming muscle, the 17-inch ASUS G73Jh scored 12,460 on the same test.

While frame rates weren't as high as those achieved on larger gaming rigs (like the ASUS G73), the M11x had more than enough oomph for the latest titles. With effects on ultra and resolution set to its native 1366 x 768, we averaged 74 frames per second in World of Warcraft--that's the same result we saw with the older M11x.


Where the old M11x topped out at 44 fps when playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, on the new M11x we averaged 60 fps, and all the images rendered flawlessly. As nice as it is, some fraggers may find the M11x's 11.6-inch display a bit small when it comes to playing games. Fortunately, the notebook is powerful enough to export video to a larger display. We connected the M11x via HDMI to a 32-inch Samsung HDTV, and were able to notch a frame rate of 44 fps when playing Call of Duty at 1920 x 1080, an improvement of about 14 fps over the older M11x.


However, three times while playing COD, the M11x crashed on us after playing steadily for 40 minutes; the screen froze, and an awful buzzing noise emanated from the speakers. we suspect that this was an overheating issue, as the area around the vent was 120 degrees Fahrenheit (despite the fan working overtime), and the left wrist rest was 101 degrees. We pressed the Alien-head button to restart the notebook and the system fired up normally.

Fortunately, when we received a second M11x from Alienware and repeated the same test, the problem did not reoccur.

As mentioned above, this M11x improves upon the original with the inclusion of Nvidia's Optimus technology, which switches between discrete and integrated GPUs on the fly. However, it's only available on the Core i5 and i7 versions of the M11x; those who opt for the Core 2 Duo processor will still have to switch between the discrete Nvidia GPU and the integrated Intel GPU manually.

Battery Life and Wi-Fi

Even with Optimus, having a Core i7 processor under the hood took a toll on endurance. The original M11x, which used a Core 2 Duo ULV processor, lasted 7 hours and 14 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi). The newer M11x lasted exactly two hours less, which is 20 minutes below the ultraportable average. Still, that runtime is more than respectable given the CPU. The Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T, powered by a ULV Core i5 processor, saw a runtime of 5:53.

Editor's Note (7/19/10): After updating the Alienware Command Center software, we reran our battery test and saw a time of 5:59. We have changed the benchmark scores and verdict accordingly.

Of course, when the Nvidia GPU is more active and the backlighting is on, battery life will suffer. The battery on the M11x is not easily replaceable; users must unscrew the bottom panel and unplug two wires.

At 15 feet from our router, the M11x's Broadcom DW1520 802.11n radio provided throughput of 37.6 Mbps, which decreased to 28.3 Mbps at 50 feet. The notebook can also be configured with Gobi mobile broadband through Verizon Wireless or AT&T for $125.

Configurations

Our configuration of the M11x costs $1,319, but the starting price for a 2010 Intel Core processor model is $949. With that, you get a 1.06-GHz Intel Core i5-520UM CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 160GB, 5400-rpm hard drive. Below that is the $799 base model, which comes with a 1.3-GHz Intel Pentium SU4100 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 7,200-rpm, 160GB hard drive. However, models with these lower end processors lack Optimus, which means users have to manually switch between graphics cards.

If you really want to gild the lily, 8GB of RAM will set you back $350, a 256GB SSD costs $570, and Gobi mobile broadband can be added for $125.

Software, Warranty, and Support

The M11x comes with virtually zero software--no 30-day trials of Norton here. There is Alienware's control panel: Aliensense lets you log on using your face, and can be set to automatically log off when the webcam no longer detects you; Alientouch adjusts the touchpad controls; Alien Fusion lets you change power settings; and AlienFX lets you change the backlighting colors. For the most part, these utilities merely mimic those found in Windows 7, but Alienware makes them look more user-friendly.

The system is backed by a one-year limited warranty and 24/7 customer support.

Verdict

We were excited to test out the Alienware M11x with Optimus, and the system really satisfies. Coupled with a Core i7 processor, the Nvidia graphics produced the highest frame rates we've seen in a system this size--not to mention nearly 6 hours of battery life. Not bad for a notebook with a current street price under $1,200. While we were dismayed by the fact that our first review sample froze, the second system sent to us by Alienware allayed our concerns. Overall, the M11x is an ultra-powerful and ultra-stylish PC you can take anywhere.

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Author Bio
Michael A. Prospero
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor
Michael A. Prospero has overseen reviews on Laptopmag.com since 2007, focusing on producing the most thorough and authoritative mobile product reviews. After receiving his Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia in 2003, Mike worked at Fast Company. Prior to that, he worked at The Times of Trenton, George and AlleyCat News.
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 1.2-GHz Intel Core i7-640UM
Operating System MS Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 8GB
Hard Drive Size 500GB
Hard Drive Speed 7,200rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Hard Drive
Display Size 11.6
Native Resolution 1366x768
Optical Drive
Optical Drive Speed
Graphics Card Nvidia GeForce GT 335M
Video Memory 1GB
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Broadcom DW1520 Wireless-N Half Mini
Bluetooth Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3.1 x 1.6 inches
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) DisplayPort
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) Firewire 400
Ports (excluding USB) ExpressCard/34
USB Ports 3
Card Slots 5-1 card reader
Warranty/Support 1 year/24/7 toll-free
Size 11.3 x 9.2 x 1.3
Weight 4.6 pounds
Company Website www.alienware.com